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The Nuclear Debate as a Cover for Sustaining Exploitation

A few years ago Owen Jones made the case that the increasing membership of the Labour Party didn’t necessarily equate to an increasing engagement with the British working class.

Jones argued that for the Labour Party to really fulfil its potential as the political voice of working-class Britain it needed to reach further than the university-educated southerners and urban professionals that were disproportionately swelling its ranks.

In order to do this, he argued, it had to maintain its current membership as well as building and organising in the communities that the Establishment had historically sacrificed to capitalism.

Only a few months earlier Paul Mason was making the case for the continuation of Britain’s nuclear arsenal and membership of NATO, while avoiding any Afghanistan-like “expeditionary warfare” campaigns, so that Britain could become a more compassionate and fair society.

Even the Labour leadership, who largely still appeared to oppose nuclear weapons, was beginning to make the case for the long-term potential of civil nuclear power as a response to climate change and energy security, although not everyone in the party was echoing that particular policy.

All of these situations have something in common. They are discussing different manifestations of the unequal balance of power in society.

Hidden beneath the specifics of the topic, there is an underlying question about how we organise and understand our society in terms of oppositional power groupings. As in much political discourse, there is a very low and slow subliminal drumbeat of the “powerful” versus the “powerless” dichotomy.

The role of nuclear power in response to climate change and energy security is a perfect example of how we perpetuate identities that exist along the axis between superiority and inferiority. So how do we move towards a fairer and more equal society?

A series of ideas were developed in social psychology in the 1970s and ’80s that became collectively knows as the social identity approach.

Through the work of Tajfel on social identity theory and Turner, Hogg, Reicher and Wetherell on self-categorisation theory, a way of understanding how we as individuals organise our social relationships and perceive one another was coming together.

The basis of the argument was that when individuals come across other individuals there is a tendency to create short cuts to better predict who they are and how they will behave.

These short cuts, created and negotiated on an ongoing basis in our social world, manifest as groups that we not only apply to others but we also apply to ourselves.

In embracing these socially constructed groups, we apply traits, types of behaviour and thinking and values to the members of these groups.

And of course, for these groups to effectively function as a short cut they have to be oversimplifications, which inevitably rely on preconceived prejudices or stereotypes.

This process of stereotyping is insufficient to fully capture the entirety of an individual, so multiple categorisations or group memberships are required to fully encompass what it means to be an individual.

Therefore I am, among numerous other things, a son, a writer, a Londoner and a vegetarian. In terms of the traits, behaviours and ways of thinking that these shorthand for, I define what each of those categories mean to me, while others define what each of those categories mean to them.

Most importantly, though, is the application of value and status that coincides with this.

It is argued that, because we negotiate and agree on the shared meanings of these categories, they are both highly fluid and highly subjective.

So it is not enough to say one person’s freedom fighter is another person’s terrorist. One really needs to unpick how these labels are understood, in terms of the prejudices informing them and the stereotypes implied by them.

For instance, to see the Labour Party as the voice of working-class Britain and a policy of civil nuclear power as part of the best response for the working class in Britain to climate change and energy security is a policy position built upon layers of exactly these sorts of categorisations.

And in order to fully understand what the implications of such a policy are, we really need to unpick all the various assumptions that are built into it.

One of the most fundamental implications of this policy is how it is likely to play out in relation to the current model of organising large-scale production and trade in energy. Or more specifically which groups in society will most likely carry the costs and which groups will receive the benefits.

Even with only a passing understanding of the social identity approach, it is quite easy to establish a series of categories to better understand the trade in energy as it stands today.

Looking at the industry from outside, my best guess is that the groups involved are the consumer purchasing it, the taxpayer subsiding it, the legislator supporting and overseeing it, the fuel plant worker delivering it and the owners profiting from it.

And, of course, when it comes to nuclear, there are the potential victims of it as well. Lest we forget, Fukushima, Chernobyl, Three Mile Island and Windscale, to name just a few.

So even with this overly simplistic understanding of social categories framed within the context of the current state-capitalist model, wider and deeper implications of a civilian nuclear solution immediately begin to appear.

This prompts the other theory that I think is worth considering. The sociological theory of the social construction of identity.

The underlying argument of this is that we are not born with an intrinsic understanding of what it means to be a man or to be a person of colour or to be homosexual or to be a consumer but rather that we learn the meanings and values of these categories as defined by the time and society that we are born into.

In terms of the current model of large-scale energy production and consumption, whether we are the owners who profit from it, the consumers who pay for it or the victims that have our lives destroyed by it, is largely determined by not only which societies we are born into but just as importantly what subcategory of those societies that we are born into.

And, of course, just as you can keep segmenting downwards, you can also desegment upwards. For many people, an aspect of being “human” is an unerring belief that the Earth is our property to do with as we will.

The identities that we have formulated based on this type of understanding of the category “human” in relation to “Earth” came about long before the planet was understood to be a finely balanced, highly complex network of relationships and structures that took billions of years to fall into place before it became habitable for human life.

Seeing “Earth” as our property to do with as we will could possibly be understood to be the most extreme manifestation of this ingroup/outgroup dichotomy, one based on “humanity” as the ultimate ingroup or superior and “the planet that sustains us” as the ultimate outgroup or inferior.

The reason I bring this up in reference to our role in climate change and any solutions we come up with to tackle climate change is because it draws our attention to a significant development within the social construction of identity theory.

At the beginning of the 1980s Marilyn Frye made the case that rather than understanding the perceived differences between groups as naturally occurring, they were, in fact, very often constructed by specific groups within society.

What is more, these constructed differences in the value and status of certain groups were the foundation on which discrimination could then be built.

Which in turn acts as the rationalisation for the exploitation and abuse of the inferior subordinate group by the superior dominant group.

This idea was developed in the late 1980s and early 1990s through the work of bell hooks and Patricia Hill Collins, who began to define a wider framework of multiple interlocking oppressions and discriminations.

Hooks argued that, while systems of oppression inform and support one another and build into an overarching political and cultural structure of domination, they are founded upon an underlying shared belief in the acceptance of superiority and inferiority at a conceptual level.

By accepting the idea that a person can be inferior or superior to another person, one accepts the concept of domination and, in doing so, lays the first building block on which all other discriminations and oppressions can then build.

Hill Collins took this further by arguing that the various manifestations of these discriminations come together into a matrix of domination permeating all of society and informing all human relations.

Which is why it is important to consider, at least in terms of the model of energy production and consumption that we eventually agree on, that there will inevitably be a further segmenting process occurring beneath that overarching “human” and “Earth” dichotomy.

If the solutions proposed are simply extensions or replications of the same pattern of exploitative relationships as currently exists in the models that brought us to this situation in the first place, are we not likely to just end up repeating the same patterns, and therefore the same direction of travel, inevitably leading to the same outcome?

Put simply, will the solutions proposed to stop climate change, maintain the same cost/benefit disparities between the owners, legislators, consumers and victims as the old models did and, if so, why should we expect the outcome to be any different?

Perhaps one of the easiest ways of seeing how the construction of inferiority and superiority moves beyond the conception of an individual, into an idea that exists in the wider world, and finally into a doctrine that is institutionalised and self-rationalising, is in capitalism itself.

Adam Smith famously argued that “the race of workers” was “inferior” and that, if the amount of labour available was greater than the demand required by the market, then the workers’ children should be starved until the situation righted itself.

Much as many neoliberals would undoubtedly welcome such as an extreme form of capitalism, the rest of society is not quite ready to accept such overt exploitation.

However, when seen in the context of the most recent invasions, occupations and subsequent regime changes, the turning of energy producing countries into client/vassal-states of the energy consuming countries becomes much clearer.

And in doing this, the “profits before people” ideological foundation is much easier to see playing out in the “trade” in energy on the global scale.

And, of course, for this sort of segmenting of global society for the purpose of exploitation to be an acceptable practice on the international stage, it must first be normalised on the domestic stage.

This segmenting of society by outgrouping a section of society as an “other” in order to discriminate and then exploit it, is far from new.

This process has been going on for thousands of years and by accepting the values and traits applied to these fixed polar positions, such as patrician and plebeian, white and black, male and female, politician and voter, employer and employee and producer and consumer, we inevitably accept and perpetuate the very dichotomy that is intended to divide us. That of superior and inferior or, to put it more bluntly, master and servant.

Moving from the mass-production model of carbon-based fossil fuels in the current socio-economic structure to the mass production of nuclear energy in the same socio-economic structure is like taking the rifle out of the hand of the plantation owner and handing him a whip.

The problem isn’t the fossil fuels, the problem is the socio-economic model that couldn’t be trusted to put people before profits, or the planet before the profiteers.

Albert Einstein famously said that “we cannot solve a problem with the same thinking we used when creating it.”

I would go further than that — we cannot expect the same system, with the same management and the same power dynamics, to create a polar opposite outcome. It just makes no sense.

And there are many other models that can replace fossil fuels at the same as making the relationships more equal. An initial one could be to shift the production, management and responsibility to the consumers and the local communities through micro-renewables and small-scale renewables.

With the shift in responsibility and control, the power would lie in the hands of the individuals and the local communities to make their own lives and communities more sustainable. It would take a nationwide campaign of retooling and retraining, but this would be a drop in the ocean compared to the predicted long-term costs of the private-public partnerships in nuclear new-build, maintenance and waste storage or the ongoing war for control of the resources in the Middle East.

But that isn’t what stands in the way. The main problem is that it would also significantly change the balance of power between the producers and the consumers, the politicians and the voters and the profiteers and the people.

Understanding who we are in relation to each other is paramount to understanding the impact of our behaviour on our world and our communities.

And while expecting others to pay the price for our lifestyles is the ultimate form of covert exploitation, repeating the same behaviour that got us into this mess and expecting a different outcome, is nothing short of insanity.

Nicolas Lalaguna’s writing can be found at www.nicolaslalaguna.com.

This essay originally appeared in The Morning Star.

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