On the ‘climate camp has sold out’ meme

A friend of a friend posted this link, to which (I have to confess) I rolled my eyes. It kind of reminds me of when I was at school & ran as an anarchist candidate in the mock elections (fully aware of the inherent contradictions), and was told off by one of my teachers for printing posters with bomb making instructions rather than something along the lines of “property is theft”.

I’m all up for debating about the nature of capitalism, but clinging to orthodox structural Marxism and complaining in high academic language that no-one else understands hasn’t got the left in the UK anywhere in the last 50 years. This kind of thing is very well represented in the workshops at the camp & very good they are too. There was a huge plenary one evening on this year economics, with Marx & everything, and I’d happily lay money that was the largest gathering (outside of a university) where newcomers were introduced to those ideas in the UK in the last year.

Naturally, not everyone endorses them as the only way to analyse our society, and I think the plurality in our movement is directly related to it’s energy & vitality. That said, they are a lot more widely understood than this article makes out, and it’s a bit silly to confuse slogans on banners taken to protests with an all encompassing statement of somebody’s politics. If you do that, you find yourself turning up to a protest with 3000 dense lines of spidery handwriting on a bit of cardboard and looking like a bit of a plonker.

The camp is clearly anti-capitalist, and this is affirmed regularly at meetings, when discussing media and outreach etc. It is also extremely effective at smuggling radical critiques into the mainstream media, for example getting a debate on carbon trading on Newsnight on the back of a “highly mediatised, symbolic” direct action. It does this by intentionally shying away from gems such as “These arguments fail to grapple with the structural processes of capital, instead limiting their critique to a superficial critique of the appearance of contemporary capitalism”.

As with my poster at school, talking about radical ideas in a way that is too far removed from your audience’s frame of reference is not very  radical at all, because they are only understood by the usual suspects. Not using this language is too much of a departure from the one true way for some, and I think it is really important to continually debate how to dance the line between access and co-option, between accessibility and compromising the message. But that debate is continually going on within the climate camp process, and I think that in general our dancing is pretty impressive.

There are obviously some people involved in the movement who are reformers rather than revolutionaries, and the way the camp is organised through consensus decision making means that the group cannot cross the red lines of anybody who is involved. That seems like a pretty watertight defence against creeping liberalism to me.

The charge that the camp didn’t involve radical direct action this year is misplaced – the last time I checked, seizing a piece of land in central London, denying access to the police and organising autonomously within that space to, amongst other things, take down Ratcliffe-upon-Sour power station was pretty radical. Similarly, introducing loads of fresh-faced newbies to actual functioning anarchism in action is infinitely more powerful than writing a long wordy treatise. We had hundreds of people running around on Blackheath practising tactics for outflanking the cops at the Great Climate Swoop, and the police had taken such a hammering about their tactics at the G20 that they allowed it all to happen. People protesting in the SOCPA zone were politely requested to please climb the side of the Treasury by the street, rather than the one by the park. During that week, a whole raft of the most draconian legislation which is usually deployed against protesters was de-facto unenforceable.

This (probably temporary) space for direct action was directly created through the tactics which have been the subject of most soul-searching within the camp – working the mainstream media very hard, doing some police liaison and interfacing with parliamentary committees and HMIC. Again, it is really important that this engagement is continually debated, and if it ever becomes an end in itself then we’ve lost, but my point is, so far the plurality of approaches has been a huge success, not a drawback. We really are stronger together. Who’d have thought it?

I think that as protesters/activists/political radicals/general ne’er-do-wells we are very used to being outsiders, and climate camp having such a large public profile is a long way from what anyone is used to, and this lies behind a lot of the critiques that are directed at it. It doesn’t feel, smell or taste like what people are used to in other situations when they have been ‘fighting the good fight.’ However, if we are serious about tackling the greatest environmental catastrophe in human history with this non-hierarchical method of organising, I imagine we are going to be spending quite a lot of time outside our comfort zone. In fact, if we aren’t, I think we are probably doing something wrong.

If we expect societal change to come out of what we are doing, it would be a mistake to believe that we are going to come out of it unchanged ourselves, with identical ideas, methods and beliefs – as agents of change, we are hardly going to remain static. The way we are organised requires everyone to participate, and there ain’t gonna be any cadres, so we certainly can’t go into it with fixed ideas of how the end will look, or with the intention to control that change – we only get to be participants too. That is certainly going to take us way out of our comfort zone, but I think the way we organise is a powerful bulwark against oppression and domination; it demands that we are reflexive, adaptive and accommodating and it draws out the creativity and agency in everyone it touches.

We are taking on a massive task, and it isn’t going to reward us for prioritising abstract notions of political purity above efficacy. If we are going to tackle the state’s role in climate change, we are going to have to challenge it to live up to some of the ideals it espouses – looking after the worst off in our society, maximising individual wellbeing, neutrally mediating between disputes – and  call it out when it flounders on the inherent contradictions within Liberalism. We need to show the emperor has no clothes so that everyone sees that the disproportionate power of corporations and the wealthy have a stranglehold on these ‘neutral’ institutions, and that we need to end capitalism before it ends us all. At the moment it is looking alive and well enough to saddle us with runaway climate change before it does itself terminal damage, so personally I don’t think we can afford to ignore the institutions of power that exist now – I think we’re going to have to get  our hands dirty and do all sorts of things that we would never have dreamed of. However, considering the timescale we don’t have the luxury of arguing over whose strategy is the best one. At the moment we’re in a quickly descending aircraft, and it’s “press every fucking button on the dashboard” time. We have a commitment to all work together to try and solve this, and that seems like a good starting point, with all of our different approaches and outlooks. Or alternatively we can go our separate ways: you can keep your Marxist dogma, and we’ll keep our revolution, but that seems like a bit of a shame – and our way includes dancing……