On an historic day for the global climate movement, David Swanson argues socialists must involve themselves in the movement by appealing to its most radical impulses and repudiating retrograde interventions from the elite.
The massive global climate strike marks a new peak in consciousness of, and action against, man-made climate change and its effects. 2018-19 has been a turning-point, both in public awareness about the extent of scientific consensus on climate change, and in social movements – from the global youth and student strikes to movements like Extinction Rebellion.
The progressive aspects of this development are numerous and clear; governments and corporations are under a new scrutiny, the part corporate, part crank climate change denial lobby has been forced to retreat into sectarian cluster groups and the politics of mass movements is seen as the most dynamic part of the emerging climate consensus. The eagerness to mass action exemplified by the global strike is the most clear evidence of this crucial dynamic.
But just as these progressive dynamics are breaking out, we also see the weight of capitalist mystification of social relations. In the place of mass action and holding elites to account, or a scrutiny of the productive system, we hear constant demand for atomised lifestyle alterations and impotent civil society campaigns. Political, corporate, media and civic actors obscure the scale of the threat from catastrophic global warming and seek to divert emphasis from the scale of democratic activity required to avert disaster.
Socialists are not neutral observers of these dynamics. Instead we take a ‘vanguard’ position on the emerging movement. This does not mean we assume a leadership relationship – it means we seek to adopt and advance the most radical and politically active elements of the movement against the most conservative and compromised.
Against mass movement, the campaign to end single use plastics is the emerging model of a ruling class response to public awareness of the looming climate disaster. Trite consumerism on its own is easily dismissed by a public increasingly fatigued by marketing campaigns.
But the campaign against single use plastics involves the melding of consumer-activism with broad media and civil society mobilisation. Even just within Scotland the BBC, Scottish Parliament and numerous celebrity and third sector and corporate operations have combined in this campaign against the poisoning of the oceans and the obvious obscenity of the disposable plastics industry.
Above all else, such campaigns seek to reduce the horizons of action to personal moral responsibility over the environment, with attention paid to consumption and lifestyle habits in increasing detail. Where policy does accompany such behaviour, it is presented as part of this larger project – similar in rhetoric to the national ‘belt-tightening’ of austerity.
It is important that socialists can marry positivity about public enthusiasm for such campaigns with an insistence for radical and mass action. These campaigns have resulted from mass pressure – and relate to a wealth of real action at thousands of schools, homes and workplaces across the country.
But the task of socialists is to raise this emerging consciousness to a social movement level wherever possible. Individual action must be linked to a wider movement that collectively tackles the structure and overarching framework of the capitalist mode of production itself in the battle to freeze and reverse the terrifying threat that now faces humanity.
Socialists should continue to seek to both broaden and increase the militancy and clarity of campaigns against environmental destruction, publicly articulating that placing the burden of responsibility on the shoulders of consumers within the conditions of late capitalism is futile, and that we must challenge the perceived untouchability of high-flying capitalist oligarchs.
In this effort, at least in the main vectors of the mass movement, socialists are pushing at an open door. Whatever their ideological limitations, Extinction Rebellion have consistently opted for mobilisation and disruptive tactics over mere lobbying or the promotion of lifestyle politics. The climate strikes have emphasised collective responsibility and the subversion – even if only symbolically – of traditional roles and institutions. These are healthy tendencies in the live movement, to be fostered and extended.
Socialists should further promote the growth of these movements beyond traditional constituencies in counter-cultures and activist milieus, and into wider layers of the public where possible. Crucial, in this regard, will be the fostering of links between environmental activists and the labour movement. Pro-capital opponents of both the environmental movement and trade unionism will likely seek to foster divisions between these two forces.
Socialists must make another concrete intervention into emerging movements. We must pursue an anti-capitalist analysis of climate breakdown, and one that apportions blame to the system and its drivers rather than atomised individuals.
Just one hundred companies are responsible for over 71 per cent of the world’s greenhouse emissions since the early 1970s, each vying competitively with the other to produce energy supplies for the sake of rewarding a select few bosses, bankers and big businessmen.
The planet is in a state of crisis because the production of true sustainability is not profitable. The big businesses that monopolise energy facilities, fuel consumption and transport services produce and encourage the use of fossil fuels that are pushing the world’s temperature to record highs for the simple reason that a saturated world market and crisis-ridden global economy will financially reward them for doing so.
When production is organised by the anarchic world market for the sake of financial reward rather than human need, an endless stream of single use plastic will continue to blight humanity, no matter how active the boycott from a minority. Carbon based manufacture and transport and a throwaway consumer economy running on single use plastics are hard-wired into global production and trade networks. Ultimately democratic, global planning is required to transform this productive system. It will be, in its most essential respects, unresponsive to consumer trends and campaigns.
Within these established market practices, themselves facilitated by state and inter-governmental organisations, massive corporate entities produce not for need but the competitive accumulation of profit, over-producing relatively socially valueless commodities in order to fight for market share.
This vast construct of private and state institutions didn’t simply emerge in response to human need in some natural economy. It emerged from class order and exploitation. It is at that level it must be challenged.
It would be wrong to imagine that capitalism will not find solutions to the climate and wider environmental crisis of a sort – even if they are partial and will only extend the life of the current social order for a time. But these will be authoritarian solutions adjusted to the contours of the existing structures of capitalism.
In a system made up of many capitals organised by nation states and in permanent competition with one another, there exists a serious and growing threat of eco-nationalism and war over diminishing resources and disrupted flows in global population.
Geoff Mann and Joel Wainwright have described such a scenario as “climate Behemoth”, with states retreating into a states of competitive autarky as climate change breaks up the existing order of globalisation.
As internationalists, we must oppose all escalation in nationalist rhetoric seeking to divide the human race, and all forms of war and military competition that send the working class to fight for causes that are not their own. National action is necessary in the project, and the basis for immediate victories that can be exported at the first opportunity to strengthen the international fight for socialism.
To that end, socialists should remain resolutely determined to agitate and organise in pursuit of linking climate change to anti-capitalist analysis and movement building, positively reinforcing that the protection of our natural surroundings is just as much a class issue as any other.
We should argue for the most mass and radical movement, with tactics that relate to the real impediments to resolving the climate crisis – such as links with the trade union movement and wider working class constituency – above the mystifications supplied by capitalist relations from lifestyle politics to authoritarian or nationalistic solutions. Little will be gained in this fight if we either abstain from the movement and insist on only our full programme, or ignore the real problems of the new consciousness and fail to insist that the most sweeping transformations to social and economic life will be necessary to meet this greatest challenge of the coming century.
Pictures: John Kelly, CommonSpace