With COP26 still deliberating in Glasgow amid mass protest, James Foley asks what has changed in social movement politics since the last great international jamboree staged in Scotland – the G8.
The setting is Scotland. The topic is a planetary emergency that threatens millions of lives. Inside the tent, world leaders horse trade their collective guilt. Outside the tent, sceptics question the faculties of America’s “everyman” President – and the candour of Britain’s Prime Minister – as motley protesters and well-heeled liberals assemble under the intellectual leadership of the global NGOs. Officially, everyone agrees: something must be done. But those outside the tent are united in their conviction that world leaders are Not Doing Enough. They demand action, not words. More can be done; more must be done.
And the year? It’s 2005, when “Make Poverty History” attracted an estimated 225,000 demonstrators to Edinburgh to confront a crisis that was, in its own way, just as life-threatening as our current emergency. Even if the event was fronted by a Bono-and-Geldof element, optimists on the radical left, led by the G8 Alternatives Coalition, hoped the demonstration would usher in a split between official globalisation and the “alter-globalisation” movement.
But they overestimated the underlying conflict between insiders and outsiders. The movement’s NGO leadership were already transitioning beyond protest and had little interest in disrupting capitalism. Protesters themselves had become too dependent on carnivalesque display; their part of the movement was already in retreat. And the wider periphery, the movement’s graduate and professional-managerial base, was likewise focused on conflict-averse “solutions” – indeed, their entire mentality could be called “solutionism”.
So arguably Edinburgh was the last hurrah for system-wide conflict over corporate globalisation: its leftist ancestors, Syriza, Momentum, Podemos, the Sanders movement, would refocus on national democratic struggle. But the movement’s wider effect was to inaugurate a new philanthropism and “protest ethic” among the global capitalist elite. A year after “Make Poverty History”, Slavoj Zizek would criticise the “liberal communism of Porto Davos”. Any imagined conflict between “Davos”, the exclusive ski resort serving as a hangout for the Masters of the Universe, and “Porto Allegre”, home to alter-globalisation NGOs and the slogan “another world is possible”, was over:
Where did the bright stars of Porto Alegre go? Some of them, at least, moved to Davos itself! That is to say, more and more, the predominant tone of the Davos meetings comes from the group of entrepreneurs who French journalist Olivier Malnuit ironically refers to as“liberal communists” (that is “liberal” in the pro-market, European sense) who no longer accept the opposition between “Davos” (global capitalism) and “Porto Alegre” (the new social movements’ alternative to global capitalism)…No need for Porto Alegre, they say, since Davos itself can become Porto Davos. Liberal communists are big executives reforming the spirit of contest, or, to put it the other way round, countercultural geeks who took over big corporations.
Ultimately, the emergency of African poverty was “solved”, if the term is appropriate, neither by revolt nor by benevolence from the West. The central factor has been the re-emergence of a multipolar planetary order powered by Chinese capitalism. Collective guilt over millions of IMF-related African deaths receded; moralism moved to other targets. And while Zizek’s analysis may strike some as cynical, it would describe an essential reality of the next decade and a half. There was only sporadic friction between the liberal do-gooders on the ground and the liberal titans of Davos. Where conflict emerges between global capitalism’s outsiders and insiders, it has largely benefitted the populist right or else it has emerged sporadic and ideologically confused, as with France’s Gilet Jaunes. Either way, it has encouraged the much of the left to crowd “inside the tent” for protection.
This should serve as a starting point for discussing COP26. For all the goodwill, it has the feeling of a reprisal of Make Poverty History, but on a reduced scale: less than half the size and absent the organisational heft of radical left volunteers who made up G8 Alternatives and the then-vibrant Scottish Socialist Party. Which testifies to how thirteen years of persistent capitalist breakdown has somehow served to shrink the forces of outside-the-tent leftism; while inside-the-tent leftists are more absorbed in the system’s dynamics than ever before.
It would be wrong to say there is no friction between protest movement and the corporate elite. Friction exists, as many an Extinction Rebellion poster will testify. Greta Thunberg, in fairness, has not been ashamed to emphasise conflict when opportunities emerge. It would be equally wrong to say that climate protesters are cynical or unwilling to risk themselves to change the system.
If anything, the problem is an overweening idealism linked to a realism born of apocalyptic thinking (with things so far gone, why wait to win democratic consent?). Far from being unwilling to risk their futures, the younger elements are rather often nihilistic and unable to imagine anything in the future except suffering, as epitomised by the slogan, “Act Now Because It’s Too Late”.
Yet living in Glasgow, the real friction again is less between protesters outside and leaders inside, than between post-austerity, post-lockdown civilian life and the City Council’s spectacle-led city-branding. Industrial action by low-paid cleansing workers thus formed the crucial sub-narrative to the progressive-neoliberal extravaganza. Naïve talk of “teamsters and turtles” should be avoided: intellectual honesty demands recognition that strikes won’t turn today’s workers into tomorrow’s wokesters. And we should be wary of the post-Corbynista fetish for branch organisation as a therapeutic substitute for politics: specifically, for addressing the roots that led to Better Together and the People’s Vote, the twin errors that define contemporary British politics.
But that should not distract from the cleansing workers themselves. Here is agency by an unfashionable element with little or no prospects of “upward mobility” – true outsiders to global capitalism. They saw a gigantic corporate virtue-signalling spectacle and decided to exploit it for their collective self-interest. And we should unconditionally praise them for that. It should be clear by now that surface altruism is a breeding ground for cynicism or resigned “realism” (ultimately, we need a seat at the table…); by contrast, historically, it is the collective pursuit of self-interest that brings out the best in people.
And this informs how Marxists should address the radicalised youths of the climate strike. Too often, like a goal-shy striker, the anti-capitalist left tends to snatch at chances. Yes, one should offer answers to those searching for ideas. But the impulsive, recruitment-driven left too often imitates subcultural language in the hope of achieving relevance, and the results are undignified. At my own university, a longstanding Trotskyist group has posted stickers demanding we “Decolonise the Curriculum”, a slogan which neither threatens the social scientific establishment nor chimes with the everyday concerns of our predominantly working-class students.
Instead, intellectual engagement should start from respectful distance. Marxism is its own distinct tradition, steeped, like Freudianism, in the radical enlightenment which shaped the culture and politics of the twentieth century. Rather than a scramble to imitate postmodern intellectual pessimism, or the emergency politics fostered by the NGOs, it offers a distinctive standpoint on the contradictions in contemporary leftist ideology.
But it is ultimately founded in optimism: in the collective memory of how working-class struggles created the condition for a better world. Not because the working-class were saints, but precisely because of a collectivism forced upon them by capitalist social conditions.