The movement is dead, long live the movement!

There’s a new big story: climate change. Tadzio Müller suggests a way for anticapitalists to deal with the issue’s urgency without falling into catastrophism or quietism.

R.I.P., or: the death of a movement

The movement’s dead! More precisely: the alterglobalisation movement as a common place for movements and ‘activists’ to meet and to become-other, together, linking their struggles under and against the common referent of neoliberal globalisation, is dead. Not that the particular struggles are dead. Nor have we seen the end of countersummit mobilisations: as I’m writing this, preparations for engaging the G8 in Japan are in full swing, and at every gathering of the radical and not-so-radical left, plans are busily being made to shut down one summit or another: the G8 in Italy in 2009; NATO’s 60-year birthday bash in France; and so on and so forth: countersummits-r-us?

But somehow these mobilisations don’t pack the same punch as they used to: how many last hurrahs have there been, how many times have people mobilised and thought “if it fails this time, we’ll stop doing this”? Even the comparatively powerful German movement could do little more at the G8 in Heiligendamm than to realise that it’s one thing to bring tens of thousands onto the street, but quite another for their actions to resonate beyond the immediate circle of participants.

Don’t get me wrong: the movement didn’t die the ignominious death of the defeated. In many ways, it also won. And for movements, who must move to survive, their victories are also often their deaths, for they live and breathe antagonism, they need an enemy. So what of our enemy? Let’s ask Martin Wolf, the Financial Times’ chief ideologue, an eloquent and considered spokesman for the neoliberal offensive. Talking about the day when the US Central Bank bailed out a huge bank to prevent the financial crisis from spreading, he wrote: “Remember Friday March 14 2008: it was the day the dream of global free-market capitalism died.” So neoliberalism is dead (in some ways), as is (again: in some ways) the movement against it, of which the explicitly anticapitalist current from within which this text is written was only ever one part. It seems to have lost precisely that which can forge a movement out of an irreducible multiplicity of struggles, that which can counter the decomposition of resistance that capital and the state constantly seek to impose on us. We need a story, a hope, a hook to move: and at this point, the alterglobalist movement is clearly a movement without a hook, without an enemy, without a goal.

The new ‘big one’?

But as much as there’s a movement without a story, there’s also a story without a movement: climate change. An increasing number of policies (even many that have hardly anything to do with the subject) are being justified in terms of their relation to ‘the climate’. And ever since being outmanoeuvred by the G8 and especially chancellor Merkel at Heiligendamm, the European movements have realised that they must develop a position and a practice around climate change or risk irrelevance in this brave new world of green issues. The most advanced fractions of capital and government apparatuses have spotted a great way to create political support for a new ‘green fix’ to both the crisis of overaccumulation (the problem of too much money chasing too few profitable investment opportunities) that has given us the current financial chaos, and to the legitimation crisis that global authority has been suffering since the power of the story of ‘global terrorism’ began to wane. In a way, the fact that everybody is now talking about this issue is a massive victory for the green movement – but at the same time it’s meant the final nail in that movement’s coffin: every single large green NGO is involved up to its neck in the negotiations about the Kyoto follow-up treaty, and thus unlikely to articulate a political position that would diverge significantly from the dominant agendas in the field.

So there’s a movement without a story, and a story without a movement – which means that, as it stands right now, there is little hope that climate change will be dealt with in ways that don’t simply further the interests of states and whatever happens to be the dominant fraction of capital. And since the default anticapitalist position on climate change is that there is a fundamental contradiction between the requirements of the continued accumulation of capital (i.e. economic growth) on the one hand, and the requirements of dealing with climate change on the other, this would seem to constitute the perfect opening for a reenergised anticapitalist politics that can manage to connect to people’s widespread worries about climate change, and the impression that what is being done (Kyoto, Bali, emissions trading, etc.) is far too little, far too late. These are precisely the situations where radical social movements have the greatest capacity to act and ‘make history’, when the usual problem-solving approaches (these days: create a market around it, or repress it) don’t seem to provide any believable way of dealing with something that is widely perceived as a problem. It’s precisely when it seems impossible to find any solutions that openings exist for social movements to expand the limits of the possible. On the face of it, the perfect storm…

The politics of pointlessness

… or so it seems. In reality, if the practical difficulties faced by most really existing attempts to contribute to the emergence of an effective anticapitalist movement around the climate change issue are any guide, things seem a lot more difficult. Looking at it from the perspective of the global North, there are definitely attempts to develop an anticapitalist climate change politics, but each of them is facing a mounting set of difficulties. Seen from here, it all begins in the UK in 2006, with a ‘climate action camp’ that aimed to “shut down for a day” a coal-fired power station in northern England, but more importantly, to provide a space for developing new ideas and practices for an anticapitalist climate change politics. The idea of organising similar ‘climate action camps’ has since then inspired people in Germany, Sweden, the US, Chile, Australia and New Zealand and elsewhere, and currently this seems to be the main ‘weapon’ in the emerging climate movement’s repertoire of action (somewhat ironically, the initial idea for the camp also arose out of the lessons learnt about the shortcomings of one-off summit protests).

I really don’t want to talk down the importance of these camps – after all, inspiring so many people in so many different countries is no mean feat – but from the many critiques of the climate camps, one thread stuck out: the question of whether these camps were in fact doing much good beyond satisfying a desire to do something? It feels good to hang out and camp with your mates and comrades, but there’s that nagging question: what do we want? What can we achieve? And does this whole camping-business, trying to shut down power plants one at a time, while at the same time constantly fighting not to be drowned out by the more powerful voices that crowd this political field, stand in any relation to the magnitude of the challenge of climate change? That’s the kind of question that’s likely to leave people pretty frustrated.

To be clear: this is not to say that people shouldn’t organise climate camps – only that these camps need to be part of a wider project that gives them some political meaning beyond their highly localised intervention. We could of course hope that this wider meaning, a certain kind of political globality, would emerge from the links being formed between the various climate camps happening this year, but this kind of coordination has been limited to non-existing. No common ‘demands’ (other than that of being ‘against climate change’, which is about as politically useful and distinguishing as being against clubbing baby seals), no common story, no ‘shut down the WTO’, not even a vague compromise like ‘fix it or nix it’: no ‘another world is possible’!

So if the UK-movement’s way of dealing with the challenge of climate change comes across as somewhat limited in its political scope, at the other end of the spectrum there’s the way the issue has been approached in Germany. Attempts to kick-start a climate camp-process here have not only been beset by the usual leftist bickering and infighting, and there has even already been a split in the process, it has also come up against another political problem: here, the radical left is so academic and steeped in the tradition of ‘critical theory’ and ‘deconstruction’ that the main response to the challenge posed by climate change is to engage in a ‘critique’ of the ‘dominant climate change discourse’ and the ‘hegemonic role of scientific knowledge’ in constructing climate change as a crisis. Sure, it’s important to remember that the reports issued by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) come from a deeply conservative institution, and to critically reflect on how recourses to ‘scientific knowledge’ are often used to shut ‘non-experts’ out of political debates, but Diskurskritik can’t be the only response to the climate change issue. It feels a bit like throwing copies of Adorno and Foucault at a coming flood and hoping that it’ll just go away.

From timelessness to effectiveness

But let’s be honest: the anticapitalist left in the global North should be pretty used to being politically ineffective and marginal, small outbursts of transformative power in particular moments of excess notwithstanding. What does one ‘social centre’ in Hackney, Kreuzberg or Las Ramblas really contribute to the struggle against gentrification? Does an anti-war-demo in San Francisco really, as a film made on the occasion claims, ‘interrupt this Empire’? Does shoplifting, even conducted en masse, significantly disrupt processes of capitalist commodity circulation? To be honest, I don’t know, and I think very few people who engage in these practices have a clear idea either. But, and this is the important point, when talking about ‘capitalism’, anticapitalists feel they don’t really have to have an answer to that question. One way of dealing with that is to point to the non-linear dynamics of change in complex (social) systems, meaning that we can’t know what effects our actions of today will have tomorrow (think butterfly in Bali and hurricane in Haiti). Or, by referring to an argument that’s achieved nearly dogmatic status in anticapitalist discussions: ‘look, capitalism hasn’t been around forever, it began in some place at some point, so it’ll also end at some point’ – much the same could be said about the universe! I could go on enumerating the various intellectual tricks that exist to rationalise our relative political irrelevance, but hope the point is made: that anticapitalist politics in the global North exist in a sort of timelessness because we either can’t or don’t dare to think their effects in the future. Ostriches come to mind. As does the graffiti sprayed on the wall of a school in Gothenburg that had been stormed by the cops: “But in the end, we will win!”

And this is where we get back to why it seems so hard for the anticapitalist movement to develop a politics around climate change: whatever rationalisation makes it possible to think that ‘in the end we will win’ against capital, it’s pretty impossible to think that in relation to climate change. Against the usual timelessness of anticapitalist politics, climate change poses the issue of urgency. And the problem then becomes how to deal with that urgency. Both positions described above (the overly ‘activisty’ as well as the overly ‘critical’ one) are attempts to do so, and both are pretty unsatisfying. The first takes this urgency far too seriously, and jumps head over heels into a political field dominated by much stronger players. The second position recognises that the construction of urgency and the resulting politics of fear are often strategies of domination – but then contents itself with criticising that construction, rather than engaging with the urgency of the issue behind the discourse. And this urgency emerges precisely from a conflict of times, of temporalities, between the exponential temporality of capital (where capital perpetually speeds up social life and production) and the temporality of complex eco-social-systems, which are of course not static, and can adapt to new circumstances, but generally not at the speed required by capital – if change is too fast, that’s when the by now infamous ‘tipping points’ are reached, where changes to particular eco-systems become irreversible and catastrophic (the infamous ‘switching off’ of the Gulf Stream being one such example, the melting of polar ice caps another).

So how do we deal with this problem of urgency? First, by admitting that it’s unlikely, actually impossible, that the politically marginal radical left will be able to effectively slow down the production of greenhouse gases such as CO2, in a world where the accumulation of capital is inseparable from the burning of fossil fuels (someone called this ‘fossilistic capitalism’). Neither are we able to somehow force the faster adaptation of ecological systems to the speed of capital. But we can intervene into the temporality of politics, of governmental ‘climate change politics’, whose role it is to insulate the speed-up effected by capital from social criticism by creating the illusion that the continued accumulation of capital is compatible with socio-ecological stability: that, in other words, we just need to make a few (preferably market-based) adjustments, and can otherwise continue more or less as we were. The result of this insulation is that the potentially explosive force of the increasingly widespread realisation of this antagonism between capital and a humanity that exists embedded in complex ecological systems is contained, even captured. Captured so as to provide support for a new round of accumulation (think: ‘green capitalism’) and the further extension of political regulations ever deeper into our lives.

Forget Kyoto!

So again: the anticapitalist left in the global North can’t ‘stop’ or even significantly mitigate climate change. To assume that we could would necessarily leave us trapped in our timelessness, because we could only ever hope to achieve our goal at some point far, far in the future – out of real time, as pie in the sky. But we can, with our limited strength and resources intervene into the insulation of capital’s time from the ‘slowness’ of genuine democracy. If we once again leave the depressed certainty of our own decomposition and timelessness, if we remember that as movements we have the capacity to be faster than the state, then we can escape from and intervene into their capture and internalisation of antagonistic energies.

And how do we do that? How do we keep open the political space created by the increasingly widespread concern about climate change, which has the potential to produce new ideas and solutions, new possibilities, that might in turn promise to go beyond capitalism? How can there be an intervention into the powerful pressures towards the constitution of a new ‘green capitalism’, towards an ‘eco-Empire’, a global authoritarian eco-Keynesianism? If urgency forces us to think in terms of effectiveness and, what’s more, efficiency, how can our small, resource-poor wing of the movement effectively deploy our limited strengths to achieve a maximum outcome with respect to the goal of creating and/or maintaining space for the development of multiple, bottom-up, non-capitalist solutions to the climate crisis?

The answer to this question begins with two further questions, and then takes us back to the beginning of the whole argument. First question: what is probably the single most important process by which the governments of the world are trying to insulate capital from public criticism in relation to climate change? Answer: almost certainly the Kyoto/Bali-processes, where the world is treated to the dramas of international high politics, but which in the end produce little or nothing that would actually protect the climate (just as an aside: since the signing of the Kyoto-accords, global CO2-emissions have exceeded even the worst-case scenarios projected by the IPCC), and where a tiny bit of emissions reductions legitimate a huge pile of continued production of greenhouse gases – not to speak of the creation of a whole new market in emissions credits (expected to value about US$2 trillion by 2020), much to the delight of global capital. The follow-up process to Kyoto, which began in Bali in December 2007, is supposed to be signed at an international summit in Copenhagen in December 2009.

Second question: where do the strengths of the radical global movements lie both in comparison to our enemies and to our more moderate allies? Answer: in the organisation of large-scale, disruptive summit mobilisations. It is precisely in summit mobilisations that we have developed something that could be called ‘best practice’, where we have before achieved a substantial political effect. In Seattle, we not only managed to shut down the conference by being on the streets, we also exacerbated the multiple conflicts that existed ‘on the inside’ between the negotiating governments. If we manage to do the same thing again, and to build a political coalition around and momentum behind the demand to ‘Forget Kyoto’, we would both be able to keep open the political space to discuss potential ‘solutions’ to climate change that go beyond the reigning, market-driven agenda, and also provide a focal point and common demand for the emerging global climate movement to rally around. Forget Kyoto – Shut down Copenhagen 2009!

But why suggest organising yet another big summit protest after arguing that countersummits have become a lot less effective than they used to be? Because the politics of climate change in 2008 look very different from the politics of neoliberal globalisation in 2008 – in fact, they look more like the politics of globalisation did before the WTO summit in Seattle was shut down. Back then, during the decade of the ‘end of history’, many knew that neoliberal capitalism wasn’t flawless, but there was no recognition, not even on ‘the left’, of a movement, or maybe even a ‘movement of movements’ that could oppose it. Seattle created the possibility of seeing the commonality in many different struggles, of seeing them as all fighting the same enemy. Of a ‘movement’ in the first place, which is where the argument comes full circle: the alterglobalist cycle of struggles may have ended, but its lessons have not gone away, like the importance of avoiding the ‘one-week-a-year’ movement problem of focusing only on big events. The emerging climate movement must be rooted in sustainable and everyday practices of resistance and transformation at all levels, not just global, but also regional, national or local. But before ‘it’ can even see itself as ‘a movement’, something is needed to make a mark, show that there is a position on climate change that’s more radical than simply asking for more and better emissions trading. That there are those who don’t just focus on climate change, but also on the cause of climate change: capitalism. And for that to happen, we might just need what some people once called a ‘moment of excess’, where time speeds up, and changes become possible that were impossible before. A countersummit can do it. So in that sense: the movement is dead – long live the movement!

The ‘Kyoto Protocol’ (short: Kyoto), which was signed in 1997 and came into force in 2005, is an international treaty whose signatories pledge to reduce their emissions of greenhouse gases such as CO2 and methane. The protocol’s key mechanism is ‘emissions trading’, where countries and/or companies buy and sell licences to pollute. As the Kyoto protocol is set to expire in 2012, a major international summit was held in Bali in December 2007 to begin negotiations on a follow-up accord to be signed in Copenhagen in 2009.

Tadzio Müller lives in Berlin, where he is active in the emerging climate action movement, and teaches political science at Kassel University. He is an editor of Turbulence.

Danish translation here. Finnish here. Spanish here.

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