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WHERE NEXT FOR CLIMATE CAMP?
A contribution by Stuart Jordan
The Climate Camp this year took place in London against the backdrop of the Vestas dispute on the Isle of Wight, the first significant working-class fight for the ecology in decades. During the Camp, the Vestas dispute entered a critical stage and the workers sent an urgent call for direct action to keep their dispute alive. Out of the thousands that attended the Camp only a handful responded to this call. To a large degree it was down to fairly mundane reasons like lack of finances and time. But to some degree, it was a reflection of the Camp’s dominant political voices and priorities. The Camp has now called for a discussion on the way forward. This paper is intended as a contribution to that debate in a genuine spirit of openness and solidarity.
In the last year, the Climate Camp came to a consensus that it is explicitly “anti-capitalist”. This is a good thing. However, there is neither a great deal of clarity about what this means nor how this new theoretical understanding might translate into revolutionary action.Ths is not a new problem -activists in the anti-capitalist movement have been discussing this for at least ten years (see Give up Activism – Do or Die)
The Climate Camp’s Anti-Capitalism
Climate Camp is, and always has been, kind of “anti-capitalist”. The Camp gives you a chance to experience an alternative to the world of wage labour and commodity markets. The things we consume at camp (the tent space, sanitation, food etc.) are to a large extent products of our collective labour. We do not grow the veg or weave the tent fabric (for this we rely on the capitalist market place) but for the duration of Camp the work is collectively shared and the product of that work is held in common. We do not operate a money economy or buy and sell these products. We are not given money in exchange for the time we spend “working”. Our daily needs are satisfied by the collective work of the community and so commodity markets are unnecessary. We find that it is not necessary to compel people to work with the threat of poverty. On the contrary, the split between work and leisure which is a feature of capitalist society is broken down and work becomes enjoyable and satisfying. As we work together, human relations are formed quite easily and we have a new appreciation of each other as striving towards a common end: the life and wellbeing of the camp. We no longer relate to each other via the commodities we buy and sell in the market place, the cash in our pockets and the sale of our capacity to work. We relate directly as human beings, reliant on each other for our sustenance.
The beauty of the Camp is that it offers this glimpse of more communistic ways of living and it gives us an insight into what capitalism is and what it is doing to our lives. Crucially, for anti-capitalist environmentalism, the flat hierarchy of the Camp stands opposed to enormous hierarchies of capitalism. At the Camp we make collective decisions about what we want to produce and how we want to produce it. In the real world, these decisions are made by a tiny minority of people – the capitalist class – and the decisions are made in accordance with the law of profit. Both human beings and natural resources are exploited, degraded and despoiled to this end.
Capitalism and the Environment
Between the capitalist class and the rest of humanity, lie enormous hierarchical management structures which ensure that the decisions are made in accordance with capital’s wishes. In our globalised world, these structures span the planet. In terms of environmental politics, many of the biggest extractive industries are based in the City of London. The natural resource capitalists in the City send their diktats through foreign governments, local capitalists down through their management structures to the workers who destroy the planet in return for a wage. Our class, the working-class produces everything – setting our hands and brains to work on the world around us. The more we work, the more the capitalist class amasses its power and wealth. The systemic compulsion to seek more profit at any cost means our class is constantly attacked and humiliated – our wages are driven down, public services are cut, our environment is wrecked, our communities are broken and fragmented. But as the class that does all the work, we also have the power to stop this system.
The economic crisis is fundamentally a problme of economic decision making. At the moment we live in a society where very few people decide what is produced and how it is produced. Capitalist industry tends to pollute because it is does not have to pay for long-term ecological consequences. Profit is amassed by the act of work itself. The object of the work is to a large extent insignificant. As long as capitalists can find people who need to work for a wage and people who can buy what they produce, they can turn a profit. Driving peasants off their land to make way for mines, industrialised agro-business etc. has the added benefit that it creates whole new generations of wage workers.
More importantly, capitalist logic drives research and development. Consequently, the types of technologies that we develop tend to further degrade the earth and our humanity and reinforce capitalist ideologies. We might question whether the car or the television would have become such influential technologies under a democratically controlled economy? Instead of developing the internal combustion engine, our collective intellectual energies might have been directed towards ecologically sustainable transportation.
Lastly, it is important to realise that pollution and CO2 emmissions are produced. Our understanding of ecology tells us that everything is in a process of decay. Work is the human act of producing and re-producing society and the world around us. There is no place on earth that has not been affected by human activity. The natural world does not exist outside of human civilisation – we are a part of the natural world and in a constant process of producing it. This production of the world is simlutaneously an act of reproducing our society. In an expansionist capitalist society enormous and increasing numbers of commodities are produced. So the reproduction of capitalism involves creating effective demand for all the commodities we produce. It does this in ideological ways (through advertising, celebrity culture etc.), economic ways (through credit cards, welfare state etc.) and political ways (through wars, imperialism etc.). This understanding cuts against the dominant green myth that climate change is a consequence of over-consumption. Over-consumption is itself a product of capitalism – it is a necessary condition of our expansionist economy. We cannot hope to consume our way out of this crisis. It needs to be addressed at the point of production.
Even under capitalism, we have seen examples of workers taking control of their factories for ecologically sound, socially useful production. In the 1970s the workers at Lucas Aerospace were faced with mass redundancies because their bosses could not find a big enough market for the military machines they produced. In response, the workers asserted their own priorities.
They developed “workers’ plans” for their industry , proposing socially useful, ecologically sound production against the wasteful, destructive production of war machines. They designed green technologies such as a road-rail vehicle, a hybrid car and a tidal power station for the Severn Estuary. Although eventually they lost, this very limited example shows what might be possible if the whole economy was run democratically rather than for profit. A democratically run economy would free up scientific and technological investigation; the lion’s share of which is currently being wasted in capitalist controlled universities and R&D departments to develop weapons, fossil fuel and other socially useless, ecologically damaging technologies.
In order to prevent climate change, therefore, we need to challenge the rule of the boss in the workplace. We need to assert working-class interests in the things we produce and how we produce them. We need to wage a battle for democratic control of our universities and research centres and direct society’s intellectual energy into socially-useful technologies. We need to start producing for human need rather than profit.
The Climate Camp’s Reformism
This year, the Camp chose the City of London to be the focus of direct action. This reflected a theoretical progression from reformist environmentalism (targeting direct polluters) to an explicitly anti-capitalist perspective. But the tactics somehow jarred with the theory and by October we were all back in the more comfortable surroundings of a coal-fired power station. The direct action movement, where many activists first came in contact with the anti-capitalist ideas, has traditionally been based around single issue campaigns that seek to stop specific projects within a capitalist framework. It is a tactic that has some success in securing reforms.
But capitalism does not exist in a bank. Shutting down the City of London for a day does not pose a serious threat to capitalism any more than shutting down a power station for a day poses a threat to the government’s energy policy. Capitalism is a social relation, it cannot be overcome with stunts – or at least this shouldn’t be the first idea that people associate with anti-capitalism. At best the direct action stunt is “pepper up the arse of the bourgeoisie”, it makes us feel good and teaches us something about police tactics. At worse it is elitist, counter-productive and politically disorientating.
Our primary tactic at present is to throw ourselves into police custody in order to make the middle pages of the liberal press. Our activism is largely geared towards creating a spectacle and any change we make is largely ethereal; our propaganda of the deed sends out a woolly message into any public debate surrounding climate change. Climate activism is widely regarded as the domain of people who aren’t too bothered about getting a criminal record. And while getting a criminal record and coming into conflict with the state feels revolutionary, capitalism marches on oblivious.
Most activists at the Camp, I suspect, are aware of these contradictions. People at the Camp frequently express a feeling of disjunction between what they do politically, and the revolutionary theory that they espouse. We speak about an anti-capitalism that is not rooted in the reality of everyday life, rather it is something that is exercised every now and again at anti-capitalist events. Anti-capitalism is a specialist activity for an enlightened activist class. The theoretical knowledge of the “activist” comes with a feeling of alienation from “ordinary” people. The response to this alienation is to group together and create a counter-culture.
For those who understand these contradictions, a new theory is emerging of the “liberated space”. The most important part of the Camp, as I’ve said, is the experience of living in a cooperative space. This has been theorised by some as a revolutionary crack in an otherwise hegemonic capitalist reality. The idea is that these cracks will grow and grow until they cover the whole world. Climate Camp is irresistable and everyone will want to be a part of it – even the capitalists.
However, this notion has been repeated time and again by much more impressive movements than ours, with disasterous results. The experience of Climate Camp cannot simply be expanded and expanded indefinitely until we take over the world. An anti-capitalist future will involve a struggle against capitalist power – it will take place primarily within the workplace where pollution is produced. We cannot create anti-capitalist islands – socialism in one campsite. The main terrain of struggle must be the workplace where we can collectively challenge the domination of our managers.
False dichotomies of the utopians
Part of the nature of this split between reformist tactics and anti-capitalist theory is that the future exists as a utopia in our minds and has no connection to day to day reality. This in turn leads to all sorts of schemes about when and where it is right to fight for revolution. The urgency with which we need to address climate change has led many environmentalists to the view “First save the environment, then have a revolution”. This scheme has its mirror image “first have the revolution, and then sort out the environment (and women’s liberation, gay liberation, black liberation etc.)” – “One solution, revolution”.
Both these formulations are politically wrong. They come from and lead to all sorts of dangerous political positions.
The idea that we can only sort out the environment after the revolution suggests that the workers’ movement is a standing army waiting to be lead behind an enlightened, charismatic leader. It is an elitism that says the common worker cannot grasp the finer science of anti-capitalist ecology or revolutionary theory. This is not the conscious, self-emancipation of our class but a Stalinist coup.
The opposite argument “first the environment, then the revolution” is equally flawed. First, without a strong working-class movement we have no power. The major reforms of the last century (e.g. the creation of the welfare state, universal suffrage) were not won by clever arguments – they were won by militant, organised working-class movements. The ruling class has been adept coopting the leaders of these movements and offering enough concessions to dull their revolutionary edge. However, they showed what is necessary to create real change. One of the problems we now have is that all the leaders of the trade unions think they can substitute workers power for their own powers of persuasion, they believe they can talk the bosses around. A similar feature exists in the environmental movement where self-appointed green commentators believe rhetoric can save the planet.
At the end of the day, the environmental crisis is just one of many reasons why capitalism is bad for us. Consequently, it is one of many reasons why working-class people might organise and defy their boss. To suggest that workers only ever strike for their own immediate interests (pay, jobs etc.) is to take a myopic view of working class history. Our history is littered with incredible acts of solidarity – from the internationalists who fought in the Spanish Revolution to the 20,000 strong picket at the Grunwick factory in support of Asian women workers seeking union-recognition. When we are feeling strong and we’re on the move, then we reach anti-capitalist conclusions in our millions and practice the solidarity that can defeat our class enemies.
Reading the facts about climate change is very frightening. It certainly appears that we might live to see the end of the world! However, the worst thing that we can do when faced with this overwhelming reality is to panic and scheme. Within our movement, there are advocates of population control and increased state power to stop unecological consumption. Viewing the ecological crisis as a result of an unruly, greedy, parasitic humanity, they draw their own conclusions about the solution.
Others believe that this is a battle that can be won by ideas alone. The bourgeois press obscures the facts about climate change and we need to tell people what’s what. We have courageous activists who are wasting away their lives in court hearings because they just want to get the issue in the newspapers. But the processes that build mass social movements are manifold. Most people do not become revolutionary fighters because they read a good book or read an article in the Guardian. The majority of people come to anti-capitalist conclusions through a process of struggle rooted in their everyday life. It is in the process of struggle that people open up to radical revolutionary ideas.
As much as we would like, we cannot will the revolution to happen by building bigger and better Climate Camp’s or organising more extreme actions. We need to have faith that history will do its work – that our class will rise again. For me, Workers’ Climate Action is about having consistent orientation to class struggle – being there with our revolutionary ecological politics when those struggles inevitably emerge. Ten years ago, when the anti-capitalist movement was first mulling over these questions, the workers’ movement was moribund and capitalism was triumphant. The number of strike days was at a low, the unions were bureaucratic obstacles to any real action. Now we see the situation is beginning to change – workers more inclined to take action (often because they have no choice) and the ideological basis of free market capitalism is utterly discredited by the financial crisis. Capitalism is a dynamic system and the ebbs and flows of class struggle are unpredictable. But it is inevitable that given the manifold oppressions suffered under capitalism, working-class people will seek to organise together and fight back.
The experience at Vestas shows that there is a lot that can be done to initiate and support workplace struggle. Vestas had a non-union workforce in a factory that was going to be closed down without a murmur of dissent. Workers’ Climate Action activists went to the Isle of Wight and, over a period of weeks, leafleted at the factory gates, spoke to workers and organised meetings. Their initiative eventually turned into the fifth workplace occupation in the UK for two decades, the heart of the struggle for jobs and the environment. The experience of this struggle has fundamentally changed the people involved into fighting class-conscious militants. At times it looked like this dispute would be the lever to securing a shift away from free-market solutions to the UK’s energy policy.
This was a struggle rooted in the realities of people’s lives that even now could change actual policy and send a signal to other workers that militancy wins. Though this is a kind of reformism, the securing of small victories within capitalism by workplace direct action is the way to build a mass working-class movement. It links the revolutionary anti-capitalist theory with the here and now of people’s lives.
Also, on a personal note I learnt a lot about my own political praxis as a solidarity activist. This was the first solidarity action that I have been involved in where I felt like an active participant in the dispute rather than a slightly suspect outsider. The movement that was created on the Isle of Wight was united around the idea that this dispute involved everyone. The notion of working class solidarity (that your fight is my fight) – a concept so difficult to get across when standing on the picket line in the middle of a pay dispute – flowed naturally from the politics of environmentalism. I no longer belonged to the specialist activist caste rather I was a working-class militant doing what was necessary.
There are many sections of the class that are gearing up for huge battles; oil refinery workers, carworkers, airport baggage handlers have all had strike days in the last few months. Tower Hamlets College took four weeks all-out strike action and scored a partial victory, postal workers in London look set to kick start the strike movement again. For a thousand different reasons, workers are starting to get together and stand up to their bosses. Anti-capitalist environmentalists need to be there on the picket lines making their battle our battle. We need these industries to be taken into democratic control of the workforce and community. We need carworkers to start making recycling bins (like they talked about at Visteon) and refinery construction workers to start building wind farms. We cannot simply ignore these people in the hope that they will disappear. We certainly shouldn’t be trying to shut down their workplaces on activist away days. We need to do consistent work and get our fellow workers to shut down their workplaces themselves. Unless the workers in these industries take up a fight against their bosses, then the fight to save the environment will be lost. Argumentative, persuasive, uncompromising, open solidarity should become the mantra of our movement.