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Climate camp pain

I’ve been away so this overview is a bit late and more than a bit disjointed…

First up a couple of positives. Against an absurd level of police harassment, the camp for climate action refused to be intimidated… That might appear a small thing but it’s easy to underestimate the importance of such an open and public display of opposition. Elsewhere ‘politics’ is daily reduced to questions of public policy or style: step outside that and it’s a criminal/police matter. OK, an MP getting jostled and almost pepper-sprayed hardly matches up to Genoa or Bolzaneto but you know what I mean…

In fact, when we wrote a piece about antagonism (how productive it can be) in the latest issue of Turbulence, we had half an eye on the camp. In my most cynical moments (hmm, I do have a few) I was ready for the camp to be another media love-in or liberal festival of single-issue reformism. Instead, the fact that people had to penetrate a row of riot cops to get in meant that antagonism of some sort was never really off the agenda. And it cut the ground away from under many reformists: it’s hard to talk seriously about the positive role of the state in an atmosphere of repression, even if some of it (like riot cops playing Ride of the Valkyries on a car stereo) was typically naff rather than nasty.

Second, there seemed to be a much better understanding of class politics and anti-capitalism than I feared. It didn’t feel like we were barking mad for talking about class. Again that might appear a small thing but…

As well as facilitating a workshop on class, we also did a re-run of our presentation on climate change and work. It was OK, but I think we could have made the message even clearer – maybe even repeated it several times and tattooed it in CAPITAL LETTERS across our foreheads. We had one bloke stand up at the end, applaud our talk and then say that the way forward was clear: we should all become self-employed, there’d be no bosses any more and capitalism would simply cease to exist. Erm, no… Seriously though, we packed a lot into our presentation and I think the main thrust got a bit sidelined by other stuff. The point we wanted to make was this: the biggest single cause of climate change isn’t aviation, or coal mining, or people driving 4x4s. It’s work. So any attempt to reduce carbon emissions without thinking through ‘work’ is pretty much doomed to failure or represents tinkering round the edges. To put it even more strongly, the way to reduce carbon emissions isn’t to campaign for their reduction: it’s to explore ways of resisting the imposition of work. And that might not happen under the banner of ‘climate change’.

In this respect, one of the most depressing things was the interplay between miners (i.e. Arthur Scargill and Dave Douglas) and climate campers (some of the background is here and you can see some other comments here and here). It was depressing because the exchanges were so unproductive and seemed happy to stay on the level of public policy (as if we’ve got any say in that). Self-education is fantastically liberating, but is not quite the same thing as becoming an expert on CCS for example. On the other hand, it was just as disheartening to hear Scargill and Douglas acting as defenders/spokesmen of the “coal industry”, as if that’s a totally unproblematic notion. In all the noise the whole idea of social change just seemed to slide away.

All of this made me think about how much our horizons have shrunk over the last twenty years. I’ve just finished reading Thomas Pynchon’s Against The Day which is a huge sprawling comment on light, invisibility, identity, anarchists, the build-up to the First World War, militant trade unionism, time travel, and the mythical paradise of Shambhala. One of the recurring threads in it is this:

The world we think we know can be dissected and reassembled into any number of worlds, each as real as ‘this’ one.

Most of the time those other worlds are just dreams (or nightmares) a million years away. But there are moments of extraordinary possibility where everything opens up. The 1984-85 miners’ strike in the UK was precisely one of those moments. What started out as a defensive trade union action exploded into something that threatened (however briefly) to blow all of this away. If you’re in any doubt about this, check out Jenny Dennis’ tale which is a stunning reminder of that moment and what we could have become.

OK, it’s a little unfair to hold the climate camp up to the miners’ strike – you can only play the teams in front of you. But we have to keep hold of that sense of possibility: that’s what we’re fighting for.

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Communism is for us not a state of affairs which is to be established, an ideal to which reality [will] have to adjust itself. We call communism the real movement which abolishes the present state of things.