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Climate populism and the People’s Climate March

"The people are missing"

Large demonstrations are planned to push for action on climate change. Here we discuss the potentials and pitfalls of climate populism.

This month, the UN Climate Summit 2014 will begin in New York City. After yet another disappointing round of global talks on climate change failed to produce even the most flimsy of agreements among participating countries, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon invited world leaders of UN member states as well as individuals and groups from finance, business, and ‘civil society’ to “catalyze ambitious action on the ground to reduce emissions and strengthen climate resilience and mobilize political will” in a voluntary meeting external to the UNFCCC process.1

As if sprung from the process itself, a large mobilization (née protest) emerged external to this already-external meeting, dubbed the People’s Climate March. While the UN Climate Summit is being touted as critical to the attempt by political and technocratic elites to (re)affirm capitalist hegemony on our climate futures,2 the People’s Climate March, we argue, must take this critical opportunity to invent ‘the people’ already coming into being through today’s climate crisis.

Populism: a brief definition

The name ‘People’s Climate March’ immediately locates the mobilization within the political tradition of populism - those particular movements that claim to speak for the people themselves. Populism can be seen as a constitutive force that lies at the heart of the political itself, while the politics of climate change pose some specific problems that highlight both the limits and possibilities of populist strategies. Before turning to climate change, we begin with a more general discussion of populism and political power.

Populist movements are, generally speaking, those which emphasize that ‘the people’ should hold primary decision-making power, and any political or economic force is derived from this collective or community. Attempts to define populism along conventional political spectrum beyond this, however, are somewhat more difficult. Many historical and contemporary socialist and anarchist movements can be thought of as populist, from the Luddites and Diggers to the Russian and Cuban socialist movements to some aspects of Occupy Wall Street and the broader commitment to ‘the sovereignty of the people.’ But populism often more easily fits centrist and right-wing agenda.

The People’s Party of William Jennings Bryant active in turn of the century US founded itself on Jeffersonian yeoman morality while opposing governmental and corporate elitism. Agriculturalist movements from South Asia to South America are often founded on ‘the land of the people’ versus urban techno-elites or international financiers. Tea Party movements in the US and UKIP in the UK and elsewhere in Europe, with their distrust of cultural elites, governmental institutions, and immigrants also clearly rely on populist tropes, as do populist movements more radically invested in a charismatic leader like Juan Perón in 1970s Argentina, or in recent South American leaders, Hugo Chavez in Venezuela and Evo Morales in Bolivia. Extended far enough, in this direction, populist movements can easily fall into fascism. Similarly troubling is the plasticity of populist movements to fit cross-class interests, often resulting in mere reforms and the capture of working class political action to reify the status quo.3

Nonetheless, we believe with Ernesto Laclau that “the construction of the people is the political act par excellence”, and is thus not so much a type of movement, but a political logic that pervades the social itself. Following Laclau’s work in On Populist Reason, no political movement exists without taking the demands of some people and extending them to a universal level. On the other hand, any movement that claims to speak for all people - that is, humanity - suffers from an inability to locate those who must be excluded from its political vision. Political populism thus reaches towards a universal while manifesting specific exclusions from this sphere.

Thus for Laclau, the dangers of populism outlined above are in some sense secondary to the political logic itself. The form or tendency that a populist movement actualizes depends entirely on the relations of resonance it is able to create with other movements – and what other demands, positions or relationships are sacrificed in this attempt. For example, if class interests are sacrificed to create a cross-class alliance, a movement will attain a different character and composition while perhaps losing more radical possibilities. More prevalent in the US recently have been anarchist-libertarian resonances, which often subordinate anti-capitalist demands beneath a distrust of hierarchy.

"The people are missing"

Left thinkers are of course skeptical of the vagaries of populism and for good reason. However, critiques especially from Leninists often rely on a belief that ‘the people’ can’t possibly organize themselves in a political manner without being members of a party, submitting to an agenda, or investing in a leader. Like liberals and social democrats, Leninists can appear afraid of the people, seen as either an unorganized aggregation of individuals or an irrational mass or crowd. These fears we feel are rooted as much in liberal - and even moreso, neoliberal - demands that we view only individuals as sovereign and capable of political decision making as the texts and actions of Lenin. By contrast, the benefit of populism is thus to redirect our attention to the power of collective decision-making and the necessity of antagonism.

Finally, populism exposes the construction of political relations over a mythic or essentialized ‘people’. If populist movements display a collective desire to make decisions as a collective, then we must dispel with the founding myth of Western populism: that the people are a self-contained, organic and pre-existing entity. This Jeffersonian logic begins from the representational premise that one can speak of and for the people immediately and directly. The US Declaration of Independence begins with ‘We the People…” and has (somewhat confusingly) continued to serve as inspiration for both American left theorists and in everyday left-leaning protests in the US.

Instead, we follow Gilles Deleuze’s imperative: the people are missing, and thus must be invented. While in ‘the West,’ the people were often taken as foundational (the Americans, the proletariat), Deleuze argues that artists and revolutionaries in ‘the Third World’ immediately recognized the absence of any foundational people or population and that new stories must be invented in order to constitute a new political force. Deleuze emphasizes that the invention of the people occurs not on an empty stage, but only in the cramped space of the history of oppression. Our goal is thus “to constitute an assemblage which brings real parties together, in order to make them produce collective utterances as the prefiguration of the people who are missing.”4 The act of inventing is thus the creation of a space of resonance in which heterogeneous or ‘minor’ groups are gathered to create the language necessary to invent a people (and thus, as a corollary, exclude certain others from ‘the people’).

In order to clarify, let’s take Occupy Wall Street as a recent and familiar example of a quasi populist movement. Although much was made of Occupy’s lack of demands, the slogans and memes developed by the movement reproduce some common populist tropes. For this group, the slogan ‘We are the 99%’ functioned as a common signifier that bound the group together and named its foundational people. ‘The 99%’ is a heterogeneous group, no doubt, not all of whom can or do speak in its name. But the function of ‘we are the 99%’ is not simply to unite or consolidate around a fragile ‘we’, but to name those who are excluded from that we - the 1%. In this sense, Occupy had a clear political logic, even if elsewhere its demands may have seemed vague or empty.5

The problems and dangers of populist political logics abound - who or what is excluded? How do we differentiate from those included? Who decides? Are leaders elected or emergent? These more general questions are familiar to any participants in radical liberatory social movements, and are outside the scope of this brief essay. Instead, I’d like to turn to the particular problems that a climate populism faces today.

Climate populism

The above analysis should sufficiently reveal the populist tendencies of the PCM and other global climate movements. However, given the above analysis of how populism functions as a political logic, there are three specific problems facing climate populism: a scalar politics above/below the national; lack of a clearly defined enemy; and an inability to name itself as anti-capitalist.

Climate politics, like the anti-globalization movements before it, has defined itself by moving away from national scale analysis and towards both localism and supra-national globalism. Populist movements in affluent parts of North America and Europe especially rely on localism and (bio)regionalism in a manner that has tendencies towards reactionary ecology. On the other hand, a newer and increasingly prevalent trend has been to depoliticize climate by claiming that it affects everyone (humanity is at stake) thus subsuming smaller ‘political’ demands.

The People’s Climate March has faced criticism for the inclusion of ‘Green Zionist’ groups in its heterogeneous base. Supporters of the PCM have deflected criticism by claiming that climate change is a ‘bigger issue’ than Palestinian liberation, that if we don’t stop climate change the Middle East will be uninhabitable, that the whole endeavor is bringing a political agenda to what was supposed to be a unifying, broad coalition. It is all too easy to imagine future mass mobilizations in support of overtly fascist and nationalist climate policies: anti-immigration, hoarding national energy resources, against reproductive rights, or in favor more drastic measures like forced sterilization.6

Unlike, for example, socialist populist movements, which named a clear enemy in the bourgeoisie, climate populism has struggled to define its opponents. Currently, environmental and environmental justice organizations have defined ‘the fossil fuel industry,’ ‘large corporations,’ and ‘climate deniers’ as the enemy. However, this vague enemy is too site-specific to the United States, where mineral rights can be bought and sold by corporations. For example, for most of the rest of the world, mineral rights below a certain depth (generally six feet) are owned by states, not by individuals or corporations. Thus, opposing corporate greed ignores the root of the problem, which is the specifically capitalist form of resource extraction.

Simply opposing climate denialists does very little but promote a consensus belief that climate change is ‘real’ while ignoring the divisive political aspect of our responses or creative transformations.7 Repurposing our movements towards fossil fuel abolitionism requires a more strategic and international focus on the social relations that entrench fossil fuels as the basis of our economies and political formations.

Finally, of course, the PCM has yet to take a specifically liberatory, communist - or frankly, any avowed political position aside from a misguided hope in a redemptive future. Outlining steps towards ‘climate justice’ and solidarity with indigenous nations are incredibly important but can have the effect of ringing hollow when many in the PCM are still committed to green capitalism, overt nationalism and ‘energy independence’, and urban climate resilience (let alone the Zionism mentioned above). 350.org leader and admittedly ‘reluctant’ US movement leader Bill McKibben often makes statements like “There’s nothing radical about what we’re doing here. We’re just Americans, interested in preserving a country and a planet that looks and feels something like the ones we were born on.”8

Given the above, why should communists and anti-capitalists invest anything in the PCM and similar populist movements?

Inventing climate people

The ‘people’ of the People’s Climate Movement are still missing, and the reluctance to name a demand creates an opportunity for a politics to be created and seized in the ‘cramped space’ of New York City still experiencing the aftereffects of Hurricane Sandy. Yet as we know, the ongoing invention of the ‘climate people’ might be the most important political struggle of our moment.

There has been some wavering from far left green groups on whether and how to participate or relate to groups like the People’s Climate March.9 On the one hand, the gathering clearly takes messaging tools and financial resources from centrist environmental groups like 350.org that position its appeal to a wider (admittedly American) population. Engaging with the UN process and its overt reliance on financial and green capitalist sustainable development seems to reaffirm that the power to decide our climate futures is in the hands of those very institutions that put us in this problem. However, the green left may be shirking its opportunities when it avoids events like the PCM. By contrast, the recent call to ‘Flood Wall Street’ in conjunction with the PCM has the ability to redirect the force of the movement away from the UN Climate Summit and towards finance capital.

‘The people’ of the PCM is a name still fresh and floating, The bourgeois politics of climate change has mired itself between the likely reformist and green capitalist UNFCCC process on the one hand and a geopolitical debate over coming resource wars. Because climate populism has been positioned by the UN process ambivalently to the side as merely a constitutive force for official politics, it is both less and less relevant for the sanctioned political order - a situation likely to produce increasing frustration that can be channeled into collective, creative action in excess and against the vague reformism and populist platitudes of the PCM.

Similar to our logic of repurposing as bricolage characteristic of disaster communism, we cannot simply oppose the form, content or techniques of existing social movements. While the PCM in no way espouses a politics we’d like, critique here seems to simply produce a climate melancholia. These movements too must be infiltrated, repurposed and redirected towards an alternative definition of ‘the people’. As Deleuze noted, artists are among those best suited to inventing a people, and those involved with Occupy, PCM and other mobilizations appear ahead of the curve.

Other sympathetic groups are involved in the PCM, including blocs like Free Palestine and likely a number of more clandestinely organized anti-capitalist blocs. But the greatest opportunity of the PCM might be its vast potential for desubjectivication of climate activists away from UNFCCC, 350.org, and similar institutions attempting to recuperate the mobilization, and towards liberatory, inventive, and collectively anti-capitalist social formations. While our underground movements are important right now, don’t underestimate the importance of capturing a collectivizing name for the people - one not for everyone, but for those already marginalized by climate change and attempts to govern it, a name that specifically excludes capitalist futures and one around which we can constitute and consolidate our desires.

  • 1. UNFCCC stands for United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, the international framework under which the Kyoto Protocol was negotiated, and under which annual 'Conferences of the Parties' (COPs) are held. This year's COP, COP-20, will be held in Lima, Peru, in December.
  • 2. For a summary of the UNFCCC process and organized opposition, both anti-capitalist and less so see http://novaramedia.com/2014/06/climate-change-and-the-limits-of-climate-capitalism/
  • 3. This piece discusses cross-class populism in Occupy, particularly alliances with 'Main Street USA' businesses. The apocryphal Joe Hill quote speaks to this concern: "the people and the working class have nothing in common."
  • 4. Gilles Deleuze, Cinema 2, 216.
  • 5. See, for example, Dean The Communist Horizon, as well as http://www.dissentmagazine.org/article/the-fall-and-rise-of-the-u-s-populist-left and http://www.dissentmagazine.org/online_articles/occupy-wall-street-a-twenty-first-century-populist-movement
  • 6. The UK television show Utopia addresses many of the issues over fears that population is the direct cause of climate change, while a surprising number of its fans seem to identify with the ostensibly fascist Network’s plot to release a deadly flu virus killing much of the Earth’s population and an antidote that will sterilize most of the survivors.
  • 7. For this reason, Alain Badiou has forsaken ecological politics because “everything which is consensual is without a doubt bad for human emancipation” Live Badiou, 139.
  • 8. McKibben, Oil and Honey, 44.
  • 9. See the essays collected by Rising Tide North America as “Growing the Roots to Weather the Storm: Perspectives on the People’s Climate March” http://growingdeeproots.risingtidenorthamerica.org/

Posted By

Out of the Woods
Sep 10 2014 15:41

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  • While our underground movements are important right now, don’t underestimate the importance of capturing a collectivizing name for the people - a name that specifically excludes capitalist futures and one around which we can constitute and consolidate our desires.

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