Originally published in January 2010.
In some ways, Copenhagen was post-politics in action. Thousands of politicians, business leaders and civil society actors came together in the Danish capital with no lesser aim than to ‘save the world’. Not just to prevent further wars, to eradicate poverty or to save humanity – no, the whole planet was at stake. And this was to be our last chance! The ambitions of the leaders translated into hope and expectations from their followers. Ed Miliband and Gordon Brown were sent on their way to Copenhagen with a blue Wave of support and encouragement by Oxfam, Friends of the Earth and the Co-operative Group. Anyone with a dissenting voice was easily labelled an extremist trouble-maker who selfishly puts ideology before the survival of the Earth.
The failure to come up with a legally-binding international treaty to reduce carbon emissions has, however, re-introduced some politics into the climate craze. Hope-nhagen has become Cop-enhagen, and the fairly indiscriminate preventative approach by the Danish police has sparked a new appreciation of the repression and control that could come with a state and business brokered climate deal. Yet, there is little sense of despair or resignation: “we are all eco-warriors now”, we could read in the Guardian on the eve of the COP-15 conference.
There is a danger of course that this will just mean more austerity and lifestyle politics (changing yet more lightbulbs), without the political vision that could shape an antagonistic movement. Already in the streets of Copenhagen, many felt that rejection of the summit and everything it did, and might, stand for was largely missing. Those who predicted this to be ‘the big one’ – the movement’s ‘coming of age’, 10 years after Seattle – were not hoping for a riot or a mass blockade of the meetings. Supposedly, what was really going to set the protests apart from previous ones were the alternatives on offer.
Naomi Klein, for example, praised the practices of the global climate movement: “Unlike at previous summits, where alternatives seemed like an afterthought, in Copenhagen the alternatives will take centre stage.” Many grassroots activists in the UK are also motivated by the array of practical possibilities that are at hand to get us out of the climate crisis. And we can definitely relate to the appreciation of self-organisation, when this comes as a political principle and not just a lifestyle action. But for those who never thought of a Copenhagen deal as success, the focus on practical alternatives won’t get us out of the ‘post-political’ scenario that dominates the response to climate change. Differentiating ourselves from the political elite merely through our DIY approach is not enough when we are faced with the overwhelming political consensus on climate change and the ‘anything goes’ attitude that slips through the back door due to lack of political debate. This post-political system can only be broken through direct antagonism and outright rejection.
Through our enthusiastic attempts to show people that we do have alternatives to the status quo and are not just a bunch of idealists it sometimes feels like we lose the critical element that might facilitate a break from the system. At last years’ Climate Camp on Blackheath there were some really great discussions on economic hegemony and alternatives designed to break away from the current system. In panel discussions with large audiences, speakers ranging from Green Party representatives to climate campers discussed the exciting world of alternative economics, and housing and workers’ co-operatives. However, as uplifting as it is to think that we can break away from capitalism through our housing and career decisions it would be naïve to think that these ‘alternatives’ escape from the same structures that they aim to challenge. In order to make discussions of these alternatives fulfil their potential there must also be an antagonistic element to our political action.
“Wrong life cannot be lived rightly”. One of our contributors quotes Adorno as a cynic whose philosophy has immobilised some parts of the radical left. However, when we consider the complete domination of the current political and economic system, manifest in the hugely consensual yet hopeless response to climate change at the recent COP summit, it often appears that this philosophical principle is not cynical, but rather an empowering form of rejection and antagonism against the entirety of the system that dominates every aspect of our lives. Maybe this is the only way to achieve political action that cannot be recuperated, taken from us, watered down and written into a Labour/Tory/Green Party policy paper or a Guardian ‘How to be green’ pull out.