"Alfie" discusses the role of anti-capitalism in the wake of the failed COP-15 mobilisation. Originally published in May 2010.
NB Dear Reader, the footnotes to this article serve partly as a subtext.
Naomi Klein wrote before the protests in Copenhagen last December that we “will witness a new maturity for the movement that ignited a decade ago”. Turbulence magazine, a visible theoretical force in the run up to and during the mobilisations in Copenhagen, identifies climate, or the bio-crisis, as having the potential to be the common ground for a movement that can replace the ‘one no many yeses’ of the Seattle era. Thus last winter in Denmark we may have witnessed the slightly quiet birth of the ‘climate justice movement’. This article will critique the conceivable trajectory of this movement and briefly present another (perhaps non-mutually exclusive) call to the present. (1)
From COP15 to COPInfinity
The transition from one summit to another, along the shifting frontiers of a global project for capital, provides the activist a series of platforms to assert her objections. The shut down of the World Trade Organisation in 1999 and the events in the run up to and after it challenged the legitimacy of neo-liberalism. Our movements brought together voices from communities in India who fought for water that had been privatised by Coca-Cola, landless peasants in Mexico who had been robbed of their past by way of the present due to IMF laws, to cheated South Africans who had been sold out by a corrupt government to foreign business. Everywhere the stories carried the same narrative: the path being cleared for the neo-liberal project. Neo-liberalism told us it was motivated by progress, but through this global movement we found a way to say, no, it was profit.
December 2009 and things have changed. Significantly the crisis of neo-liberalism has made even its architects question its sustainability and the rumbles of the bio-crisis are heard from Alberta (2) to Blackheath (3) to New Orleans. In Copenhagen our mobilisation brought - or aimed to bring - attention to the flawed (unproductive, non-democratic) UN process. Like many of the meeting points in the alter-globalisation movement, this mobilisation was predominantly organised by activists in the global north, often inspired by indigenous cultures and struggles of the global south. Activists took the opportunity for a counter summit, our “best practice” (Turbulence), to present the world the existing or threatening manifestations of capital’s destructive project and at the same time put forward the solutions articulated through a set of demands. (4)
Yet in the coming together for counter summits we create opposition consistent with the spectacle of the summit itself. If and when it was possible to put the legitimacy of COP15 at risk we did so by the use of a counter spectacle.
During COP15 we adopted the People’s Assembly, an indigenous practice taken from South America, as a form by which we asserted oppositional messaging to the UN process. The result becomes a counter spectacle providing a valuable platform for repressed voices, much less than it put into practice our own People’s Assembly amongst the tear gas, the cameras and activists in the Bella centre car park.
Leave fossil fuels in the ground. The solutions articulated by the demands of the protest are clear and make sense to human life. Yet who were we talking to? The non-product of the meeting, the Copenhagen Accord, shows that it is evident those behind the fences and police can not respond to reality.
Essentially the counter spectacle can only aid us by legitimising real action. ‘A global movement’ is not an end in itself. This form of objection alone can be as thin as the paper carrying the images of protest. It becomes a reflection without existing.
How many activist people’s assemblies will it take before we realise we need to become people, first? Either by necessity or desire the demands in Copenhagen produce a common trajectory for a social movement. However they can only remain baseless until we build the means to put them in place. Without gaining a future shaped by many hands and minds far beyond conference centres, board rooms and parliaments, demands only add to the endless feedback loop of protest.
But what if, as happened at the WTO summit in Seattle, our counter spectacle overwhelmed the hegemony in Copenhagen? Where would we be now if we had crossed the heavily guarded or flimsy bridges (5) into the Bella centre as a much hyped flood of a people’s opposition? That we lacked the numbers may have been due to the limited resources we have to articulate the significance of the COP15, both in terms of the social-bio-crisis itself and the event as part of a movement strategy. Or it may be that the common sense amongst active anti-capitalists does not replicate the idea of our history existing in cycles, i.e. that another ten years of anti-capitalist politics planned to be similar to the last is our only way forward.
Not every opposition surfaces in the form of a spectacle. (6)
This is not to say that a global climate movement will assume the identical form of the Seattle era. The concept of diagnolism has perhaps been one of the more interesting developments in the emerging tactics of this emerging movement.
During the COP, diagnolism was perhaps expressed by ‘the inside outside strategy’. The idea being mobilising protesters outside to enter while at the same time mobilising representatives inside to walk out in disgust and solidarity. We could see this as a the potential for new alliances with frustrated NGOs and representatives from states with little power in the (imperialist) process. However it was also systematic of the rock and hard place position between the general awareness of climate change as an intense global problem demanding a ‘quick resolve’ by state power and the politics of organisers and participants of the counter spectacle. Essentially this strategy was a result of the debate by activists in the run up to the mobilisations whether to ’shut them down or lock them in’.
Yet not communicating directly to the heads of power structures (vertical) nor purely through non-hierarchical alliances (horizontal), may persist in this movement. As Turbulence outlines “The counter-globalisation movement was suspicious of – often even opposed to – institutions per se, constituted forms of power […] But when the crisis of neoliberalism irrupted, it became apparent that this mistrust of institutions had translated into an inability to consistently shape politics and the economy.”
Diagnolism, if the term refers to a shift in our ideas towards power structures, can only be useful from this point on, i.e. with the understanding that the COP process has failed. The Copenhagen Accord was another product from a series of spectacles by the collaboration of imperialist and corporate power aiming to retain a legitimacy of management. If proof was needed, it is clear these collaborations offer nothing despite any length of diagonal engagement. There is now no dichotomy between climate change demanding state led solutions and climate change demanding social action.
However, diagnolism is useful if it means leaving behind the purity of our activism in order to take up entry points available to us to deconstruct power. (7)
The urgency of the situation demands time. The vastness of the dessert demands that we condense.
We turn now to a different call to the present. A call for the real, for the body that stands before the mirror giving us the basis by which to exist. Introducing the Invisible Committee.
The Invisible Committee have become known for an alleged connection to events in Tarnac, a small village in France, where a preventative raid and 9 arrests were made for terrorist conspiracy charges in November 2008. Also known are their well crafted and emotive texts one of which, The Coming Insurrection, was reviewed on Fox News by Glen Beck who called it “the book of anti-common sense” and that “as world economies go down the tank, the disenfranchised people are set to explode”.
Briefly here I am outlining my own interpretation of what I see as four themes (with much cross over) to their theoretical and lived proposals. (8)
“Faced with the evidence of the catastrophe, there are those who get indignant and those who take note, those who denounce and those who get organised. We are among those who get organised.” (9)
- Invisibility and Milieus
The activist allows the potential of her courage to be contained by the definition as an activist. With this label she will consistently follow power structures around without ever constituting a force by which to present actual challenge. Subculture becomes a product of our alienation and offers little potential to enter the fabrics of society. This can be seen clearly if we take the example of French revolutionaries moving into a country village where they broaden a social base including helping with the running of the local bar, shop and food deliveries. It becomes hard to say who is and who isn’t a comrade and the environment as a whole shifts to one of autonomy and, perhaps, antagonism. A different approach may be needed in cities where there is a lack of space and lack of ‘neutral space’. We find in cities whole areas are dominated milieus (the Turkish area, the Muslim district, the middle class neighbourhood, the gay part of town). Invisibility is both a way to grow in the shadows and expand without need for the dead weight in forming organisations. When we understand what is evident in the world around us we do not need to be told what to do, we shall know it without saying a word.
- The Party and Cohesion
For us the question is how do we take power without concentrating it? To the Invisible Committee it is how it is to be done rather than what.
The Party is invisible. It is every wild cat strike, it is every anonymous blockade to the network, every hacked and destroyed database, every pound stolen from every bank and fed underground, it is Sarkozy’s ‘Scum’ and every car in flames.
The Party is any force that realises itself against the organised power structures of the desert only to disappear once the damage has been made, reforming as and when necessary. Through the damage caused by The Party we are allowed to see a social war take shape without ever having to know who is on our side. Perhaps The Party fulfils similar needs to the ones that led Turbulence to call for climate as the ‘common ground’.
- An Autonomous Material Force (10)
A sinking future for neo-liberalism and its vision of progress brings down with it the institutional left, who, during the emergence of the neo-liberal project took up its position as one of distribution for the gains made by capital. Now as capital finds less frontiers for expansion this contract is cut. The left has no basis to life any longer. It has neglected the very premise of its project – a method of living. Without any other basis for life, behind society’s empty stage creep in new and old forms of fascism as seen in the rising popularity of right and far right parties in Europe.
The future the activist fights for must be built, from small, in the present. Only the expansion of a lived reality can oppose the desert and offers an alternative to anthropologies of dominance.
- Crisis and Insurrection
For the Invisible Committee revolutionary insurrection depends upon the expansion of the communes. As our independence from the metropolis grows so can the strength and confidence of our offence.
Crisis is the meeting point in which insurrection becomes inevitable. The Invisible Committee wish to show to us a system in collapse where mainstream politics has been reduced to the management of dysfunction. It is here where we are invited into another world. One where we depend on our selves and the people we know by face and voice to produce our lives, one where the world is no longer an exterior place - ‘the environment’, one where community becomes political infrastructure, where friendship and solidarity become currency, where the basis of our needs, social and material, are shared in a world where it is possible to live and fight from. This world, in which humans are social beings with motivations beyond fear and personal gain, is waiting for our move.
“We have begun”.
A global climate movement can talk in the stillness of a photo but a future waits for us to grow in the shadows; it’s entry points are gathering on the horizon. We shall meet you there.
This article is dedicated to the Birds of the Coming Storm.
(1) Prelude – from a village in France
Anne-Marie visits and I tell her about the unearthing of pipes in the garden. She looks at the tracks of a digger and spots something. “Here” she says, bending over “the flower that comes from this bulb is very beautiful. Here is another also.” We find several more bulbs laying on the surface of the torn up grass. “Take these and find the rest. When the digger returns they will die. They become beautiful flowers” she says. I thank her and place the bulbs in old news paper and put them in the shed. Before she leaves I ask “how long do they take to bloom?” “If you plant them today” she tells me “then at least two years”.
(2) Home to ingenuous communities and the second biggest source of oil after Saudi Arabia in the form of tar sands. The removal of the tar sand is completed by trucks as big as two story houses leaving vast gaps in the forest visible from space.
(3) The site of the last UK Climate Camp.
(4) Leaving fossil fuels in the ground; Socialising and decentralising energy; Relocalising our food production; Recognising and repaying ecological and climate debt; Respecting indigenous peoples’ rights; Regenerating our eco-systems
(5) An inflatable bridge to power. The days were counting down to the protest set to be the biggie and I had already been feeling a disappointment and disempowerment towards our counter spectacle. Somehow through knowing some imaginative people in the UK scene I had become involved in a plan to make a bridge over the moat that separated us from the conference by 5 foot deep and 20 foot wide absolutely freezing water. Ten points for our ability to organise anything like this under pressure but the plan to link up 8 inflatable mattresses with rope brought home to me the position of our confrontation that week. On the day, to my deepest surprise we managed to set up the bridge and on the other side a line of giant cops with dogs and mace had formed. A girl called out on a megaphone “who’s excited about crossing the bridge?!” No one. Myself and a couple of comrades ended up going over armed with some sausages for the pooches strapped to our waist. We had taken parts in the counter spectacle. After being bitten and pepper sprayed we made it to the car park where the People’s Assembly was originally planned to be held. “What happened to the people?” my mate asked me as we sat back to back in handcuffs.
(6) Well Amsterdam was under occupation by the Nazis, Jacoba Maria was made to repair SS uniforms. Each week Jacoba was careful to wrap her work in ordinary brown paper and string and place it in a pile amongst others at the offices. Inside her packages were the socks of several SS men, all with the foot holes sown shut.
(7) Last year, once a month, the local Mayor, shop owners and people in the village came together for a meeting with the water agency. A proposal was put forward by a young man named Theo that if the village installed its own rain water collection and purification resources there would be a constant supply all year round. The idea was met with opposition from the agency. However money was collected amongst the community and a non-interest loan was set up from a sympathetic rich individual. In January the village disconnected its taps from the water board and plugged into their own supply. The meetings continue but without the agency representative.
(8) For a much more in depth (and to me slightly intimidating) theoretical approach to the long list references and influences in the Invisibility Committee’s work see http://www.metamute.org/node/12806
(9) The following quotes are taken from The Call and The Coming Insurrection – free to download at zinelibrary.info
(10) In front of the mirror is the commune. “Communes come into being when people find each other, get on with each other, and decide on a common path.” Through the collective, resources are shared and acquired, skills are developed and actions planed. A social base is found. The collective can approach a new environment with the basis to communise it. Friendship becomes the language of our politics.
The author wrote this piece well in France. it came about through reflections on experiences of climate and anticapitalist activism in the UK and many illuminating discussions with friends on ‘ways forward’.