Seeing the Elephant in Copenhagen: A Blind Man’s Account
It was impossible to be everywhere and know everything going on in Copenhagen, and any account can’t help but miss large parts of the story. There will be much bloodletting and lots of efforts to draw conclusions from the failure there. As John Sauven, executive director of Greenpeace UK, put it: “It is now evident that beating global warming will require a radically different model of politics than the one on display here in Copenhagen.”
Interestingly, the radically different model will have to be not just among the nation-states who turned a catastrophic environmental situation into a mundane, unsuccessful trade negotiation, but equally the Climate Justice movement, which reproduced a lot of the anti-globalization rhetoric and tactics that have developed in a decade of summit protests (WTO, IMF, G8, etc.), but was unable to alter the discussion or change the agenda. Meanwhile the protests that tried to go beyond the alternative Forums were thoroughly shut down by pre-emptive police repression again and again.
I knew Copenhagen was going to be a disappointment not long after I arrived. The three separate conferences reproduced a pattern of modern political discourse, where different conversations speak across or at cross purposes with each other”¦ No doubt smart exchanges took place within the three conferences and in the countless conversations that surrounded and permeated all three venues (Bella Center, site of the UN COP15 Climate Conference; DGI Byen, site of the sprawling KlimaForum09; and Christiania, site of the Climate Bottom Conference). But the separate spaces reinforced a stratified public discourse and anyway, the nature of the discussions tended to be quite different depending on where you sat. It is difficult to talk politics without falling into clichÃ©s these days, and it’s getting harder as time goes on. We also tend to talk with those we already agree with, and rarely with those we don’t”¦
All three conferences were convened to address the Climate crisis. The UN COP15 process was a nation-to-nation negotiating process with thousands of NGO delegates present to press their national representatives to adjust to popular demands. But the conversation inside turned into a mirror of trade negotiations in spite of resistance from many national delegations and most of the accredited NGO representatives. Many of the NGO delegates, from Friends of the Earth and Greenpeace to countless lesser known activists, consultants, writers, and advocates, did move back and forth between the different conferences, mostly KlimaForum and the UN. Lots of delegates from the Global South also made the trek back and forth between conferences. The Climate Bottom Conference was sponsored by several associations based in Christiania as well as various local associations of eco-villages. It seemed to draw folks from coops, ecovillages,Â and transition town movements (the latter also appeared prominently at the Klimaforum), spiritualists, advocates of local currencies, “social entrepreneurship,” and individuals from many parts of the world.
Insofar as the Climate Bottom conference had a wide-ranging, ambitious agenda much like the Klimaforum, it was hard to see why both conferences were happening simultaneously. My sense is that there is a second culture war on the left, at the bottom, among those who know we have to change life. The Klimaforum folks are closer to the traditional Left and wanted to influence the debate at the UN Conference. The Climate Bottom folks are more the anarchistic, lifestyle, personal-is-political types who have dropped out of mainstream culture, written it off, and are getting on with building a fulfilling, sustainable life immediately. They’ve mostly given up on expecting any real change from governments, corporations, or the larger population who still sustain those institutions. I myself have felt more comfortable with this strategy of exodus than with the Left strategy of trying to win state power, or engage with institutions more directly.
But Copenhagen underscored the limits of a local strategy. The Climate Bottom Conference barely registered on the radar for most of the folks going to the Klimaforum or the Bella Center. The Klimaforum workshops, panels, and presentations were often quite earnest and well-meaning, sometimes eloquent and insightful. But the ones I attended left me feeling empty, and sometimes frustrated that I’d heard it all before. Unlike Naomi Klein, who said before Copenhagen that this time the movement wasn’t going to show up just to say “˜no’ but would have a real alternative agenda, I didn’t see an agenda in the myriad of good ideas germinating there. I saw a similar mishmash of leftists, socialists, democratic reformers, trade unionists, eco-agitators, immigrant and refugee civil rights campaigners, etc., that I saw at the World Social Forum in January in Brazil. And that have been meeting to give content to the slogan “Another World is Possible” for the better part of a decade now.
Reaching a state of discontent with what was on offer doesn’t seem altogether a bad thing. We clearly need a new politics commensurate with the gravity of our times, and the enormity of the opportunity to shift human/planetary life to a new paradigm. This new politics will depend on a lot of the knowledge and networks that were present at the Climate Bottom Conference and at the Klimaforum, but so far, there is a big piece missing. Since I got home, I’ve been pondering it, and think it has something to do with a clearer view of transitions, of power, of institutions, and finally of history. I argued in the last chapter of Nowtopia that we need a politically savvy Nowtopian movement to emerge, one that understands that we have to take our challenge to the technosphere and social life much further. The broad challenge to the General Intellect which is embodied in the effort to redesign life in the face of catastrophic climate change was ignored in Copenhagen. To reach the scale at which our challenge can become systemic, we’ll have to deal with the fundamental questions of political power, and probably military/police power too.
David Harvey argues that
“An anti-capitalist movement has to be far broader than groups mobilizing around social relations or over questions of daily life in themselves. Â Traditional hostilities between, for example, those with technical, scientific, and administrative expertise and those animating social movements on the ground have to be addressed and overcome. Â We now have to hand, in the example of the climate change movement, a significant example of how such alliances can begin to work.”
Well sort of! I think the Klimaforum and Climate Bottom gatherings embody a growing alliance between eco-scientists and grassroots activists, who together are contesting the direction of the General Intellect in their challenge to business-as-usual. But this emerging alliance is still stuck in its own limits, part of which stem from the lack of imaginative goals for where we’re headed.
In Copenhagen I got a copy of Turbulence, a great publication with a number of fascinating and important articles. The opening editorial “Life in Limbo“ described well the predicament we find ourselves in:
There is a crisis of belief in the future, leaving us with the prospect of an endless, deteriorating present that hangs around by sheer inertia. In spite of all this turmoil ““ this time of “˜crisis’ when it seems like everything could, and should, have changed ““ it paradoxically feels as though history has stopped. There is an unwillingness, or inability, to face up to the scale of the crisis.
Harvey he comes right out and says “There are good reasons to believe that there is no alternative to a new global order of governance that will eventually have to manage the transition to a zero growth economy.”
Harvey addresses the problematic limits of the Nowtopian strategy:
[A] broad wing of opposition arises out of anarchist, autonomist, and grassroots organizations (GROs) which refuse outside funding even as some of them do rely upon some alternative institutional base… Â This group is far from homogeneous”¦Â There is, however, a common antipathy to negotiation with state power and an emphasis upon civil society as the sphere where change can be accomplished. Â The self-organizing powers of people in the daily situations in which they live has to be the basis for any anti-capitalist alternative. Â Horizontal networking is their preferred organizing model. Â So-called “solidarity economies” based on bartering, collectives, and local production systems is their preferred political economic form. Â They typically oppose the idea that any central direction might be necessary and reject hierarchical social relations or hierarchical political power structures along with conventional political parties. Â Organizations of this sort can be found everywhere and in some places have achieved a high degree of political prominence”¦ But the effectiveness of all these movements is limited by their reluctance and inability to scale up their activism into large-scale organizational forms capable of confronting global problems. Â The presumption that local action is the only meaningful level of change and that anything that smacks of hierarchy is anti-revolutionary is self-defeating when it comes to larger questions. Â Yet these movements are unquestionably providing a widespread base for experimentation with anti-capitalist politics.
The co-revolutionary theory earlier laid out would suggest that there is no way that an anti-capitalist social order can be constructed without seizing state power, radically transforming it, and re-working the constitutional and institutional framework that currently supports private property, the market system, and endless capital accumulation. Â Inter-state competition and geoeconomic and geopolitical struggles over everything from trade and money to questions of hegemony are also far too significant to be left to local social movements or cast aside as too big to contemplate. Â How the architecture of the state-finance nexus is to be re-worked along with the pressing question of the common measure of value given by money cannot be ignored in the quest to construct alternatives to capitalist political economy. Â To ignore the state and the dynamics of the inter-state system is therefore a ridiculous idea for any anti-capitalist revolutionary movement to accept.
Radicals in the Turbulence group seem to share some of this thinking, when towards the end of their opening editorial “Life in Limbo” they make this argument:
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. Antagonism against institutions as an end in itself is a dead end”¦Today, it is necessary to have more than the sporadic show of strength: we need forms of organisation that start from the collective management of needs, that politicise the structures and mechanisms of social reproduction, and build force from there”¦
These two pieces, Harvey in Monthly Review, and Turbulence’s editorial, resonated for me. They both credit a lot of the good work that’s gone on, but don’t shy away from paying attention to the gap between good intentions and political effectiveness. Where saying no has made sense for a while, it doesn’t anymore. We need to constitute a new order, a new way of organizing our lives. We may not be able to get the state to support or underwrite our efforts, but the implication of both of these writings is that we’ll have to use the state” or at least some new institutions with the power to shape life as powerful as the state has been historically” to rewrite the rules of our shared economic life. Our efforts will have to move to a higher level than our local gardens and bikeshops, our health clinics and websites. Harvey seems to embrace a traditional effort to take the state, while the Turbulence group leave it open to a new form of collective management of needs that might not call itself a state, exactly. In any case, finding a way to act politically at a higher level is becoming much more urgent.
I wrote a few different things on this journey and they went on to other blogs and websites than this one. Here are the titles and links: