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Mar 18, 2010

Where is the Mao, the Lenin for climate change?

Climate change is not an easy thing to argue. Scientists can't boil it down, the rest take too much on trust. Where is the Communist Manifesto for saving the environment?

While dealing with the minutaie of British life — filling a free prescription (good) that the pharmacist said would take 45 minutes because of the absurd process of checks and counter-checks (bad)* — your correspondent browsed in the second-hand section of the excellent Bookmarks bookshop, run by the Socialist Workers Party. Among a range of purchases two stood out.

One was Mao’s pamphlet On Peasant Revolution. It was sitting on the desk beside me as I read various Crikey reports about Julian McGuaran, and his latest mad blurt about the CSIRO. Quite possibly it’s a new high/low in conspiracy theories, but it’s nothing new, really. Yet the reaction is fresh horror at the degree of irrationalism, stupidity, of McGuaran’s remarks, as if climate change should somehow sell itself as an idea autonomously.

The reaction is of a piece with much of the Green/climate change movement ‘s work, which has been, over past years, one of the most ineptly conducted campaigns, and avoidable political losses, in the last 200 years. There is no doubt that a lot of this is to do with the formidable money and power of the anti-climate change movement (sceptics is too neutral a term, denialists too prejudged).

But as the pamphlets of Bookmarks remind us — Shaw, Lenin, Mao, Emma Goldman, Stafford Cripps, John Strachey, Rosa Luxemburg, etc — progressive movements have faced far greater challenges hitherto. And the pamphlets tell us something else — the climate change movement should stop focusing on each fresh outrage by the antis, and focus on the positive campaign that it is not making.

Climate change is not an easy thing to argue. For a start, you can’t honestly say that the science is settled, because no science is ever settled. So one is faced with either advancing a great oversimplification, which then has to be walked back at times, or make the more complex argument about probabilities and the precautionary principle. Secondly, it’s a more abstract process than, say, killing whales, or some other concrete and visible thing. Thirdly, it asks people to be in a permanent state of transformation, rather than relaxing into their familiar lifeways. And that’s before you factor in the relentless propaganda of News Limited (Australia), etc.

But many of these things can be said about the challenges faced by the Left and the labour movement in the early 20th century. What was relatively concrete for workers were things like nation, empire, and race — these were immediate, visible things, rich in symbols and manifestations, of sufficient power to march millions of people into trenches to slaughter each other over a four-year period. Class as a concept (as opposed simply to wealth and poverty) was a different matter. Profit, surplus value, labour-power, exploitation — all these had to be established as an alternative account to notions of hard work, a fair day’s wage, king and country, blahblah.

How was it done? It was done by establishing a whole disciplined apparatus, with the explicit object of creating both a core of full-time cadres/organisers/propagandists who could expound the argument everywhere, anytime, a hundred different ways, at the drop of a hat. Step by step they created a wider band of people who, while not professional agitators themselves, had been so convinced by the argument — intellectually, politically, morally — that they felt some of its urgency and identified with it, so that they would talk to others about it.

Crucial to this process were four things — the training school, the pamphlet, the public meeting and political self-criticism/analysis. It’s a signal fact of the climate change movement that none of these features are really present. The Right likes to argue the Green movement is Marxism by other means. If only that were the case, some of these things might have been in place.

Instead few of them are. There are many good books on climate change — by Monbiot, Mark Lynas, David Spratt among many — but there is nothing in the style of a Communist Manifesto, the US Declaration of Independence, a Lenin, a Mao, or a Santamaria for that matter. Something that in a few thousand words sets out an argument about what is happening, about why its critics are wrong, and about what should be done.

The Green party should have produced something like this years ago. If it has, it should be printing it in the tens, hundreds of thousands. Everyone who wants to do something about climate change should just be able to take a stack of them to give to people. It should be written in clear, direct language, but without skimping on the science.

Secondly, you need people trained in the arts of argument, propaganda and recruitment. At the moment, most people actively involved in the climate change movement are simply terrible at arguing their case. Those with a scientific background don’t know how to boil it down, those without take too much on trust. Some sort of ongoing training would address both problems.

But here self-criticism would come in because the great flaw in the climate change movement has been an elitist arrogance that is, at its worst, anti-political. Some of that is due to the asocial political naivete of scientists — ‘I mean, it’s obvious, why are these people being so stupid’ — some of it is due to the technocratic spirit of the age, whereby something is seen as a mere technical problem to be fixed, and some of it is due to the fact that the abstract/systemic nature of climate change ideas are most easily accepted by people trained in abstract-systemic thinking. That is, the scientific /professional/managerial/cultural class (SPMC) who, in many ways, run the joint.

As Bernard Keane has noted here, the active anti-climate-change movement is old, white and overwhelmingly composed of people who once had unquestioned cultural authority but now don’t — the old bourgeoisie, some manufacturing workers and tradies, farmers, etc. Consciously or otherwise, they see that acceptance of climate change as a model means the transformation to a new framework in which the cultural power of the SPMC class becomes entrenched.

Trouble is, many of those advocating the reality of climate change don’t really factor in this class difference to the way they think, or the manner in which they campaign — when they campaign at all. And that is the final missing piece, the lack of public meetings and campaigning. No-one likes ‘the hours spent at the boring meeting’ (well some do, but they should be used very carefully) and leafletting in the street requires a ceaseless war against a creeping feeling of embarrassment and absurdity. But it’s got to be done. Even in post-post-modern society there’s no substitute for it.

The trouble is the SMPC class are not only digital natives, they can easily talk themselves into believing that a TweetDeck and a smokin’ thought-meme crowdsource flashmob thing can wholly substitute for grassroots face-to-face campaigning. The Greens, the FOE, the ACC, must have a potentially active membership larger than the far-Left groups such as Socialist Alternative. Yet you rarely see posters for a climate change public meeting, a table in Bourke Street Mall — and never for the Green party, which appears interested in repeating early Labour’s obsession with factionalism and parliamentarianism.

The climate change movement may well be correct in their argument that every year counts in changing global processes. But in past years that has served as an excuse for not building the slow and remorseless mass campaign, deploying all the campaigning skills and rhetoric of older progressive campaigns (much of which, in style anyway, is being used by the anti-climate-change group). It has to abandon the idea that truth somehow communicates itself. The longest march, as the man said, begins with a footstep. Or a pamphlet.

*These have nothing to do with the free nature of the drugs, which have not the slightest degree of recreational potential, and minimal possibility of overdosage. It is simply the autonomous process of British paternalism, rolled over from 1948, when the system began. The chemists still have specially printed ledgers in which every prescription filled must be hand-written.

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68 thoughts on “Where is the Mao, the Lenin for climate change?

  1. Simon Roberts

    Have you read any Rudolf Bahro, Guy? He did write stuff at the beginning of the German Greens. “From Red to Green” was the title of one book. It seemed to me at the time to be impressive and inspiring. But it will probably turn out to be insane and grumpy.

  2. Michael James

    My God, Rundle admits the climate change science is not yet settled. Has it started snowing in hell as well?

  3. JerryG

    Its good to see that some of those who on the surface accept the concept of climate change are as ideologically unbalanced as the denier mob.

    The Communist, and National Socialist movements flourished in amongst people who were struggling to survive economically. They scapegoated certaing groups based on class or race, in order to define the members of their movements and focus their energies on a common enemy. Their philosophies were not based on objective evidence, but on simplistic but very powerful propaganda.

    In fact these methods are much closer to what the deniers now employ. The basis of their argument is in attacking the scientific evidence for AGW on ideological grounds. They appeal to fantastic conspiracies to provide the scapegoats that they are seeking. They slander, misrepresent and threaten their opponents. They engage in the vilest forms of dishonest propaganda to divert attention away from the evidence.

    The science of global warming should not allow its objectivity to be run down by engaging in a debate against an ideological campaign of propaganda.

    The deniers are a small group of extremely vocal, extremely dishonest idealogues. Even if they could find people as dangerous as Mao or Lenin for their cause, they would still have no traction in a world that is much more stable than that of earlier times.

    Those who accept the evidence for AGW should battle the deniers by exposing the dishonesty and irrelevance of their arguments.

  4. Roger Clifton

    Comparison with the anti-Vietnam War movement may be instructive.

    Changes to political parties’ policies seem to be driven by “movements”, rather than from the energy of their members. During a demonstration, the people in the street had quite simple reasons for being there. Consequently the movement expressed here-and-now sentiment, uncluttered by the baggage that political parties have to drag around with them.

    Surges in popular movements, in turn, seem to be driven by major external events. The Battle of Hue and the Christmas Bombing of Haiphong, for example, created surges of public feeling. Because campaigners were ready for action, the public could take to the streets in organised demonstrations of sentiment.

    We can expect major climatic disasters, such as hundred thousand dead from a typhoon in Bangladesh, to be defining moments for large numbers of individuals this side of the television screen.

    Campaigners get ready. Those disasters are just a matter of time now.

  5. Ian

    I had to re-read this article. Then I had to re-read it again.

    Many, many people believe that Global Warming is just a communist plot to bring on world government. And here you are recommending Mao and Lenin as role models for the AGW movement? Are you nuts?

  6. Scott

    I don’t think it’s a case of “print it and they will come”.
    To be a revolutionary you do need a manifesto. But you need to add a touch of envy and greed to make it appeal to the masses. Unfortunately, climate change can’t offer this to the developed world.
    Mao, Marx and Lenin were products of their time and had legitimate issues with which to form a revolutionary narrative. They were fighting to free the oppressed worker. They offered the worker a piece of the pie. They also operated locally..they may have fantasised about a world wide movement, but their primary aim was undertake revolutionary change in their own backyards. (If Mao was an environmentalist alive today, he wouldn’t have bothered going to Copenhagen.)
    In the case of climate change, it’s not human oppression we are talking about. It’s “saving the world”, a disney concept that is far too broad to capture peoples imaginations. It’s hard to write a folk song about it (all you get is a third rate “Beds are burning” rehash).
    It’s only going to appeal to the well off who have already satisfied their primary needs and can now afford to focus on their self actualisation needs. That is their payoff. But what is offered to the average battler? Self interest is the ultimate motivator and they will not join up without a carrot.

  7. steve

    What a load of bollocks. You clearly don’t know the first thing about the Australian climate change movement, Guy.

  8. Tony Kevin

    Every comment so far (the first seven on this thread ) has missed or misunderstood Guy Rundle’s main argument. This is actually one of the most politically important essays I have yet seen on the global and Australian climate crisis ( another was Waleed Aly’s , in the latest The Monthly) . All of these correspondents in their different ways demonstrate the case Guy was arguing – that the environmental movement is failing to communicate the truth and urgency of the climate crisis to mainstream Australian people., It was a point I tried to make (in non-Marxist language) in my “Crunch Time”‘ – a book pretty much ignored by the orthodox environmental movement, for the same reason that they now don’ t accept James Hansen, or this piece by Rundle.

    Bugger the global climate crisis – let’s not get out of our ideological comfort zone.

  9. Aron

    Good points. I share Rundle’s frustration. Though to be fair, there are some limited but very good initiatives in communication. Al Gore’s climate ambassador program comes to mind.

    More YouTube videos would be good – these are, in effect, the modern day pamphlet. And then the ‘movement’ needs to raise money to show them on tv to reach broader audiences, a la GetUp! The material exists, but the fundraising and broadcasting is the bottleneck IMO.

  10. Tom

    @JerryG – for pity sake man it does not necessarily follow that anybody that has not signed up to ‘the new religion’ is a denier. I’m sceptical of both sets of extremists from the idiot world government nutbags to the pathetic and ridiculous Hamilton’ites such as yourself who suggest to be sceptical is to be a denialist (and to deny climate change is to deny the holocaust). Should we pollute less – yes, will I / do I practise this personally – yes. Will an ETS benefit ANYBODY but the traders in any way, shape or form – NO. Is Abbot disgusting – yes, is Rudd equally sickening – yes.
    Mate, I’m not planning on joining either sect as yet and as is getting more and more airtime, the science is not settled, I’ll continue to go about my business trying to minimise my own pollution footprint and to convince others they should do the same. I sleep soundly and outside of Hamilton try not to get personal (he really is a piece of work). I’d suggest you might consider the same.

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