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Environment

Mar 18, 2010

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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.

Victoria

Jun 16, 2009

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There ain’t nothing like a homegrown terror scare to get the juices flowing, and yesterday’s “Earth Liberation Front” extortion threat had everything you could ask for — shadowy groups, sinister warnings, police mobilisation. Even better it was locally produced and carbon neutral.

The only trouble was it was ninety per cent recyclable male cow gardening product.

To recap: it was revealed on Sunday that a letter had been delivered to the house of Hazelwood power station supremo Graeme York, purportedly from the Earth Liberation Front holding him responsible for the “dirtiest power station in Australia and the most polluting in the industrialised world”, and obliquely threatening damage against his personal property as a result.

Scary stuff. Only trouble is the Earth Liberation Front doesn’t exist.

Oh there is — or was — an organised group called the Earth Liberation Front. Several of them in fact, one founded in Brighton England in the early 1990s, another in Eugene Oregon a bit later, with others — some with variant names like the Canadian Earth Liberation Army — springing up in different “alt” cities such as Vancouver. The ELFs originated from the broader Earth First movement, a decentred green anarchist movement of the 1980s with a broad range of views about the limits of civil disobedience and direct action.

Some believed that mild property damage — gluing-up locks, letting down tyres, etc — was the limit, others believed that a more forceful approach, up to and including arson of legit green targets, such as forestry equipment, skimobiles etc, was possible.

It was this latter groups that became ELF, principally in the US Pacific Northwest.

Yet the whole point of such anarchist groups is to be decentred, to have no proprietorial interest over who adopts the name. The idea that Melbourne ELF is being run from some biodegradable bunker beneath a mungbean café in Portland is a fantasy. Melbourne ELF is probably one share squat of 20-year-olds, currently scoping the media and watching with delight as a single printed out letter sends the entire energy-political complex into paroxysms of fear and loathing.

Indeed, the fuss serves various parties — the police, who want a continuous state of low-level threat to justify increased resources, the politicians seeking to increasingly criminalise green protest around dirty energy, the energy companies who want the security for their private activity to be paid for by the taxpayer and put on a quasi-military footing — and a small number of anarchist groups who want to project power by using the strength of the establishment against itself.

This is an old trick, called spectrality, after the beginning of Marx and Engels’s Communist Manifesto : “there is a spectre haunting Europe … the spectre of communism”.

There wasn’t of course. There were a bunch of motley groups meeting in pubs across Europe. They gained power and prestige by convincing the authorities to rate them as a real threat to the established order, and thus threw their shadow across the continent.

So well played Squat No.23, whoever you are — the authorities did everything that could be expected of them.

If indeed there is even a green anarchist group behind this. Take a look at the text of the letter:

Dear Graeme, As the Chief Executive Officer of Hazelwood power station, you are responsible for the dirtiest power station in Australia and the most polluting in the industrialised world.

You are causing irreversible environmental destruction which will go on to harm not only those living on the planet today, but your children’s children too.

We hold you personally accountable for this assault against our Earth. We do not take lightly to the perpetual destruction of our land-base for the selfish and short-term objective of fattening your bank account.

That doesn’t sound like ELF-style anarchists to me. The language is too Latinate, too procedural. Green anarchism tends to use a blunter language, deliberately kept simpler and more aggressive, to project conflict and contestation. Take this example from the North American ELF “press office”, a clearing-house website, by a Mexican green anarchist group:

We know that the disgusting Carlos Slim is collaborating with the state to spy on telephone conversations of different activists, that he is an accomplice of the government intercepting emails from different people who the authorities consider dangerous so that they will be arrested and even more to criminalize any struggle in Mexico; that is why Telmex is being fought through economic sabotage and this will continue.

For that same reason we have easily sabotaged 30 phones; the actions are increasing. A revolutionary greeting to the eco-saboteurs.

Without wanting to dob anyone in I would guess that Melbourne ELF is a pure hoax by people who haven’t taken on the “green anarchist life” to any degree.

Alternatively, it may be an inside job. For months now, NSW and Victorian governments have been making loud noises about the increasing criminalisations of civil disobedience directed against power stations — upping the ante from criminal trespass and damage to specifically-tailored laws adding a premium of up to five years prison for disrupting energy supply. These laws could be applied even when “disrupting energy supply” consists merely of a sit-down protest in an energy company’s office foyer.

In the US, several ELF activists have received 20-year sentences for crimes such as torching snowmobiles — the extra years on the sentence (which would usually be 5-10) because the acts are defined as “terrorist”, even though no greater damage is done, than other numerous attacks attributed to rural booze and high spirits. As Jeff Sparrow noted here on the assassination of Dr George Tiller, what gets defined as simple crime or something worse, is a purely political judgement.

In that light, review state minister Peter Batchelor’s weird comment about seeing if “we didn’t need new laws to deal with this sort of thing”. Well, we already have these laws — it’s called “threats and menaces”. Convenient to have something like this appear just as the “energy security” debate hots up.

Am I suggesting that Victorian government labs cooked up a secret pseudo-Melbourne ELF letter? I am emphatically not. I am suggesting it’s possible that someone from the Labor Right or associated swamplands is doing a freelance provocation — and the language of the letter suggests to me that they are inept at hiding their own background in the political mainstream.

Actually, the original translation of the Communist Manifesto had not a spectre, but “a horrible hobgoblin” haunting Europe. Elves, hobgoblins, it’s all the same in the gathering twilight…