Tuesday, September 04, 2007

Elite Calls for Green Direct Actions

There are things about it that I am lukewarm about, but this is an interesting article for a couple of reasons.

It starts from the observation that both former Vice President of the United States and elite anti-global warming activist Al Gore and NASA's top climate scientist, Dr. James Hansen, have advocated nonviolent direct action in response to global warming, particularly against coal-fired power plants. And even if the author of the article is doing a little bit of "active reading" to get that specific meaning from Hansen's statement, it isn't really that big a stretch, and Dr. NASA is still saying something pretty strong for someone who currently draws a U.S. government paycheque.

Gore said: "I can't understand why there aren't rings of young people blocking bulldozers, and preventing them from constructing coal-fired power plants."

Hansen said: "It seems to me that young people, especially, should be doing whatever is necessary to block construction of dirty (no CCS) coal-fired power plants."

The article goes on to talk about what this implies for the urgency of the situation, supported by further new data which indicates -- as so much new data seems to do -- that the problem is worse than even the mainstream green consensus admits. The article also points out the hypocrisy of dumping all of the responsibility for wratcheting up the struggle on the backs of young people.

The fact that these statements are being made by such august personages is worthy of note, which is why the author of this article could, in fact, make an article out of it. And it makes me wonder exactly what the two of them really meant by their statements.

One possibility is that they don't mean them at all in any literal sense, and that advocating nonviolent direct action by youth is some sort of literary device meant to create an impression of urgency among listeners but not actually meant to be acted upon. I don't think so, though. I'll talk more below about what I think elites like Gore and Hansen could get out of such actions, but I also come to this conclusion just based on a gut-level feeling about how rhetoric tends to get used by mainstream players in elite politics in the U.S. I mean, within certain circles that I have experienced, such as institutionalized expressions of social movements like student organizations and labour organizations, you hear that sort of thing -- for example, some blowhard speaking at a student rally or a Day of Action about "closing X or Y down" if the political opponent of the moment does not grant a given demand, when you know damn well that they haven't done and are unlikely to support doing anything resembling the sort of organizing it would take to carry through on that threat. But that isn't so much a part of the politics where Gore and Co. hang out, and in a very instinctive way it just does not fit for me as an explanation of where they are coming from.

So I think it's safe to say they actually want something to happen. The question is, what?

This is a question worth asking in part because the language used by Gore and Hansen, even as narrowed by the author of the article, could mean a number of quite different things. See, generally in North American liberal discourse and practice, "nonviolent direct action" (NVDA) and its synonyms tend to be invoked with a much narrower meaning than those terms actually have to have. This liberal understanding of NVDA is often based on a romantic misunderstanding of a few pieces of history, in particular Gandhi's campaigns in India and the civil rights movement in the southern United States, and it tends to be explicitly based in a disobedience that is ritualistic and grounded in a larger loyalty to particular forms of social relations that are inextricably linked to domination. It breaks a law or two, but the overall political logic followed by those who practice it often is quite consonant with the political logic of those relations of domination, such as capital and patriarchy and the state and so on. It does not see itself as fundamentally striving for autonomy from and confrontation with ruling regimes. It is incidentally disobedient but fundamentally obedient; it violates laws created by liberal democracies with no greater goal in mind than tinkering with liberal democracy. It sees no need to elaborate a logic for political action and a larger logic for living that is independent from and in conflict with the logics that spring from social relations of domination.

Many liberals and some people/groups who understand themselves to be "more militant" than people who focus on NVDA often (and uncharacteristically) agree with one another in the assertion that this is the essence of NVDA, that there is nothing else it can be. It places the essential political divide along the line of particular sorts of differences about tactics, with all liberals and all people whose practice focuses on NVDA on one side, and all people who understand their tactical orientation to be "more militant" than NVDA on the other. While debates about tactics are important and should be ongoing, I don't think this captures the key political division. Rather, I see a division which places all liberals, many practitioners of NVDA, and quite a few in the self-identified "more militant" camp on one side, and some practitioners of NVDA and some self-identified "more militant" types on the other.

The contrast I would draw with the liberal version of NVDA (that many liberals and "militants" see as its absolute definition) is with political practices by individuals and collectives that do seek to create autonomy from and, if and when necessary, conflict with ruling regimes. They seek to create relations and political logics which spring from them which refuse relations and logics of domination and subordination, which seek to identify and oppose relations and logics of domination and subordination wherever they exist. They reject allegiance to capital and state and white supremacy and patriarchy and heterosexist domination; they understand laws because it is materially useful to understand consequences but not as in any way relating to ethics or morality, though in many cases laws of the state will accidentally agree with appropriate courses of action by whatever other logics are elaborated. Ideally, they seek to create spaces which take on sustained, oppositional existence and which can be generative centres for specific actions and campaigns. Of course, this orientation is always imperfect, always in-progress, always open to criticism from self and others, always partial (though one of the prime dangers to getting anywhere is losing sight of this fact). This is because there is no "outside" -- we cannot escape the social relations of which we are a part and the logics which they spawn, so the distinction between two paragraphs back and this is not "inside" versus "outside", it is "within and in support of" versus "within and against." Which means there is no single path, no purity. Which means this grouping encompasses people whose political practice could very well focus on a particular understanding of NVDA and it also encompasses some people who often identify their orientation towards tactics as being "more militant" than that, while others who so identify embrace markers of supposed militancy while their actions fail to do much of anything to challenge logics of domination in any significant way. And, to a significant extent, each individual and group contains elements of both sides within. Because there is no "outside", these attempts at autonomy and resistance always exist in tension with and to some extent are permeated by relations and logics of domination, and it is very easy for hard-won spaces that are created by and provide some modest shelter for different ways of knowing and being and doing to be sucked back into the orbit of domination. (At the most obvious levels, for the subset of this grouping oriented more exclusively towards NVDA, this can happen via cooptation of some sort while for those who self-identify as "more militant" it can happen through strategic state use of violent confrontation to push the group, through supposed necessity, to adopt logics and practices that are indistinguishable from the state and thereby defuse the political threat even if the claim to militancy and opposition are nominally maintained in spectacular ways. Of course, puritans on both sides tend to say that these different but related forms of cooptation are inevitable for the other, which I think is not only inaccurate but plays into the hands of those who wish to keep us divided.)

All of which is a rather long theoretical diversion to point out that a call for NVDA can actually mean a fairly wide range of different things. Do Gore and Hansen want a few instances of ritual disobedience within the overall logic of capital and the state, perhaps as a source of a little more rhetorical fuel and a spectacle of the "radical-but-pure" to stimulate greater liberal activity in more traditional reform-oriented activities, like opening pocketbooks, writing letters, and visiting elected representatives? Or do they actually want to see the blossoming of more genuinely oppositional spaces that would have sufficient capacity to make a serious impact through action, both direct and indirect, that would function independent of Democratic Party politicians and liberal establishment NGOs?

The kneejerk pseudo-radical (that is, radical sounding but not really to-the-root) answer to that question is that of course they want just the former. Certainly that is possible. The U.S. political environment is a very strange one in many ways, and particularly for people isolated in its more elite spaces, it is entirely possible that the second option in the paragraph above may not even occur to them as possible. But I don't think that is necessarily the case. I mean, I guarantee you they aren't calling for the kind of challenge to capitalist relations of production that some, including some coming from a solid history of non-revolutionary politics are increasingly seeing as necessary to deal with the oncoming catastrophe. But I think it is entirely possible that they would be quite happy to see a certain amount of the second option.

And here's why.

Though liberals throughout history have violated these standards in systematic ways for the advantage of the powerful, in terms of how people of that worldview engage in knowledge creation and in choices about action (and in constrast with the more explicit anarchy-of-the-powerful advocated by Bush et al), they value rules. Often messed up rules, when viewed through various critical political lenses, but rules nonetheless. Science as it is currently practiced is among the relations of knowledge creation based in liberal epistemologies, so generally speaking (again with lots of exceptions when it violates self-interest), the knowledge thus created gets listened to, or is at the very least considered legitimate input for debate. And science says this whole climate thingy is real and serious, and could pose substantial threats to the ongoing smooth functioning of societies organized increasingly around the generation of private profit, so the Gore-Hansen wing of elites have begun to take this threat seriously. That's one important thing that is going on.

The divisions within the capitalist class and their elite hangers-on when it comes to serious threats can roughly be divided into (a) we'll just ride it out and do what it takes to stay on top even if that means leaving lots of people to die or shooting them, and, (b) let's actually learn from what's going on and adapt, even if it means some tactical compromise, so as to make our survival at the top of the heap more likely...and beyond what is necessary to do that, we will still leave people to die and shoot them if necessary. The former is the right-wing position and the latter is the liberal position, to divide it up crudely.

In the past, the believers in the (b) approach have not flinched from using and compromising with the energy of politics originating in within-and-against, somewhat autonomous, non-elite political spaces to accomplish their goals. The particular example that springs to mind is Franklin Delano Roosevelt and the New Deal. He wanted to save capitalism and thought that the hardline Wall Street position would result in disaster, so he made a deal with the Communist Party U.S.A. and its fellow travellers (which were quite strong at the time), saved capitalism, and incidentally made the lives of a certain segment of the white settler working class considerably better, at least for a few generations. I don't want to make that sound quite as baldly cooptive as it does above -- it is quite possible that compromise was the best that the left could manage in the circumstances, rather than a fulfillment of the perennial Trotskyist cry of betrayal by bad leadership, I don't know. But the point for this post is that from the elite liberal perspective, in a crisis, turning to a political force that is, at least intially, beyond your control is seen as a legitimate action. For this reason, I think Gore and Hansen would legitimately like to see radical action with momentum being generated by spaces that had some capacity to sustain themselves and that were beyond immediate elite control.

The other factor I see at work has more to do with electoral branding, in a sense. You see, though there were lots of ways that the New Deal compromise played out differently in Canada -- one being the existence of an independent social democratic party, another being the fact that both the right and the big-L Liberals saw no need for anything resembling the New Deal in Canada until after the Depression was over and World War II was well underway -- there was both a certain tendency towards alliance between the Communist Party of Canada and the Liberal Party (kept alive in the "united front against the right" orientation that the CPC has held almost uninterrupted from 1935 or so, perhaps excepting their brief anti-war period during World War II, until today) and a well-documented Liberal Party history of poaching ideas from various groupings to their left. This has been a remarkably successful approach for the Liberals, but it is becoming increasingly difficult as the global push towards neoliberalism -- that is, liberalism bereft of its social democratic accretions -- leaves less and less space for this move. They haven't completely abandoned it, but you can see in Canada where they are looking for ways to distinguish themselves from the right that do not involve impinging even slightly on privileges that capital is increasingly insisting are inviolable at this point in history. Gay marriage has been a perfect example in Canada. I think in the U.S. context I've read queer theorist and feminist scholar Lisa Duggan making a similar point, about how supporting gay marriage is an endorsement of a form of formal equality without having to do anything that redistributes resources away from elites, and is a perfect way for neoliberals to distinguish themselves from their more right-wing siblings. I think some green elite liberals see environmental issues as having a similar potential -- while the green reforms so far proposed by the mainstream are not quite as cost-free for elites as gay marriage, they are substantially less burdensome than more openly social democratic ideas. I don't think they are necessarily right about that, and I suspect the next decade will show that even the pretense of doing something that will make a difference environmentally speaking will require much sterner action, but I think the currently dominant idea is that they can brand themselves as "green" in contrast with the "grey" elites to their right while at the same time attempting to address the problems using market-based mechanisms that do not impinge on the privileges of capital in even the modest ways that Canadian social democracy managed at its peak. So having some real grassroots momentum for environmentally-focused social change, whether it is purely ritualistic or more substantive resistance, is an electoral advantage for liberal elites because they can present themselves as the moderate answer for those segments of the population who have some sympathy with the protester but no interest in too much (read: enough) substantive change.

In some ways, for people who are already active and striving to find ways to be within-and-against, to create spaces for non-elite politics that try to wrestle in meaningful ways with relations of domination and subordination, this is all academic. The fact that some elites have called for what we think should be done anyway is pretty irrelevant, and the fact that they will want to capitalize on whatever we accomplish is hardly news to anyone who knows anything about history. But I think reflecting on these calls for action by Gore and Hansen is worthwhile precisely because of what they say about how urgent the situation is -- a point the original article made, but that I hope I have expanded on a little bit in useful ways.

1 comment:

Scott said...

Hmmmm....looking at this post the next morning, there is something about the paragraphs between "This is a question worth asking in part..." and "...who wish to keep us divided.)" that still misses something important. I think the problem has to do with not adequately dealing with the implications of this quote. Anyway, I don't have time to figure it out and change it, and I think the basic attempt to try and take apart what I've considered for years to be a harmful polarization is still useful. As always, read with caution!