This Saturday 28 March a mass participatory gathering on climate change and the alternatives will be addressed by Naomi Klein, Russell Brand and many others. Dan Swain spoke to two of the organisers, Neil Faulkner and Marienna Pope-Weidemann.
Dan: Can you explain what the plans are for This Changes Everything, what you hope for the event and what you hope will come out of it?
Marienna: This Changes Everything is mass participatory gathering that will bring a thousand people together with activists and campaigners to debate some of the biggest questions of our generation. It’s about joining the dots between different elements of the crisis – war, poverty and climate change – joining the dots for a common solution, and finding ways to support each other in the struggle to make it possible.
It’s been organised by a network of independent activists, some already embedded in the movement, others not, brought together by the vision articulated by Naomi Klein’s new book. She’s highlighted the fact that the threat of climate change represents a historic opportunity for progressive politics, because the cornerstones of any socially just way out of the crisis vindicate much of what the Left’s been fighting for (and against) for generations. One Occupy Wall St organiser in the States put it well: it’s not about building a “separate climate movement, it’s about seizing the climate moment.”
Our organising group is pretty diverse, ranging from black bloc protesters to Green Party canvassers. That comes with challenges, but it’s all about building something broad and vibrant, more of a network-community than a ‘new coalition’. And what binds us together is an understanding of the need for system change – and an appreciation that to achieve it, we also need to voice a positive vision of the alternative. The byline we chose, ‘Democracy, Equality, Survival’ sums up the elements we want to see brought together: the system’s become so rabidly corrupt, so exploitative, so pathological, that those things can’t be won in isolation anymore. We achieve them together, or not at all.
Neil: Perhaps, in a wider sense, the concept represents a throwback to the looser, more bottom-up ways of organising represented by late 1960s movements like the American SDS, the 22 March Movement in Paris, the German SDS, and People’s Democracy in the North of Ireland. Another way of talking about it is to say that it is not quite like anything that currently exists – not a ‘united front’, not a single-issue campaign, not a party, certainly not a sect. Not least, it is a reaction to the plainly dysfunctional forms of ‘democratic centralism’ that characterise so much of the far left.
Speaking personally, I think we need mass revolutionary organisation in Britain. I cannot see any way out of the crisis – a compound crisis with ecological, economic, imperial/military, social, and political/democratic dimensions – which does not involve ending the rule of capital and establishing mass participatory democracy and rational control over the world’s resources in line with human need and planetary sustainability. So we need to build mass revolutionary organisation – mass organisation that aims explicitly for total system change to achieve social justice and climate justice. I see This Changes Everything as a stepping-stone towards that.
Dan: How do you see the relationship between This Changes Everything and the existing climate and environmental campaigns and organisations, from big NGOs to local anti-fracking campaigns?
Marienna: The climate movement has become very polarised in recent years, and particularly since the disaster of the 2009 Copenhagen Summit. Since the beginning I’ve thought of This Changes Everything as a response to a ‘red-green disconnect’ that’s emerged, mostly as a product of the dismal strategy adopted by more conservative elements of the climate movement. I see it as a priority for This Changes Everything to call some of the big green groups out on their silence because to the extent they have influence, they’re driving us down a dead end, because this system has got to go. Plus, beating the drum of ‘individual responsibility’ – blaming all our little actions and inactions equally instead of popularising the systemic critique and putting blame where it belongs is no way to build a movement. Not being clear about the problem makes it impossible to be clear about the solution. It breeds depression, political paralysis and resistance to change.
That said, the radical wing of the climate movement is a rising tide. From highly politicised indigenous movements on the front lines in the Global South, to the fantastic work being done by grassroots, anti-fracking and fuel poverty campaigns on the front lines here in the UK. A lot of great work is being done by people who understand that climate justice and social justice are now co-dependent, symbiotic. It’s not an alliance of distinct struggles to bulk up numbers: it’s one crisis, one movement, one vision. There is no radical Left manifesto that doesn’t have a solution to the climate crisis at its heart; and you cannot expect the environment to be treated with respect in a society where people are treated like trash.
Neil: There are three great forces in the modern world: globalised corporate capital; the militarised states; and the mass of working people. The first two form a unified bloc and are highly centralised. In fact, they are more centralised than ever before in human history. There is a vast gap between where most people live out their lives and the great concentrations of economic and political power like that represented by, say, the half dozen oil companies that dominate the global industry, or the ‘troika’ of EU, ECB, and IMF, or tax-havens and mega-casinos like the City of London.
We cannot fight the system effectively issue by issue, campaign by campaign, action by action. The system, and therefore the crisis, is an integrated whole. Power over the system is highly concentrated. We have to build united mass movements to confront that power if we are to have any chance of winning major victories.
Dan: I notice that the Young Greens are listed as supporters, and obviously they have received a big boost recently. What’s your assessment of the Greens as a political force?
Neil: The Greens have become the main electoral expression of what can be defined broadly as ‘anti-capitalist’ opinion in England. It is very good that people want to join and vote for an explicitly anti-neoliberal, anti-war, anti-climate change party. But it is not the solution to our problems. The fate of the Syriza Government in Greece – which has, in effect, capitulated to EU diktat within a month of getting elected – is a warning to us all. Breaking the power of the global corporations and the militarised states is going to involve a massive, protracted, complex historical struggle.
Marienna: In the long-term, the Green Party will be as good as its membership is active and part of the wider movement – because that’s how real change happens, and this is about so much more than getting the right people in government. That said, I think this explosion of support we’ve seen for the Green Party in Britain is really exciting. It reflects a lot of things, of course, not least war-weariness, concern for the environment and the impact of and resistance to austerity cuts – the Greens being the only major party in this country willing to take a stand on anything that matters anymore.
But it’s also about how the complete degradation of the Labour Party into an unrecognisable, neoliberal husk of its former self has opened a gaping hole in our political culture as far as parliamentary politics goes. People have known for a long time that the system is corrupt. They were content to vote for their ‘lesser evil’ because they couldn’t see any alternative. That’s what really excites me about the Greens: they represent a nationally visible, tangible alternative people are willing to go out and vote for. Join up to, even. Our job is to help people understand that the alternative is possible, but voting for it’s not enough: we’ll have to protest, occupy, strike and disobey to wrestle our economy back from the rich.
Dan: What about the existing far left? We all have links to that background, which is in a bit of a mess right now. What, if anything, can these organisations and traditions contribute?
Marienna: Neil said to me recently that after 40 years as an active revolutionary he’d finally come to the conclusion that “there is no formula for social change.” It’s true. Social change is as much an art as it is a science. We’re all learning as we go, but a huge part of that art is being able to treat people the way we think a better world might treat them: with respect. Without that we can’t have healthy political alliances or personal relationships. Nor can we grow, unless we create a culture, a community that people want to be part of.
Neil: I do speak very much as what I call a ‘refugee’ from the Old Left, which I was part of for 40 years. Organisationally the Old Left cannot really contribute anything. I am now convinced that you cannot graft new growth onto dead wood. The young activists think the Old Left sects and splinters are a joke. They are right. Individually we have to make an organisational break and set about building completely new organisations from the bottom up – organisations that are broad, inclusive, participatory, democratic, and dominated by young people. Small groups of non-sectarian revolutionaries should dissolve themselves into mass organisations of the kind I have been describing. Anything else simply prolongs the agony of slow and inevitable organisational death. There is no historical example of a small group setting itself up, proclaiming a ‘correct line’, and slowly becoming a mass party through something called ‘the primitive accumulation of cadre’. The way revolutionary parties emerge is through the crystallisation of revolutionary ideas and cadre inside mass organisations in the context of mass struggle.
Marienna: I think that those organisations and traditions can contribute to the extent that they can accept the need to create a culture people want to be part of, and listen to young people. When you can’t accept it, then you get the territorialism, the sectarianism, the antagonistic identity politics, the ‘I’m a better radical than you’. I think most people understand this is our greatest internal obstacle – but fewer seem to grasp that this calls for a deep cultural shift. One example: I think a lot of groups are losing the argument with radical young people about political organisation and formal membership. This cultural shift against formal organisation happened for a reason, there is a debate to be had and a new conclusion to be reached that reconciles the best of our tradition with the possibility of the present.
Basically, we need to start taking each other seriously if we want the world to take us seriously as a united force. I really hope that’s something that the existing far left can manage because there’s so much cumulative collective wisdom there and we can’t get it all from books! It’s also a culture I’d like to see This Changes Everything help cultivate – and people are telling me that what we’ve managed so far is a big part of why they’re making 28 March their first big political event.
Dan: Neil, you’ve spoken before about the importance of learning from history. Which historical experiences do you both think we should be focusing on today?
Neil: Well, there are so many, but here are two ideas: First, the Bolshevik experience has been the subject of the most grotesque caricature in the canon of post-war Trotskyism. Lenin was a democrat, and whenever possible – in 1905 and 1917 – he was in favour of mass participatory democracy in the party. Historical necessity has been turned into a theoretical dogma and used to justify an abusive and dysfunctional form of top-down internal party organisation. Indeed, modern forms of ‘democratic centralism’ have often been far worse than anything the Bolsheviks did.
Second, the Paris Commune. They did not have soviets or workers councils; they had a democracy based on geographical districts. Now, I strongly suspect, given the fragmentation of workplaces, communities, working lives, and so on, the growth of casualisation and high labour-turnover, and the relative weakening of the unions, that geographically-based mass democratic organs are more likely in a future revolution than industrially-based councils. We do not have mass strikes spilling onto the streets and becoming mass demonstrations or pickets. We have mass demonstrations which sometimes trigger what might be called ‘turnout’ strikes, like in Egypt during the Arab Spring revolution. The street, not the workplace, leads. So the Paris Commune may turn out to be a better guide to what a future revolutionary movement might look like than 1917 Petrograd.
Marienna: I think history is the most important lens to look through if you want to see clearly the how and why of the system we live in and how people behave within it. That said we are where we are, not where we were. Reform, revolution, social transformation – these are vastly complex processes we’re talking about, contingent on a picture we can never see completely. So I’m cautious about fetishising singular historical moments at the expense of learning from our global present and using our imaginations about the future. We need to talk more honestly about our shared history, be inspired by it and keep the best of it close. But we also need a new generation to take the lead by taking action and developing its own ideas about how we can change our world. And that’s another point for This Changes Everything’s to do list after 28 March!
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