12. 27. 2022

Why We Need Mass Movement Climate Justice Politics

David Camfield

Midnight Sun is excited to present this excerpt from David Camfield’s new book Future on Fire: Capitalism and the Politics of Climate Change. Reprinted with permission of PM Press and Fernwood Publishing.

Why do mass movements matter so much at this time in history? First, they are crucial for defensive battles. Capitalism is subjecting us to continual efforts by employers and governments to chip away at what remains of past gains embedded in unions’ collective agreements, public services, social programs, labor laws, and other forms of protection from the capitalist principle of “work or starve.” Capitalism’s irrational logic of profit also leads to more fossil fuel projects and other forms of ecological destruction. Accompanying these attacks are escalating moves against migrants, people who experience racism, and other groups of people who face oppression. Mass protest and resistance can stop such attacks. That’s what happened in Quebec in 2012. In 2019 US air transport workers calling in sick and the threat of strikes pushed Trump to end his shutdown of the federal government that had left its workers without pay. When resistance isn’t strong enough to stop an attack it can sometimes weaken the blow – as the protests at airports against Trump’s anti-Muslim travel ban did in 2017 – or delay it, as many campaigns against extraction projects, such as those by Indigenous land defenders and their supporters, have been able to do. Defensive battles matter. They can keep people’s lives from getting worse. They’re also important because the experience of defensive fights can change those who take part in them. By boosting confidence, developing understanding and organizing skills, and strengthening relationships, they can better prepare people for future struggles. Determined resistance by a mass movement, especially when it achieves even small victories, can also give people hope that collective action can make a difference. Hope is precious. It sustains people through hard times and keeps them from turning their backs on what’s going on in society and retreating into their personal lives. People with hope are also more likely to take part in future battles.

Second, only mass social movements have the power to win measures for a just transition and other reforms that challenge the priority of profit. Only mass social movements could force reluctant governments to do the previously unthinkable or push governments committed to a radical GND [Green New Deal] to go forward in spite of furious opposition from capitalists. The Red Nation, a mostly Indigenous socialist group in the US, puts it this way: “Our leverage is people. Leverage comes from a movement behind you. Only when people move do we build enough power to force concessions and eventually win.” As we saw in the last chapter, the capitalist class wields enormous influence on the state. Moreover, capitalist states are not neutral instruments. Green left governments cannot easily use them to enact the kind of changes needed to slash greenhouse gas emissions, improve the quality of life for the majority of people, and leave no one behind in a just transition that in settler-colonial societies like the US and Canada would need to be accompanied by a transformation in the relationship between Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples. To overcome opposition from both corporate owners and the upper echelons of state officialdom will take a lot of power. The convergence of different forces around climate justice demands – reducing emissions, reversing austerity, rejecting oppression – has the potential to bring that much power to bear. Much as it was the self-activity of slaves that drove Lincoln to abolish slavery without compensating slave owners, as the planet heats it will take disruptive mass upsurges to bring about anything worth calling a radical GND. If a government starts to implement such climate justice reforms, movement forces will still need to maintain their independence from the state, organizing people to monitor the government’s actions and spur it to stay on track and go further.


Mass Movement Climate Justice Politics

The unique power of mass social movements means that people who want to see at least the emergency measures needed to launch a just transition should unite around climate justice politics that focus our energies on movement building. We can practice these politics anywhere and everywhere that people are resisting or fighting for change, not just in organizing whose starting point is climate change. Moreover, we need to promote the convergence of different forces around these politics. As [Naomi] Klein argues, “It is the only way to build a counterpower sufficiently robust to win against the forces protecting the highly profitable but increasingly untenable status quo. Climate change acts as an accelerant to many of our social ills – inequality, wars, racism – but it can also be an accelerant for the opposite, for the forces working for economic and social justice and against militarism.” Because the obstacles to governments in capitalist states implementing the sweeping reforms that are needed are so large, climate justice politics should be fundamentally extraparliamentary. That is, they should be geared to organizing people in workplaces, neighborhoods, and elsewhere for mass direct action. An extraparliamentary strategic approach doesn’t mean ignoring elections but approaches them from the perspective of trying to take advantage of every opportunity to build movements.

There is no denying that because there are few dynamic, growing social movements in rich countries today, many people who find these politics attractive aren’t sure if they’re viable and worthy of their commitment. My brief response to this is threefold. First, because these are the only politics that could lead to what’s urgently needed we should do our best to put them into practice. Second, recent movements and struggles give us good reason to think that mass social movements in these countries are indeed possible in our time. These include the mobilization of Indigenous people against the Dakota Access Pipeline in the US; the international movement of young students in school strikes for climate action, which at times drew in older people; direct action by Extinction Rebellion (XR) in the UK and other militant climate groups elsewhere; women’s strikes in a number of countries in Europe and South America; the gilets jaunes movement in France in 2018–19 and the mass strikes and protests in defense of public pensions in 2019–20; the wave of strikes by teachers and other education workers in the US in 2018–19; and the Black-led multiracial mass movement against racism in the US in 2020. Third, the terrible path that capitalism has us on will create conditions in society out of which larger social movements are more likely to erupt in the years ahead, in ways we can’t predict.

It’s right for people who embrace these politics to want to think about how to act on them. Yet there are no recipes for building mass social movements and winning victories.

XR’s leaders claim to have one, though: openly organized, nonviolent civil disobedience by large numbers of people. This, they claim, will pressure governments to eventually come to the negotiating table. XR leaders repeat the mistaken claim that 3.5 percent of the population getting actively involved in a campaign of nonviolent civil resistance in a country’s capital city virtually guarantees success. They also believe that getting enough people arrested in acts of disruptive civil disobedience will lead to that magic threshold. Yet “the real power of mass civil disobedience is not its power to shock the powerful into listening to the movement, but rather its potential to draw into action the masses of people that the powerful rely on to keep businesses running.” Sadly, as the editors of the journal Salvage argue, “the strategic concept of a handful of activists trying to engineer a rebellion encompassing 3.5 per cent of the population, based as it is on a numerical abstraction of complex processes, is extreme, vainglorious voluntarism.” It mistakenly assumes that activist willpower is enough to trigger an uprising. The XR strategy rests on academic research by Erica Chenoweth and Maria J. Stephan, the source of the 3.5 percent figure. However, [the Salvage editors continue,]

their data covers exclusively campaigns for the overthrow of a government or occupying force, whether of French forces in Vietnam or Milosevic in Serbia, not the deep-going transformation of a globally organised economic and social system. Moreover, like almost all social movement theory, this research offers as explanatory inputs (people power, non-violence) what are in fact outcomes. . . . One’s inquiry surely ought to be into the processes generating these outcomes . . . dense historical and political questions which are not resoluble into a magic number, or a distilled set of technics. 

Chenoweth and Stephan, whose research was intended to be useful for US state officials, often exclude “the deeper context of decades-long struggles, community organizing, grassroots network building (sadly, frequently coupled with instances of regime violence and opposition counter-violence) which always preceded the eventual success of nonviolent strategies,” as journalist Nafeez Ahmed points out. Andreas Malm is blunt: “Chenoweth and Stephan are not the IPCC of resistance.” In spite of rhetoric about building a mass movement, in practice this XR approach substitutes self-sacrificing activists for a movement on the basis of a faulty theory of how to make change.

Another weakness of XR’s strategy is its call for governments to create unelected citizens’ assemblies and then follow their decisions about the ecological crisis. A citizens’ assembly would be made up of randomly selected persons representative of the population of the country in question. This idea completely ignores how the power of capitalists and the capitalist nature of the state would be obstacles regardless of whether a just transition were proposed by a conventional government in the existing state or a new citizens’ assembly alongside such a government. The call for such assemblies evades the need for mass social movements to wrest reforms from the ruling class every step of the way, not just bring government representatives to the table.

We shouldn’t look for a ready-made, supposedly universal formula for movement-building. Instead, we should look to where exploited and oppressed people are in motion. Whether people are being moved to act against racism, attacks on reproductive freedom, sexual violence, austerity, low pay, climate change, or something else, wherever there is collective action against injustice there can be potential for organizing that aims to expand that action and build movements. Sometimes people mobilize in unexpected ways. This can present supporters of mass movement climate justice politics with the challenge of how to relate to new developments that are both promising and have the potential to head in dangerous directions.

The gilets jaunes protests in France in 2018–19 are a good example. A tax on diesel fuel imposed by the neoliberal government of President Emmanuel Macron triggered militant roundabout blockades, marches, and street barricades by sectors of working-class and self-employed people who generally had not been part of earlier anti-austerity mobilizations. Many of them carried French flags and sang the national anthem. Far-right forces tried to channel the protests into a revolt against taxes and immigrants that ignored or even denied the need for climate action. But a range of left-wing forces also participated in the movement. Their ongoing participation allowed previously depoliticized people to meet and work with left organizers. Sharing experiences in the movement helped leftists to challenge right-wing ideas and encourage the movement’s main thrust against social inequality and for the redistribution of wealth. The experience of intense police violence also led many white participants to start to understand what non-white people in France have long known about the police and the links between racism, poverty, and repression. The slogan “Fin du monde, fin du mois, même combat” (“End of the world [i.e., climate change], end of the month [i.e., poverty], same struggle”) exemplified climate justice politics in the movement. The gilets jaunes movement forged a powerful link between “issues of environmental disaster and climate change” and “questions of social and political justice,” and this transformed ecological politics in France.

Some mobilizations have more potential than others to build a powerful movement. There are a number of features that create such potential. These need to be fostered wherever possible. Modelling them even in very small ways is important in nurturing a culture of fighting to win. One valuable quality is an orientation to drawing in larger and larger numbers of people, reaching beyond the ranks of those who’ve participated in previous protests. When this starts to happen, there’s always the risk that people with more experience of climate justice politics will be dismissive of those who are only beginning to demand action. Socialist academic Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor’s response to how some on the left responded to the January 2017 Women’s March in the US is relevant here:

Liberals become radicals through their own frustrating experiences with the system, but also through becoming engaged with people who became radical before them. So when radicals who have already come to some important conclusions about the shortcomings of existing systems mock, deride or dismiss those who have not achieved the same level of consciousness, they are helping no one. . . . Should the marches have been more multiracial and working class? Yes! But you are not a serious organizer if that’s where your answer to the question ends. The issue for the left is how we get from where we are today to where we want to be in terms of making our marches blacker, browner and more working class. Simply complaining about it changes nothing.

Another important quality is drawing people into active ongoing participation in movement organizations. Instead of sending people home and telling them to wait for the next big event, people can be encouraged to get involved in groups that organize to build the movement in between large mobilizations. This is different from how NGOs generally operate, which rarely goes beyond signing people up to give money and receive information and requests to send e-mails or make phone calls to elected officials. Democratic participatory forms of organizing that put participants – not union or NGO officials, politicians, or unaccountable activist leaders – in charge of their own efforts are precious. A stance of solidarity toward other struggles is also an important quality. So too is the understanding that one mobilization is rarely enough to win.

Militant tactics that use or move toward using disruptive mass direct action are another important feature that gives a mobilization positive potential to go further. Forms of mass direct action that have an impact on corporate profits or impede the functioning of the state – for example, mass strikes by workers and large-scale blockades of transport networks used to move commodities to markets – have the most power to squeeze reforms from governments. As four US socialist supporters of a GND have written, “The working class has a ‘lever’ at the core of the operation of the capitalist system. If workers stop working, or go on strike, business as usual grinds to a halt. . . . When workers strike, or organize other mass disruptive actions, those in power are forced to pay attention.” The impact that workers have when they withdraw their labor and strike is one of the reasons why workplace organizing and unions are important for climate justice supporters, in spite of the many limits of unions as they exist today. That said, workers’ strikes are not the only kind of mass direct action that can be effective.

What about vandalism and sabotage? Is this a tactic that can help build a movement powerful enough to push states into a just transition? Andreas Malm, who advocates building a mass climate justice movement, calls for part of the movement to carry out targeted attacks on GHG-emitting property, from pipelines to SUVs, in ways that take great care not to injure or kill people. This would, he believes, discourage further investments in such property and show that it can be made inoperable, with the goal of compelling “states to proclaim the prohibition and begin retiring the stock.” Malm makes a convincing case that attacks on property are ethical. But would this tactic really help the movement achieve the goal of making states phase out fossil fuels? He quotes historian Verity Burgmann: “The history of social movement activity suggests that reforms are more likely to be achieved when activists behave in extremist, even confrontational ways. Social movements rarely achieve everything they want, but they secure important partial victories when one wing, flanking the rising tide in the mainstream, prepares to blow the status quo sky-high.” This point about the role of a “radical flank” of a rising mass movement is right. But it is extremely unlikely that attacks on pipelines and other fossil fuel targets by small groups of activists would be such a flank, one that could make a government decide to finally take decisive action to decarbonize society. Such attacks might hurt the profits of some firms, but they would cause little disruption to the regular functioning of capitalist society. However, they would certainly lead to more state repression against the climate movement – and not just the groups of activists working secretly to carry out vandalism and sabotage. This would make it more difficult to organize effective kinds of mass direct action like strikes, occupations, blockades, and incursions that disrupt fossil fuel extraction or distribution, such as the 2016 Ende Gelände anti-coal mass actions in Germany that Malm rightly praises. There is also the problem that the more damage is done by attacks on property, the more spectacular they are. As Trotsky observed, “The more the attention of the masses is focused on them – the more they reduce the interest of the masses in self-organization and self-education.” In addition, people engaged in campaigns of sabotage have to operate in small clandestine groups to avoid arrest, often withdrawing from other movement activity. Activists operating that way are at risk of treating what they’re doing as a substitute for mass movement building, falling into the kind of elitist radicalism criticized earlier [in the book from which this excerpt is drawn]. For these reasons people who want to build a mass climate justice movement should reject the tactic of attacks on property by small groups or lone individuals.

No matter what the immediate issue is, supporters of mass movement climate justice politics can become constructive participants in people’s struggles and help to build them using these politics. If people aren’t already in motion, we can work patiently with others to turn discontent about injustice into collective action for change. This will often mean taking part in community and workplace organizing whose focus is not climate change, for understandable reasons: all over the world there are many immediate problems, all manner of affronts to human dignity, that today affect people more than climate shifts. This means that climate justice politics must be “trans-environmental,” as philosopher Nancy Fraser puts it. Fortunately, it’s possible for supporters of climate justice to participate in a mobilization about other issues and, over time, promote convergences among movements and persuade more people of the importance of striving for a just transition. The gilets jaunes experience in France demonstrates this. Understanding that capitalism – always interwoven with many forms of oppression – is the underlying cause of the ecological crisis and of so much social injustice can help organizers to link struggles and forge solidarity across the real differences that divide exploited and oppressed people. “An injury to one is an injury to all” is an old working-class movement slogan worth reclaiming and acting on. So too is a saying that emerged from Indigenous activism in Australia in the 1970s: “If you have come here to help me, you are wasting your time. But if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together.”

David Camfield is active in his union and with Solidarity Winnipeg. He hosts the socialist podcast Victor’s Children and is a member of the editorial board of Midnight Sun. His newest book is Future on Fire: Capitalism and the Politics of Climate Change.