Has to be explained

History and hagiography

Saints and sinners. Paul Demarty assesses the Greta Thunberg phenomenon

The Cop26 negotiations - indeed the dismal progress on halting global warming achieved in recent years by the great and the good - have found a mildly interesting subplot in the life of Greta Thunberg, and in particular the great heights of her fame.

Her legions of admirers lapped up what that great stalwart of radical environmentalism, Bloomberg News, decided was the slogan of the day: there had been enough “blah blah blah” on the subject - an assertion with which it is difficult to find fault. Thunberg also found time to borrow the local culture, leading the masses in a spirited terrace chant of “You can stick your climate crisis up your arse”. The glowing profiles and interviews tumble on unabated; her verdict on the outcome of this latest round of ‘blah blah blah’ was characteristically scathing.

How has she come by such a grand public reputation? There are, after all, many young activists, and a new generation every few years, when the flowering of conscience slams into the complacency of corrupt, adult society. I was 16 when I attended my first demonstrations in the anti-war movement, and I was hardly unique (there were school strikes then as well). None of us achieved close to Thunberg-grade notoriety, however. Her own distinctive character - the intense sense of purpose, the Aspergers ‘superpowers’, the apparent inability to be intimidated by the importance of anyone at all, the admirable lack of tact - is surely a part of that. I and my comrades - and for that matter the core of the Climate Camp protests a while ago and Extinction Rebellion more recently - were very much ‘activists’ of the usual type: stoned-looking and rather inarticulate. We were a bit ‘dog bites man’ (the dog being an old crustie’s whippet on a string).

Yet, in accordance with the usual laws of celebrity culture, the real interest lies not in the subject of adulation, but in what is projected on to Greta Thunberg. It is familiar, in the modern secular age, from the admiration given to ‘iconic’ protestors of different sorts - Emily Wilding Davison’s fatal encounter with the king’s horse, Rosa Parks’ refusal to stand on that bus, the whole careers of Martin Luther King and Nelson Mandela: so the list goes on. What happens to these figures is, on closer inspection, a remarkable transformation. The fact that Davison and Mandela were both members of what would certainly count, by contemporary securocratic standards, as terrorist organisations is awkwardly glossed over. The precise politics of King escapes notice, especially his more conventionally leftwing statements at the end of his life; the fact that Rosa Parks was herself politically committed is also buried (she was close to the Communist Party USA). In other words, history itself appears in a strange soft focus, with good and evil comfortably demarcated.

What we have instead of history, then, is hagiography in its original sense - the biographies of saints. Christians, especially of Catholic and Orthodox confessions, have produced vast troves of such texts, and we should not forget that the pejorative use of the word even today exists alongside the purely taxonomical one, dividing this branch of religious literature from others. Through this lens, Thunberg appears in a different lineage altogether: the peculiar micro-genre of child church-militants. We could name Nicholas of Cologne, supposedly the leader of the at least semi-mythical Children’s Crusade; and Joan of Arc, the mystically-inspired scourge of the English in the midst of the 100 Years War.

The stories of the lives of the saints reassure believers that great feats of virtue are possible under the direst of circumstances, that tiny and unimportant people can be lifted up by the almighty to some grand purpose. To modern eyes, the extent to which the ancient and medieval cults of sainthood were about the living faithful more than the martyrs, whether or not a real historical figure corresponded to the cult at all, is almost comically obvious.

More modern religious celebrities have often recoiled from the thought that they might be canonised. John Henry Newman had his grave filled with a rich, fertile mulch to ensure that there would be no chance of ‘miraculous’ bodily incorruption. More pertinent, in this connection, is the case of Dorothy Day, a Catholic pacifist anarchist of the last century. When people called her a saint, she said, they implicitly made her life into an impossible act to follow. But nothing she had done was out of the ordinary; complacent Catholics built a cult around her instead of joining her politically - all very ‘blah blah blah’, in other words.


Whether or not she knows it, it seems that Thunberg is in the same boat as Day: she fancies herself as a prophet, but in order not to listen to her, people will make her instead into a saint.

One of the peculiarities of the present age of media hypersaturation is that we do not need our saints to be martyred before we write our hagiographies: the sight of a Swedish teenager tying Donald Trump up in knots on Twitter does just as well as the story of Patrick ridding Ireland of snakes once did. The liberal wing of the bourgeoisie has praised her to the skies, but can never rid itself of the complacent assumption that one more multilateral talking shop after the fashion of the last - how many? five, ten, a thousand? - will finally deal with the climate crisis.

The accumulation of disasters - storm after hundred-year storm, wildfires, shrinking sea-ice, mass extinction - is the cause of quite sincere fear and concern on the part of such layers, as well it should be. (In Thunberg’s case, the awful reality seems to have brought on a serious depressive illness in her childhood.) It is not merely the disasters that cause despair, however - it is what the disasters show us, necessarily, about the bourgeois efforts on climate change as a whole. The efforts of uncounted scientists, journalists, worthy NGOs, Al Gore and whoever else you like have failed to make serious action on climate degradation possible. The science, of course, has value of its own; and no doubt this or that outrage has been prevented by worthy NGO lobbying. Taken as a package, however, the idea that technocratic smarts and cultivated virtue could get this problem under control has failed so badly that it would be funny, if so many lives were not at stake.

The result for those who believed in this dream must be despair, sooner or later. It is at this point - the world on fire and an openly pro-fossil fuel president in the White House - that Thunberg was propelled to global renown. She both confirmed the prescription of despair, by straightforwardly recognising that record of failure for what it was, and negated it, merely by being young and visibly caring about the outcome, in spite of everything.

The real danger - and, frankly, the immediately likely outcome - is that the Greta effect turns out to be just one more go on the bourgeois summitry carousel: we whirl around, in constant movement, without ever getting anywhere. Thunberg can hardly be faulted for not fixing this; she, and others of her age, have inherited a truly dreadful political landscape from their elders. Part of that landscape is the socialist left, which has stumbled from disaster to disaster since my own first adolescent experiments in protest (and longer even than that). It is easy to show, with the use of the Marxist method, that Cop26-type jamborees cannot achieve anything to prevent what disasters still might be prevented, and that this is rendered inevitable by their failure to call into question the capitalist system itself. It is not so easy to show that the disoriented ranks of reformism or the shrivelled remains of a million tiny sects could do any better.

That said, civil disobedience raised to a strategic principle has hardly fared better in doing what is, at the bare minimum, necessary - coercing the bourgeois elites of sufficient countries to take the question seriously in deeds rather than words. Because we have a culturally sanctified trope set up around such strategies - of the civil rights movement and of Gandhi and so forth - the failure of this method of itself is obscured. We really do need the thing the sects say we need, but fail to build - powerful, disciplined party movements; and this merely follows from the need posed with uncommon clarity by the climate crisis: the need for control over incredibly complex economic activity and for an escape from the beggar-thy-neighbour sphere of negotiations between rival nation-states. The technocratic-plebiscitary proposals of XR - the movement most closely associated with Thunberg-thought - pose the problem of agency no less sharply than the corrupt, organised chaos of capitalism as it is, and the need for agents greater in power than that enemy.

In such a movement, Greta Thunberg would be a valuable comrade and probably a leader. Without it, she is merely a saint.