Public-spirited marching and the anti-system threat

James Turley looks at the mixed messages from the media about the Copenhagen demonstrations

As is the norm for any major gathering of world leaders, the COP-15 talks in Copenhagen over the global warming crisis have been accompanied by a whole series of protests.

First, there were the protests outside Denmark, which saw thousands marching at events like the ‘blue wave’ demonstrations in London and Glasgow on December 5. Around 50,000 people turned out in London, with hardened climate and left activists accompanied by the likes of the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds. In the Danish capital itself, meanwhile, a great many have gathered to protest at the timidity of the proposals on offer, and urge more concerted action. Activists from a great many countries turned up to demonstrate; Democracy Now, the widely-syndicated left-liberal daily news broadcast, upped sticks from the States to Copenhagen for the week, raking every bit of muck it could find.

The largest protest, which saw at least 50,000 on the streets, was for the most part a rather civil affair. The tone was set by environmental lobby group Greenpeace, with prescient slogans like “There is no Planet B”. Yet there were some clashes between the authorities and demonstrators and it is these which have somewhat dominated media coverage.

An interesting article, appearing on the blog of the Detroit Free Press, traces the changing media response to the Copenhagen protests, in the form of a worldwide media itinerary (www.freep.com, December 14). The Australian press, the first to get put out thanks to the vicissitudes of time zones, reports largely sympathetically on its own country’s ‘walk against warming’ in Melbourne; by the time the sun rises in Britain, the BBC reports large-scale peaceful protests around the world. It was around this time that (relatively minor) clashes between demonstrators and the police culminated in the ‘kettling’ of about 1,000 protestors.

The DFP article traces the change in tone to the American media: “What began with ‘Protesters call for bold pact on warming’ in the Boston Globe soon became ‘600 detained at climate rally urging bold pact,’ in The Huffington Post and ABC News. And by the time the sun had set in Copenhagen, the headlines transitioned solely to the number of arrests - ‘Nearly 1,000 held after Copenhagen climate rally’ in Reuters and ‘Nearly 1,000 arrested in Copenhagen’ in RFI.”

The truth is, as we have noted, that the protests thus far have been remarkably genteel - of those 1,000 ‘detainees’, only a dozen were charged, apparently anarchist youth connected to a prominent squat recently closed down by the authorities. For a protest of international dimensions, this is fairly remarkable - one is reminded of the February 15 2003 demonstration in London, in which over 1.5 million people marched, with the streets entirely clogged up (no need for or point to ‘kettling’ on that one), and remarkably little aggro.

For the DFP, the principal ‘disproportionality’ is in the media response - why are they concentrating on minor clashes with the police when there is a massive outpouring of civic activism which is in danger of being ignored by our leaders as they cook up their dodgy deals? In the first instance, however, we should note that this ludicrous detention is a serious story. In their clamour for the sensational, the US media hit upon a central point: kettling is arrest. Whether you are hemmed in on the ice-cold cobbled streets of Copenhagen or a frosty jail cell downtown, your movements are being entirely restricted; whether the cordon is made up of police officers or barbed wire, a thousand people rounded up is a thousand people rounded up. And in this context, the mass arrest of all these people - without a sniff of a warrant, ‘probable cause’ or ‘due process’ - is a serious and troubling thing.

The second thing worth noting is that the pattern of reportage is almost the exact reverse of this year’s infamous G20 protests in London. Remember how the version of Ian Tomlinson’s death changed - at first, he apparently died of a sudden heart attack; then, as more details leaked out and phone video footage of the man being knocked violently to the ground by police came to light, it was argued that he was drunk and abusive towards the cops. It was only days and even weeks later, after a second coroner’s inquiry, that the truth was finally conceded - police tactics had caused the death of a man beyond innocent, who was not even involved in the protests. This time, the media are on it right away.

Liberal climate activists may find the swallowing up of their core message in this coverage troubling. However, the truth is - though the unfortunate activists charged by police horses at the G20 protests may not see it that way - that climate change is a ‘special case’ for the ruling class. Though global warming scepticism retains a small core of support, the capitalist class has partly internalised the notion that ‘something must be done’ about catastrophic climate change; it is an issue that needs to be addressed. Even oil companies like Shell now aggressively market their ‘greener’ products, whereas before they (like tobacco companies, as studies piled up demonstrating the demon weed’s deleterious effect on human health) simply dodged the question, while covertly funding confusionist pseudo-science.

The whole logic of the capitalist system, however, is opposed to any serious measure to limit environmental harm. Capital is value in motion - it succeeds in reproducing itself ultimately only by expanding. So-called capitalist solutions are no solutions at all - emissions trading is obviously a scam, and can only be a scam, since if carbon credits are strictly and permanently limited carbon markets are not markets, as no expansion is possible. Capitalism, then, is not seriously interested in saving the world, even if individual capitalist politicians, and even entire wings of bourgeois politics, are sincere in their efforts. Individual will means nothing - the system imposes absolute limits on what can be done. We get these talking shops - Kyoto and now Copenhagen - and every sell-out, lowest-common-denominator lash-up agreement that comes out of them is touted by our leaders as a serious step forward. What else, after all, can they offer us?

So, when dealing with environmental protests, bourgeois politics is in a bit of a jam. It has taken on board, at least officially, the arguments of the most ‘bourgeois’ climate activists, and so must praise the public-spiritedness of those taking to the streets - but it is unable to produce any results, so, on the other hand, proper distance from demonstrators must be retained. The inevitable result is a bourgeoisified ‘green’ politics that even a David Cameron can sign up to.

In truth, the ‘official’ green movement - NGOs and so on - make it easy for the ruling class to play them. NGOs carry something of the charity mindset, and expect individual sacrifices from benevolent souls to add up to a solution. We hear no end of admonitions from Greenpeace, Friends of the Earth and recently prominent eco-toff outfit Plane Crazy to fly less, eat less, turn our TVs off standby in order to do our bit for the planet. In this situation, the capitalists and the state can each set themselves up as ‘facilitators’, to help people live ‘greener’ lives on the individual, atomised level. In practice, this enables the capitalists to reap endless profits from ‘carbon trading’ and other snake-oil, and the parties of the state to cultivate a right-on image, while pushing through attacks on living conditions and political rights for the masses. Meanwhile, a million power plants belch smoke and the planet simmers.

In contrast to the petty bourgeois character of such positions, Marxism tackles climate change as what it is - a profoundly social problem, which depends on social relations, and requires concerted political action to solve. The fact that most of the ‘do your bit’ habits urged upon us have not seriously taken hold demands an explanation that mainstream greenism cannot give. Why is society profoundly disinclined to reform itself, even when its very existence is threatened by ecological catastrophe? Simply because the immense wealth and power of our rulers depends on a productive apparatus condemned to blindly expand until it breaks down completely; and the dispossession and disenfranchisement faced by most of the rest of humanity pose the question of class organisation as a precondition for serious and lasting progressive change, no matter how modest. It is the transformation of these social relations which will allow civilization to survive - and thrive at a level far beyond that of a decaying capitalism.