Dissent within the contested transitions of the ecological endgame

Dissent within the contested transitions of the ecological endgame

Our collective progressive dissent over the deepening ecological crisis is at a political crossroads. The recent IPCC report confirms that the pace and form of global responses to the emergency are manifestly inadequate. This is highlighted by a multitude of alarming accelerated feedback loops, like the Amazon having transitioned into becoming a net emitter of carbon. Certainly we can point to some overall progress, and our broad movement’s positive role. The prolonged pandemic has considerably stalled momentum, from global governments and our activism. It doesn’t account for why overall progress is falling far short of what’s required. A reflection and reset is warranted.

In many respects, the transition to a greener global capitalism is already underway. Signatories to Paris and zero emissions by 2050 reflect this. Even Xi Jinping’s Stalinised capitalism in China, while still a chief polluter, is leading in various transition areas. Nevertheless, we need to be clear that our dissent over the ecological emergency must necessarily contest the economic power and interests still driving this emergency. 

The green movement is an integral part of a broader progressive movement. Collectively we have intersecting concerns beyond the environmental emergency that extends to social justice for oppressed social groups, and deep economic inequalities nationally and globally.  It isn’t obvious from our broad and diverse tactics and strategies, especially within the liberal democratic economies, that a common core of socio-economic power is being acknowledged. Particular to this is a relative siloing of our manifestations of dissent to sectoral struggles against this core power. It also means that the more nuanced resistance/opposition from those in power to our collective dissent is not sufficiently appreciated. 

Liberal democratic states have been the site of successful activist struggle against many glaring social and environmental inequities. These achievements, like the dangling carrots of eco-responsive shifts in national tone and global agreements, generate understandable optimism. However, deeper dimensions of resistant capitalist interests, power and hegemony remain at play. They are reflected in the limited parameters of the 50 year struggle to address the growing climate and ecological emergency. This hegemony, and the authoritarian structure of economic power that defines it, is central to comprehending the scale of political transformation required. 

Much as progressive dissent is to be welcomed and embraced, we have had an abundance of dissent over the course of our liberal democratic history in countries like Australia. There is nothing new in current expressions. If anything, they actually pale in comparison to previous periods noteworthy for their intensity, such as the civil rights and anti-war movements of the 1960s-70s. Also not new is the seemingly recurring need for each generation of dissenters to re-learn the failures and limitations of previous challenges to governing power relations.

Appeals that ‘we are all in [these crises] together’, have never reached the level of the politically ridiculous as they have lately. Those who hold economic and political power are not on our side and comparatively buffered to crisis impacts. Covid and its differential impact across class-divided communities nationally and globally has surely exposed and re-confirmed this. A ‘togetherness’ slogan, whether from them and particularly us, merely signifies pleading consent to existing power. It’s not a slogan of  transformational dissent. We need to seriously ask ourselves as a movement whether ‘cap-in-hand’ petitions to corporate and state power and being a cheer squad for green entrepreneurs are strategies commensurate with actually challenging the power dynamics driving ecological collapse. 

The history of progressive movements affirms that ‘winning’ reforms do not intrinsically alter the contours of causality, contradictions and unequal relations of power that generated the dissent. Civil rights or environmental legislation is routinely ignored or subsequently rolled back when dissent subsides. Despite often heroic campaign efforts to stop acts of vandalism, like the Franklin Dam in Tasmania, the trajectory of national and global ecological destruction continues.

Accelerated feedback loops in global heating have lifted the political challenge before us to new levels. Real achievements in saving  forests from logging, dams, or by having a national park declared, are overwhelmed when heat domes of 50 degrees become commonplace, as just occurred in Canada. The Arctic ice melt and the Amazon transition are decades ahead of predictions less than 10 years old.  Uncontrolled fires and historic floods are nightly news events. Even the conservative IPCC reporting structure now marks that the 1.5 degrees (ideal) Paris target limit will arrive by 2030, particularly when global dimming from fossil-fuel aerosol pollution is eliminated. Catastrophic change is already embedded. 

Doomism and denial are not central issues. They are manifestations, like our dissent, of catastrophes that can no longer be ignored and competing interests that cannot be reconciled. The contested transitions within this ecological endgame are reflected politically within our broad movement as well. We can’t afford the ‘politics as usual’ any more than we can afford the ‘business as usual’. The stakes are much too high.  Collectively we are out of time to rely on sectoral dissent, the next election cycle, chasing minimalist reforms, or hoping for backroom deals and lobbying promises from the halls of power. 

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It bears reminding that dissent comes in both Left and Right forms. This transitional period of profound environmental crises and deepening dissent over the consequences of capitalist globalisation has dramatically increased schisms with the neo-liberal political mainstream. The European ultra-right, Brexit, Trump (with 74 million votes and entrenched support to suppress electoral democracy): all reflect growing dissent with the governing centres of capitalist power and deteriorating conditions of existence created by its inherently unequal class structure. 

This has made for a complicated political space to successfully contest the ecological emergency. Dissent still requires a clear narrative for transformation if we expect to win a democratic majority to our broad environmental cause.

Dissent, hegemony, consent

Dissent is a cherished principle of liberal democracies. However, that’s an articulated principle not necessarily ordained in practice, even if codified in law. Liberalism and democracy were ideologies institutionally embedded in the emergence and dominance of capitalism out of feudalism and its absolutist state forms. Despite these associations, capitalism in itself is neither liberal nor democratic. Its transition into the dominant mode of production and social structure remained predicated upon minority class ownership and power. This historically defined a core class-based economic liberalism and circumscribed democratic forms. Our subsequently hard-fought gains in extending a socially-based liberalism (e.g. ending slavery, unionisation, greater civil rights) and democracy (e.g. universal franchise) are still integrated within these intrinsically authoritarian economic relations and parameters.

As a mode of production, capitalism is based upon ceaseless expansion of social and environmental exploitation. It also has a structural trajectory to ever increasing concentration and centralisation of private capital. Transnational financial and corporate capital entities larger than many nation states now dominate global markets. They can make or break economies, monitor and shape what we like, think and buy, and locate where we are at any particular point in time.

Moreover, capitalism now comes wrapped in various transparently authoritarian State forms globally. The mythic ‘end of history’ – that triumphant liberal democracy would flow from the global extension of capitalism – has been exposed for the self-interested marketing sham it always was. Both the history and current trajectories of capitalism are actually proving the opposite.

Our capitalist state thus represents a convergence of a qualified, class-based, liberalism and democracy with an inherent authoritarian trajectory. This is the political prism through which our collective forms of dissent are fundamentally directed. A clear narrative for transformation needs to acknowledge these contradictions and paradoxes, as do the strategy and tactics of our movement. We often expect and shape our dissent to be resolved liberally and democratically. Non-violent tactics and peaceful protest may well be reciprocated by the law and order apparatus, but the history of dissent by the labour movement and social groups oppressed on the basis of race and gender  is littered with common contrary realities of excessive state force and repression. 

In its broader historical dimensions (as in times of pandemic, depression or war) the state assumes a more overt authoritarian character commensurate with the systemic challenge. Crises shape how those in power neutralise the threat of dissent and hegemonic fracture in a class-divided society. European fascism of the 1930’s was one such expression. Roosevelt and the American New Deal was another. The latter is mentioned given the aspirational political weight attached to that period by progressive left social democrats in the U.S.A. One critical aspect was to blunt the political drift to more radical, socialist, solutions to the Great Depression. Another was to use state deficit-financing to shore up failing enterprises and step-in on infrastructure and jobs where private capital was absent. 

As a movement we often compare our ecological emergency as requiring a response analogous to this Rooseveltian depression/war effort. But it has been much more than just an analogy for some, including from within the centres of power.  Instructive has been the response of neo-liberal state governments globally to the Covid-induced economic crisis: a Keynesian U-turn overnight to rival the response to the GFC. Billions nationally and trillions globally have been transferred to private enterprise to keep it afloat. It may well assume actual Rooseveltian dimensions before it’s resolved. Many in our broad movement aspire to and advocate precisely for that outcome, in the form of a Green New Deal. 

Massive GND-type investment to re-structure the economy from fossil-based to zero-emissions energy is required, but that is only part of the overall economic transition challenge within the ecological emergency. Mainstream political parties in the advanced liberal democratic economies may well find a way to balance the competing interests between green and fossilised capitalist interests over this contested transition period. The centres of European capital are already committed to their version of a Green Deal to address implications of unfolding environmental and economic calamities and anticipated dissent. However, as historical precedent indicates, it will be the interests of various forms of capital that will be adjudicated and prioritised (for the sake of ‘our economy’ of course). 

This will necessarily include a hegemonising of the dissent surrounding ecological catastrophe. The embryonic eco-capitalist transition response has already generated an abundance of green jobs within the legal, socio-economic policy, administrative, and ideological apparatus of the state and corporate sectors. Such reform dynamics may feel like and even generate genuine progress ‘within the system’, beyond simple greenwashing. Fundamentally though, they are also framed to neutralise significant political dissent and integrate dissenting layers into being active players within limited eco-capitalist reform agendas. 

These green ceilings to reform aspirations are mirrored to reflect the ‘almost reachable’ aspirations of the dissenters. The limits of greening capitalism thus have parallels, for example, with liberal democratic struggles for equality by women and racial and ethnic minorities. Oppressions based upon race or gender, like environmental degradation, will not just disappear when capitalism disappears. They pre-dated capitalism, but they cannot disappear under capitalism. Getting more equally represented across unequal class structure (or electing an Obama, Thatcher or Harris) has not and will not eliminate the structural causality of minority power and interests driving, integrating and sustaining these oppressions within the global matrix of exploitative class relations. They get framed by and rest upon the same entrenched and unyielding pillars of power and privilege within national and globalised capitalist class structure. 

The legitimation process undertaken by the state is the consent component of minority class hegemony in class-divided societies. By this is meant all class-divided societies, not just those with liberal democratic trappings. The subordinate social majority accede to the minority class power that controls and shapes our lives – through force, grudging consent, fatigue, indifference, rationalised self-interest or by swallowing the spin. The latter is reflected   in false equivalences, such as home ownership and retirement-based investment shares being regarded as synonymous with liberal economic principles of private ownership/control of the economy and legitimating wealth held by a Jeff Bezos, Bill Gates, or Gina Rinehart. Hence, willing consent to one’s rulers can die hard. Stubbornly held denial of global heating in the face of overwhelming science, rational argument, or while standing in front of an unprecedented firestorm, is more than just a subjective curiosity.

The bedrock of hegemony and its consent component is vested interest. This doesn’t just apply to ruling interests. The immediate material interests of subordinate classes are instrumentally bound to the class of corporate employers, even though workers and small business sectors are competitively disadvantaged and under constant threat from those same dominant interests. Dependent material interests, and a precarious livelihood, shape political and ideological expressions and commitments. Workers and small businesses in extractive communities, even those threatened by imminent capital flight from stranded commercial assets, need secure and comprehensive material solutions to their predicaments in the green transition. This should be borne in mind before we march into extractive industry communities demanding enterprise closures, or issue press releases delighting in pulp mills being burnt out by bushfires, as happened in Eden. Otherwise, our dissent will continue to fall on deaf ears and their dissent risks being entrenched in darker political corners through right-wing populist rhetoric over the self-serving ‘woke’, ‘green’ power elite in Canberra, Washington or Brussels. 

Frankly, the materially-based consent of subordinate classes to fossilised power is no different from that of state or corporate workers in green transition jobs telling themselves they are making a difference from within a more eco-capitalist system. People can and often convince themselves of the merits of many things if their livelihoods directly depend upon it. Even if workers or regional communities are converted to quitting coal it still doesn’t solve how they secure their economic well-being. Breaking the ideological materiality of consent requires breaking the material bonds that glue consent to power. That power is grounded in ownership and control and the dependency relationships they create.

Capitalist crises can do a great deal of the work in ungluing consent, as can environmental catastrophes on a scale previously unimaginable. But, without a counter-hegemonic narrative, a re-configured majority consent to existing power will ultimately prevail, or worse, its ultra-right reactionary counterpart. Only a transformational dynamic of alternative ownership and control can fracture power and consent.

Fracturing consent

Creating a greener capitalism is central to how most of our environmental movement’s current political demands and expectations are framed. It reverberates tactically in that many remain overly consumed with debating a fading ‘deliberate denial’ industry. It had its place but that political terrain has well and truly shifted. One only has to note global reaction from the most neo-liberal political mainstream, like the Morrison Government, to the IPCC report. Abbott-style entrenched denial and diversions have been replaced by pro-active delay and small target commitments: e.g. using obscuring phraseology like ‘commonsense action to net zero’ without ‘trashing’ the economy; or not ‘sacrificing our prosperity’ by ‘doing more than our fair share’ globally compared to ‘big polluters in developing economies’.

Our dissent has certainly compelled a multi-layered political and technological greenwashing by the very elites that have created this emergency. However, it would be hubris on our part to think that these protests have been sufficient to generate an altruistic mea culpa by those in power: that they are now extolling a greener capitalism that is against their fundamental interests. Their ‘eco-capitalist’ response predominantly flows from personal vested material interests related to commercial loss and opportunity as climate change effects deepen. For example, China’s eco-capitalist transition is impervious to our dissent.

The manufactured consent phase of eco-capitalism will move into full gear post-pandemic. A greener capitalism still intrinsically requires growth to survive or it implodes. Whether in corporate or state terms, with fossilised or green energy, the required choices will continue to reflect individual, sectional or general capitalist interests. Securing those powerful interests will be the state priority and at the expense of the interests of the working majority (jobs and income), dependent regional economies, and the sustainable ecological needs of an overstressed country and planet. 

The embedded institutional rights to accumulate private wealth and power will not be charitably donated for the greater good or negotiated away. Greenwashing may successfully blunt the softer layers of political dissent at government and corporate refusals to respond adequately to the climate emergency. Visible transitions toward zero emissions by 2050 (already too late according to IPCC) represent more serious eco-capitalist reform. This would certainly compel political neutralisation of wider layers of dissent within the mainstream liberal and social democratic base of consent. But neither will fundamentally alter the ecological endgame that is embedded within the core of our economic system of expansionary social and environmental exploitation.

Unlike reform aspirations, the objective physical dynamics of Mother Earth do not come with subjective human virtues of patience, persistence, and forgiveness. The ticking environmental clock of the past decades has struck midnight. The science embedded in the IPCC report confirms that the pace and implications of heating is at odds with its own political wrapping that action to mitigate the worst is still possible from the economic system and governments we have. 

A seriously implemented tax and regulate Green New Deal may challenge capitalist interests by reducing the private share of enterprise and temper how it’s conducted. However, for all its progressive reform appeal, tax and regulate doesn’t challenge private ownership and power. It won’t democratically break the dependency/consent relation of subordinate classes and regional communities upon the extractive industries owned by fossilised capital. Nor will promoting green capitalist ownership of the transition to zero emissions by 2050.

Past reform governments, like Roosevelt’s, bear out that running a capitalist economy is to be a capitalist government – driven by a capitalist-growth necessity, not just ideological choice. The power/dependency/consent relation that subjugates subordinate classes to private investment capital and ownership of the means of production also extends to compelled compliance of reform agendas within the governing sphere. A transformative Green New Deal has to have collective ownership of the central levers of the economy as a centrepiece of its alternative political mandate.

The central challenge of our historical moment is transforming dissent emanating from this planetary emergency into a fracturing and withdrawal of consent by subordinate classes and oppressed social groups to minority power. We are already witnessing the political consequences of ignoring multi-layered social dissent to the impact of capitalist growth and globalisation. Fortressing narratives within the dominant economies against immigrants, refugees, and market competition on trade and jobs from developing economies reflect social dislocation, disadvantage and anxieties that are preyed upon to accentuate social and nationalist divisions. White nationalism, Trumpian Republicanism and the continuing rise of the European ultra-right portend a darker solution to what could unfold. 

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Certainly, as we head into ever deeper cycles of environmental and economic crises, the authoritarian domain of capitalist interests and the state will be accentuated and more acutely expressed. Unless we directly contest the structures of minority class ownership and power, and the ceaseless economic growth dynamic it rests upon, then the ecological extinction curve will continue its relentless trajectory. 

Building a transformative coalition

As a progressive movement we need to demand and create the governing alternative to what is on offer. Who exercises economic ownership and control is fundamentally the core issue. A transformational narrative that can secure a political mandate requires a radical affirmation and extension of our circumscribed liberal democracy to embrace the framework of collective democratic ownership and control. 

Electorally-based strategies are inadequate as priority responses to the emergency at hand. They matter, but democratic transformation has to be much deeper than just forms of representation. Ownership of private property was the foundation of power for democratic transitions from feudalism. Collective ownership of property (that is, central levers of the economy) has to be the foundation of power for transcending the capitalist limits of our liberal democracy. It’s a prerequisite to exercising transformational control over the current socio-economic dynamics driving ecological collapse.

Our political agenda should focus on:

  • the unequal, differential socio-economic impact of ecological collapses,
  •  social justice in re-construction of unfolding devastation, and
  • the contours of ownership/control of the green economic transition. 

Essential to this is countering privatised corporate ownership (including green technology) with comprehensive public ownership and embedded majority control that collective ownership must confer. There is much to discuss on how this devolved democratised ownership can be progressed but it has to be an integral part of the transformational political dynamic. Otherwise the governing state alternative will be detached and alienated as a centralised formal public ownership only. Importantly, the ‘reform’ state would remain imposed upon rather than integrated with the very subordinate classes and social groups required to lead, win and implement democratic transformation.

We need the organised environment and labour movements, the Greens and progressive remnants of Labor to politically coalesce and counter the privatised form of green economic transition currently unfolding. It’s not a zero sum game between reform demands and ‘unrealistic’ systemic transformation. Political choices that counter and fracture rather than reinforce consent to existing class power will nevertheless need to be made. A coalition for a democratic nationalisation of the transition is the first step to discuss and give shape to how this can be progressed.

Endless capitalist growth and profit imperatives, even emissions-free, cannot be reconciled with gross inequality on a finite planet in ecological emergency. Dissent in itself is not enough. Neither is negotiated reform. Confirmations of the depth of the ecological crisis are now widely transparent. A fractured and discredited neo-liberal political mainstream, once again, needs massive public funds to prop up capitalist enterprise. These convulsions represent a historic political convergence. Our politics need to be elevated and sharpened to directly reflect and grasp this opportunity.

John van der Velden is an independent socialist writer based in Canberra, Australia. He is the author (with Rob White) of The Extinction Curve: Growth and Globalisation in the Climate Endgame, Emerald Publications, London, 2021.