By James Beecher
Since early 2016, a group of people living in Stroud have been meeting up once a month to discuss ‘radical’ books and articles, exploring topics including race, class, gender and the environment. The purpose of the group is to help each other to draw out the insights from writing about complex but valuable concepts like the Anthropocene, Capitalist Realism, Governmentality, White Supremacy, Social reproduction and Political Ecology. Starting on Wednesday July 29, the Stroud Radical Reading Group will host a series of monthly discussions exploring Geographies and Histories of Racial Capitalism. In partnership with Amplify Stroud, we’re planning to publish summaries of these events each month. In this article, James Beecher – one of the organisers of the Reading Group – reflects on last month’s event, which covered a selection from Naomi Klein’s latest book On Fire: The (Burning) Case for a Green New Deal, together with a critical review by Angela Mitropoulos published by New Socialist, Playing With Fire: Securing the Borders of a Green New Deal.
Naomi Klein is a well-known activist, filmmaker, and author of influential books including No Logo (1999), The Shock Doctrine (2007), and This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs the Climate (2014). On Fire is a collection of essays ranging from the Deepwater Horizon BP spill in 2010, to 2017’s Hurricane Maria (“There’s Nothing Natural About Puerto Rico’s Disaster”). It includes arguments against individual action to stop climate change (2015’s “Stop Trying to Save the World All By Yourself”), and highlights “The Violence of Othering in a Warming World” via a discussion of policies around migration across the Mediterranean, as well as including a speech Klein made at a Vatican press conference.
Our discussions focused on Klein’s enthusiasm for Greta Thunberg (“the patron saint of pissed-off kids everywhere”) and the youth climate strikes as well as on the Green New Deal in the USA. Klein cites March 2019 estimates by organisers that, just eight months into the youth strikes, there were nearly 2,100 strikes in 125 countries, with 1.6 million young people participating. We discussed Klein’s statement that “this generation has something in common: they are the first for whom climate disruption on a planetary scale is not a future threat, but a lived reality.” While we can agree this is true if we include people who have experienced such disruption over the past decade – and enthusiastically welcome the wave of activity – we critically questioned whether thinking of a generation in this way is as useful as it might seem. It’s not clear that all members of this generation share these experiences, let alone if they consider them as something they have in common with others, as the impacts of climate breakdown are unevenly distributed to a profound extent.
Other shared experiences or identities that involve differences in gender, class or racialisation are important, and are likely to be critical to social movements (such as Black Lives Matter) and to addressing ecological crises in the years and decades to come. One member of our group wondered if Klein was making a similar mistake to other older observers of the climate strikes – noting that Thunberg herself famously rejected the idea that a new generation has come to the rescue extremely strongly: “You have come to us young people for hope. How dare you?”
We also looked at Naomi Klein’s assertion that “bold visions” for “civilizational transformation” “increasingly go under the banner of a ‘Green New Deal’”, and her suggestion that “The idea behind the Green New Deal is a simple one: in the process of transforming the infrastructure of our societies at the speed and scale that scientists have called for, humanity has a once-in-a-century chance to fix an economic model that is failing the majority of people on multiple fronts.” Our discussion was the final event in a three-part series on Social Ecology, which in brief highlighted that while tying the changes needed for ecological sustainability to social and economic transformation has a long history, there has also been considerable pushback from elements of the environmental movement – especially those that believe environmental issues should be prioritised to the exclusion of social concerns seen as either distracting or at odds with environmental goals.
Mitropoulos’ critique highlighted for us that the nature of such a transformation is also not a simple question. Klein herself describes Roosevelt’s New Deal as a “far-from-ideal analogy” but nevertheless sees it as one providing a historical precedent of the scale of change required. Mitropoulos, by contrast, emphasises that unlike in the case of the New Deal, we face a problem (decarbonisation) where the “limited capacity of national and electoral approaches” is critical. We noted that the terminology is not something that makes a great deal of sense in the UK – where few have much idea of Roosevelt’s aims or achievements (perhaps explaining the Labour Party’s 2019 manifesto use of “Green Industrial Revolution” instead). We debated whether Klein’s overview of flaws within the programmes implemented by Roosvelt was sufficient with regard to the limit capacity of electoral approaches, or whether Mitropoulos is right to say that these issues were integral to the design of the New Deal as “a national security policy”, “premised on the massive expansion of fossil-fuel use and infrastructure around the world”, and involving segregation, gender discrimination and the (ab)use of “migrant workers excluded from political rights.” We also noted that the New Deal programs were viewed as concessions to hold back revolutionary movements – and wondered if this might apply by analogy today? Or would we be better served by abandoning this analogy?
Mitropoulos goes on to argue that while it is “politically convenient [for Klein] to argue that a Green New Deal averts fascism”, “Environmental movements are not immune from racism and white supremacy” and at present are “ineffective as a response to ecofascism.” This prompted links with our previous sessions in the series on Social Ecology which had explored the racist, xenophobic, or human-hating strands in environmental (neo-)Malthusianism and Deep Ecology approaches. We also discussed whether Mitropoulos’ critique is fair here, given Klein notes that “Far from learning from past mistakes, a powerful faction in the environmental movement is… arguing that the way to win on climate is to make the cause more palatable to conservative values.” This also provided an opportunity to discuss Klein’s warnings about deferring to central governments over the climate crisis, and her work on “disaster capitalism” (the “systematic attacks on human rights” and “highly corrupt measures that further concentrate power and wealth” that can result from “top-down transformations” at times of crisis).
Klein’s speech to the Labour Party conference in 2017 is also featured in On Fire. It begins “You went and showed us all that you can win. Now you have to win.” Mitropoulos argues that the election of a Conservative government following the 2019 election “underscores the extent to which it is not possible to rely on national governments to propel a transformation of structures whose scale is that of global energy systems and supply-chains rather than national economies.” Instead, Mitropoulos highlights the scope for “well-informed strikes, boycotts and divestment to build… capacity and solidarity within movements around climate change” on a global scale.
To an extent, Klein anticipates this critique – arguing that “As important as it is to elect politicians who are up for this fight, the decisive questions are not going to be settled through elections alone. At their core they are about building political power–enough to change the calculus of what is possible.” There was far more in our discussion as well as in the two texts than this article can do justice to, but our hope is that such conversations can help us to collectively deepen our understanding and strengthen the social movements that can bring the transformations we need.
Stroud Radical Reading Group’s new series of discussions starts this Wednesday, and focusses on a 17 minute Antipode Foundation film rather than a text: “Geographies of Racial Capitalism with Ruth Wilson Gilmore”. If you can’t make the first event in the series, you’re still welcome to later events – full details are on the website: stroudradicalreading.wordpress.com.