The 8th of December, the end of the month, and the end of the world

“End of the world, end of the month, same struggle. Photo: Il Est Encore Temps on Twitter

by Anya Verkamp and Riccardo Mastini

Saturday 8 December 2018 is a day that will likely go down in history for many social movements. The streets of many European cities were filled with demonstrations against the most pressing social issues of our time: growing inequality, useless mega infrastructural projects, and climate breakdown. While these issues may seem unrelated, they have common origins in neoliberalism.

The demonstrations that most captured the collective imaginary and the headlines are those of the gilets jaunes – or ‘yellow vests’ – in France. The past five weekends have seen protests rising against Macron’s government. Although the movement was sparked by a new tax on petrol, the ‘fuel’ keeping the movement alive is  resentment towards ‘the President of the rich’ who recently reduced the solidarity tax on wealth, an iconic policy of French socialism.

Other notable resistance protests marking that weekend include those in Italy against the ‘useless mega infrastructural projects’ such as the TAV, TAP and the MUOS military antenna – major proposals of private industrial infrastructure that devastate ecosystems and the health of citizens. The TAV is an example of how transport becomes a threat to ecology and society when privatized rather than run as a public service. The TAV is the result of a historic wave of the neoliberalization of transport, energy and telecommunications industries, through the privatization and deregulation of publicly-owned enterprises.

The Gilets Jaunes (“Yellow Jackets”) taking over the Champs-Elysées, Paris. Photo: Christophe Becker on Flickr

At the same moment, international policy-makers convened in Katowice, Poland to negotiate how to implement the Paris Agreement at the COP24 UN climate conference. Or, in the case of some parties, such as the US, Russia, Kuwait, and Saudi Arabia, the conference was about negotiating how not to implement the Paris Agreement. For delegates of poorer nations and small island states in the Pacific that are on the frontlines of climate change, the objective was to negotiate their own survival. This year could be the last opportunity for international policy-makers to take the necessary measures to avoid climate apocalypse. The result has been an unprecedented wave of climate marches in recent weekends, including the biggest some countries have ever seen.

It is therefore evident that ecological issues are an ever-stronger underlining force for many social movements. Ironically, it is precisely in France – whose President was recently recognized as a UN “Champion of the Earth” – where it has become evident how the neoliberal establishment privileges the wealthy through climate policy while neglecting the working class.

As human ecologist Andreas Malm argues, Macron is today the champion of neoliberal rhetoric on climate change in upholding the tenet that all individuals are indiscriminately responsible for climate change and must be encouraged to consume sustainably through the imposition of value-added taxes (VAT). Such is the logic behind the fuel tax initially proposed by the French government. However, an increase in VAT is the most regressive way to drive the ecological transition we need. This is because the tax assumes that purchasing power is equal for all citizens. The real impact of the tax would be felt in the wallets of the poorest citizens who cannot afford to abandon their old vehicles – their only lifeline to access work and services in rural areas where public transport is sorely lacking.  Meanwhile, overall C02 emissions would remain substantially unchanged since the wealthy can afford the tax and the poor have no other transport option but to keep driving.

Police firing tear-gas on protestors in Paris. Photo: Olivier Ortelpa on Flickr

This is why the streets of Paris have been ringing with the chant “The end of the world and the end of the month, same perpetrators, same struggle”. In response to the protests, Naomi Klein tweeted, “Neoliberal climate action passes on the costs to working people, offers them no better jobs or services + lets big polluters off the hook. People see it as a class war, because it is.”  As an example of how taxes should target the big polluters, we need only consider aviation transport in France. , While the car is the most widespread means of transport among all social classes, 75% of French people never fly and half of the total domestic flights in France are made by just 2% of the population, presumably the upper classes. Yet kerosene, the fuel used for commercial airliners, is not taxed. Higher taxes on kerosene would be a way to reduce emissions quickly and more fairly.

The climate crisis has its roots in the rapid accumulation of capital wealth associated with burning fossil fuels like there’s no tomorrow. Continued centralization of decision-making within a neoliberal order can only offer solutions such as the construction of new pipelines for natural gas, the TAV, and the fuel tax.  Instead, the ecological transition must also be a social transition, and a quick one at that. The IPCC special report on 1.5°C warming warns us we must halve global emissions in the next 12 years and reduce them to zero by the middle of the century.

TAV street protests in Turin, Italy. Photo: EYE DJ on Flickr

Maybe we can give Macron some hints in the right direction. To ensure mobility and energy access in times of transition, we must return them to public oversight with devoted resources commensurate to the urgency of climate breakdown. This requires a massive expansion of affordable public transport in the urban, semi-urban periphery, and rural areas, with support of alternative forms of transport, such as bicycles and electric carpooling. We must also bring the electrical grid under democratic control through nationalization, or still better municipalization, to encourage the supply of renewable, locally-managed energy sources. Preferably, this public management would be coupled with advances in participatory democracy at the municipal level. A great example is Barcelona Energía, the city’s new publicly owned grid of renewable energy soon to supply 20,000 homes, implemented under the municipalist politics of Barcelona en Comú. 

It would be useful if the automotive industry was ordered to transform its industrial production for what we need: wind turbines, solar panels, electric bicycles, trams, etc. Just as the American automobile factories were converted to churn out tanks in World War II by order of the Roosevelt administration, so today they could be converted to supply the technology needed for a renewable energy transition.

More and more progressives around the world – from Corbyn to Sanders – are already following Roosevelt’s footsteps by calling for a Green New Deal, as a government led investment in low-carbon infrastructure, providing training and employment so that the energy transition simultaneously tackles income inequality. To finance this new era of large public investments, we need more progressive taxation since a close correlation exists between wealth and quantity of emissions. This will be necessary to take back the private wealth accumulated in recent decades to avoid the socio-economic and ecological collapse that climate change guarantees. 

But these issues won’t be a priority for the European ruling class, unless the people force a change in the agenda of the ruling class. Another important lesson of the past few weeks is that any progress on the climate front will only come from public pressure. This does not refer only to street demonstrations, but acts of civil disobedience like those carried out in central London in November by the Extinction Rebellion movement. As long as Macron or other European leaders of the current neoliberal ruling class are unwilling to implement the measures required for system change, mass direct action must continue to demand it. A convergence des luttes is essential for shaping a common vision and catalyzing political action.

Anya Verkamp is an activist and media producer on environmental justice, political ecology, and a just transition. You can follow her on Twitter.

Riccardo Mastini is a PhD candidate in the Institute of Environmental Science and Technology at the Autonomous University of Barcelona. You can follow him on Twitter and Facebook.

Why libertarian municipalism is more needed today than ever before

People’s assembly in Barcelona, Spain. Photo: Jisakiel

by Tyler Anderson

We are entering dire times. The United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change recently released their 2018 report that has only reassured what many of us know is true. We need to take immediate decisive action on climate change or face a dismal future of increasingly powerful natural disasters, economic instability and reactionary violence.

According to the report, we have 12 years to stop inalterable climate change and that is going to require massive global infrastructure projects aimed at transforming our archaic fossil fuel system to one rooted in sustainable development and ecological understanding. Such a project will clearly be one of the largest developmental efforts in human history and will require global collaboration on a scale never seen before.

Yet, in the face of almost certain annihilation, the transnational ruling class are in a desperate struggle to maintain and profit from the ruin and disaster of their own system. For progress to occur, we need to build a mass movement of millions across the world united behind a call for a new system. And, threatened by new despotic right wing authoritarian regimes worldwide, we need to scale up fast!

According to Abdullah Öcalan, we can understand almost all of today’s crises to be crises of democracy. While the ideal of democracy was used to legitimize imperialist interventions across the developing world since the 1950s, it was never a lived reality even in the West. Instead we were sold shallow representative republicanism in place of real face-to-face direct democracy where individuals have actual power over society.

Representative ‘democracy’ ultimately turns people from empowered citizens to alienated constituents. It turns democracy—a lived, empowering and involved process—into a spectacle of rooting for one’s chosen team. And so it lends itself  to oligarchy and, ultimately, dictatorship and imperialist expansion.

In fact, since the end of the Second World War we have witnessed a massive decline of civic engagement, with far lower in-person participation in community associations, clubs and groups of all kinds. Not to mention a decline in wages and an increase in inequality—both in the West and internationally. As society and political structures have been increasingly centralized in the hands of a wealthy few, they have also closed people off from access to power.

Representative ‘democracy’ ultimately turns people from empowered citizens to alienated constituents. It turns democracy—a lived, empowering and involved process—into a spectacle of rooting for one’s chosen team. And so it lends itself  to oligarchy and, ultimately, dictatorship and imperialist expansion. This has been the case of representative democracies from the time of Rome.

 

A politics of empowerment

Libertarian municipalists argue for a reinvigoration of the civic and political sphere. In place of representative forms of democracy they argue for an inclusive participatory system where every community member has equal power over the matters of governance that impacts them.

Libertarian municipalism is a politics of empowerment. It recognizes democracy as an almost universal value. It begs the question, will we as a society finally embrace actual democracy or accept dictatorship? Libertarian municipalists absolutely reject the representative republicanism that has been peddled to us as “democracy”, a form of government that, in practice, is only a democracy for the rich.

At the core of the libertarian municipalist strategy for change is the creation of the popular assembly and its eventual empowerment as a dual power. Dual power is a situation where two powers coexist with each other and compete for legitimacy.

Libertarian municipalists seek to either create extra-parliamentary assemblies that increasingly gain governing power from local governments or seek to change city charters to legally empower popular assemblies as the primary policy making bodies over representative and hierarchical structures such as mayors and city councils. They envision the municipalization of the economy, where  productive assets are held by the community collectively. They strive to build a global network of communities, neighborhoods and cities interlinked through confederal bonds. According to Murray Bookchin,

In libertarian municipalism, dual power is meant to be a strategy for creating precisely those libertarian institutions of directly democratic assemblies that would oppose and replace the State. It intends to create a situation in which the two powers—the municipal confederations and the nation-state—cannot coexist, and one must sooner or later displace the other.

The popular assembly thus acts as a place that gives any individual in a community direct access to power, shaping policy and the world around them. This is in direct conflict with the hierarchical nation-state and transnational capitalist firms which seek to control the labor, land and resources of communities across the world.

In Minneapolis, protestors demand the city defend Muslims, accept immigrants, welcome refugees, and support workers. Photo: Fibonacci Blue

Cities and towns at the forefront

Today the tensions between cities and state entities couldn’t be more pronounced. The sanctuary city movement provides a stark example of the way cities across the country are already moving towards increased local autonomy and sovereignty over the federal government. Sanctuary cities such as San Francisco, Los Angeles, New Orleans are just a few of the over 39 cities across the US who have joined forces to limit collaboration with federal authorities. According to Vojislava Filipcevic Cordes,

Sanctuary cities in the U.S. represent a feat against the hostile state and “provide a territorial legal entity at a different scale at which sovereignty is articulated” [18]. Sanctuary cities exemplify what Lippert has termed “sovereignty ‘from below’” [19] (p. 547) and are shaped by local legal and political contexts and the solidarity with social movements.

In the wake of an increasingly illegitimate federal government, urban areas take leadership on issues ranging from immigration to raising minimum wages, even if it is in direct conflict with the federal government. Along with this trend, we see growing political divides between urban and rural communities. After the 2018 election, Republicans lost their last congressional urban district in the country.

 As the cultural and political divide between rural and urban, local and federal become more pronounced in an era of increasing authoritarianism, it seems that the revolutionary alternatives provided by libertarian municipalism could have the wide appeal and potential support of millions of Americans needed to create political change. 

As the cultural and political divide between rural and urban, local and federal become more pronounced in an era of increasing authoritarianism, it seems that the revolutionary alternatives provided by libertarian municipalism could have the wide appeal and potential support of millions of Americans needed to create political change. But what will that mass movement look like? How can we build the power to force politicians to stop pandering to the fossil fuel industry and the fascist right, and bring about real change?

 

The left must rebuild political life

Bookchin was one of the key theorists behind libertarian municipalism. In his essay, “Thoughts on Libertarian Municipalism, he put forward a strategic vision for this kind of movement that we can still learn from today.  He begins by describing libertarian municipalism as  “ a confrontational form of face-to-face democratic, anti statist politics…that is decidedly concerned with the all-important question of power, and it poses the questions: Where shall power exist? By what part of society shall it be exercised?”.

For Bookchin, the decline of civic and political life is of paramount concern. With its decline, Bookchin sees a vacuum forming in mainstream political discourse where leftist positions have increasingly degraded and shrunk into insular and subcultural discourses while broader society continues to be trapped in an Overton window swiftly moving towards the right.

Bookchin felt it was essential that the left find ways of reaching the broader society with its ideals. He envisioned the institutionalization of popular assemblies not only as an end but as a means. Assemblies would work to level the playing field for the left by giving it a place to both voice its vision for a new world to the public and to reinvigorate a american political life through the popularization of civic ethics rooted in valuing democracy, ecology, and social justice.

Bookchin was interested in the whole revolutionary pie, not just crumbs. As such, libertarian municipalism is a political framework that intentionally engages with that essential political question of: who has power and how should it be wielded? It is a politic that centers the conflict over who has power in society and mobilizes for popular control over existing institutions. As such, Bookchin went to great lengths to distinguish the libertarian municipalist organizing philosophy from other tendencies. He describes one tendency which is often confused with libertarian municipalism, sometimes called communitarianism:

“Communitarianism is defined by movements and ideologies that seek to transform society by creating so-called alternative economic and living situations such as food cooperatives, health centers, schools, printing workshops, community centers, neighborhood farms, “squats,” unconventional lifestyles, and the like”

While such efforts may benefit the people they directly work to serve, they often rely  on donations or self funding by their organizers and only serve small numbers of people. The amount and time required to maintain these programs often leads to burnout and massive resource sucks. They inevitably compete with existing social services or capitalist enterprises, leading many to eventual collapse.

While some argue that such programs are necessary to “attune” people to participation in democratic assemblies, or to gain their interest, Bookchin argues that people by and large are already ready for direct democracy, all that is missing is the incentive of such institutions offering people real power over their daily lives.

 

Legitimacy crisis

As states across the world abandon the enlightenment values of liberal humanism, they only rely on the principle of might as a right, cult of personalities, and populist white supremacy.

Some argue that the rise of the right across the world means that we have to reassert the power of the state—and build up those services it has started to abandon. However, the legitimacy crisis of the state in this country is not the result of it providing less services—it is the result of the complete denigration of moral authority invested in the halls of government. As states across the world abandon the enlightenment values of liberal humanism, they only rely on the principle of might as a right, cult of personalities, and populist white supremacy.  As such, we must diligently develop popular assemblies and organizations, training people in the art of civic engagement and duty. We need to put our arguments forward and we need to create space for other people to do the same. We need to advance our ethics. To acquire actual power is an utmost priority in our increasingly authoritarian and hierarchical society that denies us it. The goal of libertarian municipalism is thus total community control over an entire municipality.

By focusing on gaining popular control of the instruments, resources, and institutions currently wielded by the ruling class or local economic elites, communities could gain access through redistribution to the necessities of life in much longer-lasting and meaningful ways. For Bookchin, municipalism must center a redistributive political strategy. While much left strategy today prioritizes the creation of alternative economic institutions such as cooperatives or mutual aid programs, libertarian municipalism emphasizes the creation of the alternative political institution of the popular assembly. By focusing our time and energy on the creation and empowerment of these alternative political institutions working class people would eventually be able to gain access to an entire cities economic resources rather than the simply what can be collectively shared from the wage labor of other exploited peoples.  

In South Africa, Abahlali baseMjondolo organizes shack dwellers into locally based, direct democratic assemblies. Photo: Enough is Enough

An example from South Africa

A great example of a political organization that advances these principles is Abahlali baseMjondolo, a.ka., the South African Shack Dwellers Movement. This organization is based in the struggle of South Africa’s most impoverished, and emerged out of struggles for poor peoples’ right to construct improvised dwellings to live in. They are oriented around a directly democratic assembly model. They regularly engage in direct action through land occupations where they give people control of the land. Their movement has been successful in arguing for a form of democratic development where all peoples have a voice over urban development. Despite harsh repression, including the murder of many of their activists by state forces, they are quickly becoming one of South Africa’s largest left organizations with over 30,000 members, and chapters and elected officials in cities and towns across the country. They are pushing the imagination of what a directly democratic society could look like, while prioritizing political confrontation.

They describe their organizational model as a “party non-party”, for the way it engages in the political sphere, of running candidates and legislation as a normal political party yet different considering their organizational model and tactics, and in the sense that such candidates must have the mandate of popular assemblies while running only in local elections. The South African Shack Dwellers movement is agitating around that essential political question of “Where shall power exist and who shall exercise it?” in ways that put the question to the public at large. Its combination of direct democracy, direct action, and strategic local electoralism has made Abahlali baseMjondolo one of the most prominent political organizations in one of the worlds’ only countries where the left seems to be winning. As the rest of the world fears fascism, socialist land redistribution is being discussed in South Africa and Abahlali baseMjondolo has a prominent voice in leading this process. This South African movement shows the power of running insurgent candidates who are beholden to expressing the immediate necessity of establishing directly democratic dual power situations in our communities, cities, and municipalities.

The MST (Movimento Sem Terra), Brazil’s landless workers movement, at a rally before the occupation of a 13,000 acre farm. Photo: Paul Smith

Fighting fascism with full democracy

 In times of fascist dictatorship, we are likely to find broad appeal in fighting to salvage and develop an actual democracy. 

As a movement, libertarian municipalism is a marginal tendency even within the left. For these ideas to hit the grander stage, we need to communicate them in bigger ways, develop local assemblies, build a base through engaging in local fights and run insurgent candidates on our revolutionary platform. Simply put, we need assembly-based municipalist platformist organizations like the South African Shack Dwellers Movement, that are able to elevate our political positions and make them visible. Where our ideas enter into mainstream public discourse and where our organizations give people real access to power over their daily lives and existing institutions.  

We need to build on the cultural fabric of an America that values a certain conception of democracy through bringing the term’s contradiction into full light while offering our alternative. In times of fascist dictatorship, we are likely to find broad appeal in fighting to salvage and develop an actual democracy. Further, there is a need to prepare ourselves for the inevitable dark and trying times we face, as our political situation in the United States has become increasingly volatile and unpredictable.

Our very survival over the coming years is at stake. In the face of a completely hostile fascist state and a growing right wing militia movement who very soon could begin purges against the left as Steve Bannon’s friend Jair Bolsonaro, the Brazilian dictator-in-waiting is promising, we should be developing self defense programs to protect not just our organizing communities but our communities at large from persecution.

The establishment of a popular direct democracy would imply the popular control, radical reform or the outright abolition of police forces in favor of some form of volunteer defense forces who would be under the jurisdiction of the new popular government. Such a force could fill the essential duties of community defense and safety, while allowing our communities to address many of the systemic issues with our current racist, white supremacist policing and criminal justice system.

Unless we rapidly begin communicating coherent programs for libertarian municipalist dual power I fear that we will have little real ability to stop this inevitable fascist creep. In times of dictatorship, rising fascism and hopelessness we need to offer people real lived examples of direct democracy, give them access to power and boldly put these ideas into public discourse. We can win the legitimacy battle by building a base through engaging in local campaigns that give people more power and control over their lives and communities.  We can do this alongside running candidates with revolutionary municipalist platforms, even if we don’t think they have a chance. If our ideas are true and we are true to ourselves we might just end up winning!

We shouldn’t fear putting our ideas out there, communicating our desired world and our utopia, even if we don’t have all of the organizational bits and pieces put together to prefigure it. We never will until we abolish these systems. We have to get comfortable with that and stay true to our ethics and vision and communicate that in bigger and better ways while giving others inspiration to join in, shape it and work with us to push the world off its tracks to oblivion.

Tyler Anderson is a community organizer based in Portland Oregon. They were a key outside support organizer with the Sept. 9th international prison strike and have co-founded several communalist projects including Demand Utopia.

To receive our next article by mailing list, subscribe here.

Why we need a socialist spirituality

Lighting the candle at a Ferguson rally. Gerry Lauzon / Flickr.
Lighting the candle at a Ferguson rally. Gerry Lauzon / Flickr.

by Graham Jones

I have always been secretly spiritual. Growing up, it was difficult to avoid. Catholic ornaments scattered around the house by my mum. Sat on the pews of countless dusty, empty churches, listening to my dad as he repaired their organs. Playing the piano at Christmas: O Little Town of Bethlehem, Away in a Manger, Silent Night. The nativity scene under the tree. At school the Children’s Bible was my favorite book, my link to a magical past. I sat in assemblies, singing hymns with back straight and falsetto soaring over the other bored, slouching bodies around me. I would apologize silently to God for my impure thoughts.

And then I grew away from it. Hymns turned to pop songs. Bibles turned to novels. Thoughts of God turned to thoughts of the atom. Psychological submission turned to rebellion. Jesus stopped being real at about the same time as Santa.

I welcomed it. It felt like maturity, a release from authority and fantasy. Yet I never lost the yearning for … something. A greater purpose, a feeling of wonder. I felt snatches of it from time to time, but always fleeting—in a song, a film, or a moment of love. So I buried myself in rapturous, ethereal music. In quiet contemplative arthouse cinema. In romantic obsessions. In hindsight, I was longing for a secular divinity.

Atheists talk about replacing love of God with love of science – but where are the churches where we worship the infinite? Where are the hymns we sing to the glory of the electron? Where are the accepting scientific communities we can turn to for ethical guidance (that don’t require a PhD to engage in)? Just as the individual seeker of truth replaces the community of faith, our support systems have been increasingly privatized and individualized – to therapists, doctors, job centers, the nuclear family. And to ‘self-care’, which many have noted can play both a liberatory or an oppressive role. Freedom from religious dogma had its drawbacks: atomization, which in turn was integral to the success of neoliberalism.

Many people know, rationally, that global warming is bad. But it doesn’t hit them in the chest. The information they receive is divorced from a wider understanding of place in the universe, divorced from their bodies.

Our understanding of the universe has become divorced from our bodies. Far from increasing our awareness, the dominance of atheist rationalism has stripped people of their systems of explanation. Speculation and creativity in understanding the world is patronized and attacked. ‘No, you’re wrong. Trust the experts’. Yet as long as that expert knowledge is so safely guarded behind paywalls, university walls, cultural and language barriers, there is not and cannot be a public understanding of science. Capitalism fuels not just economic inequality, but educational inequality too.

Many people know, rationally, that global warming is bad. But it doesn’t hit them in the chest. The information they receive is divorced from a wider understanding of place in the universe, divorced from their bodies. You would scream at those who tried to burn down your house. Many have forgotten how to scream.

 

The left

The socialist left, at least in the West, tends to avoid spirituality, often seeing it as directly contradicting the materialist philosophy associated with communism. And yet those on the left most attracted to spirituality and its embodied practices – such as in the peace movement – tend to move away from what socialists would think of as a materialist analysis of society (sometimes even veering into pseudoscience and orientalism). This ambivalence toward spirituality has implications for how the left organizes in communities. Given that the vast majority of global workers are in some way religious, to lack a spiritual practice (or a proper appreciation of it) is a barrier to creating trust and solidarity, and hinders movement building.

Given that the vast majority of global workers are in some way religious, to lack a spiritual practice is a barrier to creating trust and solidarity, and hinders movement building.

So how do we move beyond this division and create a synthesis of socialism, science and spirituality? Can atheists reclaim spirituality without necessitating a return to religion (and without patronizing those who do)? It’s not enough to simply appeal to people to learn more about religions – we have to actually construct spaces in which people can come together to collectively explore these questions, to develop emotional bonds with one another. Rational inquiry alone is not enough; people need to see the relevance to their own lives and feelings. They need to experience spirituality and recognize it as such.

To begin with then, we need to define ‘spiritual’ more precisely. This will help us to show how religious and non-religious people share certain rapturous bodily experiences, regardless of the system they have for explaining it.

 

Pluralistic spirituality

Rather than merely being a synonym for ‘religious’, I take spirituality to be something distinct: the bodily experience associated with religiousness. In the eyes of theoretical physicist Fritjof Capra, spirituality conceived in this way is fully consistent with complex systems science, and particularly the theory of embodied cognition:

Spiritual experience is an experience of aliveness of mind and body as a unity. Moreover, this experience of unity transcends not only the separation of mind and body but also the separation of self and world. The central awareness in these spiritual moments is a profound sense of oneness with all, a sense of belonging to the universe as a whole.

With this in mind, I take spirituality to mean:

  • exploring the metaphysics of the infinite
  • which becomes expressed in ecstatic embodied experiences
  • and which informs our ethics at both the individual, collective and wider social scales

To put it simply, it involves asking three questions: What exists beyond my immediate perception? How does this make me feel? And what therefore does acting justly entail? This includes religious belief in the traditional sense, but also goes beyond it. The feeling of being humbled by the scale of the universe when staring into the night sky. The feeling of the weight of history and your debt to it when walking through an old building. The feeling of infinite power and possibility on a protest march, surrounded by your friends and community in joyful union. All of these are comparable to a ‘religious experience’.

Whilst this definition allows us to identify spirituality in secular experiences, it does not imply that all of these experiences are good. For example, nationalism might also fall within this understanding:

  • a metaphysics based on racial and cultural essentialism
  • becomes expressed in the embodied practices of singing anthems, pride in the flag, and love for the monarchy
  • and it informs the ethics and organizational principles of hierarchy, fear of difference, and violence seen as legitimate for protecting racial or cultural homogeneity

As a response to the rise of nationalism in Western countries today, some on the left have urged for nationalism with a progressive flavor. However, I would reject any suggestion that the left adopt elements of nationalism in order to be successful. Ash Sarkar from Novara Media details why English nationalism can never be disentangled from racism and imperialism. Nevertheless, it is instructive for us to ask why nationalism is so successful in the West, where the left currently is not.

It is instructive for us to ask why nationalism is so successful in the West, where the left currently is not. To actually succeed against nationalism we need to have something as emotionally powerful.

To actually succeed against nationalism we need to have something as emotionally powerful. And to do that we need shared practices for creating communal, embodied emotional connections, based around a shared ethics and metaphysics. A socialist spirituality, but one which is internationalist and intersectional.

What would a socialist spirituality look like? In my view, it would need to meet some key criteria. We firstly need a metaphysics which bridges the divide of spirituality, science and socialism. In my view, this requires acknowledging the constant motion and interconnectedness of everything.

Secondly, we need to take this framework and apply it to the body: how do we position ourselves in this world? What does it suggest about power and oppression? And what practices can help us to feel this knowledge? I call this radical mindfulness.

Lastly, we need look at the ethical and organizational principles and strategies that emerge from these practices. Let’s call this the care ethic, to contrast it with the work ethic.

Crucially, we need to keep socialist spirituality simple. For one thing, this will allow it to be more easily understood by non-academics – something which the theory-focused left often fails to do. It also gives space for the framework to adapt as our knowledge expands and changes. And also, most importantly for me, this allows for it to remain relatively consistent with differing beliefs as to whether any deity or supernatural force is involved. This can help form the basis of shared spaces – perhaps even organizations – that allow socialist collaboration across faith, without requiring people to divorce their spirituality from their organizing.

Because whatever your position on the ultimate nature of the universe, we need to be able to work together on earthly matters like capitalism and climate change – while we still have an Earth left to fight for.

This is the second article in a series on Spirituality, Science and Socialism, a version of which was originally published on Graham Jones’ blog, Life Glug. You can read the other parts here: 1, 2, 3, and (forthcoming) 4, 5.

Graham Jones is a writer and organizer based in London, and can be found on Twitter as @onalifeglug. If you would like to support their work, you can do so through Paypal or Patreon.

“Trading one superstition for another”

Source: Thomas Allison - Daily Texan
Source: Huffington Post

by David Summerhays

My first thought on reading The Theology of Consensus by L. A. Kauffman—which recently appeared in the Berkeley Journal of Sociology, and then reached a wider audience in Jacobin Magazine—is that I have rarely read an article so important, thoughtful, and well-researched that nonetheless does little more than trade one superstition for another. The concerns she raises are critical and seldom discussed yet the author seemingly fails a test of basic critical thinking: she never asks if the problem she deftly analyzes might be pandemic. That is the fatal flaw of Kauffman’s well-researched article.

 

The Good

Kauffman’s article begins by tracing the origins of consensus decision-making within activist circles to two Quakers in the 1970s who adapted the practice from Quaker tradition.

Kauffman describes consensus decision-making as “a process in which groups come to agreement without voting… [G]roups that make decisions by consensus work to refine the plan until everyone finds it acceptable.” She adds that it “has been a central feature of direct action movements for nearly 40 years.”

The first crucial and thoughtful concern the author raises is the danger of moving practices from the religious realm to the secular realm. Kauffman points out that when this occurs such practices can become superstitious, a sort of magical technique, rather than the contemplative practice or symbol they were intended to be. I could not agree more with the author: taking religious material (e.g. myth) as a blueprint for practical action is a recipe for disaster. She writes: “Consensus can easily be derailed by those acting in bad faith. But it’s also a process that is ill-equipped to deal with disagreements that arise from competing interests rather than simple differences of opinion. The rosy idea embedded in the process that unity and agreement can always be found if a group is willing to discuss and modify a proposal sufficiently is magical thinking, divorced from the real-world rough-and-tumble of political negotiation.”

Indeed, Quakers do await a kind of “unity” to appear among us, but that unity is inseparable from the presence of the divine, so to speak. In other words, unity should be seen as a miracle. We could say symbolically that we have some control but not final say over unity happening. Unity is not literal, in the same way Christians should not read the Bible literally; nor should we expect unity to necessarily fully arise in reality, just as it would be unwise for a Christian such as my brother to hold his breath until Christ returns.

Any “faith” in consensus necessarily arising is indeed misplaced and would create quasi-magical expectations for consensus practice and occult its limitations. Like any superstition, this would lead to a lack of realism and therefore ineffective action that poorly serves the cause of justice. Rituals and prayer cannot replace thoughtful action. Nor can a superstitious view of consensus sustain hope and courage in the long-term. As superstitions are exposed, the only options are apathy, cynicism, or fanaticism.

Just as we must protest when an organized religion discourages us from acting on urgent social problems, Kauffman is right to call us to be just as critical and suspicious of superstition with regards to consensus. The symbolism concealed in these superstitions may provide necessary meaning and direction to our lives, and that is worth celebrating, but superstition as a plan for action does not ultimately serve the oppressed. Kauffman convincingly shows that superstitious understandings of consensus do exist within activist circles and do cause problems, even if she perhaps exaggerates how widespread the problem is.

The second concern the author raises is even more important: consensus process is an expression of middle-class, white culture and can be alienating to others. I could hardly agree more when Kauffman notes:

“[The consensus] tradition has been imbued with whiteness. The Clamshell Alliance was, after all, an overwhelmingly white organization, bringing together white residents of the New Hampshire seacoast with white Quakers and an array of mostly white radicals from Boston and beyond for action in a white rural region…

“Time and again, activists of color found the use of consensus in majority-white direct action circles to be alienating and off-putting, and white activists’ reverent insistence on the necessity and superiority of the process has exacerbated difficulties in multiracial collaboration and alliance-building.”

When white activists insist on decision-making practices that are a profound expression of white, middle-class culture, a kind of white supremacy results—a white supremacy that endlessly claims to stand for racial justice while viewing its own culture as universally valid and therefore refusing to negotiate its customs. This leads to strained relationships and low motivation for cooperation.

Kauffman’s critique of consensus correctly states, moreover, that this practice does not remove all lines of privilege. It favours people with the time, energy, and patience to deal with a consensus process. Particularly if these processes are poorly facilitated, they can be lengthy and draining.

Nonetheless, as a Quaker and environmental organizer, there are some less impressive parts of this article.

 

Source:  #Hashtagrevolution
Source: Beyond the Choir

The Bad

Something akin to consensus is a frequent practice in many North American aboriginal cultures (cf. the Iroquois Confederation). Even as a Quaker, I learned about consensus in a restorative justice training, heavily inspired by aboriginal cultures. It seems overwhelmingly likely that the development of consensus in activist culture was influenced by a few centuries of cohabiting North America with aboriginal peoples. Moreover, anarchists have been inspired by Quakers since the 19th century, so although I have not analyzed the author’s source material, it seems unlikely that consensus was helicoptered in—out of nowhere—by two Quakers in the 1970s as Kauffman claims.

The author also doesn’t mention that consensus seems to have been a reaction against relatively top-heavy organizing of the 1960s that, of course, also favoured people with privilege. The assassinations of Malcolm X and Martin Luther King reminded activists that charismatic organizing can be stopped cold by lopping off the heads of leaders and offending organizations. The challenges involved in organizing for justice in our world are immense. So although it is important to know the limitations of consensus, Kauffman’s article would have been much stronger if it included any reason to believe that the difficulties many experience when practicing consensus are inherent to consensus rather than inherent in the difficult nature of the problems activists seek to solve through consensus.

The author also claims that “better practices” than consensus exist but did not give any examples—which was unfair and I thought suspicious. She accuses consensus of magical thinking, but it would be magical thinking on her part if she believes that any quick-fix replacement for consensus will magically generate an egalitarian, multi-cultural revolution, or even necessarily get us one step closer. It is impossible to evaluate her claim that better practices exist without an example. This omission is fundamental, diminishing the value of her article, which is excellent in so many ways.

The activists I work with know that consensus isn’t magic. Nor have I been to many consensus sessions (or Quaker meetings) that lasted 4-8 hours… this concern does not seem entirely insurmountable and it is obvious that consensus benefits from training and reflection.

In addition, while her exposition of superstition inherent in consensus is excellent, her rejection of consensus-process generally seems exaggerated and polemical. It is quite possible to have a successful and efficient consensus process that has zero expectations of “unity” arising by magic. As Kauffman notes, consensus would be ill-advised when parties have differing material interests or a power imbalance (e.g. divorce proceedings in cases of domestic violence). But consensus is used every day, quite frequently to everyone’s satisfaction. My experience is that usually it works just fine, particularly in situations of relatively low diversity of opinion or when well-facilitated.

Nor have I met many people who seemed to have the dogmatic attachment to consensus the author seems to think is widespread. The activists I work with know that consensus isn’t magic. Nor have I been to many consensus sessions (or Quaker meetings) that lasted 4-8 hours. The long ones I can think of were, not surprisingly, poorly facilitated. Kauffman is correct that “consensus-specialists” can become arcane to outsiders, but this concern does not seem insurmountable and it is obvious that consensus benefits from training and reflection.

But let us move on to far larger problems.

 

Source: New Yorker
Source: New Yorker

 

The Ugly

Despite the misgivings above, I find the author makes a very interesting and plausible link between consensus and Quaker theology, but this raises the entire problem with the article: Kauffman is implying that every other activist practice besides consensus emanates from entirely secular and rational sources, having no religious roots and certainly no superstitions. She implies that it’s easy or even possible to find an activist practice that is free from the kinds of superstition and white culture brilliantly illustrated in her article. This assumption is fundamental to her article, for otherwise, if she was aware that activist practice was rife with superstition and almost inextricable from white culture, her article would simply be a baffling call for us to exchange one superstitious expression of white culture for another. Her implicit assumption is necessary for her article and it is wrong.

Kauffman has therefore put her finger on a whale of a problem: Enlightenment superstitions underlie a vast majority of leftist thought and activity. Enlightenment culture, the tragic bedrock of the radical left, is inextricable from white culture, and even white supremacist, cis-hetero-patriarchy.

We know that modern culture and activist culture in particular is filled with superstition and is a profound expression of white culture, and perhaps even white supremacy. Many historians, political scientists, and philosophers have already explored the problematic ways that ideals of democracy, freedom, equality, and even the modern project of “rationally remaking the world” are rooted in Christian myths, superstitious, and inextricable from those superstitions (cf. Hegel, Nietzsche, Weber, Schopenhauer, Paul Tillich, Charles Taylor, Adorno, etc.). They are equally inseparable from white culture. This work may not be well known and its implications for activist practice may be very little explored, but it is a solid and respected body of literature.

Kauffman has therefore put her finger on a whale of a problem: Enlightenment superstitions underlie a vast majority of leftist thought and activity. Enlightenment culture, the bedrock of the radical left, is inextricable from white culture, from superstition, and from white supremacist, cis-hetero-patriarchy.

To understand this, let’s take, for example, the Christian myth of the “end times,” the mythical events “after” the Last Judgment under the reign of Christ. In Christian theology, the mythical “end-times” remove the possibility for human reason to err and to sin but rather human reason is reunited with the ability to perfectly discern truth, justice, and love. Within this state of ecstasy, humanity could leave behind all symbol, ritual, and myth, freely discarding all its traditions, for they would no longer be necessary when God is “transparent” (symbolically speaking) to all through every bit of creation. Humanity would arrive at a fully Rational culture that is rich, inexhaustible, and totally liberated. A culture that is Rational would be universally valid, rather than particular and relative.

Although they did not say so explicitly, the thinkers of the Enlightenment, the intellectual founders of modern society, were in effect claiming that these “end-times” are nigh. The Enlightenment, with its optimism about the power of real-life reason to overcome error and selfishness, began a project of “rethinking everything,” a universal application of Reason. This is the modern project. They predicted that we have the power today to bring about the Kingdom of God. The coming of Reason would mean that the world’s cultures were unnecessary and could be discarded as part of a global (colonial) effort that was at first missionary before it was educative and liberatory. The European Christian traditions of white supremacist, cis-hetero-partriarchy were called Rational and universal; everything else was seen as inferior and irrational. “Liberation” and “education” has always meant some genuine liberation and genuine edification mixed with oppression and the undermining and destruction of traditions throughout the world. That is why the victims of this Enlightenment superstition have always primarily been the oppressed, be it through colonialism that sought to educate away other cultures or through a “liberation” that in fact ensures the domination of European tradition, e.g., the European economy or cultural norms.

It is therefore not easy to find any political ideal that is not drenched in this founding superstition of the Enlightenment, the confusion of Reason with reason.

For instance, the Enlightenment ideal of maximizing freedom (liberalism) makes no sense without the confusion of Reason with reason. When different actors are liberated to compete, freedom without Reason can just as easily lead to oppression and destruction as it can to harmony. Economic liberalism (commonly known as the ideal of capitalism) cannot be maintained without a faith that Reason will prevail once liberated. The same goes for social liberalism and even utopian anarchism: they depend on a faith in Harmony-through-freedom.

Many, when rejecting liberalism then turn to the Enlightenment ideal of a progressively more Rational state governed by “the People.” But meritocracy, linked to the ideals of democracy, equality, education, technology, objective science, and Rational policy, suffers the same problem: a faith in Progress as Reason begets greater Reason.

The problem of consensus is simply a subset of the superstition of Harmony arriving through the respectful and free competition of ideas, aided by Progressively more skillful facilitation and participation. Kauffman’s article seeks to “liberate” us from the hidden oppression of consensus or help us Progress to an improved practice. In other words, she trades one superstition for another. She correctly exposes one superstition but with seemingly zero awareness of how giant the problem is.

Kauffman’s article seeks to “liberate” us from the hidden oppression of consensus or help us Progress to an improved practice. In other words, she trades one superstition for another. She correctly exposes one superstition but with seemingly zero awareness of how giant the problem is.

It is as if she discovered dead the canary in a coal mine and suggested we replace the canary. In fact, we need to evacuate the mine before the fumes that killed the canary kill us. Certain understandings of consensus contain superstition, to be sure, but consensus-superstitions are only a tiny subset of Enlightenment superstition.

This leads us to Kauffman’s other point—that consensus contained white practices that were alienating to other races. We could make the exact same argument about the Enlightenment—that it took white supremacist, cis-hetero-patriarchal values and called them “Rational,” and therefore transcultural and universal. Any Enlightenment political ideal (freedom, democracy, Rational policy) contains some element of white supremacist, cis-hetero-patriarchy.

Dropping Enlightenment superstitions would be a gargantuan task for anyone and discarding one’s own culture is quite unlikely. The entirety of modern culture needs a radical reevaluation that keeps its truth but scraps its superstitions and supremacy, which is an enormously complex task.

The radical left needs a radical transformation. For the past century it has criticized liberalism but replaced it with the ideal of democracy (economic or political), which is inseparable from the superstition of Progress. But then it criticizes totalitarianism but replaces it with the ideal of liberalism, which is also inseparable from the superstition of Harmony-through-freedom.

In short, the radical left has been exchanging superstition for superstition for the past century but now we are stuck: socialism is widely viewed as an ideal that “doesn’t work” but liberalism is also an obvious failure. Now, nobody cares to listen to the radical left, and for good reason. This leads to articles such as Kauffman’s which correctly criticize current practice but are utterly unable to propose something free of superstition that is also equal to the massive problems of modernity.

What might this shift in the radical left look like? Although it would be out of the scope of this article to describe it in detail, we can look at how it would impact consensus. First of all, the shift needed would look nothing like what Kauffman proposes. Kauffman’s approach to consensus is typical of the Enlightenment: for her, practices involving superstitions are to be entirely dropped, since no symbol, myth, or ritual will be necessary in the Rational end-times, which apparently are nigh. Consensus for her is something to be entirely discarded. Certainly I agree with Kauffman that superstitions make a poor blueprint for practical action but superstitions do make excellent myths, symbols, and rituals—the type of meaning-making activity that gives order and direction to our lives and has the power to comfort us in difficult times in ways that literal language struggles to do. In the “meantime” we humans need myths, symbols, and rituals and so do activists. Communities, after all, are built on them. And a community of resistance, at least in my opinion, is precisely what we need.

The real solution to consensus, and for the radical left generally, is to explicitly transform superstitions into explicit rituals and symbols—rituals and symbols that express the ideals of white, middle-class culture. We must then affirm that many people need these symbols and defend them while firmly rejecting a purely literal understanding of them. We must equally reject white supremacy by affirming white symbols, ideals, and rituals as important to those who are moved by them but denying their universal validity.

Consensus needs to be finally recognized as having ritual elements, with its symbolic meanings expressed. Doing so clarifies that it is not only a blueprint for rational action but linked to meaning-making cultural activity through ritual and symbol. Saying it has ritual elements does not to deny that it also includes practical and technical function, in the same way that saying it has symbolic and metaphorical elements does not deny that it has literal elements. For instance, sitting in a circle symbolically expresses the white, Enlightenment ideal of equality but also practically arranges people so that they can hear and see each other. Seeking everyone’s opinion is a symbol for the kind of justice we seek to create within a world where billions simply don’t count, but also as practical within the goal of building power.

The superstitions that Kauffman mentions about consensus—that expecting Harmony to arise through “non-hierarchical space”—can be seen as a symbol for our shared ideals of liberation and caring for all of creation that we feel called to fight for. Although it would be utopian to expect such a world to ever come to pass, we are called in this moment to seize the opportunities around us to move toward such a world. Understanding the symbols and ritual involved in consensus is inextricable from rejecting any superstitious expectations about its results. No matter how perfect the world consensus symbolizes, consensus-practice will always be messy as a blueprint for rational action in the “meantime.”

Consensus needs to be affirmed as a beautiful and effective ritual of white culture, its history as appropriated from indigenous people must be recognized and thanks given. By recognizing consensus as an expression of white culture (and it is white culture now, even if the form was inspired by other cultures), a genuine negotiation of practices can happen when doing interracial or intercultural work. The intuitive appeal of consensus to white people—rooted in ritual and symbol—can finally be expressed humbly and without implicit white supremacy. Consensus would no longer be seen as Rational but rather white.

It’s a very worthwhile task to perform a religious analysis of modern culture and activist culture in particular. I’m glad to see the author doing it but she stopped about a light year short of finishing the job. I have rarely found an article that raises such important problems with such well-researched points that was so completely inadequate to the task of even beginning to resolve them. Yet I must say I am grateful for her very fruitful effort.

David Summerhays is a Quaker and environmental organizer who organizes community conversations and teaches piano.

Does The Climate Movement Have A Leader?

Bill McKibben during his "Do the Math" tour
Bill McKibben during his “Do the Math” tour.                 Source: rollingstone.com

by David Gray-Donald

Climate change is big. As is the climate movement seeking to confront the issue, though it is not yet as powerful as the fossil fuel industry. People all over the world are standing up in very different ways, as evidenced by a quick glance at the over-800 partner organizations for the Peoples’ Climate March in New York City on September 21. It’s a real challenge to bring together these very different groups.

In Canada alone examples abound of the diversity of people and range of strategies being used to address the problem. Many people at the Unist’ot’en camp are returning to their lands and effectively blocking pipelines. At universities, people like McGill Environment student & Divest McGill organizer Kristen Perry are demanding endowment funds become fossil fuel free. Shaina Agbayani and others are focusing on the relationship between migrant justice and climate change. In Toronto’s Bay Street offices people like Toby Heaps are selling low-carbon investment strategies. Amanda Lickers, a Haudenasaunee environmental organizer, is working to oppose fossil-fuel infrastructure (including pipeline) projects destroying native communities. The scale of the challenge has been responded to with many strategies from diverse groups that together are sometimes called the climate movement.

In this movement, there is no central leadership, no intelligentsia behind closed doors like in Ralph Ellison’s 1952 novel Invisible Man. Ellison’s protagonist, an unnamed young black man who becomes a spokesperson for what could be called the civil rights movement, is told what to do and what to say by a small group of white men using supposedly scientific formulas that perfectly guide the movement. Thankfully this is not how the climate movement works: it is more decentralized and people have more autonomy to act as they see fit. This comes with its own set of challenges, as seen recently during Occupy and a few decades ago with the leaderless women’s liberation movement.

But wait, interacting with climate activism may give you the feeling that there is a centralized organization and a mastermind leader.

When someone hears “350” mentioned and asks what it is, I’ve often heard the response that 350.org is the climate movement and Bill McKibben its leader. This is easy to believe when articles on environmental news sites like Grist and RTCC announcing the Peoples’ Climate March include only McKibben and 350.org by name as leaders and planners. The RTCC article begins “Led by Bill McKibben…”, and it is his thoughtful articles that appear in youth-targeted Rolling Stone. The 350.org “Do The Math” tour description reads “In November 2012, Bill McKibben and 350.org hit the road to build a movement strong enough to change the terrifying math of the climate crisis.” The notion that McKibben is the leader and 350.org the movement is in large part due to the way the organization has framed itself from the start.

The story of 350.org is similar to that of many NGOs in that it began with a core dedicated group and a compelling call to action. As McKibben himself likes to point out, it started out at a college in Vermont with 7 people, and they decided to each take a continent and build a movement.

The organization has been acting out that global narrative ever since. They’ve gained prominence and power that most grassroots groups would never dream of through a combination of millions of dollars of support from the Rockefellers and others and a persistent mentality that they lead the worldwide movement-building process. Following a notable lack of discussion with other groups, 350.org called out for and selected 500 people to gather in June 2013 in Turkey for a Global Power Shift and claimed it as “the starting point for a new phase in the international climate movement.”

The well-intentioned Americans of 350.org venturing overseas to be the global umbrella for the movement have created an organization that has unfortunately bulldozed over other voices in the climate movement and has come to be seen by many as the movement itself. So while the movement is bigger and more complex than 350.org, having this unofficial and unaccountable focal point limits how we think about and interact with climate activism.

Take, for example, the problem that those who have the least wealth will likely face the worst of climate change-caused catastrophes including drought, flooding and storms. This means that those who already face deep injustices will have very different demands from those who simply want to preserve the earth as it is. We need spokespeople who can be accountable to these groups. Unfortunately, 350.org’s insistence that they represent the movement while they don’t actually respond to these diverse demands ultimately hurts the movement.

In fairness, considerable credit is due to 350.org and to Bill McKibben for building momentum. McKibbon is a good writer, if over-simplifying, as seen in his very widely read July 2012 Rolling Stone article. Recently he has been sitting down to have serious conversations with powerful people like university presidents to push the divestment agenda. As a celebrity in the climate world he is drawing big crowds to the Peoples’ Climate March in NYC, and at hype talks in recent months 350.org has used his draw to put the spotlight on some local groups and individuals. The staff of 350.org seem very motivated, with their hearts in the right place, and the problems of being a big international NGO are not unique to 350.org.

That said, constructive criticism is what will help the movement learn and improve. At a September 2 event in Montreal organized by 350.org and local campus groups, some issues were clearly visible. First, there were two lines of French spoken by all the speakers combined, a shame for an event happening in French-speaking Quebec, a hotbed of radicalism in North America. Thankfully the audience did hear some Kanien’keha (Mohawk), the language native to the area, from Ellen Gabriel. At one point McKibben attributed the initiation of the fossil fuels divestment campaign one half to journalist and 350.org board member Naomi Klein and one half to Nelson Mandela. Hopefully Klein, a thorough researcher, would dismiss such a claim outright as disinvestment is not a particularly new tactic for showing disapproval of an activity, even in the climate world. Throughout his talk, McKibben perpetuated the idea that 350.org was the movement, that it was the umbrella organization connecting everyone, that the 7 people from Vermont who went out build a worldwide movement had been more or less successful.

Near the end of his presentation, while he has talking about getting things right, Amanda Lickers, mentioned above, interrupted McKibben. He at no point tried to cut her off. She brought up the lack of acknowledgement of the centrality of indigenous contributions to the front-lines struggle to resist extraction and pipelines, the erasure of indigenous history in the planning of the upcoming much-hyped Peoples’ Climate March in New York City, concerns about inclusion of people most affected by climate change, and more. This drew many cheers of support from the audience. After she spoke, McKibben did not responded to her comments directly. He was visibly uncomfortable and while he briefly and generally mentioned the importance of front-line communities he unfortunately treated Amanda Lickers and everything she said as an interesting aside that was easy to ignore. In a place like North America, indigenous groups have been expressing and acting on their understanding of the earth for many centuries longer than the 25 years since McKibben’s first big book came out. In many ways, indigenous groups are at the front of the struggle here and in much of the rest of the world. They are more central than to the side, but they keep being pushed out, which is part of the injustice of worldwide colonialism. And if justice is not the goal in this movement, what is? A spokesperson better understanding the movement and the forces at play in our society, and conscious of the way they themselves perpetuate those forces, may have been able to better address Lickers’ comments and build a constructive dialogue with the audience.

It’s not that McKibben is a bad guy. It’s that he is currently not a good spokesperson for the climate movement, which is effectively what he is now given how he and 350.org project themselves and are seen by the media and general public. Naomi Klein will fully share the spotlight once her book is released. As with most of us (myself included), McKibben needs to undo his colonial mindset. As evidenced by Lickers’ interruption, when he speaks it is not on behalf of the whole movement and not on behalf of the most affected nor those fighting the hardest like the Unist’ot’en. The lack of confidence and imagination within the movement to put forward spokespeople intentionally but instead allow McKibben to remain at the front limits what it can do.

McKibben writes uncomplicated articles and speaks in ways comfortably relatable to American liberal-arts college audiences. While it is important to talk to those people, we need a movement with broader scope bringing forth dialogues about justice from different perspectives. We need to think hard about how the movement is represented, we need to listen to the voices in it, and to identify leaders intentionally. Being seen as spokespeople, McKibben and Klein could stress that they don’t represent anybody, that the main resistance is being done by others often completely separate from 350.org, and they can point to some of those struggles. 350.org can choose to stop over-extending itself in trying to be the movement and to not play the role of selecting who gets put forward as a leader. While not perfect, the Peoples’ Climate March appears to be a good collaboration between groups, and there are exciting possibilities for where the movement can go from here.

David Gray-Donald studied Environment & Biology at McGill University then worked there facilitating community sustainability projects. He is actively part of the struggle to undo our reliance on fossil fuels and is trying to educate himself on how to be a responsible adult male. He lives in Montreal and Toronto.