~ by Massimo De Angelis ~
This is a personal account of the World Congress for Climate Justice (WCCJ), held in Milan from 12 to 15 October. The congress was attended by more than 200 delegates from all over the world and the five continents. On Friday and Saturday, no less than 38 discussion panels were held to assess and oppose climate change in its various aspects and lay the foundations for the creation of an international climate-activist and anti-capitalist movement, what has been called the I International of Climate Activism.
Notes on the World Congress for Climate Justice
I make no claim here to comment on or analyse the four-day World Congress for Climate Justice held in Milan from 12 to 15 October. How could I? I was only able to go for a couple of days, and in these I was only able to attend a small selection of talks. And I was not a delegate of any organisation, I was only representing myself, and my inexhaustible need to navigate within the turbulence of the present in search of breaking points, lights of hope, breaths of fresh air that break with the claustrophobic presence of a socially unimaginable change, yet urgently needed. An international archipelago of young environmental and other activists, within the framework of the courtyards of my old university, which I had not seen for years, seemed to me an excellent opportunity to pacify my need, and satisfy my curiosity to know how the current moment is perceived by the movements, and what the challenges are, decidedly political, within a horizon of climate justice. I return home with an ambiguous, moderately positive feeling.
On the one hand, I have perceived a fairly widespread awareness linking the issue of climate justice to that of overcoming capitalism, that is, linking it to a class issue. The thesis of the articulation between the issue of climate justice and the issue of class was proposed by Imperatore and Leonardi in a recent book (Paola Imperatore and Emanuele Leonardi, L’era della giustizia climatica, Orthotes 2023), and it seems to me to be an important thesis from which to start. An articulation that highlights the emergence of a dual awareness within the movements, the critical awareness of a whole to be changed –capitalism as the hegemonic mode of social cooperation — and that of a point of view of a part that moves, of a transformative and revolutionary subject that seeks to recompose itself. It is good to distinguish this perspective of the whole and the part, because although they are linked, it is from the perspective of the part that moves and articulates horizons of transformation, that a different whole can be reconstituted. Similarly, however, without a critical sense of the whole, the movement of the part is myopic, and cannot discern the actual contours of the challenge before us.
How to somehow make the critical point of view of the whole and the point of view of a self-constituting part for change congruent is, however, still an open challenge. From the critical viewpoint of the whole, it is obvious that capitalism as the hegemonic mode of social co-operation in which we are immersed, cannot promote the ecological revolution necessary for the preservation of life and the maintenance of the global temperature at 1.5 degrees by the end of the century, unless it wants to intentionally commit suicide as a mode of social co-operation. For example, as the Chinese dissident Zhou Qing has shown in one of the talks at the conference, even renewable energy projects, in the hands of acquisitive and growth logic, create unfair and destructive social and environmental effects. In another moment of debate, a young activist put it this way: “We realise that we cannot have an ecological society within capitalism. We also realise that we have to link class struggle and ecological struggles. The question now is: how?”
The question of ‘how’ is approached from the point of view of the part, that is, from the point of view of a part that constitutes itself as a transformative subjectivity. Here, the articulation between ecology and class becomes apparent in the issue of climate justice, in the struggle against deep-seated inequities, which are not only between ‘rich’ (and historically responsible for emissions) and ‘poor’ countries, but also and above all between ‘rich’ and ‘poor’ in each country. The ongoing ecological transformation pursued by the governmental system is making this latter differentiation increasingly problematic, as the maintenance of class hierarchies passes through the polarisation and opposition between ecology and labour, for which the ecological transformation should be paid for by the workers, those who depend on an income to survive, the ‘common’ people.
There was repeated mention at the conference of the need for this part, for this climate justice movement to ‘reconnect with the masses’. There was also repeated reference to the need to mobilise from below. I can only fundamentally agree. But what does it mean to start from the bottom? For some, starting from the bottom means re-proposing a catalogue of direct action tactics, the ‘bottom’ here understood as the absence of political mediation of representation. In the words of another activist: ‘The system that allows continuous pollution is called capitalism. The intersection of patriarchy, racism and ecological destruction is capitalism. So what do we do? Direct action: to stop them from making money. Make production very expensive’.
A tactic that certainly has its validity, struggle increases the cost of production. But here I offer two considerations. Firstly, we can be under no illusions, capitalists do not skimp on security costs when these are necessary to maintain the flow of the capitalist whole. The criminalisation of climate protest — and its innumerable forms of direct action — is now an established fact: see what is happening in Britain; and in France; and Italy is gearing up with the right-wing media throwing dirt at monument defacers (with washable paint!). It is very plausible that attempts at criminalisation will grow as the effects of the climate crisis intensify. The struggle will continue, but some kind of fascism seems to be looming as the only possible horizon of ‘governance’ from the point of view of a power system that does not want to concede anything on capitalism in order to deal with the ever-worsening climate crisis. Secondly, the increase in the cost of production due to direct action is not primarily a problem for the capitalists who, since they monopolise the means of existence, are from this point of view ‘price makers’ and not ‘price takers’. It is the ‘masses’ who are ‘price takers’, because of their dependence on the market for their own reproduction and in a context where alternatives are scarce, or poorly organised compared to capitalist organisation. Direct action is therefore always aimed at trying to balance between an ethical vocation that makes people protest for just things (reason is often on the side of those who protest), and the backlashes coming ‘from below’ itself, i.e. from subjects whose vocation is the need for their own daily reproduction, interrupted by direct action. It is obvious that the need to keep in balance means being able to continue the reasons for protest, to broaden them, to involve more and more people in the movement’s reasons and action. But it also means keeping in balance two reasons which are not in principle opposed, but which are internal to social reproduction in the broadest sense, those of the reproduction of everyday life, and those of the reproduction of planetary living conditions.
It is often forgotten that the ‘bottom’ is dependent for its livelihood on precisely those circuits that we need to reorganise in order to tackle the climate issue (and beyond). To speak of a movement from below, therefore, cannot only include the action of struggle, civil disobedience, protest, in the hope that governments will do something. Since the 1990s, governments have been doing something in concert within the COP system. But their way of doing things has not reduced emissions, nor even stopped them at a plateau, but in the last 30 years has coincided with an increase in emissions that has surpassed the total emissions that were dumped on the environment in the almost 300 previous years, from the mid-1700s to the 1990s (see again the cited book by Imperatore and Leonardi).
The movement from below then can only also be a constitutive movement of alternative forms of social cooperation that replace, gradually but also by leaps and bounds, those that we fight and that are the origin, the meta-cause of climate change. ‘Connecting to the masses’ means connecting to the everyday life of the ‘masses’. And within this framework, the struggle is also the struggle for access to social wealth to be allocated to these alternative forms of social cooperation. It is through the development of the latter, making them more and more accessible and functional for the reproduction of the ‘masses’, which in this sense we can redefine as plural and cooperating multitudes, that we address that side of the equation to be balanced with ecological reproduction, i.e. the reproduction of life in the everyday.
And here the conference, or at least the part I was able to attend, does not seem to me to have given much emphasis to this open issue, difficult to unravel certainly, but fundamental. What in English are called commons, i.e. the basic social cells by which we distinguish a self-governing social cooperation by the producers themselves, where care and social reproduction in the broadest sense are prioritised over profit and accumulation, were rarely presented as a fundamental part of the problematic of ecological transformation. With two important exceptions, however. Firstly, the table on agroecology emphasized the need for the expansion of the commons on which agroecological peasant production is fundamentally based: in the sharing of knowledge, in the self-management of the land and territory, in relational sensitivity to nature, in the establishment of networks of farmers and prosumers that support proximity farming. Within this, but also at other tables, the voice of an indigenous subjectivity emerged clear, from which we in the West still have much to learn. A voice that is rooted in a conception of social transformation that combines struggle and constitutive practice as an alternative to capitalism, within a cosmology that modifies the meaning of ‘natural’ elements such as water and earth, not understood as mere resources, but as constituent elements of our being: ‘within us there is the river that flows’, ‘we are made of earth’. This is a point of view in which production is brought back to a sphere that must be taken into account, because it is conceived within the problematic of the reproduction of life in a broad sense.
Secondly, the table on Building Social Power for Climate Justice, which I was told about, highlighted the convergence between ecological movements and the workers of GKN, a company in the automotive sector in Campi Bisanzio (Florence) closed in 2021 by the British financial fund that owned it, with the dismissal of all 400 workers (check this out for more info https://jacobin.com/2023/04/italy-gkn-factory-occupation-transform-production-workers-jobs-climate-change ). The case of the former GKN is exemplary because the factory collective was able to build a commons, starting from a context, a situation, i.e. from a knot of contradictions apparently irresolvable within the dominant interpretative and narrative cage. Around the former GKN, a commons has been built, a system of productive and reproductive relations where a plural and porous community rethinks together the categories of ‘work’ and ‘factory’ within the challenges of ecological transformation, mobilises knowledge, also and not only of academic researchers, creates projects, offers proposals and projects that can make different instances of struggle congruent within the problematic of social reproduction in the broadest sense, starting from the context in which they find themselves and the forces they have at their disposal.