Where Collapse Meets Radical Politics
Getting most people to the point of wanting the paradigm shift that transition toward a resilient and just society represents, is a massive and daunting task. Yet the way to go about it seems relatively straightforward and generally agreed upon by transitioners. It involves raising awareness about the inevitability of collapse, the ways the current system disadvantages people, and the ways a simpler system would benefit people, while at the same time building alternatives that both demonstrate what’s possible, become the basis for our future society, and reach out to help those in need. At the same time, the increasing severity of collapse means that the current system becomes less and less viable, and the alternatives more and more useful to the mainstream of society.
How we win the ongoing battle with the existing system, though, is a topic often talked about by the radical left but mostly ignored by transition types (the term ‘transition’ is used here quite broadly to include not just people involved in Transition Towns, but also those involved with permaculture, appropriate technology, community building, awareness raising and so on – the broader transition movement). It’s time we brought these two strands of thought together so that we can approach our predicament with the benefit of both radical political thought and the theories of collapse and transition. I may well be writing from an Australian perspective here (where the economic crisis has not yet hit us very hard), but while it seems that the radical left are discussing collapse a fair bit more than they used to, it still seems to be fully understood and assimilated by only a tiny minority of activists. Meanwhile, amongst transitioners, only a tiny minority seem to understand the need for a radical politics of collapse.
Malcolm Gladwell, in his often-referenced book The Tipping Point, argues that if you can convince one per cent of the population of something, then it will grow and become a movement. If you can then grow your movement to ten per cent of the population, then it will eventually become mainstream. He also points out however, that this will only work IF there is no equally strong counter-movement. This is perhaps the main issue transitioners often neglect.
The counter-movement we’re up against is two-fold. First there is the apathy of individuals who are sufficiently appeased by the status quo, and just want to keep on living as they are. This could theoretically be overcome by the dynamics of collapse forcing them to change their ways. People won’t be sitting on their bum watching their big-screen TV all the time when they can’t afford their electricity bill – they’ll be growing food. In the meantime, however, the inertia in the system that is created by this appeasement and apathy, along with the blind adherence to cultural norms, is definitely something to be worried about.
The second, and I think more worrying, counter-movement is the bid by the powers that be to hold on. You can see this, for instance, in banks and landlords evicting people who can’t pay their mortgages or rent; the fossil fuel industries ramping up highly damaging and only slightly profitable unconventional oil and gas production; other damaging industries like genetically modified food; nuclear and fossil fuel energy; and the military industrial complex. All of these need to cease to exist if we want a humane and environmentally sane world. In the arena of government you see enforcement of regulations that make simpler and more sensible ways of doing things illegal – think, for instance, of composting toilets and the overzealous application of food safety laws. Then you have the continuous building of more and more prisons, the introduction of laws designed to curtail our rights to protest, and free trade agreements which amongst other things, allow corporations to sue governments over local decisions to protect workers, consumers or the environment.
And last but not least, you have the rise of prejudice and fascism, which can best be illustrated by the examples of Nazi Germany and modern-day Greece. Historians are in general agreement that Hitler was voted in by the middle class after they had lost their former wealth in the post-war economic crisis. He offered them two things: an enemy to express their anger toward (Jews), and a promise of future wealth through National Socialism. The Nazis were funded by big corporations, particularly those involved in heavy industry who hoped that Hitler could keep the working class under control in what would otherwise likely have been a time of social revolution.
Today in Greece, to use the most obvious example of many around the world, a very similar story is being told. Economic collapse hit hard and the (former) middle class are angry at their loss of wealth and relative security. The fascist party Golden Dawn, who now have 18 seats in the Greek parliament (zero before the crisis), offered people a target for their anger (migrants) and a promise that Greece will be economically prosperous again. Golden Dawn offers free food to Greek nationals; meanwhile they’re behind a massive increase in street violence towards migrants with the general approval, and sometimes collusion of, the police force, of whom around half voted for Golden Dawn. The current government in Greece is moving further and further to the right in order to not lose votes to Golden Dawn, and is essentially a proto-fascist state itself.
This is not the stuff of conspiracy theory, just the logical actions of self-interested parties – landlords, banks, corporations, bureaucrats, politicians, and desperate people looking for someone to blame – as collapse worsens. I don’t have hope, like Rob Hopkins and many others, that all we need to do is build alternatives fast enough and we’ll make the transition before any of this becomes a major problem. It already is a problem. We ignore it at our peril. There is plenty that can be done to combat it, and this work is just as important as raising awareness and building alternatives is.
As a radical activist turned transition activist, I have been guilty of believing – and at times promoting – the idea that the most important activist work right now, the only kind that will truly change things, is of the transition kind. I think mostly I wanted to believe that because I got burnt by being around police violence and campaigns that never seemed to have any wins. Meanwhile, most people in the transition movement seem to have had little to no engagement at all with radical political thought.
We need to get political
Regardless of where this short-sightedness comes from, what can we actually do about it? I would argue that in addition to raising awareness and building alternatives, we need to get political. Transitioners have always been on board with lobbying and getting elected to local councils, which is great, but we could go a lot further. Radical politics has taken many different forms throughout history, and a diversity of tactics is extremely important. If you really love gardening or whatever you’re doing, absolutely do focus on that, but if you’re just doing it for the sake of doing something useful, perhaps it’s worth exploring some of the five radical political strategies discussed below, or something else that you think isn’t being dealt with well enough. We need to make sure we’re covering all our bases if we’re to have any chance of having a mostly peaceful and just transition.
Eviction resistance and squatting
Iain McIntyre has documented the history of eviction resistance in Australia during the Great Depression in his excellent pamphlet Lock Out the Landlords!, and since people today tend not to think of Australia as being a particularly radical place, it’s worth noting some of what went on here.
While banks were holding auctions to sell off land they had confiscated from farmers who were unable to pay their mortgages, some of these farmers were able to hold onto their land by disrupting the auctions with large numbers of people so that no one was able to make bids. In the cities, Anti-Eviction Committees and the Unemployed Workers Movement employed tactics such as letting landlords know that eviction would be resisted, street pickets with community sing-alongs, blockading and occupying houses, and trashing post-eviction houses to send a message to landlords and banks. They also lobbied councils and government departments for secure housing for evictees, and sometimes dumped furniture and set up camp on the steps of town halls and police stations until adequate housing was found. This activity led to state governments offering measures like rental subsidies for up to two thirds of rent in low income areas.
More recently in Spain a movement of eviction resistance and squatting has become quite mainstream. The Platform for Mortgage Affected People (PAH) has stopped 725 evictions across Spain by blockading entrances to dwellings so that eviction orders cannot be delivered. They then negotiate a lower social rent with the bank or a dropping of the debt after foreclosure.
PAH and others are also organising the squatting of foreclosed apartment buildings to provide housing for the homeless. A woman explaining her situation says, ‘We don’t want to steal anyone’s house, but we have nowhere to go and these chalets are empty. It’s crazy … We want people to understand that we are not despicable or lazy. We used to be the middle class.’ Rafael Martín Sanz, the president of a real estate management company in Spain, says that squatting has become so mainstream that real estate agents are hesitant to put up signs indicating that an apartment is empty. He says ‘the joke is that half the people touring apartments that are on the market are actually just picking out which apartment they want to squat in’.
The PAH have also been pushing for a new law which would institute a moratorium on evictions, a retrospective cancelling of debt at the time of foreclosure and a transformation of all foreclosed properties into affordable housing. It has the support of 90% of the population.
One last example is the inspiring Movement of Landless Workers in Brazil which organises occupations of parcels of land where they have managed to settle 370,000 families over the last two decades. These occupations then organise their own co-operative stores, schools and camp assemblies. There is now also a Movement for Those Without Roofs working on squatting in Brazil’s cities.
Noncompliance with unjust laws
Many things that makes good sense in terms of resilience turns out to be illegal. Joel Salatin’s book titled Everything I Want to do is Illegal, for example, details all the ways in which he is unable to legally run an ethical and sustainable meat-producing farm. Much of this legislation is due to the litigiousness of our consumer society and the overzealousness of bureaucracy, but some of it is clearly designed to benefit big businesses at the expense of the little guy. If not for the excessive force which is sometimes used in enforcing these laws, I would generally have argued that there is no conspiracy at work here. To give just one example among many (mostly in the US), the family who run Manna Storehouse, a large food co-operative in Ohio, had their home raided and turned upside down, and their computers and personal food stores confiscated by a SWAT team armed with semi-automatic rifles who gave no reason for the invasion. Considering the generally accepted level of control big corporations have over law making (through political donations, lobbying and threats of taking economic growth elsewhere), it seems naïve to believe that corporations using government agencies to enforce their existing monopolies isn’t what’s going on.
In response, many people are choosing to act illegally, whether it be by building simple composting toilets in their backyards, slaughtering their own animals and selling meat to neighbours, or farming in urban areas where the zoning doesn’t allow it. This is civil disobedience of the kind Thoreau, Gandhi and King would have approved. They all argued that where laws are unjust we are morally obligated to break them. And when people are dependent on industrially produced food which is neither healthy nor likely to always be available and/or affordable as we move deeper into collapse, building a resilient, decentralised food system is a matter of social justice.
Food freedom activist Liz Reitzig has this to say about noncompliance: “Whatever the threats might be for noncompliance in a vastly unjust system, the dangers of compliance are far greater. Obedience to oppression serves no one. Yes, I AM scared that one day I might face a courtroom, perhaps even jail for my continued and increasing actions in support of food freedom. But I am even more terrified of the world my children will inherit if I, and others, do not take a stand now.”
The Farmer To Consumer Legal Defence Fund, formed in the United States in 2007, raises money and provides pro bono legal assistance to farmers and food producers who come up against unfair laws. They provide an extremely important support role to the many individuals and families who routinely break unjust laws.
If we are to transform our society into one that makes sense, we will have to transform or replace our representative democracies – which have been corrupted by vested interests – with actual participatory democracies. Many different models are being experimented with around the world, almost all of which would probably work better than what we’ve got at present. Politics is currently a cut-throat game; to get anywhere near the top you need to have quite an impaired sense of ethics, making politicians exactly the kind of people we don’t want running our countries. Direct or participatory democracy creates the opportunity for ordinary people to deliberate with each other and come to logical conclusions, without the interference of corporate lobbyists or back-room deals.
Many traditional villages were governed by village assemblies, and this tradition has continued as if it is only natural whenever governments are delegitimised, such as during the French Revolution and throughout Latin America in its long and ongoing battle against colonialism. In Greece, during the December insurrection in 2008, neighbourhood assemblies spread across the country, acting as the main co-ordinating bodies for political activities. Likewise the M15 movement in Spain relied heavily on neighbourhood assemblies and these were the inspiration for Occupy’s general assemblies. Neighbourhood assemblies could be used to collectively plan and enact the transformation of neighbourhoods into resilient systems.
The move towards participatory democracy can also come from political parties themselves. The 5 Star Movement recently became one of Italy’s major parties while promoting participatory democracy as a solution to Italians’ lack of trust in their political system. Then there is the Pirate Party which, after starting in Sweden in 2006, is now present in over 40 countries. They are committed to direct democracy, freedom of information, and transparency. An innovative open source software project called Liquid Feedback is used by many Pirate Parties and some local branches of the 5 Star Movement to make decisions.
The experience throughout Europe and around the world, as much as it goes against many people’s non-violent ethic, is that fighting back against fascist bullies, particularly before they get strong, is really effective. The argument goes that to allow fascists the right to promote their ideas freely only leads to fascism, and since they would curtail our right to free speech, given the chance, we should not allow it to them when they are essentially bullies. They don’t play by the rules and are not swayed by non-violent action, since they are not accountable to the public, so stopping fascists from gaining numbers in any way possible is a good thing, even if it means using their own tactics against them (arguably this is the only thing that will get through to them).
Anti-fascists are intervening around the world in racist, homophobic and anti-semitic bashings whenever they can, and sometimes simply attack fascists directly. As a result, according to my contacts in Greece, the fascist activity there is largely limited to certain regions since they are outnumbered by radical leftists in most places. Anti-fascists often organise a show of strength whenever fascists gather in public, and can often easily outnumber fascists. Particularly in places like Australia where fascist groups do exist but are not particularly strong, this kind of activity is extremely important.
On the other hand, once a fascist movement is strong, it is not clear whether using violence against them has any useful effect. There is an argument that the street violence between the fascist brown shirts and Jewish and other anti-fascists in Germany was part of what led to people wanting a strong-armed government, so as to restore order in the streets. It also seems to be counter-intuitive to spend a lot of effort fighting a losing battle with bullies who are much more comfortable with violence and are often supported by the government/police, when there are other more effective things that could be done. In particular, generating solidarity in the population at large through building alternatives harms the political case of fascists – if there is a visible transition to a functional and beautiful simpler system going on then people will be less attracted to a fascist politics of anger and fear.
Stopping the damage
While collapse may mean that planned new coal-fired power stations won’t get built and some existing plants may shut down due to a lack of demand, they won’t all be shutting down since coal power is cheap. If we’re to have a halfway decent chance of not seeing runaway climate change, though, we’ll need more than the cuts in emissions that will come from economic collapse alone. A similar argument could be made for nuclear power, fracking, genetically modified food, logging of forests, the military and prison systems, factory farming, and so on.
At the moment, the movements around these campaigns are relatively small. They are big enough to have some exciting and motivating wins though; the Bentley blockade in New South Wales and James Price Point in Western Australia recently stopped new gas developments. However, these movements are nowhere near the scale they need to get to for us to actually stop the damage being done. Hopefully, though, as credit and demand dry up due to financial crisis, there will be fewer of these battles to fight so the scales may be somewhat tipped in our favour.
Integrating transition and radical politics
Nicole Foss would argue though that, going into the future, fewer and fewer people will have the energy, essentially the privilege of caring about issues much larger than what they’re going to do to get food on the table. In solidarity, transitioners could proactively support other activists with food and other supplies. The two styles of activism could also become more enmeshed, or as Dr. Nafeez Mosaddeq Ahmed argues, could become one; we are, after all, working towards the same things. An excellent example of this in practice is the La ZAD struggle in France, which has been holding a long term occupation to stop the construction of a new airport: “La ZAD has been a laboratory for ways of living despite capitalism since the 2009 French Climate Camp. At the camp activists and locals put together a call for people to come and live on the Zone to protect it. Now you can find illegal goat herds and organic bakeries, bike workshops and bee hives, working farms and communal kitchens, a micro brewery, a mobile library, and even a pirate radio station: Radio Klaxon.”
There can be a danger in feeling that building alternatives is the only kind of politics likely to bring about radical change and therefore the only important kind. If we manage to deal with financial collapse and peak oil, but are then blindsided by runaway climate change, or a wave of nuclear meltdowns, there will have been no real point. We have to be covering all our bases.
At the same time, collapse and transition theories could be very useful to climate change activists in particular. The current focus on promoting large scale renewables as an alternative to fossil fuels is, I think, quite damaging to the movement, since the creation of a large scale renewable infrastructure would be too expensive, too resource and energy intensive and couldn’t be built quickly enough to actually be viable as an alternative to what we have now that would actually solve climate change.
It may seem less politically viable, but the real answer has to be in using much, much less energy and drawing down what emissions have already been put out. While it’s unlikely that it will happen all at once in a big planned way (though winning on large scale renewables seems equally unlikely to me anyway), promoting biochar, sustainable agricultural practices and appropriate technology in association with stopping the use of fossil fuels, seems a much more sensible option. Particularly where people are struggling economically, there is a high likelihood of self-interest leading the way in these technologies and strategies becoming mainstream if they are promoted well enough. A first step perhaps could be attempting to raise awareness about these issues amongst climate activists.
A word of caution on revolution
Times of extreme hardship are often also revolutionary times, and though I think we need to do everything we can to move toward a situation in the future where we are able to shut down all the non-renewable energy sources, and stop all the other crazy shit that’s going on, and create a simpler, saner system, we also need to be very careful around revolution.
We don’t just want to replace our governments with better ones. That won’t solve anything in terms of collapse, which is not under the control of politicians, though of course it could be managed better than it is being. While one big single solution is often very enticing, it usually doesn’t work, and not just because the system is far too complex for that. When a revolution overthrows a government, a power vacuum is created and it is all too easy for a new regime we don’t actually want, perhaps one that’s only slightly better or often even worse than what was there before, to take control. Think of the recent Egyptian revolution leading to the current military dictatorship, or the Russian or French revolutions.
In each of these revolutions, there was a genuine movement for deep radical change towards equality and freedom, and each time it was repressed (often violently) by a different set of elites taking power. The best way around this is to build an alternative society while fighting the old one, without calling for an overthrow of the government. There is literally no point. Instead if we manage to build something amazing, and defend it when it faces attack (as well as everything I’ve mentioned above, neighbourhood defence organisations could become necessary) then the existing system will crumble due to a lack of popular and economic support and we will have the new society that we always wanted.