Climate protests, capitalism and the working class movement

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The working class movement will only be rebuilt as part of a new political response to the failures of neo-liberal capitalism – a response that includes addressing climate change and ecology

by Barry Kade

Considering normally climate demos only attract a few thousand, last Saturday’s protest in London and elsewhere of 50,000 was massive. This is because

A) the capitalists and their governments look especially incapable of addressing the issue at the moment, around the Copenhagen summit which seems doomed, even from a ‘bourgeois climate politics’ perspective; and

B) the ideological right are fighting back with a massive campaign of denial and conspiracist wingnuttery thats gaining ground. In this situation people are more motivated to take to the streets, hence we get 50,000 rather than the usual 5,000.

But what next?

So far we have had a strategy of protest …  i.e we started with the idea of making climate change an issue, ‘raising awareness’. protesting to ‘make the politicians listen’, to make them ‘do something’. But then the capitalists started to ‘do something’ – carbon trading, biofuels, nuclear power, etc. It’s now clear to many that there is no capitalist solution.

Therefore we also have a strategy of transition – a practical grassroots and locally oriented movement trying to make the ‘transition to a low carbon economy.’ This is inevitably attempted in a petite bourgeois way, through allotments, local trading schemes, etc. There is also the ‘climate justice’ movement with its more systematic anti-capitalist/anti-imperialist critique – although this at the moment remains confined to the ‘activist milieu’.

What about the workers?

And we have only just started to develop a programatic response from the working class movement – so now we have the trades union demand for millions of new green jobs, the TUC’s ‘just transition’ project etc. Of course the problem here is the existing weakness of the working class movement, (especially in the UK) after our decades of defeat and retreat.

The solution? I don’t think the working class movement will be rebuilt on a purely syndicalist or economistic basis. Workers fight when they see their resistance forming part of a wider political picture – when they have some form of coherent political perspective en masse (however flawed and contradictory that perspective may be). The collapse of left reformism/stalinism/social democracy in the face of neo-liberal globalisation has weakened grassroots working class resistance.

Thus the working class movement will only be rebuilt as part of a new political response to the failures of neo-liberal capitalism – a response that includes addressing climate change and ecology. When socialism re-emerges as a mass project it will be shaped by these questions. The emergence of environmental consciousness is one of the distinctive features of our epoch. That’s why the next socialism might be an ecosocialism.

(Barry Kade is a former member of the British Socialist Workers Party, who says he is “currently experimenting with being a socialist in the ranks of the Green Party.” This article was published on December 8 in his blog, BarryKade.)


  • Rank and file workers need to be given access to broader information on the global economy, and how wall st and other speculators are trashing their own industrial base for short term profit and cheaper labour costs and consciously moving away from an economy based on selling things to being based on ultra short term speculative profit generation on fraudulent financial ‘services’. But would you get them striking just because of this? Doubtful. And that makes any real change tough.

  • I agree with Gerard and I conclude from that premise that socialists must appeal to workers on a broad range of issues beyond climate change. We have an abundant set of choices on that front. In particular, the struggle to protect the sustainability of our economic position in the face of the current anti-union and anti-middle class initiatives of the ruling elite could form a more accessible set of issues. It would also allow us to wrest the initiative from the growing right-wing response to the Wall Street takeover of federal revenues.

  • Barry makes some good points, but provides no magic answer as to whether ‘the workers’ will in the foreseeable see climate change as an issue of number one importance for them or not. I’m not sure they will, for a range of reasons. These are to do with the diffuse effects of climate change, the slight invisibility of it, and the lack of understanding that it will impact on their jobs and lifestyle certainly in the medium term. We’re mostly still in our cocoon about all this, yet to wake up.