by Ryan Wishart and R. Jamil Jonna (authors are doctoral students in Sociology at the University of Oregon).
Two years ago we went into Power Shift with a lot of hope. The keynote speakers gave passionate addresses praising the youth uprising in the tradition of past social movements. Government figures that spoke pledged to fight alongside the audience assembled.
Looking back its clear we were overly optimistic. Some of what appeared to be the most promising developments remain tragically unattained. The modest steps taken by Lisa Jackson towards enforcing clean air and water laws has left the EPA under siege by lawmakers. Despite the meager resources a very centrist policy agenda, Van Jones came under vicious attack—predictably for the most progressive insights he offered at Power Shift ’09—and stepped down. Hopeful projects, like the creation of a new civilian conservation corps by Ken Salazar, turned out to be a farce all along. As had been predicted before PS09, the few thousand jobs for youth amounted to political cover for Salazar’s handouts to big energy, with fire sales of the public resources opening the door for the extraction of hundreds of millions of tons of coal.
What should we be thinking headed into Power Shift 2011? Antonio Gramsci—who, having written his influential work dying in Mussolini’s dungeon, knew a thing or two about keeping your head in a tough situation—argued that what is necessary in such a struggle is “pessimism of the intellect and optimism of the will.” We must be self-critical about our strategies, tactics and accomplishments, learning from and anticipating mistakes, yet unflagging in our resolve to fight: in solidarity. The current power structure is designed for suppression and manipulation of the majority; for real participatory democratic change to occur, we must change the rules of political struggle. It is unrealistic to expect those in government to deliver on promises to address problems fundamental to the system. The Arab Spring and Wisconsin uprisings are stark reminders that politics in the streets can be just as, but often more, influential than conventional politics.
The exchange of open letters between 1Sky and the grassroots following the final collapse of already hopelessly compromised climate legislation was a promising step in this direction. Here again was raised the important question, “Power Shift: to and from whom?” We believe social science supports the main claim of the grassroots signatories: “The equation of power in our movement, just as in our country, must be inverted.”
When Van Jones was attacked for his Power Shift speech—which highlighted the need for a revolutionary break from the status quo, from the race and class inequality, worker exploitation and ecological destruction that characterize capitalist development generally—the response of some of his defenders was perhaps worse for the movement than the attacks of the right. Rather than defending even the semblance of a radical project, there was a scramble to acknowledge capitalist society as the ‘only alternative,’ and even to present Jones as its savior. Bill McKibben exclaimed of Jones “there’s no more thoroughgoing capitalist in the environmental movement [!],” while Eva Pattern played the sagacious establishment mentor of inept and idealistic youth, claiming “Van’s book is a veritable song of praise to capitalism… Yes, for a while, Van and his student-aged friends ran around spouting 1960s rhetoric… [but in] time, he jettisoned his youthful notions and moved on to seek more effective and attainable solutions.”
But is this really how Jones inspired so many and rose to his leadership role—by prostrating himself before capitalism? Or was it the type of analysis below, from an interview published in the journal Antipode in 2009?
Given the social, ecological, and spiritual crises that the human family is facing at this point, a complete transformation of all our social systems is necessary.… I’m opposed to any and all systems of exploitation and oppression, including racism, sexism, capitalism, fascism. That’s the starting point of the conversation, not the end point of the conversation.
While such criticism always existed alongside Jones’ intense and growing pragmatism, this anti-systemic perspective was crucial to the formation of a broad base of solidarity among those whose lives and futures are being wasted. When a movement is presented with radical critique it creates space for activists to forge alliances, to engage more fully, to gain perspective. Gramsci termed this process the “war of position,” which, fundamentally, means the development and advocacy of an alternative hegemonic vision, beyond capitalism: but it is not simply an ideological argument. It means undermining the legitimacy of the ruling class by actions that expose exploitation and injustice while building our own movement and expanding the realm of tactical possibility. Looking at struggles against British imperialism in India, Gramsci argued that “Gandhi’s passive resistance is a war of position, which at certain moments becomes a war of movement… Boycotts are a form of war of position, strikes of war of movement…” The war of position helps determine “the point of connection between strategy and tactics.”[i]
Refraining from criticizing capitalism openly may help gain (temporary) access to governments dominated by the capitalist class, but it inhibits the growth of a movement base capable of forcing real change and cedes important space to frothing-at-the-mouth McCarthyite conspiracy theories of folks like Glenn Beck. This is particularly problematic for the youth movement aspiring to solidarity with the climate justice movement, given its international orientation. As the global leadership has shown in places like Cochabamba, for example, structural questions about the contradictions between capitalism, sustainability and democracy must be at the forefront. Youth under 30 in the US are consistently more critical of capitalism and open to alternatives. The point we want to raise here is not really about Jones and his exodus from the White House (however telling this is); instead, we want to emphasize that the movement must deal with and defend openly the need for systemic change not for rhetorical purposes but to encourage young activists to dig deeper for models of change, forging stronger links to previous left struggles. “The first lesson [youth movements] must learn,” David Harvey urges, “is that an ethical non-exploitative and socially just capitalism that redounds to the benefit of all is impossible. It contradicts the very nature of what capital is about.”[ii]
This, along with many other lessons from past struggles, are effectively cut off when we concede responsibility to develop our own hegemonic vision. From this perspective, we applaud and are heartened by the questions guiding the Front-Line Leadership Track at PS2011: “As environmental justice leaders grapple with the opportunities of this political moment, they are confronted with a paradox: How do they take advantage of pragmatic opportunities in the current economy, while envisioning a brand new system and supporting that culture to emerge? (41)” This effort strikes us as by far more important than anything Al Gore will have to say.
Zimmerman, in the guiding document for this track, is right: “As our political, social, and economic systems are destabilized by the realities of climate change, global economic recession, and the probability of peak oil, the movement has a huge opportunity to frame the questions, values, and vision that we use to reorganize ourselves.” (43) We argue that the youth climate movement must be part of the global climate justice movement if it is to succeed and cannot shrink from criticizing the social power structure in which we live. To do so not only limits our understanding of the incredible scale and scope of the crisis that we face, it closes off strategic discussion of ways to shift the terrain of what is “politically realistic” (Zimmerman, 58) and instead include genuine and just solutions while excluding false ones that propose to “green” capitalism .[iii]
[i] Antonio Gramsci, Selections From the Prison Notebooks of Antonio Gramsci, Quintin Hoare and Geoffrey Nowell-Smith, eds. (New York: International Publishers, 1972). P.229, 239.
[ii] David Harvey, The Enigma of Capital: And the Crises of Capitalism (New York: Oxford University Press, 2010),. P.239.
[iii] “Genuine solutions to the climate crisis cannot … on a domestic or an international level, unless significant pressure—pressure that is greater than that of powerful corporate interests—is brought to bear by a globally linked, locally grounded group of social movements mobilizing around the theme of climate justice. This will take genuine organizing—a task that the Left has tended to shy away from. … Rather than abdicating engagement with the organs of state power, the crisis of our times requires transformation of these organs through practices of radical democracy. In addition, however, a movement for climate justice needs a theoretical grasp of the economic, political, and ecological stakes at play in the new green capitalist order.” Ashley Dawson, “Climate Justice: The Emerging Movement Against Green Capitalism,” South Atlantic Quarterly 109, no. 2 (2010). P.317