The responses to the final COP-15 “deal” from the environmental and social justice communities seem, at this point, to be largely negative. It’s a start, some acknowledge, but it’s pretty late to be starting, and it’s really pretty vacuous — a lost opportunity. (See, e.g., Bill McKibben’s deeply disappointed take on it, and other NGO leaders’ views.)
My last blog post tried to put a positive spin on things by arguing that the events in Copenhagen reflect the tension between two models of democracy, and that there is hope for the future in the very crystallization of the second model. Let me expand on that a little.
The first model is a democracy of representative institutions based in the modern system of (in theory) sovereign territorial states. Many of those states don’t pretend to be democratic themselves (think, for instance, of China), and the system as a whole is far from democratic, as anyone familiar with the UN Security Council or the actual workings of the World Trade Organization knows. But many of the states are built in part on democratic principles.
The main strength of this model of democracy (in quotation marks or not) is that it exists, and it has plenty of institutional power to get things done. The main weakness is that it has been thoroughly “captured,” at every level, by capitalism’s “preference for wealth.” In a capitalist economy, to the extent that economy and politics are intertwined (as they almost always are), wealth confers a certain amount of power. The relationship between wealth and power has, of course, been around for millennia, long predating capitalism itself, but only in the last century or two has it become a global and self-referential speculative system — that is, not one grounded in ecological realities, where the generation of wealth depends, in the last instance, on some set of material conditions, but one that is now primarily grounded in self-reference, where a system of policies and rules allow wealth to generate more wealth from nothing but the creation of other policies and rules (think: the “derivatives” that brought about last year’s Wall Street collapse).
The second model of democracy is one of citizen activism, where people pool their energy into organizations that reflect the interests of their members. Environmental NGOs, social justice NGOs, indigenous rights movements, et al. are democratic not in being representative of a territorial population, but in representing the interests of those who make them up. As the world “goes global,” state-territorial units are no longer the only or the central forum for decision-making. Communication and decision-making continue at the national level, but they also occur at local levels and, for the first time on such a large scale, at global and cross-regional levels. This is where this kind of interest-group democracy grows in leaps and bounds.
(I’m defining “interest groups” here differently from “lobby groups”: the latter exist solely to influence the levers of power in “democracy #1” — which means, in effect, to distort its ability to produce anything like genuine democracy. Activist interest groups are another form of organization. We might think of them as not only “interest” groups, but also “affective communication” groups — social organizations that express and embody, in affective and culturally communicative ways, the interests and desires of their members.)
The weakness of this second model of democracy is that the ground rules and institutions for making and implementing decisions across such affective interest groups don’t yet exist; they’re just being shaped through events like COP-15 (among others). The strength is that this kind of democracy is well suited to a globalizing world: in particular, it makes powerful use of new media, so it can increasingly bypass traditional institutions and reach people directly, more quickly, and across a wider range of locales and scales.
In Copenhagen, those who represented this second model of democracy were, most obviously, the activists outside the Bella Center. But many of them were also inside, in one way or another, and there’s no reason why the two forms of democracy can’t work alongside each other, feeding each other in the process.
There’s also no inherent reason why the second model of democracy can’t also be “captured” by wealthy interests. That kind of capture has always been around — the existence of “greenwashing” and “astroturf” organizations being only a fairly extreme example of something that happens all the time. And NGOs are not necessarily more inherently democratic than the government of China — which is also responsible to its citizens to the extent that the latter can rise up and overthrow them.
But there are many organizations that have not (yet) been captured by powerful and wealthy elites, that is, by the elite interests hell-bent on preventing change to the socio-ecological status quo. And people who are dedicated to transforming that status quo in a certain direction will have to work on both levels to bring about change: to weaken the system of elite privileges that maintains the status quo, but also to work with elements within each system.
That is why politics will need to be conducted by every means available: through lobbying elected leaders, through changing the mechanisms by which lobby groups influence elected politicians (i.e. by campaign finance and electoral system reforms and the like), through crafty use of mass and electronic media, through discursive and affective alliance-building across cultural and global gaps — for instance, in and across faith communities, labor organizations, local sustainability initiatives, etc. — and through physical and tactical resistance in those cases where lives and livelihoods are immediately at stake.
There will be no guarantees: the terrain will shift moment to moment, year to year. The slogans and images will be co-opted, neutralized, used for opposite purposes than their original intents. But in the face of the challenges that face us, the struggle to build a more just and ecologically sustainable world will have to continue.
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Another point of my last blog post was that we are entering a transitional time akin to the beginnings of agriculture. Just as settled agricultural communities didn’t arise all at once (far from it) nor everywhere (some people refused that option all the way through to today), this will be a protracted transition. It will also be much messier — though agriculture was messy, too, for the organisms and ecosystems that got pushed out by the takeover of territory by locust-like alliance-assemblages of humans, perennial grasses, and grazing animals — “wheat-sheep-people machines” and their variations in corn, rice, etc.
Whether we will make it through — or, more precisely, what form of cyborganic ecologies (systemically interacting techno-ecological assemblages) will come out the other end, “we” (someone) will see.
But to get through, we’ll have to shed a lot of baggage. In every great experiment, history can be a very useful teacher, and there’s a lot we can learn from those who’ve shed those sorts of things before, materially and psychically.
Welcome to the Planetary Composter: Enter now at your own risk, or be dragged in later. You can only lose what you have, so if you don’t hang onto anything, you should be fine.