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).

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