Part Two of Politicising Transition

Part Two: Politicising Transition

In the first part of this blog, I praised the creativity and energy of the wider environmental movement in the UK, but identified the unwillingness of many groups to identify capitalism as the social system that generates environmental destruction as a profound flaw. I argued that their depoliticised worldview was a combination of the general depoliticisation of neo-liberal Britain and the fact that these groups are invariably dominated by middle-class capital-rich liberals attracted to solutions that seem to promise sustainable living alongside solid investment returns, and preserved social privilege. I argued that, in this light, Naomi Klein’s new book This Changes Everything: capitalism versus the climate was of huge importance.

In this blog, I want to highlight the limits of the hugely influential Transition Network’s strategy of localism and resilience, before suggesting how such movements can get political through methods of popular education.

In the previous blog, I summarised the Transition Network’s ‘big idea’ in the face of stagnation and crisis – localism and resilience. I admire the localist element of this strategy greatly. However, both elements of its big idea equally reflect a liberal, depoliticised approach to social change. Localism ignores the role of the state; resilience seeks, in reality, to shelter from rather than struggle against the social injustice of global capitalism.

What localists fail to recognise is that their efforts to create new local organisational and institutional forms are hugely dependent on the state. If it wasn’t for the regulatory, administrative, fiscal, and financial support that the British state gave local environmental and other social enterprise initiatives, they would not be achieving the success they are. The example of the feed-in tariff, addressed in the previous blog, is a case in point. Consequently, if we are seriously interested in changing society we need to be interested in state power.

As for resilience in the face of a crisis-prone ‘hyper-connected’ economic system, should we be content to merely provide shelter for each other? – from speculation in commodity markets that drives up the price of staples; from hyper-exploitative, parasitic finance; from the commodification of the house that enriches the rich and immiserates and expropriates the poor; from the cartels that render access to public transport and warm houses unaffordable? Such a liberal, depoliticised worldview naturalises global capitalism and, whether it be natural or man-made, it is always those with the most resources who are most ‘resilient’ and able to weather such storms. We must organise politically not just to defend ourselves locally or even just to chip away at the edifice from below. We must organise politically to demand and win the public ownership of and universal access to our collective wealth. This is where we return to the struggle for state power as the unavoidable central political objective.

In a recent talk, Naomi Klein laid great emphasis on the vital role that popular education must play in politicising the environmental movement and bringing environmental justice and social justice campaigners together under one united umbrella for systemic change. This means that movements like the Transition Network need to go beyond ‘just doing things’ to develop a consciously theoretical, political dimension that will help it to recognise the already post-capitalist, eco-socialist nature of so much of what its groups do and to heed Klein’s call for a political movement that unifies environmental and social justice. How can this be done? The answer is two-fold: strategy and method. Methodologically, I believe that the methods of democratic popular education are a short leap in the direction that most environmental groups are already heading. These groups tend to be quite non-hierarchical, democratic in their internal structure and practices, and generally have a learning element central to their activities already. The move would require going deeper by collectively asking awkward, critical questions about the relationship between capitalism and the environment, and also hard questions about the group itself – who are its members, who gets to speak, who does not? Second, in response to these discussions, a strategy would be designed to revise policies, positions, or activities deemed problematic in retrospect, and crucially to further democratise the group by opening the space to unheard voices and reaching out to unrepresented groups. This final part is easier said than done, of course, but there are ways and means of doing it.

It is my belief that such an approach is vital if we want to achieve the crucial task that Klein identifies, namely uniting the environmental and social justice movements. This will involve difficult choices for those more privileged elements of our society. With their skills, knowledge, and generosity, such people have huge amounts to contribute to our collective brighter future. Yet, they must also recognise that they can no longer dominate this movement at the cost of poorer, marginalised groups and must seek instead to establish dialogue based on a real faith in others’ ability to articulate their own reality, their own truth, and their own visions for the future. For this, a Freireian approach to popular education sets out most clearly the philosophy behind and practical guide to achieving this objective. To paraphrase Paolo Freire, the revolution must be pedagogical.

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