The Paris COP21 mobilisation and The Consequences of the Climate Justice Movement

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I’m very excited to be giving a talk at the Australian Sociological Association conference #TASA2016 on Thursday. It deals with fieldwork conducted in Paris during the COP21 climate change summit in late 2015 through the dual prisms of financialisation of the economy and the militarisation of the urban environment, examining how these mega-trends have reshaped protest, and in some ways provoked new forms of resistance, drawing on participant observations, interviews and content analysis with the Climate Justice Movement…

Introduction

Two mega-trends; financialisation and the militarisation of the urban environment, have coalesced in recent years to produce a political environment in which traditional repertoires of social movement mobilisation (such as nonviolent marches) are no longer able to effect movement goals and are increasingly understood as a soft or low-level form of terrorism. Liveability (and efforts to widen its scope) under the dystopian conditions of ‘crisis Neoliberalism’ (to use Davidson’s 2016 term) must, therefore be re-evaluated. This inquiry employs a classical Marxist theoretical framework drawing especially on Harvey’s understanding of financialisation (2012) and Graham’s conceptualisation of the ‘New Military Urbanism’ (2010).

By ‘financialisation’, I mean the shift from the industrial productive mode of capitalism commonly described as Fordism to the speculative mode of capitalism which began in the 1970s, and the complex reformulations this process has imposed upon society, the state and the economy. The political-economic empowerment of the finance sector has also notably contributed to both the fact and the growing public understanding of widening inequality; for instance; the Occupy Wall Street slogan, coined by David Graeber, of “We Are The 99%”. Militarisation is understood as the “reorganisation of civil society for the production of violence, the normalisation of military paradigms of thought, policy and action, and aggressively disciplining rebel bodies, cultures and spaces” (Graham 2010: 60). Thus, the logic of both the War on Terror and the financial crisis of 2008 have acted as catalysts to what I refer to as the Dystopian late-capitalist city.

How can a city be considered liveable if the average citizen spends a third or half of their income on rent or their mortgage; with the attendant stress as to whether they will be able to pay the utility bills or buy groceries? As relates to the commons and the Neoliberal governmentality’s steady privatisation of them for finance-capital accumulation, how can the popular class find their city liveable when education, healthcare and the basic necessities of a decent standard of living are increasingly presented as commodities that only the deserving elite should be able to afford?

Following Lazzarato’s (2011) theory of indebted man, financialisation seen as a tool of social control aimed at depoliticisation of the popular class. In order to resist its consequences, the city must be re-politicised as a site of struggle for a better life for all and not merely the elite enclave of expatriates which the Economist survey (EIU 2014) privileges as a universal subject. Recent waves of social movement mobilisations proffer an incipient process of politicisation beyond the traditional confines of militant activism, wherein the popular class as a subject may be undergoing a profound realisation of its own agency in the wake of wider sociological transformations wrought by austerity, gentrification, the draconian consequences for democratic participation during the ‘War on Terror’ and the ecological crisis.

This paper is divided into the following five sections. In section 1) Melbourne’s status as the world’s most liveable city is critiqued through the prism of flaws in the Economist survey’s methodology (2014). In section 2) militarization of the urban environment is analysed as the necessary enforcer of the depoliticized Neoliberal order entering the phase of what Clover (2016) described as a new age of riots and uprisings. In section 3) Neoliberalism’s endgame combined with the War on Terror is discussed as having produced the conditions on the ground in Paris during the UN COP21 negotiations in December 2015. Drawing on interviews and participant observation conducted, I hypothesise that Paris is the harbinger of the dystopian militarized city, where civil liberties, privacy, the right to public assembly and political expression itself are increasingly under attack. In section 4) I discuss some of the consequences of the Climate Justice Movement (CJM) to offer a counter analysis to the hegemonic discourse which portrayed the social movement mobilisations as irrelevant. I suggest that CJM mobilisations laid the groundwork to subsequent developments in France such as the new “Up All Night” movement to oppose the El Khomri labour laws, the global “Break Free” direct action to temporarily shut down coal, oil and gas infrastructure and “Fossil Free” divestment campaigns. In section 5) I discuss a proposed solution to the current malaise, involving the radical re-politicization of the state as an actor within regional and global coalitions.

 

Melbourne, the world’s most liveable city?

For a number of years Melbourne has been listed as among the world’s most liveable cities by the Economist Intelligence Unit’s (EIU) annual survey (2014). This paper seeks to challenge that view, firstly, by drawing on a much more dystopian picture of urban life under the governmentality of neoliberal austerity. If cities are only liveable for the gentrifying inner city enclave, what does this suggest about the quality of urban life for the great majority whom the EIU’s index excludes?”

It is worth noting that the study’s methodology tends to be ignored in the extensive mass media coverage it has received. For instance, the study excludes everything beyond the innermost 4-kilometre radius from the centre of the city. In Melbourne’s case this means everything beyond Burnley to the east and Brunswick to the north is erased. What of the citizens of Tarneit, South Morang or Dandenong? Those who reproduce the city and commute in such as construction workers, operators of port machinery, delivery drivers, telecommunications operators and so on. As far as the EIU’s scope is concerned, these places do not exist, so the material experiences of those millions is erased. As Lees, Bang Shin and Lopez-Morales (2016) point out, this is true for debates about urbanisation and gentrification at the global scale. As sociologists, we need to critically resist the portrayal of the petite-bourgeoisie’s experience as universal experiences.

Of course the inner core is “liveable” if you exclusively poll the expatriate businesspeople who make up the constituency of The Economist! But as Lefebvre theorised (1967), the gap between rural and urban (and for our purposes; the gap between ‘downtown’ and suburban) is increasingly blurred as planetary processes of urbanisation blend supply lines, transport and communications networks without regard for lines on any map. Thus, one cannot meaningfully describe the quality of life (either within or beyond the central city) without looking at the metropolitan scale.

 

Militarization of the urban environment: violence as the necessary enforcer of the depoliticized Neoliberal order

The Neoliberal project has produced global cities in its own image, just as it has fostered global institutions like the WTO and IMF, and indeed individuals who cannot see beyond the fog of what Fischer (2009) called “capitalist realism” (epitomised by Thatcher’s TINA doctrine). Cities such as this are characterised by the aesthetics of Disneyfication wrought by capital’s tendency for commodifying anything in a particular place with a ‘unique’ quality capable of providing monopoly rents (Harvey 2012), and above all by the anxiety of financial precarity imposed by these policies. The commodification of central Melbourne’s unique spaces (laneways, street art, hole in the wall bars and so on) speak to this phenomenon, and the particular experience of gentrification accelerated in part by the local tourism industry.

Processes of gentrification (and deindustrialisation for that matter) cannot be maintained in a smooth, self-propelling manner. The privatisation of the urban commons by capital can be interpreted as a postmodern form of the enclosures which swept the English countryside in the centuries preceding the Industrial Revolution. In the present late stage of neoliberal governmentality, the militarisation and securitisation of urban space has become necessary to the defend and impose the wider pattern of social relations through the increased threat and practice of state violence. In this endeavour, I draw on French sociologist Wacquant’s (2011) notion of the punitive state-market ‘neoliberal Leviathan’.[1] This regime does not limit its disciplinary attention to the poor or the criminal. It is in fact focused on transforming the city into a militarised space with a valorised and riot-gear clad police presence, ubiquitous surveillance technology and the privatisation of the public realm. These conditions are not merely present during a temporary emergency, but are increasingly becoming normalised as permanent characteristics. [2]

Ahmed (2016) illuminates how the arms industry, in its planning for waves of highly profitable ‘riot contagion’, does not differentiate between war between two or more states in a place like Mosul and riot control between the state and its own citizenry in a place like Ferguson. All fields of operations are merely markets for commodities to be exchanged; demands to be supplied, needs to be met.[3] Drawing on the example of Athens since 2008, Clover (2016) goes so far as to suggest that we are living in a new era of uprisings wherein the riot is unending, and the city’s people recognize the police as a kind of foreign occupation force (in this case imposing the will of the Troika). As the country’s former Finance Minister Yanis Varoufakis argued, Greece was the ‘canary in the coalmine’ to the rest of Europe.

 

Neoliberalism’s Endgame: Paris during the ‘COP21’ summit as a harbinger of the Dystopian Militarized City

In December 2015, the UN held the highly anticipated 21st COP summit in Paris to negotiate a binding treaty on climate change among the 195 gathered member states; a majority of whom sent a head of state. This was regarded as a moment of political instability, akin to an election campaign, during which what was ‘impossible’ at any other time suddenly became possible. Hopes were high that the agreement would resolve many of the longstanding problems that detonated at the Copenhagen summit of 2009; the multi-issue conflict between the Global North and South, the disenfranchisement of frontline communities – especially people of First Nations and the unequal distribution of wealth, political clout and technology to build the clean energy infrastructure needed to shut down the coal mines and oilfields currently spewing carbon into the atmosphere. In hindsight, the agreement signed in Paris was never going to be a magic bullet, but anticipation in the lead up to the summit indicated that substantive progress could be made to begin addressing these and other issues.

The nascent CJM had spent two whole years forming an overarching congress of over 130 civil society organisations referred to as “Coalition Climat 21”. Representatives would meet weekly, and more frequently in the 6 months leading up to the summit. It included some of the institutional memory of the ‘Climate Justice Now’ network that had mobilised in Copenhagen for the 2009 COP, significantly now incorporating ATTAC, 350.org, Avaaz, OxFam and the WWF. The ‘People’s Climate March’ was planned for November 29th the day before the opening of the summit to send an emphatic message to the heads of state gathered that the several hundred thousand or perhaps even a million marchers from around the world united to demand climate justice.

Then came the terror attacks of November 13th, in which 133 were tragically killed and ISIS later claimed credit for (to the barely disguised delight of war hawks from Moscow to Washington). The French government was swift to cynically exploit the opportunity to maximise the ‘War On Terror’ opportunities to criminalise dissent by imposing a blanket ban on street demonstrations with extraordinary ‘state of emergency’ measures that were to last months after the conference was over. At the height of the most important climate change negotiations between the leaders of nations in years, the planned Peoples Climate March, the “Red Lines” action at the summit’s closing and every public gathering to express a political message in between were declared illegal. [4]

The intent was clear: democracy was to be kicked out of Paris. In came the riot-control police. President Hollande referred to the attacks as ‘an act of war’, immediately announcing increased airstrikes on Syria and that 11,000 extra security officers would now blockade the Le Bourget conference centre throughout the summit. At the national level, the Ministry of the Interior announced that 120,000 officers from the National Police and the Gendarmerie were to be called up for duty. This was a substantive escalation of the pre-existing police state that Paris already represented. Naturally, this had a deterrence effect on the scale of mobilizations planned by the Coalition Climat 21 network.

 

The consequences of the Climate Justice Movement

Despite the unfavourable political opportunity structures for the CJM during COP21, the movement achieved some noteworthy consequences. Successful social movements have both revolutionary and reformist wings whose relationship is characterised as dynamic and supportive of one another’s material, mutual goals. The CJM featured a faction representing the institutional left (large NGOs, non-profits and political parties) which at first proposed marches as their strategy, and then abandoned these plans when the state of emergency began. It should be noted that without the support of these authoritative voices, rank and file activists were left without definitive guidelines as to how to participate in attempts to disrupt or influence the COP21 process. The other faction, representing the more radically anti-capitalist, grassroots and independent tendency in the environmental movement, was fixed on direct action; adopting a strategy of disrupting and discrediting the legitimacy of the whole COP21 process. This lack of cohesion between the two tendencies fuelled an unproductive dynamic throughout the summit. Police repression appeared to specifically encourage this infighting and framing of “dissent as proto-terrorism”, for instance by placing several dozen French environmental activists known for direct action under house arrest and through targeted raids of squats where activists and artists were known to have gathered. [5]

Against this dire background, three significant consequences of the CJM are worth highlighting to counter the notion that social movements are irrelevant and have no power to influence culture or institutions. Firstly, 350.org co-ordinated a highly ambitious wave of direct actions known as the “Break Free” [from Fossil Fuels] week in early May 2016. Across 12 countries known for fossil fuel companies developing new infrastructure (Canada, Australia and Nigeria for example) thousands of individuals participated in occupations of coal mines, blockading of coal ports, shutting down oil and gas fields; intervening in the extraction producing climate change itself. Secondly, “Fossil Free” divestment campaigns to pressure large institutions to withdraw capital from coal, oil and gas companies are proliferating across the planet. These campaigns have now cumulatively deprived the industry of $3.4 trillion (Henn 2015). Over 500 universities, city governments, TNCs and other institutions have announced plans for divestment. Thirdly, activists during COP21 challenged the police state measures imposed by the national government. In doing so, they laid the groundwork for what may be the most significant anti-austerity uprising in Europe yet in the “Up All Night” movement, unfolding at the time of writing in mid-2016. Beginning after a call by unions for a general strike as a rebellion against the El Khomri labour reforms which sought to abolish the 35-hour workweek, then morphing into a populist movement incorporating students, the unemployed, pensioners and others occupying the ‘Place de la République’ (where the People’s Climate March began) in scenes reminiscent of the Paris Commune of 1871. In short, the CJM laid the groundwork for more significant struggles within France and around the world. What all three of these consequences have in common is that they tie into processes of politicisation which empower and embolden ordinary people to participate in politics by refusing to wait for the politicians to address a problem on their behalf. After 21 years of COPs and not much progress to show for it, their logic seems arguable.

 

Re-politicizing the state as an actor within regional and global participatory coalitions

A proposed solution could involve the radical re-politicization of the state as an actor within regional and global coalitions for social justice. Lefebvre’s (1967) concept of the “right to the city” invoked the right of the popular class to rebuild the city in such a way as to prefigure a socialist set of relations, production and reproduction. In this sense, we acknowledge that inequality cannot disappear overnight, that we should perhaps accommodate ourselves for the moment to some “acceptable level of inequality”, while struggling to bring the basic essentials of a decent standard of living into the commons. While mansions still exist under the ownership of the wealthy, networks of popular organisations could wage campaigns for a “bill of rights” for all citizens in their city; to universal housing, education, healthcare and so on.[6] In the current political environment, the ALP brought a proposal to end negative gearing on investment properties to the 2016 federal election. Why not extend its logic by establishing a housing policy review with the aim that homelessness will be permanently eradicated through an affordable housing program within 12 months? Melbourne itself has approximately 80,000 homes that sit empty as the investors simply collect capital gains, while approximately 20,000 of the city’s people remain homeless. Given that there are four empty homes for every homeless person, this is not a logistical problem, but a political one. As long as people passively accept “capitalist realism” (Fischer 2009) and remain disengaged from seeking to use the machinery of the state to advance social justice instead of the demands of capital for unending accumulation, this will remain so.

 

 

Conclusion

This paper began by arguing that the blindness of the EIU’s liveability survey to phenomena like gentrification leads it to universalise the petite bourgeoisie’s experience of the city and the erasure of the popular class’ experience. I extended Wacquant’s logic of the punitive neoliberal state to the militarisation and ‘enclosure’ of the city. I discussed some of the consequences of the CJM during COP21 which, despite the scale of police repression in Paris during the summit, have emboldened activists and their supporting communities to mobilise around the world. I discussed one potential solution to the democratic deficit at the heart of the late-capitalist city, which is embodied in the radical re-politicization of the state as an actor within multi-issue coalitions.

Finally, when applying our sociological analysis to the historic inequality, structural violence and sheer indifference of the late-capitalist city to its citizenry, we are obliged to not merely envision a more socially just city but, more importantly, to help organize coalitions to make it a reality.

 

References

Ahmed, N. (2016) Defence industry poised for billion dollar profits from global riot ‘contagion’, Medium, Accessed May 19th 2016, https://medium.com/insurge-intelligence/defence-industry-poised-for-billion-dollar-profits-from-global-riot-contagion-8fa38829348c#.8cjc2z34a

Cameron, R. (2013) Subjects of security: domestic effects of foreign policy in the war on terror, Palgrave Macmillan, United States.

Clover, J. (2016) Riot. Strike. Riot: The New Era of Uprisings, Verso: London.

Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU) (2014) A summary of the Liveability Ranking and Overview, The Economist: London, Accessed May 2016 http://pages.eiu.com/rs/eiu2/images/Liveability_rankings_2014.pdf

Fisher, M. (2009) Capitalist Realism: Is there no alternative?, Zero Books: London.

Graham, S. (2010) Cities Under Siege: The New Military Urbanism, Verso: London.

Greenwald, G. (2016) New Study shows mass surveillance breeds meekness, fear and self-censorship, The Intercept, Accessed May 2016 https://theintercept.com/2016/04/28/new-study-shows-mass-surveillance-breeds-meekness-fear-and-self-censorship/

Harvey, D. (2012) Rebel Cities: From the right to the city to the urban revolution, Verso: London.

Henn, J. (2015) Divestment Commitments Pass the $3.4 trillion Mark at COP21, 350.org, Accessed May 2016, http://350.org/cop21-divestment/

Lazzarato, M. (2011) The Making of Indebted Man: an essay on the Neoliberal Condition, Semiotext(e): Amsterdam.

Lees, L., Bang Shin, H. & Lopez-Morales E. (2016) Planetary Gentrification, pp. 83- 110, Polity: London.

Lefebvre, H. (1967) The Right to the City; Writings on cities, pp. 63-184, In: Kofman, E.; Lebas, E. (Ed.), London, Blackwell.

Slowcode, D. (2015) The Climate Movement Is Dead: A report back from COP21, The Huffington Post, Accessed May 2016 http://www.huffingtonpost.com/ducky-slowcode/the-climate-movement-is-d_b_8891708.html

Wacquant, L. (2011) The punitive regulation of poverty in the neoliberal age, Open Democracy, Accessed May 2016

https://www.opendemocracy.net/5050/lo%C3%AFc-wacquant/punitive-regulation-of-poverty-in-neoliberal-age

 

Endnotes

[1] “practices laissez faire toward corporations and the upper class, but is fiercely interventionist and authoritarian when it comes to dealing with the consequences of economic deregulation for those at the lower end of the class spectrum’. This is because the imposition of market discipline is not a smooth, self-propelling process, it meets with recalcitrance and triggers resistance; it translates into diffusing social instability and turbulence among the lower class; and it practically undermines the authority of the state. It requires institutional contraptions that will anchor and support it, among them enlarged and energetic penal [and criminal justice] institutions.” – Wacquant (2011)

[2] The Snowden revelations taught us much about the way governments view their own people. Panoptical surveillance and the militarisation of the police could be seen as the digital and urban faces of the 21st century state. What motivates political actors who advance this program? Greenwald (2016) suggests that ‘the possibility of being monitored radically changes individual and collective behaviour. Specifically, that possibility breeds fear and fosters collective conformity. If we think that we’re being watched, we might stop visiting certain websites or avoid saying certain things to avoid seeming suspicious.’

[3] The report provides insight into the thinking of Western governments engaged in imperialist interventionism in the Middle-East. As Cameron (2013) argued, the war on terror, beginning in 2003, provoked a paradigmatic foreign policy shift that has had profound effects on domestic social order. It has provoked a new kind of subject formation through everyday practises of security. We are encouraged to dehumanise the ‘Muslim Big Other’.

[4] Incidentally, commercial activities (football games and outdoor shopping festivals for Christmas) that involved the public gathering in their thousands were allowed to continue; only the political ones were banned.

[5] Additionally, the conference centre where UN delegates negotiated was more insulated from civil society actors than previous COPs, leaving almost no space for protest to directly influence the negotiations. Meanwhile, fossil fuel industry firms and the banks financing them (such as Engie, Suez Environement and BNP Paribas) played a heavily engaged role in both sponsoring the conference and writing the agreement itself, revealing the democratic deficit at the heart of the UN and the state-based framework of environmental governance more broadly.

[6] Barcelona En Comu provides a blueprint for this, with its anti-evictions campaign which elected current mayor Ada Colau.

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