Climate change and fascism – two sides of the same coin: disconnection
Climate change isn’t “just” an environmental issue – we’ve known this for a long time. It will have enormous effects on where and how we live, on already difficult economic and racial justice challenges, on our economies, and much more. One under-appreciated aspect, however, is the impact it is likely to have on our politics. As the grandchild of Holocaust survivors, something that has always troubled me is that food and water shortages, massive population displacement, and geopolitical instability could lead to climate-driven fascism.
What I never expected, however, was that the relapse towards fascism might arrive well before the worst impacts of climate change. The rise of Trump, Hanson and the Brexiteers, and the terrible increase in antisemitic violence that we are seeing in Australia and around the world, are just the most obvious markers. The slow, deliberate wind-back of democratic and civil rights is a more subtle one. And state-backed racism against any people should be a stark wake-up call to all Jews.
But what are the underlying causes? In the climate field, we have begun to effectively delve into the systemic drivers of global warming. When it comes to extreme-right politics, less so. There’s a lot of discussion as to whether and how to respond to a politician such as Pauline Hanson. Digging deeper, there are conversations about the people who voted for Hanson and Trump: how to talk to them, how to move them.
There’s less about the deepest layer: dealing with the circumstances that created them.
It’s my contention that the rise of climate change and fascism have a common source: disconnection – from each other, from nature, from democracy.
Consider our loss of capacity to feel part of the natural world. The separation of humanity from nature has been growing since we first built cities. But industrial capitalism accelerated it dramatically, driving the enclosure of the commons, forcing people into cities to sell their labour. Through this process, we are losing not just our connection to the natural world, but also, starkly, our ability to describe it, our vocabulary. Blackberry no longer means a fruit we can pluck and eat, but a device to tie us to our labour even when on the toilet.
We cannot protect nature until we stop treating it as separate, until we reconnect. As one of my favourite slogans from global climate activism goes, “we are not protecting nature, we are nature protecting ourself”.
Let’s turn to the rise of the extreme right: of Hanson in her burqa; of Trump and the new U.S. fascists; of Brexit; of religious fundamentalist violence.
All these gain their power by tapping into disconnection. Economic inequality is one driver, but it’s only part of it. What is deeper is the disenfranchisement. “Take back control” the Brexit slogan, makes sense. It is absolutely correct that “elites” have taken control of our lives; have bought, stolen or been given our institutions, our democracy.
However, what all these demagogues do is the classic fascist bait and switch. They grab the disconnection and bring people together, not to cooperate to build better futures, but rather as a mob, primed and ready to incite. They rile people up about unfairness, inequality and lack of control, then misdirect it, away from the real causes of corporate power and towards some scary other, like Jews, blacks, immigrants, LGBTIQ people, the unemployed.
A huge part of the problem is that we are disconnected not just from nature and each other, but also from democracy. Government no longer has any real presence in our lives thanks to privatisation and corporatisation of everything from railways to post offices, medical services to unemployment services. The relationship between citizen and government becomes one of customer and service provider, in which we, the citizens, have no capacity to play any active role. We face a deep democratic deficit, with the undermining of the power of voting and criminalisation of protest. See the access corporations have to parliaments and MPs. See investor–state dispute resolution in international trade law, where companies can sue governments to overturn their decisions, often in ways citizens cannot.
Our adversarial system, where politics becomes a gladiatorial battle rather than a tournament of ideas, similarly contributes to disillusionment and disenfranchisement. Another strand is the oversimplification of political disagreements to superficial caricatures, the idea that we can’t deal with complexity. Which, of course, when we’re stressed, we can’t, so we turn to populism.
We turn away from politics and democracy because we no longer believe they can achieve anything. We desperately need to reclaim them!
Just as we cannot protect nature until we connect ourselves to and within nature, we won’t be in a position to fight fascism until we can truly show we are connecting and enfranchising all people. We fight their exclusionary “we” by showing that an inclusive “we” is not just possible, but better. We do so by rebuilding connection. By building a cooperative, participatory, ecological politics.
What does this look like?
One obvious element is the growth of sharing and repairing. From local “buy nothing” groups to repair cafes, from community gardens to swap-meets in the park, these practices of the commons have always existed. But they are experiencing a new boom as people search for connection to each other and alternatives to the increasingly obviously destructive nature of consumerism.
Another is the rise of online commons. The connective capacity of the internet lends itself to sharing. Open source is a clear demonstration of how cooperating can create huge value, and a challenge to those who say only competition can do so. Linux and Wikipedia are prime examples, and Creative Commons licensing is an institutional reflection of it.
One of my personal passions is working to reclaim public space from advertising. This is one of the starkest examples of governments handing over commons to private interests to profit from, and we can and must reclaim it. Cities such as Sao Paolo and Grenoble have done so, banning billboard ads, and Paris, Chennai and others are limiting it.
There is increasing interest and movement again towards worker and community co-ops, from fruit packers and dairy farmers to babysitting clubs, from food co-ops all the way through to large-scale energy cooperatives.
Taking co-ops to a remarkable institutional level, we’ve seen the arrival of some modes of truly participatory politics, such as the recently elected government of Barcelona. In the wake of the GFC, with Spain deep in recession and the government (and EU institutions) driving austerity, a tremendous co-op-based people’s movement arose across the country, with co-ops for food sharing, childcare sharing, healthcare, housing, squatters’ groups and more. In Barcelona, it was powerfully organised into a political movement. I was lucky enough to travel to Barcelona earlier this year and met with some of the people involved, hearing about the direct line between building those co-ops, organising them together in grassroots ways, with both practical projects and theoretical thinking, leading to the creation of a political project that won minority government last year. Now, of course, they are struggling with how to create institutional change, particularly with national and global powers arraigned against them. But they have successfully taken back control of water supply, legitimated squats, are working to make energy a public right rather than a commodity, and much more.
I also travelled to London and met the people behind the Participatory City project there. They are working with local government to provide institutional support to communities to develop their own urban commons projects, from cooking co-ops to knitting groups, from pop-up shops to creative cafes, partly because of what each project brings, but largely because of the overarching benefits across the community. They have already found that these projects reduce a vast range of social ills – homelessness, drug addiction and family violence.
At a lower level, it’s worth noting that governments around the world are experimenting with participatory democracy in a direct response to demands for greater democratic involvement, and societal tensions caused by disenfranchisement. Often they are focused on local planning issues, but they are also used to get to answers on difficult questions of public policy, sometimes effectively like in South Australia’s citizens juries, and sometimes as a distraction, such as the postal vote on marriage equality.
Finally, there’s the idea of a universal basic income. Essentially, a UBI is a system where income doesn’t start at zero, to ensure that nobody in our society lives in poverty. But, deeper than its redistributive effect, it is an inherently democratising project, reconceiving the relationship between citizen and state. It recognises that there are a multitude of different ways people participate and contribute, not just through paid labour; it rebalances power between employers and employees, gives people the basic resources, time, energy, support they need to take the steps they might want to take in life.
That is very far from an exhaustive look at the kind of practices and politics that can help address the crisis of disconnection. So much more is going on, and so much more is possible. Each of them might seem small, but together, they can shift our political and cultural norms.
We won’t be safe from climate change or fascism until we do so.
Image credits, from top:
- Photographer: Kamaljith K V.
- Pro-democracy protest on July 1, 2007 in Hong Kong. Photographer: Andy Stoll.
- Green spaces planted by the inhabitants, “Le Semis urbain” space at the corner of Maurice Ravel and Emile Laurent avenues. Photographer: JJ Georges.
- On 4 October 2013, Swiss activists from “Generation Grundeinkommen” organised a performance in Bern were eight millions of valid Swiss 5-cent coins (one per inhabitant) were dumped on a the Bundesplatz, as a celebration of the successful collection of more than 125,000 signatures for their federal popular initiative, which forced the government to hold a referendum on whether or not to incorporate the concept of basic income in the Swiss Federal Constitution. In 2016, the referendum resulted in 76.9% of votes against the introduction of a basic income. Photographer: Stefan Bohrer.