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Cop-enhagen: Seattle’s coming of age party?

So I’ve finally managed to translate some of my scribbled notes from the week I spent in Copenhagen and mixed that with some of my scattered thoughts to produce some kind of comment piece. If anyone has written or knows of any other articles on the week please let me know and I can link them here. It’s vitally important that we learn from Copenhagen.


The build up to this years UN conference on Climate change, the COP-15 in Copenhagen, was huge. Both mainstream and alternative media were abuzz with predictions and discussions on the conference and the ,almost obligatory, counter-mobilisation. Many months were spent deliberating over whether to shut the conference down or try and enter (with the latter winning out). Would this, as Naomi Klein  argued, be the culmination of the alter-globalisation movement? Would this be another Seattle? Would we witness a fully formed social movement to challenge an emerging round of capitalist accumulation based upon responses to ecological, economic and social crisis (for a brief outline of this read Tadzio’s Mueller and Alexis Passadakis 20 theses on Green capitalism)?

In the end the conference, unsurprisingly, failed to come up with a deal which could be called progressive in any dimension. Climate Justice Now labelled the talks “a complete betrayal of impoverished nations and island states, producing embarrassment for the United Nations and the Danish government”.  Many, including Mark Lynas in the Guardian, blamed the newly industrialising countries, whilst, in an interesting confluence of opinion, states from the South (including China and India) and many progressive movements placed the blame squarely at the feet of the Northern states. Although the political economy of the deal and the power relationships which it reflects are in themselves fascinating, as well as vital for understanding the political terrain upon which we operate, this post won’t focus upon them.

Outside of the conference many protestors and demonstrators found themselves at the wrong end of preventative laws which had been rushed through in the eve of the summit. These laws allowed the police to declare any demonstration illegal and then to arrest any of its participants without even making the demonstration itself aware of this. As well as furnishing the police with the means to control most demonstrations, these laws allowed the police to declare entire sections of Copenhagen searchable. Many of us over there regularly felt powerless when faced with a police force operating within a state of exception, outside of the regular rule of law. These laws, married with a militant and aggressive police force, were a contributor to the relative lack of confrontation on many demonstrations, such as the large Friends of the Earth demonstration on the Saturday which saw a large portion of the black bloc kettled and “preventatively detained”. However, once again this post will not dwell on the police presence. A ratcheting up of police repression should be expected as social and ecological crises deepen, except for the unique situation here in the UK since the death of Ian Tomlinson at the G20 in April.

Perhaps the most important political “event” for our movements took place away from the streets and inside the social centres, crash spaces and people’s kitchens. Copenhagen can probably be called the first international meeting of various national movements. Here we met and began to develop and shared language of climate justice with which we can move forward, together. These discussion were not without difficulties but it was encouraging to see them tackled with a spirit of openness. For example when the mind numbingly boring topic of violence/non-violence surfaced yet again at the CJA open plenary in Christiania all the responses, from both floor and panel (comprised of Naomi Klein, Michael Hardt and Tadzio Mueller) started with the assumption that a diversity of tactics was necessary although they all argued that the action consensus (or agreement) had been decided that violence wouldn’t be employed on the “Reclaim Power” action. It was also positive to see that the understanding of non-violent resistance was of a far more confrontational brand than that espoused by many NGO’s and liberals. As Tadzio Mueller put it in the plenary session, it’s about “seeing the gaps in the police lines” rather than not even testing them.  This coming together of people from various places and political traditions required an unusual amount of openness in order to succeed. Interesting tensions were brought into conversation and made productive rather than fetishised and turned into rigid differences. I witnessed NGO representatives have open discussions with European militants and Argentinean picquetero’s running workshops on demonstration security. At times it felt like an exciting, unbelievable experimental laboratory in which we could try and develop a truly hybrid politics. It really did feel like something very exciting was happening there in Copenhagen with regards to the shared politics of our movements, the large turn out of environmentalists at the No-Borders demonstration and the mix of participants from both global North and South on the agricultural action days are testimony to this. It now makes sense to talk about an, albeit embryonic, global climate justice movement. It waits to be seen whether this energy can be translated into our everyday practices and politics. It would be a disaster if we have to wait for the next COP’s in Mexico or Bonn for this global aspect to re-emerge. I hope we’ve learnt our lessons from the summit hopping trend we saw in Europe about 10-15 years ago. Whilst many of us left feeling energised and optimistic for the year ahead, summits are no substitute for building strong, sustainable movements within our own communities.

So, all in all, a positive start was made over in Copenhagen. Tensions and differences are being brought into positive conversation and these will need to continue back here in our local contexts. Questions of how radicals can co-operate with liberals, or whether they even should, how Northern and Southern movements can engage with each other and the fetishisation of indigenous peoples and struggles (the chant of “No Borders, First Nations” on the No Border demo was particularly disconcerting) all need discussing and acting upon in the coming period.

Was this the alter-globalisation movements coming of age party? In short no. Whilst having obvious elements of continuity, Copenhagen is the first truly global coming together of progressive movements under the banner of climate justice. As such the political foundations needed for coherent, co-ordinated action are still being lain. This is not the continuation of the alter-globalisation movement but the start of something different, with its own politics, potentials and difficulties. We cannot equate Copenhagen with Seattle, no matter how convenient the decade anniversary of the event is.

For another good analysis of Copenhagen (No doubt to be added to in the coming weeks) check out this post. It’s an interesting and well written, if not a little bit more critical, account from Copenhagen. I’d agree with the author that a non-violent movement takes time to build and that Wednesday could have gone better, but many in that demonstration were experiencing police repression for the first time. It appears that this article has kicked up an interesting discussion on indymedia UK.

Also, someone called Olivier from the climate caravan has written a rather rosier account of the week here. The idea of permanent peoples assemblies in local communities is an interesting one. I’d be interested in finding out the experiences that movements and communities in latin America (Argentina and the picqueteros springs first to mind) have had with peoples assemblies.

Podcasts from Historical Materialism, London, November, 2009

Infinite Thought has kindly flagged this excellent collection of podcasts from the recent historical materialism conference in London.

I haven’t listened to any of these yet but I’m particularly looking forward to listening to Erik Swyngedouw and (recently released) Tadzio Mueller speaking in session VII on Ecological crisis, and Holloways presentation which appears, presumably, to be about his new book, Crack Capitalism.

Also, as is probably obvious, I made it back from Copenhagen (relatively) unscathed. I’ll be trying to pull out some of the various thoughts and experiences that I had whilst over there and mull over them here for your collective appreciation and (hopefully) discussion. Until then all I can say is that from the movements perspective Copenhagen was a very encouraging event and it will be interesting seeing if we can move on from this.