A lo-fi look at symbolic action and its dilemmas

Submitted by Matthew on 10 July, 2011 - 3:12

For her documentary about the environmental direct action movement the director, Emily James, was given access to the often secretive world of Climate Camp, Plane Stupid and the other loose networks which came together for direct action at the UN climate change conference in Copenhagen, the London G20 summit and Kingsnorth power station.

The nature of the footage inevitably gives it an honest lo-fi feel, overlaid with some impressive animations, and an engaging narrative. But it was all a bit predictable; as one activist watching it with me put it, “it seemed like edited highlights of the last three years of my life.” In framing the documentary around several individual activists and a few particular actions, what the film gains in personalising activism it loses in the ability to draw out wider political issues underpinning the debate about climate change and capitalism.

On the other hand, the film’s execution reflects on the politics of many of those involved in the direct action movement. Just like the documentary, Climate Camp and similar groups prioritise highly imaginative and attention-grabbing stunts aimed at drawing attention to particular issues. Much of the action is symbolic, aimed at “sending a powerful message” to the government or capital.

For instance, the activists chaining themselves to the headquarters of the nationalised Royal Bank of Scotland wished to “reclaim the bank”, but little discussion was given to the sort of nationalisation which would make the banking system truly socialised and democratic.

Similarly, although activists bravely faced a major police operation to shut down a coal-fired power station, this was done with no consultation with the workers. While drawing attention to the issue of carbon emissions, such action will never succeed in shutting down every coal-fired power station in the context of a new sustainable economy. After one action, an activist was asked “does any of this do any good?” After a long pause, she replied: “You can’t do nothing, that wouldn’t have done any good.”

These points are not necessarily meant as criticisms of actions featured in the documentary but to point out some of the limitations which activists themselves recognise yet have not yet found a way of addressing. One activist went to Copenhagen with her focus on climate change and came back, after experiencing the repressive conduct of the Danish police, realising that the capitalist system as a whole was the problem. Regarding the post-capitalist future, however, she was “not sure how we’re gonna get there or how’s it going to work but let’s give it a go.”

Some answers are hinted at in the film yet never explicitly drawn out. Apart from the RMT banners flying outside Vestas, the questions of class and the labour movement are never addressed. The actions featured in this documentary have radicalised a new generation of brave and talented young activists, have exposed the links between capital and the state, and cleverly pointed out what is wrong with the current system. Yet there is a gap between means and ends, between symbolic action and the creation of a new system which can solve the problems of climate change.

In the socialist movement, we should be reaching out to people involved in direct action because of a largely shared vision of what sort of world we want to see. There is much we can learn from them but also a contribution we can make in terms of ideas about fighting for a better world through workers’ self-organisation and class struggle; about socialism and the rule of people over profit. Let the dialogue continue.

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