This is the fifth in a series of essays from our Commissioning Editor, Dougald Hine. In Notes From Underground, Dougald invites us to go deeper into the context of the new climate movements and what they tell us about the moment in which we find ourselves. The essays are also available as a podcast and on YouTube.
She dances in black clothes and high-heeled boots, in the middle of the street, a pink scarf trailing around her as she moves. There is no music. As the smoke thickens, she pulls the collar of her jacket up over her face and goes on dancing. Is it smoke – or tear gas? Figures in yellow vests emerge from behind her: sometimes they join in, laughing, dancing with her for a few moments as they pass. The street is lined with expensive-looking shops. The smoke clears a little and further down the street you can see flames.
I was in Paris that weekend at the start of December, but I only caught the edges of the protests: the sign in the hotel lobby warning guests against getting around by taxi, or the protesters drifting back to Gare de Lyon for a train back to their hometowns and cities. I had come to speak on a panel, and the moderator, a French technology journalist, steered me away from the movements breaking out that autumn on both sides of the Channel, Extinction Rebellion and the gilets jaunes. We were here to talk about the future, she observed.
Standing in the park below our Bellevue venue, I watched the smoke and the sirens rise over the city. How much easier it is to talk about the future as something further off, as if it hasn’t started, as if it isn’t here already in the tangle of beginnings and endings that we call the present.
Now on my northbound train, I sat watching videos from the streets of Paris and London, my thoughts held by the strange symmetry of these movements springing into view the same day, 17 November 2018, on the bridges and the roundabouts; the aesthetic coincidence of the fluoro-fabrics – the green, pink and yellow of the flags, the yellow of the vests – and the coincidence of tactics, bodies blocking junctions and stopping traffic, bringing the business as usual of both these capital cities to a halt.
Easy enough to see them as mirror opposites, mind you. That first Saturday, George Monbiot pointed out how the BBC seemed happier to focus on French activists protesting fuel price rises than British activists protesting climate change. You could tell this as a story of the good protesters and the bad protesters: one lot pushing for climate action, the others standing in the way of measures meant to curb the use of fossil fuels. Yet to take this opposition at face value was to miss much of what mattered about these events, what they might have to tell us about these times. There was another story here worth telling, I thought; one that stretches back across this decade to reveal a shared lineage, rooting these two movements in a common indignation.
* * *
‘When I see a bunch of guys coming down the street, carrying a flag and singing the national anthem, I don’t think, “Comrades!”’
I read that comment at the bottom of one of many articles trying to make sense of the gilets jaunes that December, to puzzle out what promise or threat this movement might contain. As national anthems go, I thought, the Marseillaise is closer to the Sex Pistols’ ‘God Save The Queen’ than the official version. For much of the 19th century it was an anthem of international revolution, its bloodthirsty lyrics a call to defence of a liberty born out of regicide. The Tricolore may carry the same three colours as the Union Jack, but to take it up is to invoke a different kind of history.
This is not to dismiss the reaction of that commenter, only to notice that while symbols and ideas spill across borders, meanings are lost and gained along the way. As if to prove his point, before the year was out, a small collection of far-right Brexit ultras had stitched Union Jacks on the back of yellow vests and tried blocking traffic on London’s bridges, though they were too few in number to pull it off.
The scale of the French movement was a sign that it was about more than fuel taxes. The tax rise had been the last straw for people living precariously on tight budgets; it seemed to symbolise an ignorance and disregard for the everyday realities of life in ‘the France of the roundabouts’, the peripheral towns and rural areas that had experienced decades of economic decline and political neglect. But as they came together and found their voices, lists of demands were published which demonstrated the breadth of the anger. When existing political parties, whether of the left or the far-right, attempted to place themselves at the front of the movement, they were met with fierce resistance. There was an anger here that would not be accommodated within the existing game of politics, an anger that insisted on challenging the game itself.
The movement of the gilets jaunes had no developed political theory behind it, but one text seems to anticipate its spirit. Stéphane Hessel’s Indignez-vous ! was published in October 2010 with a print run of six thousand copies. Within three months sales of this slim pamphlet from a little-known author and a tiny publisher had reached six hundred thousand and later ended up in the millions. The title was an injunction: ‘Get Outraged!’ A call to anger. Much of its power lay in the moral authority of its 93-year-old author. A veteran of the Resistance, a survivor of the concentration camps, and an observer at the creation of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, at the end of a long life Hessel was calling on the younger generations to rise up in indignation as his generation had against the Nazis.
Find what you are angry about, he told his readers. There was plenty to choose from: the dismantling of the welfare system, the treatment of paperless migrants, the widening gap between rich and poor, the Israeli occupation of the Palestinian territories. What has become harder today than in his youth, he acknowledged, is knowing who to get angry at. The enemy is elusive, systemic. Yet it’s here that Hessel’s historical analogy, born of his own experience, finds its bite: just as the Resistance had taken up arms against the illegitimacy of a Vichy regime subservient to the Nazis, so he urged a non-violent insurrection against a political establishment which had surrendered to the powers of the international financial system.
Reading interviews with the gilets jaunes, you catch plenty of echoes of Hessel’s pamphlet. This language walks a dangerous line: once you start talking about the forces of international finance and their influence over national governments, you are in the borderlands of antisemitic conspiracy theory. If this charge was not made against Hessel, it may be because he was himself the son of a Jewish father and had cheated death at Buchenwald. As the Labour Party under Jeremy Corbyn has discovered, any grassroots movement that tries to articulate a critique of the neoliberal form of capitalism will find some of its members slipping into conspiracism. The alarm this generates is real, and this real alarm will be exploited mercilessly by those for whom no critique of neoliberalism could be legitimate, who insist that there is no such thing as neoliberalism, that the concept itself is a paranoid leftist conspiracy theory. This is part of the mess in which we find ourselves.
In France, at this end of the decade, the perception of a regime that governs at the behest of the international financial system had come to be embodied in the figure of Emmanuel Macron. Hailed by the international media as the man who could turn the tide of populism, the president against whom the gilets jaunes were taking to the streets had come into politics from a career as an investment banker.
* * *
In the months that followed the publication of Indignez-vous !, history seemed to be running on fast forward, carried on a tide of networked anger. It began when WikiLeaks released the embassy cables and when a Tunisian street vendor named Mohamed Bouazizi set himself on fire outside the governor’s office in the town of Sidi Bouzid, starting a chain reaction of protests across North Africa and the Middle East. There is never only one beginning. As the Arab Spring spread further north and west, people talked about the Movement of the Squares, the occupation of spaces in the centre of cities which became a defining experience of these interlinked outbreaks of hope and desperation.
In Iceland, hacker activists I’d first known as members of the WikiLeaks crew were organising to keep the Egyptian internet online. In Cairo, Egyptian revolutionaries were ordering pizza to be delivered to protesters occupying the capitol in Madison, Wisconsin. In London, as student protests against tuition fees and austerity merged into this wider movement, I heard Paul Mason speak about the Paris Commune in a squatted townhouse in Bloomsbury, and afterwards a few of us sat in a pub across from the British Museum trying to piece together what was happening. The next morning Paul posted a set of thoughts from that conversation on his BBC blog. ‘Twenty Reasons Why It’s Kicking Off Everywhere’ went viral and helped to name the networked nature of the moment we were living in.
If it seemed to be kicking off everywhere that year, France was an exception, with no clear point of convergence for the latent outrage which the success of Indignez-vous ! seemed to disclose. Across the Pyrenees it was another story: the movement which spread across Spain that summer was among the most powerful manifestations of the spirit of 2011, earlier than the Occupy protests and orders of magnitude larger. Eight million people took part in the occupation of the Spanish squares, more than one in six of the country’s population. The movement was known as 15-M, after the date of the first protest that May, or as the Indignados, after the title of the Spanish translation of Hessel’s pamphlet.
* * *
What came of all that rebel hope? In Egypt, a brutal counter-revolution. In Libya, a failed state. In Syria, a terrible civil war. When I think of the hashtags streaming across our screens, cheering on those early months of the Arab Spring, it brings to mind the scenes of happy crowds waving young men off to the trenches in 1914, scenes which had seemed so inexplicable when they showed us them in school.
Elsewhere, the occupations ended as winter took the fun out of camping in city squares. It looked like failure, but friendships were made, alliances forged and new language sent out into wider circulation. Talk of the one per cent reached the mainstream and laid the ground for a candidate like Bernie Sanders, though the political establishment did its best to cede that ground to the cynical demagoguery of a blustering billionaire like Trump. In Britain, people I’d last seen listening to Paul Mason in that squat in Bloomsbury showed up as the intellectual outriders of Corbynism: a generation of activists radicalised by the brutal treatment of the student protests saw their chance to occupy the Labour Party and launch a project whose hopes lie in the balance as I write this. In Greece, similar hopes were brought low when the leaders of Syriza surrendered to the international institutions they had vowed to fight.
The most interesting story perhaps is what happened next in Spain, where the Indignados movement gave rise not only to a national political party, Podemos, but to a network of local initiatives: these citizens’ platforms took power in three of the five largest cities in the country, pledging to occupy the squares and the institutions.
I first learned about the municipalist movement from Jamie Kelsey Fry. A London teacher whose experience of Occupy changed his life, he had become an irrepressible advocate for social movements, a gushing fire hydrant of hope. In the late summer of 2017 I came to London to host five days of conversation on ‘The Art of the Impossible’, and Jamie rolled up, charged with enthusiasm for what was happening in Madrid and Barcelona. He’d been there for a gathering called Fearless Cities, an international encounter between activists working to open up the process of democracy at a local level.
The way Jamie told it, the Spanish movement had started with Indignados activists resisting the eviction of families who the banks were threatening to make homeless. Out of this network came an alliance that stood for election with a commitment to the commons, to the feminisation of politics – understood not just as getting women into positions of power, but rejecting the macho approach to holding power – and to forms of accountability intended to prevent those who occupied the offices of local government from becoming institutionalised. He told the story of a public hearing where a municipalist mayor stood alongside her counterparts from the traditional parties on the city council, all of them men. After each of them had given his answer as to what should be done about the area of policy under discussion, it was her turn, and she said, ‘I don’t know what should be done – and neither do the rest of you.’ What was needed, she went on, was a process whereby a whole range of the city’s inhabitants brought their experience to bear on collaborative solutions. Infused with the memory of the Movement of the Squares, this was what these citizens’ platforms sought to do.
* * *
‘A few of us are starting a rebellion.’
This was October 2018, the first time I met Gail Bradbrook and the first I’d heard about Extinction Rebellion. I had come to Stroud to give a talk at the invitation of a local artist duo. At the end of the evening, they invited Gail onto the stage to speak about what she was working on.
Afterwards, I wrote to the two people I knew with the widest connections in activist circles around the UK, to ask if they had heard anything about this new group. One of them was Jamie and he wrote back, full of excitement, to tell me yes, he had been working with them.
So when I read Extinction Rebellion’s three demands, and saw the demand for a citizens’ assembly, the thread ran back through Jamie to the Fearless Cities gathering and the municipalists of Barcelona En Comú. No doubt there were other routes by which these ideas had fed into the formation of Extinction Rebellion; this was just the one I happened to recognise, the one that came to mind on the train back from Paris a few weeks later.
* * *
There is a power in slowing down, bringing the movement of business as usual to a halt. Interrupting the pace of the city, you interrupt the inevitability of where we are all going. Isn’t that what we need, now?
I’m thinking of The Pause, an intervention by the artist Toni Spencer, which began on the bridges during the April rebellion: a bell rings, an invitation to stop, and everyone falls silent. From what I heard, it had a beauty and a strangeness not unlike what I saw in that video of Nadia Vadori-Gauthier dancing without music in the Paris street.
I’m thinking of stories from both sides of the Channel, reports of what happens when a current of indignation sparks into action and interrupts the illusion of inevitability. Paul Mason telling stories of the Paris Commune, all of us there that night in that occupied building. Stories of how people find each other and begin the conversation about what the hell we are going to do instead.
What happens next may look like failure. Or it may be a success that asks many of the questions failure would have asked us. In Spain, the municipalists suffered setbacks in this year’s local elections, though elsewhere similar models continue to spread. The gilets jaunes were beaten down, though not before their indignation had shaken Macron’s presidency. Among their lists of demands, many called for citizens’ assemblies.
There’s an interview which Rosemary Bechler did with Graham Smith who has spent twenty years researching the citizens’ assembly and other models of ‘democratic innovation’. ‘For the first nineteen and a half of those years nobody was interested!’ he laughs. Their conversation ranges from the Irish Citizens’ Assembly, which framed the 2018 referendum on abortion and stimulated the current fluorescence of interest in the model, to Extinction Rebellion and the Spanish municipalists, to the Citizens’ Convention for the Climate under way right now in France. This last example could be a ‘game-changer’, Smith says: where the UK Climate Assembly scheduled to begin in January is an initiative of the chairs of six parliamentary committees, the French convention is sponsored by the president, who has said that he will implement any recommendations with significant support from its members. As I read this, I think: would Macron have embarked on such a process if it hadn’t been for the gilets jaunes and their indignation at his earlier clumsy attempts at using price incentives to drive behaviour change? I click another link to read about the general strike that just brought France to a standstill, a fresh surge of outrage provoked by his government’s pension reforms.
‘Politics is the art of the possible,’ declared Bismarck. As this last decade wore on, it became clearer that to have any chance of heading off the worst of climate change, impossible things would need to happen – things beyond the bounds of possibility within which politicians act. Those bounds of possibility do change, but they are rarely changed by the politicians and never by the politicians alone. One thin strand of hope I’ve carried through the last few years lies in the frequency with which ‘impossible’ things have been happening lately, for better and for worse – things we were told were impossible by all the grown-ups whose job it is to tell us how the world is meant to work, until they went and happened anyway.
Like the White Queen in Carroll’s Through the Looking-Glass, I have been practising, doing my best to believe impossible things before breakfast. Could these experiments with slower, deliberative modes of democracy carry the currents of indignation, transform them into a turning aside from business as usual? Could there be political leaders who come around to the need for such a turning, in the face of the enormity of the climate crisis? Even a figure as unpromising as France’s banker-turned-president, who mostly strikes me as a twenty-years-too-late Tony Blair? That one still seems a stretch.
Just today, looking to the disunited kingdom where I did my growing up, there are other impossibilities that I want to believe in. If you can, then go and make them happen.
Image: Nadia Vadori-Gauthier, Une minute de dance par jour (One Minute of Dance a Day), 1 December 2018, Dance 1418, Paris