Tag Archives: social movements

Climate and Capitalism: Is System Change the Answer?

This 55-minute lecture assesses approaches for surmounting the accelerating climate crisis. i focus on the desirability, viability, and potential feasibility of these approaches.

The argument is simple.

What is possible (Green Growth) is inadequate to the challenge of climate change, whereas what is necessary and desirable (Degrowth) is impossible in the short time available to us. To escape this impasse, we need to forego reformism and radicalism in favour of radical reformism – a supplemented Green New Deal.

Science for Peace and Sustainability? Not without a Strategy

Humanity faces the gravest crisis in our short history. Our governmental leaders are unwilling or unable to grapple effectively with two looming catastrophes: escalating climatic disasters and growing arsenals of increasingly deadlier nuclear arsenals, combined with rising tensions among nuclear powers. Authoritarian tendencies throughout the world make matters worse, as far-right deniers and conspiracy theorists rise to the fore.

Grappling effectively with these problems certainly benefit from scientific analyses of why the problems exist and of what might serve as technically sufficient policy or programmatic solutions. But what is often lacking is an answer to the crucial how question: How, realistically, will the solution be implemented? By whom? With what coalition, ideology and set of tactics? Without rough answers to the political question, we are engaging merely in dreaming about desirable worlds.

The dangers are now so acute that only drastic action can avert catastrophe. Even holding global warming to a disastrous 2 degrees Celsius this century will require emergency action akin to mobilization for war. Preventing an accidental or intentional exchange of nuclear weapons requires a transformation of the dominant, military and nationally based conception of “national security.” With the proliferation of both nuclear-armed countries and the number and destructiveness of nuclear weapons, we are all becoming increasingly insecure. Avoiding the real possibility of civilizational collapse means rocking the boat, disrupting the status quo.

The challenges are urgent and complex; who will lead the way in confronting them?

Where Are the Universities? Think Tanks?

You might think that such emergencies would galvanize universities and colleges to prepare their students and the public to understand and transform this dangerous world. But universities are reluctant to take on this role. Of course, we can name commendable exceptions and scattered units within universities dedicated to environmental and peace and conflict studies. Dependent on financial contributions from governments, corporations and rich individuals, universities and colleges do not confront power structures and ingrained beliefs that buttress a dysfunctional system. This reluctance places a burden on independent think tanks in civil society.

Science for Peace, the Canadian voluntary organization to which I belong, is similar with independent thank tanks elsewhere striving to apply scientific knowledge to resolve crises. The value of a think tank lies in taking the longer view. Although it may engage in campaigns on immediate conflicts, its vocation lies in presenting a comprehensive and integrated vision of what should and can be done to remedy wicked problems.

Canada’s Fraser Institute, like similar right-wing think tanks elsewhere such as the UK’s Institute of Economic Affairs and  the US’s Cato Institute, is effective for three reasons. All its research and public education not only focus on promoting free-market solutions, but also reflects the vision. ingrained individualism, and paradigmatic policies of neoliberalism. Obviously, the massive funding that this viewpoint garners from corporations and the rick augments the Institute’s influence.

Science for Peace and other NGOs think tanks will never match the Fraser Institute (or the other two) in highly paid consultants, salaried professional managers, access to key policy-makers, and slick presentations. However, the positive side of our reliance on committed volunteers and shoe-string budgets is independence from both government and corporations. We can voice the uncomfortable truths about what needs to be done, and how.

Thinking Strategically

We “can,” but do we?

Not as well as we might like. If we are taking the longer view – if that is our goal – then what is the coherent message? As for Science for Peace, our “Peace/Ecological Manifesto” does integrate our thinking by linking the ecological crisis to the nuclear/militarist challenge and by offering a theoretical alternative to the current order, namely, “human security”.  We do not propose, however, a plausible pathway to the new order. And our webinars, lectures, statements, petitions, and articles address disparate, albeit important, topics. We have elaborated the severity of the nuclear and climate crises, though too much emphasis on the scope of the emergency can induce paralysis rather than action. We have probed the nature and origins of instances of human suffering, such as the war in Ukraine. Lately, we have focused on the promise and tactics of nonviolent resistance, especially in the context of authoritarian tendencies. And we have taken principled stands in petitions and statements on a range of peace and climate issues. Principles are important; however, sometimes the message is received by those already converted. In short, our offerings are pertinent, though not informed by a coherent strategy. Science for Peace is typical in this respect.

Independent think tanks can be more effective if they have a consistent and reasonable message, which they relay through all means of influence. Yes, we need a luminescent vision of a peaceful and sustainable world. However, the harder part is imagining and forging the feasible pathways for surmounting our predicament. Our research and education should reflect an integrated perspective.

A “pathway” is akin to a strategy in the broad sense. A strategy involves answering three questions:

  • Why does the problem arise? What essential features of the prevailing system lead to the negative outcomes?
  • What needs to be done to remedy this defect and therefore remedy the problem?
  • How will what we need to be done, get done? What is the politics of the transition? Who (what groups) will be the agent of the transition? Using what tactics?

In general, the “why” and “what” questions are easier to answer than the “how” question. The conservative think tanks have answers to all three questions. Independent think tanks emphasize the “what,” with some attention to “why.” Without answering the last question, however, one is engaging only in dreaming. We have enough scientific knowledge  to know what to do, but we don’t do it. We need to focus on how what needs to be done, gets done.

Reform, Revolution, or What?

What is the strategy? It doesn’t need to be spelled out in detail; we don’t have all the answers.

We are in the business of helping to avert two looming catastrophes. My view is that we should be explicit about the need for structural/system change, though without mentioning either capitalism or socialism (as both terms are vague and are weapons used in ideological/political warfare). We might use the more neutral term ’market system’: is there any doubt that the market system is obsolete when it is rapidly undermining the ecological basis of all life? We can oppose the market system, which destructively treats nature and labour as commodities, while still accepting the importance of markets in real commodities in adjusting supply to demand. “Human security” and “Postgrowth” are other positive terms to employ.

Too often analysts and activists frame the macro-strategic choices as revolutionary or reformist change. That is a false dichotomy. For one thing, system change does not necessarily mean the end of capitalism. Yes, we cannot continue with endless growth, especially in the rich countries. However, those who propose movement toward a steady-state economy, an idea associated  with ecological economist Herman Daly, or “postgrowth,” implicitly or explicitly contend that this transition can be made within capitalism. Through-puts of energy and resources remain constant, but competition, entrepreneurship and innovation continue to produce goods more efficiently and invent new products. A steady-state economy or postgrowth is our future.

For another thing, reformism breaks down into two categories: policy reforms that can be implemented within the existing power structures and economic system (usually the position of policy analysis as practised at universities), and radical reforms that will become feasible under foreseeable conditions (that is, human agency can shape the sociopolitical conditions). The last is implicitly, for example, what climate scientists are tending toward in their opaque reports for the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Scientists claim that “holistic and transformative change” is required to hold global warming to under 2 degrees Celsius. Those changes could only come about via a shift in power structures. In short, the difference between those arguing for system change and those arguing for policy changes is, in some cases, not as deep as it may appear.

What we should aim for is radical reformism with respect both to global warming and to the nuclear threat arising from the international balance of power/terror system. Reforms within neoliberalism are unlikely to resolve the challenges; revolutionary change is not only highly uncertain, but also costly in human suffering. Radical reformism, linked to nonviolent civil resistance, is the only feasible and humane approach in averting catastrophes.

In Conclusion

This advocacy of radical reformism is becoming mainstream. On the issue of postgrowth, for example, consider this project funded by the European Research Council with a budget of €10 million. On the issue of dealing with the threat of nuclear annihilation, refer to this appeal, which is supported by many prominent scholars and activists globally. The manifesto calls for the establishment of a new international order, based on a massive global mobilization of civil societies.

The conclusion is simple. We are in a dangerous era in which boldness is essential in dealing with looming catastrophes. For Science for Peace and other peace and climate organizations to act effectively, we must offer an integrated, reasonable, comprehensive, and radical message.

The barrel of a revolver tied in a knot to symbolize nonviolence

10 Essential Things to Know about Nonviolent Resistance

  1. Two traditions of thinking about nonviolence hold sway.

    • Principled nonviolence: Adherents decide to use nonviolent means on ethical grounds. In the Gandhian approach, nonviolence is a way of living a moral life.
    • Pragmatic nonviolence: Activists, seeking to win rights, freedom, or justice, choose to use nonviolent techniques because they are more effective than violent means in achieving these goals. Gene Sharp is a major proponent of this approach.

However, in practice, principled proponents, such as Gandhi and Martin Luther King, proved to be adept at pragmatically using nonviolent methods, Equally, some pragmatists, in their hearts, are pacifists as well as hard-headed realists.

  2. Nonviolent resistance (NVR), from the pragmatic viewpoint, is a form of political struggle.

Unarmed civilians employ coordinated and unconventional methods to deter or defend against usurpers and foreign aggressors or to overturn injustices, though without causing or threatening bodily harm to their opponents. Examples of nonviolent methods include demonstrations, protests, strikes, stay-at-homes, boycotts, street theatre, derision of authorities, rebellious graffiti and other communications, shunning of collaborators, building alternative institutions, and many more.

  3. NVR is not a doctrine of passive resistance or acceptance of weakness.

It is not passive, but active, demanding coordinated and unconventional struggle. Far from evincing weakness, NVR demands immense courage of resisters, who are aware their resistance may lead to injury, imprisonment, torture, or even death. NVR is thus not for the weak-hearted. It is a strategy only for those with the determination to persist in the face of repression.

  4. The aim of NVR is to build support and undermine the pillars of the opponent’s power.

NVR movements succeed by building up a large and diverse following of activists, winning over passive supporters, and precipitating demoralization and defections among the pillars of the established order (the police, army, bureaucrats, insiders).

  5. NVR is stunningly effective in comparison to violent campaigns.

Erica Chenoworth, who has undertaken path-breaking research, discovers that, of the 627 revolutionary campaigns waged worldwide between 1900 and 2019, more than half of the nonviolent campaigns succeeded in achieving their goals, whereas only about a quarter of the violent ones succeeded. Nonviolent struggles are twice as effective as violent struggles. Yet the influence of the military-industrial complex, the widespread glorification of violence in popular culture and the equating of masculinity with domination obscure the superiority of nonviolence as a political stratagem.

  6. The leverage of NVR stems from the dependence of rulers on the consent of significant sectors of the population (Gene Sharp).

Rulers cannot rule if bureaucrats obstruct, armed forces and police hold back, people shirk work and ignore laws and regulations, and foreign powers desert. Rulers do not need the support of entire populations; the Nazis could destroy Jews, Roma, the mentally and physically disabled, socialists and union leaders, so long as the ethnic Germans acquiesced to their rule. Hence, the task of nonviolent resisters is fourfold: -to build a large and diverse movement -to attract the loyalty of passive supporters -to encourage the defection of pillars of the regime -to build support in the international community.

  7. The effectiveness of NVR depends on many factors. 

  • Organization: to attract the support of a large and diverse group of supporters.
    1. prior coalition building ensures a core of committed activists
    2. as unity is critical, the coalition needs both clear, unifying goals, and processes to resolve internal disputes
    3. leadership is needed, but it must be decentralized, to make it difficult for rulers to decapitate resistance by arresting its top leaders.
  • Training in nonviolent methods: an effective movement must be able to shift tactics as circumstances change. Noncooperation with the regime is one of the most effective set of methods in the playbook, but these methods require coordinated action.
  • Strategic and tactical agility: protests and demonstrations are only the public face of nonviolent action; effective movements employ the full panoply of strategies, depending on the degree of repression by the rulers. The resisters win when they attract the support of passive supporters and precipitate mass defections among the pillars of the established order.
  • Nonviolent discipline. Rulers respond to NVR by neutralizing the leaders of the opposition, undermining the movement’s unity, and fomenting a violent response on the part of protesters. If the last tactic works, the government can then justify violent repression. It can portray the resisters as a terrorist threat. The resisters can succeed only if it is clear to everyone who is the major threat, namely a ruthless and violent governing elite. Thus, destruction of property (such as the destruction of bridges as enemy forces advance) is permissible, so long as it entails no loss of life or injury. Collaborators of the regime can be shunned, but not assassinated. Such nonviolent discipline is difficult to maintain. It runs counter to one’s inclination to respond to violence with violence. The need for discipline underlines the importance of training.
  1. NVR can be employed to deter and defeat foreign aggressors, as well as to prevent or overthrow dictatorships and establish rights and justice.

Civilian-based defence, in the words of Gene Sharp in his book of that name (1990) is “a policy [whereby] the whole population and the society’s institutions become the fighting forces. Their weaponry consists of a vast variety of forms of psychological, economic, social, and political resistance and counter-attack. This policy aims to deter attacks and to defend against them by preparations to make the society unrulable by would-be tyrants and aggressors. The trained population and the society’s institutions would be prepared to deny attackers their objectives and to make consolidation of political control impossible. These aims would be achieved by applying massive and selective noncooperation and defiance. In addition, where possible, the defending country would aim to create maximum international problems for the attackers and to subvert the reliability of their troops and functionaries.” History holds many examples of civilian defence, including in Denmark and Norway during Nazi occupation and in Czechoslovakia following the 1968 “Prague Spring,” when a Warsaw Pact army sought to reimpose rigid Soviet-style Communism.

  1. NVR became less effective in the period since 2010.

Although nonviolent campaigns worldwide reached unprecedented numbers prior to the 2020 pandemic, their success rate fell. Erica Chenoworth in her 2021 book Civil Resistance provides the statistics. (However, nonviolent resistance remained more effective than violent campaigns.) Chenoworth also offers some tentative reasons for this comparative decline. She highlights “smart repression” by governments and strategic errors on the part of resistance movements. Each is a major subject, and each demands attention if NVR is not to repeat the errors of the past. Restrictions accompanying the pandemic (2020-2022) dampened NVR by rendering mass gatherings illegal and/or dangerous.

  1. “Smart repression” needs to be better understood and counteracted.

Nonviolent movements’ strength depends on maintaining unity among a diverse following, sustaining nonviolent discipline, and demonstrating versatility in nonviolent methods. Determined rulers will undermine the movement’s unity, provoke violent responses, and neutralize the leadership. Digital means of communication have assisted NVR movements in mobilizing large numbers of protesters and in spreading their messages via social media. But there is a dark side to digital technology. It allows governments to enhance surveillance of dissidents, identify leaders, and sow discord through misinformation campaigns. The effectiveness of the next phase of NVR depends both on neutralizing smart resistance and returning to the fundamentals of nonviolence: organization, training, nonviolent discipline, and the versatile use of the full panoply of nonviolent techniques


Making the Impossible Possible: Coalitional Movement Politics in the Decisive Decade

This is the decisive decade for humankind and other species. We tackle dire trends now.  Or we face a bleak future in which our constricted pandemic life now becomes the norm for all but the wealthiest. Our rational and technological prowess, in combination with market-based power structures, has brought us to the brink of catastrophe. Can movement politics be part of a solution?

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"On Fire" is the title of Naomi Klein's book

Naomi Klein and the Politics of the Green New Deal

“Winning is a moral imperative. The stakes are too high, and time is too short, to settle for anything else.” Naomi Klein addressed these words to the British Labour Party, but they aptly express the urgency of the climate movement today. Continue reading

Socialism – Is There an Alternative?

Since Margaret Thatcher made her famous pronouncement about the lack of an alternative to free-market capitalism, many on the left have seemed to agree. Continue reading

Choosing Activism

“Philosophers have only interpreted the world [but] the point is to change it.” Those of us in the peace, justice and environmental movements embrace this Marxian aphorism. If we want to live by the dictum, what does that entail? Continue reading

Karl Polanyi and the Rejuvenation of Today’s Disoriented Left

Nearly everyone agrees that the left is a mess. The main clash in most Western countries today pits mainstream neoliberals against right-wing authoritarian populists, with the latter channeling the rage instigated by the policies of the former. The mainstream social-democratic parties in Europe are in electoral free-fall. The ‘Pink Tide’ in Latin America has rapidly receded (with a couple of exceptions). And far-right populism is becoming the movement of the traditional working class. A crisis may erupt at any time in the form of another financial meltdown, an ecological disaster, an authoritarian reaction or a foreign-policy miscalculation. Continue reading

Youth: Vanguard for the Next New Left?

With the decline of the traditional working class and its growing defection to right-wing populism, progressives have searched for an alternative social agent. Could it be youth? Continue reading