No Room for Cynicism: A Defence of the Global Climate Protest Movement

In the aftermath of the recent global climate strike marches, it has been common to once again hear a rather typical, cynical refrain from certain quarters, stating that protest marches are largely symbolic and achieve no concrete result. Having been to plenty of marches in my time on the left, I must admit I am not entirely in disagreement with the cynics: There are only so many depressingly tiny Glasgow May Day marches one can experience before concluding that protest marches are often in danger of becoming nothing more than irrelevant, ineffectual, dead rituals.

I have nothing against the great socialist tradition of May Day, of course – it’s just that it really rankles to see a great proletarian city like Glasgow outdone in participation by almost every other place in the world. But I digress. Despite my wariness about marches devolving into more of the same old, same old, I am absolutely not among the cynics when it comes to the climate strikes, and you shouldn’t be either. If you are, keep reading, so that I can show you why you should be more enthusiastic.

Firstly, it needs to be kept in mind that these climate marches are not happening in isolation. Yes, it is indeed true that marching and nothing but marching achieves very little, but that isn’t all that’s happening with the events under consideration. After all, they stem from school student strikes, a fact which immediately turns these marches into huge disruptions of business-as-usual everyday life not only for the students themselves but also for teachers and parents. It might be countered that many headteachers have allowed their students to walk out, but this does not change the fact that, in the past year, the regular functioning of the school system in this country has been consistently interrupted on a monthly basis by student strikes. 

Now, some rather dull pedants maintain that to call this a strike is incorrect, as the school students aren’t withdrawing any sort of labour power in the Marxist sense and are thus not hurting capitalism’s profits in any way. While this is technically true, I don’t think it is a very interesting or significant line of criticism. The students are still deserting their daily duties and joining together in collective protest – sure, it isn’t a traditional worker’s strike, but it still causes disruption, empowers those taking part, and makes their demands for a better world impossible to ignore. And as my second reason for enthusiasm will show, if the school strikes achieve their key aim, then these finer points of definition won’t really matter anyways.

This is because the students aren’t just satisfied in getting themselves out on the streets. They want you out as well, along with every builder, teacher and postal worker too. This is the goal: a global general strike for climate, the likes of which Marx and co. would have been delighted to see. It is a tall order, admittedly. The worker’s movement in the glory days of the Second International was barely able to get a global protest strike for an eight-hour workday going, never mind one to save the planet. The conditions of working-class militancy, organisation and anger that give rise to general strikes are rare enough; even when present, general strikes are very difficult to prepare, pull off and sustain, especially in the United Kingdom, characterised by draconian trade union laws. Add to that a traditional reticence on the part of organised labour to get thoroughly involved with the ecological movement and you have a situation in which climate strikers’ calls for a world general strike are likely to go unheard.

Even so, the students are not to be discounted. Their audacity should be applauded, for they have done more to popularise the idea of a general strike, and crucially, to attach the cause of the planet to the cause of labour, than any movement before them. Even a partial success, the enlistment of one or two unions to come out on strike alongside the kids, would represent a massive victory, and a huge step in the right direction. The proletarianisation of the climate movement must happen if the planet is to be saved from the greed-fuelled disaster that capitalism has imposed upon it. The working class still has a tremendous power to remake the world, and we shall be the worse-off if that power is not exercised soon. On that note, it should be remembered that if the climate strikes fail in their aim, the fault will not lie with the kids. The students have done their duty wonderfully – they have posed the issue and made the call to organised labour, but if the unions do not answer with anything more than token acknowledgement, then they must shoulder the blame for their inaction. The world is at stake: this is no time for timidity.

In the meantime, however, one last reason for enthusiasm. Even if nothing else that I have described comes to pass, if the school strikes do not in fact present a disruption, if organised labour does not join in, then it will still be true that the climate strikes represent the introduction of a whole new generation of youth to political activism, and that is enough to render it worthy of our support. The kids already have a better understanding of the issue than most adults, anyways. Their marches bristle with placards calling for the end of capitalism, and their chants take aim at billionaires and the government. They know exactly who’s standing in the way of climate justice, and what’s more, their movement is only getting started. They are the future. We do the planet a disservice by refusing to lend a hand.

[Paul Inglis – he/him]

[Photo credit: Getty Images 2019]


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