When we demand a sharing of the world’s resources, as a necessary part of the fight to keep climate change under control – the guns will shoot.
I have been lucky so far; only two friends have died. Dean, I knew mainly at a distance, from a shared determination to name the policeman who killed Blair Peach. Then there was Pete: my generation of rank-and-filers’ private spy in the union machine. There will be more.
Like anyone in middle-age, my family includes any number of older people, those suffering life-ending diseases even if those are now in remission. I spend my evenings working through a personal contact list, on Thursday E, On Fridays R, on Saturdays S. Listening to complaints about closed hairdessers, crowded supermarkets.
When the lockdown began, even dolphins could be seen swimming the length of the Venice canals. The internet ran wild with the story: placed dinosaurs on the streets of New York, made a paradise of Croydon. In central London parks, birdsong could be heard fighting the din from building sites, the only workplaces which were open.
But with four billion people locked in their homes, unable to travel, or to buy anything much more than food – global carbon emissions are predicted to fall by just five percent, significantly less than is needed this year, and every year, if we are to stop global warming from changing the world irreversibly for the worse.
If anyone had once hoped that the epidemic would enable us to restrict increases to sea levels or to temperature to a tolerable minimum, I’m sorry, it is too late.
During the pandemic, I have been rereading old books about the rise of fascism: Klara Zetkin, Leon Trotsky, Walter Benjamin. That generation had lived through the rise of Mussolini’s fascist party, the murder of Matteoti and the creation of a dictatorship.
Then, from 1930, there seemed every chance of history repeating itself, as a tragedy even bleaker than the original. Again and again, in hope and despair, the interwar Marxists urged the parties of the German left to unite against their enemy.
I have also been reading environmental warnings. A friend who once chained herself to the Heathrow runway in protest at runaway climate change, shared a piece by Dr Jem Bendell. Its author says we are already past the moment needed to prevent change. He invites his readers to allow themselves to grieve. We need to find ways of being which are appropriate for that diminished future which is racing towards us.
Through the pandemic, through global warming, we are already in the same place as the German left in February 1933. Hitler is already Chancellor, the moment for the most effective resistance against catastrophe has passed. We might yet rescue something of the old world of German Social Democracy. We cannot save everything.
Bendell writes as if the world is made up of just two groups: those who know that the world is burning and will fight to save it, and those who judge destruction remote. Our tragedy is that former too few, the latter are too many.
But the grim truth of the last decade is that these are not the only camps. There is a third voice in the debates, the new global right which has emerged since 2016 and which revels in global catastrophe.
For twenty years anti-fascists warned of the susceptibility of the green movement to a fascist thinking which stresses the moral superiority of pre-capitalist society and the virtue of the soil.
But the spearhead of today’s aggressive right is neither fascist nor eco-fascist. It organises through elections, not in the street. It has taken the form, since 2016, of climate change denialism.
We see in the likes of Trump and Bolsonaro the calculation that if the whole world should burn, there will still be palaces for the rich and private armies to guard them. Nor is their calculation – that it is possible to the accelerate the consumption of the rich faster than the world shrinks – necessarily wrong on its own terms.
We suffer from an alliance between populism and capital, with the most determined of the super-rich waltzing towards everyone else’s destruction. Such a politics can only be answered with expropriation, not by a bloodless appeal to the interests of a humanity which the rich decreasingly recognise.
Bendell asks whether climate scientists should speak the truth of how close we are to social collapse. He cites fellow scientists – Michael Mann, Slex Steffen, Daniel Cohen – warning that by stating the risks plainly scientists might engender hopelessness and thereby sabotage measures to limit climate destruction. "Dropping the dire truth,” “on unsupported readers,” Steffen writes, “does not produce action, but fear."
Bendell characterises their views as a "non-populist anti-politics technocratic attitude". It “frames the challenges as one of encouraging people to try harder to be nicer and better rather than … [to] overthrow [the] system".
The anti-fascist in me agrees but sees something which Bendell misses, namely that there is a relationship between non-populist technocratism and the likes of Trump. One of the reasons why climate reformism has stalled is precisely the opposition of millions who sense incoherently that something in the story isn’t quite right.
That fear provides a chink through which deceit is generalized. The truth that scientists are afraid of stating the coming horror is twisted to become, ‘they are exaggerating, we can carry on forever with the technologies we have now.’
The interwar years had their own anti-populists. The leading thinkers of German Socialism also told their readers not to grieve.
The leading theorist of the SPD Karl Kautsky argued that for Nazism to destroy the left it would need to be a party with a million members. Happily, he explained, there weren’t enough unemployed people for Hitler to recruit on that scale. But that was before the Wall Street Crash…
Bendell’s own metaphors are of the loss of “a loved one or a way of life, or the receipt of a terminal diagnosis” all of which, Bendell argues, are capable of triggering heightened self-awareness with despair a stage in recovery.
This is not intended to be an easy process, he writes: “Even four years after I first let myself consider near-term extinction properly … it still makes my jaw drop, eyes moisten and air escape my lungs.” At a time when we are all mourning we can learn from him.
The interwar Marxists kept on fighting even after Hitler had come to power. They sustained the argument for anti-fascist action even in circumstances where the great battalions of the left had been defeated.
In November 1938, Leon Trotsky wrote: “But even without war the next development of world reaction signifies with certainty the physical extermination of the Jews”.
He gave this warning at a time when no-one in high politics, not the most vigorous of mainstream politicians was willing to admit the risk of genocide. And Trotsky’s acknowledgment of how close humanity was to disaster did not prevent him from calling for action, for strikes, for anti-fascist to lead their people against Hitler.
Even after 1933, even after that historic defeat, it was not too late. Perhaps, it is never too late. Think of the Jewish prisoners who rebelled – against all odds, but causing hundreds to survive – at Treblinka in August 1943, at Sobibor in October 1943, and at Auschwitz in January 1945.
Another way of understanding our present is through Walter Benjamin's Theses on the Philosophy of History, written in 1940 as he fled from the advance of Nazi troops. Benjamin (pictured, above) told his readers to see every movement as Judgment Day, every second as an opportunity to wrest the present from that conformism which was overpowering it.
To make insurrection possible, Benjamin repudiated the social democracy he had been taught. The German Socialists, he complained, had given the German workers a false idea of the inevitability of progress. Part of this false idea, Benjamin insisted, was a story in which nature was an indefinitely-consumable resource.
“Technical developments”, Benjamin wrote, “counted to [the Socialists] as the course of the stream, which they thought they were swimming in.
"From this, it was only a step to the illusion that the factory-labor set forth by the path of technological progress represented a political achievement.”
He continued: “This vulgar-Marxist concept of what labor is, does not bother to ask the question of how its products affect workers, so long as these are no longer at their disposal. It wishes to perceive only the progression of the exploitation of nature, not the regression of society. It already bears the technocratic traces which would later be found in Fascism.”
Under conditions of Coronavirus, death’s champions are still around. Perhaps even the words “Trump” or “Bolsonaro” aren’t enough. We need an image: the sight of the young men that these leaders call into the streets. Their faces go unmasked. In their arms they carry automatic rifles, and those rifles are for use.
When those who are vulnerable fight to stay at home, we will hear the safety catches released. When we demand a sharing of the world’s resources, as a necessary part of the fight to keep climate change under control – the guns will shoot.
Benjamin was caught at start of the Holocaust, grieving for himself and his fellow Jews.
There, he found a route to collective salvation through an idea of revolution in which the new world would be better not just because it meant the defeat of fascism but because it would have to be sustainable for everyone and everything.
We mourn now; in a year’s time we will still be in mourning.
Perhaps, as Walter Benjamin wrote, in drawing on the memory of enslaved ancestors, we might yet find the way to overthrow those who luxuriate in disaster.
David Renton is a barrister and the author of The New Authoritarians: Convergence on the Right, published by Pluto Press, London, 2019.