Political Attempts to Redirect Protest Energy

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The first School Strike 4 Climate marches of 2021 were a fantastic show by young people that they are still angry, and that they recognise politicians have not moved anywhere near far enough to address climate change. Led by high school students, 13 marches were organised across New Zealand on 9th April, giving thousands of young people a voice. Students had already delivered the following demands to the government two months previously:

  • A just transition achieved by:
    • Investment in the retraining and upskilling of workers in unsustainable industries which produce high levels of emissions to enable them to transition into climate-friendly industries
    • Support for communities most reliant on high-emission industries such as mining and oil, throughout the period of the transition, through investment and support programmes.
  • Investment in green infrastructure projects, particularly during this post-COVID period.
  • The Government must honour its responsibility to its Pacific Island neighbours by:
    • Ensuring New Zealand’s domestic climate policies align with the Paris Agreement 1.5° goal
    • Releasing a public adaptation plan for climate change survivors to migrate to New Zealand with dignity
    • Increasing support to Pacific Island states to enable them to better address climate issues.

In Wellington, students marched from Te Ngākau Civic Square to the steps of Parliament, where one of their leaders declared: “in the past two months [since delivering their demands to Parliament], very little has been accomplished. To say the least, this is disappointing. We had a perfect chance after lock-down to take action, but that time is slipping away. If we don’t do something soon, it will be gone altogether.” This statement was received with cheers from the assembled crowd, who held signs declaring: ‘Fight for the climate’, ‘Next stop extinction’, and ‘It’s our future.’

It was clear the protest carried a lot of political energy, much of it aimed at achieving sustainable improvements in conditions for the working class, with a strong internationalist current. While the demands listed above are not revolutionary, subsequent speakers made connections between environmental destruction and capitalism and received enthusiastic applause suggesting at least the seeds of revolutionary sentiment amongst the strikers. However, the protest at Parliament also featured a Q&A session intended to include politicians from a range of political parties, and this is where we see that protest energy being dissipated and redirected.

Firstly, apparently representatives of National and ACT were invited, but were “unable to attend.”  Both of these parties explicitly prioritise profit over sustainability in their policies and actions, and it is not surprising that they would choose not to engage with the school strikers. While there was some laughter from the crowd at the supposed ‘unavailability’ of these parties, it is a shame that it was never explicitly and publicly called out that these parties chose to ignore a mass gathering, didn’t deem young people worthy of their time.

Secondly, a single representative of the Labour Party was expected to speak but did not show up. Again, this was downplayed by the student announcer – “It’s fine, she’s probably busy” – in a gracious manner which sadly gives too much credit for disrespect akin to that shown by the right-wing parties. Labour have led the  government since 2017, and have held an absolute majority for half a year. Labour Leader Jacinda Ardern once called climate “my generation’s nuclear-free moment”, yet a representative from her party was ‘unable’ to get to a school strike protest on Parliament steps on time. Sadly this non-appearance is a good metaphor for Labour’s action on the environment, which in contrast with their rhetoric has been consistently inadequate and delayed.

The Green Party, to their credit, fielded several representatives, and co-leader James Shaw was the only politician to engage in the Q&A session. However, this engagement was an excellent example of how bourgeois politics works to divert and dissipate protest energy.

On the question of steps the government is taking to prioritise the voices of Pacific Island people affected by climate change, Shaw delayed responding to the question to offer platitudes such as “thank you for being here” and a story about meeting with “chief executives at some of our largest companies” which suggested capitalists as the people who can be trusted to ‘fix’ climate change if only they can be gently guided to do so.

On the question of how the government will include climate issues in education, Shaw hinted protestors should email the current Minister of Education. He indicated that climate issues should feature in every education subject, and agreed that this was an important subject. However, while he did say “I don’t think that we’ve made very much progress on transforming the curriculum,” there was no hint that the government would be held accountable for this failing.

Finally, on the question of how workers will be supported to transition from unsustainable industries to more sustainable industries, Shaw acknowledged “that’s something that we’re working on – we’ve got teams in different parts of industry – but it’s not moving as fast as it needs to”, but then followed this with platitudes: “that’s why we need you people to keep on showing up and putting the pressure on the politicians right across the House.”

Similar to Labour’s non-attendance, the Greens’ performance at the strike is in keeping with their politics. Although the Greens hold only a moderate number of seats in Parliament, they entered into a ‘cooperation agreement’ with Labour under which they have ministerial responsibility for climate change and homelessness. They are obliged to uphold the cabinet’s policies on these subjects, sacrificing any right to criticise the official line. This suits the Greens just fine. As a bourgeois environmentalist party, their purpose in Parliament is to dissipate mass energy against the government with assurances that “we’re working on it,” and merely tinker around the edges of the capitalist system’s brutal exploitation of physical resources and workers. 

Recent reforms to tackle climate change have been minor and accompanied with subsidies for business. For example, on 8th April the government announced $23m to subsidise fourteen large companies to transition away from fossil fuels. The government is also banning new low and medium temperature coal-fired boilers from 31st December and plans to phase out coal boilers altogether by 2037. 2037! – the pace and scale of the changes being made are pathetic. It is totally unjust to bail out the polluters with public money. Labour’s and the Greens’ approach to emissions reduction rests on not challenging the capitalist class. That is why these politicians have not taken the groundswell of youth public opinion seriously.

Whatever their scope, reforms taken under capitalism will never be enough to address the climate crisis. Business is predicated on growth and competition: endlessly increasing production, endlessly increasing consumption. The only goal of capital is to make a profit. This is not compatible with a healthy planet, nor with a just society. The school strikes are a promising movement, displaying vigour and resolve, and making intelligent and significant demands. Its new Wellington organisers have shown skill in leadership, as well as dedication. But the movement here faces a class question: who do we look to for the building of our future? Is it slick parliamentarians who congratulate us on the passion with which we protest them? Is it greenwashed businesses, ruling-class philanthropists, and those who see profit potential in ‘sustainable’ products? Or is it the working class, including students, self-organised and deciding for ourselves what needs to be done, and when, and by what means, fighting all who would rob us of that sovereignty until they are defeated and we stand upon a world we can call our own and our children’s? In the end, we must choose between capitalism or socialism.

For any school strike organisers who read this – or anyone who might become a School Strike organiser – or anyone who wants to help build the movement for our collective future – this is the advice we would like to give you. Recognise that every current politician in Parliament aims to maintain the current capitalist system, the system of perpetual growth which cannot ever be sustainable. Their aims are opposed to yours. Don’t invite them to speak. If they do speak at your rallies, respond to them, call them out, criticise them directly – don’t worry about being polite, and don’t make excuses for them. Look to your allies: union members, the working class, left-wing political groups. Bureaucratised union leaders stand for the capitalist system just like parliamentary politicians do, but in every union there are many members who share your aims. You’ve called your movement a strike, and it is rightly called that, because bosses need your education in schools in preparation for your labour in workplaces for the rest of your lives. Although your economic position as students is weak compared to the financial power of those in workplaces, you have more freedom to be away from schools than workers have from their jobs; and you face less consequences for taking action. Use that freedom, and continue to make connections with unionists to involve workers’ power too. That’s slow, hard work, but if you can pull it off it would change the whole political scene. A day of school strike is good – but what about a week of school strike, with different workplaces marching with you every day? That would be a powerful base to organise from. In the end, this fight has to involve all the oppressed classes of the world. We need to stand together in unity, because our enemies the capitalists, their pet politicians and hangers-on are united against us. They are ruthless and hold immense power. But most of their power depends on our subservience. If we all rise up and go on strike they aren’t left with much. This is the field where you are making your stand. Stand strong! We stand with you. Kia Kaha!