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On the next big rift

Have you, thanks to Brexit, lost old friends? One upside: that rift will help you deal with the next big split – on accepting the need to become more frugal in our consumption.  And if so, how and when to change habits? But, given our addiction to treats, how can we sweeten the pill of curbing our desires? How much do we love our liberty to consume?  

After three months in Hamburg, in 1979, I was horrified by West German signs of ‘Warenfetischismus’ (‘commodity fetishism’): leather trousers; luxury cars, gleaming sound systems; the presumption that growth is good. 

German industrial and cultural (re)production illustrates the seductiveness of the effective ‘brand’. Almost a century and half ago, Germans built the first internal-combustion engines, followed by Daimler and Benz with the first luxury automobiles. Even the logo originated in Germany. Dürer’s endures – and survived the Nazis’ claim upon him [1].


Son of migrants from a Hungarian village Ajtós, meaning Türen (doors) and changed to Dürer, he used that in his monogram: ‘A’ for Albrecht being stylised doors, with ‘D’ in the portal. See Stefan Trinks, 28.09.19 faz.de

Although it’s common knowledge that Hitler envisioned a car for the people, the Volkswagen, less well-known is his plan to match American car production and mirror the success of Ford’s Model-T (of which, by 1923, 5 million had been sold). In fact, the British occupying force made the first VW ‘Beetle’; whereas the Americans drove forward mass West German car manufacturing[2]. After the Allied destruction of the Third Reich, with Marshall Aid[3], West German industry – drawing on its technical expertise in precision engineering[4]– engendered the Wirschaftswunder (‘economic miracle’)

Financial crises and diesel scandal notwithstanding, west German car manufacturing has kept on growing. Latterly, I’ve been kept agog (and awake) at the sight and sound of freight trains carrying BMWs and Mercedes to Bremerhaven – for export, to the People’s Republic of China. What would Marx say to that? No doubt about it: “Scheisskapitalismus[5].

And then there’s the domestic market. Last year alone, 1 million SUVs (designed originally for the Great Plains) were sold in Germany. Given the push for e-vehicles, and the resurgent Greens, it’s surprising that the ‘Grand Coalition’ hasn’t taxed SUVs, to fund alternatives to the gas-guzzling ‘Stadtpanzer’ (urban tank). https://www.spiegel.de/plus/klimakiller-suv-das-symbol-deutscher-doppelmoral-a-00000000-0002-0001-0000-000165926161

Now even in Russia, successor to the ‘state capitalist’ Soviet Union[6], the environmentalist voice is getting louder.  Scientists from Tomsk, studying the environmental consequences of permafrost thawing beneath the Artic Ocean, have happened upon methane bubbling up through the East Siberian Sea. Russians are right to be alarmed. See https://www.ecowatch.com/siberia-sea-boiling-methane-2640900862.html

I can well understand the frustration of eco-activists in the West at the enduring ineffectuality of ‘green’ political parties. As I’ve said – at my father’s suggestion forty years ago – I voted for the Ecology Party. Back in Yorkshire, I joined them. Within weeks, I found their campaigning cautious, their personnel uninspiring. German Greens, on the other hand, were vocal in signalling devastation ahead.

As I took this flyer from a couple of school-girls earlier this month, their angst was palpable.

Perhaps it’s my radical upbringing that compels me to try to locate Extinction Rebellion’s (XR) lack of formal structure on a political continuum, within a historical framework – the roots of ‘structurelessness’ running deep in anarcho-pacifist and feminist practice. In particular, there’s a continuity with other movements that engage in active non-violent civil disobedience (NVCD).  A thread runs through XR

flip-side of flyer

and peace movements: the fear of imminent wipe-out. My parents and family friends lived in such fear of nuclear extinction that they: founded Merseyside CND; engaged in Committee of 100’s NVCD; and in the case of a nuclear physicist in our Toxteth building, was taken into custody. (During the Cuban Missile Crisis, my parents were so afraid of imminent attack that we all slept in their bed – so we should perish together.)

CND demonstration, Holy Loch, Scotland, my parents are on the far left

Years later, my father told me of the discipline that was required in civil disobedience.

Stark as the future looks, with its nice words and the best will in the world, the mantra of NVCD has long been known to thwart objectives [7]

Moreover, using the purity of NVCD and the noble cause of freedom to protest leaves unanswered the question of accountability within an amorphous network. Indeed, the merits and demerits of NVCD were thrown into relief over last week’s protest on the London Underground. [8]

And there’s the impact, not only on workers en route to work, and on Underground staff, but on XR’s campaign: what will folk recall? The footage from a Tube station in a poor area of London, of commuters pulling XR activists from the roof of a Tube train, was shocking. But wasn’t this a predictable response, given the pressure of bodily mass in a tight space, of workers thwarted? 

What’s more, inciting rage runs the risk not only of physical injury, and backfiring strategy, but of inflaming reactionary forces. In addition to Alternative für Deutschland’s climate change deniers, other opponents of German eco-activism are rallying – insistent on maxing out their vehicular capacity [9].

As Margaret Atwood said last week, “There’s so much data and evidence. But people would rather adhere to a belief system that favours them.”
Lunch with the FT, 12.10.19

Shaping public opinion demands careful handling. As this model[10] shows, support and opposition can span a spectrum. (In a different context, the chair of my office LGBTQ network was keen to promote “straight allies”.)

Image:Joshua Russell Khan, cited by John Foran in Reimagining radical climate justice (see below link )

Of course, workers are consumers, as well as producers – and reproducers – using natural resources. Yet, no good can come of enraging the exploited. Instead of promoting environmental protection, German sociologist Nico Stehr suggests that alerting people to the dangers to them of climate catastrophe and environmental disaster is the only way to get them to take heed [11] .

Furthermore, democratic debate is needed to reduce the polarities over the next big rift. So, XR’s proposed Citizens’ Assemblies is an excellent starting point – perhaps to debate competing interests and conflicting rights; and measures necessary to protect individual citizens from climate damage. Finally, I would urge: harness technology, to re-program our consumerist compulsions – to cut out ‘must-haves’.


[ 1] A logotype was a symbol to divide or decorate a page, MacGregor, N. ch.19, Masters of metalMemories of a Nation, Allen Lane,2014

[2] MacGregor, N. ibid.

[3]The Bitter Taste of Victory, Feigel, L. Bloomsbury, 2016.

[4] MacGregor, N. ibid

[5] From Marx’s letter to Engels, exhibition commemorating 150thanniversary of publication of Das Kapital, Erster Band, in Hamburg, Museum der Arbeit, Hamburg, 2017
[6] From my father, I knew this of the USSR; with its “dictatorship over the proletariat”: Serge, V., Introduction, p.2, Year One of the Russian Revolution, Haymarket Books, 2015

[7]https://www.marxists.org/archive/sedgwick/1961/12/nonviolence.htm ‘Non-Violence – Dogma or Tactic? Socialist Review, December 1961, London

[8]https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2019/oct/17/extinction-rebellion-activists-london-underground

[9] Der Spiegel https://www.spiegel.de/plus/wer-hinter-fridays-for-hubraum-steckt-a-00000000-0002-0001-0000-000166262945

[10] http://www.iicat.org/wp-content/uploads/2017/01/John-Foran.-Reimagining-Radical-Climate-Justice-2016.pdf

[11] Der Spiegel https://www.spiegel.de/plus/klimawandel-wissenschaftler-plaediert-fuer-eine-aenderung-im-diskurs-a-00000000-0002-0001-0000-000166262946

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