It is worth considering what “populism” represents outside the kneejerk scaremongering of the liberal media. Conditions are created for populism when there is widespread loss of faith in a society’s traditional organs of authority: the political class, the “mainstream” media and expert institutions.
Those most exercised about populism, unsurprisingly, are the professional class in charge of those very same institutions. Their job has always been to guard the economic interests of the ruling elite.
The rise of populism in both its rightwing and leftwing manifestations, and the more general political polarisation in our societies, are the symptoms of a breakdown in trust, a collapse of consensus, a rupture of the social contract. And the reasons for these developments are staring us in the face.
Brexit, Donald Trump, Jeremy Corbyn and Ilhan Omar aren’t the causes of our problems. They are the products of increasingly confused, frustrated and angry electorates desperate to smash the stranglehold on our societies of failed “experts” – the political, media and academic class – that have so clearly betrayed us on behalf of the real power-holders: the corporations that run our societies.
Estranged from nature
One doesn’t need to be a Marxist to see that more than 150 years ago Karl Marx offered profound insights into the society of his time – and of our time too. He correctly observed that capitalism contained within it the seeds of its own destruction, and that industrialised workers suffered from “alienation” – they had lost any meaningful sense of their own humanity as they became little more than cogs in the vast, compassionless machinery of production processes. As a result, they were increasingly estranged from the natural world.
What was obvious to Marx then should be far easier for us to comprehend now.
Even so, his analysis was inevitably limited to what it was possible to imagine about the industrialised economies of that period. He could not have properly understood then that capitalism’s logic was as much a threat to the planet’s climate as it was to the working class, or that social media would one day offer the potential for us to liberate ourselves from official propaganda, even if at the same time it overwhelmed us with so much information, good and bad alike, that many of us have been left seeking solace in simplistic counter-narratives, turning real life into our very own version of Game of Thrones.
Nonetheless, these twin developments are very much the logical outgrowths of our highly corporatised societies. Climate change highlights capitalism’s inherent self-destructiveness, making it unmistakeable to growing sections of western publics. And at the same time the information revolution embodied by social media offers the hope of personal and collective transformation, a path to change and to ending the alienation that has brought us to the brink.
Today, the battle is between those who wish to cling to the sinking wreckage of the existing order – a turbo-charged neoliberal capitalism – and those who urgently want to encourage us down the path of radical change.
In the US context, the struggle is between the new insurgency politicians, on the one hand, and the Russiagaters who dominate the political and media landscape, on the other. Between those trying to reshape the political conversation so that it addresses for the first time in living memory issues that actually matter – the US imperial role in foreign wars; America’s long-standing anti-black racism, which Trump is formalising into an explicit white supremacism; the power of the gun and banking lobbies; the rule of the corporations – and those reassured by a lazy patriotism that pins America’s woes on easy bogeymen like Trump and Russia’s Vladimir Putin.
In the UK context, the battle is between devout Remainers – those who beatify the European Union, thinking it can somehow save us from ourselves – and the activists of Extinction Rebellion, who understand that we need radical new thinking and ideas, not a return to the 1970s. The divide is between those infuriated by peaceful demonstrations that briefly disrupt major highways and those warning that the near-permanent congestion on roads is one sign of our civilisation’s imminent demise.
Forget the politicians and the media: the issue is not whether the Brexit or Remain camp is right. Rather, the debate itself is an evasion, an endless displacement activity from the reality that we have a few years left to save ourselves; that we are just one of those 1 million species on the verge of extinction; and that all these species, us included, will either sink or swim together. No exceptions.
The Brexit-Remain debate is a symptom of our continuing arrogance, our refusal to confront the real challenge of what it means to be in harmony not only with other human beings but with life itself.
Waking from a slumber
Climate breakdown should be the wake-up call for us all, and yet there are still those who wish to distract themselves from the natural world from which we have been so deeply alienated. They still want to debate whether climate change is real; whether it is imminent and serious; whether human beings are responsible; whether we can fix it with technology; whether we can escape it by living in space.
Until we understand that these debates are an illness, a pathology that capitalism cultivated in us, such arguments will continue even as the planet’s colours, viewed from space, turn from green and blue to a scorched yellow and a burnt black.
But even as we try to wake up from our long slumber, we risk stepping into another trap. We have become so distrustful of experts and of our institutions that the starker the reality, as the facts of climate change reveal themselves physically, the more some people start to believe the dawning reality is a lie too.
This is another kind of evasion, but one that hides from itself – posing as dissent, as radicalism. These “dissidents” argue that the climate science is bogus, that the scientists are distorting the data to justify their salaries and funding, and that corporations are really behind what is simple alarmism.
This approach forgets that context is everything. Climate change is not new, even if many of us are waking up to it only now, very belatedly. It has been measurable for more than a century, even if the necessary intellectual framework for making sense of the science was absent.
The tree museum
British scientist James Lovelock, who had worked for Nasa on predictive modelling of the climates on other, unexplored worlds such as Mars, published the Gaia hypothesis in the 1970s, offering western publics the chance to understand Earth and its life systems holistically.
Of course, for decades his work was derided, including by other scientists, as a form of crackpot new ageism – even though today the idea that the planet is governed by a delicate balance of forces that can be easily disrupted and set off in dramatic new directions by feedback loops is the very basis of climate science.
Ecologists and a few artists of the time started to sense too that the western way of life was out of sync with nature, and that our species arrogance was endangering other life forms. In her song “Big Yellow Taxi” of 1970, Joni Mitchell not only condemned both our preference for the tarmac of parking lots over nature and the ecocidal habits of intensive agriculture, but reminded us of our ultimate alienation from the living world in this memorable and prophetic rhyme:
They took all the trees, and put ’em in a tree museum /
And charged the people a dollar and a half just to see ’em
The 1980s were my formative political years. Throughout that decade I dabbled in a simplistic environmentalism that focused on the responsibilities of individuals and the free market, rather than the state, to sort out the trail of ecological damage we were leaving.
I helped set up one of the first newspaper recycling banks in the UK and did my postgraduate journalism project on global warming. (Being trained as a “mainstream” journalist, I made sure not to alarm readers, concentrating instead on a jokey angle about the – admittedly very real – threat that ever larger herds of cows, farmed for McBurgers, were emitting through their farts vast quantities of the ultimate greenhouse gas, methane.)
The 1980s were probably the last chance we had to manage climate change in a controlled manner. And yet there was almost no pressure to make even the most superficial changes to our way of life. This was before most towns and cities had installed even rudimentary bicycle lanes, and before most shops sold long-life light bulbs – technology that had been around for almost a century and discarded because it was not profitable to the bulb manufacturers.
At that point it was all about short-term fixes that would not harm the profits of the big corporations, or better still might increase them: taking the poisonous lead out of petrol, and removing CFC chemicals from deoderants and fridges that were creating a hole in the protective ozone layer that surrounds the planet.
There were almost no scientists speaking out then, or at least not in ways that made any impact. Climate science was in its infancy, there was no funding for climate change research, and the academies trained scientists with a set of assumptions that precluded, or penalised, investigating climate change.
In a cautionary tale from that period, it was discovered that ground stations at the north and south poles had unwittingly identified the ozone hole many years before the alarm was raised in the late 1970s. But scientists had programmed the computers watching the skies to ignore anomalous results, such as large-scale ozone depletion. The data was there but the scientists’ own limited imaginations had meant they looked straight past it.
And that was what happened with climate change for many decades. It was staring the scientists in the face, but most were unable to see it – or comprehend its significance – because they were programmed, like the rest of us, to ignore it.
Secret climate research
During the 1980s that began to change. The evidence became so overwhelming, so evident on so many fronts, that most of the leading scientists were already agreed about the threat of climate change as I was mocking up my “green” newspaper front-page at journalism school in 1987.
In fact, we now know that by 1982 scientists working secretly for ExxonMobil had already plotted the future course of global warming. The science, even then, was so exact that the scientists predicted the critical moment would arrive in 2019 – 37 years hence – when carbon dioxide levels would reach 415 parts per million in the atmosphere and the mean global temperature would rise dangerously, by 0.9C. At that point, they warned, it would be impossible for the oil corporations to dissimulate any longer by pretending climate change was normal weather fluctuations.
The scientists’ forecast of 415ppm was exactly right. The threshold was crossed this week. They were slightly out on the temperature rise: it ocurred two years earlier than they had expected. The rapid track upwards of their graph from 2019 onwards should have us all terrified.
If this research was concealed, the public evidence was soon so incontrovertible that the oil corporations briefly abandoned trying to deny it. By 1991 the Shell oil company had funded a half-hour video on the dangers of climate change for showing in schools and colleges. The film was not intended to be controversial. It simply outlined the standard scientific view of the period, noting that a serious concerns about climate change were “endorsed by a uniquely broad consensus of scientists in their report to the United Nations at the end of 1990.”
This was a moment of reckoning for Shell and other oil corporations. The film was part of its public efforts to look responsible and serious about a well-documented threat to the planet, while at the same time, behind the scenes, the oil firms actively sought to subvert the science, to make sure it would soon have no impact on the public debate – or the industry’s profits. Those of us who lived through that period know exactly how the battle was won.
Clouded by uninformed opinion
As the science of climate change became stronger, and those studying it more expert, the noise about the danger it posed grew weaker. The science became clouded by uninformed opinion. Suddenly Margaret Thatcher’s former finance minister Nigel Lawson was regularly wheeled out by the BBC to pontificate on the climate – a subject he had precisely no qualifications to speak about. Lawson was just one of many other, self-appointed experts who were given plenty of room in the state-corporate media. They reassured us constantly that there was no reason to be concerned, that it should be big business as usual – a subject Lawson, for one, was eminently well paid to speak about.
The problem was not just climate denial. Through the 1990s a belief in what was then called environmentalism quickly came to be seen as cranky, fringe, alarmist. We were told – I was told – it reflected unresolved father issues, or a childish need for attention. We were just the modern equivalent of those Victorian doom-mongers with their blackboards warning that “The end is nigh!”
For nearly two decades the scientists seemed to be largely absent, and I – and probably a lot of other activists and potential activists – drifted away to find other issues to be concerned about (in my case Israel-Palestine). How were we to fight the general climate of climate denial if most scientists were not there to support us? How were we to persuade a confused public of the urgency of the matter if no one else, including the scientists, seemed overly concerned? If climate change really was the pressing threat we claimed, why were the BBC and the Guardian not treating it as an emergency too?
In the 1990s and the 2000s, climate change was treated as a far-off, theoretical problem, and one there would be plenty of time to think about should it turn out to be real.
Science didn’t stand a chance
It is hard for me to judge whether the scientists really did disappear. Was it the innate conservatism of the academy in capitalist societies that kept them quiet: the need for tenure, for corporate funding, for the approval of colleagues? Was it the fear of tarnishing their professional reputations by speaking out?
Or were the scientists afraid of being sent into the gladiatorial arena of the corporate media, where paid propagandists would disembowel them with soundbites, where trivialising news agendas would make them look comically earnest, where the journalists themselves would be bound to side with their billionaire owners over the science?
Or was it simpler still: that these scientists rarely, if ever, got invited by the media to offer their expertise?
It barely matters. What this period teaches us is that the whole structure of our societies ensured that the science – and the scientists – didn’t stand a chance.
Capitalism has a use for experts only in so far as they fulfil a narrow institutional role: to inflate the profits of the corporations, to shore up the media-manufactured consensus in favour of a rapacious neoliberal capitalism, to provide a veneer of legitimacy to a deeply corrupt and corrupting system of power. The science – which showed that our continued use of hydrocarbons would start killing us in a few decades – had to be coopted or silenced. And that is exactly what happened through the 1990s and the 2000s.
Time for genuine populism
Change only began in the 2010s, and alarm – the required response – has only just begun to register with a significant proportion of the population in advanced western societies, at maybe a third or so.
But the sudden concern about climate collapse among sections of the professional class – among some politicians, journalists, and academics – as well as among almost all of the expert class – the climate scientists – isn’t a reason to be distrustful. It isn’t evidence that we are being conned again by our elites, that the masters of spin are winning once more.
Rather it is a sign that, despite the best efforts of the corporations to deceive us over the past four decades, the game is up, the truth is out. Climate collapse is so close at hand, the window to avert our fate so narrow, that only the insane, the deeply propagandised and those so alienated from the natural world that they have lost all sense of themselves and what matters can still ignore the reality. We are teetering over the precipice.
Incredibly, a survey of the UK suggests that this alienated, propagandised group is still in the majority, at about two-thirds of the public. That is the true scandal, an indictment of the professional classes – the politicians, the journalists, the professors – for failing to speak out earlier, for failing to speak out more clearly, for leaving it so late.
The problem of our societies was, and is, not populism. We needed a genuine populism in the 1980s when the damage to the planet’s life-support systems became clear. Back then we needed the professionals and the experts to represent the interests of the public, the interests of themselves and their descendants, the interests of all the planet’s species, not the interests of a tiny corrupt elite determined to ignore the science and their own humanity to drive onwards oil-based economies they knew we were heading for the abyss, that would take us to the brink of extinction.
Today, we desperately need the populism of Extinction Rebellion, of Greta Thunberg and the school strikes, of politicians prepared to stand by a Green New Deal and declare real climate emergencies. Yes, the corporations – pathological to the bitter end – will try to coopt these groups and derail their actions, and produce their own versions of populism, the reactionary kind.
That is not reason to abandon populism. It is reason to stop trusting those who represent not us, not the planet, not its bounteous species but the corporations, wherever they are found – in our parliaments, in our media and in our universities. It is time to listen not to them, but to the still small voice inside each of us that was long ago battered into silence and submission.