A conversation between Phil Rockstroh and Kenn Orphan.
PR: Kenn, recently, this observation of mine provoked a measure of ire: Street demonstrations, even large ones, are apropos of nothing as long as they are manifested as de facto state sanctioned protests. A march proceeds, chants are cast into indifferent air, speechifying comes to pass by the usual gasbags then the assembled head home and carry on as usual. Conversely, a strike means job walk-offs — until the strikers demands are met — not walking out and walking back in the next day.
These are not revolutionary activities or even a political movement. Capitalist colonisation has been internalised to such a saturating degree that demonstrations are, in the neoliberal era, designed to be toothless and non-threatening in regard to the structures of capitalist power. Conversely, a strike translates to stopping the flow of capital — otherwise it amounts to enabling business as usual.
KO: It seems that the colonization of consciousness in Western society has become completely seamless that here, in 2019, most of us have been conditioned to accept a modified and sanitized version of dissent. For several years there have been faux forms of dissent, manufactured and peddled by the corporate and political and military/intelligent/surveillance establishments that serve as valves for the public’s general feelings of unease or sense of injustice. Many are focused on youth. How many remember Kony 2012? These are forms of acceptable dissent to the status quo ruling class and even act to suit their goals. Of course climate change and the environment are broader issues that reach beyond that kind of thing, but the same actors are at play in their manipulation.
But this is because there is a real fear, reinforced by example, of how powerful disruptive protest can be. Throwing a wrench into the gears actually gets attention and action. It also shows how brutal and ruthless the current order is against anyone who stands against the status quo in this manner. Occupy and Standing Rock are a couple of those examples. A flood of violence and intimidation washed over those uprisings. So with that in mind, there is a conformity to how many people in so-called Western democracies behave when it comes to protesting power today. And certainly this is what the ruling class wishes. Accepted discourse and dissent within the designated boundaries. There have been a flurry of laws since those protests that seek to criminalize dissent and maintain these boundaries, even branding certain activities or associations as terrorism.
The Mouvement des Gilets Jaunes, or Yellow Vest Movement, in contrast to today’s climate demonstrations reveal how the neoliberal state treats those who dissent in a way that upends power structures. I am not referring to Yellow Vests in Canada or some other places which have taken on a racist, fascistic or xenophobic character, but in France where working people took to the streets, walked out of jobs, and shut down the machinery of society. It was met with breathtaking violence by Macron’s government, and scant mass media coverage. So without a doubt, when people confront actual power structures they will be met with the aggressive repression of the state, not be escorted and protected by police because they got the right permits for free speech zones on the weekends. And their struggle will not get put in glossy photos on the cover of corporate owned magazines.
So now we come to the demonstrations surrounding climate change taking place in cities around the world. Most of these are coordinated, many have NGO support, and all of them are impressive, but very little is disrupted in a way that causes any meaningful discomfort to the forces of capital. Not yet, anyway. There is an incredible interest among the public, which is very encouraging, and young activists are increasingly aware of the corporate manipulations and machinations. There are even some indications that groups like Extinction Rebellion are reaching out to workers, but it remains to be seen how this will unfold, especially since there are some questionable financial backers of this loose knit organization.
What I find troubling, though, is that there is this a demand from many in these demonstrations for governments to “do something.” Which is extraordinary given that it is these very governments, at the behest of the corporations and the military industrial complex who run them, who have caused our crisis to begin with. For instance, little is said to address the enormous military footprint. The US military alone uses 4,600,000,000 gallons of oil every single year. It pollutes the oceans without any consequences and uses sonar that harms sea mammals and fish, this is not to mention the the tremendous human and environmental costs of endless war. And as these climate demonstrations are taking place, the American war machine is ramping up to defend Saudi oil fields. So if there are no demands for the dismantling of this planet killing institution then it will end up a sham.
But without a doubt, Phil, I think the strikes and demonstrations are a starting place for many young people. And it is inspiring to see millions gather in protest, from Nairobi to London to New York to Bangkok. And it is equally encouraging to see more young people wholly reject “green” capitalism and corporate capitalist language like the pseudo “net zero” as opposed to zero carbon emissions. Hopefully they are prepared for the inevitable backlash and repression once they begin to truly disrupt or impede the machinery of capitalism itself, which is now entering its most brutal and final stage.
Solidarity is key to this since no one person can take on this murderous behemoth on their own. The best place to look for wisdom in this regard are indigenous communities, past and present. To look to the global south where environmental activists are being silenced, disappeared and murdered for their dissent.
PR: After the socio-political uprisings of the 1960s, the advertising industry — the capitalist propaganda factory of archetype usurpers — was in crisis. The dark magicians of the trade had sold status consciousness, conformity through fear, and Id lived out by means of consumerism — notions challenged by the non-conformist to social conventions (except their own), anti-materialist creed of the counterculture. The practiced dissemblers of the profession were desperate to retail a novel form of waking dreams, and they settled on retailing hippie harmony and the inherent longing for paradise humans carry within.
Thus we come to the root of the problem for all too many activists responding to the Climate Crisis including Greta Thunberg, who has become a celebrity thus a vessel for projections, both slanderous and hagiographic. The Greta phenomenon, by its nature provokes, emotional responses from climate denialists (and rightwing soreheads in general) freaked out by a smart, passionate young woman and from those on the left driven by a compulsion to provide paternal protection to her due to her child-like appearance and aura of innocence.
First off, slander inflicted upon her is reprehensible. Her sincerity should not be questioned. Her right to demand a viable future for herself and her fellow young people of the suffering planet is unassailable. What should be avoided are psychological projections upon her, a sixteen year old, whose diminutive, physical stature and open, guileless visage evoke projections of concretised archetypal resonance e.g., the Divine Child arrived on the sin-sullied earth as redeemer figure.
What should be requested of her, to avoid the taint of, inadvertently, playing the role of marketing icon for greed-headed, Davos denizens, who, it is claimed, are deploying the kid, in her toxic naivety, in a high-end, greenwashing bait-and-switch advertising roll out for what the captains of faux green industry have branded, “The Fourth Industrial Revolution” — a venture designed to co-opt vehemence for the fate of the earth into adherence to for-profit schemes contrived to circumscribe responses to the Climate Crisis within capitalist models.
To avoid the accusation, Greta should shun tête-à-têtes with the Bono, Dicaprio, Obama et. al. klavern of greenwasher glamour tools and be induced to begin promulgating the fact that the people who are destroying the biosphere of the planet have names and addresses.
Up to the present, she has followed a vague and wonky storyline — thus she has not, as of yet, been considered a threat to capitalist power and has been regarded by the powerful as being relegated to the role of Climate Muppet; hence, she has been provided wide exposure in the capitalist media. To wit, the observation has been posited, if she presented a threat to the status quo of capitalist imperium and the US military (the latter is a major contributor to global wide pollution and the Climate Crisis) she would have remained in obscurity.
This is crucial: Marketing machinations work. Moreover, all too often, self-termed progressives — the two-legged, smug-ass buffer zone between capitalist power and radical, anti-capitalist movements — have proven themselves prone to swallow whole and internalised even the most cynical PR campaigns (they went round-heeled for Barack Obama, AKA President Fracky von Drone and have acted as apologists for “humanitarian” bombing campaigns and so-called colour revolutions).
By the evidence, as noted above, Greta is sincere in her intentions. She is alarmed by the Climate Crisis and aims to do good. Yet her naive intentions matter little in the larger scheme of things. What should be avoided: Greta’s presence on the global stage being exploited by capitalist greenwashing profiteers in retailing a (sham) world-changing, “new paradigm,” in the same manner, albeit more sophisticated, as was rolled out by the capitalist dream hijackers in the 1970s when they schemed to usurp antiwar, anti-racism sentiment by means of campaigns similar to the ones that could be contrived for Greta. Here is the most memorable (naive ideology baited and switched to corporate profiteering) campaign of the era:
KO: Greenwashing efforts are undoubtedly in full swing, Phil. Corporations and the military establishment understand very well that the environmental and climate devastation that they have caused is coming full circle. They know full well that as a civilization we have reached a point of no return in regard to species extinction, the collapse of ecosystems, catastrophic climate change and the attendant destabilization of the current political and economic arrangement. And they have been working feverishly to change their brand. While it is easy to point out the willful obtuseness of outright climate change deniers like the bloated orange in chief Trump, it is less easy to parse out the greenwashers.
So then we should be wary that a faux “movement” may be manufactured on the backs of real movements that have sought to upend that political and economic arrangement. And without a doubt, they see Greta Thunberg as the perfect icon for this movement because she presents a genuine, passionate concern for our fate and that of the next generation; but her presence, thus far, is non-threatening to the powers of capital and the military establishment. Perhaps this will change over time as she does identify herself as independent.
That she has rightfully called out the wealthy and powerful for their apathy and other faults is to be lauded, but there are powerful forces who merely wish to rebrand capitalism and create, as you said, a Fourth Industrial Revolution. One which will end up amplifying the damage through its continued privatization and commodification of nature. And they will not touch the military industrial state because it serves to protect capital.
Now, without a doubt, Greta is a remarkable young person; and I think she really fears for the future of this planet, its ecosystems and for her generation. Her words are powerful and she makes things plain about our dire predicament. She wants to make a real difference, and I think that is possible. I celebrate that tenacity and the people she has inspired. And the vitriol, bullying and slander spewed at her by the far right and by repugnant characters like Dinesh D’Souza who compared her to Nazis is utterly reprehensible and should be condemned.
But there is an iconography happening in many quarters that often has the troubling effect of muting our analytical senses. In Paris, for instance, demonstrators lifted a painting of Greta in the style of a medieval icon of a saint with a halo. And this speaks to a sort of spiritual desperation at play, especially as we see ecosystems being mercilessly assaulted, exploited and failing. And among the bourgeoisie it manifests in these kinds of ways.
We should examine this further because, indeed, there is a realization that our collective situation requires a massive paradigm shift which is, in a myriad of ways, psychically transformative. Indigenous societies have long understood this, but have been mostly ignored or have had their sacred beliefs culturally appropriated to conform to the narrative of white, bourgeois, “New Age” consumer society. But all that has been turned on its head in this age of ecological devastation.
And it is this very quality that has been seized upon by the wraiths of capitalism. Those rotting cadavers in suits who are in the business of marketing to save their status and wealth. This is evident in the fact that they have put Greta on the cover of magazines like Time, GQ and Vogue. It is why she gets interviews with Christiane Amanpour. It is why she is seen in photo ops with the fossil fuel, fracking, drone-loving and polluter friendly President Barack Obama, who merely wants to promote his foundation. None of this is to say she agrees with these powerful actors or entities, but they do not view her as a threat as of yet. On the contrary, they see her either as a ratings boost or an asset to their personal aspirations.
Indigenous activists of similar age do not get this kind of treatment because of a legacy of colonial racism and because indigenous peoples are on the frontlines of the war of capital against their homes and the planet itself. Artemisa Xakriabá of Brazil, for example, is relatively unknown in mass media circles. But her message is even more pointed and powerful as she speaks directly about policies of genocide and violence against her people, the Amazon rainforest where she lives, and the biosphere as a whole.
But if Greta dares tell the truth about capitalism and the military industrial complex and its primary role in accelerating climate change and the degradation of the biosphere she will likely be silenced or rendered invisible like Malala Yousafzai. After Malala condemned Obama’s murderous foreign policies and drone strikes and said she was a socialist she was largely disappeared by the corporate media. This was because she no longer represented an image of the benevolent empire and presented the public with the reality of that empire’s avarice fueled belligerence.
To be sure, it is my sincere hope that Greta will see past the ambitions and machinations of those who seek to co-opt her message. I hope she sees through the ruse that their interest is only in saving capitalism and maintaining the militaristic, unjust global order, not in protecting the environment or other species, or addressing climate change, or in the poorest of the earth, or even the next generation; and that they cynically use the intoxication of celebrity to water down passionate activism and funnel it toward status quo banality.
The promising thing is that while her family has some measure of privilege in the cultural and intellectual class in Sweden, I don’t think she cares much for celebrity and I think her heart is in the right place. But naivety in this regard can be quite dangerous too. These interests are moneyed and well connected. And the consensus they need relies on a public that acquiesces to their desires and values. A public that has been conditioned to respond, emulate and even celebrate the brutal precepts of capitalism and the authoritarianism of the ruling elite. In time and with insight and experience perhaps she will be able to thwart such manipulations.
PR: Thus the citizenry of capitalist dictatorships of wealth, wherein the economic elite own mass media and control the political class, the debate is framed in a narrow manner — to wit, anticapitalist perspectives are excluded yet the illusion of a contrapuntal dynamic is in play but the reality, outside of the empty-headed, highly circumscribed fury of it all, moneyed interests will have prevailed, in this case, the agendas of greenwashing grifters.
The Greta phenomenon should prove less than complicated to suss out, from a leftist perspective, with the exception of those whose approach and perceptions are gripped by magical thinking and/or a host of the kind of saviour projections that arrive in psychical constellation — and are concretised— around the archetype of the Divine Child.
Suggestion: follow the money and whom or what will benefit from her presence in the public sphere i.e., the suffering biosphere of the planet or Davos-type denizens who are rolling out a for-profit agenda they have branded, “The Fourth Industrial Revolution.” It evinces dangerous naivety to believe that oppressors and exploiters will be moved to empathy by being informed of the suffering experienced by those they oppress and exploit. The power to profit from oppression and exploitation must be neutralised. Moreover, the capitalist overclass, history reveals, do not surrender an inch without a brutal struggle by organised countervailing forces and never will be moved to surrender power by pleas to a conscience that they do not possess.
There is the banality of evil and then there is the evil of banality, and the mode of perspective defines the capitalist controlled thus intrinsically narrow parameters of mainstream discourse. Result: A worldview persists that reduces earth, sky, psyche, even language to inanimate phenomenon only viable as monetised transactions. The worldview provoked a sacred vehemence in Lorca when he observed what he regarded as the commodified deathscape of New York City:
“I attack all those persons/ who know nothing of the other half,/ the half who cannot be saved,/ who raise their cement mountains/ in which the hearts of the small/ animals no one thinks of are beating.” — Federico García Lorca, excerpt: New York (Office and Attack)
Yet through it all, one has a choice, a choice all but banished from the commodified mind: One can glimpse the numinous in the architectural wonders of a termite cathedral or a constellation of coral reef — or a line of Joycean prose. The mind can be a garbage barge or a cathedral spire; a snort of mindless dismissal or an aria so damn beautiful it haunts heaven. Or one’s consciousness can be taken in by the capitalist-confined debate between equally cynical climate denialists and greenwashing profiteers as the soul becomes desiccated and the mind is churned to spittle…as the world’s oceans die, the Arctic burns, and exquisite things disappear forever.
Kenn Orphan is a writer, artist, antiwar and anti-capitalist activist, hospice social worker and radical nature lover living in Halifax, Nova Scotia.