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The Glasgow Actions Team activists dressed as world leaders sit on a raft in the Forth and Clyde canal on November 09, 2021 in Glasgow, Scotland. As World Leaders meet to discuss climate change at the COP26 Summit, many climate action groups have taken to the streets to protest for real progress to be made by governments to reduce carbon emissions, clean up the oceans, reduce fossil fuel use, and other issues relating to global heating. (Photo: Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images)

A Major Copout: COP26 and the Infrastructure Bill Show the Slow Limits of "Moderate" Change

The commitment to fight climate change is for the capitalist class and their political representatives a "green" investment possibility.

Peter Bloom

This past week witnessed two supposedly historic events. Globally, leaders from around the world met at Cop 26 in Scotland to agree on landmark commitments to address climate change. In the US, Congress passed a $1 trillion infrastructure bill that President Biden hailed as a "monumental step forward" that was a "blue-collar blueprint to rebuild America and it's long overdue."

Avoided at all costs are fundamental debates about the systems perpetuating these crises in the first place.

These events were met with bold words from political leaders and dashed hopes from progressives. The infrastructure bill was only successfully ushered through with the help of 13 Republican votes and the continual stalling of the more expansive "human infrastructure" bill in the Senate by "Centrist" Democrats. Meanwhile, the idealistic pronouncements at COP26 were undercut by continuing political non-action. As one anonymous civil servant who helped plan the event wrote,

"Civil servants, like the public, prefer urgent action to fatuous words…This is what we share with the activists and the protesters outside Cop26: an instinctive understanding of what real change requires, and an acceptance of the inescapable fact that keeping the planet within anything like 2C of warming means leaving fossil fuels in the ground. All else is theatre…"

The predominant narrative, nevertheless, is that for whatever their respective flaws, these accomplishments show that democracy can still effectively address the world's most pressing problems. All that is supposedly required is patience and persistence. What it actually reveals is another major cop out by elites—revealing how fast it acts on behalf of corporations and how slow it works for the rest of us.

Impatient for Real Change

In the run up to COP 26 there were renewed questions of whether governments could actually hold companies and the wealthy accountable in order to literally save the planet. The survival of the Earth and inhabitants was not the only thing at stake, so too was the continued popular legitimacy of democracy.  There remains ongoing questions as to the ultimate economic obligation richer nations have for addressing this problem largely caused by their past industrialization and present energy consumption. Just as importantly, it was another global trial by fire for democracies worldwide to stand up and drive through genuine systemic change.

The world's most powerful democracy, the United States, seemed to prove that this was indeed still possible. After much negotiation and debate, President Biden's infrastructure bill was finally passed by congress—representing a major victory and much needed funds for rebuilding the country's roads, rail, ports, water systems, bridges, dams, airports, and broadband. The bill was hailed as a symbol of bipartisan action—of what could be accomplished when moderate politicians ignored the unreasonable demands of those at the ideological extremes to accomplish real change.

There was a lesson to be learned, here, preached many established commentators. It was that patience was a virtue and that genuine reform comes slowly. As one major US headline declared "Patience and persistence pay off as Biden gets infrastructure deal across finish line". Biden was a leader who understood this lesson, displaying the wisdom that comes with being persistent even in the face of obstacles and divisions.

Similarly, underneath the bold pronouncements of COP26, there was a call for patient acceptance. The economy could not be made fully sustainable over night. It would take decades for countries to become net zero in their overall emissions—with leaders from major nations producing 70% of all carbon emissions not pledging to do so until 2050. Activists may scream that the Earth is running out of time but for those truly committed to tackling climate change what was needed fortitude and a willingness to play the political long game.

It is telling though that when a crisis directly impacts elites, the time frames of progress suddenly change rapidly. In the aftermath of the 2008 global financial crisis, banks that "were too big to fail" had to be bailed out immediately. When there is oil to be exploited and private military contracts to be awarded, there is precious little time to spare for dealing with "existential threats" such as Saddam Hussein. Apparently, when it comes to protecting the profits of corporations and economic elites, then democracy can work very quickly indeed. It is only when the fate of the earth and the vast majority of people are stake that patience is required.

A Major Cop Out

The real reason that those who support the status quo are engaging in delaying tactics go far beyond merely trying to slow down the inevitable. Instead, it is that for those in charge, crisis is a profitable opportunity and one that should "never go to waste." The commitment to fight climate change is for the capitalist class and their political representatives a "green" investment possibility. Public funding on physical infrastructure—rather than a human social safety net—means fresh chances for lucrative government contracts for private businesses.  

Centrists criticize progressives for negotiating hard and using the leverage of their popular support as just more fuel to the belief that democracy doesn't work. Their perceived intransigence will only lead to more fascistic populist uprisings.

Avoided at all costs are fundamental debates about the systems perpetuating these crises in the first place. Biden makes his own position clear, that these progressive measures are meant to save not transform capitalism. As the New York Times reported, ""Biden, in speeches at home and abroad, has used much of the first part of this year pledging to restore the dignity he believes that the country has lost in the Trump years, promising a restoration rather than a revolution." Meanwhile, the current shared embrace of sustainability by leaders across the ideological spectrum, reflects attempts to mask the need to move beyond capitalist growth models for an egalitarian and non-profit driven degrowth economy.

What this reflects is a political sleight of hand by elites. The real roadblocks to meaningful progress are not those who until recently embraced the very values responsible for these apocalyptic issues. They have "evolved", they claim. However, those calling for a revolution are charged with stalling reform in the name of ideological "purity."

Even worse, they place the survival of democracy—even in its relatively limited current form—squarely on the shoulders of such unreasonable progressive "revolutionaries." Centrists criticize progressives for negotiating hard and using the leverage of their popular support as just more fuel to the belief that democracy doesn't work. Their perceived intransigence will only lead to more fascistic populist uprisings.

Of course, this is not to assume for one moment that once can actually change the system over night. There is a long game to be played—in the building of a bottom up, intersectional struggle for economic justice, social equality, and expanding political power. And there are times when tactical compromise is necessary for achieving these radical goals. What must never be forgotten though is that the rich and powerful will always try to shape the timescale of change to serve their interests—speeding it up when their profits are in danger and slowing it down when calls for progress threaten their very existence.

The passage of the infrastructure bill in the US and the growing consensus to deal with climate change are undeniable victories. They represent years of hard work by activists, progressive leaders, and Leftist thinkers for changing not only the official dialogue but what is politically possible within a fundamentally corrupt and rigged capitalist system. Yet they were also major cop outs—allowing elites to promise that things will be different while ensuring that there will be more of the same for potentially years to come.

Our work is licensed under Creative Commons (CC BY-NC-ND 3.0). Feel free to republish and share widely.
Peter Bloom

Peter Bloom

Peter Bloom is a Professor at the University of Essex in the UK. His books include “Authoritarian Capitalism in the Age of Globalization” (2016), “The CEO Society”, and most recently “Guerrilla Democracy: Mobile Power and Revolution in the 21st Century.”

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