Control Freaks at Climate Camp

Climate Camp has come to an end but here Carly Fraser relates how while it was underway the organise

This past week over 2,000 people will have made their way to a large field in the quiet village of Sipson, on the outskirts of Heathrow beside the M4, coming together to protest against the effects air travel has on the environment.

The Camp for Climate Action 2007 is working to unite people in the fight against climate change, to galvanise the British public into action and protest against the building of a new runway at Heathrow, one of the world's busiest airports.

Activities at the camp involved running workshops, peaceful rallies and a day of 'mass direct action' to demand radical reduction in air travel. The protest movement has been hailed ‘the most important protest of our time', and sparked a flurry of media coverage.

‘We have the power right here in our hands- we can choose what the future holds', screams the press release. With this rallying cry ringing in my ears, I felt compelled to witness the movement in action and in its closing days, I headed to the camp.

A train and couple of buses rides later, plus a foiled attempt by two helpful railway staff at Hayes and Harlington to send me in the wrong direction with a 'hippies go that way', I finally made my way up a country lane to a field with an assortment of multi coloured tents, a couple of large marquees, wind turbines and some large banners with slogans reading 'Make Planes History'.

The camp is situated on the site designated for the new runway. Local residents have been campaigning against the airport expansion plans, which if they go ahead will demolish a large part of the village, changing life irrevocably for residents, and mark a considerable rise in air and noise pollution.

Startling was the heavy police presence leading to and by the entrance of the site. Earlier in the week there had been reports the police were heavy handed with campaigners, operating a stop and search policy and filming anybody entering the camp. I was told by one campaigner that around 40 police had tried to enter the camp, but campaigners linked arms and formed a line to stop police from entering.

Arriving at the camp I was heartily greeted by a friendly campaigner who lead me into the Welcome Tent to give me a brief intro to camp life. The camp is a fully functioning self contained community, an eco-friendly commune of sustainable living, recycling, composting, solar heated washing facilities, with compost toilets and recycled toilet paper.

Organised into neighbourhoods, campers live, eat (only vegan food) and sleep in marquees labelled London, Nottingham and Scotland. The Wellbeing and Support tent offers a place to relax and meditate, and should the need arise, a place to resolve conflict through a mediator. Workshops run throughout the week with lectures ranging from ‘Introduction to Consensus Decision making and Facilitation’, ‘BAA- the reality behind the spin’ ‘Songwriting for activists’ to practical skill learning like ‘How to build your own wind turbine.’

Climate camp could have been mistaken for a summer festival, with people browsing at the book stall, children running about, a guitar playing while people relax in the sunshine.

And then it all began to go wrong. I asked if I could put a couple of questions to people. I was swiftly escorted to the media tent where I encountered a man that might well make Alastair Campbell wince.

I was informed in no uncertain terms about the camp’s strict media policies; I would not be allowed to write anything while on site, interview, or take pictures freely. 'People don't want hassle' was the justification.

During the camp the press got a one hour official tour, accompanied by 2 members of the camp's media team at all times, who carry a flag to make the journalists identifiable. "All journalists must be off site by 1pm at the latest and no journalists at all on Saturday, Sunday or Monday," I was told.

I was about as welcome as the police. Reading the camp handbook on my way home under the section how to make the camp welcoming and inclusive, it read:

‘Avoid branding people as potential police/journalists. Just because someone ‘looks’ the part doesn’t mean they are.’

I left the camp feeling thoroughly disheartened. I had encountered a community which within days had created their own set of stringent rules - oppression, even, and on occupied land.

The media team operated their version of private policing, freedom of the press was once again choked.

A free press in the UK? Not in the alternative society envisaged by the organisers of the Climate Camp.

PAUL POPPER/POPPERFOTO
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No peace after progress

How the death of the industrial way of life gave us choice – and stoked resentment and fear.

Now that the making of useful and necessary things in Britain is only a shadow of what it once was, we can see more clearly the effects of the Manufacturing Age. The cost was high to the producers of prodigious wealth; a ten-year difference in life expectancy remains between people living in the richest areas and those in Glasgow. The (fleeting, it now seems) visitation of industrialism has made life more comfortable and its dismantling has liberated millions from choiceless occupations. The legacy is one of spectacular improvement, unequally shared.

Perhaps the most dramatic experience of the 20th century was the suddenness with which profligate plenty replaced a skinflint subsistence. Was it the speed of this that distracted us from wondering why, instead of the secure sustenance that generations of needy people had asked of an unyielding economic system, we were offered a promiscuous spillage of goods, promoted with quasi-religious zeal by the converts of a capitalism that had previously delivered to most of its captive workers a life of penury? Such a rapid reversal might have alerted us to changes beneath the surface that elided losses incurred.

The greatest of these was certainly not the extinction of the industrial way of life itself, release from which has been an unqualified blessing. But the transition from relentlessly work-driven lives (in the 1950s, two-thirds of Britain’s workers were still manual labourers) was marked by perfunctory obituaries for the disintegration of industrial communities, with no acknowledgement that, for a century and a half, they had represented the inescapable destiny of the people they sheltered.

Even less recognition was given to the fortitude with which they had borne a long, coercive labour. A way of life, buried without ceremony in the unmarked grave of progress, could not be mourned; and this has generated some social pathologies of our time: resentment over an arbitrary obliteration of industry, disengagement from a party of labour by those it called, like feudal lords, its “own people”, loss of memory of the economic migrants we also were, passing from the goad of industry into the pastures of consumption, and thence into the liberating servitude of technology.

Grief makes no judgement on the intrinsic value of what is lost. Absence of the known and familiar is the object of melancholy in its own right, even if replaced by something immeasurably better. Objectively, there was little to mourn in the vanished industrial way of life: insufficiency and humiliation, malice of overseer and manager, officiousness of poor-law administrator and means-test man. Male industrial workers exhausted in body and spirit, instead of protecting those for whom the power of their hands was the only shelter against destitution, visited similar punishment on their wives and children. There is nothing to be lamented in an end to the penitential life of women, scrubbing not only the red tiles of the kitchen floor, but even an arc of pavement outside the front door; their interception of men on payday before wages were wasted on beer and oblivion; the clenching against joyless invasion of their bodies in the boozy aftermath. But it was the only life they knew, and they adhered to it with grim stoicism and even pride.

There is much to be said for their resistance. The fragile lattice formed by women’s arms was often the only safety net against destitution. Trade unions and friendly and burial societies that shielded folk from economic violence foreshadowed the welfare state and the National Health Service.

The life of labouring people in Britain was strikingly homogeneous, despite diversity of occupation, dialect and local sensibility. There was the same collective experience: terraced house with parlour reserved for celebration or mourning; the three-piece suite, plaster figure on a stand behind the window, chenille curtain against the draught, engraving of The Stag at Bay on the wall; the deal table and Windsor chairs in the living room, the mantelpiece a domestic shrine with clock, candlesticks and pictures of soldiers smiling before they died; the music of cinders falling through the bars in the grate; cheerless bedrooms where husband and wife slept in high connubial state, more bier than bed, where sexual enjoyment was ritually sacrificed as flowers of frost formed on the inside of the window.

And everywhere photographs: wraithlike children with ringlets or in sailor suits, fated never to grow up; weddings in the back garden, a bouquet of lilies and a grandmother in boots and astrakhan hat; the smudged features of a kinsman no one can now identify. Identical memories, too: the shotgun wedding in the dingy finery of a Co-op hall; the funeral tableau around the grave, amid ominous inscriptions of “Sleeping where no shadows fall”; queues outside the ocean-going Savoy or Tivoli to watch Gone With the Wind; the pub where “Vilia” or “The Last Rose of Summer” was hammered out on a discordant piano.

The opening up of such sombre lives might have been expected to call forth cries of gratitude. Instead, a synthetic joy has emanated largely from the same sources that, until recently, offered people grudging survival only, the change of tune outsourced to producers of manufactured delight, purveyors of contrived euphoria to the people – a different order of industrial artefact from the shoes, utensils and textiles of another era.

***

A more authentic popular res­ponse exists beneath the official psalmody, a persistent murmur of discontent and powerlessness. Anger and aggression swirl around like dust and waste paper in the streets of our affluent, unequal society. As long-term recipients of the contempt of our betters, we know how to despise the vulnerable – people incapable of work, the poor, the timid and the fearful, those addicted to drugs and alcohol. Sullen resentment tarnishes the wealth of the world, a conviction that somebody else is getting the advantages that ought to be “ours” by right and by merit.

Rancour appears among those “left behind” in neighbourhoods besieged by unknown tongues and foreign accents: people who never voted for unchosen change, as all political options are locked up in a consensus of elites. “Give us back our country!”
they cry; even though that country is not in the custody of those from whom they would reclaim it. There was no space for the working class to grieve over its own dissolution. If, as E P Thompson said, that class was present at its own making, it was certainly not complicit in its own undoing.

Grief denied in individuals leads to damaging psychological disorders. There is no reason to believe that this differs for those bereaved of a known way of living. The working class has been colonised, as was the peasantry in the early industrial era. When the values, beliefs and myths of indigenous peoples are laid waste, these lose meaning, and people go to grieve in city slums and die from alcohol, drugs and other forms of self-inflicted violence. Though the dominant culture’s erasure of the manufacturing way of life in Britain was less intense than the colonial ruin of ancient societies, this subculture was equally unceremoniously broken. It is a question of degree. The ravages of drugs and alcohol and self-harm in silent former pit villages and derelict factory towns show convergence with other ruined cultures elsewhere in the world.

Depression is a symptom of repressed grief: here is the connection between unfinished mourning and popular resentment at having been cheated out of our fair share, our due, our place in the world. If we are unable to discern our own possible fate in suffering people now, this is perhaps a result of estrangement from unresolved wrongs in our own past. Nothing was ever explained. Globalisation occurred under a kind of social laissez-faire: no political education made the world more comprehensible to the disaffected and disregarded, people of small account to those who take decisions on their behalf and in their name.

Anyone who protested against our passage into this changed world was criminalised, called “wrecker” and “extremist”. The miners’ strike of 1984 was the symbol of this: their doomed fight to preserve a dignity achieved in pain and violence was presented by the merchants of deliverance not only as retrograde, but also as an act of outlawry. Resistance to compulsory change was derided as a response of nostalgics protecting the indefensible, when the whole world was on the brink of a new life. Early in her tenure of Downing Street, Margaret Thatcher, that sybil and prophet who knew about these things, warned that Britain would become “a less cosy, more abrasive” place: a vision confirmed by the Battle of Orgreave – redolent of civil war – and the anguish of Hillsborough.

It is too late to grieve now. Scar tissue has healed over the untreated wound. Though no one expects the ruling classes to understand the distress of perpetual “modernisation”, the leaders of labour might have been able to recognise capitalism’s realm of freedom and a gaudy consumerism that concealed hardening competitiveness and the growth of a crueller, more bitter society.

The ills of this best of all worlds, its excessive wealth and extreme inequality, are on show in hushed thoroughfares of London, shuttered sites of “inward investment”, where the only sound is the faint melody of assets appreciating; while elsewhere, people wait for charitable tins of denutrified substances to feed their family, or sit under a grubby duvet, a Styrofoam cup beseeching the pence of passers-by.

Unresolved feelings about industrialism, enforced with great harshness and abolished with equal contempt for those who served it, are certainly related to the stylish savagery of contemporary life. The alibi that present-day evils are an expression of “human nature” is a poor apology for what is clearly the nature – restless and opportunistic – of a social and economic system that has, so far at least, outwitted its opponents at every turn.

Jeremy Seabrook’s book “The Song of the Shirt” (C Hurst & Co) won the Bread and Roses Award for Radical Publishing 2016

This article first appeared in the 23 June 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Divided Britain