The upheaval that was forecast as the inevitable consequence of our regime of accumulation is well and truly upon us. Today, it is not only our politics and institutions that seem to be unravelling but every aspect of our daily lives. How can we exist in an age of multiple escalating forms of disruption? Can we envisage ways to work with and through that disruption, advancing freedom just as it seems most under threat?
How does life feel right now? Disruption, defined as “a rending asunder, a bursting apart, forcible separation into parts”, seems a theme. Taking the broad brush to an era in this way allows us to sweep up all manner of movement and emotions, capturing them into what Welsh cultural critic Raymond Williams called a structure of feeling: “the culture of a period … the particular living result”. These structures have the power to accent historical development, quietly define how it is understood and, to some extent, direct it.
Writing back in 1983, Williams described “a much less confident and much more unexpected world”, one scarred by the turbulence of the 1970s and the existential threat social movements posed to the capitalist order of Fordism. As the “age of uncertainty”, this generalised unease would prove fertile ground for market fundamentalists to shock national economies into a new, globalised order.
Third Way neoliberalism, in contrast, emerges as the cock of the walk – slick, dynamic, loose, and liquid. Its proponents ascended to face the turn of the millennium with the compromise of the century and a promise to eschew ideological friction in favour of technocratic maturity. Evolving from its original combative form to the sheeny aesthetic of the 1990s, it marked, in political economist Will Davies’ phrase, “the disenchantment of politics by economics”.
From the financial crisis through to Brexit, Trump, and the upending of established political parties across Europe, institutional earthquakes defined the 2010s, etching out the slow degradation of neoliberalism into … something else. But disruption perceived is not the same as disruption experienced. Post- pandemic inflation has brought more intimate enclosures – the household and the quotidian – to the fore of public debate. Protest, policy rupture, and climate impacts all now converge, impacting deeply personal prerogatives – the weekly shop, the commute, paying the bills.
The age of shocks
Three disparate fronts of contemporary disruption can be identified. First, and most obvious, is the havoc caused by the rising cost of living and the energy crisis. EU inflation currently exceeds 10 per cent, and European governments have earmarked 500 billion euros in an attempt to cushion the blow of trebling energy bills. It is easy to forget that these trends pre-date Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Their supposed temporary nature – a refrain of struggling incumbent politicians above all – is belied by a number of factors. To the extent that inflation has been driven by post-pandemic demand, this itself is a product of the expansion of markets into novel territories (so-called “zoonotic spillover”) and the predictable result of “blowback from our unbalanced relationship to nature”. Economists have made similar arguments tracing inflation back to a series of environmental shocks – from the summer drought in Europe to heatwaves, flooding, frost, and even locust plagues – all contributing to supply chain disruption and cumulatively rising prices in dispersed and unpredictable ways. Only one thing is guaranteed: as climate impacts worsen, macroeconomic instability becomes more likely, and with it the full array of micro-consequences.
Climate policies have always been quite powerfully framed as an attempt to stave off exactly these environmental shocks, and all the economic consequences that follow. But smooth pathways of transition and building resilience were rejected long ago. More radical state interventions to leave behind fossil fuels and incentivise behaviour change are now, by necessity, a second form of disruption themselves. The recent efforts of German Vice-Chancellor and Economy Minister Robert Habeck to wean the country off Russian gas imports – including encouraging citizens to cut their domestic consumption – have contributed to a revival of the far-right Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) and its long-standing critique of the energy transition as the ideological project of nosy environmentalism. Accusations of a “climate dictatorship” proliferate, and the AfD is whipping up concern about the prospect of a Wutwinter (winter of rage). Pandemic restrictions are an important precursor here, as in Spain, where far-right counterparts Vox rail against the centre-left “progressive dictatorship” and “all the freedom-killing laws”.
The threat portended by the French gilets jaunes in 2018 to 2019, therefore, remains considerable. In a context of inequality and prolonged inflationary pressures, and in the absence of a major programme of redistribution and reform, climate policies are liable to encounter a vociferous response. Even interventions more attuned than tax rises to systemic injustice are vulnerable to deeply charged hostility. The reallocation of road space to encourage walking and cycling, for example, has accelerated recently in major European cities – from Anne Hidalgo’s dream of a 15-minute Paris to Barcelona’s superilles (recaptured intersections) and Berlin’s Kiezblocks. Their social dividend makes them broadly popular, but the disruption to customary patterns of consumption drags them into a familiar, culturally infused dispute. In the United Kingdom, no amount of positive framing – “low-traffic neighbourhoods”, “people-friendly streets” – has managed to prevent a wave of apoplectic offence among a minority of opponents. Objections are characterised by a misapprehension of their number – the initiatives are, according to most polls, unbothersome to a majority – but also the transmutation of a policy of tweaked travel incentives into an authoritarian denial of rights. That is, the right to drive an internal combustion engine unhindered through a dense, congested city.
Political historian Annelien De Dijn has contrasted this conception of freedom – “being able to do what you want without state interference” – with its democratic predecessor, the “liberty of the ancients”, at the core of which are self-government and the extension of collective empowerment. While no invocations of freedom carry quite the same motherlode of political entitlement on this side of the Atlantic, the devotion to such a private mode of freedom, with property rights at its core, does limit the capacity of the “big green state” to act. Behavioural change is estimated to play a role in two-thirds of required emissions reductions to net zero. That leaves governments with no desire to interfere with customary patterns of consumption – our “imperial mode of living” – facing an impossible contradiction.
Protest, policy rupture, and climate impacts all now converge, impacting deeply personal prerogatives.
A third and final form of disruption is the most calculated: the deliberate interruption of livelihoods pursued by social groups for political and economic ends. Climate activists are the most obvious actors, with growing numbers rejecting the civility of the last decade and springing forward with increasingly creative intrusions. Andreas Malm’s How to Blow Up a Pipeline must take some credit, launching a trenchant case for sabotage into a movement with an almost spiritual fidelity to strategic non-violence. From throwing mashed potato at a Monet in Potsdam, cementing golf course holes during a Toulouse drought, and blocking traffic in Bern, to “extinguishing” SUV tyres in Turin, ratcheting desperation characterises the current wave of activism. Others continue with legal but increasingly antagonistic activity, such as Green New Deal Rising’s haranguing of politicians in public fora, deploying “youth authenticity” in pure form, and forcing their targets, on shaky video, to “pick a side”. There is strength in this tactic’s disassociation of target from audience: most of us can identify with motorists, even fine art, but not politicians. The less popular the individual, the more comfortable the audience.
These acts remain disparate and disjointed, at least in how they are collectively perceived: as a mishmash of misguided instigators. The public reaction is often emotional ranging, from anger at the moral implications of road-blockers (that you, driver, are guilty) and deep offence to cultural and liberal sensibilities of the (practically harmless) attacks on art to the trite assertion that disruption ultimately “hinders the cause” (often a poor imitation of empathy). Online reactions show the extremes. Threats of unhinged violence sit alongside nihilistic promises to burn extra fuel tomorrow out of spite: “masochists masquerading as sadists”, to use writer and activist Richard Seymour’s phrase. Others, particularly bystanders, have been more supine, even oddly curious; an uneasy political consciousness playing out in real time. To the extent that the message of climate disruptors is cohering, it seems to be on the powerful injunction and resolutely populist rallying cry proposed by Davies: “Stop, you’re killing us!”
Finally, ramping up in parallel are workers’ strikes across Europe, directly responding to the cost of living crisis but willing to broaden their claims beyond sectoral industrial disputes and parliamentary politics and expand campaigning infrastructure to match. The “Enough is Enough” campaign launched by UK trade unions, for example, has a set of demands that go beyond wages to encompass food security, public housing, and wealth taxes. The movement signed up half a million supporters in its first month – a taste of the challenge it could offer, in tandem with climate activists, to a Labour Party adopting increasingly conservative positions. The turn towards industrial disputes with a political character reveals a wider strategic pivot among parts of the Left, away from Green-New-Deal populism and towards a renewed focus on antagonism and leverage. The secretary general of the British rail workers’ union, Mick Lynch, stormed a spate of late-summer media appearances with no-nonsense refrains such as “Workers shouldn’t have to beg.” This is disruption as last-ditch democracy when all other forms of exercising political or economic agency have been constrained or exhausted. But unions also find strength in their rhetorical technique: eschewing moralism, they deal in interests. While climate activists do not have the same direct instrumentality, they might learn from this all the same.
Power of consumption – a hollow consolation
To draw attention to these recent commotions and their personal effects is not to overlook the very significant civic dislocation of the previous decade. It should not undermine the widespread and material devastation caused by the financial crisis and the orthodoxy of European austerity that followed, from the degradation of public services to the stagnation of wages, nor the very personal consequences of the pandemic. What is more novel is the imposition of current socio-economic disruption – at a society-wide level – on the very arch-entitlements that neoliberal capitalism was supposed to afford.
To understand this, we must acknowledge that as much as political analysis concerns itself with the experiences and movement of “voters”, the true primary subjectivity in contemporary society is that of the consumer. In Hegemony Now, political theorists Jeremy Gilbert and Alex Williams argue that the political alliance that buttressed neoliberalism was held together by a deal for “consumer consent”: in exchange for the loss of community, workplace democracy, and visions of long-term social progress, citizens were compensated by new forms of agency over leisure and lifestyle choices.
One clear demonstration of this today comes in the form of popular efforts to translate major, ostensibly public, economic moments – government budgets, financial shake-ups, entire manifesto launches – into private, consumption-based questions. This is a discourse not just individualised but reduced to a matter of pure purchasing power (in French pouvoir d’achat, used as a stand-in for cost of living), paving the way for repeated political commitments to keep “your money in your pocket”. All other matters of power and wealth and distribution can be dismissed as ethereal, reserved to a distant public sphere. Similarly, the world of work is posited not as the site of the relation to systems of production, nor as the organisation of workers within it, but as the facilitator of that banal and brutal flattening of human experience: “to get on in life”.
More radical state interventions to leave behind fossil fuels are now forms of disruption themselves.
“Public consent to the hegemonic neoliberal programme”, Gilbert and Williams conclude, “depended on the ability of that programme to deliver a continuous expansion of the capacity of the citizenry to consume”. It also rendered individuals complicit by default, able to benefit from their relatively high status and consumption but more or less unable to escape the omnipotence of acquisitive culture as expressed in advertising, TV (now social media), and political communication. The Salvage Collective have argued the “tragedy of the worker is that, as long as she works for capitalism, she must be her own gravedigger”. The double tragedy is that we are implicated in this accumulative telos; the “Anthropocene” implies that this was all for all of us.
That capacity to consume comfortably and freely, one remnant of citizen privilege under neoliberalism, is now under serious threat from the disruptive forces of climate impacts, policy rupture, and social discord. Far-right authoritarians in Spain, Sweden, and Italy (the only EU country where wages have shrunk since the 1990s, meaning they know neoliberal rot better than most), all made hay with the theme of order in recent elections, promising variously to stop immigration, defeat the “enemies of civilisation”, increase police funding, and prevent the general corruption of “ordinary people” and traditional values. But European economies are likely to continue to discover exactly how capitalism actually works in so-called emerging markets, despite best efforts to insulate the European “garden” from the jungle that diplomats imagine surrounds it.
A catalyst for change
What matters, therefore, is not whether disruption occurs, as it is certain to continue. “In the 21st century, all politics are climate politics,” wrote the leading American Green New Dealers in 2019. The unfortunate corollary is now clear, just a few years later: all politics must also become disaster politics. In salvaging what we can, the crucial questions are now how this disruption is felt, for what purpose is it instigated, and whose interests are protected.
For Greens and the Left, working through this disorder means refusing to shirk this antagonism and this more divisive ecology. Established parties – both in power and opposition – can give considerable institutional cover to disruptive forces through both qualification and justification of their actions, attesting to the clear-eyed assessment of the desperate environmental and economic chaos they face, the inadequacy of alternative, more respectable tactics, and the ultimate reasonableness of their demands. If we had acted when people said we should act, if the system had changed when people said it should, we would not be where we are. Particular activities and targets can be condemned in the same breath; indeed, selectivity itself legitimises the principle of some kinds of deliberate disruption. As research cited by Malm and others has found, even a backlash against the protesters does not necessarily harm the cause; a radical flank recruits activists, “seeds” the agenda and makes other actors appear more reasonable. Those pitched carefully (targeting upstream infrastructure and luxury emissions, factoring in class and racial analysis, and making clear allowances for vulnerable groups) can, like some surprisingly popular labour strikes, cleave public opinion in politically productive ways.
Another avenue is to emphasise the “alternative hedonism” of more utopian iterations of the Green New Deal. New modes of living to counter and adapt to disruption do not require declinism; instead we might call it reclinism. More public luxury, better leisure, and of course less work: these can be the compensatory tenets of material degrowth. Given the role of consumption-as-agency in neoliberal culture, environmental policies that also liberate and democratise carry a potent appeal. Greens need neither hegemony nor a “historic bloc” to begin to make this case; local initiatives like Barcelona’s superilles restore intersections not as pretty enclaves but as genuinely social and public spaces. Our crisis follows the hollowing out of democratic institutions: it follows that distributed agency and empowerment are important corollaries of economic justice, something state-centred visions of the Green New Deals held as a weakness.
Finally, Greens should not overlook the role of civic voluntarism as a less intrusive path to behavioural change, without softening any critique of elites. As the pandemic illustrated, the sense of collective endeavour – while it could be maintained – allowed governments to rely on public adherence to constraints far beyond dominant libertarian expectations. Again, as Habeck is discovering in Germany, asking nicely is not without its political risks. But some expression of “limitarianism” will be critical to any eco-socialist programme, and under the right conditions it can privilege solidarity over enforcement.
“End of the world, end of the month” – two battles, once in opposition, are now converging. Powerful stories are yet to be told about what got us here, why we feel as we do, and how we find our way through the wreckage.
 Remarks made by the European Union’s High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy Josep Borrell in a speech delivered on 13 October 2022 to the European Diplomatic Academy in Bruges, Belgium.
This article was originally published by Green European Journal. Original content is licensed under Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International license.