I went to the Climate Camp last weekend, on Blackheath, next to Greenwich Park, a brick’s throw from the Royal Observatory. The camp is maybe a 150m-diamater circle, with a metal fence around it, filled with tents. You have to enter through a steel gate, over which hangs a sign saying ‘Capitalism is crisis’, and under which crusties sit on straw bales, perusing the new entrants like monkeys outside a Hindu temple.
They are on ‘gate watch’, to make sure the police don’t enter. The Camp for Climate Action handbook, which you pick up as you enter, tells you: ‘Whatever you have to offer, from vegan cakes to tripods, do come to the defence centre and be a part of making our vision of a community free from authoritarianism a reality.’
You then enter a welcome tent on the left, where a lady in her late 40s gives you a brief induction. She tells the new recruits about the various ways you can join in. First, pitch your tent in the neighbourhood you’re from - there’s a London area, a Midlands area, a West Country area, a Scotland area, and one guy on his own next to the fence who I think is from the Isle of Man. You camp with people from your own area so you can network and start an ‘affinity group’ for local direct action.
You can also be on food duty , washing up duty, (’but not if you’re ill, we don’t want everyone to get diarreah’), wellbeing duty (’going round, checking out the tranquility centres, checking on the welfare of the camp’), dismantling duty (the tents, not the state, sadly), and so on. She also took pains to point out you have to pee in one place and poo in another. Bladder control is key to the revolution.’Any questions?’
‘So what are you trying to achieve?’ I asked, like the snotty little journalist I am.
‘Well, it’s not ‘you’. Hopefully it’s ‘we’, she replied. ‘We’re here in London, the centre of the financial system, because we’re opposed to the financial system. We think it sucks. We don’t want to reform it, because as soon as we start to debate that, we get into arguments, and it hurts my head.’ She banged her head to illustrate this. ‘But we agree that we would rather the present system…’ collapsed? ‘…went away’.
She was a veteran of direct action. She’d helped set up - and dismantle - the Kingsnorth camp, protesting against E.on’s plans for a new coal-fired power station there. ‘My personal favourite’, she confided, ‘is superglue. I like gluing myself to things’, she said, as if confessing a fetish. ‘I’ve always wondered about that’, said a well-spoken lady on her right. ‘How do you come unstuck?’ ‘Turn that video camera off and I’ll tell you’, said the woman. A young black man videoing the induction dutifully turned his camera off. ‘You use soap and water’, said the woman.
Next to me, John, a young revolutionary from Northampton, shook his hands. I looked at him. ‘Just practicing my hand signals’, he explained. He pointed to a page in the handbook - Hand Signals for Group Discussions. Waving both your hands expressed consent. Imagine a whole revolutionary group doing it. Mass jazz hands. Trostsky, Lenin, Stalin. Jazz hands.That old revolutionary rag.
A T shape meant you wanted to make a technical point. The largest moon of Jupiter is Ganymede. That sort of thing. Your two index fingers raised meant a direct response. Two fingers up the nose meant a blocked sinus.
‘We used these in Manchester Uni’, John told me, ‘when we occupied a lecture room to protest against the occuption of Gaza. Took us six hours to draft a letter. But we won.’ You won? ‘We got the university to agree to send all their spare stationary to the university of Gaza, which had been reduced to…rubble, I believe is the appropriate word.’ Jazz hands.
I wandered around the camp with John.We looked out at Canary Wharf in the distance. ‘Beautiful’, said John. ‘I know it’s the centre of capitalism, but it’s still beautiful.’ A plane flew overhead. ‘Amazing. I love planes. I know they cause climate change, but I still love them. I mean, that plane should not be in the sky. It’s a miracle.’
I think John suspected I was an evil undercover capitalist and so was trying to ingratiate himself by appreciating every visible manifestation of capitalism. ‘What…political persuasion are you?’ John asked furtively. ‘Centre left’, I said. ‘That’s a good place to be’, he nodded. Phew!
Reggae played from a bicycle-powered sound system. The various neighbourhoods were gathering to have lunch: plates of brown rice with vegetables. Others were assembling to put up the main tent, in which bands would play, ideas would foment, and discussions would be held on such topics as ’seedbomb making’, ’sing and dance for change’, and ‘Greenwich Common: Rape, policing and prostitution’.
There was a legal advice tent, a police monitoring tent, a bicycle-powered smoothie-maker. ‘Amazing’, said John. It was like a mini-festival. But where was the beer tent, the burger van? No burger van. That’s capitalism. Capitalism is crisis.
‘Yeah, but, you say capitalism is crisis’, a press photographer asked his media chaperone (a boy who could be no more than 22, but already had a beard and a fiery Daniel Cohn-Bendit-esque demeanour), ‘but when your parents die and leave you a nice house, what are you going to do, give it away?’
‘I think you’ve got a false impression of the people here’ said Cohn-Bendit junior. ‘Most people here aren’t rich.’
‘Yeah, I can’t relate to that at all’, said a girl media chaperone.
‘I mean, my father’s a counsellor and my mother’s a nurse’, said Cohn-Bendit. ‘And if I was rich, I’d rather be rich and against coal-fired power stations than rich and not.’
‘Yeah, but this must have all cost something’, said the photographer.
‘It cost about £40,000′, said Daniel coolly.
‘So that’s capitalism.’
‘Capitalism is about more than money.’
‘Well, what is it?’
‘Capitalism is the complete exploitation and subjugation of every living thing on this planet’, said Daniel with terrifying certainty.
Hmmm…problem with taking on ‘capitalism’ is you need a serious alternative. And the campers don’t have one, not since the collapse of Marxism. You can take on lots of specific things - the bail-out of the banks, the destruction of the environment - but to blame all of these things on ‘capitalism’, without having a systematic alternative to ‘capitalism’, seems to be tilting at windmills. The USSR wasn’t a capitalist system, China is not a free market system, but these systems give (or gave) just as much of a f*ck for the environment or human rights as the West. Probably less of a f*ck.
If the protestors really wanted to smash the system, I pondered, why didn’t they smash up the Royal Observatory nearby. What more oppressive imperalist symbol could there be than the Greenwich Meridian? Who were we to enforce our own rigid sense of ‘Universal Time’ on the assorted tribes and tribulations of the world? Smash the observatory, end time.Capitalism would be thrown into disarray. Job done.
Still, the camp looked fun. There were some radical cuties there. John pointed me out one pretty girl, bright eyes, heart full of hope, jumper full of cleavage. ‘She showed me how to work the bicycle-smoothie maker’, he said.’Amazing’ I said.
And for a second, I was jealous of John spending the next few nights in the camp. I bet he meets some really hot women, I thought. A bit of cider, a bit of Antonio Negri, who knows what could happen. Indeed, the camp has already got the nickname ’shag camp’ from some NGO workers. How many people, I wondered to myself, join sects, cults, and radical cells not out of a serious belief they will radically alter society, but just because they want to get a bit of lovin’.