Notes on Copenhagen, etc.

The cards on the table are these:

– An unprecedented number of world leaders met in Copenhagen to work out an international response to climate change. The West especially needed a deal, because a) it’s generally accepted among their populations that climate change is an existential threat and b) certain ‘developing’ nations are coming of age pollution-wise, making it in the West’s political and economic interest to set the terms of the deal.

– As a consequence of his campaign strategy and the historically obstructionist role of the U.S. in prior attempts at such treaties, Obama became the symbolic representative for the interests of the West at Copenhagen and the lightning rod for the first wave of criticism from the green Left. Concretely Obama needed a deal because without one it would be much more difficult to push even the most modest ‘green agenda’ through the circus of late imperial decadence that is Congress.

– But hold on, Obama only avoided being the unambiguous weak link of the Copenhagen debacle because of the ‘obstructionist’ role played by the U.S.’s chief emerging competitor, China (think of Obama and Wen Jiabao’s conference as an informal passing of the torch ceremony), the West’s agreed-upon villain. As the world’s top two carbon emitters, the U.S. and China were the least willing to make definite commitments (the U.S. came to the talks pledged to reduce emissions to 4% below 1990 levels, compared to a 20% commitment from the EU; China notoriously vetoed not only a proposed 50% reduction in emissions by 2050 but the even bigger commitments proposed for developed countries as well). But the country with vastly greater domestic limitations — China, where millions of households are still without access to electricity — has officially replaced the U.S. in the eyes of the ‘responsible left’ in propaganda pieces like this one, just as the good intentions of Obama replaced the bad intentions of Bush.

– The entirely speculative, ‘meaningful’ deal that was finally arrived was negotiated by a ‘coalition of the willing’ out of sight of most of the conference participants, while being widely praised for legitimizing the idea that poor countries should have to submit to emission limits just like the developed and upper-level developing countries (i.e. China, India, Brazil). Here’s a list by Johann Hari of the democratic proposals that this virtual deal has concretely succeeded in ruling out. These debates have seen the ‘responsible left’ take truly horrific attitudes toward the objections of Nicaragua, Bolivia, Sudan, and Venezuela to the proposed treaty that have even filtered down to progressives like David Roberts of Grist:

It was only by forging a non-UN side agreement that Obama and other national leaders averted disaster. The UNFCCC “took note” of the accord, but since Sudan, Bolivia, Nicaragua, Venezuela, and Cuba wouldn’t sign on, it couldn’t formally adopt it.

That’s right—a clutch of hostile Latin American kleptocracies practically derailed the entire process. This can’t help but raise serious questions about whether the UN is the proper venue to hash out emission reductions. Does it really make sense to give 192 nations veto power when the vast bulk of emissions come from under 20 of them?

It may be regrettable from an ‘idealistic’ standpoint, but the only way to get results is to ditch democracy, says Joe Romm of Climate Progress (who nevertheless allows facts to keep him from completely endorsing the anti-China rhetoric):

Ultimately, the point is not the friggin’ process, but the outcome, and if the UN could demonstrate its process could lead to a better outcome, I’d be all for it.  But I doubt it.

I think Obama showed the process that can work to get the best possible outcome:  High-level negotiations by the senior leaders of the big emitters.

Let me therefore end with the conclusion of an analysis by the Harvard economist Robert Stavins:

We may look back upon Copenhagen as an important moment – both because global leaders took the reins of the procedures and brought the negotiations to a fruitful conclusion, and because the foundation was laid for a broad-based coalition of the willing to address effectively the threat of global climate change.  Only time will tell.

This is an extreme example, but the resurgence of ideological pragmatism among the left, especially in the U.S., in the wake of unrelenting defeat, leads to a sort of theoretical agnosticism about politics combined with a blithe acceptance of the structurally weak position it (especially in the U.S.) currently holds. In practice this amounts to agnosticism over the real existence of ideological structures like neoliberalism, which no one could stop talking about when Bush was in charge, combined with prostrate submission to a priori limits on the potential of the progressive movement to change anything. As left economist Peter Dorman puts it in a critique of Waxman-Markey (the guiding framework for U.S. negotiations at Copenhagen):

Mainstream environmental groups are not blind to these problems, but they see them as second-order. Above all, they are soooooo happy that climate deniers are not in command of politics any more. They are fighting yesterday’s battle, to get general agreement on the principle that climate change is caused by people, and people need to do something about it. They like the nice feeling that comes from all of us raising our hands and pledging, scout’s honor, to achieve sustainability by 2050. But they are losing today’s battle to put into place a viable means to get from here to there, and judging from their public statements they don’t even know it.

The failure to go beyond the literal reading of the individual elements of reform bills to grasp their structural role is nowhere more apparent than in the health care debate. Anyone who objects to the Senate bill is an ‘obstructionist’ or ‘hostage taker’ out for self-interested political gain (or sociopathy, or excess of enthusiasm) over the ‘greater good’ moral objective that we all must accept. Progressives, both the weaker of the two opponents and the one liberal Democrats would like to secretly agree with, are expected to cave to the obstructionism of the centrists despite their efforts in getting public support for reform. But not before putting on an ineffectual performance of outrage that makes their opponents feel better about the inevitable.

[The ideological divide within the Democratic party is more succinctly analyzed here.]

Obama: “This notion I know among some on the left that somehow this bill is not everything that it should be … I think just ignores the real human reality that this will help millions of people and end up being the most significant piece of domestic legislation at least since Medicare and maybe since Social Security.”

Set aside for the moment the lies about the policies he campaigned on. First a bad faith moral imperative is employed: blame for the historical failure of the U.S., the the most powerful etc. country in the world, to put together anything more than a catastrophically shitty health care system is shifted away from the anti-democratic structure of the Senate, the power of health insurance lobbyists, and the failure and/or unwillingness of politicians to overcome these obstacles, to any individual on the left who threatens the passage of the textbook Third Way, neoliberal, government-corporate merger that is the Senate bill, and the one Obama apparently wanted from the start. As many have said, the early telegraphing of the Democratic majority and the White House’s unwillingness to reject any deal that can win cloture, and the consequent vilification of progressives who are so willing, kneecapped the left’s power to negotiate. Objections that seem reasonable are the intended casualties of this backlash. Finally the value of the health bill is put in terms of ‘significance’: it’s a big (“sweeping”) reform, and that’s what really matters. After all.

Of course, either the slightly more elitist Senate bill or the slightly more populist House bill would be “a historic first step,” “a foundation that can be improved on in the future” (as defenders like to say). Something that will help real people, etc. But what have we been watching if not the design of the new health bill’s architecture to make the much-publicized progressive improvements — single payer and compromise #1, the public option — all but impossible? Simply because the bill will contain contradictory elements does not mean it has no structuring logic. As the cost of regulation, any currently possible bill ensures that the grip of private health insurers on American lives will be more intransigent and more comprehensive. But these are precisely the sorts of concerns dismissed as ‘symbolic’ by enlightened commenters.

The ‘bill-killers’ chief political argument is/was that necessity combined with progressive pressure will push democrats to renegotiate even if the current bill is abandoned. This best-case scenario would be plausible if the progressive movement were as powerful as a major corporation. For many reasons, it is not. One of those reasons is how unusually stratified American society is as a whole, and how precarious, conformist, and alienated from the rest of the culture we tend to be, especially when educated. But the increasing implausibility of the bill’s defeat from the left (despite 11th-hour statements to the contrary) is only a convincing reason to stop fighting it if one’s subjective approach to politics is the consumerist model presumed by most news media: the independent, neutral observer, who wants “to see both sides of every issue” but is instead forced to decide between Two Bad Extremes. One who (unlike the others) is free to imagine ideal solutions to problems, but whose moral triumph is found in putting away childish things and learning to accept ‘reality.’ But working to improve the bill and threatening its passage aren’t mutually exclusive; defending it and improving it are.

In their ‘realist’ guise, apologists for bank bailouts, compromised health reform, Copenhagen, and the escalation in Afghanistan defer criticism of these policies and their authors to all those previously ignored ‘structural factors,’ now emptied of agency and presented as if laws of nature to be challenged only by the naive (liberal homilies about the sad realities of politics are the ‘soft’ side of this tactic). This brand of cynicism, which reduces all thought and perception to whatever shit is being shoved in your face right now, is worn as a sign of acumen, as it is indeed the gateway to professional status.

By the very gesture of having enabled thought (by excluding ’emotion’ and ‘partisanship’) that the intellectual class, the captured consumer/producers of news events and political decisions, encourages itself to react in place of thinking. From the laptop to the newspaper to the movie theater (and back to the laptop):

But if the term ‘progressive’ is to be taken seriously, a different political reality has to be embraced. All the feel-good talk about ‘getting somewhere’ or ‘good starts’ is so much living in the past. Everyone who calls the shots now knows, or has to pretend they know, that environmental catastrophe and financial crisis are real, and that health reform is necessary. We can be pleased or terrified about that. But from a practical standpoint the most important immediate goal is to move the center left. I always feel uncomfortable writing ‘calls to action’ like this, mostly because I always think that not only is it obvious what should be done, it is being done. And that is pushing back hard in whatever way we can against the future our political elites are building for us, so that, as much as possible, we can build it for ourselves. We can’t make decrees or issue five year plans, or make the kinds of promises campaigning politicians make. In the world we live in, where we are just extras whose consent is either manufactured or assumed, fighting back means refusing to take on ourselves the dreary weight of their responsibilities and the illusion of power that comes with them. Demanding at the same time that they live up to their professed responsibilities and killing their bills when they don’t may be irresponsible in this heavily leveraged political environment — a losing battle — but that’s asymmetric politics. Devoting our energies to help the political class make decisions as if we didn’t exist isn’t even a partial victory, it’s just martyrdom.


One Response to “Notes on Copenhagen, etc.”

  1. […] come down on opposite sides of the particular questions involved, Traxus has a mostly good piece on Copenhagen, health care, and everything else. But if the term ‘progressive’ is to be taken seriously, a different political reality has to […]

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