Wacky Races Insurrectionism: Some Thoughts On The Climate Camp

This post was written by Richard on August 31, 2010
Posted Under: Environment,GreenFeed,Protest,Scotland

This piece is part diary, part analysis, about the Edinburgh Climate Camp, and I’ve *tried* to write it in a way that’s of interest to people with no knowledge of the camp as well as people who went along. If you want to know why we went to Edinburgh, give my pre-camp post a glance. There are already some ace blog posts about the Climate Camp: a good round-up by Amelia, a hearty anti-liberal rant by lasophielle, and a Scottish perspective from Harry which I highly recommend, particularly for anyone who went to the camp.

Small-Scale Revolution
On Wednesday at 9pm nearly 100 people, under the cover of darkness, and without a copper in sight, got onto RBS territory at Gogarburn, and started unloading trucks full of marquees and plumbing. It took RBS security a good 10 minutes to realise we were on the back lawn of the global headquarters, and the police another 5 on top of that. Let’s just get that again: around 100 amateur radicals, pulling off a secret action successfully, under the noses of arguably the biggest bank in the UK. Okay, so it’s Spy Kids, but frankly it’s bloody cool.

photo: amelia gregory

A lot of the secrecy stuff is, I’m sure, based on what is second nature to various kinds of software programmers, network managers and certain kinds of military and police personnel, so this isn’t to say that the skills in Climate Camp are unique. This goes for all the practical skills needed to put on a Climate Camp: plumbing, electrics, carpentry – all these things aren’t exactly rare.

What makes the camp quite different though, is that the vast majority of people involved don’t do these things professionally. This means that the form of mutual aid practised at the camp actually pushes away from the kind of monotonous labour-specialisation that the modern world offers us: it gives a chance for everyone to pitch in with other activities, in a way that actually has quite a lot of responsibility attached to it, not just as a hobby on the side.

So while the camp isn’t a solution in itself, I think it does offer some breathing space away from contemporary work patterns as much as it does economic ones (note that the camp works on a donation basis, and there are no commodities or the like sold on site). This doesn’t mean that the camp addresses fundamental issues like commodification on any profound or serious level, but people are transformed in their engagement with the camp, in small ways, and quite slowly. This is why I think it’s a small-scale revolution: like a Hornby™ revolution perhaps. But it’s also a dry-run: if the revolution needs practical skills, I know where I’m looking for them.

Towards A Class Analysis Of Landscape Gardening
The fields we built our camp in were RBS owned property. We held that site, and kept setting up for 3 days, though the RBS media machine would have it, peculiarly, that they ‘showed us the right place to camp’ when we got there. However, while RBS understandably didn’t want us there, and turned up the pressure to leave at 1pm on Wednesday (Section 60 stop and searches, heavy police road blockades, etc), there is something we shared with them: a taste in gardens.

Everyday I had a conversation with someone about how beautiful the site was, with its mixture of wheat and long grasses, the scenic clumps of trees complete with small frogs and the occasional adder, the clover and moss paths that wound over the hill and round the back of the meadows, the small bridge folly over the moat.

I suspect that there’s a lesson here about the bourgeois nature of environmentalist aesthetics. There’s certainly something fishy about the innocent-smoothie-style, happy-go-bunting imagery that occasionally bubbles over Climate Camp propaganda; something which shares a feel with the beautiful, semi-wild gardens of RBS’ choosing.

I’m not sure what an anti-capitalist critique of gardens would be, but I imagine it would be along the lines of ‘man and nature shouldn’t be separated; let’s do away with the manipulation of our environment to create a space that breaks down the boundaries of artificiality/ nature.’ Well, we didn’t do that. We enjoyed the landscaped, semi-18th century garden RBS’ landscapers designed as much as anyone.

How To Lay Siege To A Bank, Medieval Style
What came to pass in Gogarburn was essentially a distorted form of a medieval siege. An army of tents were set up directly overlooking RBS headquarters, complete with watchtower. Their shiny glass walls reflected our brightly coloured bunting. On Sunday evening hundred of activists swarmed on to the manicured back lawn of the headquarters, totally outfoxing the police once again, and a couple of windows were smashed. The fortress-like building itself became the target.

the rhino siege tower (photo: amelia gregory)

On the Monday, the day of action, the watchtower became converted into a rolling siege tower, complete with wheels and a rhinoceros head. Toy bows and arrows were made, and most impressively, the Molassapult: a catapult which threw molasses at the Headquarters. The sheer imagination of the actions was astounding. Most of these were in Edinburgh proper: the Cairn Energy molasses oil spill; the Lady Gaga spoof song ‘Dirty Oil’; all those white biohazard suits.

If Climate Camp was previously thought to be too slick and rehearsed, this was the remedy: anarchic, clowning, messy and really very surreal. No one who was there will forget the image of 40 police kitting up and looking scared shitless at the site of a 0.001mph moving papier-mâché and chicken-wire-rhino siege tower.

A few smashed windows, lots of subvertising, blockades of offices and a good swathe of molasses found that nice balance between mayhem and publicity stunt. The smashed windows alone will have sent RBS’ insurance premiums through the roof, never mind the gardening costs. Of course, there’s a serious question about the effects of inflicting economic damage on a bank that it basically owned by the state – it’s theoretically the taxpayer who loses out. But I don’t think anyone could argue that’s what will actually happen: it’s not as if the profits of RBS are currently being ploughed into the common good.

How do you take action against a bank? Well, I think the Edinburgh camp made a start at showing some ways forward. It’s not an easy thing to do, and the G20 Bank of England protests certainly didn’t achieve it. The Climate Camp definitely felt better than telling people to put their money in the Co-op or pull back from the capitalist system all together by investing in a extra-security mattress. This felt closer to the real thing: you stand outside, brandish your pots and pans, and run straight at it.

the molassapult (photo: tim morozzo)

I think the medieval feel came from the demonstration of our own powerlessness to which I alluded earlier, but also from a very practical consideration. There’s only so far we can go when up against the police before we’re classed as being a real threat, and therefor liable to far more oppressive reactions. A siege tower is one thing; a car driving at the fences would have been another. This is how I think we end up with the weird pre-modern (or what Antonio Negri might call alter-modern) protest form of the medieval siege: it’s the confrontational public mass actions pushed to the edge, without becoming and out-and-out military attack. Instead, people were quite happy to settle for the wacky races version of insurrectionism.

Broadcasting In Austerity
On the weekend there was lots of positive mainstream media coverage of the camp in the Scottish press: pictures of tents and campers, and lots of messages about RBS and climate change getting through. However, when it came to the day of mass action, the press just couldn’t cope. Too lazy to actually do any reporting, they just printed whatever press releases got sent to them. Many of these came from activists, but there were also several from the police, including two which made totally false allegations about a phantom oil slick.

Now, this attitude to printing press releases without checking them seems to have become a trend in journalism. I think it’s got worse since the financial crisis: many newspapers, faced with decreasing advertisement revenues, have simply fired their subeditors, and the journalists are overworked for low pay, pay which is  kept down by temps and interns on precarious contracts.

However, as Reuben pointed out on this blog last week, it’s not just about bad wages, but also the rise of totally free online content:

It was arguably naive for us all to assume that we could suddenly get journalistic content for free … without the product itself being altered … The age of online freeganism could prove deeply problematic both for journalists and those of us who have an interest in quality journalism.

The dominance of online media as a method of publication and broadcast had an upside and a downside. On the upside, our weird acts of spectacle could be easily turned into little pieces of information and sent around the world without any checks. The disparity in technology is really quite ironic: our medieval siege tower and catapult could be photographed, filmed and tweeted on the latest MacBooks, iPhones and Nikons, even though they themselves were constructed out of ticcy-taccy.

The downside, of course, is that all this can just as easily be done by canny police or lazy journalists. The net effect is that while there was a lot of ‘social media’ work done at the Camp, in the end it was the same tactics being used by the police which, seized the day and smeared the protests.

As is so often the case, the response to this might need to be a two-pronged approach, particularly as resistance grows against austerity measures over the next few years. On the one hand, as Reuben advocates, that means defending the ability for professional journalists to still produce some kind of high quality reporting; on the other it means taking our alternative media networks much more seriously, and putting the time into making them work.

All That Anarchist Shit
This, I think, is quite similar to the politics of the Climate Camp: pushing for reforms (e.g. an end to RBS investing in fossil fuels) while creating space to create far wider change. In the wee small hours of the morning after the last day of camp, a group of us drove far out of Edinburgh, away from the camp site, along with a truck loaded up with wheelie bins of human shit. High up in the Scottish hills, overlooking a beautiful loch, we unloaded our cargo, shovelling the waste material of 700 campers into hastily constructed composting crates. Penny Red might think just using the compost loos alone is commitment enough: let me tell you, there’s greater commitment than that.

Maybe that’s the difference between a socialist and an anarchist: while the one might be up for a bit of discomfort, the other gets right in there.

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Reader Comments

Roland Mc

Thanks for the update. Good to hear a different perspective of climate champ

Written By Roland Mc on August 31st, 2010 @ 10:39 am

“No one who was there will forget the image of 40 police kitting up and looking scared shitless at the site of a 0.001mph moving papier-mâché and chicken-wire-rhino siege tower.”
Love it!

Written By Dave on August 31st, 2010 @ 10:42 am

I’ve long thought there aren’t enough siege towers in politics.

Written By jim jepps on September 1st, 2010 @ 11:28 am

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