Danish political culture and coming activities in Copenhagen

Tord Björk | Climate,Environmental movements,NGO,political culture | Friday, November 27th, 2009

– a text originally written in 12th of July 2009 and distributed on the Climate Justice Action email list, here with some slight changes including update comments and cutting out personal details.

By Tord Björk

An attempt at analysing the Danish political culture and the possible situations during the Climate Summit protests in December provoced by the discussion concerning People’s Climate Action and the need to understand politically what is going on in the preparations for the actions in December.

Shortly I believe the Danish political culture have achieved an astonishing result so far in terms of separate autonomous initiatives, some with little possibilities for political parties or big NGOs to control directly. At the same time at the informal political level concerning the main messages that will be given from all the activities it is so far more vague. There is a risk that a strong third world and climate justice message will be fragmented and marginalized due to lack of political knowledge and assessment of different actors making it possible also for non-Danish organizations to intervene to strengthen a common message. The points made are necessarily generalized and should not be regarded as that of any organization. The harsh criticism against some Danish big NGOs is severe but in my eyes deserved. One shall also keep in mind that big NGOs are not the only problem and earlier experience may not repeat itself.

I have been trying to understand Danish political culture and especially the NGOs and the environmental movements for decades and still do not find my way around although I live with direct trains to Copenhagen  every hour and get there in two hours.

But we all have to better learn quickly. As we all know there is no such thing as global civil society, there are a lot of local civil societies that may cooperate with each other. The most important for the Climate meeting in December are the local societies were the Summit takes places. This if we are up to something different than lobbying and being pressure groups wanting somebody else to act. I will try to summarise what I have thought I learned about the situation in Denmark so far. I write it knowing that it is built on too little information. The reason why I anyway write it down is that I have for almost half a year been trying to find out what is going on and received very little answers. Activists in Denmark are understandably fully occupied by the necessity of getting things practically in order. There has been several statements about severe internal problems between and within organisations but almost nothing said about the political content of those conflicts nor the result, else than what can be understood from practical facts. As I leave for vacation know I find it better to start saying something and hope everyone is open for that changes may have to be made in the facts and thus in the evaluation done in this text.

Denmark have the most imperialist population in the Western world according to some opinion polls. Nowhere was the support of bombing Serbia 1999 and Iraq 2003 as strong as here. Many support the xenofobian Danish People’s party that strongly influence the right-wing government. Economically Denmark have been extreme with a very high amount of small enterprises of different sorts. This has also produced a political culture with many competative organisations, whether environmental or political parties or radical groups in isolated fick pockets. But economically this is on its way to change as one big transnational corporation dominates the economy more and more, the Maersk company who in practice also controls the dominating bank. It seems as if the earlier freedom for everyone mentality for good or bad on basically a market is somewhat changing. This mentality that made it so hard for the government to dismantle Christiania and gave little support for governmental attacks on Ungdomshuset have now changed and there is less space for local creativity as the country is geared to give service to corporate interests globally.

People is a very popular word in Denmark. Thus the most professionalised NGOs that mobilize people mainly via postal accounts or reading of political consumerist material call themselves Peoples organisations, not NGOs as in many other  countries.

The experience of these organisations as WWF, MS (Mellomfolkelig Samvirke – Between people cooperation literally, international cooperation organisation started by the peace movement in the end of the war to reconstruct Europe, today big development NGO ), and some others are remarkable. More strong than in most other Western European political cultures they dominate the scene and are very close to the government. On the other hand you have the very strong autonomous experiments, whether they are like Ungdomshuset och Christiania or of more social or technical character like different collective forms of living together or constructing ecological alternatives. Between the two strands there is very little relationships and few actors. Also between different groups within movements questioning the present society is there often very little contacts. I found myself often having more contacts with different activists in Denmark that do not know of each other in spite of long term commitment, something uncommon to a country as small as Denmark, at least compared to Finland, Norway and Sweden.

People’s Climate Action is an expression of the way Danish big NGOs work. At their website it is clearly stated. More power to professionals that decides the political content. There is no official statement of the political content of the campaign or “action”, even less so what is so “people” about it. The information about the content of the political action is simple: the board decides. Representative democracy at its most anti democratic stage. It is interesting to see how these organizations are not even able to produced the facade of being democratic any more, that political action network has a democratically decided platform as a basis.

There are also other signs that the big Danish NGOs are collapsing politically. They have not been able to establish any international network for their “people’s” “action”. (It should be noted that people in Nordic languages do not necessarily have the individualistic notion as in English, rather it has had a content of people in common in contrast to the elite). One can guess that when times come there will be more but what is there already says quite a lot of the political anorexia and elitism of quite a few professional NGOs and especially the Danish.

I have been trying to find out how this collapse came about but have not been able to find out so far. The result of the collapse is quite impressive. Contrary to what many says that the NGOs have received a lot of money the news are that they have not compared to what others have received and compared to the normal situation. Normally the big NGOs control almost everything and what I would call people’s organisations (built on lay persons democratic cooperation to change society) receive very marginal resources. This time Climate Forum with the ambition to take third world and climate justice seriously received 1 million euro and the big NGOs as far as I understand not much more.

This totally changes the power balance. Suddenly in the core of cooperation comes organisations as Noah, the small Friends of the Erath in Denmark or Permaculture association, both with a commitment to environment and not to become part of the established system. Permaculture may be especially interesting to see as a key organisation, practical work on alternatives may still have an importance in Denmark while big NGOs mainly working with tactically realistic information in the main stream might be less interesting at an occasion when much political interest is at stake and genuine work is at least partly asked for. As Friends of the Earth internationally is gradually shifting position from being one of the big NGOs to becoming a social movement in alliance with Via Campesina and others and as third world mass movements are strongly involved in the climate justice movement the small Danish organisations have important cooperation partners internationally.

UN Social Summit in Copenhagen 1995

Normally the things goes in Denmark is like during the UN Social Summit in Copenhagen 1995. The big NGOs call themselves Peoples organizations, get all the funds for doing a big joint alternative summit were groups with a political different interest than governments are marginalzsed. At this alternative summit the Danish organizers told the participants that a independent political statement could not be made, the only thing the alternative summit could do was to implement what the politicians would decide. This anti-democratic statement by the Danish organizers was of course incompetent and they had to shift their opinion very quick trying to take the leadership of writing an alternative summit declaration. This was watered down although not totally as it had to respect the alternative summit declaration from Madrid. The Spanish popular movements as Ecologistas en Accion and other radical organizations had organized an Alternative Summit at Bretton Woods 50 years anniversary with the support of a broad international 50 years is enough! coalition while the Spanish NGOs did exactly the same thing as the Danish did now towards COP15. They were not able to mobilize any broad international network, or were uninterested until a day before the World Bank and IMF meeting when they went to media telling about the “terrorist related” organization (Herri Batasuna)  that were part of the Alternative Summit cooperation as a reason for their refusal to cooperate with the Alternative Summit. This would probably have effected some of the international organizations if they would have known it in advance and if there was any alternatives, but there was none so every serious popular movement or NGO in the world involved in BWI politics came to the radical alternative summit and the big NGOs were totally side lined.

At the Social Summit they were back in business again and did everything to avoid a serious alternative declaration. Even progressive income tax was a too radical demand for them, a basis for welfare and back bone in many movements political strategy since more than a hundred year. Finally it was noted in the official declaration but not mentioned in the alternative. Radical organisations organised a demo, with many very old communist flags and many Christiania flags, and very little effect. The social and development NGOs could continue with their work undisturbed and closely related to the governments.

1999 the big Danish NGOs once more showed their lack of character and interest in democracy. They signed a Nordic statement together with other popular movements and NGOs in the same line as the international statement to stop any further expansion of WTO. At the same time the Danish NGOs sent a letter to their government with the contradictory content, they do wanted to continue with the same strategy as always, be part of the expansion process as a voice for civil society thus legitimating it.

Copenhagen EU Summit 2002

Seattle and the global justice movement came in between. This time a new Summit came to Copenhagen in 2002, the EU Summit. Now the big NGOs had their visions come through as many were upset after the riots at the EU Summit in Gothenburg the year before which Danish media reported extensively and even more biased than the Swedish media (which was more or less impossible but the media in Denmark is completly in the hands of the right and no daily exists for the three left parliamentary parties, social democrats, socialists and red Green Alliance, but a very small for a marxist leninist party). Anti-violence became the main message from the well funded alternative network at the EU Summit and some 1 million euro in governmental funding was much spent on anti-violence witnesses and other kind of “action” with this purpose.

Rigth-wing attack on “intellectual elitism”

At the same time the Danish right wing government attacked the Danish environmental infrastructure and policies. It was part of a right-wing ideological attack on what was presented as intellectual elitism. The state under social democracy and the influence of 1968 had been used by people that were given high salaries to tell people what to do, something that had to be stopped. A drastic cut of 10 million euro was overnight done of very much of the funds for local energy saving centers and almost any kind of environmental NGO projects. Development NGOs were confronted with similar ideas, especially concerning funds for information which they are strongly dependent on. This did not to my information materialise really but the cuts in the funds for both NGO environmental projects and subsidies for ecological technology was made as planned.

The result was that the environmental NGOs became even more close to the government and uninterested in challenging the present world order. Hit was not only ecological interests, but also Danish economy. Denmark as the leading producer of wind power had great export profits coming from results of the strong anti nuclear power movement in the 1970s and small black smiths starting the production than. A strong domestic market is very useful for an exporting industry but this was now taken away. In 2007 the right wing government managed to decrease the number of wind power plants in Denmark with their by many criticized change of social democratic policies.

When the government took away the money from often decentralised information service system and similar NGO efforts they instead put in a lot of money into an expert institute on environmental issues led by Lomborg, internationally well-known Danish intellectual that questions much of what both environmental organisations and other environmental voices say. The basic line is that we have to postpone any action because the environmental alarms are false, unsure or if there are serious problems it is always possible to do something at a cheaper cost later, to generalise his standpoint. Ideologically this was a success in both Denmark and internationally for a while but it is not any longer and Lomborg is no longer directing the expert institute.

The same political parties and government that attacked the serious and useful Danish environmental policies replacing it with dogmatic anti-environmental neoliberal state funded expert think tank reports is still there. But the situation is different, questioning precautionary principles, at least when it comes to climate issues is no longer trendy and there are no more cuts to be made on environmental projects while the construction business and not only environmentalists criticises the government for its bad policies to stop supporting environmental friendly energy saving and similar efforts. In place is a new prime minister after the well-known Fogh. The new is known for not knowing about climate issues and unexperienced in international affairs.

So it is a weak government that is the key in the process towards the climate summit, weak NGOs and a weak but interesting movement in Denmark on our way towards December. The governments still lives on earlier victories won by the Danish envrionmental movement, innovative small scale industry and policies made by social democrats. Its own policies have proven to be both bad for the environment and a joke in terms of the proclaimed goal of getting rid of state funded experts telling people what to think, a better example than their own Lomborg of such a person is hard to find. What the Danish government now tries to do is to hope for a neoliberal conclusion of the Summit that is in the same line as their own Danish policy failures, no support for local change and all to opening of new markets through subsidized private investments in the their world to promote monoculture and land grabbing.

The situational context

So much about the historical context. The situational context is also interesting.

Often Summit protests for good and bad are dominated by one bigger, often fairly radical network organizing both demonstrations and an alternative summit. In Denmark it will be organised differently. Here each and everyone does their own thing with very little cooperation between the activities. On the one hand direct actions all through the Summit days with different actors but losely linked up to each other via Climate Justice Action. On the other hand NGO lobbyists inside the conference of different kinds, even some delegations that are potential allies for the climate justice movement.

Than there is the big demonstration on Saturday afternoon 12th of December organised by god knows who (reports differ at times), and the Nörrebro climate justice flood action initiated by Friends of the Earth earlier the same day.

There is also the big Climate Forum with some different special activities within the forum and finally Peoples Climate Action whose action and politics is surprise, surprise but well financed. Added to this is of course a large number of other activities of different kinds but those are the ones that are most strongly related to movement actors.

Now the good thing about this model is that it gets hard for e.g. political parties (and for that matter also influential environmental organisations) to dominate the formal cooperation of many activities. As some of these established organisations willingly or without intent may block creativity and new ways of doing politics this is a good thing. If these organisations are strong enough to have activists to take part in different activities they should hopefully do so, but not as more “representative” or important than others or they can stay in the People’s Climate Action ghetto they have built for this purpose.

The problem is that the political outcome is not the result of the formal organising of the different activities but the sum of what is both planned and how different actors respond to the situations that occur. If there is no formal cooperation there will anyway be an informal cooperation on political basis between actors with similar interests. The formal separation of power in e.g. US thus not mean that this society is necessarily pluralistic as officially is stated. It can also mean that the majority of the people cannot influence the system but the elite that knows how to influence simultaneously all formally separated institutions may well be able to do it. Thus media or other influential actors outside the climate Justice movement may be successful in making a connection between different activities in such a way that it benefits others than the climate justice movement.

The best way to avoid that is probably political clarity, something that so far is missing in the Danish model for organising the Copenhagen activities, a model built much with international interventions.

Political clarity is built both by political decisions possible to influence for all that commit themselves somehow, but equally on a political culture able to make judgements during the way. Such judgements that is the basis for interpreting the formally decided platforms or goals and bring them out in real life may be of as much importance as the formal platforms.

Such capacity to make judgements must be based on qualified political assessment of the situation and different actors. For us that base our political power on democratic mobilisation and cannot trust the media market, state power or any other routines of established society this is important. Saul Alinsky, the US American activist stated in his Rules for radicals that one should never go outside the experience of those that one struggle with together while always try to go outside the experience of the opponent. To be able to do this it is of importance to know the terrain.

By know we know fairly well what the politicians, the media and the big NGOs will say. The G8 meeting was a test. Go and look at Climatico or some other web news sites to see how very meagre results can be presented as positive outcomes and how a political analysis is almost lacking and replaced by a comparative analysis that proclaims success if one compares with what US has been said before, at least on some aspect, compare with Oscar Reyes analysis of the G8 climate politics.

What the politicians need is a voice that can be presented as independent supporting them like Bob Geldof in the name of hundreds of thousands in Make poverty history could do in Scotland 2005 at the G8 Summit. It does not at all need to be a celebrity, it can be anyone or a group of people presented as legitimate voices somehow. Voices that seem to represent something independent with integrity. Both governments and the movement put much emphasis on academic science and scientists may be useful for stating things politically about the outcome in spite of that it may not be within in their area of competence, se e.g. Climatico again.

Now to understand the political landscape it would be good to know more. But so far we have little to go for more than the official political platform for both Climate forum and climate justice action. Both are fairly good as they produce a wide acceptance of goodbye to the old fashion climate NGO campaigning that wants to save the climate treaty, not the climate. Instead of trying to be as scientific as possible or stating some higher figures than the government this has been a made method for years. Now we have another kind of solution focusing on justice thus paving the way of a political critique of the way the climate treaty supports more corporate power and state support for private investments.

But when we are asked to motivate people to come to Copenhagen or stay at home doing actions we have to adjust to the circumstances. That is why we need an on-going assessment of different actors and their interventions.

One factor are  the new Danish climate organisations. The seem to develop according to the old division in Denmark. On the one hand very radical and at the same time practically oriented groups like Climate Collective which present itself as anti-capitalist and hard to find out what more. More detailed is the Climate movements, Klimabevægelsen, a new organisations to prevent climate change and often mentioned in relation different activities, both the demonstration on Dec 12 and Climate forum.

The board of this organisation have produced a fairly long proposal for climate policy to be taken at the Annual general Assembly to take place in a month or two. In this proposal goals for 2050 are set at 50 percent for the world and 80 for industrial countries, the same as G8 but in this case clearly stated that all products consumed in country have to be accounted for. But as their figures looks the same the political statement will cause confusion and be seen primarily as supportive of the general line taken by rich countries. There are quite a few interesting points on town planning and the like. Lots of scientific and technological language. And finally strong support of nuclear power, a so called 4th generation. Also on this point but more so in strong favour of what governments want. *

Normally a new organisation established in a controversial issue is of great interest and often combine both competence and a challenging perspective. But ere Denmark have produced an organisation that if not the proposal is withdrawn or dismissed by the members will be an obstacle to Danish influence of what will happen in Copenhagen. If an organisation with such a policy is influential in the demonstration or the Climate Forum (they are supposedly active in both) there will be quite a few organisation internationally that will be careful, also big environmental organisations do tale care when an organisation makes technological speculation of something that may come a core of their demands, especially if this speculation is directly useful for the opponents of the environmental movement. The same goes for some odd notions on population control (not among overpopulated countries in the overconsumption world but in the South!). In general the proposal lacks strategic thinking in politics an is hopefully a mistake, if not the Danish Climate movement will get problems. It is a pity in that case, we need as many competent.

In general it seems that the Danish political culture repeats itself with on the one hand the truly radicals doing their direct action and the realistic NGOs. In between the Climate Forum that tend to present itself unpolitically those times I have heard presentations.

But it certainly have not when it comes to practical and international preparations. The capacity is there for a really interesting combination of actions with at least global justice in focus and so far unfortunately social justice less so.

There are some asymmetric problems though that might be solved. While the Danish activists are mainly organised seperated from each other the only international network is Climate Justice Alliance. CJA activists seems mainly interested in direct action while a lot of organisations are interested in a wide range of activities, probably to demonstrate Dec 12, in Climate forum and some maybe in direct actions. For international popular movements as Via Campesina I guess it is of interest to participate in different kind of activities wherever the political possibilities emerge.

As it is now there is little political information from the different Danish organisations. Especially the big demo on 12th of December might be a so far little discussed possibility for expressing the concerns of the mass movements in the South and make radical climate justice demands the main message at all activities. But this seems uncertain. The risk is also the opposite. The radical groups stick in activities controlled by themselves and the main message may be more easily stated by the media as diverse and in the final end rather positive in the voice of a selected group of NGOs and individuals from the South. (E.g. finally scientific knowledge have been recognized by governments – in the goals for the far future but anyway positive, some additional funding for weak groups have been important etc.) The big demo might be used for this and the Climate forum presented as a diverse market for opposing views showing how democratic the Danish state is and the whole process welcoming all voices. What we instead need is a main message from most of the key activities with radical climate justice messages, that the rich countries pressure for using the climate negotiations for serving the interests of corporations (e.g. promoting more state funded private investments controlled by Western corporations promoting monoculture and thus mass unemployment and ecological instability and not saving the climate) and that mass movements in the South and the whole climate justice movement calls for opposing solutions.

Tord Björk

* The situation changed. The Climate Movement of Denmark of Denamrk has become one of the central organisations in the mass activities in Copenhagen as it is the only Danish organisation which is part of the elected coordinators of two mass actions, Klimaforum and the mass demonstration December 12. Nuclear power as a solution is not discussed any more as a solution as far as I know. At the same time as the Climate Movement have become central Friends of the Earth Denmark have run into problems as their representatives have been changed and political course drastically different.

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