COP26: Porto Davos in Glasgow?

From Make Poverty History to COP26, anti-corporate activism risks incorporation via its NGO leadership...

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The setting is Scotland. The topic is a planetary emergency that threatens millions of lives. Inside the tent, world leaders horse trade their collective guilt. Outside the tent, sceptics question the faculties of America’s “everyman” President – and the candour of Britain’s Prime Minister – as motley protesters and well-heeled liberals assemble under the intellectual leadership of the global NGOs. Officially, everyone agrees: something must be done. But those outside the tent are united in their conviction that world leaders are Not Doing Enough. They demand action, not words. More can be done; more must be done.

And the year? It’s 2005, when “Make Poverty History” attracted an estimated 225,000 demonstrators to Edinburgh to confront a crisis that was, in its own way, just as life-threatening as our current emergency. Even if the event was fronted by a Bono-and-Geldof element, optimists on the radical left, led by the G8 Alternatives Coalition, hoped the demonstration would usher in a split between official globalisation and the “alter-globalisation” movement.

But they overestimated the underlying conflict between insiders and outsiders. The movement’s NGO leadership were already transitioning beyond protest and had little interest in disrupting capitalism. Protesters themselves had become too dependent on carnivalesque display; their part of the movement was in retreat. And the wider periphery, the movement’s graduate and professional-managerial base, was likewise focused on conflict-averse “solutions” – indeed, their entire mentality could be called “solutionism”. So arguably Edinburgh was the last hurrah for system-wide conflict over corporate globalisation: its leftist ancestors, Syriza, Momentum, the Sanders movement, would refocus on national democratic struggle…

This should serve as a starting point for discussing COP26. For all the optimism, it also has the feeling of a reprisal of Make Poverty History, but on a reduced scale: less than half the size and absent the organisational heft of radical left volunteers who made up G8 Alternatives and the then-vibrant Scottish Socialist Party. Which testifies to how thirteen years of persistent capitalist breakdown has somehow served to shrink the forces of outside-the-tent leftism; while inside-the-tent leftists are more absorbed in the system’s dynamics than ever before.

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18.11.2021 18:00 UK Time

Is the (Left) Populist Moment Over?

Is the populist moment over? Join this panel of scholars, activists and public intellectuals to discuss the future of left politics globally.


  • Yanis Stavrakakis, Professor of Political Sciences, Aristotle University of Thessaloniki, and founder of the Populismus Observatory

  • Catarina Principe, Associate Editor, Jacobin and editor of Europe in Revolt

  • Daniel Chavez, Transnational Institute and author of The New Latin American Left: Utopia Reborn (2008)

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