September 24, 2019

Groups of children sleeping in the sunshine on their parents’ laps; thousands of painstakingly-painted colourful placards calling for all things counter-cultural; pounding tribal drum music. The London Climate Strike protest last week felt rather like Woodstock ’69 reconfigured on a patch of grass between the Palace of Westminster and the river Thames.

Like all political movements, the climate protests are as much about a mood as a policy. In part thanks to the presence of all those children, taken out of school in a licensed mass derogation from the rules, the mood was strikingly hippieish. I doubt if as many as one in 10 protestors could tell you much about the official manifesto beyond “act now” and “save the planet”. Under the banner of climate change was smuggled a much broader rejection of the “system” and a semi-religious invocation of sacred values like beauty over utilitarianism and materialism — a sort of prayer to mother Earth.

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I don’t mean this as a criticism. The sheer scale of these protests across the world last week is proof that these instincts are powerful and deeply felt. Expressed slightly differently, they might even hold the key to a future political realignment that could bring together the Right and Left in surprising ways.

To investigate this we need to look at another, very different, political movement — also powerful and growing, but which on first inspection seems the sworn enemy of Greta Thunberg’s climate army.

A group of American conservatives has caused waves over the past 12 months by explicitly turning against big business. It includes figures such as Hillbilly Elegy author JD Vance, Fox News host Tucker Carlson (who recently delivered a speech entitled “Why Big Business Hates Your Family”, and endorsed Democrat Elizabeth Warren’s economic agenda) and a number of Catholic intellectuals such as Sohrab Ahmari and Patrick Deneen.

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These Trump-friendly Right-wingers are certainly not cheerleaders for Extinction Rebellion or Greta Thunberg; at first glance they seem the polar opposite of hippies, who originally defined themselves against the “military-industrial complex” and its evil end product, the war in Vietnam.

But yes, if you can get past the tone of voice, there is something hippie about these new Conservatives, defining themselves against boundary-less financial markets, the over-mighty power of technology and global corporations, and the creep of commercial thinking into all aspects of our lives. In a sense, they are more truly ‘counter-cultural’ than the climate protestors, who are celebrated as virtuous by almost everybody in power.

Their religious vocabulary would be anathema to our smiling families in SW1, but their animating instinct is surprisingly similar. In distinction to the establishment “centrists” of their respective parties, both groups feel that the current system of global capitalism and the values behind it are in some fundamental way misguided, unholy and inimical to human flourishing. That’s quite a major point of agreement.

Both groups hope for a simpler, more beautiful world, a reduction in scale and a rejection of pure materialism in favour of “getting back to what really matters” – and, crucially, they both want to use government to proactively make that happen.

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We’ve heard this echo before. Rod Dreher’s Crunchy Cons first drew attention to the symmetry between the hippie Left and religious Right way back in 2006; more recent writers such as Matthew Crawford have charted a middle course between these two poles, offering an existential critique of Liberalism that avoids the off-putting vocabulary of either side; even Roger Scruton, by no means a market fundamentalist and author of a book on “Conservatism and the Environment,” comes close to striking this note.

Take Sir Roger’s campaign for a return of beauty in architecture – what is it but a genteel version of hippie conservatism? In an essay published in the Times this weekend, Scruton called for a return to community-led building practises and local architectural materials that reflect “the indigenous life and landscape where they are deployed”. Compare the Climate Strike manifesto, which calls for “non-corporate, community-led climate solutions that recognize the traditional knowledge, practices, wisdom, and resilience of indigenous peoples and local communities”. Hippie Conservatives.

At Friday’s protest, Jeremy Corbyn was inevitably invited to speak, and the crowds chanted various versions of “Boris, Boris, Boris! Out, out out!” Clearly, this self-identifies as a protest of the Left, but the spiritual mood was a total mismatch for Corbyn’s retro brand of socialism.

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Rewind a few years to the Occupy protests of 2011, before Brexit rearranged everything in its image, for a better sense of the underlying political ambiguity. This short-lived earlier movement against globalisation and capitalism contained elements of both the Climate Strike and the Brexit movements. Remember the scorn poured by the establishment media on the Occupy protesters for their inability to name their demands or alternative policies? It had much the same flavour as the cries of “unicorn!” and hoots of derision handed out to Brexit voters in the past three years.

There was even an “Occupy Thanet” movement back in 2011, in what is now one of Nigel Farage’s Brexit Party strongholds. An Occupy protester told the local paper: “We are told we live in a democracy but we know that individuals alone have little say in the way their country or hometown is governed— we’re campaigning for the 99%.” Fast forward eight years, and that statement is a neat mashup of Nigel Farage and Jeremy Corbyn’s favourite lines.

It was no accident that the Occupy movement pitched its tents on the steps of St Paul’s Cathedral – like last week’s climate protests, it had a religious tinge. “Grow the real economy,” one Occupy placard read, “Love. Care. Knowledge. Experience. Wisdom.” This could almost be the motto of the new conservatives in America.

As for the patron saint of the climate protests, Greta Thunberg, the sheer volume of Greta-as-Jesus placards on display last week actively invited the comparison. Religious conservatives might find the “cult of Greta” sacrilegious, but politically they should take comfort from it as proof positive of a desire for a reassertion of something sacred over a boringly utilitarian politics.

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Perhaps the widest gap between these Left-radicals and Right-radicals, the most challenging for my argument, is on liberalism. The religious Right in the US are calling for a “politics of limits” – a reassertion of societal boundaries on matters of sex, morality and consumption, as well as a more protectionist economics; that seems the polar opposite of the Climate protesters who mixed seamlessly with pro-LGBT and pro-marijuana activists.

But there is nothing liberal about the main Climate Strike agenda. Economically, it is the liberal world order of the past decades that they have in their sights – that is what has produced such a high degree of carbon emissions, and their plan is use the power of government to smash it down.

In terms of lifestyle, they are protesting in order to consume less, fly less often, live more wholesome lives closer to nature, even have fewer children; they may be different limits, but theirs is also a doctrine of restraint.

It’s not an exaggeration to say that the radical Left and the radical Right hate each other; their vocabulary is mutually terrifying and they are diametrically opposed on certain issues. But they have more in common than they realise, and arguably more in common than the “sensible centrists” on each of their respective sides. At a time of fast-changing political alignments, it is possible to imagine a future leader or movement that could draw support from both sides – that would be a movement to be reckoned with.