Freedom Instead of Selfishness: The Climate Movement After the Pandemic

What applies to the pandemic also applies to the climate: the crisis is already happening. Hence, immediate and consistent action is needed.

It is becoming increasingly clear that the world is facing a second wave of the coronavirus pandemic. While the dramatic consequences of the first wave have barely been processed in many countries, the number of cases is rising again significantly in many places. This threatens to put a much bigger crisis on the global political agenda for good: unchecked global warming. While the corona crisis and the fight against it are quite obviously an urgent problem of the present, the climate crisis is still perceived by large sections of politics as a problem of the distant future. On the other hand, it is the lasting merit of movements such as the movement Ende Gelände or Fridays for Future to have increasingly anchored a certainty in the broader public: the ecological crisis is already happening. What applies to the pandemic also applies to the climate: immediate and consistent action is needed. In addition – and this is a remarkable parallel – the struggle of today’s climate movement as well as the efforts to overcome the pandemic are based on a fundamental demand on governments: listen to the science!

Despite these striking parallels, the climate crisis has clearly been marginalized during the corona crisis. The social awareness, which was still evident in parts of the establishment in 2019, and the willingness to make fundamental changes in production and lifestyles seems to have evaporated – despite the devastating forest fires in the USA. It is, therefore, unclear how ecological protest and change dynamics can be accelerated again, today and in the future.

The emancipatory fight against the climate crisis will only have a chance if, in addition to preserving the natural foundations of life, better living conditions become conceivable for many people. ‘Better’ does not mean ‘more and more’; accordingly, climate justice must be based on experiences and feelings of injustice and exploitation. And these must be translated into changed social conditions.

This is precisely where Fridays for Future had such great success in its appeal: individual and collective, i.e., state action is necessary and possible. And this action is not just about ‘green’ lifestyles and conscious shopping behaviour. Because even if the movement is more aimed at prevention – namely, radically reducing CO2 emissions – it is also de facto fighting for other futures.

In contrast to the globalization-critical movement from 2000 onwards, Fridays for Future had a strong everyday orientation from the very beginning:1 the everyday habits that urgently need to be changed are central to the climate movement and the system change it strives for. But as everyday routines are deeply rooted in the imperial mode of living, it is difficult to change them – this is shown not least by the corona crisis, in the course of which strong forces are pressing for the mere restoration of what was once commonplace, the supposedly ‘normal’ of our highly consumerist lifestyles.

Fridays for Future and the Toils of the Land

However, the experiences of the social and economic lockdown may well offer important starting points for the system change sought by the climate movement – not as a mere temporary ‘downward-shift’ and ‘deceleration’ that a few privileged people can afford without having to worry about healthcare and economic problems, but as a radical re-organization of the entire way of production and living. For in the corona crisis, many people have had experienced important lessons – not least that a life worth living can be based on qualities other than those previously aspired to. Therefore, even after the crisis, they could permanently manage with significantly less air travel and cars or come to the conclusion that the car industry, which was already in crisis before the pandemic, should be radically restructured and produce significantly fewer vehicles. With its know-how, this industry could then contribute to an intermodal, public transport system, for example.

Whether such a transfer of the corona experience will succeed, however, will depend on a second challenge – namely whether and to what extent the ruling political community takes the climate and environmental concerns of social movements seriously. So far, movements such as Ende Gelände and Fridays for Future have found that not much can be expected from government policy. The German government’s climate package from a year ago, for example, seems downright cynical in view of the broad social discussions about the necessary ecological restructuring. And in Austria, the Conservative-Green government has delegated plans for ecosocial tax reform to a “task force” that is to draw up proposals by 2022. One criterion, however, is that “there will be no additional burdens for the economy or for private individuals.”2 The latest results of the UN climate conferences are also rather frustrating in terms of the changes that are actually necessary; quite apart from the fact that this year, for the first time in a quarter of a century, there will be no climate summit due to the pandemic. After the breakthrough of 2019, the ecological movement is, therefore, now facing the challenges of the level, especially on Fridays for Future after its “success frenzy as agenda-setter.”3 An important insight of critical state theory is that the state or the state apparatus (including authorities, states, municipalities) never acts in a uniform way, but is heterogeneous in itself. It is therefore important for climate movements to find allies both outside and inside state institutions.

The Danger of Division

At the same time, Fridays for Future is currently facing another challenge, namely the question of where the movement should develop now after the political high, on the far more difficult level, which threatens to lead to enormous internal tensions and (divisive) attempts. The internal conflicts are ignited, for example, by the question of what needs to be changed, i.e., what the desired ‘system change’ means in concrete terms: can a CO2-intensive economy possibly be transformed into a ‘green economy’ after all? Or does the climate crisis also have something to do with the capitalist-imperial production and way of life that needs to be changed? This is where the positioning of Fridays for Future, which is seen as a kind of natural ally to the politically largely tame Greens, will be interesting in view of next year’s federal elections.

The term ‘capitalism’ has so far been shunned or at least viewed sceptically by many activists. They see behind it a concept that is too systemic, that offers too few possibilities for intervention, that is too much dictated by the elderly and the knowledgeable and too detached from their own experiences. Some in the movement, therefore, argue that, in view of the climate crisis, there is no time for a fundamental critique of capitalism. Rather, the economy should be rapidly transformed toward a ‘green economy’, and that this should be done in close cooperation with companies. It is precisely at this point that it is important to endure any differences in content that may necessarily arise and not to see them as threatening to create a schism. Instead, the tensions should be productively fought out in order to understand other positions in their strongest arguments and thus learn from each other.

In the medium term, however, even Fridays for Future will not be able to avoid a position critical of capitalism, because such a position is simply necessary if the 1.5 degree goal is actually taken seriously. To achieve this important goal, a comprehensive, emancipatory socio-ecological transformation with the goal of a “Good Life for All” is needed. This requires concrete strategic starting points in the sense of a ‘double transformation’ or ‘radical reformism’. This means a progressive transformation within capitalism with simultaneously emerging options beyond capitalism.4

Double Transformation and Radical Reformism

There is no shortage of concrete initiatives and proposals for entry projects: short full-time work with a high minimum wage, job guarantees and economic democracy, plus a care revolution and a comprehensive socio-ecological agricultural or mobility turnaround, as well as a transformative circular economy beyond ecological modernization. Particularly noteworthy are the recent intensive debates about suitable social and material infrastructures for a good life for all.5 What is still lacking, however, are convincing systemic alternatives. And despite important successes of the younger movements, there is a lack of lasting and growing alliances that anchor these alternatives in the economy and society, and secure them politically. The movements are thus faced with the challenge of not only conducting concrete conflicts but also developing positive concepts and projects that can open up new horizons, reflect on existing experiences, and place them in a broader context. After all, as important as the 1.5 or even the 2-degree target is as a point of orientation, a genuine emancipatory social-ecological transformation cannot be justified by reference to necessity alone. It is therefore of crucial importance, especially in the face of the ruling conservative and neoliberal forces, to develop an appropriate policy of freedom.

However, developing an emancipatory understanding of freedom is difficult because the dominant tendency is going in a completely different direction. Ingolfur Blühdorn [editor’s note: Professor of Social Sustainability], for example, warns that despite the public politicization of the climate crisis, social majorities and the governments they elect are increasingly moving away from sustainability. Individual freedom and liberation are more important to many people than “the ecological project of limitation and restriction.” Instead of reason, political negotiation and better arguments with regard to the ecological crisis, “liberation from responsibilities, obligations, limitations and principles” is more likely to be observed.6

This brings the individualistic understanding of freedom to the point. Such a negative concept of freedom focuses on the desired non-restrictions of the individual, who should largely do and leave what he wants. This ability to do and not to do is closely linked to disposable income: a life model that includes many flights, a large car, a second car, and a house with a garden in the countryside is inevitably expensive. This understanding of individual freedom justifies consumption that is as unquestioned as possible and a corresponding imperial lifestyle. Political intervention is rejected as authoritarian and hostile to freedom. This understanding of freedom, according to Andreas Novy, stands against the universal human rights norm of equality of all people.7

For an Emancipatory Understanding of Freedom

A positive concept of freedom, on the other hand, which is not fixed on restrictions that can be fended off, emphasises something else: freedom can only be realised in a free society and in the freedom of others. And it goes hand in hand with responsibility and duties. In order to strengthen such an understanding of freedom, a meaningful, secure, and adequate life must be made possible – and attractive: less work and consumption, more time for oneself and others. Freedom then means having more options in life than the productivist and consumerist narrow focus on gainful employment, income, and consumption of goods allowed. Gainful employment would then no longer be merely a job to secure income – often poor conditions would be a thing of the past – but a conscious and desired contribution to the collective reproduction of society. To quote the economic historian and socialist intellectual Karl Polanyi, “perceiving freedom not only as a perverted right of the privileged from the outset but as a vested right that extends far beyond the narrow confines of the political sphere into the internal structure of society as such. […] Such a society can afford to be equally just and free.”8 At its core, as Uta von Winterfeld writes, it is a matter of “forming ideas of emancipation and autonomy that allow for a closeness to nature and compassion. After all, what kind of economic freedom is this that has never embraced all people living at present equally – not to mention those living in the future?”9 An emancipatory concept of freedom must therefore be linked with that of social, international, and intergenerational justice, since the ‘possibility’ of emitting CO2 is, after all, highly unequally distributed within the existing imperial mode of living.

In concrete terms, this means that social conditions are needed – Polanyi speaks of planning and control, against uncontrolled bureaucracy and powerful corporations – in order to be able to live a free life in a free society, and no longer to externalize the negative effects of one’s own way of life at the expense of others and nature. However, such a culture of self-limitation can only develop in interaction with the corresponding political and economic framework conditions and institutions, namely those conditions that enable people to participate in material and political life. Following Dieter Klein, Michael Brie, and others, one could call this socialism: the regulative idea of a good society in which a fulfilled life and the preservation of the natural foundations of life are made possible. This “can be seen as the Archimedean point of a peaceful society, democratic green socialism, and the transformation toward it.”10

Generations are not Homogeneous

The importance of social movements such as Fridays for Future or the post-growth debates is therefore not least that they stimulate social reflection on what a solidary way of life could look like and what steps should be taken to achieve it. It goes without saying that this social understanding and possible changes are and will be in conflict.

The debate about a different understanding of freedom also points to the need for further differentiation that the climate movement must make: so far, Fridays for Future emphasises the conflict with the older generations, who are taking away the future from the younger ones. With this intensification, however, the movement runs the risk of ignoring existing social inequalities: important causes of the climate crisis lie in a way of production and living based on exploitation and inequality. And the consequences also affect regions and different population groups in very different ways depending on their position in this process. According to Markus Wissen, Fridays for Future therefore still has to develop the insight that “responsibility for the climate crisis and the impact of its consequences is conveyed through class and gender relations, racist discrimination and neo-colonial rule. Even those living in the future will not suffer equally as a generation from the climate crisis.”11

Other spectra of the climate movement rightly insist on precisely these dimensions of internal social, and above all, international inequality, and the students who will hopefully soon be protesting again could learn from this. Thus, the US-American Sunrise Movement combines its appeal for the necessary transformation of the economy in terms of climate policy with the demand for job guarantees and measures against social exclusion.12 Ultimately, the individual spectrums of the climate movement, and Fridays for Future, in particular, will have to ask themselves how they can move from the consensus topic of “fighting the climate crisis and for the reduction of emissions” to very concrete goals for the necessary changes. This also raises the question: to what extent and where they enter into conflicts.

This kind of conflict orientation can be found in Ende Gelände’s fight against the mining and conversion of lignite into electricity, in protests like Ende Geländewagen (Stop SUVs) against the inhospitality of the cities and, in perspective, against the dominance of automobiles and the car industry. Fridays for Future, which often claims to have a broad impact on society and not to frighten anyone, has so far largely failed to take such steps, which partly explains its broad media success. However, more radical and conflictive demands could emerge after the movement has restarted – perhaps even entry projects for a socio-ecological transformation of the existing way of production and living.

Desired Self-Limitation Instead of Externally Imposed Renunciation

In any case, one thing is already apparent today: these movements often stand for a culture of deliberate self-limitation – not for a renunciation imposed from outside. At the moment, many families are probably already negotiating at dinner – and probably concretely experiencing in the pandemic – that it is possible to go on holiday without a new car or air travel. What is being negotiated is the question of resources. And these, according to Michael Brie, are needed to develop and implement a socialist project: “these resources are economic, political, cultural, but often also military. It begins with the securing of elementary goods such as the protection of personal integrity, food, clothing, housing, education, healthcare, mobility, access to the internet, etc. But it is also about rich social relations, legal security, culture and individual and collective freedoms.”13 These goods must be produced in presuppositional processes. In this respect, one can follow on from a central insight of Karl Polanyi from the 1930s, which he formulated with reference to the deep crisis of the liberal capitalism that emerged in the 19th century with its utopia of the self-regulating market: central dimensions of social coexistence must not be subjected to the pure expansion and competition principle of the capitalist market. This applies to human labour, soil or nature, and money. In this sense, strict rules are the basic condition for a free society.

However, and this is the difference between this and the liberal-individualistic understanding of freedom, the question of social power and property relations and the capitalist imperative for profit and growth must be raised, and these must be fundamentally changed or overcome. In addition, production must be oriented toward utility values, toward what Polanyi already called “the usefulness of the produced goods,” which must be negotiated before production and determines the social division of labour. For this, democratic structures and processes, the political and the state, must be changed in such a way that public affairs can be organized collectively and without discrimination. These are core elements of a democratic ecosocialist project.

Such an ecosocialism, however, would not only be conceivable within the framework of nation-states. For the materially rich countries, in particular, tend to profit from the imperial mode of production and living. Although we are experiencing, in the current corona crisis, that solidarity systems are still strongly tied to the nation-state, this too must be changed. International cooperation must no longer be the primary means of securing free trade and the power of capital, but must also tackle the major social and ecological problems globally and cooperatively. A good life for all is an international and internationalist task that cannot be accomplished under capitalist conditions – and therefore, requires a fundamental alternative. •

This article was first published at


  1. Markus Wissen, “Ökologische Krise und sozialer Protest. Die neue Klimabewegung als Akteur gesellschaftlicher Transformation,” in Politikum, 2/2020, p. 30-37.
  2. Die neue Volkspartei/Die Grünen, Aus Verantwortung für Österreich. Government programme 2020-2024, p. 79.
  3. Dieter Rucht mentions as further challenges that a hitherto little institutionalized movement like Fridays for Future has to give itself a stronger and transparent organizational structure, also to counteract individual overstrain, and how it can counteract disenchantment and daily routine. Cf. Dieter Rucht, Faszinosum Fridays for Future, in Aus Politik und Zeitgeschichte, 47-48/2019, p. 4-9, p. 9.
  4. Cf. Dieter Klein, Das Morgen tanzt im Heute. Transformation im Kapitalismus und über ihn hinaus. Hamburg 2013; Joachim Hirsch, Radikaler Reformismus, in: Raul Zelik und Aaron Tauss, Andere mögliche Welten? Krise, Linksregierungen, populäre Bewegungen: Eine lateinamerikanisch-europäische Debatte, Hamburg 2013, p. 95-103; Roland Roth, Radikaler Reformismus. Geschichte und Aktualität einer politischen Denkfigur, in: Ulrich Brand and Christoph Görg (eds.), Zur Aktualität der Staatsform: Die materialistische Staatstheorie von Joachim Hirsch, Baden-Baden 2018, pp. 219-240.
  5. Foundational Economy Collective, Foundational Economy. The infrastructure of everyday life. Manchester 2018.
  6. Ingolfur Blühdorn, The dialectic of democracy: modernization, emancipation and the great regression. In: Democratization 27(3), 2019, pp. 389-407.
  7. Andreas Novy, The Political Trilemma of Contemporary Social-Ecological Transformation – Lessons from Karl Polanyi’s “The Great Transformation,” in Globalizations 18, 2021 (forthcoming).
  8. Karl Polanyi, The great transformation: The political and economic origins of our time. Boston, MA. Beacon Press, 1944/2001.; Michael Brie points out the dilemma that, from a democratic point of view, causes and effects or costs and benefits must be manageable in order to make decisions, but that complex (world) societies are hardly manageable. Cf. M. Brie & C. Thomasberger (Eds.), Karl Polanyi’s vision of a socialist transformation. Montreal.
  9. Uta von Winterfeld, Von der Freiheit auf einem begrenzten Planeten, in FactorY-Magazin, 1/2020, pp. 59-62, p. 61.
  10. Dieter Klein, Zukunft oder Ende des Kapitalismus? Eine kritische Diskursanalyse in turbulenten Zeiten, Hamburg 2019, S. 185.
  11. Wissen, Ökologische Krise und sozialer Protest, op. cit., p. 36.
  12. Dorothee Häußermann, Und sie bewegt doch (nicht),, 22.5.2020.
  13. Michael Brie, Does this really change everything? Questions while reading Naomi Klein’s new book “Die Entscheidung. Capitalism vs. Climate,” in: Michael Brie (ed.), Mit Realutopien den Kapitalismus transformieren? Kritische Beiträge zur Transformationsforschung 2, Hamburg 2015, pp. 243-252, p. 247.

Ulrich Brand is professor of international policy at Vienna University and co-editor of the political magazine Blätter. His forthcoming book with Verso is The Imperial Mode of Living (co-authored with Markus Wissen).