What exactly is justice in authoritarian liberalism?
Wolfgang Knorr is a climate scientist, consultant for the European Space Agency and guest researcher at the Department of Geography and Ecosystem Science, Lund University
You would think that in a democracy the harshest treatment would be reserved for offenders trying to undermine democracy, similar to a theocracy where the harshest punishments tend to be reserved for blasphemists. But the exact opposite seems to be the case. Undermining democracy and the participation of ordinary citizens in political and legal matters is actually an entirely legitimate practice in the defence of a much higher good, much more central to and more deeply cherished in Western societies. Where you will feel the full force of the law is when you try to throw sand into the well oiled machine that guarantees continued concentration of power and money in the hands of large corporations, plutocrats, and their willing helpers in public office. The most wanted person is therefore the environmental defender, not the thug, and not the political extremist.
In Greece, where I live regularly, this was on full display when the members of the neo-nazi Golden Dawn party, back in 2020, were convicted of membership in a criminal organisation, but under ordinary law. Threat to democracy? Investigators had found large stockpiles of weapons, which basically meant armed gang members had been allowed into the Greek parliament. But demonstrators that had earlier tried to stop a gold mining project that later turned out to be no more than a shady deal, but which would have wiped out the last remaining old growth forest in the country, were duly investigated under terrorism laws installed after the 9/11 attacks.
Yesterday (1 November 2023), Gail Bradbrook, co-founder of Extinction Rebellion, was convicted of criminal damage for breaking glass at the British Department of Transport. She is now facing the possibility of a sentence of 18 months in prison.
You would think that the most important task of the trial would have been to establish if there has been criminal intent, so that the defendant’s intentions would have to be heard in full by the jurors. Not so in this case: before the trial, the judge issued a 22-page ruling that effectively barred Gail Bradbrook from laying out her motives by preemptively excluding them from the available evidence that was allowed to be presented to the jurors. When she decided to ignore the ruling and explained her motives, the judge repeatedly intervened by silencing her, sending the jury out of the courtroom so they wouldn’t hear what she was saying, or threatening to dismiss the jury altogether using laws designed to deal with mafia-like criminal organisations. She was not even allowed to mention to the jury that she was not allowed to mention her motives, under the threat of punishment for contempt of court.
The problem had been that the lay people serving as jurors in such trials had previously tended to sympathise with the motives of climate protesters and had acquitted them despite judges thinking otherwise. This had later led to some judges threatening protesters outside court with imprisonment for trying to remind jurors of their right to acquit. Needless to say, this is only a “problem” for a judiciary more interested in defending power than for one interested in truth or justice. The age-old tradition of lay people participating in court rulings that exists as a fundamental defence against a totalitarian judiciary does not seem to apply in the case of climate protesters.
Undermining democracy is a matter that is treated in the same way as an ordinary crime. But when the charge amounts to questioning business as usual, if only symbolically, the response of the law can go as far as negating its own principles.
Being sentenced for criminal charges, and even sent to prison, usually deeply destroys that person’s moral standing and acceptance in society. So it is absolutely vital to make clear that Gail Bradbrook, as the other climate protesters using the tactics of civil disobedience, did not act in her self-interest, nor did she hurt anybody. She did so in the interest of everybody, including the judges, the ruling political parties, the plutocrats and the large corporations, because there is still no evidence anywhere that there is something we can genuinely call a “climate policy”, i.e. measures that are appropriate to curtail the continued accumulation of climate heating greenhouse gases. Only an international supply side management agreement that winds down the production of fossil fuels can do the job, but it is not anywhere on the horizon.
When the climate crisis then interacts with other simmering crises, the geopolitical consequences can easily turn out to be dramatic and threaten Western civilisation itself. Therefore, all those judges, politicians, corporate leaders, journalists and scientists that now silence the only voices that are able to express what is at stake, and block out citizen participation, are themselves running the risk of losing not only their cherished positions, in their blind embrace of the status quo. An embrace, it seems, that will last – until death will do them apart.