Extinction Rebellion are now in their 6th day of blockading a number of key London landmarks to draw urgent attention to the climate crisis. It is, regardless of political disagreement, undoubtedly a major, bold and remarkable upheaval. But much of the radical left – not without cause – remain wary, with fundamental misgivings around their approach of deliberately seeking out arrests, related shortcomings in understandings of state power, capitalist exploitation and colonial injustice at the core of climate devastation, and a fetishization of moralism and mobilization over politics and strategy. Despite this, the undeniable practical achievements of XR are beginning to sway the sympathies of the left, precipitate a serious rupture in business-as-usual, and provoke the resentment of many in power.
It’s worth mentioning here that, as with the majority of social movements over the past few decades (even in contexts like the Gilet Jaunes, where the socialist, communist and anarchist left in France is organizationally much stronger), XR have circumvented the institutionalized left but are not uprooted from the left more broadly, with many of its leading figures and core staff active in social movements such as Occupy, Climate Camp etc before joining XR. That is to say, it would be unfair in the first instance to insinuate that XR is entirely divorced from an anti-capitalist orientation, and their opting for a non-violent and ‘non-political’ approach, whatever our skepticism and however we might contend this is predicated on a misreading or short-circuiting of social movement history, is a deliberate choice rather than an inadvertent flaw. The movement, as with politics more generally, is rapidly unfolding and evolving, which of course renders static critique contingent and difficult, but the practical evidence of success demands our introspection as much as critique. Perhaps inevitably, the degree of this success is at this point ambiguous – such as its durability, or whether the movement has rippled beyond simply activating broader layers of a dormant socially liberal constituency – but the media coverage, impact of continued disruption, and organizational dynamism all attest to success nonetheless, especially weighed up against the failings of other responses (including the institutionalized left’s) to climate change.
I am, then, wary of contributing to the caustic, opportunistic cycles of reaction with this piece, especially because I am not in the position to survey the Rebellion on the ground, despite being impressed with their local activity in supporting the Youth Climate Strikes in Leeds (and I am sure elsewhere). Indeed, I think we risk not seeing the forest for the trees here – that is to say, to be so pre-occupied in the critique of a necessarily amorphous, fluid, messy movement that it outpaces the left’s participation and solidarity over an issue of such fatal inequity and gravity. It goes without saying that not every social movement warrants the allegiance of socialists, but perhaps it is not reflected on enough that fixed identifications with such political classifications – in movements and society at large – are not as commonplace as we might imagine or hope. All of our politics are highly malleable, contradictory and always circumstantially in flux – and movements, then, are a crucible for that mutability too, particularly when contemporaneously mediated by the frenzies of social media.
This is not an argument against political programmes in our movements – I agree that lack of direction and vision has hampered their strength over the last few decades, that a preference for non-politics amounts to a hollowing out of key questions of systemic analysis and change, an evasion of all the exercise of politics already arraigned against the lives of the global poor through the state, through work, through oppression. But it is to reckon with the allure of a ‘non-political’, unfettered-by-bureaucracy mobilizing approach where people feel, above all, a profound grief and rage that rouses them to act. The constitution of social movements over the past few decades, that might be loosely clustered around the ‘neo-anarchist’ method, has deep resonances in the dynamics of XR, but its focus on consistent training, ecological ideas of ‘regeneration’ in the context of cultural events and welfare, and replicable militant action mark it out as distinct too – particularly in how informed its ‘Momentum’ volunteering model is by the Sanders nomination campaign. It has amalgamated these contemporary activist practices with a civil disobedience tradition that appeals to public sympathy through a kind of conscientious objection, in order to rectify a societal plight in which the state is charged with failing in its civic duty.
In a similar sense that a movement cannot work off catharsis and rejection alone, we might too interrogate how a temptation to caricature the movement can harbour its own impulse of nihilism, vitriol or moral superiority. Similarly, if the ‘official’ approach of XR is to sanction a dearth of liberation politics and an idea of social change that substitutes leverage and solidarity for orchestrated state repression – that is, if these are active political decisions from central political actors rather than lapses of a movement in evolution (participants’ worldviews might be developing, but nor are they stooges) – comradely appraisal is reasonable too. There is a risk here of judging by a communist standard a model that is not oriented around a communist politic – but that does not entail ceasing to push at the limits of the model itself.
In this regard, I think there’s a range of reasons why dismissal of XR is happening – the ‘sniping’ that social media logics enable, very legitimate grievances with the racism and class composition of the climate movement, trauma from state repression informing activists’ alarm with a strategy that exalts arrests, a sense of disaffection on the part of ‘seasoned’ activists who (I think in many cases quite rightly) think what’s happening is not actually all that novel and, from the anti-globalization protests to anti-roads protests to climate camp, has a trajectory of strategic failures due to its fixation on disruptive spectacles, self-selecting martyrdom, and veteran movement ‘leaders’ treating especially younger activists as cannon fodder or footsoldiers.
The latter point about strategic disillusionment can be taken at the least generous interpretation as dovetailing with drifts towards Labour party politics – and perhaps a lack of self-awareness or even lashing out at how naive and ridiculous the image of our younger activist selves seems looking back, at how many of our movements (though of different potentials) struggle with similar problems around class and race, at how XR remind us of our own impotence or guilt or what we couldn’t achieve etc. At its most generous it’s a hard-headed assessment of XR’s (I think) misplaced theory of change and how we need to reorientate social movements to genuinely build collective, robust power. I generally fall into that camp but think, in lieu of a sustained general strike being nowhere on the horizon soon, we could do with less acerbity, and more recognition that we’re all really stabbing in the dark here, especially on climate change. That is to say, we should always be engaging with the movement as it is, rather than how we wish it to be.
Having myself endured a fair amount of state repression, and XR racking up ~700 arrests already with seemingly little infrastructure (or indeed will) to support them, I can’t shake that lingering instinct of foreboding that they’re going to get the movement crushed before – even by their own estimations, that 3.5% of the population is all that is needed – they have any critical mass, and seriously damage a lot of young peoples’ lives in the process. It’s of course worth remembering movements are not a zero-sum game and that we can be in solidarity without agreeing with their approach entirely, rather than just falling back on abstract principles of purity that justify inaction and are more concerned with being right above all else. But at the same time I understand viscerally the reservations toward a movement whose leading figures (who, importantly, do not define the movement) shamelessly describe going to prison as comparable to boarding school.
However, an official stance that glorifies arrest does not mean individual participants are not fearfully languishing in the isolation of police custody, dreading what the fallout might be, desperate for solidarity despite the frantic drive to sacrifice everything to the cause (a drive that need not simply mean an encapsulation of privilege but also a response to a sense of powerlessness and helplessness). This is no more the case for those halting the DLR overground train at Canary Wharf, who will now be remanded in custody for a month until their trial. Those braving the ire of airport passengers to highlight the catastrophic environmental impacts of the aviation industry at Heathrow were surrounded by vast reinforcements of police vociferating the Riot Act underneath their chants, just as forces seem to be escalating their containment strategies in central London, with even Legal Observers subject to arrest and roadblock props seized. Charges against protesters are rising, and the creeping grind of bureaucratic violence will soon set in.
The derision and vilification of the movement by media commentators has doubled down in earnest, echoing the outcry of reactionary legacy media blaming the weakness of the police and politicians demanding they bring the ‘full force of the law’ to bear on the protestors. That is to say, the establishment feedback loop that rationalizes and escalates authoritarian repression is already in motion, and this is cause for worry for us all, marking out the need for solidarity. I’m sure hopes XR can be waited out, the police being deeply over-stretched (the strength and scope of the protests are more relevant than cuts here), shifts in policing tactics, attempts to preserve an image of benevolence and harmony, and the whiteness of the protests are all contributing factors to why this crackdown has not happened sooner – but it remains surprising. One should naturally not trust the police reports at their word that the ‘peaceful’ conduct of the protestors is the underlying reason, because that has hardly been a reason before for the police not to fulfil their fundamental role of controlling dissent and executing the organised violence of the state. Nonetheless the strategic choice of XR to pursue non-violence might have indeed stayed such a crackdown, whether through the state not wanting to play into XR’s hands and create martyrs, or because violent struggle can provoke (but not justify, as the state’s power is necessarily a self-justifying monopoly on force, as police harassment of BME communities attests) a more immediate violent backlash from police.
It perhaps goes without saying that over-reaching towards a dogmatic insurrectionary position is misguided, that open hostility towards the police does not instantly make a movement either more intersectional or more effective, just as the greater threat and patterns of subjugation experienced by black, working class and marginalized communities by the police should not be neglected. It could be contended that overt antagonism towards the police, however understandable, may not be conducive to the development of mass movements, but even if that were true the alternative need not be actively supplicating arrest (which even on its own terms perhaps short-cuts the ‘moral outrage’ repression of a righteous cause is supposed to provoke), nor is it any less an affront to cozy up to and laud the police and disregard their functions, injustices and brutalities. Similarly the shortcomings of a dogmatic position of non-violence when the crackdown does come should be grappled with, especially when the state defines the content of these terms to constrain the ‘legitimate’ boundaries of resistance efforts (here XR’s buying into these terms, such as officially branding the property damage at the Shell building ‘criminal damage’, effectively depriving their comrades of a defence, is ill-advised). The dimensions of non-compliance under the remit of non-violence should be interrogated, particularly with regard to the legacy of camaraderie forged through the common sense that arrests are an injustice to be hindered not invited, with the utility of a tactic of non-violence not collapsed into a general moral, even theological, prescription.
All this to say: these are strategic questions to deliberate over, rather than, as they are sometimes treated, simple questions with ready-made solutions or sacrosanct answers. A critique ensues here: XR does not really have democratic structures or forums to deliberate over these questions. That – alongside the obvious over-arching problem that the movement is more attractive those with a background in finance or academia in the position to suspend their jobs for the cause, than it is a working class struggling day-to-day through the throes of austerity still – is often one function of such decentralized movements, where process can be counter-intuitively opaque rather than open. But the fluidity of the movement grants license for different kinds of intervention that socialists could pursue – forming affinity groups and eco-socialist messaging and banners of our own, popularizing the Green New Deal in public assemblies, bringing the Youth Climate Strikes and institutions of the labour movement more into synthesis with XR’s actions. That is to say, the practice of politics has much currency here. A discussion focus on decolonization at the occupation sites might well not entirely redress the lack of diversity and dearth of cogent initiatives against colonial domination, but nor should the interventions of groups such as Stop the Maangamizi in the movement or XR’s remarkable global scaleability be overlooked. The sometimes pious, conspiratorial-leaning asseveration to ‘tell the truth’ – as if the problem were a matter of impaired enlightenment, of Last Judgement melodrama, rather than severe injustice and the interests of capital – should not belie the important power of grand, emotive moral narratives – even, dare I say it, faith – in fortifying the convictions of individuals and collectives in our movements. We should engage seriously with the content, capabilities and consequence of the movement, which the surface can sometimes mask.
By way of conclusion, then, I’m currently caught somewhere between admiration at the genuinely vibrant, militant, ambitious, internationally coordinated, significant activity currently in motion around such a menacing threat, fear at the state crashing down and how unforgivable it is to at best downplay and at worst collaborate with the grievous violence it inflicts on oppressed people, and sheer bewilderment at how they got all their money. I’m conflicted, like I’m sure many out on the streets are, like we all are, at this bleak juncture. It’s why reflexivity and adaptability is so important, for all of us, and I think the movement seems to be affording space for that. Like all events of this kind, it channels multitudes of contradictory potentials: we should embrace the idea that its approach might well have merits rather than trenchantly discarding it and alienating participants because it does not reconcile with pre-configured models.
Social movements will necessarily always surprise us, will always be messy and challenging and fraught. Perhaps it is only serendipity that XR has emerged at a point where tension over climate change is sharpening, and its success is simply that it has tapped into this sense of panic. Even if that were true (though surely too pessimistic and deterministic a reading), this is the expression the movement has found, and the one we must reckon with, and its boldness in the wake of climate chaos is an inspiration. And in it, many people animated, finding their power, feeling just as we did when we first began activism – all the fury and doubt and fear and joy and courage and hope you’ve ever known unleashed amidst the flurries of struggle, the whole world quaking and reverberating beneath your feet through a desperate clamour for change, the thrill and emotion and energy of thousands coursing through and inflaming your every fibre, surging in concert against all the horror of the world. But what that sense of empowerment, unity, future means beyond the intensity of moments of resistance is the question that now confronts XR, and all the left, too.
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