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Roger and me – a socialist view on Extinction Rebellion

Roger and me – a socialist view on Extinction Rebellion

Originally published: Red Flag by James Plested (November 4, 2019)   | 

Around 7am on the fourth day of Extinction Rebellion’s (XR) “Spring Rebellion” in Melbourne in early October the clouds to the east cleared enough for the first bright rays of sun to penetrate through to a city centre still shrouded in a cold, misty rain. A dazzling rainbow appeared above the skyline–arching over the grey and blue forest of skyscrapers as members of XR huddled in a laneway below for a briefing on that morning’s action.

An hour later the group of between 100 and 200 had split up into smaller teams, each winding its way through the city to the site of the action, King Street bridge, one of the main traffic arteries connecting Melbourne’s centre to its southern suburbs across the Yarra river. The action was designed to maximise disruption at the height of peak hour. In this it was very successful.

I was with one of three “bike-brigades”–each comprising between 10-15 people–whose task it was to block traffic coming onto the bridge while the main group established a more permanent blockade further up, including a number of people who glued themselves to the road. Blocking a busy road, in peak hour, with only 10-15 people on bikes is an intense experience. Many of the commuters held up by the action were, understandably, irate. Horns honked and a small number of people left their cars to remonstrate.

After 20 minutes or so, the police arrived and began redirecting traffic. At that point, we got on our bikes and rode across the now empty bridge–into the tunnel that takes it through the Crown Casino complex and down the hill on the other side–to join up with the main blockade. This was a moment of pure exhilaration. The rainbow was gone, but here we were arching our own way through the sky, chanting, call-and-response style, “Extinction! Rebellion!”, a chant that was echoed, louder and louder, by those in the blockade below us, now firmly established on the bridge that we had collectively conquered.

For me, the moment had an added poignancy. The bridge blockade was set up on almost exactly the same spot where, 19 years previously, I found myself on the first morning of the “S11” protest against the World Economic Forum in September 2000. The parallel wasn’t just in the location. In both cases, it was a moment in which the usual feelings of despair at the state of our society were briefly dissipated–a moment in which it seemed like if enough of us are prepared to stand up and fight back against this rotten system, then anything is possible.

XR’s Spring Rebellion was punctuated by many such moments. Monday night’s “opening ceremony”, which saw 1,500 or so people marching through the centre of Melbourne singing and chanting (“the oceans are rising, no more compromising!”), the sound of our voices rolling in waves along the city streets, and Wednesday’s “student swarm”, which involved hundreds of university students and other young people in a highly mobile action that briefly shut down major intersections across the CBD, were two of them.

Whatever you might say about the politics of Extinction Rebellion (more on that in a moment), it has one very important point in its favour. Finally, after decades in which the mainstream environment movement has focused on achieving change through the “proper channels”–lobbying, letter writing, and maybe once in a while the politest of marches through the streets–we’ve finally got a movement that grasps the scale and urgency of the task we face.

If we’re to get anywhere near forcing the kind of action required to address the climate and ecological crisis we need to disrupt business as usual and do it again and again until those in power have no choice either to act, or to get out of the way. On a small scale, XR’s week of rebellion pointed in that direction, and for that at least it should be celebrated.

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The brainchild of long term environmental and social justice campaigner Gail Bradbrook and former organic farmer Roger Hallam, XR is a kind of “test tube” movement–a custom made, designer product that, supposedly, is based on the most up to date science of social change. It has three founding documents–the “Declaration of Rebellion” proclaimed outside the UK parliament in October 2018, the three demands (that governments should “tell the truth” about climate change by declaring a climate emergency, that they should “act now” by moving to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to net zero by 2025, and that the transition should be led by a citizens assembly rather than the existing government to ensure that it is “beyond politics”), and its set of 10 “principles and values” that seek to determine the culture of the movement. All three were heavily workshopped and finessed, including by a group of professional public relations consultants, before being unveiled to the waiting public.

 

At the core of XR’s strategy is the use of nonviolent civil disobedience to disrupt centres of economic and political power–primarily, to date, via blockades of major roads and bridges in central London and other major cities. XR’s first major action took place on 17 November 2018 when around 6,000 people joined in coordinated blockades of five bridges over the Thames. Following that, in April 2019, XR staged a full week of highly disruptive actions that shut down a number of bridges and other sites around London  and resulted in over 1,000 arrests.

These actions were successful in forcing the issue of climate change onto the political agenda and building the profile of XR itself. Since its founding, XR has grown rapidly. Today, it comprises a network of more than 485 groups in 72 countries. The Australian branch formed in November 2018 but first really came to prominence in the aftermath of the federal election in May. On the Friday following the election, XR organised rallies across Australia, the biggest was in Melbourne where up to 5,000 people took to the streets in a wonderful display of defiance in the face of the re-election of the Coalition government, which had campaigned openly as the party of the coal barons.

XR is different to most other environmental organisations and campaigns in that it is based on a worked out theory of social change drawn largely from the 2011 book Why Civil Resistance Works: The Strategic Logic of Nonviolent Conflict by Erica Chenoweth and Maria J. Stephan. In their book, Chenoweth and Stephan analyse political movements from 1900 to 2006 and conclude that nonviolent movements are more than twice as likely to succeed as those involving violence.

It’s no exaggeration to say that the founders of XR believe they’ve discovered, via Chenoweth and Stephan, a magic formula for political revolution. In an article for website whatisemerging.com titled “How psychedelics helped to shape the Extinction Rebellion”, XR co-founder Gail Bradbrook explains how, in 2016, she travelled to Costa Rica and spent two weeks experimenting with a variety of hallucinogenic drugs. “I was terrified,” she writes, “but the reason why I pushed my consciousness to such extreme wasn’t just to do the inner work on myself–I wanted answers to how I could bring about social change. What was I missing? What am I not doing? It was a specific prayer for what I called the ‘codes of social change.’”

At one point during her experience with the drug Iboga, Bradbrook recalls a voice came to her and said simply “Gail, you create your own reality”. “That was the essence of my entire experience” she wrote, “after which I could literally feel my brain being rewired.” It was when she returned to the UK that Bradbrook first met Roger Hallam and began the discussions that led to the foundation of XR. “At the end of our first meeting,” Bradbrook recounts, “he joked that he had just given me ‘the codes of social changes’. The hairs on the back of my neck stood up.”

This is much more than just an interesting anecdote. It conveys something of the religious zeal with which the core leaders of XR–in the UK as in Australia–hold to the underlying theory and principles of their movement. Reading Roger Hallam’s book Common Sense for the 21st Century it is impossible not to be struck by the absolute certainty with which he lays out his roadmap for change. At times it seems he genuinely believes that, armed with the “codes of social change” garnered from Chenoweth and Stephan, he can just brush aside any alternative theories of struggle (the whole history of socialist thought and practice is dismissed, for instance, with a contemptuous “been there and done that!”) and create his own reality through sheer force of will.

One thing can’t be doubted. Hallam is a political radical–much more radical than many of his followers in XR in countries like Australia. “The political culture of Western democracies has changed from a reformist to a revolutionary structure”, he writes, “it is no longer possible to save our society through small incremental steps. Mass political disruption is now required.”

As Hallam sees it, the entire political establishment has to go. The existing institutions of parliamentary democracy have been irredeemably corrupted by corporate interests and must be overthrown and replaced with a system based on “citizens assemblies” comprising a demographically representative but random selection of ordinary people tasked with guiding society through the climate crisis. In his view, the government doesn’t just need to be advised by a citizens assembly, but replaced by one.

This kind of thoroughgoing political revolution might seem like a tall order–even for a movement that has seen growth as rapid as XR. The way Hallam presents it, however, it all appears quite straightforward and achievable within a relatively short space of time. The key, for him, is to get bodies on the streets. Once ten or twenty thousand people are involved in nonviolent civil disobedience–doing the kinds of things that XR members were doing in London in April and again in October–a kind of rebellion chain reaction will be triggered.

The state will forced to respond, either the police allow the disruptions to continue and, by making the protesters’ actions seem completely safe and normal, risk encouraging more hesitant layers to get involved. Or they make arrests, in which case the moral example of the arrestees can provoke outrage among the general public and, again, encourage others to join the protests on the streets. “After one or two weeks following this plan,” writes Hallam, “historical records show that a regime is highly likely to collapse or is forced to enact major structural change. This is due to well established dynamics of nonviolent political struggle.”

For Hallam it’s merely a question of numbers. With the right strategy, he claims in an interview published in Document Journal, “you can bring down a regime with 5,000 people…You’ve just got to cause a lot of shit and be absolutely courageous and absolutely clear that you’re right and communicate the ferocity of your rage that massive injustice is being committed. Somewhere along the lines, the system cracks, and you get a deal… Once you get to about 1,000 people in prison, then you’re in the ballpark of something significant.”

There are a number of problems with this vision and its translation into the practice of XR, that have become increasingly apparent as the movement has grown and developed over the past year. The most commonly cited are its blindness to the intersecting dynamics of class struggle, gender, race and other oppressions, as well as the way in which climate justice is tied up with indigenous land rights and the plight of refugees, and its naivety with regard to the role of the police and the capitalist state in general.

The justification for XR so far remaining largely silent on broader political issues such as inequality, refugees and so on, is that if XR is to win over enough people to drive real change, it must make its pitch to everyone in society, including more conservative people. In Australia, for instance, some have argued that XR can’t possibly take a pro-refugee stance, and should avoid having refugee speakers at its events, because this risks alienating the substantial section of the population that is hostile to refugees.

On the issue of the police, Hallam’s argument isn’t that we should maintain respectful relations in an attempt to win them over to our side, contrary to what many in XR appear to believe. It’s more, as he sees it, that the sight of polite, respectful protesters peacefully being dragged away by the police is likely to be more appealing to potential supporters than a more confrontational stance. A sympathetic but passive observer, so the theory goes, is more likely to want to join the action on the streets if they believe the risk of violence to be low.

Arguably, however, XR’s attempt to maintain the purity of its doctrine on these questions has hindered more than helped its capacity to build a mass movement. You might think the shortest route to mobilising the magical number of 3.5 percent of the population (a figure that Chenoweth cites as all but guaranteeing the success of any movement which in Australia amounts to around 860,000 people), would be through drawing existing radical layers into a “movement of movements”. Hallam, in fact, discusses this in his book. “Practical cooperation [with NGOs and ‘radical political networks’] and joint trust-building local actions,” he writes, “will build the foundations for the strategic plan of the ‘movement of movements’ Rebellion in the capital city.”

In practice however, the insistence that all potential collaborators with XR must adhere to its strict code of behaviour with regards to the police, the pressure to remain “beyond politics” and so on, has already alienated many who might otherwise be natural allies. In Australia, this applies most obviously to the Indigenous community, which is unlikely to feel very welcome in a movement that places such heavy emphasis on maintaining respectful relations with an institution known for its systemic racism, violence, and frequent murder of Indigenous people over hundreds of years. When you consider that Indigenous Australians comprise 3.3 percent of the overall population, this seems like a serious own goal.

The question of refugees in similar. Remaining silent on this question, in the context of a climate crisis that has already forced millions of people in developing countries to flee their homes and seek sanctuary elsewhere, doesn’t make you “beyond politics”–it gives tacit assent to the status-quo. Putting aside the fact that for those of us living in one of the world’s most brutally racist and anti-refugee enclaves this is a morally repugnant position to take, it’s also far from obvious that it will do anything to help build support for XR among wider layers of the population.

Should we really be trying to appeal to the (admittedly large) section of the population that is anti-refugee? They’re not an obvious target audience for a movement that aims at the overthrow of the entire existing structure of capitalist democracy and the construction of a radically different society which will be necessary if we are to achieve net zero emissions by 2025. Much better, you might think, to start with the substantial minority of the population that has consistently opposed the Australian government’s draconian refugee policies, not to mention the many tens of thousands who, over the past few decades, have mobilised on the streets against it.

Taken to its extreme, the belief that XR alone is in the possession of the magical “codes of social change” can foster an elitist attitude towards other movements and sections of the population that fail to live up to its high standards. It takes a certain kind of person to be prepared to spend days on end blockading on the streets, risking arrest and imprisonment for what amounts to a largely moral crusade for most people. And it takes a veritable elite of moral virtue to do all this while maintaining the kind of civility and respect towards authority that XR’s theory of social change requires of its members. The danger is that those forming the core of the movement develop an “us and them” mentality that isolates XR from those not already won to the cause.

Of course, Bradbrook or Hallam might respond to all this by pointing to the empirical basis of their theory. Whether or not XR works well with other activists and movements is beside the point, they might say, because the research shows that their plan, if followed, has the best chance of success.

The problem with that is we now have something of an empirical basis for judging the success or otherwise of the movement they believed XR could embody. The examples Hallam points to in his book, such as the Leipzig “Monday demonstrations” in 1989 that helped bring about the collapse of the East German state and the fall of the Berlin wall, all played out over the course of a few months to a year at most. XR has now been around for over a year, and suffice to say it’s still very far from overthrowing the UK government or any other government.

Quite the opposite. Having learnt their lesson from the April actions, the police in London adopted a much more heavy-handed approach to XR in October. Over 1,600 people were arrested, and a city-wide ban was placed on all XR gatherings. According to Hallam’s schema, this should have been the moment that the dominos began to fall–when tens of thousands of XR sympathisers were provoked to join the action on the streets. Indeed, there were a number of significant one-off marches during week two of the rebellion in London, but nothing on the scale that would have been required to really take things forward towards the kind of political revolution Hallam envisages.

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None of this is to say that these actions weren’t successful in other ways. XR has already achieved a lot. Climate change is back on the political agenda in a way it hasn’t been for years and the movement is still growing. All of this is reason to celebrate. But it’s important, if we’re to achieve the kind of radical change that Hallam thinks is necessary, to understand why things haven’t developed as quickly as he and other core leaders of XR anticipated.

There are two main problems with Hallam’s schema. First, he overestimates the extent to which the general public, or even a significant minority within it, already feel themselves to be facing a crisis situation that demands action, mobilisation or arrest. Second, he underestimates the authority, power and stability of the existing state which, notwithstanding some significant turbulence resulting from disillusionment with the neoliberal project of the past few decades, retains ample means, both material (police, courts, prisons etc) and ideological (mass media, educational institutions etc) to defend itself from challenge.

Both these mistakes derive, arguably, from a lack of understanding of the class basis of power in capitalist society and in particular the ascendant position of big business and the largely dormant state of the union movement. It’s the power of big business and the rich that underlies the continuing power of the political establishment within the state, and the ideological power of mass media, schools, universities and so on that convinces people that while they might be concerned about climate change, they shouldn’t be too worried and they certainly shouldn’t join the “extremists” on the streets.

Hallam’s schema may well be effective in a context, like that of East Germany in 1989, where a radicalised population is confronted with a weak and highly unstable regime, or where a movement is demanding only relatively minor changes to the political status-quo. In the case of the climate movement in the West today, neither of these conditions hold. What’s demanded is nothing short of the restructuring of the entire global economy. And this demand is being made in a context where those with an interest in defending the status quo–the fossil fuel barons, bankers, politicians and bureaucrats who run our society–have gone decades, in the West at least, without facing a serious challenge to their rule.

So long as this reality continues to hold, no amount of clever branding, secret codes or whatever else will be enough to see the mobilisation of only a few tens of thousands succeed in overthrowing the government and ushering in an entirely new political order.

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Given these issues, you might wonder why socialists should involve themselves in XR at all. Many in the existing left have indeed sat on the sidelines, content to dismiss XR as a coterie of white, middle class elitists whose disruptive acts of civil disobedience provide cover for a fundamentally conservative core (or, as one particularly cynical individual put it to me: “it’s like activist Kinder Surprise–radical direct action on the outside, crusty Boomer liberalism on the inside”).

There is, however, a lot that we can agree on. For both socialists and XR activists, the climate crisis represents an existential threat to the future of humanity. For both, the imperative is to act now to disrupt business as usual in an attempt to force action before it’s too late. For both, the focus of such action should be on the centres of economic and political power. And for both, the emphasis has to be on mass participation in acts of nonviolent civil disobedience.

On questions of immediate strategy at least, the areas where we disagree are less important. Socialists, for instance, while in no way advocating violence in the current context, certainly don’t think it’s necessary, or even advisable, to always maintain respectful relations with the police. As discussed earlier, however, it’s arguable that XR’s extreme position on this question, by alienating those sections of the population who are the consistent targets of police brutality, does more harm than good to their cause.

Socialists also don’t think, as some in XR appear to, that chanting and similar traditional protest activities are “aggressive” and constitute a form of violence that must be repressed for the movement to go forward. We believe, rather, that these forms of expression can help to galvanise resistance, create a sense of collective power and confidence that can encourage people to get involved on an ongoing basis. The idea that a bit of chanting by young radicals could be enough to derail the movement begs the question of how solid a foundation the movement has been built on in the first place.

When it comes to our longer term strategy, of course, the disagreements are more significant. Socialists certainly don’t believe, for instance, that we can “create our own reality” using the “codes of social change”, however scientific these may appear at first to be. Marxism was born out of a struggle against “Utopian Socialist” and other early 19th century political theories that bear a striking resemblance to the underlying political philosophy of the founders of XR. For Marx, there could be no rigid schema for social change. The challenge, rather, was to identify the tendencies in society that point in the direction of change–in particular the emerging power of the working class–to foster and encourage those tendencies, and ultimately to build them into a conscious movement capable of carrying out the revolutionary overthrow of the existing order.

It’s this, however, that explains most compellingly why socialists should be involved in XR today. In the face of the existential threat posed by climate change and ecological breakdown, along with the myriad other barbarisms that capitalism is inflicting on us, socialists should fan the flames of rebellion wherever they might emerge. Socialists can play a role in ensuring the promise of XR today doesn’t only provide a fleeting moment of hope–like a rainbow on an otherwise typically damp and cold Melbourne morning–but that its achievements flow into a larger, more radical, and more organised movement in the months and years ahead.

The challenge, for XR, is to push beyond the utopian vision of just ten to twenty thousand morally exemplary individuals forcing government action through their determination, self-sacrifice and purity of heart, and towards a genuine “movement of movements” that draws together all the messy, tumultuous, rude, and even occasionally violent struggles of workers and the oppressed into something that actually could pose the kind of revolutionary threat to capitalism that we so urgently need. And with mass rebellions currently breaking out in country after country around the world–from Lebanon, to Iraq, to Chile and beyond–the prospects for this seem brighter by the day.

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