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Climate politics

Extinction Rebellion: a short critical guide

Extinction Rebellion (XR) is a civil disobedience movement-building project demanding immediate action to prevent climate-change induced ecological catastrophe. Its focus on street politics and civil disobedience is a welcome change from the lobbying and lifestyle-change politics of the mainstream environment movement. XR has its origins in the UK, where its biggest actions have led to mass arrests and attempts to ban further protests in London. While there has been impressive growth of small organising groups in western countries, the protests have been relatively small, not yet living up to the goal of a mass movement. XR has attracted media attention out of proportion with its scale through the use of arrests and other creative tactics. For instance, there was a live cross to a three-hundred-person ‘disco’ in the streets of Melbourne during the Spring Rebellion.

During Melbourne’s Spring Rebellion, local left-wing social media was abuzz with debates of XR’s problems, which have led many on the Melbourne Left to abstain from XR. To name a few: campaign tactics that see the police as potential allies; a resistance to climate justice demands (in favour of a narrow focus on ecological crisis); a fantasy end-goal of a technocratic ‘citizens assembly’ government that shears class interests from politics; and the idea of a movement ‘beyond politics’ with respectable middle-class appeal which works against forging alliances between the victims of climate change and austerity.

Yet the foundational ideas behind XR are surprisingly radical, so much so that ideologically it could be described as a revolutionary liberal project. This is surprising to activists in Melbourne, because the local XR leadership doesn’t seem to interpret the ideas of the parent organisation in Britain in the radical utopian sense conveyed by its core texts. There is plenty to agree with in the framing of the climate crisis and the argument that it can only be solved through an open, popular rebellion. This is not an argument that XR provides a credible revolutionary programme for human liberation: XR’s ideas have a Rorschach quality, open to right- and left-wing interpretations, especially in the early texts.

Whether to put energy into building XR or forge a different climate campaign leadership with a more explicit focus on class struggle is still an open question. This article is an introduction to the core texts, identifying those ideas that are compatible with a strategy of building anti-capitalist mass movement of workers and the oppressed to fight back against the destruction of the biosphere.

XR on paper

The foundational texts of Extinction Rebellion (XR) outline the case for treating climate change as a global emergency with potential catastrophic consequences for human society. They propose as a solution the rapid reduction of emissions to net zero by 2025 and the establishment of a citizens assembly to direct government. The method proposed to achieve this is the ‘civil resistance’ model, drawing from Erica Chenowith’s argument in Why Civil Resistance Works on the success of nonviolent civil resistance movements compared with violent armed struggle.

Organisationally, XR is a professionally planned movement-building project. It is an attempt to use a scientific approach to design a campaign with the aim of sparking a mass movement. Its founders are activists with backgrounds working for NGOs and running campaigns around social and environmental issues including fossil-fuel divestment, protests against fracking and an urban rent strike (although there are disputes about the extent of Roger Hallam’s involvement in the UCL rent strike). One of the founders, Hallam, has written on topics such as campaign growth and engagement strategies and is currently working on a PhD on the topic. Against this background, you could consider XR an experiment in applied sociology.

The XR Declaration

Extinction Rebellion’s October 2018 Declaration took years to complete and was worked on intensively by a group of at least fifteen people, including professional PR consultants. The founding principles were carefully constructed and plans were laid out in advance with clear phases for propagandising and building ahead of the first large street blockades in April 2019.

The Declaration announces the beginning of a ‘rebellion’ against the UK government, whose failure to act on the ecological crisis has rendered ‘the bonds of the social contract null and void.’ It is therefore the duty of citizens to rebel to ‘restore dutiful democracy and to secure the solutions needed to avert catastrophe and protect the future.’

XR promotes three central demands: Tell the Truth, calling for declarations of a ‘climate emergency’; Act Now, demanding zero net emissions by 2025; and the confusingly named Beyond Politics, demanding that the government be led by the decisions of a citizens’ Assembly on climate and ecological justice.

If declarations of climate emergency are not backed up by action, however, they can be actively harmful, allowing governments to acknowledge the crisis while continuing to expand pollution and crack down on protest. The Australian Labor Party, for instance, has recently committed to declaring a climate emergency yet it continues the expansion of coal mining in the Galilee Basin. The UK parliament declared a climate emergency and soon thereafter authorities banned XR protests in London.

The claim to move ‘beyond politics’ might seem misguided to those of us for whom politics consists of activism and protest. The phrase is deployed to argue that the movement must appeal to the political Right, to the wealthy, to the corporate world. However, there is another way to read ‘beyond politics’: for most people, politics is an alienating game played by more powerful people – the process of the masses rising up to take back power is the opposite of this kind of politics. We can argue for ‘beyond politics’ to mean not some sort of neutral apolitical stance, nor an acceptance of right-wing views, but a rejection of business-as-usual representative politics.

Common Sense

Common Sense for the 21st Century by XR co-founder Roger Hallam sets out a tightly written, plainly argued case that the urgency of the climate crisis is such that revolutionary change is needed and that the only way to achieve this in the time required is through open, illegal but peaceful rebellion.

In brief, the XR theory of the climate crisis and its political background is:

  • Earth is headed for ecological collapse, with catastrophic consequences for human civilisation.
  • Government, civil society and ‘reformist’ politics have failed. Due to the political power of the ‘corporate business class, government is now irredeemably corrupt, mainstream NGOs are complicit in this.
  • Popular discontent and fears about climate change are playing out against a background of extreme inequality caused by the capitalist system/neoliberalism, creating the potential for radical change.

XR’s aims are:

  • ‘Revolutionary’ political change: the replacement of parliament with a ‘citizens assembly’ as the highest governing authority.
  • Constitutional change to enshrine the authority of the new citizens assemblies and to make explicit their responsibility for ecological justice.
  • For a transitional movement growing out of the rebellion to begin implementing solutions concurrently.

And finally, XR’s core tactics are:

  • Pressuring government as it is the only institution with the power to make the necessary changes.
  • Building ‘civil resistance’ mass movement with law-breaking civil disobedience.
  • Facilitating the ‘sacrifice’ of activists to build popular credibility and support, specifically by going to jail.
  • Committing to a strict discipline of non-violence.
  • Actively respecting opposition forces, including police, as a way of mitigating against police overreaction and facilitating respectful dialogue and negotiations.
  • Creating a ‘movement of movements’ – that is, decentralised local groups required only to agree on the basic core ideas.

Common Sense concludes with chapters outlining possible measures for achieving net zero emissions.

The language of Common Sense and the Declaration is that of radical, technocratic, liberalism. It explicitly harks back to 19th-century liberal revolutionary traditions, positioning ‘the nation’, democracy and good government as things we once had that we want restored. These enlightenment values are combined with ecological ideas about harmony with nature, and sprinkled with more contemporary libertarian ideas about decentralisation and local organisational autonomy. A fourth ingredient is a rejection of traditional activism, proposing instead a particular set of social-change strategies based on carefully selected social science principles.

Common Sense repeats the argument that the current political class are corrupt and have lost their legitimacy. At times, these arguments have an anti-capitalist flavour, for instance where the text says: ‘There is a growing rage at the injustice of extreme inequality and the unaccountable global elites.’ However, this language – reminiscent of the anti-corporate globalisation movement of the late 90s – is also compatible with populist right-wing anti-politics which focuses on the political class. Common Sense explicitly calls for a universalist stance on political ideology and rejects what Hallam describes as ‘rigid left-wing ideology’.

The XR model for social change can be summarised as follows.

Protesters engage in disruptive civil disobedience. They are arrested, filling up the jails and clogging the courts, but this sacrifice only leads to more people joining the movement. Economic and political pressure forces the government to agree to negotiations. In the ensuing discussions, the movement is intransigent about its demands. The government is left with no choice but to meet the demands. A citizens’ assembly is established and invested with state power. It then promulgates laws and decrees to solve the crisis and bring about a more democratic, equal and peaceful society in harmony with nature.

This is Not a Drill

The Extinction Rebellion official handbook, This is Not a Drillpublished in June by Penguin – is a collection of short pieces by XR leaders and supporters. It serves as an introduction to the climate emergency, sets out the ideological principles and tactics of XR and contains a number of more general background pieces (including views that aren’t core XR ideology) covering a broad range of climate issues.

This is Not a Drill is clearly also a response to political criticisms levelled at XR since the Declaration. It is much more explicitly left-wing than Common Sense (despite the ‘beyond politics’ claim), and suffers less from the dual populist interpretation problem. Several of the essays discuss the intersection between climate change and global inequality, and identify the global capitalist system as a fundamental cause of the problem. For example, Sam Knights writes about the importance of solidarity with the Global South, arguing that environmental activists and Indigenous communities in the developing world have been on the front-lines of struggle for centuries and don’t need to be lectured. Farana Yamin writes that ‘capitalism is killing us’. She polemicises about the importance of resisting oppression, the reality of the legacy of colonialism and never-ending extractive growth, concluding that ‘we must succeed in catalysing a peaceful revolution to end the era of fossil fuels, nature extraction, and capitalism.’ (This is several paragraphs after writing of the need to ‘unite everyone from the left, the right and in between’. I don’t think any amount of claims to be ‘beyond politics’ will unite the political Right behind a project to challenge colonialism and capitalism!)

This is not a Drill also contains an appeal by Mohamed Nasheed, former Maldives President, warning against fuel taxes and other solutions that target workers, arguing for the centrality of alliance with workers in the fossil fuel industry to any transformative politics.

Principles

The final, short but significant core text is a set of ‘principles’ intended to guide local XR groups. They cover three main categories: guidance on the tactics to be used (implicit support for the proposals in Common Sense and This is not a Drill), cultural prescriptions about respect, ‘regeneration’ and reflection, and organisational guidelines about hierarchy and decentralisation. These principles are a crucial element in XR maintaining its ideological resilience. In practice, they insulate against debate, against the election of leaders and against formal decision-making.

XR, revolution and the state

Where the XR programme is a refreshing advance on traditional liberal NGOs is in its approach to the state. The argument that reform has failed and revolution is needed is repeated many times, explicitly, throughout Common Sense. ‘They are not talking about real revolution,’ I hear you say. But if the program is taken at face value, it entails: a general campaign against the government (‘The rebellion has to morph into a general rebellion against all government failures’); the overthrow of the existing rulers (‘We are going to bring down the government’); the transfer of state power to the new citizens assembly (The national citizens assembly will become the new governing body of the UK’) and rewriting the constitution to make this change permanent. As a proposal to disenfranchise and replace parliament as the highest law-making institution, it is revolutionary by almost any definition of the word (‘we won’t agree to any compromise that allows the incompetent and corrupted political class to remain in power’). Moreover, in This is not a Drill Sam Knights talks about a ‘redesign of human society’.

A key problem with XR’s programme is the journey from A to B. It is unlikely that the capitalist ruling class will simply submit to government by focus group. The imagined transition relies on a civilised negotiation with the existing state, as if being assertively respectful will ensure the same respect from the state. Hallam writes: ‘our aim is to gather enough resources to force the hands of the politicians to make the choice – agree to give up power or repress us’. He doesn’t spell out who will do the negotiating once negotiations have been forced, or what happens to executive power or the repressive organs of the state. This is perhaps the weakest part of the thesis because it doesn’t reflect how actual social change of this magnitude has taken place in the past, or the reality of the countless examples where the state has chosen bloody counter-revolution. There are many indications that the billionaire class are willing to hang on to power (and retreat into their bunkers) whether or not it kills the rest of us. Riot cops beating peaceful protesters in Catalonia (and Ecuador and Chile and Hong Kong and …) demonstrates just how ready the capitalist state is to use violence against movements that threaten power. Steeped in nostalgia for an imagined civilisation (and blind to the cruel history of empire) Hallam seems unable to imagine that the UK ruling class could crush the movement.

Common Sense rests on a populist critique of the political system. The slogan ‘bring down the government’ is described as an idea that is anathema to the political class, but popular among the masses. The language of the haves and the have nots, of people opposed to the elite is not inherently progressive. These critiques of the political class could just as easily come from Beppe Grillo’s populist Five Star Movement, a populist anti-political formation which was instrumental in the formation of government by the far-right Lega in Italy.

This generic criticism of the ‘elites’ does not identify the people responsible for the ecological crisis. Greta Thunberg showed no hesitation in blaming and shaming at Davos: ‘If everyone is guilty, then no one is to blame, and someone is to blame … Some people, some companies, some decision-makers in particular know exactly what priceless values they have been sacrificing to continue making unimaginable amounts of money.’

The guilty in this crisis are the fossil capitalists in particular and the broader capitalist class who depend on cheap fossil fuels for the profitability of their industries. While in early XR documents the language of class is all but absent, over time more attention has been given to inequality and oppression, especially in This is Not A Drill with its focus on global injustice. There are gestures towards a redistributive economy, but while key XR ideologues might lean heavily Left, they do not make a public case for expropriation, and these moments are balanced by exhortations that the movement needs to appeal to ‘everyone’.

This formulation of this ‘everyone’ is the foundation for the idea of government by demographically perfect citizens’ assembly. When explaining the concept of the citizens’ assembly, Hallam states that it is designed to appeal to liberals and radicals (though very few radicals seem to be genuinely enthused by the proposal). It’s supposed to be a model for change that is good enough to get behind. Far from going beyond politics, Hallam is effectively arguing for a popular front between left-wing radicals and progressive liberals.

We should consider this question as a serious one. Set aside whether it is realistically possible: would an assembly of randomly selected citizens be a step forward from our current parliamentary democracy? It would not immediately do away with private property or exploitation, but it would change the way power works and subordinate the state to assemblies of ‘ordinary’ people instead of professional politicians. On the other hand, it is also a step away from universal suffrage and from the idea of political parties as collective agents. Instead, it conceives of people as atomised individuals, selected by demographic and advised by ‘experts’ (who would therefore seem to have a lot of power). It derives from a technocratic fantasy that if only government was rational and shorn of interests then it would be able to rule for all.

The best thing about the citizens’ assembly demand is that it opens the terrain for other formulations of popular power to replace the existing state. Someone who is convinced to replace the parliament with a citizens’ assembly has gone beyond simply wanting to elect a green government. They have accepted the need to restructure state power and are open to arguments of government based other radical popular-democratic structures.

The ‘beyond politics’ principle has made the question of solidarity with climate refugees a divisive one. Arguments have been made within XR that some people might be mobilised to act out of fear of a flood of climate refugees. This idea of appealing to anti-immigration xenophobia, with its shades of the armed national lifeboat, needs to be rejected not just for moral but also for practical reasons. If we only need 3.5% of people, as Chenoweth asserts, involved in a movement to change society, who do we think it’s going to be? The billionaires? The ‘patriots’ who want to turn back the boats? Hardly. Common sense suggests that the staunchest allies in the fight for climate justice are the people who stand to lose homes and livelihoods. For this reason, solidarity with climate refugees, the demand that the flooded masses of the world have as much right to climate justice as anyone, is as much a practical as a moral question.

Violence, nonviolence and respect

XR spends a lot of bandwidth stressing its commitment to non-violence. In Western democracies, there is no reason to make opposition to nonviolence an issue that alienates socialists from people who are attracted to XR. Strategically, at the present juncture, nonviolent civil disobedience tactics are fine. But the premise that mass political movements set out to be violent is mistaken – violence usually comes from the state in an attempt to crush popular resistance. Nonviolence is not a universally applicable tactic, and neither is it set in stone that a willingness to use force in self-defence will alienate the general public, as we have seen with the recent eruption in struggle in Hong Kong and Ecuador. Far from being simply either ‘violent’ or ‘nonviolent’, real struggles are complex. It does no good to sanitise movements that included elements of armed resistances or to overlook the necessity for some movements to use force in response to state violence.

XR takes non-violence a step further and demands active respect for the police. The justifications are that the police are respected in society, that they can be won over, that being respectful reduces the chance that they will respond aggressively to civil disobedience.

On this issue, the criticism from the activist Left has been sustained. Claims that the police are ‘just doing their job’ limit the political fallout and public outrage over mass arrests at climate protests. The elevation of being arrested while the rest of the crowd watches as martyrs are picked off one by one reduces the role of the mass of people at protests to that of spectator. It excludes people who can’t face arrest because of financial reasons. And it alienates people of colour who are subjected to systematic police violence, for whom being arrested entails serious risk.

XR in Melbourne was publicly condemned for their views on police during the Spring Rebellion at a Peoples’ Assembly on Climate Justice by high profile traditional owner Lydia Thorpe as being grossly out of step with people who experience the police as oppressors. This is an area of active to and fro. In several countries, XR has changed its public commentary about arrests and backed away from active praise of the police. The ‘legal team’ acknowledges in This is not a Drill that ‘Extinction Rebellion is clear that the police continue to be structurally racist, unjust and violent, especially towards oppressed groups’. In the same volume, Knight recognises that the arrest/respect tactic is not appropriate for activists living in repressive regimes. A recent statement from a London people’s assembly says that the movement seeks to be inclusive of People of Colour. Finally, a statement posted to XR Scotland argues for the importance of class to climate justice. However, for each of these statements there are reaffirmations of the ‘love the police’ position. This is an ongoing ideological battle inside XR.

Ideological rigidity and decentred centralism

One of the contradictions at the heart of XR is between its stated commitment to non-hierarchical, open participatory democracy, and a set of very rigid principles and tactics that leave very little room for deviation. In practice, XR has a central leadership on a number of levels who work hard to maintain the ideological lines. Debate that pushes against the central dogma is resisted, often by invoking the Principles. Even though Common Sense is full of proposed emissions-reduction policies, discussion about solutions are discouraged on the pretext of maintaining unity. Meetings are even explicitly structured in order to discourage traditional political debate and collective decision-making.

During the Melbourne Spring Rebellion, several People’s Assemblies were held to discuss climate justice, attitudes to police and other contested issues (including the controversial question ‘is booing the police a form of violence?’). But although most participants expressed views about respecting Aboriginal sovereignty, in support of open solidarity with climate refugees, or against the criminalisation of protest and heavy-handed policing, these assemblies have had little effect on the core dogmas. This sort of centralism is less honest than an explicitly elected central leadership because there is no mechanism for accountability, no process for setting or changing policy. The resilience of XRs ideology is interesting, but it is also a barrier to building a mass climate movement on a sounder political basis.

Conclusions

The commitment in the XR principles to a kind of movement democracy creates openings to challenge the problems in its ideology, although interventionists should not underestimate its resilience. The founders put a lot of work into creating a coherent ideology and a set of materials and practices to reproduce it – even to the extent of considering practical strategies to limit the influence of left-wing radicals! Changing any of these core ideas is going to take a similar amount of work. The broader context also matters: this is unfolding against a background of a low-level of struggle in the Western world, which perhaps explains how such a mild-mannered, middle-class movement can become the most radical flavour of the month.

In the midst of the critiques, it is easy to lose sight of the step forward that XR represents: a generation of activists are being drawn to break from the dead-end of NGOism with its petitions and lobbying and to openly rebel against the state by taking over the streets.

As a project consisting primarily of large numbers of people being arrested for blocking traffic, it’s unlikely XR will lead to the fall of any government. Such a massive result is not possible without stronger social forces and more effective organisation. The militant, organised working class is still the most likely candidate for the role of collective agent capable of challenging the power of the fossil capitalists and, if we are to have any hope of resisting the inevitable fightback, there is a need for some sort of disciplined mass organisation. The mass civil disobedience of XR is one activity that can produce and train activists to build this movement but it’s already clear that we need to go beyond it.

XR is not a social movement that has grown organically out of a struggle. It is more a project to capture some of the energy of the popular response to climate change and use it to fuel a growing and self-sustaining movement. The people were already there: the huge numbers at the global climate strike are just one example of the fact that people are prepared to act on climate.

This leads us to the key strategic question in relation to XR: should socialists participate from the inside and use the more radical parts of the ideology to find common ground? Or are the middle-class elements too resilient and too conservatising for class-struggle activists to effectively work inside XR? Is there a need instead for a separate climate action pole-of-attraction that relates to XR from a distance as part of a movement of movements?

If the answer is to work within XR, there are some concrete things socialists and other left-wing activists can do to draw on the progressive and useful elements from the core texts: stressing the goals of radical system-change and revolution; keeping climate refugees central as allies in struggle; encouraging links with existing campaigns that connect climate change to systemic oppression.

Either way, the climate crisis is real and it is urgent that a genuinely mass and radical climate movement willing to fight the power emerges as part of the broader struggle against capitalism. It is the only way we are getting out of this alive.

 

Andrew Charles is a member of the Governing Council of Victorian Socialists. The opinions in the text do not represent the official position of any of these affiliated organisations.

We are seeking more opinions and analysis on climate politics and Extinction Rebellion: if you’re interested, pleasue submit or pitch to us using our submissions page.

Photo by daniel james on Unsplash

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Andrew Charles is a Community and Public Sector Union Delegate at the Bureau of Meteorology and a member of Victorian Socialists.

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Comments

  1. The first great left-wing analysis I’ve found so far that doesn’t immediately try to trash XR for not being explicitly anticapitalist, anticolonial or intersectional.

    I can agree with many of the points you make. However, on the point of violent protest and police violence – in the case of Hong Kong and the like there is a vicious circle going on, of protestors expecting violence and giving it in return, making the police continue using violence, etc. Revolutions against antidictatorial regimes have shown that it’s much easier to circumvent that and still try to pull the armed forces towards you.

    On the point of militant working class – it probably won’t be popular enough: https://study.com/academy/lesson/australian-social-class-system.html

    You can find similar numbers for the US and Europe. Sadly, without the middle class, I think revolution is nigh impossible.

    One other thing that is missed in this article is the growth of XR over the past year. If it keeps growing like this, there is no way governments will be able to stay afloat.

  2. As someone who has been involved in environmental politics for many years XR is a shining light. Gives us some hope that things can actually change. Tgat being said I am not 100% convinced and your analysis gives lots to ponder on strategy.
    Australians are just too comfortable but the climate crisis combined with the coming recession will shake them out of their complacency. But will they be dragged to the Right by Murdoch or can XR inspire them to create a better world.

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