“The next popular climate movement can only avoid a slow death if its politics are as red as they are green.” – Mark Montegriffo – Jacobin Magazine
“TALK’S CHEAP, BUT IT TAKES MONEY TO BUY WHISKEY” – anon (trad)
If the torrential rains, firestorms and heat domes didn’t cut through, the release of the IPCC report this week made it 100% clear even to those not listening at the back that we are on the path to civilisational collapse and possible extinction. 1.5 degrees of warming is locked in as a certainty. We need a radical climate movement. “We are unprepared for the danger our future holds. We face floods, wildfires, extreme weather, crop failure, mass displacement and the breakdown of society. The time for denial is over. It is time to act. “ – Extinction Rebellion (XR) launch their third Rebellion on August 23rd in Trafalgar Square.
By now, the critical hit piece on XR has practically become a genre. The pundits of the various leftist movements have spent thousands of words telling us how much better their red climate movement would have been (more working class!, more intersectional!, more militant!) than XR if only they’d got round to doing it.
The fact that any such amazingly radical and pure movement has failed to appear, despite a few attempts, is politely brushed under the carpet. We’re not really examining our own ideas about movement building, in fact we’re stuck with a dogmatic idea of how it’s done, that rarely refers to any praxis. This classic from the Out of the Woods collective (where are they now?) writing in Libcom sums up the back seat scolding approach “We admire their commitment and courage, and as we note, hope that the return of large scale direct action in the UK does provide some pedagogical value even despite (and perhaps because of) its flaws.”
Empty rhetoric about violence fills the airwaves such as Pierce Penniless of Novara Media’s offering on Twitter or the random anarchist (probably GAF) exhortation “Don’t sit in the road, set fire to a rich man’s car”, to which the only reasonable response is surely to say “Go on then”. Violence isn’t talked about as a tool, it’s a benchmark to divide the edgy radical from wet liberal.
XR get relentless criticism for their attitude to the police, which is pretty odd given that almost every trad left demo you’ve been on has been negotiated with the plod in advance with stewards provided to keep everyone in line. Anyone campaigning for Corbyn in 2019 was arguing for the recruitment of 10,000 extra coppers! This draws comparatively little criticism compared to the XR approach of willfully disobeying the police by blocking roads or occupying buildings while providing a screen of police liaison. XR brought large numbers of people into direct contact with public order policing. If you want people to hate the police then get them to meet the police under trying circumstances. Let them feel the magic radicalising truncheon. Anger in XR against the police was building towards the end of the October Rebellion in 2019 as the unfairness of the police’s seizure of disabled Rebels gear in particular caused hundreds to gather around New Scotland Yard. Arguably a bit more effective than starting off with the ACAB rhetoric.
Added to this, there’s a tendency to essentialise XR, to treat one or two mistakes (or the odd bunch of flowers sent to a cop shop) in this sprawling chaotic movement as a reason to condemn the whole . “Have you seen what XR have done now….?”, while our own fuck ups (getting wrecked and letting Daily Mail journalists into protest squats, getting nearly 300 people nicked at Tower Hamlets etc etc) are treated as aberrations. An even handed approach would be more useful.
Slagging XR online is good for getting the thumbs up on Twitter from the basement dwellers, not so good for getting boots on the street. Social media and its required quickfire hot take approach has seriously damaged our ability to analyse objectively. Too many fail to ask themselves what the point of radical critique is. In fact it’s fair to say that the onslaught of critique against XR has damaged its ability to grow as a movement, especially perhaps amongst the young, while the work to build something to put in its stead has been completely neglected. Is this really the best we can do?
This approach is straight out of Mark Fisher’s essay “The Vampire Castle” describing organised left consensus: “It is driven by a priest’s desire to excommunicate and condemn, an academic-pedant’s desire to be the first to be seen to spot a mistake, and a hipster’s desire to be one of the in-crowd”.
The irony is, there is plenty to critique about XR (its theory of social change for starters), but almost never it seems, does anyone in the anarchist or left milieu ask if there’s anything worth learning from it. This is (or was) after all a decentralised ecological movement committed to breaking the law in the face of a dire emergency. From a small core group it grew rapidly into thousands if not tens of thousands and achieved an undeniable cultural impact. It empowered thousands to take part in civil disobedience, which rapidly mutated into direct action, with successful actions shutting down the Murdoch press, McDonalds burger plant, and even oil depots; and building tunnels on the route of HS2.
The protest sections of the new PSCC act are aimed squarely at XR and shutting down the bi-annual Rebellions in London, suggesting that the state at least is a bit rattled. *
People whose first taste of activism came through XR are now taking action against HS2 or fracking, or are involved in migrant solidarity and projects like Channel Rescue. XR itself has begun to spawn more radical offshoots, e.g Burning Pink.
If we want a build a movement that goes beyond XR, then we at least need to assess it objectively. So what do XR get right?
Branding and messaging
XR arrived with a clear message and some brilliant graphic design. Every movement needs a symbol that can be scrawled on a bus stop in under ten seconds. (Spoiler : Anarchism’s already got one). Solid branding meant that each action fed into a perception that this was a large and growing movement. The fact that this was lifted directly from the playbook of the “colour revolutions” doesn’t mean its of no use.
Numbers are crucial in any attempt to bring about change. You can have the best ideas in the world but if there’s only four of you (and two of them are a bit sus) then you’re going nowhere. Based on increased public awareness (see above) XR organised public meetings up and down the country, not just in lefty strongholds, but everywhere. They avoided sub cultural venues like social centres or trade union-owned buildings and adopted an approach of getting in the general public. The presentation was well advertised and well prepared, a practised twenty-five minute talk, problem, solution, action. Initially at least these talks were given by XR big names, e.g Larch Maxey, Roger Hallam or Claire Farrell but there was an active programme of training up newcomers to replicate the momentum and learn to give the “Heading for Extinction” talk.
The bar was set low, aimed at meeting the audience where they were squarely at the mainstream. (Contrary to fondly nurtured anarchist belief most of the British public are not emphatically in favour of street violence and don’t harbour a zealous hatred of the police)
These talks were really successful in pulling in the numbers, with thousands getting involved in the April Rebellion 2019.
Structure & Attitude
There’s a tendency for those criticising XR to treat it as a top-down hierarchical organisation with a party line. It simply isn’t, in fact there’s very little central control over branches, individuals, or indeed seperate movements such as “Ocean” or “Animal” Rebellions. The central if slightly vague idea of ‘holocracy’ later modified to ‘self-organised systems’ means that if you sign up to the Demands and Principles, you can carry out any action you want. This led to a ferment of ideas, some good, some perhaps a little off piste, (and a lot of community street theatre) but created a movement without a central committee, and capable of growing and learning. It also acted as a brake on internal disputes as faction and schism were built into the structure from the start.
One phrase that appears again and again is “good enough for now”, a pragmatic attitude to the idea that organisational structure is never perfect, that the moment we’re in leaves us no time to perfect it.
Action meetings, at their best, are business like, action focussed. (Space is made within XR for other kinds of sharing, of grief and frustration for example, under the banner of regeneration)
One ground rule is often expressed at the outset as the acronym W.A.I.T, “Why am I talking?” asking participants to reflect on why they are taking up space. This is great for cutting down on the amount of empty rhetoric and dovetails nicely with the idea “We are all crew”. Woe betide anyone who stands up to say “XR should…” as they rapidly find themselves in charge of making it happen.
Movement of movements
XR also has a practice of reaching out and working alongside other movements, reaching out beyond the ecological movement to support striking workers on picket lines, Black Lives Matter and antifascists, supporting struggles against the forced academisation of a school in Brighton, trying to link up with the People’s Assembly. It wouldn’t be surprising if some tendril or other started bringing in parts of the anti lockdown movement. Its loose structure means that it’s extraordinarily flexible in this regard. It has bodies and resources to deploy, which often outweighs niggles over ideological niceties.
Probably the aspect of XR that makes it the most different from traditional anarchist or left-wing organising, (although very familiar to anyone who was around the anti-roads movement in the ’90s) is its spiritual side.
This open grasp at the spiritual in XR comes from an awareness that facts are not enough. That logic is not sufficient. That being right won’t win the argument. People are motivated by connection, community and the binding power of collective ritual. Just look at how upset thousands of people recently got when there were suggested changes to the European Super League, when the football, their ritual, was threatened.
XR use this tendency very consciously to strengthen and connect its activists, through song, deliberate rituals or the ceaseless beat of the samba drums. A reaching out to the sacred, the beautiful and the psychedelic has changed many people who have come into XR and made them stronger as activists and as a community. Extinction rebellion was conceived in an ayahuasca ceremony by Gail Bradbrook and it shows. Unashamed love and grief for what you love is powerful…
XR doesn’t just draw on New Age and shamanic practices though, there is a strong current that draws on the tradition of Christian dissent. The Rebellions of One, where individuals blocked roads in order to explain the climate crisis or the unannounced speeches on public transport where people stand up and disrupt the rhythms of everyday life to ask those present to think about the gravity of the crisis.
XR clearly don’t have all the answers but there are some valuable signposts there for anyone. Right now, there are hundreds of thousands if not millions in the U.K who realise that things are badly awry. What Naomi Klein calls the “inchoate meta-scream about the unbearable nature of pandemic life under voracious capitalism”. They’re looking for answers.
Once upon a time a strong eco-anarchist counter-cultural movement in the U.K was capable of mobilising thousands, not dozens, to occupy the City of London. It had a lot in common with XR. As we move forward we need to think clearly about how we engage with “liberal” movements. Our critique needs to be accurate, an objective assessment, not a jeerleading diss. We need to put up or shut up, either create our movement or join this en masse and see where we end up.
*(P.S Those blaming XR for the new protest laws are as daft as anyone blaming the striking miners for anti-union legislation).
Note from the editor: this is an opinion piece. Anyone who has counter-points to make is encouraged to send their own opinion piece to us (zb).
Photo by Guy Smallman.