Following the recent sustained actions of thousands of Extinction Rebellion members, Steff Farley questions whether the lack of clear politics from the group leads to their mass-mobilisation being more of a problem than a success.
Since spectacularly launching in October 2018, environmental group Extinction Rebellion (XR) have been able to mobilise considerably large numbers of people to participate in a strategy of civil disobedience directed, mainly, at politicians to take real action on the climate crisis. The tripartite system of fossil fuel capital, state power and neo-colonialism form an immense and complex enemy that will require a climate movement that is equal to or greater than this system to tear it down. XR should have our immediate base-level support as a potentially positive part of this movement. In particular, the amount of effort that has been put in to reach and inspire so many people to act over climate destruction is admirable and should be something for us all in the climate movement to learn from.
Despite this, there has rightfully been plenty of well-considered critiques of XR’s strategy and politics since their inception. After the first wave of actions by XR, Chris Saltmarsh made excellent points about the group. More recently, Ben Smoke, one of the Stansted 15 arrested for stopping a deportation charter flight, wrote with concern about XR’s approach to the police. These kinds of critiques are a healthy part of every left-wing movement and help us to mature as groups and individuals. They come from a sincere place of wanting to see XR flourish alongside other groups in the climate movement.
It’s unclear how much XR have considered the points directed at them and if they have taken steps to grow and build on their successes. If you look at their website and social media or their tactics in their more recent actions, it doesn’t appear much has changed. It’s therefore worthwhile to focus again on the politics of the group at a national scale in more detail, the links between their politics and their strategy, and in particular we need to provide criticism of the politics of their mass mobilisation.
For all their good work in this area, their approach to mass mobilisation is wherein lies a significant part of the problem and can provide a lesson for large scale movement building. The fact this is considered the major strength of the group works to conceal the problem.
The main criticism aimed at XR’s politics is that they fail to recognise in their official statements that the root of the climate crisis is located in capitalism. Many members of XR may be socialists, however these views do not explicitly appear anywhere in the group’s strategy, principles or demands.
Instead, they call for ‘change’. The word change here, used repeatedly in several places by the group, is a useless empty signifier. However, it’s likely that this apolitical term was chosen deliberately with mass mobilisation in mind. As Chris Saltmarsh notes, ‘Extinction Rebellion seek to universalise their movement’ and they do so by sucking all the politics out of it. This is great for mobilising large amounts of people, but who are you attracting and what are the consequences of this?
The use of abstract empty signifiers like ‘change’ means that anybody can attach their own interests to those words. People from across all classes and with different ideas of how they want our political and economic systems to look like, but who all share some common objection to climate change, are attracted to the XR demand of ‘change’. The obvious problems with this is that it 1) allows bourgeois elements within XR to take the group in a direction that they want, against the interests of those worst affected by climate change in developing countries, and 2) leaves the group as a whole more open to being assimilated by the capitalist apparatus.
When your strategy involves volunteering to get arrested and cooperating with police, this also affects the racial and social character of the movement and further brings into question who exactly you’re attracting to your group. Can XR ever be part of an anti-racist, working class climate movement with these politics and tactics?
With the IPCC reporting that we need to keep global temperature rises below 1.5°C by 2030 to avoid runaway climate catastrophe, it is crucial that we don’t allow the bourgeoisie to creep into our groups and that we have an unapologetically communist climate movement. If we stick with capitalism, we are choosing to let millions of people die from climate change, and as the climate crisis intensifies, so will the grip of the capitalist ruling class who will react with extreme measures against the world’s most vulnerable to save only themselves and the capitalist system.
This is not to completely discredit XR and actually, their demands do work to challenge capitalism even if they don’t explicitly name it. The demand for governments to take action on climate change intensifies the capitalist state contradiction of answering to the interests of capital while balancing diametrically opposed interests of the majority of its citizens. The problem is that the state will never do what we really need, which is transition to an alternative form of economy where workers collectively own the production process.
Can XR at least push the government to reform the system and get some concessions out of them? Well, no, not if XR’s strategy is to voluntarily get arrested enmasse as part of some spectacle. Even if you’re a reformist, it’s hard to believe these bizarre, performative tactics will force anything like the urgent radical action we need out of politicians. Governments have been able to largely ignore other apolitical climate groups, such as Greenpeace and other NGOs, that have posed no threat to capitalism. There’s not much reason to suggest the government will react meaningfully to XR.
This is another key weakness of apolitical mass mobilisation. With an ineffective praxis that only tangentially targets capitalism, all the thousands of people they have managed to get on board will fail to develop an understanding of the capitalist system that fuels the climate crisis. We learn from doing things and when we take part in activism we learn all sorts of nuanced things about the issue we’re fighting on. When you deprive a climate movement of any anti-capitalism, you are tragically taking away the opportunity for people to gain hugely liberating knowledge of the colonialist economic system that is killing the poor across the world. For working class people in XR, this means also taking away the opportunity for them to gain better class consciousness; knowledge about their own oppression and the liberating politics to overthrow it.
That XR have thousands of people taking to the streets is impressive. If they were to get the same number of people with sharp class consciousness taking part in an anti-racist, working class climate movement that calls for communist solutions to climate change, that would be something really exciting.
There are lots of other groups doing inspiring work in our movement with more of a condemnation of capitalism and colonialism, such as Fossil Free groups fighting for fossil fuel divestment, student activism by People & Planet who are currently targeting Barclays for their fossil fuel investments, Reclaim The Power, 350.org and the people in frontline communities putting their bodies in the way of fracking companies. XR already have the people. Through engagement between our groups, making some changes to the individuals who have so far overseen the XR strategy of mass-arrests, and prioritising the anti-capitalist and anti-colonialist demands of people across the world who feel the affects of climate change most severely, we can build a more powerful, radical movement.
About the Author: Steff Farley is studying statistics at Loughborough University and is currently involved in the Loughborough People & Planet Divest Barclays campaign there.
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