Extinction Rebellion (XR) must be doing something right argues Andy Stowe. Within a few weeks of the organisation becoming nationally known the Daily Heil, preferred paper of lower middle-class British racists, has been treating its activists to the sort of mendacious character assassination it normally reserves for migrants and Jeremy Corbyn. It breathlessly informed readers that XR members included “a ‘neo-pagan’ mother who became an activist after taking psychedelic drugs, a failed organic farmer and a baronet’s granddaughter.”
That was positively complimentary compared to Adam Boulton on Sky News, a man who didn’t get where he is today by disagreeing with Rupert Murdoch. He made no secret of his own and his boss’s hatred of XR’s ideas and methods blustering that they are “a load of incompetent, middle-class, self-indulgent people.”
What are they doing that is so offensive to all the sorts of people socialists and environmental activists would want to offend?
They’ve been getting fairly large numbers of people to take part in different forms of direct action to put the issue of climate change and humanity’s impact on the environment onto the political agenda. This has included blocking busy roads and junctions in London for two nights and three days and similar actions have taken place in New Zealand, Denmark, the United States and more than twenty other countries.
XR has three demands.
They want governments to declare a climate and ecological emergency; they want governments to halt biodiversity loss and reduce carbon emissions to zero by 2025 and they want a Citizens’ Assembly as a form of mass democracy to work out solutions to climate change.
Coming at the same time as the international wave of school student strikes, the actions by XR have been incredibly successful in inspiring many thousands of people to take action to prevent catastrophic climate change. George Monbiot spoke for many people when he railed on TV about the “pathetic micro-consumerist bollocks” often touted as a solution and got a big round of applause for telling the audience “we’ve got to go straight to the heart of capitalism and overthrow it”.
And that leads us straight to the first of two strategic dilemmas XR poses. In reality, catastrophic climate change seems much more of an immediate possibility than the global overthrow of capitalism in the next ten years. That’s not an argument against working for the establishment of international socialism, it’s simply an acknowledgement that the simultaneous downfall of Trump, Modi, Bolsanaro, Duterte and Putin is something of a long odds bet.
Most socialists don’t argue that nothing can be done about racism, poverty or women’s oppression until after the successful revolution. In practice they fight small and large battles for things that can be won in the here and now. But for some reason the fight against climate change has to be contingent on overthrowing the ruling class.
Applying the same approach to the ecological crisis suggests that we have to also argue for changes that can take place both before the climate reaches its tipping point and while capitalism is still the dominant economic system. There are various intermediate solutions possible even in a capitalist economy such as demanding the implementation of the 1.5C proposed by the IPCC in Paris. When we are talking about the political consciousness of hundreds of millions of people across the planet that is a much more comprehensible target than overthrowing the ruling class.
The second issue is the tactics they want activists to engage in. Most people’s personal circumstances don’t allow them to strip to their underwear in the House of Commons, spend the night on Waterloo bridge or go to a demonstration with the express intention of getting arrested. All these can be useful forms of class struggle, but by their very nature will prevent tens or hundreds of thousands from engaging. Activism becomes the preserve of a highly committed minority whose personal circumstances allow them to do these things. This minority must also begin to actively engage with all those beyond it who understand the gravity of the situation and also want to do something that won’t get them sacked or locked up.
Which bring us on to politics. The movement says it’s “beyond politics”. The fact that some of its supporters chained themselves outside Jeremy Corbyn’s house suggests that they know it’s not. They’ll also know that Corbyn and most of his leadership team are going to be their biggest and most significant political supporters. Labour Party members at every level have to start engaging with XR. We can combine the strength, passion and creativity of their campaign with the hundreds of thousands of members and millions of voters who know that a Corbyn Labour government can deliver exactly what XR is calling for.