Extinction Rebellion: bourgeois reformism in disguise

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In October 2019 Extinction Rebellion (XR) held a 2-week autumn "International rebellion", planned for 60 cities worldwide. In the UK this involved demonstrations, the occupation of road junctions, climbing on trains, erecting a structure in Oxford Circus, getting arrested, and generally staging stunts that would give publicity to the dire state of the world’s ecology. On the 'theoretical side' the booklet Common Sense for the 21st Century / Only Nonviolent Rebellion Can Now Stop Climate Breakdown and Social Collapse (quotes from this unless otherwise indicated) by Roger Hallam, one of XR's leaders, provides the basis for XR's activity, and their activity is very much in line with the booklet.

The responses to XR's activity have been mixed. In the press you can see agreement that they are drawing attention to important matters, but disapproval of what they do for publicity. There are also the celebrities and leftists who give XR uncritical support. Typically, the SWP praise "people braving arrests and media attacks with brilliant displays of creativity and resistance". "XR has faced a host of attacks this week—from the media, the police and right wing politicians. Despite this, rebels are building a movement which has managed to face down repeated pressure from the state—and are having fun while doing it. They are raising demands for a radical transformation of society, and creating a space to fight for that."  The more radical Trotskyists of wsws.org are still broadly complimentary "XR is seeking to raise public awareness of global warming, while demanding policy changes from the world’s governments … Workers must vigorously oppose the mass arrests of protesters whose only crime is to seek a way out of the terrible environmental calamity threatening humanity."

Meanwhile there are the traditional conservative reactions to protests, characterising XR events as a nuisance, as the actions of 'hippies' and 'crusties'. Alongside this there are the 'contrarians' of Spiked who are against "Extinction Rebellion’s war on the working class. These eco-poshos are full of loathing for the aspirational poor." When an XR protester was dragged from the top of a tube train and attacked by commuters Spiked declared that  "Today’s clashes on the Tube between the commuting working classes and the time-rich, bourgeois fearmongers of the XR cult is a wonderful illustration of the elitist nature of eco-politics and of rising public fury with the eco-agenda."

For a serious critique of XR it is necessary to use the tools of marxism, understanding social phenomena in the context of capitalist society, in the clash of interests between the ruling capitalist class and the working class - a class that is exploited, but has the capacity to overthrow capitalism. Hallam's work is not just a theoretical basis for different means of protest: it shows which side XR is on in the struggle between classes.

Is XR against reformism?

Common Sense opposes 'reformists' "They offer gradualist solutions which they claim will work. It is time to admit that this is false, and it is a lie. They therefore divert popular opinion and the public’s attention and energy away from the task at hand: radical collective action against the political regime which is planning our collective suicide". And yet XR's whole policy is reformist. All other social questions have to be put on hold until capitalism commits itself to addressing the 'climate emergency'. This is echoed in the Guardian newspaper's assertion of "the climate emergency as the defining issue of our times." XR's central concern is the environment, and the possibility of the capitalist state being able, through measures like taxes and tariffs and the decommissioning of harmful technology, to prevent eco-genocide. In theory and practice they want to divert attention towards ecology as a separate issue and away from capitalism as a global system that gives rise to imperialist war as well as ecological depredation.

XR's approach to the repressive apparatus of the state is particularly illuminating. Common Sense says "A proactive approach to the police is an effective way of enabling mass civil disobedience in the present context. This means meeting police as soon as they arrive on the scene and saying two things clearly: ‘this is a nonviolent peaceful action’ and ‘we respect that you have to do your job here’. We have repeated evidence that this calms down police officers thus opening the way to subsequent civil interactions. The Extinction Rebellion actions have consistently treated the police in a polite way when we are arrested and at the police stations". XR prides itself on being reasonable and cooperative "Often a face-to-face meeting with police is effective as they are able to understand that the people they are dealing with are reasonable and communicative." XR sees no problem in the police managing XR events "It is better for the police to manage an orderly and low-cost episode which is compatible with our interest in having a large number of people take part in a highly symbolic and dramatic act" From the standpoint of the ruling class, XR are not seen as a threat to those in power, just an occasional nuisance for traffic.

Certainly, the leadership of XR do not see the police as a threat; on the contrary, they are seen as instrumental in assisting in XR's impact by making multiple arrests. As other critics have said "XR leaders are more than respectful to the police. They actively assist them in making arrests and the courts in securing conviction" (https://libcom.org/blog/extinction-rebellion-not-struggle-we-need-pt-1-19072019#footnoteref3_oyk5dbl). This article by the Out of the Woods[1] collective also reports that "Hallam claims that the Metropolitan Police ‘are probably one of the most civilized forces in the world'". Against XR's view, the historical experience of the exploited and oppressed has been that the police, along with the courts, prisons, security services and army, are integral parts of the capitalist state's apparatus of repression. They only exist to defend the institutions of the ruling class, in the interests of the exploiting bourgeoisie. Anything that threatens capitalist order will be met by the force of the state, in particularly by the police.

Rebellion and 'revolution'
XR claim to be advocates of some sort of 'revolution', but think that "a dogmatic pursuit of discredited revolutionary models can be socially ruinous." Hallam is so confident that XR planning is the key that, without it, "we are left with directionless and spontaneous uprisings … which research shows usually lead to authoritarian outcomes and civil war". Common Sense asks why "revolutionary episodes have failed miserably over the past 30 years", saying that the answer lies in "the most fundamental question of politics – ‘who decides?'". It's not obvious what these recent 'revolutionary episodes' have been. We might ask ourselves what ‘revolutionary episodes’ have taken place in the past 30 years? Hallam refers to Egypt and Ukraine, and the 'Gilets Jaunes' in France.  In reality, none of these movements were revolutionary: the Ukrainian Maidan Square events of 2014 were entirely engulfed in nationalism, the ‘Gilets Jaunes’ is an inter-classist movement dominated by populism. The events in Egypt in 2011 were different because there was a definite influence of the class struggle, but it was nowhere near posing the question of overthrowing the capitalist system. Thus Hallam performs a familiar trick here: debasing the concept of revolution to mean any kind of social unrest or political coup, and obscuring what revolution means and how it can come about. For marxists, the only revolutionary force in capitalist society is the working class, and a proletarian revolution is the only process that can overturn the capitalist state. Common Sense has a very different view of the world.

For a start, there are a number of different elements that make up the XR conception of 'rebellion'. Hallam presents the case as though it's the result of serious scientific study "The historical record shows that successful civil resistance ‘episodes’ last between three to six months" or "The most effective act of mass civil disobedience is to have a significant number of people (at least 5,000-10,000 initially) occupy public spaces in a capital city from several days to several weeks." All this goes along with an understanding that "1% of the general population will lead the disruption". One of XR's 10 basic principles focuses on "mobilising 3.5% of the population to achieve system change". This would seem to be a classic example of elitism. In answer to the questions 'who decides?’, the answer is: a small minority, mobilised by XR, who will somehow compel the state to negotiate: "When the authorities lose the ability to stop mass mobilisation the regime is forced to negotiate".

Capitalist society has driven humanity into a deadly impasse and there is no way out of it except through a massive and radical mobilisation of the exploited class and the most gigantic change in consciousness in human history.  To count on only a small minority to carry this out makes a mockery of the enormous challenge facing the working class and humanity

XR is quite comfortable with the institutions of bourgeois rule. Hallam and some other XR activists stood in the 2019 Euro elections. Of course, they claimed not to be a political party, but were happy to stand alongside all the rest of the bourgeois politicians selling their ideological wares, propaganda about the climate fitting in alongside nationalism, populism, racism, Stalinism and all the other campaigns for changes within capitalism. At different moments Common Sense does propose various different bodies that might be involved in 'social change'. For example, there is the idea of a "National Citizens’ Assembly selected by sortition to work out the programme of measures to deal with the crisis. Sortition involves selecting the members of the assembly randomly from the whole population and uses quota sampling to ensure that it is representative of the demographic composition of the country." This is something that the Conservative government favours. Letters were sent out to 30,000 households across the UK inviting people to join a citizens' assembly on climate change. "The invitees to Climate Assembly UK have been selected at random from across the UK. From those who respond, 110 people will be chosen as a representative sample of the population" (Guardian 2/11/19). This is not a basis for 'social change', since it fits perfectly well into the other institutions of bourgeois democracy. Such non-threatening assemblies are in marked contrast to the various assemblies or councils created by the working class in its attempts to defend its interests, and which, ultimately, have the capacity to overthrow capitalism.

In order to take responsible decisions we do not need delegates picked in a random manner from the population at large. Proletarians fighting this system  need delegates who have clear ideas, a conviction and an orientation on how to tackle the roots of the mechanisms of capitalist destruction We cannot place our fate in the hands of a lottery selection of delegates: we must be able to trust that those who are elected really represent and defend our interests. Furthermore since such delegates can only operate as expressions of a class in movement, genuine workers’ councils can create a ‘rapport de force’ which can push back the ruling class and prepare the ground for its overthrow.

Among other propositions from Hallam are People's Assemblies that will discuss ecological questions. As opposed to working class self-organisation and discussion within an associated class, wi in Hallam’s assemblies "Experts from around the world can help train facilitators and produce agendas." Here we have bodies driven by 'experts' to train 'facilitators' and fix agendas, with no intention to threaten the existing order of things

Although XR sees itself as a movement of the ‘people’ in general, it does recognise the need to recruit more parts of the working class to its campaigns. . There is a concern for "building a mass movement and so move the environmental movement out of the middle-class bubble that has defined it for decades". In this, XR note that "working-class people are almost totally absent from UK environmental movements". But the problem with XR is not its lack of diversity. The problem is that genuine anxieties about climate change are being channelled into a species of reformism with a few added spectacular actions.

While XR claims that it wants to change society, in reality its whole project remains within the boundaries of this system. It does not want to overturn the apparatus of capitalist democracy.  "Parliament would remain, but in an advisory role to this assembly of ordinary people, randomly selected from all around the country who will deliberate on the central question of our contemporary national life – how do we avoid extinction?" It also sees a role for local councils and NGOS like Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth. Fundamentally, XR's shopping list of eco-demands is seen as possible within one country and within the present social system. Despite the 'corruption' of the political system, the 'political class' can be made to negotiate, to dismantle all that is harmful to the environment.

Different interests, different values
In Common Sense there is much advice on how to approach the media, how to speak, what to say, how to avoid jargon. Implicitly, throughout the booklet a sense of values emerges. It says that "Words like honour, duty, tradition, nation, and legacy should be used at every opportunity." We can read about using "Martin Luther King’s speeches as a prime example of how to reclaim the framings of national pride" Since its foundation in April 2018 XR has spread from the UK to other countries, like the US, Australia, Germany and other parts of Europe. While it has an international presence, its outlook is tied to the nation-state, the framework for capitalism, and sees no problems with 'national pride’. On the contrary, it seems to be fully in favour of reviving such values as national pride, which is integral to all forms of bourgeois ideology.

Although it might seem to have a ‘radical’ approach to protest, XR is actually quite cautious about economic action. "Direct action, as a way of creating political change, has been subject to a simplistic analysis that sees winning and losing in narrow material terms. There is a strong argument for this approach as confrontation, strikes, blockades, pickets, stoppages, economic threat and disruption can certainly bring opponents to the table – as shown by the long-term success of many labour strikes around the world." Without dwelling on the "long term success of many labour strikes" (no evidence is presented) Hallam is concerned that "raising the economic costs for an opponent is highly polarising". He thinks that the battle for 'hearts and minds' is more important than an economic struggle. For the working class, the 'economic struggle' is part of the defence of its class interests. In the battle of ideas there is an opposition between XR's protests on the climate emergency bringing the bourgeois state to see sense, and the central idea of marxism: the revolutionary capacity of the working class to overthrow capitalism, which can only come about as a result of the defence of its material interests.

Apparently, one of the inspirations for the work of Hallam/XR is Why Civil Resistance Works: The Strategic Logic of Nonviolent Conflict by Erica Chenoweth and Maria Stephan. The latter author is a strategic planner with the US Department of State and has worked with the European/NATO policy office of the U.S. Department of Defense, and at NATO Headquarters in Brussels. Ideas from such a source are not likely to challenge the capitalist state or other institutions of bourgeois rule.

Recuperating real concerns

There is certainly a very widespread concern with the state of the planet, a desire to react against the future capitalism has in store, but XR provide an ideology and a schedule of protests to recuperate such concerns and militant energies and channel them into support for the capitalist system that is at the root of environmental decline. As with the propaganda from all the green parties over the last 40 years, or the more recent campaign around Greta Thunberg, it is a dangerous illusion to claim that capitalism can address the state of the environment.

All the evidence shows that, far from conceding, capitalism is showing more and more signs of being capable of taking all humanity down with it. The interests of the working class are antagonistic to capital and cannot be satisfied within this society. The state of planet Earth can only be improved through the overthrow of capitalism by the working class. This is not to be accomplished by a minority, no matter how determined. It requires a consciousness of more than the state of the environment. Time is not on the side of the working class, but the actions of campaigns like those of XR actively prolong the life of the capitalist system. 

A common answer by the radical ecologists to those who insist that the only world revolution can overcome the problems posed by capitalism is: we don’t have time for that. But since the ideology of XR and similar ‘radicals’ is acting as a way of channelling concerns about the environment into bourgeois dead-ends, it is nothing less than a brake on the development of class consciousness and thus the potential for an authentic revolution.

Barrow, November 2019


[1] A libertarian collective that has a blog on libcom about environmental issues. They have recently produced part two of their critique of XR, focusing on the hierarchical reality behind its claim of being a “holocracy” without leaders. https://libcom.org/blog/xr-pt-2-31102019


Supplement on Ecology