Anarchists and Extinction Rebellion: A bourgeois organisation cannot be transformed

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Extinction Rebellion (XR) will be organising another “mass protest” in London in May. Taking part in this action, or supporting it, will be many who argue that, while XR, like the cycle of school climate strikes, is a sign that people are ready to act against the looming environmental disaster, it does not go far enough. There will be Trotskyists like the Socialist Workers’ Party insisting that XR needs to understand that the threat to the planet comes from capitalism’s insatiable search for profit. We won’t deal with them now because, like all Trotskyists, Stalinists or social democrats, the SWP believe that you can get rid of capitalism through the existing state taking over the economy – in sum, through nationalising the insatiable search for profit. This disqualifies them from lecturing us about the need to overthrow capitalism.

But there are others, such as the anarchists, whose claim to be opposed to capitalism can be taken more seriously, because some of them at least talk about the destruction of the capitalist state, the abolition of wage labour and the need for communism. And generally speaking, they make a more thorough-going criticism of the aims and tactics of XR. They find it especially hard to stomach XR’s efforts to establish friendly relations with the police and their tactic of encouraging members to seek arrest. The London anarchist paper Rebel City puts it like this: “XR’s main tactic involves people voluntarily getting arrested to put moral pressure on government to act. But it’s a pipe-dream to think we can reverse climate change without the dismantling of capitalism as a world-exploiting system. You can’t have some nice democratic non-ecocidal market economy: reversal of the climate cataclysm means overthrowing the classes that profit from it”[1].

Perfectly true. And we can also find some well-researched anarchist investigations into XR’s shady relationship with the police, business and the upper echelons of the state: at a recent meeting of the Anarchist Communist Group in London, a member of the Green Anti-capitalist Front provided some very telling information about links between the security services and some of the elements involved in setting up XR.

And yet the majority of anarchists continue to argue that it is necessary and possible to work inside organisations like XR. The GAF member talked about the need to work inside XR’s local groups because a lot of its members are indeed posing questions about the relationship between capitalism and environmental destruction. The Rebel City article says that “Extinction Rebellion has inherited the split nature of green movements; one half reliant on moral blackmail, class blind, focused on one issue without seeing how it is vitally linked to the whole social and economic structure, naïve towards the enforcers and controllers of those structures. Many others, however, have learned to understand the connections and build links that transcend them. So these issues are being debated within XR; the people involved are changing and adapting in response to reality and experience….XR’s potential is obvious, but will it fizzle out, outgrow the liberal illusions of leading voices? It’s yet to be seen (and fought for from within)”.

 XR claims to be a non-hierarchical, “holocratic” organisation and many of the anarchists involved in it think that this makes it possible to “fight from within” in order to transform it.

The libertarian collective, Out of the Woods, which has done its homework on the dangerous and illusion-spreading tactic of “voluntarily seeking arrest”[2], has also made an interesting exposure of XR’s claim to be non-hierarchical, showing that those who have tried to challenge its semi-hidden hierarchy have been given short shrift by the leadership. And this seems to lead Out of the Woods to a clear conclusion: “In the first part of this critique we stated that we would not encourage people to get involved in XR and we stand by this call…. Those hostile to XR’s tactics and strategy are often encouraged to join the movement, taking advantage of its ‘holocratic’ structure to change it for the better. Our hope is that this essay has made clear just how difficult - if not impossible and potentially counterproductive - this will be. XR’s ‘holocracy’ reproduces informal and oppressive power structures, and actively works against serious changes. It has permitted occasional critiques of XR’s leadership, but not in a way which prompts serious questioning of power structures”[3].

But the strength of this position is undermined in the same text. Out of concern “not to do a disservice to those fighting internally, against great odds, to improve it”, they seem to include a very big “maybe”: “Perhaps we should not be too hasty in writing off these struggles as futile, however. If XR’s ‘success’ is indeed in part due to a lack of historical memory of radical struggle in the UK then these internal struggles within it may prove invaluable in the long run, even if they do not achieve their laudable aims in the short run. Many people are experiencing activism for the first time in XR and whilst we feel comradely-but-forceful critique from outside the movement is important, there is potential for groups within XR to make substantive pedagogical contributions in this context. We have all been involved in struggles that were imperfect or, sometimes, downright wrongheaded. We do not come into this world perfect activists. The experience of many in XR may prepare them for other struggles that are still to come”. And therefore: even though the chances of this are “slim”, “were they to be successful XR would be a wholly transformed organisation”.

The underlying problem here is a lack of a class analysis - a kind of original sin of anarchism, which has always tended to express the standpoint of the petty bourgeoisie or other intermediate strata rather than that of the working class. XR – like the trade unions or the Labour party – is fundamentally hierarchical because it is a bourgeois organisation, linked directly to the capitalist state, and thus incapable of being “transformed” into something that serves the class struggle. Its function – like the New Green Deal or the Youth for Climate campaign - is to recuperate genuine concerns about the future of the planet and to steer them away from questioning capitalism. By its very nature it is going to attract people who are seeking alternatives to the current system – just like the Labour Party or the Trotskyist groups – but it can only exhaust and distort their search for a new society. Consequently revolutionaries – who must certainly relate to such individuals – can only call on those who want to get rid of capitalism to make a complete break with XR, and the sooner the better.

And the answer does not lie in trying to devise “independent” campaigns around the question of the environment. The GAF, for example, advocates protest actions alongside the blockades organised by XR, but not warning the police in advance[4]. But this kind of “direct action” not only “indirectly” strengthens XR but also conveys the idea that you can struggle against capitalism by organising protests by small minorities cut off from the struggle of the only force that can really oppose capital: the proletarian class struggle.

The Anarchist Communist Group, on the other hand is more concerned with the need to relate the problem of the environment to the workers’ struggle, and thinks it has found the answer in launching a campaign for free transport in the cities, which they think can unite transport users and transport workers in a common fight. Although this sounds like one of those Trotskyist “transitional demands” which are aimed at seducing workers into unconsciously raising demands that capitalism is unable to grant, the ACG argue that it is quite realisable:

Public transport should be free because it is a public good. It is something that everyone has to use, like the health service. And, if any form of car has major disadvantages for people and the planet, then public transport is the answer and needs to be supported with funds. This is not an idealistic or impossible demand, even in the current capitalist system. It is a question of building an effective movement which forces changes in policy. Many places already have free transport, such as Luxemburg which made all public transport free earlier this year”.[5]

In fact, capitalism provides nothing for free. The health service certainly is not free – it’s paid for out of the taxes imposed on the working class, or more generally by the surplus value sucked out of our labour. And capitalism in crisis will have no alternative than to reduce all social benefits while at the same time making them more expensive.

The ACG, like most anarchists, also suffers from the illusion that mass movements can be “built” by the patient organising or ingenious campaigning of those committed to social change. But as Rosa Luxemburg explained over a hundred years ago, such notions were already being refuted by the real movement of the working class, which, above all in this epoch of history, has an uneven and explosive character which cannot be planned in advance until it has reached a very high level of self-organisation and political awareness. The task of revolutionaries is to participate in this real class struggle and to indicate ways that it can reach the level of a conscious assault on capitalism. And this difficult but necessary process is the only way that the working class can integrate the problem of “ecocide” into the fight to overthrow capitalist exploitation. 

Amos 15.2.20


Ecology campaigns