Fill the jails?
Extinction Rebellion’s fighting spirit is admirable. But a viable strategy and programme is urgently needed, argues Eddie Ford
Over 1,000 people were arrested as part of Extinction Rebellion’s rolling series of protests in London, which finally ended on April 25. Given the nature of the ecological crisis facing the planet, with a potentially catastrophic climate breakdown, communists can only applaud their determination in blocking roads, obstructing train lines and so on.
On April 23 ER protestors gathered outside parliament to make their three central demands: for politicians to “tell the truth” about the climate and wider ecological emergency; for the UK to unilaterally cut carbon emissions to net zero by 2025 and generally reduce consumption levels; and for the formation of a national citizens’ assembly to “oversee the changes” as part of creating a “democracy fit for purpose”. Since January, when ER held a one-hour occupation of Holyrood’s debating chambers, the organisation has raised £365,000 - mostly in small donations of between £10 and £50.
Even though there has been a large number of arrests, police tactics have been relatively ‘softly, softly’. After all, almost everyone is pro-green these days. Hence the police have engaged in a form of reverse kettling - ie, not hemming people in, but keeping others from joining them. However, one person who does not appear to be enthusiastic about the protests is the Labour mayor of London, Sadiq Khan - describing them as “counterproductive” to the cause of climate change, as they were “stretching” police resources. What a shame.
In some respects, Khan’s stance is at odds with that of the Labour leadership, which is keen to be associated with the environmental cause. Labour does not want to lose people to ER, but rather recruit from that milieu - definitely get their votes. Jon Ashworth, the shadow health secretary, addressed the protestors when they were congregated outside parliament - pledging to make climate change a “central focus” of Labour’s policy and expressing his support for a citizens’ assembly. Inside the chamber, the shadow international trade minister, Barry Gardiner, said that that, alongside the school strikes, the ER protests were reminiscent of previous memorable struggles and victories “won by citizens uniting against injustice”. Readers will recall that about 1.6 million school students worldwide went on strike to protest against climate inaction in another splendid display of militancy - the next school strike is scheduled to take place globally on May 24.
Meanwhile, Jeremy Corbyn and other party leaders (Vince Cable, Ian Blackford, Liz Saville Roberts, Caroline Lucas) met Greta Thunberg - the Swedish 16-year-old ecologist who has especially enamoured the BBC and been described as a “role model” for worldwide student activism (three members of the Norwegian parliament have nominated her for the Nobel Peace Prize). Symbolically, a place was left at the table for the absent Theresa May.
Extinction Rebellion was initially established in May 2018, with about 100 academics signing a “call to action”. Its mass arrest tactic is very similar to that deployed by the anti-nuclear ‘Committee of 100’ in 1961. In April of that year 826 were arrested in a protest in Parliament Square, while in September the figure was 1,314 following a day of demonstrations. In essence, the Committee’s plan was to “fill the jails” by means of non-violent mass civil disobedience, or passive resistance, in the hope of compelling the government to meet their demands.
Like the more recent Occupy and other such anarchistic formations, it eschewed formal membership and any sort of disciplined, accountable structure, in favour of decentralisation, self-selected “working groups” and all the other trappings of ‘consensual democracy’. Yet in the end the Committee’s approach ended in failure. The authorities merely imprisoned a few of the most important supporters and ignored the rest, the group eventually folding up in October 1968. In the meantime, the UK further developed its nuclear arsenal.
Given that ER’s method is modelled on the Committee of 100, CND, Occupy, etc, it faces a similar problem - and possibly the same fate too - fizzling out after a brief explosion of hyper-activity (or eventually getting thoroughly incorporated into the mainstream establishment). The ER protestors gave themselves up for arrest.
Somewhat predictably, it has to be said, ER cites inspiration from Occupy, Mahatma Gandhi, the suffragettes, Martin Luther King, Nelson Mandela and others involved in the history of civil rights movements - with the obvious emphasis on non-violence and pacifism. But the strong suspicion is that many of those active in ER do not understand the reasons that led to the success of these individuals and movements. Indian independence was secured not by Gandhi’s questionable spiritual teachings, but the Indian National Congress - a mass party of many millions that had a definite party-political structure and collective leaders.
For his part, Nelson Mandela, along with the South African Communist Party, set up Umkhonto we Sizwe, the armed wing of the African National Congress - designed to “foment violent revolution” in the not inaccurate words of the prosecution at his trial. Martin Luther King’s civil rights movements had strong input from various leftwing groups, including the US Communist Party. Rosa Park’s famous 1955 bus ride in Montgomery, Alabama, was a meticulously planned and prepared operation - not a spontaneous act of rebellion, as implied in many liberal accounts of the incident.
As for the suffragettes, they used downright terroristic methods in pursuit of their aims - arson, letter bombs, intimidation of MPs, and so on. Civil disobedience, yes, but of a completely different type from that advocated by either the Committee of 100 or ER. In this context, the old Chartist formulation still remains as true as ever - ‘Peacefully if we can, forcibly if we must’.
Fixated by pacifistic civil disobedience, ER has no political strategy to guide it - it often seems to make things up as it goes along. For instance, on April 18 four ER protestors chained themselves to a fence outside the home of Jeremy Corbyn. What was the point of that, seeing how the Labour leader, in his own way, is a strong supporter of environmentalist politics? Afterwards, one of those who took part in the stunt said: “We are here because we are supporters of Jeremy Corbyn and he is the best hope this country has got to get us out of this.” The idea that simply changing the prime minister in Britain could call a halt the ecological damage to the planet is a little bit misguided - to put it mildly.
Then we have Greta Thunberg. She damningly told MPs that the British government’s “active support” for fossil fuels and airport expansion is “beyond absurd” - which is clearly true. She went on to castigate world leaders for not listening to the science and singled out the UK for having a “mind-blowing historical carbon debt”, a reference to the cumulative emissions since the industrial revolution. Thunberg called for a “general strike” to force leaders to act on climate change.
Obviously, ER does not have an anti-capitalist programme or anything remotely like it. Nonetheless, the demand to reduce carbon emissions to net zero by 2025 is implicitly ant-capitalist. Capitalism, after all, is based on production for the sake of profit. But to overcome capitalism requires a serious organisation and a serious programme. Civil disobedience alone cannot do it.