Avoiding extinction for real
As the Met clamps down on Extinction Rebellion protests, Paul Demarty looks at the choices facing the movement
On October 14, the Metropolitan Police announced a revised section 14 order, banning all public assemblies connected to Extinction Rebellion.
Observers of the movement - certainly the most courageous and gloriously inconvenient non-violent direct action group to have sprung up in recent years - will not have been surprised to find its activists out in the streets again the following day; nor will those who have tangled with the Met be shocked to find them as good as their word, making waves of indiscriminate arrests. The image of rabbi Jeffrey Newman, the septuagenarian leader of a north London synagogue, being bodily lifted off the tarmac at one of many sit-downs in the City is as good a representation of any of the contending forces.
There are certainly those supporters of XR who condemn the ban merely as an affront to the freedom to protest; they are right to oppose the ban, of course, and it is imperative that all socialists fight vigorously for those arrested to regain their liberty, the dropping of all charges against them, and the nullification by juries of such charges that are pressed - from teenage environmentalists to venerable rabbis.
The argument, however, is not entirely sound, because just about the only foundational idea of XR is that open defiance of the law is permissible - indeed, a duty - given the scale of the environmental disaster facing human civilisation. It is not the violation of the law by the cops, but the law itself, that is the enemy, for the law protects property first and the common property of all humanity a distant second, if at all. The right of City financiers to shove money into (among other things) coal and gas extraction, the right of the government to add another runway to Heathrow to accelerate Britain’s transformation into a giant duty-free shop - such rights are sacrosanct, and will trump the rights of Bangladeshi workers not to have their cities swept into the sea every time. To this disgraceful legal regime, no quarter may be given. History will be the true judge of these activists, not some wigged Eichmann at the Old Bailey.
In some respects, the augurs are good. Opinion polls suggest that climate change denial is, in this day and age, a minority pursuit in most advanced economies - even the United States (though the minority is larger there). We British may be bitterly divided on many things, to the great regret of sanctimonious vicars and the like, but we are all united in droning on about the weather; it would take a nationally implausible level of delusion, given the last few years, to maintain that things are not changing rather too quickly for comfort. Environmental damage is moving up the charts of hot-button issues compiled by pollsters, vying by some accounts for the top spot with ‘the economy’.
In others, not so much. XR’s programme consists of three demands, but it is not entirely clear to whom they might be addressed in the present context. Demands of this sort are typically directed at the government, but we can barely be said to have one of those at the moment. Incapable of actually legislating with their ‘majority’ of -41, Boris Johnson and his clique are instead a kind of theatrical troupe, acting out far-right fantasy. He will not be granted an election until his opponents are satisfied that a no-deal Brexit is ruled out; but he may well win one after that on the sort of political ticket that is scarcely amenable to eco-warrior concerns, and with a broad ‘law and order’ mandate that will further authorise the police to crush protests.
If not there, then, perhaps political parties might suffice? Indeed, while the environmental policy passed at Labour’s conference is not quite so punchy as XR’s demand for carbon neutrality by 2025, it was nonetheless hard-won against the lamentable opposition of certain union leaders, pleading ‘my members’ jobs’.
To start playing party politics, however, is a dangerous gamble for XR, given the way in which it has set out its stall. Its radical decentralisation allows craftier tactics against the police, but must impose programmatic limitations, to avoid alienating potential activists. It is here that we must begin to talk about XR’s longer-term prospects, and the snares set for it by bourgeois politics.
Not long ago, I came upon an XR stand at a south London summer fête, which proclaimed its cause “bigger than politics” on a very professionally produced banner. I am not aware that this is ‘official’ branding, but it was certainly official-looking, and reflects the fact that XR’s civil disobedience enjoys the relative ‘respectability’ it does because it allows itself to fall into soft focus, when it comes to concrete political choices.
If this particular aspect of XR were to win out over the others, then no political choice would ever be made. It would then be able to last precisely as long as its supply of ‘arrestables’, before fizzling out. Many other social movements, even very vibrant and militant ones, have died the death of directionlessness, as achieving one’s demands in reality turns out to be rather less possible than merely raising consciousness about them, important though that is.
Alternatively, it may very well plump for an explicit commitment to the mainstream, which presently courts it from ‘safe’ political platforms and even the op-ed pages of the Financial Times. This would turn it into yet another environmental NGO. We have been down this road before. It ought to be remembered that very courageous direct action was once the hallmark of Greenpeace. Most infamously, the French intelligence services blew up their flagship, the Rainbow Warrior, which was busily disrupting nuclear weapons testing in the south Pacific. One activist died in that incident, which became an international scandal, when the New Zealand police apprehended the cack-handed French operatives responsible. It is necessary to remind ourselves of this fact, however, only because it is hardly obvious from the current existence of Greenpeace.
The danger is real that XR will be carried down the same path, and we can only concur with the comrades at Socialist Worker when they warn the protestors of “false friends”, such as the Confederation of British Industry, which wants everyone to come together to find “realistic” solutions to the climate crisis:
By “realistic” they mean not interfering with profits and the power of the corporations. Big business can cloak itself in green clothing, but its overriding obsession is accumulation. There cannot be the sort of fundamental change we need in a world dominated by the priorities of billionaires and multinationals (October 8).
The chances of XR being forced in the direction of political radicalism are perhaps improved by the manifest crisis gripping the ‘realists’ of the mainstream, as their ‘realism’ gives way internationally to the sort of nihilistic chauvinism for whom a sufficient reason to open a coal mine or build a gas pipeline through native American lands is that it will anger the liberal adversary. ‘Realism’ has not looked less realistic since the fall of the Berlin Wall. There are dangers outside the Overton window too, however; the contemporary far right is actually divided on ecological issues. The Christchurch shooter, Brenton Harrison Tarrant, raised a few eyebrows with his ‘eco-fascist’ self-designation and green concerns, but he is merely one of many reviving the blood-and-soil ideologies in more modern forms.
In this, unfortunately, they are aided by the quasi-Malthusian element in mainstream green thought; the ‘lifeboat ethics’ argument for hard borders, much beloved of the ecologists of the right, comes not from a Nazi like Walther Darré, but the painfully mainstream Garrett Hardin, of ‘The tragedy of the Commons’ fame.
It is extremely unlikely that the activists currently making up XR will, in large numbers, sail in this direction. The danger is more of a potentiality in the general political situation: the right is on the rise in many countries, and many more people in the global south will be put on the move by rising sea levels, making ‘lifeboat ethics’ a live political issue rather than a fatuous self-justification for relatively respectable neo-Malthusians like Hardin. The left is not at all guaranteed to benefit in the long term from the greater sense of urgency around climate change hard-won by XR.
This is not merely a matter of political competition as a sort of sport, in which the left is one ‘team’ competing with others. The idiocy of the laws flouted by the extinction rebels is not the contingent result of poor legislative work by successive governments who might have done a better job. It follows from their being administrations in defence of capitalism, whose relentless pursuit of profit makes it uniquely ill-suited to avoid catastrophic climate change. This would be true even if it was merely a matter of firms competing, as it were, in a vacuum: ever-expanding production must necessarily exhaust natural resources and produce correlated levels of waste and pollution. But it is even worse than that, for effective response to an existential threat to global civilisation as it currently exists demands global action, but capitalism forces nations to compete as well, up to and including that most gladiatorial form of ‘competition’ we call war. So much-trumpeted climate summits always founder on the opposed interests of participants (to say nothing of the ill effects of the wasteful overproduction of arms).
So capitalism creates the problem, and simultaneously prevents the solution from emerging. Socialism is not one possible coloration for climate-change politics among others, but an absolutely indispensable frame for dealing with the question seriously. To fight for serious action on climate change without challenging the rule of profit, or the global competitiveness of UK plc, is ridiculous, and this is clear even in the petty bourgeois, ‘small is beautiful’ programmes common in the green movement. But breaking out of these shackles entails willingness to overturn capitalist control of industry and - in practice - to begin planning in natura in large parts of industry, if only to mitigate damage already done.
Extinction Rebellion activists demand we take the climate question for the emergency it is. But they cannot ignore political choices forever.