After the Extinction Rebellion (XR) action on 15-25 April, climate activists need concrete demands that we can organise around and some of which can be won, if partially, even now.
That way we can build towards the eventual transformation of society, and we can buy ourselves more time, slowing the onslaught of climate change. We need, so to speak, a socialist “Green New Deal”.
The term “Green New Deal” refers to divergent, often vague, and generally inadequate sets of proposals. However, the basic proposal of a bold government program is a good one.
The programme must be international, to take on a global threat. We should demand public ownership of the Big Eleven energy companies in Europe, under workers’ control, to bring about the fastest possible transition to green energy.
That’s the Big Six in Britain — E.ON UK; EDF Energy; npower, owned by RWE; SSE; Scottish Power, owned by Iberdrola; and British Gas, owned by Centrica — plus the National Grid. Across Europe the Big Eleven are E.ON; Engie; Enel; EDF; RWE; SSE; Iberdrola; Centrica; Vattenfall; EnBW; and National Grid plc.
We should organise around similar demands in transport, food, and other major industries; and around the banks and finance, to finance this transition.
Monday 15 April until Thursday 25 April were the eleven days of Extinction Rebellion (XR)’s “International Rebellion”. In central London, there were ongoing actions at five high profile locations, plus many other smaller actions.
Over a thousand people were arrested, and thousands more participated and protested. There were other actions around the world.
XR has succeeded in raising discussions about the urgency of tackling climate change in a range of arenas, and in many people’s minds and conversations. They have raised the profile of disruptive action as a way of taking a stand against climate change. They have brought large numbers of individuals into – or back into – activism, and climate activism.
XR is now entering “Phase Two”, the direction of which is as yet undecided. XR is not in any serious sense democratic, and does not claim to be. However, from the diverse or even disparate suggestions floated in their “people’s assembly” on the 22 April – which seems to have been more of a collective feed-in exercise than a forum for making concrete decisions – it is possible to glean likely general directions. More of a focus on finance and banking, and spreading the movement across the country, were two key themes.
Several leading XR activists are running to be MEPs in the upcoming elections under the banner of “Climate & Ecological Emergency Independents”. They are not explicitly doing it under the banner of XR, but are clearly linked in politically and organisationally.
XR’s evaluation of its success so far highlights the incompleteness of its strategy. The metrics by which XR describe its actions as a “win… a resounding success” are the number of people signed up, the money donated, the headlines made, the arrests made, and the vibes on their events.
Anyone who’s been involved in campaigning will know that many of these things are important for growing. And the discussions sparked can cause ripples of their own.
But where from there? With XR, the closest I can gain to an understanding of how they see themselves winning is through numbers involved, and numbers facing state repression.
A truism in XR seems to be that “social science says” that 3.5% of the population need to be mobilised to “achieve system change”.
This is oft-repeated, and mobilising that proportion is #2 of their 10 “Principles and Values”. What exact systems we want to change from and to is less clear, nor is what these 3.5% would be doing or how that would bring about change.
Strategic aims in terms of numbers experiencing state repression seem stranger still. Roger Hallam, an XR theorist, says that to win they “need about 400 people to go to prison, maybe need two or three thousand people to get arrested”. In reporting their activities, XR have referred to “accruing arrests” and “garnering arrests”.
Sometimes doing actions which will likely or definitely get people arrested is the best thing to do. But arrests in themselves being an aim?
That thinking relies on an assumption that the state and corporate media will be fundamentally benign, and on an activist base dominated by people so placed economically that they can afford to be arrested or jailed “for show”.
XR has had impact in terms of discussions and statements by politicians, often positive, especially but not exclusively from Labour politicians. Labour is forcing a vote in the House of Commons on 1 May on declaring an environmental and climate emergency. This is a good symbolic move, and one of XR’s key demands, although in itself it will not lead to concrete changes.
With the information available at the time of writing, it seems likely the motion will call for global targets aiming to limit global warming to 1.5°C, plus new UK targets on mass rollout of renewable low emission energy and transport, adequately funded environmental protections, tackling species decline and rapidly reducing waste. Jeremy Corbyn has referred to the need for “concerted government action and a green industrial revolution”, and the leadership have recognised the failures of previous Labour policies to address the challenges faced.
XR reports: “Beyond these early and official exchanges, our political strategy team also reports lively engagement ‘through backchannels’ – we can only speculate what might emerge from these.” I have no idea what this refers to, and time will tell what comes from them. However, secretive engagement “through backchannels” is not a democratic and honest approach to politics. Nor, for the same reasons, is it conducive to building mass movements and transforming society.
One key area in which XR have been critiqued from the left is their attitudes towards the police. From 15-25 April the sections of XR sending out updates (at least) progressed from commenting that “[t]he peaceful atmosphere seemed to finally affect our ever vigilant security forces because they carried out their duties today with gentleness and consideration”, towards describing the police at points as institutionally racist, and condemning some of their behaviour. When XR wrapped up the rebellion, it thanked the police for “maintaining professional behaviour”.
The disruption XR is causing is very much justified given the scale of the crisis. The core limitation of their strategy is not that it’s disruptive, but that it isn’t disruptive enough.
Capital’s insatiable drive for ever-greater profit, and particularly the drive of those who and profit from fossil fuel extraction, is the key engine behind the rapid environmental destruction we see around them. Any adequate strategy for confronting climate change must seek to move beyond capitalism.
That, in turn, means orientating towards the trade union and labour movement: the working-class perform the labour which makes society run, and are the agent capable of seriously disrupting, transforming and recreating a better, more sustainable society.
XR shutting down several bridges causes serious disruption, but the disruption caused by tube and rail-workers seriously striking, or energy workers taking industrial action, is of a different order.
To tackle climate change, to build a new society, we need to be clear on what we’re fighting for, and the social force that can win it.