Here’s the companion piece to my previous post on the Extinction Rebellion (XR) movement, with some thoughts on four further criticisms.
1. XR is too white and middle class.
The arguments from the political right I’ve seen on this point from journalists and on discussion boards where I probably shouldn’t have been lurking seem like mere sneering to me and don’t require a serious response. A general precis would be something like “perhaps it’s true that climate change is an existential threat to humanity, but then again these protestors like to eat funny foreign food that ordinary British people don’t much care for, so we can ignore them”. Yeah, whatever.
The arguments from the left require a more elaborate analysis. The two main ones are, first, that XR hasn’t done enough to attract and engage with working-class and minority communities and, second, that its strategy of arrestable civil disobedience is difficult for minority ethnic people to embrace or identify with in view of the discriminatory criminal justice system.
On the first point, again, I’m barely involved in any XR organizing and I can’t speak for the movement – one that in any case has a pretty flat and leaderless structure, making it hard to demand that it implements policy from on high. But I’d concur on the basis of my individual experience that white, middle class people like me are somewhat over-represented in XR’s demographic relative to the UK as a whole. I therefore find the argument plausible that it needs to do more to reach out to a wider base.
In that respect, XR is no different from just about every other major institution and political organization in Britain. That doesn’t mean the issue can be dismissed with a complacent shrug, but the extent to which leftist analyses of XR single it out for its white, middle classness strikes me as odd in this broader context. Take the Guardian newspaper, Britain’s bastion of respectable, left-of-centre media commentary, which proclaims across its website that “As the climate crisis escalates…the Guardian will not stay quiet. This is our pledge: we will continue to give global heating, wildlife extinction and pollution the urgent attention and prominence they demand. The Guardian recognises the climate emergency as the defining issue of our times”.
Well then, with XR here we have the most prominent and radical grassroots political mobilization in the UK for a generation specifically geared to this defining issue and yet the paper’s opinion pages have almost without exception been lukewarm in their approach to it and have endlessly recycled the critique of white middle classness, such as here, here, here, here and here. There are many other critiques along similar lines in other ‘progressive’ media outlets. The critique itself is valid but its ubiquity suggests to me that XR is touching a nerve on the left about something that runs deeper in its soul.
I’ll elaborate on that in a moment after addressing the second point. Of course it’s true that it’s easier for – let us say – a middle-aged, white, middle-class woman to face arrest with equanimity than, say, a young, black, working class man (though, let’s be clear, there’s no requirement for XR members to get arrested). But an additional reason for the equanimity – one that leftist commentators have surprisingly missed in view of their movement’s history – is that XR’s protest is collective, building strength through solidarity. At the point of arrest, for example, XR’s legal observers establish who’s getting arrested and where they’re being taken. In the holding cages and cells of the police stations almost everyone is an XR protestor, which usually creates an engaged and supportive atmosphere with climate change looming large in discussions between activists and the police. And XR teams wait in the police stations to give support to arrestees when they’re released. Nobody seems to be talking about this politicization of custodial space, but to me it seems probably as crucial as personal identity to the different experiences of XR protestors and people of colour to the structural discriminations of the criminal justice system.
I think middle class XR activism has wrongfooted sections of the left because of the latter’s deep historical bias that authentic political critique can only come from the most structurally oppressed social groups – a bias it’s high time the left abandoned as a bad Hegelian legacy, rather than engaging in a rearguard defence of it by sniping at middle class activists for their privilege. Yes, it’s important to be aware of that privilege – and indeed to turn it to good social use, for example by engaging in forms of climate activism that people with other class or ethnic identities might judge too risky. But no, the existence of the privilege doesn’t intrinsically negate the activism. For its part, The Guardian has rightly called out the divisive language of the “real people of the country” used by the right in its messaging around Brexit. And yet, along with large sections of the left, it happily plays the same game when it comes to XR.
It may also be worth homing in a little more sharply on exactly which middle class people turned out for XR. The ones most in evidence to me as I moved around the protests were teachers, social workers, doctors, health workers, engineers, scientists, researchers, architects, craftspeople and creative types, along with a few farmers – people who seemed committed at some level to work that creates wider public good. Less in evidence were middle-class bankers, hedge fund managers, company directors, media celebrities, tabloid journalists and generally people who consider wealth creation to be a public good in itself. In the years to come, I suspect the willingness to create in-kind public good will come to be seen as a greater political virtue than the economic standing (middle-class, working-class) accorded by a crumbling capitalist economy. Therefore, however empty, gestural or silly it is for middle-class protestors to get themselves locked up for their climate activism, to me it’s come to seem less empty, gestural or silly than middle class non-protestors pursuing paths of personal nest-feathering.
Incidentally, since first drafting this piece, I came across Nafeez Ahmed’s critique of XR, which bears mostly on its questionable racial politics and, in his words, its ‘flawed social science’. He makes some good points, and has probed some of the issues more deeply than me, but I find a good deal of his argument problematic. I think he makes too much of past civil rights and anti-colonial struggles as somehow exemplary of what civil disobedience is and must be – essentially a claim for equal treatment of a stigmatized group made to political authority – whereas climate change raises wholly different and new issues. True, XR’s messaging is itself sometimes a little crass about what ‘the social science says’, but so too is Ahmed. I’ve argued here before against the idea of formulating policy on the basis of what ‘the science says’ and – much as I hate to diss my own tribe – that’s also true with bells on when it comes to what ‘the social science says’. Ahmed is right that climate change activism has to operate society-wide, though he seems to miss the point that protesting in central London is fundamentally about engaging existing political authority, not specifically about engaging London’s diverse population – and he leaves some questions hanging about the nature of and responsibilities for such engagement. There’s much food for thought in his article, but not quite enough to overcome my sense that what leftist animus against XR’s class character reveals most of all is its own political limitations.
2. XR’s ‘beyond politics’ stance is untenable. Solutions to climate change are inherently political, and must involve an anti-capitalist commitment to degrowth.
I agree with the second sentence, but not so much with the first – which I think puts the cart before the horse, and demands of XR activists some kind of tribal pre-commitment of political allegiance. I think leftists should have more confidence in their own politics. XR’s three demands are for the government to:
- ‘Tell the truth’ and communicate the urgency of climate action.
- ‘Act now’ to reduce emissions to net zero by 2025.
- Go ‘beyond politics’ by forming a citizen’s assembly to lead government on climate justice.
It seems to me that plausible attempts to implement those demands and their underlying analyses and programs would by necessity push politics towards degrowth and non-capitalist frameworks – though not necessarily ones that exactly mirror existing mainstream leftist positions. But I can’t see the virtue of insisting on some headline commitment to the ‘correct’ analysis upfront, especially since XR’s key job is to build a groundswell of support for appropriate climate action and usher people into that process.
In saying that, I don’t mean to suggest that the general public’s politics will simply line up with those of me and other leftists as inherently the ‘right’ ones if only they work through the necessary processes. I share the fear of ‘avocado’ politics (a brown or fascist politics beneath a green veneer) raised by commenters under my last post. So I think it’s important to keep emphasizing inclusivity and a common human fate in climate politics, and to keep the political discussions alive around climate change and its broader linkages with capitalist development, social injustice and the travails of the global south. But the larger point is that XR has opened up a new space of mass public reflection on climate politics which points to the poor future prospects of the present political economy. It’s less clear that its role is to prejudge exactly how to fill that space. XR has taken the horse to the water. The onus is now on us collectively as citizenries to do the drinking. If XR prejudges that process, my fear is that it’ll negate the work of recruitment that it’s so successfully charted to date.
Generally, my thinking on climate change has moved towards a pretty deep social adaptationism – social in the sense that I’m not really interested in thinking about individual prepping for an apocalypse, but about what kind of new social institutions people can forge to help them collectively deal with the grave challenges of our age. I struggle to see how those new social institutions won’t be ones geared around viable agrarian localism, and in that context while the new politics will be non-capitalist and non-growth oriented much traditional leftism will fall by the wayside. If we’re lucky, XR will help provide the tent within which we can hammer out the new politics. I don’t think we can expect more of it right now.
3. We need technological innovation to defeat climate change, not disruptive protests.
This mantra was repeated by Matthew Lesh in the Daily Telegraph, channelling the claims of Bjorn Lomborg from the same paper earlier in the year that we need to invest in R&D to ensure that carbon-free energy sources can be brought to market in the future.
Maybe if Lomborg and his ilk hadn’t spent the last twenty years scorning the idea of a climate emergency then by now we’d actually have some kind of carbon-free energy technology to ‘defeat’ climate change, though I think even that view short-changes the economic drivers of climate breakdown. In any case, no such technology is presently available, and currently we’re combusting more fossil fuel than ever before, while just 15% of all global primary energy comes from non-fossil sources. Some people still hang onto the idea that those of us in the global north will be able to retain our present high-energy lifestyle without causing climate breakdown with a snap of our technological fingers, but if that was ever possible in the past the fact is we’ve now run out of time for it.
Far too much discussion of climate change is taken up with a focus on technological mitigation, at the expense of discussing social causation (back to that issue of capitalism and growth) and social adaptation. I daresay that new technological developments may permit a little mitigation. I also daresay that it won’t be enough to prevent the need for deep social adaptation, and it’s this latter that now seems to me the only thing worth substantial political attention. If it takes disruptive protests to gain it, so be it.
4. XR is a millenarian death cult.
You’d think nobody would take such a claim seriously, but it’s become a minor mantra of the apoplectic plutocratic class, seemingly traceable to Spiked magazine and an article by its editor Brendan O’Neill who argues that XR should be ‘ridiculed out of existence’.
For those unaware of the underlying history, Spiked started life as Living Marxism – a magazine associated with Britain’s Trotskyist Revolutionary Communist Party – and then through some strange vicissitudes transmogrified into an allegedly Koch-funded mouthpiece of extreme rightwing libertarian opinion-mongering. Which is surely ironic, since it’s hard to think of millenarian death cults in modern times to match the havoc wreaked both by Trotsky-style revolutionary communism and its dreams of a future purified by the redeeming violence of the proletariat, and by market libertarianism and its dreams of a future purified by the redeeming violence of capitalist markets and their cargo cults. So what really needs ridiculing out of existence is ex-Trotskyist market libertarian publications lecturing anybody about millenarian death cults. Not once in O’Neill’s article does he reference the threats posed by climate change that these particular death cults have done so much to foment. His arguments are beyond parody really, but Nish Kumar does a pretty good job of parodying them anyway if you’re interested.
Nah, there’s nothing deathly or millenarian about the XR activists I know. They’re just ‘ordinary’, flawed, caring (middle-class) people like me, full of love and zest for life, and really, really scared about the deathly devastation that climate change threatens to wreak upon the world and the life they hold dear, unless governments act radically and immediately.