Protest, violence, class

Another month, another Extinction Rebellion protest, another crop of articles excoriating XR for being too disruptive and anti-capitalist, or not disruptive and anti-capitalist enough, or for not laying the blame on China, or whatever. I don’t particularly feel the need to appoint myself to the defence, but I was interested in this ROAR article by Peter Gelderloos, which raises some points of wider interest to me that I hope to develop further in my next post where I’ll attempt to relate them more directly to my micro-niche of small scale farming. In this one, I’ll restrict myself to a few remarks about his article.

The piece mostly isn’t about XR, but involves a critique of a paper that influenced its strategies and that claims to show that nonviolent forms of activism are more effective than violent alternatives. So far as I can tell, Gelderloos’s criticisms are plausible. He argues instead for a diversity of tactics – including violence – to achieve political goals.

Although embracing political violence scares some liberal hares, I find myself in Gelderloos’s camp here as a matter of overarching principle. Yes, in some circumstances I think political violence is justified – a position that surely can’t be too controversial across the political spectrum given the various insurgencies and counterinsurgencies fostered by governments in Britain, the USA and other countries in recent times, with minimal public opposition. Hell, there are even distinguished Stanford history professors writing books enthusing about the benefits of war.

But the context in which one chooses violence surely matters. If indigenous people organize against an oil industry construction project on their land and meet the violence of the project operatives with their own resistant violence, then I find it easy to endorse their activism. If, on the other hand, I – a middle-class, small farm owner – journey to London to join a demonstration that’s publicizing and protesting inaction on climate change and choose to do so violently, I think I’m on shakier ground. Would I further these aims by, say, fighting a policeman? I don’t think so. The tactics of ‘get off our land’ and ‘hey, we have a collective civilizational problem that needs greater action’ are not the same, even if they’re part of the same larger story.

So note the conflations occurring when Gelderloos describes XR as:

the mediatic mass movement that injected pacifism into the climate struggle at a time when two of the most visible sites of ecological resistance were Standing Rock and Le ZAD. More and more people were realizing that the ecological crisis is very much a human issue, that Indigenous peoples are at the forefront of the resistance, that ecology is complex and atmospheric carbon is just one part of an interlocking web of disasters, and that direct action gets the goods.

Perhaps I’m wrong, but I think it’s questionable to imply that the activists at Standing Rock and Le ZAD categorically opted against nonviolence, and questionable to imply that they ‘got the goods’. Certainly, they haven’t succeeded in averting climate change any more than XR protestors. And inasmuch as Gelderloos seems to be arguing for a diversity of political tactics in different circumstances, it’s strange to me that he presents the tactics of Standing Rock/Le ZAD and XR as an either/or choice, rather than as both/and contributions to climate activism – climate activism that, as things stand right now, sadly seems quite impotent in the face of climbing global temperatures, whether it’s purveyed violently by indigenous activists in some situations or non-violently by (mostly) white, middle-class ones in XR protests.

Gelderloos writes of nonviolent activism as

a comfortable view of social change that allows white activists to preserve their privilege and physical safety, and that protects the owners of corporate media from the destructive, riotous uprisings that have been a principal means of the downtrodden throughout history to respond when degradation, oppression, poverty and indignity reach a boiling point.

No doubt there’s some truth in that, despite its further conflations. But since I can hardly claim to be downtrodden myself, it only reinforces the questions I’ve already raised about appropriate contexts for different kinds of activism by different kinds of people. Where I might take issue with Gelderloos is in the implication that participating in nonviolent climate activism somehow protects the owners of corporate media from more radical actions. I find the logic hard to follow, and no more compelling than the view that staying away from XR protests in favour of writing online screeds about their insufficient radicalism involves its own complicities with corporate power.

But I think there’s a deeper antagonism animating Gelderloos’ analysis that I want to identify and criticize.

Let me broach it at a personal level in terms of my own minimal participation in nonviolent climate activism. I’m under no illusions that when I sat on the road outside Downing Street and got arrested, the stand I took would merit even a passing footnote in the historical rollcall of courageous and difficult political actions. Yet, being an individual human being with my own particular quirks and characteristics, I found it a difficult thing to do nonetheless that required me to draw upon such pitiful reserves of courage as I do possess. I’m comfortable with people telling me that, in the universe of political protest, it was nothing and meant nothing. All the same, it wasn’t nothing to me, and I’m not at all comfortable with any politics that insists on reducing my personal agency to a cipher of class or racial identity and then writes a zero against my name. In fact, I think this kind of political thinking is disastrous, a cause of untold misery in the world, and one that must be fought.

Implicitly, it seems to me that Gelderloos’s analysis terminates in a political vision where white and middle class people cannot by definition have positive political agency in those capacities, except by repudiating them and committing themselves to the specific kinds of political struggle endorsed by the vision and attached to the indigenous, the downtrodden and so on. One issue this misses is that all visions and activisms accommodate themselves to extant forms of power in one way or another. Also, while I am unquestionably middle-class, not all of my family forebears were, and I don’t think their own nonviolent forms of working-class political activism that delivered me into my present state of grace should be ignored in favour of somebody else’s vision of what constitutes proper working-class activism.

But what seems to me more important than any of that is how this vision plays out in practical politics. Historically, the notion that the middle class lacks positive political agency has been most associated with forms of communism that have often been murderously authoritarian when they’ve assumed political power. But, as I’ll elaborate in my next post, in global politics right now this notion is more strongly associated with a resurgent right-wing populism, which may end up being just as murderously authoritarian. I fear that analyses like Gelderloos’s play into it.

Meanwhile, social media is thrumming with calls for the police to use more violence against XR protestors so that ordinary, working people can go about their business without disruption. Here, surely, is another dimension of political violence that could do with more analysis from radicals – the enthusiasm with which publics often endorse the strengthening of a state violence that’s ultimately directed against themselves.

25 thoughts on “Protest, violence, class

  1. Thanks for the tag Chris. I am worried I will be unable to actually string together a coherent response, but I do have some thoughts.

    In my research on changing human behaviour, I have spent a fair amount of time troubled by our governance, and by our methods of protest—both of which generally do not work very well. But my thoughts will always be centred around this lens of behaviour.

    I agree with Gelderloo that nonviolence is
    “a comfortable view of social change that allows white activists to preserve their privilege and physical safety, and that protects the owners of corporate media from the destructive, riotous uprisings that have been a principal means of the downtrodden throughout history to respond when degradation, oppression, poverty and indignity reach a boiling point.”

    I think co-option of movements by the mainstream is well-established, from music to fashion to politics to protest.

    Here in North America I wonder when the last real earth-shaking rioting was. Was it the Battle in Seattle? So it has been a couple of decades since the ground really shifted.

    In that time there has been a constant drone that non-violence is the only acceptable protest—in fact, look over here, we have made you a special fenced-off protest area so you can express your freedoms!

    Going back further, Martin Luther King has been almost completely repackaged as non-violent, and is now heavily used as an out-of-context quote book by white people to defend their lifestyle.

    It is now beyond non-violent protest being the only acceptable form. In fact, you now must protest without disrupting anything. No sit-ins, no traffic blockades, no inconveniencing people in their commute to work or access to take-out—and certainly no impacts to the economy.

    I agree with you and Gelderloo that a diversity of tactics is most effective, and certainly likely inescapable.

    I say inescapable because degradation, oppression, poverty and indignity HAVE REACHED a boiling point.”

    The only thing that troubles me a little is that I see very little strategy, and that leaves the door open for angry young men to break things for fun.

    I literally had a front row seat to the Stanley Cup Riot in Vancouver, where stores were looted, 17 cars were burned, and over $4 million dollars of damage was done.

    Because we lost a hockey game.

    So, I am quite sure that there is a lot of current rioting that is not directed at the systems of oppression.

    (That being said, a working definition of whiteness are those who have suffered cultural degradation such that they don’t know who they are. Our entire economy is built on indignity. So, maybe the Stanley Cup is as good a reason to riot as any.)

    As far as the lack of strategy, I do believe violence is a tool best left unused, and only brought out with great consideration. I don’t see that consideration.

    I don’t think it is particularly smart to battle face to face with police, or to try to face down armed militias. Asymmetric forces should be met with asymmetric protests.

    Implicitly, it seems to me that Gelderloos’s analysis terminates in a political vision where white and middle class people cannot by definition have positive political agency in those capacities, except by repudiating them and committing themselves to the specific kinds of political struggle endorsed by the vision and attached to the indigenous, the downtrodden and so on.

    I don’t think I agree by definition. But in the time we are in, that is pretty much the case.

    As can be seen ad nauseam, white mass murderers are captured alive and fed cheeseburgers, while black men are shot seemingly at random.

    After weeks of rioting against police violence, American police are still just shooting wildly.

    Just not at white people.

    So the reality is that white people can do a lot to ratchet up the tension of protest and conflict. But that tension is going to be released on people of colour.

    That is why it is best for us to be in service of indigenous led protest movements—they are the ones that are going to die, and they should have the chance to decide how and when they want that to happen.

    I also think white people wold be wise to recognize our lack of epistemic privilege concerning protest. Very, very few of us have grown up in a culture with a history of protest, have been schooled in that history, and are participating in ongoing scholarship about success and strategy.

    Yet many people of colour from around the world have exactly that.

    So, when XR rolls in proclaiming non-violence to be the answer…yes, that is mighty white of them.

    When I hear white men telling people of colour how they ought to be angry, I can’t help but hear racist, patronizing colonialism.

    Now, does it work? Does it make change?

    To me, this is axis of it all. In my work on behaviour change I saw innumerable organizations counting web clicks and social shares.

    The atmosphere doesn’t care. What the atmosphere cares about is how many fewer tonnes of carbon we put up there. Web clicks only matter if they reduce carbon.

    What are you trying to change? The actual thing, not the number of google hits.

    Does me writing screeds online do anything? In my experience it creates no change but offers some comfort.

    Does XR make change? We’ll see.
    Is XR co-opting protest to comfort the comfortable. It looks like it to me.

    Did your arrest change anything?
    How difficult is was for you is not the measure of the impact.

    And these are hard questions. Protest does sometimes change things…I think, maybe?

    And if so, then each one of us added a bit of weight. The subtraction of your arrest can’t be counted as nothing, because we don’t actually know where the line of success is, or how many years down the road it will resonate.

    I will also say that when we use the tool of protest we choose to limit ourselves to how much we can accomplish. There are simply not enough bodies nor is there enough social capacity to create change in every needed area via protest.

    One issue this misses is that all visions and activisms accommodate themselves to extant forms of power in one way or another.

    I think this is both terribly important and also pointless.

    The extant power is simply a condition, like breathing oxygen or being stuck down by gravity. Obviously protest will shape to that.

    But I also think this is a point that is very worth writing on the wall and contemplating with regularity. What could the vision be if we weren’t fish swimming in the water this power has allowed us? How would we protest if we hadn’t been taught from birth that certain things are foreclosed and unacceptable? What is invisible to me?

    In recent years a lot has been made publicly visible, in the meanstream papers—racism, sexism, patriarchy, colonialism. Many people are seeing new possibilities. Many others are frantically denying complicity.

    (meanstream was a typo, but I fell in love with it)

    Anyhow, as always I love how your inspect and share your thoughts, experience and knowledge. I hope this may be of some help as you polish your ideas.

  2. I am 72 years old. I have seen a lot of protests, participated is some, been in the middle of armed conflict (though not as a participant), followed innumerable wars in the press and carefully followed the science of ongoing ecological destruction. And here we are.

    Despite the sturm und drang of all the political and military tumult of recent decades, the long-term benefits are hard to find. The climate is still changing rapidly for the worse, nuclear weapons are plentiful and on hair-trigger alert, people of color are still suppressed, wars without an iota of justification still happen regularly, modern industrial civilization is still as unsustainable as ever and, to top it off with a cherry, the US political process has excreted Donald Trump into its presidency.

    The lesson learned? Protest, whether violent or non-violent, is futile. So, if the two basic options one can take in the face of imminent danger are fight or flight, and fight is not going to work, then flight remains the best (the only) option available. Flee civilization, flee the impact of a nuclear war, flee political oppression, flee any participation in conventional war or riot. Get a small farm as far away as possible from civilization and its various discontents and hunker down. Flee!

    Granted, this is only an option for rich whites, but it is an option I had the luck of being offered many decades ago. I could see this future coming even then, considered the probabilities and options, and I don’t feel guilty about buying a ticket out. I haven’t had to get that ticket punched yet, civilization still sort of functions, but I feel much better having it in my pocket. Call me a coward if you wish; like Falstaff, I still think discretion is the better part of valor.

    • Trump is a symptom not the cause of the problems , people wanted change , voted to drain the swamp and over his presidency the swamp has fought with everything posible to stop its demise , the powers that be do not want change and the imbecele rioters are doing their best to keep the status quo in power , Gore passed the carbon quota deal and made himself a millionare in the process , California has the highest energy taxes in the country and the highest number living in poverty , those that lobbied for green energy are fleeing the state coming here and driving up rural property prices to the point locals end up in cities because they cant afford to live where they were born .

      • I’d go along with the people wanting change in 2016… but to absolve DT of causation is a bit hard to swallow. He’s a lying misanthrope. The change the people wanted was further quantified in 2018. Let’s not let the orange man off on biased rhetoric.

        “…locals end up in cities because they cant afford to live where they were born”… This has a certain smell to it. Where’s the proof? You’re suggesting rural property taxes are less than city property taxes??

        • nope low rural pay used to mean low property prices , now the refugees coming in from ca are raming up prices , old houses on a few acres ( 10 + ) used to be around $50,000 , now they are up to a million dollars , they demolish the old house and build 4,5,and six thousand square foot homes , locals are priced out of the market .

  3. Thanks Ruben for your frank and challenging response. I like your aphoristic style. I will attempt to respond in kind.

    And thanks Joe for your likewise frank response, to which I will also try to respond.

    But probably not before I have completed my brief stint with XR, among other things, so please bear with me for now.

  4. I think protest has value.

    I also think arguing against protesters has value.

    Communication, whether written concisely and with polish, or screamed through a megaphone, or at the point of a gun, is an instrumental and imperative ingredient in being a social species. I’d imagine we’re not yet to a point where we can opt out of being social beings… so communication will not be getting tossed aside.

    How we argue with one another appears to me to be evolving. Violent and non-violent protest both have very long histories. But poking one another through an electronic keyboard, at the speed of electrons through a global network… most of us in this space are older than that technology. Guttenberg may not have envisioned himself a revolutionary, but the mass communication enabled by the new technology certainly facilitated more widespread communication and opportunities for revolutionaries to leverage their voice.

    To Ruben’s cogent observation:

    In recent years a lot has been made publicly visible, in the meanstream papers—racism, sexism, patriarchy, colonialism. Many people are seeing new possibilities. Many others are frantically denying complicity.

    I’d only offer that “papers” is quaint… but even “mass media” is insufficient unless all social media is rounded up under its umbrella. (and ‘meanstream’ is a pretty delicious misspelling one could learn to like 🙂 )

    I’ve never been arrested. Not convinced I want to test those waters as a means of earning some points on a scorecard to demonstrate my social worthiness. Like Joe, I’ve participated in a couple of protests. Nothing dangerous or seriously risky. Perhaps this a measure of privilege I’d never acknowledged before. I’ve been able to chart my course without resorting to violence or an outlaw activity (unless driving at speeds beyond the local posting is to count… ). Choosing to protest to the point of being arrested seems both courageous and stupid at the same time. More courageous as a well considered and necessary move to have a line of communication heard and considered by the opposed. Stupid if taken on for simply running with the herd.

  5. Protests might be futile (and so might be our human lives), but we can all learn something from protests, whether we are participants, or police, or bystanders wondering why someone would be so “stupid” to get arrested.

    Violent tactics seem more acceptable in situations where public opinion is more unified against the potential targets. such as when overthrowing a dictator, or dealing with foreign military occupiers. Even without violence, the disruptive tactics used by some protesters would probably be much more effective if most of the population was on the same page regarding the extent and urgency of the problems being addressed (and the solutions proposed).

    The divisions within society (class, racial, political… ) make it unusual for most of the population to be on the same page regarding an issue. Yet, a critical mass of public opinion in favor of the protesters (and their cause) may need to be achieved initially, to ensure that any violent tactics (which might be used by some of the protestors) don’t backfire, tarnishing them all by association, and resulting in the imposition of more police state measures (supported by enough of the population).

    • Usually, the part of the population that is “enough” is the part in the armed forces. Police states with the support of the military are pretty hard to overthrow even by mass protest of the majority of the population. If the military is the part doing the protesting, it’s called a coup. Those are protests that always get their message across.

      So, if you have the military command chain on your side you can pretty much ignore protest. And if you get upset at all the constant bother of protests, “disappearing” a modest number of protest organizers usually calms things right down. I expect this situation will soon be coming to many more countries, perhaps including the US. Depends on what happens when the Commander-in-Chief orders the military to support his “beautiful election” to a new term.

      • Where the government is at least pretending to be a democracy, I believe that mass protests by the majority of the population would have a good chance of succeeding (to some extent), especially when they are pushing for policy changes (not overthrow), or pushing for the government’s compliance with the constitution (which the military could get behind).

      • “And if you get upset at all the constant bother of protests, ‘disappearing’ a modest number of protest organizers usually calms things right down.”

        To your point, Joe, a prominent rightwing talking head proposed the following just a few days ago, and today a sitting US Senator endorsed it:

        “The feds should ignore the street thugs who make up the shock troops…The feds should focus on the LARPing middle class SJWs and the dedicated Marxist cadre and use RICO, conspiracy, and other federal charges to take them out and lock them up.”

        …and it’s pretty clear that Republican voters would support such a move:

        “Most Republicans in a January 2020 survey agreed that ‘the traditional American way of life is disappearing so fast that we may have to use force to save it.’ More than 40% agreed that ‘a time will come when patriotic Americans have to take the law into their own hands.’ (In both cases, most of the rest said they were unsure; only one in four or five disagreed.)”

  6. Yes, and as the paper you linked to indicates, racial/ethnic antagonism is the basis of Republican anxiety and anti-democratic motivation.

    As someone who has, for decades, lived in a multi-ethnic state with whites in the minority (Hawaii), I am always amazed that the prospect of minority status can generate so much fear in mainland whites. Perhaps I shouldn’t be since the Republican Party has been stoking that fear and reaping the political benefits of it ever since the “Southern Strategy” established racism as a core tenet of the party back in the 1960-70’s. It didn’t have to be that way, but at that time I saw it as a desperate attempt to resist cultural and political trends that weren’t going their way. Those trends are still being resisted even more feverishly today.

    I used to think that Republicans would eventually come to their senses and realize how boring the country would be if everyone were WASPs. Racial and ethnic diversity result in a much more interesting and rewarding social milieu, with variety in language, food, art, and other customs adding spice to daily life.

    A lot of people come to Hawaii as tourists for the tropical climate and scenic beauty. But what’s really great about Hawaii is its contentment with being a melting-pot of ethnicity. I still have a meager bit of hope that the rest of the country will eventually come to appreciate that, too, but it’s dwindling fast.

  7. All power to you Chris for protesting again. However the success (or not) of XR is measured, I certainly cheered for the blockade of the right-wing printing presses.

    Your writing suggests to me that an important part of protest is the conversation the protester has with themselves. Not just in terms of how far they would go, or even whether and how they make a difference. I imagine there’s a kind of power in bring completely and publicly honest with oneself – this is where I want to be and what I want to say and this is how important it is. There aren’t many contexts in everyday life in which we don’t set limits on ourselves of one kind or another, just to get along, to get through. Our futures will need people ready to be publicly honest about the necessity of change, of bring prepared to lose present certainties your the hope of future securities, and I wonder if protest helps create that in people.

    I’m also interested in the distinction you draw between white middle class people and working class and indigenous people. Your thoughts on the importance of non-violence in middle-class protests made sense to me. I wonder if that importance lies somewhere in the need to demonstrate that middle-class people, for whom the present world system is made, and who tend to receive every kind of privilege in western industrial societies, can and should be willing to give those advantages up without a fight.

    Such a statement doesn’t necessarily speak to the marginalised and the disadvantaged, those at the sharp end. But the outraged newspaper columns suggest that it does profoundly discomfort people in the middle classes who aren’t ready to give that up. It isn’t a desperate battle to fight oppression or regain that which has been taken (except perhaps in a more abstract sense – the future etc), but given the cultural and economic conpodition of our comparatively privileged society, it is a very necessary conversation to force on people who are otherwise quite capable of avoiding it for too long.

    Will it work? Who knows? But it is an honestly forward-facing act that locks eyes with so many people who are otherwise determined to look away. Thank you for your courage.

  8. In the US, attitudes towards the protests/riots and how they’re covered by the media are another divisive instantiation of the culture war.

    I’ve come to believe that the purpose of the culture war is to inflame antipathy between the college-educated professional managerial class, which skews center-left, and the white working class, which skews center-right.

    My upbringing was fairly low socio-economic status in an economically depressed town in Appalachia. In my adult life I’ve spent a lot of time at Universities and hanging around professional managerial class liberal progressives. Two observations: the upbringing, education, media, and social environments of PMC liberals train them to view the WWC as a bunch of stupid bigots. However, the values and interests of PMC liberals and WWC traditionalists actually align to a tremendous degree.

    If common cause were to be realized and a coalition formed between PMC liberals and the WWC, it would be a massive constituency that could effect real political change. Therefore it is in the interest of elites to promote the class bigotry of the PMC and the resentment of the WWC to prevent coalition formation. I think this is the purpose of the culture war – to subvert democratic populism and maintain the aristocracy’s hold on political-economic power.

    In my opinion, cosmopolitan PMC liberal-progressives ought to adopt some humility towards the working class. One obstacle to the Small Farm Future is that farm work is seen as low status and a waste of time for anyone with a college degree. We have lost the sense of honor that accompanies manual work. Prof. Michael Sandel’s new book “The Tyranny of Merit” looks like it might be a good read on this topic.

    I think we would not have to debate between violent/nonviolent protest if common interests were understood. The elite are happy that we’re fighting one another.

    • Thanks Josh – the Michael Sandel interview link is very nice.

      To your observation about farm work
      One obstacle to the Small Farm Future is that farm work is seen as low status and a waste of time for anyone with a college degree.
      I would add that farm work – and specifically small farm work (or manual labor… eschewing chemicals and other labor saving techniques) – is hard work. Hard work will put off as many a member of the WWC as it will members of the PMC. Status is important, but if and when it might be taken away, disdain for hard work will remain an obstacle to deal with.

  9. Although it was long time ago, I have done my share of illegal protesting. Trying to throw eggs on Kissinger at the airport in Stockholm, bicycle demonstrations blocking trafic, occupying flats in Amsterdam and blocking airstrips for spraying planes come to mind. The thing in Amsterdam turned really nasty with the military called in and lots of tear gas and water canons on the side of the state. The occupants were less violent. In a similar vein as you Chris I think forms of violence are justified in particular when the action is part of what you want to achieve: Blocking traffic with bicycles because you want to make a street car free, protecting your lands from exploitation, occupying buildings or blocking chimneys. Airstrip blockades in Sweden led to a ban of aerial spraying….

    The notion that white middle aged men, middle class or not, should refrain from protest is in my view just nonsensical. Just look at Belarus at this moment, I think most of the protests are from the middle class. It is another thing that they should refrain from being in the frontline for protests which are not their own cause.
    But even that is not easyt: historically, certainly privileged people have been very visible in many struggles. Anti-slavery activism, the labour movement, the Russian revolution, the fight against apartheid and the fight against the wars (Vietnam, Iraq etc.). I think the discussions about who has the right to protest, the right to be angry etc. is a dead end. We should be grateful for everybody that takes to the streat for a good cause.

  10. and then there’s this:

    While your post is about CR and climate change, it and other causes are all about righting wrongs and trying to change the path we are on.

    I imagine there is a lot of self reflection, soul searching going on these days, maybe less noticed than the headline grabbing street action, but as important. The pandemic has certainly given space for more quiet time, should people use it for that.

    In my case, the linked article made think about what is a line that is unwise or unethical to cross?

    We know that the for millennia, and especially now, that humans end up stratifying into classes that are rather pyramidal in nature, but occasionally the base of the pyramid gets fed up and topples things. Seems to be a feature, not a bug of human societal arrangements.

    I get the anger, the frustration with seeing TPTB never addressing grievances, especially with racial oppression here in the U.S., but being pragmatic, I focus on whether an action produces the intended results. I’m not sure I can get past looting, and doubt its effectiveness.

    MLK said “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”

    Well, I’d like to think that is true, but one wonders if the moral arc is not and arc, but more an intermittent cyclical phase where we range between somewhat more egalitarian periods and authoritarian, unequal periods. Our human’s dual nature will be with us forever, and the struggle will be forever.

  11. I’m not sure quite when I lost all interest in debates about the tactics of dissent but I sort of have – well that’s not quite true. I did enjoy XR’s recent blockade of various newspaper print-works here in the UK – and while it has got our lovely Home Secretary foaming at the mouth and talking about threats to our way of life (as opposed to threats to life itself which XR was wanting to highlight), the reality was it was one day and didn’t really change anything (except the amount of foam lovely Priti is spewing across the landscape).

    I went along to an XR thing in Bristol the week before and was chatting to some of the people there – I’d not done anything last year as my partner was very ill – but it did seem that there was a feeling that XR shouldn’t alienate people, piss them off, disrupt them. But it’s not the protest but the disruption that has the impact and it was that that was successful in Spring 2019. I think things like the fuel protests would be a good model for XR to look at. And Gatwick airport is in trouble due to the pandemic – why not go blockade that and try and push it over the edge? No lets dress up in costumes and pour fake blood on the road – that’ll bloody teach em

    But mainly I’ve lost interest because I don’t think it’s going to make any difference. I was listening to Tyson Yunkaporta, an aboriginal academic from Australia who when asked if he thought climate change could be stopped responded that “We’re Going on a Bear Hunt, can’t go round it, can’t go under it….” if you’ve got kids you’ll know the book. I’m not saying that doing whatever we can to try to slow the damage, salvage things that might be salvageable aren’t worthy goals but they probably overestimate the agency we have at this point – there’s a couple of new papers from the British Antarctic Survey out suggesting that the Thwaites Glacier is going faster than anticipated (oh no another one), etc etc etc.

    So I’ve lost interest because our responses are so consistently behind the curve – its like we’re arguing about the best tactics to use in order to stop something happening last week.

    I was reading Jem Bendell the other day and he said its no accident that we spend and have spent way more (time and money) quantifying the problem of climate change and environmental destruction that we have in actually mitigating those problems – the former allows us a sense of agency and control (human omnipotence anyone) while the latter doesn’t.

    I did the XR bridge protest in London in 2018 and it felt good to be doing something, to feel I had a voice (its good to feel good but is it an appropriate response and do our ideas about the form protest should take prioritise that over what might actually change things? Is resistance a better term/model than protest? Don’t have answers just throwing ideas out). And I felt hope in spring 2019 when the XR protests push the Govt. to talk to them and to declare a climate emergency – which was such an emergency that it required no further action, apparently the declaration was enough (accounting wheezes will probably provide sufficient cuts to UK co2 emmissions from now on) – and our current leader does love declaritive politics and it’s not even a law so he won’t have to break it and risk the Govt being labelled a Organized Criminal Enterprise – (if you sign a treaty having agreed with colleagues to later break it isn’t that a conspiracy – Maybe Priti can enlighten us)

    F……. I’m feeling positive this morning

  12. On the topic of middle-class activism (and linking a bit to Joe’s “flee” strategy), what’s this commentariat’s thought on personal down-shifting combined with encouraging others to do likewise as a political strategy?

    David Holmgren’s latest book “Retrosuburbia” and his other related writing ( ) suggests that it’s a potential strategy. He writes:

    “I have articulated this life [i.e. permaculture inspired downshifting] as a quiet boycott of an unsustainable system that beguiles the population with its seductions and addictions while increasingly exploiting those at the bottom as it trashes our precious earth and hands a cargo of adverse consequences to future generations.

    In contrast to some other forms of revolutionary activism, this modest strike of our labour, consumption and investment is designed to allow us to live a better life now, and provide a model for others able and interested in doing the same, while freeing resources for those most dependent on current centralised systems.”

    Do you buy it? Or not?

    I personally think that the global middle class have far more agency than we/they credit our/themselves with. Our collective consumption, driven by our middle-class incomes and multiplied by the magic of debt finance, keeps the global economy ticking over. Without our consumption, the flow of goods, people and resources from Global South to Global North would not be necessary. Our consumption creates the investment opportunities for Apple, Facebook, Shell, BP, Unilever, Toyota and all the other big corporations.

    In a global economic system that is organised around the discretionary consumption of the 10% most affluent (the 700 million or so people earning and spending more than approximately €30,000 or £27,000 or $35,000 (US) per year), the lack of widespread discussion of a “consumption strike” as a valid tool for enacting change in the political economy seems quite a big oversight.

    As to the probability of success – well that’s another thing. Nothing else seems to be working either. Down-shifting has the benefit of actually being rewarding per se, turning the cost-benefit assessment associated with other forms of political activism on its head. When the personal cost is negative, then so long as the societal impact is in some way positive, it’s worth doing.

    The only concern would be if down-shifting crowds out other forms of activism – which it certainly does in my case. I spend so much time “not buying stuff” in various ways – and encouraging others to do the same – that I have little time and energy left over for XR, the Green Party or any other form of more conventional activism.

  13. I think Holmgren’s idea (which is sort of like Greer’s ‘collapse early and avoid the rush’) is worth doing as an adaptive strategy but I don’t think it’ll change much. There’s a character on Youtube called Lord Hugh R. Adumbass (he actually produces some interesting stuff – (I’ve been watching his series on what’s wrong with Darwinism)) who has been arguing that the most effective thing XR could do is organise a global debt strike – that if all the comfortable middle classes of the world stopped servicing their debts the global financial system would collapse. I think he doesn’t believe all the world middle class needs to do this but a significant slice – but they didn’t get all comfortable and middle class by taking those sorts of risks so why would they take them now – if the worlds about to get really shit (as XR say) being comfortable and middle class is probably a better place to start from than being struggling and poor.

    I’m sure Reuben could speak to the problem of creating that sort behaviour change in such a large segment of a population. More than that I’m not sure quite what Holmgren hopes to achieve – without significant change to our systems of governance and economic distribution you can be pretty sure the resources freed up by our abstaining from excessive consumption probably won’t end up in the hands of those at the bottom of the pile.

    I’ve been reading Democracy for Sale by Peter Geoghegan and it’s left me with the view that while are systems of governance and economic distribution are certainly undergoing change we’ve collectively lost control of that change. Complex systems have emergent properties meaning one is never sure just what effects a given perturbation of the system will eventually have across the whole. And while complex systems are fairly resilient they will, if pushed beyond certain limits flip or evolve into a completely different state. So we’ve pushed the climate forcing pretty hard and now, even if we stopped all carbon emissions tomorrow have at least another degree of warming and several metres of sea level rise baked in (assuming we don’t trip over a tipping point or three). But reading Geoghan’s book it occurred to me that our social and political systems are also complex systems that have been suffering an accelerating slew of peturbations – dark money, corporate capture, the fact that most people now get most of their news in an online space in which information is weaponised (i.e. it’s propaganda) in ways that produce increasing polarisation thereby breaking social bonds etc etc.

    It fascinating stuff – in the UK the same team that organised the Leave campaign in the Brexit referendum also ran Boris Johnsons latest election campaign and first worked together on the anti-alternative vote campaign – why were these people interested in opposing proportional representation? Because PR is one way that polarisation in politics can be ameliorated. Without PR you have a situation where a party without majority support in the country can have an unassailable majority in the legislature – this apparently was a priority for Cummings et al. The webs of dark money, think tanks, political consultants etc link all sorts of people and organisations together – it’s a fascinating book. The point is that if our social and political systems are also complex systems the changes we’re seeing now are just the start and I suspect the consequences aren’t as predictable as those who’ve set these things in motion would like to believe. To me what this suggests is that at this time its unlikely we’ll be able to create a strategy or set of tactics likely to produce the change we desire. To impact the climate crisis we’d need unified action on a massive scale across the world and yet all the drivers are in place to push things in the other direction. What strategy does anyone have in place to reverse that.

    Tyson Yunkaporta says that the Australian aboriginals say if you don’t move with the land the land will move you. I think the land is moving and downshifting may well be a good way to move with it.

  14. Thanks for all these fascinating comments. I’ve decided to develop some of the issues raised here in my next couple of blog posts, so I’m going to hold fire for now. I’m kind of with Bruce on a waning interest in tactics of dissent but the underlying issues I find actually quite interesting in probing at the politics necessary to create the possibility of a small farm future.

    For reasons of brevity, I probably won’t be able to respond to all the points that people have raised here in my upcoming posts, but I sincerely appreciate all of them nonetheless. Please do keep commenting – I always learn something from everyone on this site.

    Just to clarify re Andrew’s kind comments, unlike last October I didn’t get arrested this time around – I was due to be involved in a rather entertaining action that in the end didn’t happen. My wife and son did, however, do more cell time. Not that it’s a numbers game. Well, actually it kind of is…

    See you here again soon, I hope.

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