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.