Last October Extinction Rebellion (XR) burst onto the scene with some impressive coordinated actions and a very slick social media game. Their message, branding, analysis and goals aren’t complex, and there have been no dearth of criticism or even outright hostility to this movement from radicals and anarchists. A lot of this criticism assumes that XR both share politics and goals with the radical wings that have been quick to dismiss them. It also seems to have a lack of understanding of what XR is actually trying to do.
Those of us who believe in direct action can understand the necessity of blocking roads and breaking laws. If the fash are marching down the road, or the coal trucks are leaving the open cast, then you need to get in their way and that involves blocking traffic. Extinction Rebellion however aren’t blocking the sites of climate destruction, they’re blocking busy roads in major cities simply to cause trouble. There’s no coal mines on North Bridge, so why block it? Extinction Rebellion isn’t a direct action campaign, it’s a campaign of civil disobedience, and there is a massive difference.
Direct action is about people taking power, destroying things that destroy them, actively challenging the state or corporations who threaten us and the planet, by targeting them at the source. Civil disobedience on the other hand is about disrupting society and the status quo until your demands are met. It is about causing so much trouble that the state is forced to act or negotiate. Blockading a port to disrupt timber imports is direct action. Blockading the streets outside Westminster to put pressure on the state to ban timber imports is civil disobedience.
Direct action is a key principle of anarchist politics, because it is not only a successful and empowering way of changing the world around you, but because it is also the end goal. We believe in people having the power to change their own lives, and not have the state rule on our behalf. Extinction Rebellion’s demands are for the state to be the main agent of change in regards to climate change and transforming society and the economy to reduce emissions. If you understand their goal then their strategy makes a lot more sense.
One criticism of XR I have seen time and again is that the group is both naive and too young or lacking in historical perspective. Apart from being patronising I think this comes with a certain level of naivety in itself. These actions and strategy aren’t coming out of nowhere, they come from a certain politics with a certain understanding of history and the state. We shouldn’t be surprised that a group that doesn’t believe in overthrowing the state is cosy with the police. Who’s going to stop people driving old diesels if there’s no police? It’s like being surprised that the Labour Party is contesting a general election. They were never against the state.
In less than a year XR has gone from about 100 academics signing a call out to 10,000 people blocking roads and risking arrest shutting down the major roads through London. While we can probably all think of ways which we could put 10,000 people up for breaking the law to better use, we need to be honest about why that hasn’t happened. XR have a relatively simple message, a simple solution, and an easy way to get involved. They have put a lot of effort into building their movement, with training and awareness raising and a steady escalation of action. Radicals in this country have very little understanding of how to build movements and momentum. We expect people to walk in off the streets ready and willing with the perfect politics and the dedication required. We need to be honest about how more liberal or reformist projects appeal to large numbers of people, and we need to work out how to emulate that success. The best rhetoric and the spikiest graphics aren’t worth anything if we don’t have the numbers to be a threat.
Extinction Rebellion is currently the most radical and effective environmental movement in the UK right now. That situation has only come about because of a massive hole where an anti-state anti-capitalist direct action movement should be. Liberals aren’t going to organise it for us. There is a massive need for something better but it’s not going to come out of slagging XR, or pretending that it was something it never was.
About the author:
I’ve been involved in anarchist struggle for long enough to be cynical but still involved enough to get excited by shiny new things. I’m a Scottish working class white male, so my writing will reflect that background. I welcome feedback and criticism.
Feature Image taken from Extinction Rebellion’s Facebook Page