17
Feb
20

A critique of XR Story-Vision in 2020

In the wake of the debacle of Roger Hallam’s blunder over the holocaust at the end of 2019 there has been some rethinking in Extinction Rebellion (XR) over some elements of the strategy which Hallam had been particularly associated with.

Three central members of XRUK have produced a small pamphlet (Rushing the Emergency, Rushing the Rebellion? – Story and Vision for XR in 2020) outlining some potential changes in strategy they want discussed in the wider movement. They describe their roles with XR as follows:

Marc Lopatin, is a volunteer communications strategist for Media & Messaging and co-ordinator/co-founder of XR-supported Truthteller.Life (an online whistle-blower gateway).

Skeena Rathor is co-founder of the XRUK Vision Sensing Circle and a member of the Political Circle.

Prof. Rupert Read is co-convenor of XR Political Liaison and a national spokesperson for XR.

Opening up a discussion on the need to move on from the current XR strategy is a development that should be supported:

This chapter is therefore an invitation for rebels to coalesce around a new external story. One that’s human-centric as opposed to ‘environmental’. And built around the near-term risk evidenced by the vulnerability of our civilisation to increasingly locked-in, unpredictable, and extreme weather. Above all, the aim of a new story is to inspire movement building a precursor for realising XR UK’s strategy for accelerating the coming of system change.

The hard work of getting real action – i.e. system-changing initiatives that come anywhere close to achieving the urgent and essential task of reducing emissions – is going to require far deeper engagement with a far more powerful story.

However, the specific changes in strategy being put forward in this pamphlet are not much more than cosmetic. The old underlying perspective of somehow convincing the fossil fuel capitalists and their international financial backers to change their ways remains untouched. As is the unlikely fantasy of a just transition to a sustainable future being compatible with a social system based on maximisation of the legalised theft known as profit, continual market-based growth and capital accumulation.

Their “new story” sees the billionaires who rule our planet as part of a unitary one with the most exploited poor who those self-same billionaires exploit as the basis for their obscene wealth. Under this fantasy we can all work together to help capitalism shed its nasty destructive tendencies and somehow peacefully and willingly “evolve” into what is essentially its direct negation as a socio-economic system.

At the core of the new story is a vision for overcoming this vulnerability, by displacing inequality at the local, national, and global level. It is informed by the truth that no community, country or continent will be an island, to paraphrase John Donne, if business-as-usual is allowed to prevail. Despite what some billionaires believe, none of them will be looking down at the rest of us from a space station anytime soon. It is, above all, a story about how Mother Nature is making us all one.

The intention is to demonstrate we are on the side of working people without coming across as ideologically-motivated class warriors. This underscores the shift in storyline and its telling through embodied actions.

It says: if you’re a believer in social justice, and deeply concerned by the real threat of climate breakdown, be part of XR. If you would like capitalism to evolve beyond its destructive tendencies, and are deeply concerned by the real threat of climate breakdown, be part of XR.

The logical implication of this is that if you draw the much more rational conclusion that to avert a catastrophic ecological collapse capitalism has to be ended with the processes of production, distribution and exchange taken out of private hands, or that any just transition to a sustainable future where inequality has been permanently displaced is also incompatible with capitalism’s inherent inequality – then you aren’t welcome in XR.

As one of those “ideologically-motivated class warriors “and a member of an explicitly anti-capitalist XR affinity group (Radical Rebellion), I reject this viewpoint. The perspective outlined in this pamphlet is essentially green-washing capitalism and should be rejected by XR.

05
Feb
20

Revolutionary Marxism & Ireland’s 2020 election

Marxists recognise that capitalist parliaments represent organs of class rule that are designed to protect and advance the interests of those on top, rather than to function as vehicles for fundamental social change. Yet the capitalist election process can be a useful gauge of support for revolutionary ideas when candidates stand who advocate an explicitly anti-capitalist programme. When this is not possible, revolutionaries can intervene by critically analysing the platforms of those running and, depending on what they propose, offering critical electoral support to working-class candidates. The essential precondition for any support is that candidates draw a clear class line and are advocates for the separate interests of the working class.

The continuing domination of the capitalist system of production for profit threatens the entire planet with endless wars and ecological collapse. Marxists assess electoral candidates on their advocacy of policies pointing towards the socialisation of the processes of production, distribution and exchange which, given the commitment to the ecologically damaging attitude of “business as usual” by international capitalism, is a necessary component of any realistic plan to avert a catastrophic ecological and social collapse.

As usual, most options before the Irish electorate fail these rudimentary tests with candidates who either explicitly, or implicitly, commit to the continuation of capitalism and a multi-class “we the people” approach. Likewise even the most radical sounding among the pro-capitalist parties, i.e., the Greens, do not go beyond suggesting adjustments to capitalism.

The exceptions to the mainstream are the “far-left” candidates in the Solidarity–People before Profit parliamentary bloc (Solidarity – initiated by the Socialist Party; People before Profit [PbP] – initiated by the Socialist Worker Party & RISE – recent split from the Socialist Party). All these organisations claim to be socialist and to represent the interests of the working class.

However the PbP election manifesto argues:

“Our Election Manifesto 2020 is inspired by hope for a fairer economy and a better society. The proposals laid out below have been fully costed and rely on wealth and income distribution that targets the top 7% of the population. This group will still have a considerably more than the average worker after our proposals and the benefit of living in a more cohesive and healthy society.

“People Before Profit want a 32-county socialist republic, which puts needs of people and the planet before the profits of the few. This manifesto is designed to move the country in this direction.”
– People Before Profit 2020 Manifesto
(https://manifesto.pbp.ie/wp-content/uploads/2020/01/People-Before-Profit-General-Election-Manifesto-2020.pdf)

So to paraphrase: PbP are for a socialist republic of ome form sometime in the distant future – but in the here and now they keep their demands modest enough to not unduly rock the boat. Supporters of PbP who consider themselves socialists of some kind presumably hope that a reformist manifesto reflecting the existing consciousness of the working class by raising minimum demands might embolden the class to fight for more and perhaps eventually lead to the development of revolutionary anti-capitalist consciousness.

Certainly it is true that workers, both as individuals and as a class, come to revolutionary consciousness through their experience in the class struggle, which tends to involve a fight for immediate reforms. In all such campaigns there is also an opportunity for political struggle between the politics of reform and revolution. One of the primary roles of Marxists is changing the political consciousness of the working class from a class in itself to a class for itself. This requires involvement in struggles for immediate reforms within capitalism.

The PbP approach of presenting a programme of reforms, with socialism relegated to just an aspiration for an unknown future, cannot begin to change working-class consciousness. Even the most militant sections of the Irish working class are currently dominated by reformist consciousness. The PbP Manifesto only reinforces that reformism.

The history of class struggle has very few examples of the spontaneous development of revolutionary consciousness simply through participation in the class struggle. The pull of reformism, a bourgeois ideology within the workers’ movement, is much more pernicious than was thought in the latter part of the 19th Century when the Marxist movement was young. The political betrayals by most of the socialist parties, who backed their own capitalists at the outbreak of WWI, demonstrated that having a single party within which reformist, centrist and revolutionary workers co-existed, acts as a brake on the development of revolutionary consciousness. To make progress it was necessary for the revolutionary wings of these parties to split from the reformist wings, as in the Russian Revolution of 1917, led by the Bolshevik Party, which was a “party of a new sort”—a party of the revolutionary vanguard. Since that time the understanding of the need for political struggle against reformism has been at the very heart of revolutionary Marxism.

Leon Trotsky’s Transitional Programme was designed to provide a framework for connecting immediate campaigns for specific reforms which workers with confused reformist consciousness support, to the necessity to go beyond capitalist private property and to fight for a workers’ government based on the socialisation of the means of transport, production and communication.

Despite occasional nods towards Trotskyism, PbP’s detailed programme on climate change – Planet Before Profit: A Manifesto for Radical Climate Action (https://eco.pbp.ie/wp-content/uploads/2020/01/People-Befire-Profit-Ecosocialist-Manifesto.pdf) omits any mention of the necessity of a working class struggle for power. While making many sensible technical suggestions for social change it still leaves most of the essential elements of a modern economy in private hands (apart from the proposal for the nationalisation of big agri-business).

Solidarity is not as cravenly timid as PbP. While completely ignoring the central question of state power – as the ruling class will under no circumstances voluntarily give up their privileges peacefully – Solidarity proposes nationalisations rather than expropriations of capitalist property. Trotsky explicitly distinguished between expropriation and “the muddleheaded reformist slogan of ‘nationalization’” in the Transitional Programme, as demarcating those who want to find an accommodation with big capital, and those who seek its overthrow. Solidarity does propose much more sweeping social changes than PbP and attempts to link these to a socialist transformation of society. (https://www.solidarity.ie/principles)

RISE, as a right-wing split from the Socialist Party, sits somewhere politically between Solidarity and People before Profit.

There has been an increasing clamour for an electoral position of “anyone except FF [Fianna Fáil] or FG [Fine Gael]”—a position supported and actively encouraged by the would-be socialist electoral parties. This approach mistakes seeing FF & FG parliamentary dominance as “the problem” when the real obstacle is the capitalist system itself. Changing the dynamics of which capitalist parties are playing leading roles in government coalitions – to go from the big two to include SF in a new big three who take turns – will not fundamentally improve the lives of working people. Any coalition of capitalist parties in power will act in the interests of the ruling class of this country (the multi-nationals, mainly US & British, which dominate the economy and their smaller Irish cousins).

This proposition of “anyone except FF or FG” perpetuates the illusion that bourgeois parliamentarianism can be progressive. This approach stops working people from drawing the necessary conclusion that gains for the working class, even parliamentary reforms, come only as a result of militant class struggle. It is a travesty that the so-called “far-left” are actively selling this lie to the working class.

The only option for real pro-worker social change (and averting catastrophic ecological collapse) is building new organisations which stand on the principle of working-class political independence from all capitalist parties (no matter how “left” or “progressive” they claim to be during the election shell game of half-truths and outright lies). There is no secret parliamentary bullet to end the inequality of capitalist society – only the organised working class engaging in militant class struggle, up to and including the overthrow of capitalism, can do that.

The Irish ruling class was shocked by the strength of the campaigns against Household and Water charges, especially the beginnings of self-organisation of workingclass communities in the struggle against water metre installations in the mid-2010s. Giving Sinn Féin a greater role at the political top table is a small price to pay for diverting that dangerous development back into the political safety of parliamentarianism.

A significant indicator of the shape of the upcoming election is that the two main capitalist parties, Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael, are polling so low that they may end up sharing less than 50% of the vote. This has led to a great deal of speculation about a progressive/left coalition government. Most advocates of such a development conceive of such a government as including every party and independent candidate to the left of the two main parties, including the bourgeois nationalists of Sinn Féin. Michael Taft, a political analyst for SIPTU (the second biggest trade union in Ireland), has described its make-up as follows:

“Sinn Féin represented the nationalist Left; Labour and the Social Democrats were (unsurprisingly) the social democrats; People Before Profit, Solidarity and the Independents4Change represented the radical Left; and then the Greens, who represented the ecologists.”
https://tribunemag.co.uk/2020/01/irelands-historic-opportunity

People before Profit is explicitly promoting the idea of this kind of “grand coalition” of the left (https://www.breakingnews.ie/ireland/richard-boyd-barrett-calls-for-united-front-of-the-left-to-end-fffg-dominance-978701.html) RISE leader, Paul Murphy, supported this approach at a recent press conference held with PbP (https://www.facebook.com/watch/?v=153641269418916).

Solidarity TD Mick Barry backed the idea of such a “left” government during a televised debate between the parties on Thursday, 30 January. He responded to a question on possible post-election coalitions by calling on Sinn Féin to come out in opposition to a coalition with either Fianna Fáil or Fine Gael, and opined that if the two big capitalist parties do not get a majority then Solidarity–People before Profit would talk to all other parties about forming a government. Apart from this statement, he struck a posture as an advocate of working-class interests, in contrast to the other participants, especially with his call for a national strike to defend the pension retirement age.

So what will happen if after the election the numbers make this “grand coalition of the left” a real possibility and Sinn Féin reject a coalition with either Fianna Fáil or Fine Gael as Paul and Mick demand? It is pretty clear that Solidarity & RISE would then incline to join PbP in a coalition with capitalist Sinn Féin and the other smaller “leftist” capitalist parties. That would mean participation in what Marxists call a Popular Front government – in this case one led by a capitalist party. It is a very dubious sort of “socialist” political leadership that doesn’t even recognise the class line and promotes the reformist dead-end of unity with the “progressive” capitalists.

The strategy of cross-class coalitionism explicitly repudiates the central axis of socialist politics—the necessity for the workers’ movement to remain independent from the bourgeoisie. Leon Trotsky, co-leader with Vladimir Lenin of the Russian Revolution, declared in 1936 that “the Popular Front is the main question of proletarian class strategy for this epoch” and as such provides “the best criterion for the difference between Bolshevism and Menshevism” (“The POUM and the Popular Front”).

Reformist parties involved in popular fronts are not necessarily more likely to govern in the interests of the capitalist class than they would if they held power on their own. But when they act as a component of a Popular Front, their working-class character is effectively suspended and the contradiction between their ostensible socialism and their openly pro-capitalist actions is therefore suppressed. Voting for candidates committed to cross-class coalitionism can only hold back the class struggle. Trotsky’s observation that “All the Popular Fronts in Europe are only a pale copy and often a caricature of the Russian Popular Front of 1917” is just as true today as it was in the 1930s. Given the existential crisis of ecological collapse facing humanity in the next few decades, this betrayal of basic socialist principle is particularly odious. The tactic of critical support is only applicable to those who claim to stand in defence of the interests of the working class. Revolutionaries advocate a vote to such candidates while criticising the deficiencies and contradictions in the programme they advance which mean that they will fail to deliver on their promises. By giving them electoral support whilst warning that they will disappoint their base should they be elected, it is possible to shatter illusions and demonstrate the qualitative superiority of revolutionary politics over reformism.

In this election there is no basis for Marxists to give critical support to the left-reformist workers’ parties in the Solidarity-People before Profit electoral bloc which openly advertise their willingness to participate in a popular-frontist government, a policy which violates the core Marxist political principle of working-class political independence and is directly counterposed to the necessary policies required to launch a serious struggle to avert catastrophic ecological collapse. Marxists can only advise workers in this election to spoil their ballots, because working class political independence is the only basis for serious struggle against capitalist rule and the climate catastrophe it is creating.

 

17
Jan
20

Latest global warming projections

This graphic taken from the excellent Climate Action Tracker web site outlines the very dangerous situation humanity now faces:

 
CAT-Thermometer-2019.09-3BarsText.width-1110

 

In my political activity around climate change, in Extinction Rebellion and elsewhere, I keep running up a strange blind spot with most activists.

This is the reality that under the rule of capital there is no hope of preventing a catastrophic ecological collapse.

The big oil and gas companies (backed by trillions from finance capital) are committed to continued exploitation of fossil fuels over at least the next couple of decades. This is not a secret – for instance see the Economist article The Truth About Big Oil and Climate Change

There is a belief among many climate change activists that it is possible to just stop these particular companies through different government policies and regulations without stopping capitalism as a whole system. I would argue that this is just a political fantasy. It doesn’t deal with the reality that these companies – fossil fuel and finance – completely dominate international capitalism in the 21st century. As any of the various lists of the “top x” companies in the world will outline.

But even if I am wrong and it is indeed somehow possible to bring the oil and gas barons to heel and create this fantasy of a “green capitalism” that manages to avert a catastrophic ecological and social collapse there are still problems with this supposedly more “realistic” approach. Because of the ecological damage already locked in from our insanity as a species to this point even if humanity took the most optimal action now there is still going to be massive social dislocation and suffering –  likely beyond anything seen outside of the World Wars of the last century and perhaps even worse than that.

We already live in a world of obscene inequality and untold human suffering – even without the elements of that horror which are directly related to climate change and the other elements of ecological destruction. Our rulers in the capitalist class (all its parts) have been quite happy to reap the massive benefits from their position at the top of that social system with no care for the human and ecological damage caused.

I therefore consider it bizarre to believe that a “green” capitalist class would somehow put aside their personal interests in profit maximisation and capital accumulation (thereby effectively stopping being capitalists) to allow the level of planning and coordination on an international scale that will provide mitigation against this locked in devastation and guide humanity as a whole through a just transition to a sustainable future.

I therefore believe it is important to recognise that unless stopping capitalism (in whatever way people might think that could come about – and there are plenty of discussions to be had about that) is included as an integral central part of all the things that need to be done then all of those other things aren’t going to stop the inevitable outcome. At best they will give humanity a few more years, or decades at most, before an inevitable collapse into horrific barbarism and quite possibly even leading to our extinction as a species.

I know this is a difficult thing to confront and I recognise that the chances of success are tiny. However it does at least offer a realistic glimmer of hope that is consistent with the truth about the sick reality of capitalism as a social system and its continuing role in the destruction of the Earth.

19
Nov
19

The contradiction at the heart of Extinction Rebellion

Extinction Rebellion launched a “Global Hunger Strike” yesterday – https://rebellion.earth/event/global-hunger-strike

The statement announcing the launch starts by saying:

On November 18th the Extinction Rebellion Global Hunger Strike will officially launch to demand that governments act on the climate and ecological emergency that threatens the extinction of a million species, the collapse of civilizations and the death of billions of humans.

It finishes:

Extinction Rebellions three demands are clearly aimed at the central governments and authorities in each country. However, hunger striking is a form of protest which is based on bringing forward compassion from the power holders. The major assumption is that if you suffer, the opponent will see your suffering and will be moved to change his heart. But in order for this to work, the opponent must have a conscience. The governments, corporations and power holders in the world do not have a conscience. Therefore the hunger striking is in essence aimed towards the public, to showcase the lack of compassion and penetrating self-interest that is prevalent in governments and in the people in power.

If that conclusion is telling the truth about our capitalist rulers in business and governments (as all the evidence indicates) then why does XR continue with a strategy based on trying to convince them to do what is necessary?

Surely it is time to change tack away from that pointless strategy and start putting some reality into XR’s calls for “system change”. Developing a strategy based on mass mobilisation aimed at removing our rulers from power and creating a new society that is both ecologically sustainable and based on meeting human needs rather than maximising profits and capital accumulation as at present.

An argument is sometimes made within XR that the movement’s strategy is about mobilising the masses who will find out first hand that demands on the government will be ignored. The first step is to get people taking part in XR actions, then they will become frustrated and together create something that works.

There is one obvious problem with that approach.

It breaks the principle which is supposedly at the heart of XR – to tell the truth. If it is the truth that our capitalist rulers will not do what is necessary then XR should say so.

Instead XR are actually contributing to the problem by spreading the lie that it is possible for our capitalist rulers to be convinced to fundamentally change their minds/actions.

XR sometimes says (as per this most recent statement on the hunger strike) that the rulers of the current system are unwilling/incapable of making the required changes – that would seem to be an unsolvable contradiction.

If XR really believes that the existing system requires changing in some fundamental way if humanity is to avert catastrophic social and ecological collapse (as I believe is the case) then XR should not be encouraging, in any way, the idea that the rulers of our current system can do what is required – as we know that is a lie.

If XR doesn’t think this is a lie and instead that enough pressure can really force our rulers to act then XR should stop talking about system change.

23
Aug
19

A new direction needed for Extinction Rebellion?

A fellow Extinction Rebellion (XR) activist in Cork recently referred me to this interview with Roger Hallam on the BBC’s HARDtalk show:


This new approach is outlined in more detail in a recent much longer talk Hallam gave in Penzance, Cornwall:

Regular readers of this blog will know that I have been very critical of Hallam’s general perspectives on XR and its role in the struggle to avert catastrophic ecological collapse.

However on the basis of this interview and the new “Time to Act Now” presentation it seems there might be the beginnings of movement towards more of a consensus.

Hallam is correct that capitalism is destroying the very basis for its continued existence as a result of its inability to make the fundamental social changes required to avert catastrophic ecological collapse.

I have sometimes heard this recognition that capitalism is destroying itself used as a justification for opposing the idea that XR needs to take on an anti-capitalist perspective. Why bother taking on the difficult task of building an anti-capitalist movement if capitalism is going to do the job for us anyway?

But those who make such arguments would do well to dwell on Hallam’s prediction for what happens if capitalism does simply collapse as a coherent social system in the face of the ecological crisis.

Social chaos and a collapse of civilisation as a result of mass starvation with 6 billion dead by the end of the century.

Sure capitalism as we understand it won’t exist in that world but the untold horrors that will have occurred as a result of its collapse don’t bear thinking about and must be avoided at all costs.

One thing that immediately springs to mind from this interview is where does it leave XR’s demands on capitalist governments to tell the truth and take decisive action against climate change? Hallam correctly outlines the reality that the capitalist elites and their governments have lied to us, continue to do so and they show no signs of stopping telling those lies. It is effectively business as usual with even their verbal commitments to meeting the outdated and insufficient targets of the Paris Agreement barely worth the paper they are written on.

So why should XR continue to make, what must therefore be completely pointless, demands on capitalist governments to tell the truth and act accordingly when they have so clearly shown they are not prepared to do either of those things?

This is the truth of where we are and that should have some consequences for what our demands are and how we organise. Hallam is right to say in the interview that a revolution is coming. He further says:

“If the elites don’t respond to non-violent action then you know what’s going to come next – people other than Extinction Rebellion will use violence. That’s what’s coming down the road.”

Later he says:

“A critical mass of people are starting to realise what’s going on, which is that the elites and the governments aren’t actually going to do anything. They are not going to fulfill their primary responsibility which is to look after the people.”

As an aside I would dispute the idea that the primary responsibility of a capitalist government has anything to do with looking after the mass of the people – that is a myth they perpetuate to help contain social struggles within acceptable limited boundaries. Their real primary responsibility is to facilitate the operation of the market and the obscene capital accumulation that results from that.

But what is clear from this comment, even if Hallam doesn’t seem to realise it, is that he has just said that the current XR strategy of trying to force the elites and their governments into taking the action required to avert the coming catastrophe has no possibility of success.

There is an argument that making these demands on the government exposes their to either tell the truth or act accordingly. That is true but the demands don’t just do that. They also imply that the government can actually do these things.

However the more XR highlights the truth that the elites and their governments have been lying to us, are lying to us and there is no evidence that they plan to stop lying to us along with it being clear that is business as usual for them the more the demands on them to do otherwise start to lose there efficacy as a propaganda tool.

More importantly the current perspective is a problem in terms of what it means for the time and resources XR are committing to this effectively pointless strategy and associated demands.

Hallam is of course absolutely right that disruption tactics and personal sacrifice by activists will indeed be an integral part of our struggle. But without a coherent strategy for dealing with the reality of the unwillingness/inability of the elites and their governments to do what is necessary that disruption and personal sacrifice will not be enough. The level of civil disobedience disruption required to actually achieve the level of social change required to both avert the worst of the coming catastrophe and to have a just transition that can deal with the effects of ecological collapse that are already locked in is also far greater than what he is projecting.

The examples that Hallam refers to in the longer public talk of victorious campaigns of civil disobedience actually provides confirmation of my contention about their limitations.

None of these campaigns got anywhere near the level of social change that is required now. As Hallam says. we need fundamental system change – not just a change in some policies or in the specific make-up of those who rule us.

  • Are the Indian masses free of exploitation after changing their governmental rulers from British to local Indians?
  • Are African Americans in the USA free from racist persecution as a result of the formal end of Jim Crow segregation?
  • Has the fossil fuel industry, backed by trillions of $/€/£ from international finance capital, stopped, or even slowed, its operations as a result of successful direct action divestment campaigns in universities?
  • Was a real climate emergency and climate action plan worthy of the name implemented by the British government as the result of the XR disruption in central London in April?

Unfortunately the answer to each of these questions is a resounding No. While I think it is simplistic to view these campaigns in isolation from other developments in social struggle it is certainly true that these campaigns and actions resulted in immediate victories, of varying degree, which all progressive people would have supported. However they were not the kind of “structural changes” Hallam says are necessary – at least not on the magnitude of structural social change we need to confront the coming social and ecological catastrophes.

The simple truth is that we need to end the rule of private capital.

All this points to the need for XR to change its strategy to an openly anti-capitalist perspective.

Fundamental changes in how our society produces, distributes and consumes things need to be made to avert the horrors that are otherwise coming. If the capitalist elite are not going to make those changes (as Hallam states – and I agree with him) then how will it happen?

It can only be achieved by, alongside the disruptive civil disobedience, building alternative social governance structures as part of an explicitly revolutionary anti-capitalist movement. A movement which can replace capitalism before the horrors resulting from a collapsing capitalist system become too much for any kind of coherent social response to make any difference. Such a social collapse, in the absence of a revolutionary movement capable of providing an alternative social structure, would mean it was not possible to prevent a descent into horrific social barbarism and even potential extinction as a species.

03
Aug
19

A contribution to the XR discussion on strategy and non-violence

I was recently referred to a video of XR leading figure Roger Hallam where he outlines his understanding of the XR strategy and how non-violence fits into that.

Unfortunately as an XR activist in Cork I would find it impossible to promote the core elements of his message without that meaning I was lying to myself and whoever I was discussing it with.

Hallam says (at just after 6 minutes):

“…it’s about …getting things into a situation that you can actually get into the room with government and that’s what it’s about.”

Frankly that is not how I would understand a rebellion against the government and socio-economic establishment as described in the Declaration of Rebellion document circulated by XR. Instead Hallam is presenting a plan for negotiation with the political representatives of the capitalist socio-economic system that has got us into this existential crisis.

At about 7:40 he uses statistics about success vs failure for non-violent vs violent uprisings. This is used to justify his extreme “non-violence under any circumstances” position. However the actual piece of research being referred to does not define the term “non-violent” and only defines “violent” social struggles as those where more than 1,000 people died – which by implication means “non-violent” social struggles are those where 1000 or fewer people died. (https://www.mitpressjournals.org/doi/pdf/10.1162/isec.2008.33.1.7?fbclid=IwAR3L_IOVsruDGvBeUjR0OxWeKdpq05flzNXB7g2YSQ0WG1VIVbFANAX83hc&)

Hallam is therefore making a semantic conflation of two quite different understandings of the term “non-violent”. His claim that his version of non-violence as the route to social change is “massively more effective than violence” (12:00) is not backed up by the actual research in his “gold standard” study.

My understanding that non-violent protest includes the right to self-defence if attacked would certainly fall within the research study’s implied use of the term “non-violent”. I know there are some in XR Cork/Ireland who reject that view and certainly it is at odds with Hallam’s sacrificial approach of just “taking it” (just after 11 minutes) – be that beatings or even death! But I also know that there are a good number of other XR activists who share my view.

I was involved in successful semi-mass (we were approaching the much quoted 3.5% figure of active participants in Cobh and certainly had more than that in terms of support who would come out on a protest march) non-violent direct action in Cobh during the campaign against water charges and meter installations (including being one of those arrested in non-violently disrupting meter installations). But this did not involve a perspective of rejecting the right to self-defence if things got nasty. We did not instigate any violence but the meter installers and Gardai knew that if they had been violent towards us then it would not have gone easily for them.

There are many places on the earth, primarily in the global south, where there are truly fearless activists for social change, including environmental activists, who do get beaten and killed. But unfortunately that actually doesn’t simply mean “that is when you win” (11:39) as Hallam claims.

I do not accept his false dichotomy that “for 30 years we’ve had, you know, particularly in the Western world we’ve just had the NGOs, send an email, send a cheque – obviously hasn’t worked. And then we’ve just had violence, you know with the young guys throwing stones and all the rest of it.” (12:12)

Certainly those two failed strategies have existed but to reduce all social struggle in the past 30 years to just those two alternatives is fatuous. Especially for someone who claims to have done serious study of movements for social change.

The real irony is I agree completely with his statement that “it’s over in terms of conventional campaigning right, we’ve had 30 years of it. And the reason it’s over is because we’ve all realised that it’s not going to change because there’s too many people making too much money out of destroying the world – ok. That’s just the way it is. So what we have to do is find a method of struggle that is going to deal with that in the most optimal way.” (13:08)

But then Hallam returns to his false dichotomy:

“So what I’ve been trying to communicate is the whole NGO thing is great but it doesn’t work and the whole violence thing is great but it doesn’t work – right. So what we’ve got is this thing which combines the best of both worlds – right. It’s like, it’s nice in so much as it’s non-violent but it’s super disruptive like violence – right. So it’s the best of both worlds.”
(13:38)

It is like the struggles of the organised working class were completely off the table as an option.

In debate terms what Hallam is doing here is creating a false dichotomy fallacy to then justify a middle-ground fallacy. And all based on an appeal to authority fallacy which is actually misrepresenting the content of the authority being appealed to.

But even if someone is convinced by Hallam’s jumbled logic chopping it gets worse:

“So what this civil resistance model means is really actually straightforward. Obviously there are variations on the theme but it means this. There are a number of key criteria. First of all you have to go to the capital city. Why? Because that’s where the elites are. That’s where the government is. That’s where the rich and powerful are. And all the rest of it. And you have to disrupt their lives. They’re not bothered about people doing things in the jungle or you know on the periphery. That’s just like ‘whatever’ for them. But if you’re going to block like Westminster for a week they’re going to get upset – you can absolutely guarantee that, right.”
(14:06)

There is something of a myth that “London was shut down” during the April “Rebellion”. Certainly a fair amount of disruption was caused in a few parts of the centre of the city but London was far from “shut down”. I highly doubt if any of the top layer of the rich and powerful who make all the big decisions had their lives disrupted to any significant degree. There was probably some impact on the cash flow and profits of those retailers close to the disrupted bridges and perhaps some people were late for work or had longer travel journeys but for the most part it was business as usual for British capitalism.

“So the second thing is obviously as we’ve talked about it’s got to be non-violent. Because lots of good people are going to come down onto the streets of the capital and they haven’t heard anything about non-violence and you need to have pieces of paper and people going around saying ‘this is the deal’ right. And you think that might be difficult. It’s not difficult as long as you’ve set that culture already in train. Do you see what I mean? Because most people are herd animal types. Then they are just going to go ‘they’re not going to be violent, so I’m not’ – do you see what I mean?”

Obviously the thing that jumps out here is the “most people are herd animal types” comment. Presumably that excludes the XR leaders like Hallam – who are the enlightened ones dong the herding. If this patronising approach to rank-and-file activists genuinely represents the culture of the XR leadership then something is very wrong indeed.

“The third thing is you need a load of people to do it – alright. Not millions right, you don’t need a national uprising. You need something between 20,000 and 30,000 people.”

Of course this depends on what the “it” that needs doing is. If all you want is to get enough publicity from your disruptive stunts that gets you into meetings with government ministers then he is probably more or less right on the numbers. But if you want real change in “our toxic system” so that no longer will there be “too many people making too much money out of destroying the world” then a national (actually international) uprising is exactly what will be required.

“And then this is what happens. You’ve got those three criteria. Capital city, non-violence and lots of people. There is a fourth criteria – it’s got to be fun – right. So all these big like mobilisations they have pop stars coming, and singing, and theatre and sand-pits for the kids. You know what I mean? You’re basically prefiguring a society through your resistance struggle – ok.”

So “pop stars coming, and singing, and theatre and sand-pits for the kids” is what the new society will be about? Maybe that will be part of it but far more important will be the new forms of social governance so that the decisions that affect our lives are made truly democratically and in the interests of meeting human needs and wants rather than by a tiny handful in the name of profit maximisation and maintaining and extending the current gross levels of income inequality.

Apparently what takes this strategy “into the stratosphere of political effectiveness” (16:48) is by it being not just a one-off event but day-after-day. Once again it is all about negotiation with a system where there are “too many people making too much money out of destroying the world”. It makes me wonder if the real aim is not to replace that toxic system but rather to reform it so that it is just “not so many people making not so much money out of destroying the world”. It is certainly hard to see where the idea of a “just transition” fits in to negotiating with the captialist system which is inherently unjust.

This video of Hallam was posted on 3 March 2019 before the first Rebellion week in London in April and that actually more or less went to Hallam’s plan.

XR got its meeting with senior UK government and opposition parliamentarians and the government announced a “climate emergency”.

But of course it was a completely insufficient “climate emergency” with a “climate action plan” based on carbon neutrality by 2050 at best and it does not legally compel the UK government to take any action so who knows whether even these insufficient targets will be met. Given that the actual “emergency” that will overshadow everything for the next few years is likely to be Brexit any talk of measures to act against climate change which will negatively affect profits will be completely off the table.

A lot more is going to be required if there is to be any chance of averting a catastrophic ecological collapse. Instead of symbolic protests in big cities aimed at causing traffic disruption there has to be a move towards disruption of the productive processes of those contributing to green house gas emissions – through both blockades and strikes. And part of that will be creating a movement that knows that self-defence is no offence because when profits are directly threatened the state will take off the kid gloves that have, for the most part, governed their response to XR protests. A movement that is about building alternative forms of social governance rather than the fantasy of pressuring the capitalist government to stop capitalism being capitalist.




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