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 It is effectively business as usual with even their verbal commitments to meeting the outdated and insufficient targets of the Paris Agreement barely worth the paper they are written on.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.

4 Responses to “A new direction needed for Extinction Rebellion?”

  1. 1 steve deeming
    August 24, 2019 at 20:45

    Whilst , on the whole,I might agree with you and the advertisements that are interspersed in the article somehow must be in response to a button I pressed eleswhere, the simple fact that there is advertising space shows me how insidious capitalism is ….that your article requires that space in order to be promulgated…..do you see what the implications are?

    • August 24, 2019 at 22:28

      Well I either allow the adverts or pay WordPress.com more money to get an advert-free site.

      Capitalism is indeed insidious – I am unsure what the implications are that you refer to. Other than it needs to be overthrown and replaced with a new socio-economic system based on meeting human needs and wants rather than one based on profit maximisation and capital accumulation.

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