Current discourses surrounding the role of Extinction Rebellion in the British radical political scene tend either to focus on their effects on climate policy, the supposed success of their methods, the engagement of the youth and of people previously not deeply political, or tend to offer moral or technical criticisms of their relationship with the police and the security state. While this subject has been written about in those terms elsewhere, broader strategic alternatives are, with some exceptions, yet to emerge in force from the organisations that XR has come to compete with in the radical political scene. An assessment of the current disposition of the wider UK anticapitalist movement indicates that while the current forces available are largely ineffective, we do have a range of strategic options available to prioritize in the current circumstances.
Extinction Rebellion and Established Radicals
Extinction Rebellion has, in its role as an agitating/XR has had a fairly profound effect on British radical politics, especially with regard to the debate surround its arrest-focused tactics. The stated reasoning for their well documented method of protest is that the XR leadership seeks to demonstrate a high degree of popular commitment to a much more radical climate policy being enacted by the state. Existing criticisms of this approach abound far and wide on twitter and various major left wing websites, as do expositions of the strengths of XR and its spectacular methods. The main points of detraction, which are viewed as strategically critical by many radical leftists, can be summed up as follows:
1: Deliberately courting arrests endangers activists. This has been written about at lengthbut to sum up, the continuing safety of arrestees is entirely reliant on the cops being in a good mood. Good Moods are not a renewable resource, and eventually someone will get hurt. There is also the matter of prosecutions, which ruin lives, even for minor offences.
2: The dangerous nature of the relationship with the police discourages minority groups from engaging, meaning it will risk trending towards being increasingly bourgeois and centrist in its politics and demographic composition. Trans people, people from minority ethnic groups, migrants, people with criminal records etc, or who have had violent encounters with the police, will be plausibly be less represented.
3: Arrestees require support, which organisations such as Green and Black Cross, or Activist Court Aid Brigade, are frequently relied upon to supply under normal circumstances. Due to the size of XR’s protests, demand has outstripped supply of existing experienced legal observers, legal advisers, and support networks. GBC has also recently suspended operations, and is temprorarily out for the count.
4: If successful, the “ protest to arrest” tactic is fundamentally a method of exerting popular will through existing state machinery. By its own logic, it is about pressuring politicians to act. Accordingly the range of win scenarios are limited according to the structure of an institution that XR has little control over in the long term. This is strategically unsound, and means tactical victories ( Declarations ofa “climate emergency” etc) can be made irellevant in the long term, if the government chooses to promise plums to quench thirst.
5: If unsuccessful, there is no obvious plan B. There is little to no obvious organisational ability to hedge bets against losing, merely an ability to keep slugging it out and flinging volunteers at the police. Essentially this means that a major defeat could disporortionately damage the organisation, as it is heavily reliant on good PR and maintainging momentum.
Fundamentally, XR presents the image of tactical strength ( purely in terms of numbers and PR clout), with that area of strength being structurally combined with a general strategy of guilting the representatives of the State into capitulation via the cumulativepressure of mass arrests upon civil insitutions and societal norms. Much of this derives from XR founder Roger Hallams ( some would argue technically inaccurate) view of non-violent protest. Hallam, and the XR leadership, have arguably misrepresented research into non violent protest in order to build their organisation, and avoid difficult conversations about tactics. This is essentially part of a conscious effort to frame the narrative and control the entire radical ecological movement. This subject has been covered in exceptional detail in the following twitter thread by Andrew Flood:
There is also an excellent video on the topic of XR’s view of non violence, specificaly in relation to other successful political revolutionary movmetns, and the role of the British state in repressing peaceful movements in the UK via violent means in the footnotes to this essay.
In contrast to this, no-one can deny that XR has been very successful in terms of getting people out on the streets and re-opening the public conversation regarding climate change. It has re-opened not only public debates regarding the societal response to rapidly accelerating climate disaster, but has also generated new energy within debates about tactics, popular control of political machinery, and the intersections between environmental and wider political issues. This, alongside the material matter of the sheer number of people it has mobilised, has been its main contribution to the discussions surrounding radical opposition to capitalist led climate change. In response to this some UK leftist groups outside of the parliamentary mainstream have re-mobilised in relation to climate and ecological issues. Pre-existing campaigns such as Earth Strike have had a boost in prominence, and a new united-front organisation spearheaded by, among others, the Anarchist Federation, called Green Anti-Capitalist Front has been formed in the UK.
A cold utilitarian assessment of the situation might lead to a sentiment that if a high quantity of arrests is what it took, then it was worth the sacrifice, and that the radical left can only blame its historical inadequacies for its being able to respond to the pressures brought about by XRs sudden appearance. Indeed, the radical left in the UK has scrambled to respond. However, by comparison the initial waves of XR protests culminated in political leaders agreeing to declare a climate emergency: a paper victory accompanied by no policy changes or alleviation of policing and prosecutions of the arrested activists. It is clear that strategic alternatives are required.
The Need for Alternatives to Mass Arrest
There are tactics & strategies that fall out of the categories of “A-B marches” (a classic staple of normative UK protest politics), “getting everyone arrested” (the XR favourite) and voting for parliamentarian solutions via social democrat mediators.
Fundamentally, the problem with XR is not its confrontational protest method: Social disruption of municipalities is a powerful tool of collective resistance, and direct action tactics like road blocks can be made to work very effectively, due to their inherently asymmetric nature. If XR wasn’t deliberately courting arrest or operating with what many describe as a centrist view of political change then a lot of their tactics would be better received by the radical left. Tactics such as roadblocks, disrupting public infrastructure, guerrilla protests and occupations are not exactly things that Communist, Socialist or other ecological groups would turn their noses up at and are ideally suited to the politics of the Anarchist movement in particular. The key change is doing them on an equally wide scale, but without deliberately getting the volunteer base arrested.
In a general dcisussion about strategy, its important to start by differentiating the different kinds of goals that one might have: the claimed goal of XR and similar organisations is to pressure the government to take legislative and political action to change societal structures and policy. That might not really be what the chief organizers have in the back of their minds ( elements of how the leadership behaves imply to me that they may have a different plan entirely, merely using XR as a vehicle.), but its basically the mission statement. This cannot be the goal of a revolutionary politics in the era of climate change: rather, the question of strategy must be formed in view of a material assessment of goals and abilities. We have much of one and not much of the other, at present. Ive made an assessment of the state and prospects of the militant left in the UK in a much longer piece of writing which i have linked in the footnotes, but to sum it up, the revolutionary left in the UK is extremely weak in comparison to similar movements in the US.
So what do we need?
Ecological Radicalism and Union Organisational principles.
What is needed is to combine the protest/disrupt tactical methods similar to those of XR and Climate Strike style activism with a much more class-and-communities oriented approach to organisational method, together with an ejection of the collaborationist bent towards the police and policy makers. Effectively, we should be combining the high profile maneuvers of XR style efforts, with long term efforts aimed at “deep-organizing”, akin to how Tenants Unions such as Living Rent or ACORN engage in long term community based organizing in order to exert pressure.
In a pair of essays for The Ecologist, titled “ The DNA of Extinction Rebellion” and “The Life of Extinction Rebellion”, writer Graham Jones has advanced the theory that a specific component of XR’s organizing model has been critical to its success: its self-replication system. Basically, XR has, according to Jones, specifically oriented its activities so that there is a self perpetuating feedback loop of people being trained by the group in very basic skills, having been drawn in by the PR operation, and then going on to engage in praxis. This process essentially replicates what Jones calls the organisational DNA of XR. As Jones notes, this is not a new formula:
Some people have argued to me that the autonomous / anarchist left already does all this. In terms of all the parts separately, that’s sometimes true: structure, training and action are nothing new. But it’s in the way these are articulated that the left usually falls down.
Public direct action occurs, but reactively or without being part of any explicit long term strategy. DNA is written out, but its incomplete, its scattered, its written in inaccessible language, and new recruits have to jump through hoops both formal and informal to feel empowered to use them.
And most importantly, the mechanism of replication is weak: training events happen, but only once in a blue moon, on a random day, on some general topic, rather than specifically to feed all the elements of the DNA to a new group of people, and to allow them to immediately use it without supervision.
If you’re too slow, its too late: the training has to absorb the energy and interest created by the direct actions, but on the left you frequently see trainings have not been pre-arranged before an action, are not adequately advertised, and are not comprehensive.
Without that intensity, the feedback loop that creates exponential growth fails to kick in. Entropy takes hold, the effects of the action fade away, and the moment is lost.
***(NB: These criticisms of the Left are fairly valid. There are presently no revolutionary Leftist parties that engage in this sort of activity in the UK to a degree of equivalent success.)***
My proposition is therefore that if groups such as Green Anti-Capitalist Front, or its constituent organisations are to engage seriously with the prospect of raising a revolutionary opposition to capitalism in the age of climate change, they need to essentially combine this general method with a community oriented strategy, so that the energy of the recruit and the replication model of the organisation isn’t directed at getting PR clout for a central brand, but rather at building alternative centers of power in marginalized communities. Climate change will hit Britain too, and as noted by a multitude of writers, climate disasters always hit the poor hardest.
Many urban areas in the UK are effective food-deserts, ripe for community gardens. In the past heatwaves have stretched UK water resources a thin enough that the future pressures will likely cause more serious problems. At present, fracking, and ever increasing privatisation threaten public water rights, yet there is precedent for resistance here. Many homeless people cannot find warm places in the winter or cool places in the summer heat. They will be amongst the first victims of climate change on the local level. This year we have already had the hottest month on scientific record. Britain was blessed by escaping the 40+ degree temperatures that the continent experienced, but as the years wear on, that will change. Will the next XR protest make you less likely to get heatstroke? Will it halt water privatisation extending itself to the point of rendering it a serious financial burden on families? My experience of protests is that they are often sweltering and lead to dehydration. The actual long term answer is to work towards a model of political resistance that self replicates, engages in direct action against capital power and against government policy, and builds an alternative set of power centers against the impending effects of climate collapse.
Within those limits, the only method available in the long term, is a Dual Power system comprised of a network of counter-institutions and mutal aid structures. This system must have the simultaneous aim of giving people the ability to react to climate change outside of government policy, and also have an outward facing policy of praxis against capitalism. Dual-Power is a concept very popular in radical left circles in the USA, but is barely mentioned in UK discourses, even in the era of foodbanks.
“Dual Power is about giving people a second option. The two kinds of Dual Power institutions do this from different (but complementary) angles. Alternative institutions meet a need directly. Counter-institutions challenge capitalism’s way of doing things. Alternative institutions start making a system that’s just, while counter-institutions work against one that’s unjust.” Excerpt from the Dual Power FAQ published by Seattle communists
Accordingly a plausible way forward is for existing radical left groups already invested in on-the-ground organizing, such as the radical union movement, or tenants unions, to serve as the model for deep organizing. Such grassroots organisations are based around the fact that they train ordinary people, and not payed organizers or party employees to a certain level of skill in terms of organizing their workplace, familiarity with legal issues, technical skills etc. In the case of, for example, radical community gardens, organizers might need skills similar to those of tenant organizing, mixed with legal knowledge, if the land is being surreptitiously expropriated from an absentee landowner. In the case of guerrilla direct action tactics, like road blockades, a more developed legal observer system than the ad-hoc methods of XR would be needed, as well as possibly backup from antifascist groups when it comes time to de-arrest individuals. Both of these areas require skill training.
Essentially, the radical left in the UK is too scattered to immediately jump into this. At time of writing the main leftist alternative to XR is the extremely new Green Anti-Capitalist front, but it has yet to make an impression as to what its focus will be, and how much staying power it has as an organisation is a matter of speculation. Movement on the radical trade union side, largely as a result of agitation by the activist group EarthStrike, also shows some small indications of activity, but again it is unclear if this will be symbolic protest-participation, or a break with tradition into new avenues of political operation.
Alternatives are desperately needed.
Further info on XR’s approach to non-violence is available here:
Further strategic assessment of the revolutionary left in the UK can be found in the following essay I wrote assessing the general position of the main players, and comparing our situation to the much more dynamic and militant American radical left: