blog

Extinction Rebellion or Socialist Revolution

Architects for Social Housing

April 24, 2019

By Simon Elmer

On Easter Sunday, after a week of protests and over a thousand arrests, Extinction Rebellion’s political circle coordinator, the climate change lawyer Farhana Yamin, announced that the week of protests in London would now be ‘paused’ as commuters went back to work and shop. This would show, she said – although she didn’t say whom it would be showing – that ‘we are not a rabble’.

Above: L-R: Jennifer Morgan, Greenpeace International, Al Gore, The Climate Reality Project, Generation Investment, Farhana Yamin, Track 0, Extinction Rebellion. Yamin helped “midwife” the Paris climate agreement

This is not language that anyone who has organised or participated in popular protest, and has seen their efforts dismissed as the actions of a ‘rabble’ by politicians, newspapers and the BBC the following day, would ever use. Its implications are that any popular protest that can’t be switched on and off by its leaders, or at least its lawyers, is a rabble. As such, the statement is taking great care to differentiate the Extinction Rebellion protests from, most contemporaneously, the 23 weeks of Gilets Jaunes protests in France.

And, indeed, where the protests of the Gilets Jaunes have been a genuinely popular uprising that has avoided leadership and allegiance with already existing political parties or unions, has so far refused to be dragged to the negotiating table by offers of concessions from politicians, and has physically stood up to the violence of the French police, Extinction Rebellion, in contrast, appears to have a leadership – although it’s not clear who that is at present – and, according to its official announcement, is directing its protests specifically towards the negotiating table. It is also very deliberately non-confrontational with the British police.

This appears to be based on a prior agreement with the Metropolitan Police Force. From both Extinction Existence spokespersons and the Met there have been widely reported statements about the light-touch the police have taken towards protesters. There have been claims, from people I spoke to on Waterloo Bridge on Wednesday night, that there are simply ‘too many’ protesters for the Met to clear; that the ‘passivity’ of the protesters, as one tabloid reported, has disarmed the police; that police have been ‘really, really nice’, as I heard a protester with a microphone tell the listening crowd from a parked truck, to those they have arrested; and that the police ‘don’t do kettling anymore’.

Now, this is all rubbish. The Met alone has 50,000 officers, and even without the various other armed forces the Mayor of London and UK government can draw on, they could quite easily clear away the protests on Waterloo Bridge, Oxford Circus, Parliament Square and Marble Arch in a matter of hours, and they could do so, as they usually do, under the cover of darkness having sealed off the relevant streets from the press, media and public. They could also quite easily charge each and every protester, no matter how passive they are, and issue them with a dispersal order making their return to the sites of protest a criminal offence. And I can report from first-hand knowledge that a cop spraying someone in the face with CS-gas or punching them in the throat compels even the most peace-loving hippy to raise his or her arms in protection, and that’s all it requires for a charge of ‘Assault PC’. Extinction Rebellion requires that all participants ‘maintain nonviolent discipline both externally and internally’, which may be very admirable but does not dictate how violent the police are in return. As for not kettling anymore, that’s exactly what the police did in Oxford Circus, although it didn’t stop them allowing Emma Thompson through (and presumably back again) to address the press from the pink yacht moored there.

Extinction-rebellion-peaceful

So the otherwise inexplicable circumstances that have permitted a truck and a yacht to block two of the major thoroughfares in London for a week can only be explained as a result of a prior agreement between the leadership of Extinction Rebellion and the Metropolitan Police Force, most likely through the accommodations of the London Mayor, who likes to depict himself as an environmentalist while doing nothing to curb CO2 emissions and authorising the destruction of our green spaces for new developments.

Something very similar to this happened in July 2017 when the Tories Out! demonstration was held in London, and the whole thing kicked off in Portland Place, just up the road from Oxford Circus, with an even bigger truck than the one Extinction Rebellion parked on Waterloo Bridge. At the time I wondered how the organisers of the march had got permission for such an occupation, but it quickly became clear that, behind its ostensibly ‘grass-roots’ and popular appearance, this was a Labour Party-organised event that had appropriated the language and spectacle of street protest to serve its parliamentary aspirations.

not_one_day_more-11

Earlier that year, in February 2017, a demonstration against Donald Trump, also purporting to be popular, was held in Parliament Square, on which had been erected a huge stage, with a lineup of musical acts, performance poets, a gospel choir and speakers from the Houses of Parliament. Again, I was struck by the fact that this ‘protest’ was in a Government Security Zone, where the Metropolitan Police Force has free reign to arrest and otherwise assault you on the mere suspicion that you’re about to do something anti-social let alone illegal, and that holing a march there requires prior authorisation from the London Mayor – who had in fact given it. And, once again, it turned out that this ‘popular’ protest was in fact organised by Owen Jones, the Socialist Workers Party, the People’s Assembly against Austerity, Unite the Union, Momentum, and other fronts for the Labour Party.

To its credit, Extinction Rebellion has distanced itself – at least verbally – from any political party or pre-existing organisation, such as the Green Party or Greenpeace, and in this it has common ground with the Gilets Jaunes. And in doing so it is strategically different from the so-called ‘grass roots’ Labour fronts that have reduced the equally effusive housing movement of 2015 to the obedient acolytes for Jeremy Corbyn of 2019. But apart from its adoption of the spectacle of street protest, which has presumably drawn into these protests far more people than are aligned with the umbrella organisation, Extinction Rebellion also clearly has more than a few quid behind it. The first thing I thought when I saw the pink yacht moored in Oxford Circus was not: ‘What a great way to block the busiest high street in London!’, but: ‘Who’s got a yacht to spare?’ (though I have no doubt it will be returned by the police to its rightful owner – the right to property being the only human right observed in the UK). So, where’s the money coming from?

On its website Extinction Rebellion says that its raised £180,000 in the past six months, some of it from donors, a lot from grant funds, even more from crowdfunding. This doesn’t strike me as anything like enough to pull off the stunts it has. And even if it is, it doesn’t explain the far greater influence it has on the London Mayor, the Met, Transport for London, the media, and all the other forces of the establishment that might otherwise have been expected to rally in organising opposition to it, as they have for instance, in silencing the protests against London’s housing crisis and homelessness.

A clue might have been let slip last Thursday when, on the advertisement that is wrapped around the front and back pages of the London Evening Standard, beneath the headline: ‘Fourth day of chaos from climate protests’, Adidas has taken out a double-page spread with the sales-pitch: ‘We can’t change the world in one day. But we can take the first step.’ This was followed by a masterpiece of salesmanship specifically designed to appeal to the youth market:

‘For the past 6 years we have been working on a product that you’ll never throw away. A shoe that is made to be remade. You buy them – wear them – and when you’re done you give them back to us. We remake them. It is our first step. A statement of intent to end the problem of waste. We have a problem with plastic waste. We buy, we use, we throw away. But there is no away. Every piece of plastic ever made is still in existence somewhere on our planet. In our ecosystem. Poisoning our earth. Before this makes-use-waste e-system changes everything, we must change it.’

 

For some time now I’ve been arguing that protesting is the new clubbing, and just as multinational corporations very quickly turned the underground scene of acid house and rave into a form of stadium rock in the 1990s, so the same corporations – which shape and mould our desires and future far more than the Houses of Parliament – have cottoned on to the fact that in the 2010s the newest popular social phenomenon on which they can capitalise – and in doing so subsume that phenomenon into a reaffirmation of capitalism – is protest.

Why else, if not in order to appeal to a teenage consumer market, has Extinction Rebellion chosen a 16-year old Swedish girl in pigtails to be its global spokesperson? Protesters might argue that in doing so they are using the strategy of mass marketing against itself, but in that struggle there can be only one winner, and its name is Adidas, Nike, McDonalds, Coco-Cola, etc.

But besides finding new markets for their environment-consuming commodities, why else would multi-national corporations be interested in climate change?

As the West loses its grip on the world, and the economies of formerly impoverished countries like India, Brazil and China expand at exponential rates, the demand on the world’s resources increases. As we watch the Communist Party of China buy up vast tracks of land in Africa and across the world, the call on such rapidly industrialising economies to halt production, curb expansion and reduce emissions is more likely to find acceptance amongst a European and North American middle class experiencing a drop in its standard of living for the first time since the Second World War if that call is aligned with green politics, in which the approaching disaster (for us) of the West losing its economic pre-eminence in the world is equated with an environmental catastrophe the whole world is facing.

Emmanuel Macron tried something similar in France when he justified the raising of taxes for the working classes by arguing that it was necessary to save the environment. And, to their credit, the Gilets Jaunes saw through and rejected his attempt to capitalise on the environmental crisis. The vast sums of money donated to the rebuilding of Notre Dame de Paris in France by France’s billionaires in the same week that Extinction Rebellion has been calling for a drastic reduction in CO2 emissions in Britain has revealed the extent of the French President’s lies.

Extinction Rebellion’s demands to have our global climate and ecological state declared an ‘emergency’, to ‘act now’ to reduce carbon emissions, and to form a ‘citizens assembly’ to oversee that action, attributes the environmental disaster we’re facing to abstract forces. But in reality, the changes to the environment that threaten our continued existence are not caused by ‘humankind’ or ‘greed’; nor are they a product of the ‘anthropocene’. This newly popular term, which has been adopted by Extinction Rebellion, attributes the current state of the natural world to the humanist, anthropological and a-historical abstraction called ‘man’, with which environmentalists and feminists alike are so disgusted. However, a growing body of research argues that the environmental changes threatening us are not a product of man but of capitalism, for which the corrective term ‘capitalocene’ goes some way to attributing the ecological deterioration of the world to the historical particularity of capitalist relations of production and capitalism’s structural need to expand in order to generate profit.

Despite this, nowhere in their demands have Extinction Rebellion named this economic cause or called for its change, presumably because doing so would align them with social and political forces from which Farhana Yamin’s negative description of a ‘rabble’ has taken care to distance them. As Extinction Rebellion state in their list of principles: ‘We avoid blaming and shaming – we live in a toxic system, but no one individual is to blame.’

Some of us disagree. The rabble that, for the 23rd week running, have protested in France against the capitalism they have identified as the cause of the rising inequality to which they are not alone in being subjected, and of which the environmental disaster we are facing is a bi-product, saw through Macron’s attempt to place that disaster in the service of monopoly capitalism. As the leadership of Extinction Rebellion meets with politicians this week to discuss their demands, will they risk alienating the class and corporate interests that have given them this platform by aligning their environmental demands with the social, political and economic revolution that alone is capable of averting this disaster?

What is becoming increasingly clear is that capitalism will either be overthrown and superseded or it will lead us to extinction as a species. If it is not to be just another ideology of liberalism to which Extinction Rebellion unfortunately bears numerous points of resemblance, an environmentalist project must at the same time also be a revolutionary project.

Further reading:

The Manufacturing of Greta Thunberg – A Decade of Social Manipulation for the Corporate Capture of Nature [ACT VI – Crescendo]:

http://www.wrongkindofgreen.org/2019/02/24/the-manufacturing-of-greta-thunberg-a-decade-of-social-manipulation-for-the-corporate-capture-of-nature-crescendo/