Tuesday, July 28, 2020

My current thoughts about Extinction Rebellion

Obviously there's not been much public activism in the last few months in lockdown. But I'm beginning now to think a bit more about Extinction Rebellion, what I think about it, how I relate to it, and where it's going.

I think a lot about this article that states the tactics of Extinction Rebellion are flawed. Since the 2019 election that seems clearer than ever to me.

The social science behind XR's strategy is that if enough disruption is caused, if enough nonviolent direct action happens, it changes government policy.

But that article shows how that is just not true. The social science research supposedly behind XR's tactics show what mass nonviolent movements can and cannot achieve. They can achieve the downfall of dictators. They can achieve change in one particular area of government policy if governments become embarrassed that the public mood has gone against them. This means that the current Black Lives Matter protests in the States do have a good chance of bringing about major reform of the police (and possibly bringing down the proto-Fascist government). The research fits well with the BLM movement.

But there's no evidence that mass nonviolent campaigns can achieve radical and complex change in democratic western nations. The thing is the climate crisis requires not just a change of government policy, not even just a change of government, but a whole series of complex changes in the very way economics and politics and society functions.

It doesn't seem likely that nonviolent direct action will create that change. This seems especially true after the decisive election of a right wing government. I've been a bit disappointed that I've not detected much change in strategy from Extinction Rebellion during or after last year's election. Do we really think that 2000 arrests, or 10,000 arrests will make Boris Johnson say, "Oh OK then, I will abandon neoliberal economic policy and implement a radical green socialist agenda"? I just don't see that happening, and if it's not going to happen, then why the tactic of mass arrests?

There is an argument of course that we do what is right, spiritually and morally, even if we believe it to be ineffective. We take prophetic symbolic action even though we know we will lose. This is after all the way of Jesus. I get that, and I'm open to it. But the thing is it's not just that XR's tactics are ineffective, it's also that they alienate people. From not sufficiently recognising the racism and violence inherent in the institution of the police to creating actions that primarily disrupt working class commuters XR's actions seem to be turning people against them more than for them.

There are other things as well that I find myself uncomfortable with in XR. Things like a strange obsession with Citizen's Assemblies, which rather than being "here's a good tool we could use in dealing with this crisis" has become the central dogmatic commitment of XR, which I find really strange.

I say all this as someone part of XR right now, and I'm trying to think if I still want to be. This is me thinking out loud.

People will say "it's easy to criticise, but what's the alternative?" and that's a good question, and I'm not sure I have an answer. But that in itself doesn't convince me that there aren't serious problems with both the brand and the tactics of XR.

We do need a mass climate movement. We do need radical action. But I'm wondering out loud if that movement needs to mature beyond XR into... something else? I'm wondering if XR has now grown the climate movement as much as it can now, and at this point has become a barrier to further growth. What does a post-XR climate movement look like?

These are all questions I don't have answers to. But it feels urgent to ask them right now.


Anonymous Tom M. said...

I think it's worth saying that citizens assemblies have worked really well for Ireland. They've managed to get issues like abortion and gay marriage top of the bill, and then somehow delivered good results in the actual vote without it becoming a party political issue. (Although the abortion referendum definitely created a few firey divides in my family).

Perhaps the next demand - which would go down well in Wales at least - should be for a citizen's assembly which includes a jury of people asked to represent the "selfish" wishes of people 100 years in the future. How would they react if they were having a say?

11:09 am  

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