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An article from the April 2019 edition of Socialism Today (no.227)
Thousands of people took part in the bridge-blocking protests called by Extinction Rebellion (XR) over a series of weekends in November 2018. They were young and energetic. The radical mood has been shown by the strikes of school students in England and Wales, and around 100 other countries.
The XR civil disobedience attracted a layer wanting to fight back against the dire future that capitalism has left, particularly for young people. When the latest Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report was announced in October 2018 - showing the consequences of a 2C rise in global temperatures above pre-industrial levels - the hall was filled with climate scientists weeping.
The scenario of impending environmental catastrophe has had an impact on young people who have only known capitalism as a system in crisis. It has offered only low wages and austerity - unable to provide meaningful improvements to their lives. When the future looks that desperate going on an annual march isn't seen as enough. People are looking for other ways to fight back. So what demands are XR calling for and what strategy is it putting forward?
XR was set up in 2018 by a group called RisingUp!, an environmental group developed between 2016 and 2018. XR has three main aims, supplemented by the draft manifesto of RisingUp!
"The government must tell the truth about how deadly our situation is, it must reverse all policies not in alignment with that position and must work alongside the media to communicate the urgency for change".
"The government must enact legally-binding policies to reduce carbon emissions in the UK to net zero by 2025 and take further action to remove the excess of atmospheric greenhouse gases [and] it must cooperate internationally..."
"These demands require initiatives and mobilisation of similar size and scope to those enacted in times of war. We do not, however, trust our government to make the bold, swift and long-term changes necessary to achieve this and we do not intend to hand further power to our politicians. Instead we demand a citizens' assembly to oversee the changes..."
A citizens' assembly made up of randomly selected 'members of the public' cannot remove power from the capitalist ruling class - and that is a prerequisite to achieve what XR says it wants. Otherwise, the capitalists will do everything they can to maintain their position and profits. The IPCC estimated it would cost $900 billion a year to halt global warming. This represents less than 2% of world economic output but it will not be forthcoming when profit remains the driving force for the global economy.
XR says: "We have a moral duty to rebel, whatever our politics". Yet politics is central to this fight. The policies promoted by the Tory party and right-wing Labour Blairites stem from the fact that they represent the capitalist class and work in its interests - fundamentally, to maintain the system based on making profits by exploiting the labour of the working class. Capitalism is incapable of taking the necessary action to prevent global warming because of this need for short-term profits and international competition. Demands that obscure this run the risk of miseducating activists on what steps need to be taken to stop catastrophic climate change.
The RisingUp! manifesto states that the system we live under is "a form of extreme capitalism called neoliberalism", and that "we have to change everything... to change this system in support of the most basic of universal values - the right to life".
It says it wants to "support the development of a mixed, bio-regionally-focused economy: small private enterprises, larger cooperatives and public ownership of things best run as monopolies".
It calls for a need to "limit the scale of political donations", "support transparency in lobbying", "localise decision making as far as possible", and "prosecute the board members of businesses who break the rules and tame corporations".
In reality, the manifesto leaves capitalism intact while seeking to remove its worst aspects. But this vague vision of an alternative society is utopian - and would not even mitigate the effects of climate change. To call for 'green taxes, regulations and tariffs' is not enough. Ultimately, what is required to end mass poverty, war and environmental destruction is a democratically planned socialist society. That would ensure that the resources big companies have today would be taken into public ownership. Society could be run on a completely different basis, with workers discussing and drawing up a plan for what is needed, alongside other sections of society.
It would then be possible to work out what people actually want and need - instead of what makes the bosses the most profits. Science and technology for renewable energy and sustainable production could be developed rapidly. Moreover, tackling a worldwide problem like global warming requires international planning.
XR's insufficient programme and its rejection of politics inform its strategy. XR draws on the work of sociologist Erica Chenoweth, who has analysed social movements in the 20th and 21st century. She found that movements with the active engagement of more than 3.5% of the population - about two million people in the UK - all succeeded. So XR puts a lot of weight on getting large numbers of people arrested and sent to prison as a way to change things.
Roger Hallam, one of the founders of XR, said in a Guardian video that they "need about 400 people to go to prison, maybe need two or three thousand people to get arrested". Further: "We want to say to the politicians that 1,000 people are willing to lose their liberty then we might have some change". He complained to the police during the bridge-blocking protests that they were not getting arrested quickly enough!
It is of course true that successful campaigns require the mass engagement of significant sections of society. However, it is not only about getting people signed up and willing to make sacrifices for the cause. A programme is needed to explain the class nature of society and why the working class has a central role in changing it.
In addition, it is completely wrong to encourage the imprisonment of activists. The capitalist state has at its disposal powerful forces of repression - the police, army, judiciary, prison, etc. These are used to defend capitalist interests against strikes, uprisings and other movements. That can mean arrest and imprisonment, but any serious leadership would aim to keep its forces as cohesive as possible. The idea of individual martyrdom is typical of a middle-class approach, and contrasts unfavourably with the democratic, collective traditions of working-class struggle.
Blocking bridges and disrupting the centre of London can gain publicity. However, when there's a strike on the London underground it shuts the whole city down. When workers withdraw their labour it shows who really keeps society going - those who create the wealth.
Key to building the movement is winning over the organised working class. That means campaigning for the trade unions to take action to demand climate jobs, as well as making specific demands for those in polluting industries. No jobs need to be lost in this process. The workers should be redeployed in socially useful production and services with no loss of pay. Much industrial plant and machinery could also be adapted to this aim.
We need to link the climate crisis to the inability of capitalism to meet the needs of the vast majority of the world's people and the planet itself. This means understanding the potential for workers to realise their power as a class and build a socialist world. It is not enough to rely on people's grief and anger that the world is ending, as XR does. We need to put forward an alternative and how to get there, based on the boundless potential that exists for humanity offered by the socialist transformation of society.