“We quit” declared a New Year’s Day resolution from climate protest group Extinction Rebellion (XR). After just over four years of existence, XR has decided to “temporarily shift away from public disruption as a primary tactic”. CHRISTINE THOMAS looks at this change of tactic and how it fits in with the struggle needed to end the threat of climate change.
At the opening of the COP27 climate summit in Egypt in November last year, UN secretary general Antonio Guterres warned that humanity is on a “highway to climate hell with our foot on the accelerator”. “We are in the fight for our lives and we are losing… our planet is fast approaching tipping points that will make climate chaos irreversible”. In the 2006 Stern report, commissioned by the UK government, climate change was described as a consequence of “the greatest market failure the world has seen”. In other words, it is the capitalist profit system that is the root cause of environmental destruction and is hurtling us towards ‘hell’.
Based as it is on competing companies and nation states, capitalism is incapable of the global cooperation that would be necessary to resolve the climate crisis. That’s not to say that capitalist states can’t be pushed into taking limited measures on particular aspects of environmental damage. But only a socialist economy that ended private ownership of the means of production could lay the basis for generating the enormous resources and implementing the scale of international democratic planning and cooperation that would be needed to halt and reverse the destruction of the planet. And as the source of capitalist profits, the organised working class not only has the strength in the workplaces to fight for better wages and improved conditions through strike action – as it is currently doing in Britain – it is the only force with the potential collective power to put an end to the capitalist system and begin the task of building a socialist alternative. Ending this existential threat to a planet that can sustain human life would require the building of a mass political movement based on the organised working class which could fundamentally challenge global capitalism.
What role, if any, can organisations like XR play in that process? While XR congratulates itself on bringing about a “seismic shift” in the climate movement and conversation, and “blaringly” raising the alarm on the climate and ecological emergency, it also acknowledges that “very little has changed”. “Emissions continue to rise and our planet is dying at an accelerated rate”. This is an open admission that the direct action it has carried out since its launch in 2018 has not achieved its aim of compelling capitalist governments to take the measures necessary to seriously tackle climate change.
At the same time, fellow environmental protest organisation Just Stop Oil (JSO) has drawn different conclusions, reaffirming its commitment to “civil resistance” to confront the “vested interests, the profiteering and complicity of those in the pay of the oil industry”. In its press release looking forward to 2023, JSO states that: “The actions Just Stop Oil supporters take would not be acceptable under normal circumstances, but right now, ordinary people are left with no choice”. In other words, the climate emergency is so severe that only through climate protesters taking drastic direct actions can they force the politicians and the energy industry to act.
Direct action in context
Environmental protesters like JSO often make reference to the suffragettes who, they argue, denied the right to vote had no option but to take direct action to obtain their immediate goal of votes for women. But, in reality, it is a misreading of history to claim that the vote was won entirely due to mainly middle-class women at the turn of the last century chaining themselves to railings. This false narrative totally erases the movement by women workers in the textile mills, who turned to the trade unions and used the methods of working-class mass struggle in their fight for the vote. Or the efforts of the lesser-known of the Pankhurst women – Sylvia – who broke with her more famous mother and sister to orientate towards the working-class women of the east end of London. Like the suffragists of the north she linked the campaign for the vote with the struggle to end sweated labour, poverty pay, maternal suffering, and to generally improve the lives of working-class women.
A limited female franchise – granted to women over 30 – was finally won in 1918. But any explanation of why that was achieved has to also take into account the effect of the experience of women entering the workforce during the first world war, employed in large numbers in sectors previously the preserve of male workers, and, importantly, the ruling class’s fear of revolution in the radicalised post-war period in the wake of the overthrow of feudalism and capitalism in Russia one year earlier.
In the same way – in another rewriting of history – the victory over Margaret Thatcher’s iniquitous poll tax in Britain is often attributed to the Trafalgar Square ‘riots’ on 31 March 1990. In fact, the so-called riots were a reaction to the police who brutally charged a peaceful demonstration of 250,000 people, including many young children. The anti-poll tax campaign itself had begun as early as 1988 in Scotland. It was mass collective protest and non-payment – with the political guidance of the Socialist Party’s forerunner Militant, and involving 18 million non-payers at its peak – that resulted in the eventual ditching of the tax and of Thatcher herself in 1991.
When groups rely on stunts alone to generate publicity for their cause this can unleash a dynamic that requires increasingly dramatic, spectacular actions to guarantee continued media attention. This was the experience of the suffragettes who, faced with government intransigence, went from peaceful mass demonstrations, to smashing windows, to individual arson attacks, in a desperate attempt to convince politicians of the justice of their demand. And each escalation led to increased state repression, including sexual assault, imprisonment and brutal forced feeding.
Today, sections of the Tory party – in their desperation to secure a social base, and as part of their ‘culture wars’ – are exploiting direct action protests by climate activists and ramping up repressive legislation. If passed, the new Public Order Bill could, on the surface, grant incredible powers to the police. Since the Just Stop Oil campaign began in April 2022, over 2,000 activists have been arrested and 150 imprisoned – and that’s before the bill becomes law. But there have also been incidents of sympathetic juries throwing out charges against activists, showing the weakness of the government’s social base, and how legislation of this kind plays more the role of a propaganda weapon than a real tool for repression. Nevertheless, this can’t be relied upon. JSO has launched an appeal to the police and the judiciary to not lock up “courageous, skilled, loving members of society”, but this will have limited effect on state forces whose main role is to defend the capitalist establishment and its class system.
Repressive legislation can be fought, but through organised mass action. It was mass protests and strike action by hundreds of thousands of militant workers in the early 1970s that made the Industrial Relations Act – introduced by Ted Heath’s Conservative government to curtail trade union rights – inoperable. Today the Socialist Party is campaigning for the Tories’ latest attacks on the right to strike to be met with an initial 24-hour strike by the trade union movement. However, JSO’s tactic is clearly not one of building mass action but, like the suffragettes, convincing a small group of dedicated and self-sacrificing supporters to take actions that are increasingly likely to result in imprisonment, but with no effect on the government’s climate policy.
Strategy for change
Actions like blockading roads, hanging from gantries or glueing oneself to the roof of a tube train have been criticised by the capitalist establishment for disrupting the daily lives of ‘ordinary citizens’. While most people want climate change action, one poll found that around 61% oppose those tactics, with just 21% supporting them. This opposition, together with increased repression, has undoubtedly influenced XR’s tactical shift.
But while it’s true that ‘civil disobedience’ can be disruptive to the lives of ordinary people, this is not the key issue. Strikes by train and tube drivers, nurses, ambulance drivers and teachers also disrupt workers’ day-to-day lives. Despite the hostile propaganda efforts by the Tory government and the right-wing capitalist media, support for the recent strikes has held up. With so many working people suffering from wages falling well below inflation, going on strike is seen as a valid and useful tactic by more and more workers for defending their living standards and wrenching a better wage rise from the bosses and the government.
In particular, the idea promoted by the Socialist Party of collectively striking together across different industries and sectors and preparing for a 24-hour general strike has gained traction as the current strike wave has grown. However, strikes – including a 24-hour strike – are not just about winning immediate demands. They can also be part of the process of workers becoming aware of their potential collective force as a class, and the role they can play in the wider task of changing society.
Civil disobedience can be a useful supplementary tactic in building mass movements for economic and social change. It is not the tactic of direct action in and of itself that is the central problem, but the failure of the climate protest groups to link that action to an overall strategy that actually has the ability to end climate change.
So, having decided to “leave the locks, glue and paint behind”, what is XR now proposing? Its statement refers to “bridge building” with other organisations. But which organisations and to what purpose? Its new proposal of surrounding the Houses of Parliament every day, starting from 21 April, will undoubtedly gain some publicity but is not a strategy for building a fossil fuel-free “fair society” or confronting “vested interests”. Although XR’s tactics may be ‘temporarily’ changing, its strategy is still merely one of putting pressure on capitalist politicians in the hope that they will act – whether it be a Tory government today or a Keir Starmer Labour government tomorrow – rather than building a mass political movement that could seriously fight for green policies and an end to climate change.
In the early 1990s, in the initial period after the collapse of the Stalinist states in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, collective struggle was at a low ebb as trade union leaders bowed down to neoliberalism, and parties like the Labour Party became transformed into openly capitalist organisations. In some ways it’s understandable that, at that time, many of those involved in social movements would take an anti-political party stance. But XR was formed in 2018, at a time when Jeremy Corbyn had become leader of the Labour Party and the potential existed, had he launched a serious move to eradicate the Blairite capitalist right wing from the party, for it to become a mass socialist party. Thousands of young people and workers were inspired by Corbyn’s political programme, which included a ‘Green Industrial Revolution’, proposing investment worth £250 billion over the first term of a Labour government into renewable energy, public transport, biodiversity and environmental restoration – green policies that Friends of the Earth rated better than those of the Green Party.
Of course, Corbyn’s economic programme fell short of putting forward nationalising the banks, the financial institutions and major capitalist companies, which would be necessary to prevent any capitalist attempts at sabotaging his policies. But the election of a Corbyn government would have raised the confidence of workers and young people and created a space for developing a mass movement that potentially could have pushed him to go further than he initially intended, even towards confronting the capitalist system itself. That is why the ruling class was so ruthless in its determination to root out Corbynism from the Labour Party. However, instead of engaging with the political struggle for the building of a mass political party based on the working class, that could unite workers, community and environmental campaigners, and those fighting oppression, the XR founders, Gail Bradbrook, Roger Hallam and Simon Bramwell, chose to plough their own separate furrow which, as the group now admits, has changed nothing.
Because Corbyn didn’t take the measures necessary against the right of the party, Corbynism within the Labour Party is now effectively dead. Starmer has carried out the wishes of the ruling capitalist class, turning the party into a Blairite New Labour Mark ll. Despite pledging to borrow an extra £28 billion a year to invest in tackling climate change, Starmer has made it clear on numerous occasions that any future Labour government will play by the rules of the capitalist market. Given the severity of the global crisis of capitalism, and the particular weakness of the British economy, this would seriously restrict its room for manoeuvre, and inevitably lead to further austerity – severely limiting what measures could be implemented. The Green Party programme also doesn’t go beyond the confines of the capitalist market, which explains why wherever Greens have gained political power, whether at national or local level, they have ended up implementing cuts to jobs and services as well as compromising their green policies.
“The confluence of multiple crises presents us with a unique opportunity to mobilise and move beyond traditional divides” states XR. Absolutely. If a mass working-class based party existed today, with a fighting programme that included confronting the “vested interests” of the energy companies by taking them into public ownership and using their “bloated profits” to reduce people’s energy bills and to invest in green energy, this would help to bring together the struggle of working-class people against the cost-of-living crisis with the fight to save the planet. Mobilising around such a programme, and involvement in discussion and debate, could be an important part of the process of workers and young people developing an understanding of the need to go beyond the energy companies, to ending capitalist control of the major levers of the economy, in Britain and internationally, and of the programme and strategy that would be necessary to make that a reality. Without an overall political strategy aimed at ending the capitalist system and its replacement with international socialism, XR and other environmental groups are doomed to make tactical zigzags, while the planet continues to burn.