LETTER: The politics of “Extinction Rebellion”

Submitted by cathy n on 13 November, 2018 - 9:38 Author: BT (Haringey)

Mike Zubrowski is right to criticise as a poor form of democracy, Extinction Rebellion’s (XR) demand for a random-lot citizens’ assembly to oversee climate change policy (Solidarity 485).

The problems with XR's approach aren’t limited to democracy. As Marxist filmmaker Jason Barker has pointed out XR’s demands on carbon reduction are far too vague. XR says “[t]he Government must enact legally-binding policy measures to reduce carbon emissions in the UK to net zero by 2025 and take further action to remove the excess of atmospheric greenhouse gases. It must cooperate internationally so that the global economy runs on no more than half a planet’s worth of resources per year.”

This is no more than a handwringing exclamation that “something must be done!”. It gives no tangible proposal of how to achieve these targets. Tangible proposals are needed in order to give a sense that the fight to stop climate change is actually achievable – necessary to rally people who understandably are moved to nihilistic passivity by a seemingly insurmountable apocalyptic threat – and to give direction to the fight for a just, worker-led transition rather than one that protects the wealth and privilege of the capitalists at the expense of the material well-being of the working class.

All XR offers is its poetic but desperately superficial “Declaration of Rebellion”. As socialists, we can explain that the failure of capitalist governments to take appropriate action on climate change is not primarily down to corruption or ineptitude, but straightforward service of the interests of the ruling capitalist class, and in particular the large section of that class tied up with fossil fuel capital.

And we can propose concrete demands to change how our economy and society work that are both conceivably attainable and push toward the full economic democracy of socialism, which is ultimately what we need to reliably organise society in a sustainable way.

We propose measures such as a ban on fracking and a call to “leave it all in the ground”, against capital’s plans to extract and burn the planet’s remaining fossil fuels; nationalisation of energy, transport, big agriculture and other key polluting industries in order to enact worker-led plans for their conversion to sustainable carbon-neutral or carbon-negative operation; and the nationalisation of the banks and high finance to create a unified, democratically-controlled banking service whose investment power can be used to build green public works, create decent and secure green jobs (and the prerequisite training and education), and fundamentally restructure and reorient the economy.

Workers Demands like these point a clear way to a sustainable future. They can attract support on the basis that they will also immediately materially improve working-class lives (counter to the common portrayal of the environmentalist vision as one of austerity and job losses); and they suggest key sites of struggle now — the workplaces of those polluting industries.

Like the construction workers of New South Wales, Australia, who in the 1970s used their industrial muscle to block environmentally and socially destructive building projects, workers in destructive industries have immense power that can be used for good.

Sections of the environmental movement have often been hostile to such workers, and XR’s approach puts its faith not in the material power that the working class has within the operation of capitalism, but a vaguer appeal to general civil disobedience by an undifferentiated populus (of course the latter actions are valuable, but the former is key).

Scepticism is also needed about the fact that XR’s strategy is in large part directed by proponents of eccentric, anti-political, academic pet theories of activism and social change. These theories see little need to engage their supporters in their actions in any kind of serious political discussion, or bring them into decision-making – instead treating them as a stage army, and even cynically proposing to put supporters at risk of victimisation or arrest without their informed agreement, in order to use agitation in response as part of the strategy.

XR has had a high-profile, photogenic launch. It may become a substantial ongoing campaign that draws in many good people who want to take positive action on the environmental crisis. Doubtless some will say that criticism of its approach is unhelpful in the face of urgent climate crisis, but on the contrary, it is precisely the urgency of the crisis that requires us to be sharp and uncompromising in considering and rectifying shortcomings in responses to it.

It will be up to socialists to enter discussion with these people to convince them of — and to work with them to further develop — our strategy and concrete programmes of demands, in pursuit of a class-struggle socialist environmental movement that can win.

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