The radical journalist George Monbiot has been promoting Extinction Rebellion in is influential Guardian column (https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2018/nov/14/earth-death-spiral-radical-action-climate-breakdown). Basically, we should all be for anything, short of terrorism, that spotlights the crisis of crises we face. We really are drinking in the last chance saloon and many other species are being wiped out day by day. The combination of Bolsonaro in Brazil and China’s ‘Belt and Braces’ project are two mighty big nails in the coffin. Yet too many hopes should not be invested in the Extinction Rebellion group, even if it certainly deserves to flourish.
Sadly, Extinction Rebellion has the hallmarks of a proverbial flash in the pan: too small a numerical base, too incoherent an ideological platform, too lacking in popular appeal, too deficient in means of appealing to a wider public beyond the already informed and concerned, too lacking in terms of practicable and detailed ideas for real change, too many of the ‘usual suspects’ of the kind found in circles such as the anarchist Black Bloc and some Hard Left ‘groupuscules’… I fear it may go the same way as ‘Occupy!’ which, in the UK at least, got almost zero traction, though I really wish I am wrong.
There is a danger of actions being launched in isolation, with little consideration of how they relate to wider activities as well as and, more importantly, how they impact on the critical mass of fellow citizens we need to win over to have a chance. Small turnouts merely demonstrate weakness as well as make participants vulnerable to police persecution.
Furthermore, isolation often leads groups to shout preposterous slogans or indulge in activities simply designed to keep members feeling that something is happening when the opposite is the case. Many will have seen those leftist groups demanding every other month that the TUC call a general strike to ‘smash the Tories’ and so forth (the use of violent language is interesting but another story)
Indeed, a focus on just one-off ‘actions can lead to empty stunts, more designed to make participants feel good, a sort of catharsis, than to build a genuinely popular resistance to destruction-as-usual. Some Black Bloc actions probably did more harm than good, confusing if not alienating onlookers (http://www.nbcnews.com/id/34182788/ns/business-world_business/t/cars-burned-windows-broken-trade-protest/#.W-6tPS10fgE). Realistically, to some extent we have to play to the media since they are the window onto what is going on. It will strike many ’neutrals’ that it is a bit odd to talk of peace and conservation and then to smash or burn the property of innocent individuals.
The absence of a mass base is particularly significant. Of course, there is something of a chicken-and-egg problem here. You have to start somewhere and sometimes an individual action can set big boulders rolling, from Luther nailing his theses to the church door to Rosa Park refusing to move seats. However, the building of a mass movement depends largely on mundane, patient work at the grassroots in local communities. In part, that depends on linking our ‘big’ demands to the existing hopes, fears and general perceptions of large numbers of ordinary citizens, not necessarily a majority but a big enough to set stones rolling. After all, every revolution in history has been the work of minorities but they need the sympathy or at least acquiescence of many others. Otherwise, the fiasco of Prohibition would be repeated.
Isolated actions can of course simply lead to protestors just being heavily fined or locked up: all pain and no gain. Frequently, passers-by can be bewildered by what is going on and why it is happening. I once took place in a ‘tax justice’ action against Vodaphone. Most shoppers just looked the other way. This is not to decry imaginative and well executed actions of the kind Greenpeace do so well. But even then, there is a law of diminishing returns with each event having to be bigger and better than the last one. It sets in motion a treadmill of escalating expectations that cannot be satisfied, breeding disillusionment in the ranks. Even withpout that, there tends to be a high rate of attrition amongst supporters as happened at various Occupy camps.
Perhaps even more significant is the absence of a coherent programme. We do not need every ‘i’ dotted or every ‘t’ crossed. But we do need some concrete goals and genuinely practicable policies for attaining them. The role of government remains central. Individual lifestyle change is part of the story but, on its own, it is too slow and too small in impact to make a meaningful difference in sufficient time. But policies need to be thought out clearly. Otherwise disaster results. King and Crewe spotlighted how this has repeatedly happened in the UK with conventional politics, for example: https://www.theguardian.com/books/2013/sep/04/blunders-government-king-crewe-review . It is even more dangerous in more radical circles. The disaster of the essentially programme-less, slogan-driven ‘5 Star’ movement in Italy is a sad example. Its failures once in office have opened the door to the Far Right (eg https://www.theguardian.com/world/2018/oct/18/five-star-movement-revolt-rome-decay-protest-refuse-waste ). Part of the chaos following the Bolshevik seizure of power in 1917 was caused not by resistance from supporters of the ‘old order’. Instead, it resulted, in part, from the Bolshevik lack of concrete ideas for governance. Indeed, only in 1919 were certain details spelt out in the ’ABC of Communism’ and, even then, it is short on the actual ‘nuts and bolts’ of creating a viable alternative system.
To be sure, Extinction Rebellion has some good ideas, most in the Green Party platform already. This is their Draft Manifesto: https://risingup.org.uk/draft-manifesto. They do not address the critical issues of a 3-planet economy in the UK and general global overshoot. It also tends to be a list of ‘bad things out’, ‘nice things in’, with few suggestions regarding actual mechanics, let alone details that might convince doubters. For all its talk of an eco-crisis, there is little about necessary ‘ecocentric values’ and not much about how to stem the tide of extinction of other species.
We also need ideas about how to address this sort of resistance: https://www.theguardian.com/world/2018/nov/17/french-protester-killed-accident-anti-fuel-tax-blockade. It can be all too easily be imaged that workers in industries such as road haulage, aviation, oil extraction and refining, arms manufacture, car production, volume building and so forth might resist the measures needed to avoid ecological catastrophe.
My main reservation is actually about the focus on ‘actions’, some of which may be premature in the absense of proper preparation and an existing sufficiency of public support. We have seen this strategy in the form of Earth First! Its somewhat unilateral actions exposed itself to state repression (FBI etc) but did not have sufficient support outside its ranks to be able to fight back. We have also seen movements such as Syzira which on closer examination were not as green as some claimed (hence an invitation to address a Green Party national conference). Others such as Podemos have been far more top-down due to the very lack of structure inherent in movements. Jo Freeman’s paper on the “tyranny of structurelessness” remains a classic text ( there is a version here: http://struggle.ws/pdfs/tyranny.pdf).
Overall, we should be very wary of ‘movementism’/ ‘networkism’, with their attendant disdain for party politics. The same goes for what is often called ‘autonomism’. Actually, we need to fire on all cylinders and it is certainly false to pose the tiresome alternatives of ‘movement versus party’. We need both as well as individual lifestyle change, boycotts, experiments in new co-operative ventures, land trusts and other such initiatives (production, consumer groups, housing, etc), think tanks, (appropriate) technology research centres and ‘philosophical’ endeavours. But party building remains central.
Movements work best when based on a handful of simple demands about large which large numbers can readily agree (eg anti-fracking, no pipeline, no new road, protect this patch of land, keep that public facility, boycott such-and-such a product). That was the strength of one of the very first green movements, that against ‘murderous millinery in fashion (https://fashioningfeathers.info/murderous-millinery/) . It can be seen in grassroots campaigns today such as the fight against coal mining at Druridge Bay in Northumberland, a battle that mobilised large numbers of people in the area.
In passing it is worth noting that the potential of one particular form of activism, so-called ‘clicktivism’ much exaggerated, sometimes an excuse for actual inactivity and complacency, even if now and then there are some notable successes. It can be little more than a feel-good gesture not genuine political engagement. Indeed, there have been several forceful critiques of the limits of what is sometimes called ‘slacktivism’, eg http://networkcultures.org/blog/publication/networks-without-a-cause-geert-lovink/ , https://www.onlineopen.org/social-media-abyss-critical-internet-cultures-and-the-force-of-negation ; https://www.theguardian.com/global/2013/mar/20/save-everything-evgeny-morozov-review ]
However, political parties provide something unique: a capacity to synthesise a coherent package of policies across a whole spectrum of issues. In doing so, they — potentially — can link ones of immediate concern (eg health care services) to the bigger picture (eg air pollution and global overwarming). Furthermore, in their campaigning during elections and at other times, they can test those policies against feedback from the public and — potentially — fine tune their programme. Of course, there is always a danger of tailing public whims and prejudices. But there is equally a danger of being too far out of step with the wider public that no traction is gained.
Parties are certainly no perfect. They are umbrellas with disparate tendencies underneath. But, in a genuinely democratic party, it is down to members to push the party the way they want it to go, working with like-minded individuals to that end. Sometimes, there may be a case for launching a new party but there is a consistent record of failure amongst splinters and attempts to launch new parties, especially in first-past-the-post systems. We have to work with what exists, not least time is so short.
Perhaps there are some individual activists who expect parties to be perfect. When these organisations inevitably fail to meet their exaggerated standards of perfection, there is the self-serving excuse not to get engaged. Of course, there are always those who just what want to do their own thing, not accepting that effectiveness often depends on some degree of discipline. Though the term ‘democratic centralism’ has understandably become besmirched, not least because of the Bolshevik experience (eg http://www.whatnextjournal.org.uk/Pages/Theory/Martov.pdfor the writings of Rosa Luxemburg and the young Trotsky).
But the concept of democratic centralism contains a kernel of truth: we do need party organisation if we are to change society (some parties in history called themselves ‘clubs’ but they were similar in that they had an agreed ‘ideological’ basis, a platform of specific ideas, and a formal structure). Such organisation is the only meaningful ‘scaffolding’ for a proper debate through which to clarify ideas about both ‘theory’ (values, analyses, policies) and activity (strategy and tactics). Only thorough debate can provide the necessary testing of ideas. But, once there is a democratic decision in favour of one option, it will only have any practical import if all members then does their best to implement what has been decided.
Free-wheeling individuals such as George Monbiot can get it so right at times but, since they are mainly listening to themselves, they are also prone to shoot off down wrong roads (eg Monbiot’ utterly wrong stances on population, nuclear power or artificial foodstuffs). Indeed, independent journalists can be especially prone to such traits since, to attract readers, now and again they have to resort to the deliberate striking of a controversial note, regardless of its intrinsic merits.
It is perfectly legitimate that some might conclude that the best option for them is to work within, say, the Labour Party, trying to change it from within. They may be right, though the evidence of past history is against them. The better option to join the party closest to one’s values and accept that it will have warts and all, something hopefully curable, others perhaps not so easily remedied. But that’s life! At the moment, the best option is the Green Party for all its undeniable shortcomings. It really is time to put aside reservations, sign up and persuade others to do likewise.
But, to repeat, it is not a matter of either-or. That does not preclude whatever worthy events groups such as Extinction Rebellion stage.