Yes, “Socialism or Extinction” Is Exactly the Choice We Face

Extinction Rebellion leaders have dismissed the idea that protests for climate action have anything to do with “socialist ideology.” But refusing to take political positions — and to relate green politics to the interests of the social majority — will reduce environmentalism to an ineffective moral protest.

Members of Extinction Rebellion groups hold a demonstration on Central Beach in Nairn, Scotland, July 2020. (Jeff J Mitchell / Getty Images)

This week, another round of high-profile Extinction Rebellion (XR) protests began in Britain. In London, climate activists intend on a ten-day occupation of Parliament Square, as politicians return to vote on the Climate and Ecological Emergency Bill (CEE).

The CEE bill will be moved by Caroline Lucas MP, the Green Party’s sole representative in the House of Commons. It cites two objectives: to “ensure that the UK plays its role in limiting global temperature to 1.5 degrees centigrade” and to “actively conserve the natural world.” The key difference between this bill and other climate emergency motions is that it proposes a Citizens’ Assembly, a consultative group of individuals selected from the general population, with the intention of being representative of the wider citizenry.

The bill warns of a “yellow vest effect,” alluding to a similar initiative in France. There, however, President Emmanuel Macron has accepted just 3 out of the 149 recommendations from a citizens’ commission following the gilets jaunes protests. Although such deliberative democracy has been praised in Ireland, for example — paving the way for its reproductive rights referendum — it contains an assumption that solutions could be found inside the context of our current neoliberal capitalism, so long as the discussion was participatory enough.

For this reason, XR proposes “sortition” — selecting citizens by lot, as an alternative to voting. Doubtless, it is a nice gesture to have citizens discuss ideas for a “just transition.” But any serious radical proposal on climate must recognize that the capitalist system requires extraction, commodification, and, ultimately, ecological destruction — and thus any effective response to this crisis demands a confrontation with capitalist interests.

The absence of these dynamics is where the bill falls short, and so, too, Extinction Rebellion’s own political proposals. As Natasha Josette from Labour for a Green New Deal wrote last year, “what the movement is missing — or not stating clearly enough — is that the climate crisis is the result of neo-liberal capitalism, and a global system of extraction, dispossession and oppression.” Without this, Extinction Rebellion is more of an organization seeking to make a splash in the media, than a “movement” as such.

The passing of the bill would fulfill XR’s third and final demand, which calls for a Citizens’ Assembly with the task of mapping out a road to climate and ecological justice. The demand implores us to “go beyond politics,” but is unclear about what, concretely, is meant to replace it. This slogan, however, is indicative of the movement’s present limitations as led by a broadly liberal tradition. Ironically, it is reminiscent of Francis Fukuyama’s “End of History”: desiring politics but without the conflict, progress but without revolution, and movements but without the radical potential.

Against “Politics”?

Historically, movements in the liberal tradition that have attempted to be broad and “popularist” — to borrow the language of XR’s founder Roger Hallam — often find themselves politically unmoored when the initial shine wears off. Movements that operate on an “all things to all people” basis are at threat of dissolving upon contact with reality.

Evading questions of their class and social interests, and representation thereof strips a movement of its political content. You cannot expect to be politically relevant for very long if being politically ambiguous or apolitical is a fundamental component of a movement. In their recent communications — explicitly dismissing the notion that the movement is socialist — Extinction Rebellion are again committing themselves to this fate.

Activists that do define their political analysis as originating from socialist thought perhaps should not be surprised by the group’s repudiation of the “socialism or extinction” banners during its protests. When a movement says it is not a socialist movement, it does more than insult the activists within it who are socialists. It strips it of serious radical and political content, and hints at its lack of interest in gaining a working-class majority to its side.

This, indeed, is a constituency the group did much to alienate in its recent past. In an action at a London tube station, Extinction Rebellion activists climbed to the roof of the train, keeping commuters from accessing the (relatively environmentally friendly) public transport. A physical confrontation broke out and was caught on the group’s social media livestream.

Extinction Rebellion issued an apology for the action and the disruption to commuters. It further fueled perceptions of the group as white, middle-class, and out of touch with working-class people. A recent Centre for the Understanding of Sustainable Prosperity study on the class composition of Extinction Rebellion “rebels” lends weight to this perception.

In Tribune’s Politics Theory Other podcast interview from last year, Hallam identifies Extinction Rebellion as fitting into a gap between “the radical left and the NGO left,” dismissing the former as “Calvinistic” and the latter as “corporatist.”

This explanation is not only reductive and simplistic, but it also places the group in the same political no-man’s-land that has hamstrung populist movements, from Podemos in Spain to Five Star in Italy. In the interview, Hallam further expanded on this claim to stand against politics per se:

my main orientation isn’t really political — it is more sociological and structural. That’s the starting point … it’s simply impossible for the main social institutions of a society to be able to adapt quickly to rapid change. … particularly, the Labour Party isn’t going to cope. What we’re looking at is a complete collapse in the credibility of the political class. The political class is heading for extinction in terms of credibility. There’s no conception of a mass extinction event. … Extinction Rebellion is mainly morally mobilised.

There are potentially some ideological components to be teased out from Hallam’s thoughts, albeit fairly broad ones. There is a recognition of the limits of electoralism from a populist perspective, as well as an acknowledgement of the need to keep up a grassroots movement with climate breakdown on the horizon. It is telling, though, that Hallam is dismissive of political intervention, and goes as far as saying that the mobilizing force of the movement is primarily out of a sense of morality.

For Hallam, “politics” is not about relations of power and material conditions, but rather a colloquial understanding of the word that denotes unpleasantness and dirtiness. While unpleasant and dirty it may be, political and ideological clarity that places anti-capitalism and anti-racism at its center will give the movement the maturity it lacks, and help it connect to those constituencies that it has tended to alienate. To borrow a line attributed to Chico Mendes, “environmentalism without class struggle is just gardening.” Extinction Rebellion without socialism is just mass arrests.

For Clarity

But this also leaves XR open to other, dangerous influences. I was myself one of the admins behind Extinction Rebellion’s social media presence, and saw instances where activists, or individuals posing as activists, have disseminated eco-fascist propaganda. On occasion, we would receive messages asking whether this was official Extinction Rebellion material. Having to clarify that your group is not in favor of population control laws is probably an indication that the politics of the movement is not as clear as it could be.

The process of ideological and political clarity can develop over time for a movement, through internal and external forces. Internally, by methods of discussion and self-critique. Externally, through contact with other forces and groups in society.

This journey to clarity can be better understood if we imagine movements as having life cycles. Extinction Rebellion is young in age, not just in terms of many of its activists but also insofar as being a movement yet to reach maturity. It has a relatively global reach and identifies part of the existential destruction, which makes it relevant to its supporters.

It would be unfair to expect a movement with broad and populist ambitions to be born into a set of ideologically potent and coherent dogma. To reuse the comparison with Podemos and Five Star, some ideological openness is essential at the start in terms of bringing people on board. Having an activist milieu mobilized on “moral” grounds is not itself a bad thing — but it is certainly not enough in the long term.

While that initial ideological openness is arguably necessary, clarity must be an eventual goal. The analytic framework for arriving at that clarity must accept the existence of classes and social groups, where politically meaningful alliances can and must be made between them, and where interests are diametrically opposed to each other. From there, discussions about dealing with those class and social conflicts at a strategic level can fit in, such as the principle of nonviolence and the tactic of mass arrests.

For example, Hallam stressed in the Politics Theory Other interview that the treatment of protestors by the police is far worse in other countries than the UK. Even if this were true, this hardly makes the police potential allies. XR’s call for a nonviolent, “compassionate” attitude toward the police shows that there is a shortcoming in the understanding of the police, not only as the physical arm of the bourgeois state that has so far prevented climate justice, but also as institutionally racist. It should not even be needed, but these times are as good as any to revisit its ideological framework in the light of the Black Lives Matter movement and Extinction Rebellion’s relationship with working people of color.

For ecological politics isn’t just about “raising awareness” and thus exerting moral pressure. The giants of corporate capitalism have known of the extent of the climate crisis for years. We can already see that making the ruling class more aware of this crisis — and even the human suffering it has and will cause — has a decidedly limited effect.

The core assumption that the dominant can be “reasoned with” or “convinced,” be it by protests like the ones this week or awareness campaigns, has no grounding in experience. Similarly, trusting a randomly selected group of individuals to take action through a citizens’ assembly, should the CEE bill pass, seems distinctly insufficient.

Just as the “socialism or barbarism” phrase could be updated to “socialism or extinction,” so, too, should a nascent movement move from childhood to maturity. This begins with having a clear sense of political conflict — recognizing the need to find allies for a common struggle.