On Easter Sunday, after a week of protests and over a thousand arrests, Extinction Rebellion’s political circle coordinator, the climate change lawyer Farhana Yamin, announced that the week of protests in London would now be ‘paused’ as commuters went back to work and shop. This would show, she said – although she didn’t say whom it would be showing – that ‘we are not a rabble’.
This is not language that anyone who has organised or participated in popular protest, and has seen their efforts dismissed as the actions of a ‘rabble’ by politicians, newspapers and the BBC the following day, would ever use. Its implications are that any popular protest that can’t be switched on and off by its leaders, or at least its lawyers, is a rabble. As such, the statement is taking great care to differentiate the Extinction Rebellion protests from, most contemporaneously and obviously, the 5 months of Gilets jaunes protests in France – which no-one, as yet, has been able to pause.
And, indeed, where the protests of the Gilets jaunes have been a genuinely popular uprising that has avoided forming a leadership or allegiances with already existing political parties or unions, has refused to be dragged to the negotiating table by offers of concessions from the French President, Emmanuel Macron, and has physically stood up to the extraordinary level of violence from the French police, Extinction Rebellion, in contrast, appears to have a leadership – although it’s not clear exactly who that is at present – and, according to its own official announcement, is directing its protests specifically towards the negotiating table. It is also very deliberately non-confrontational with the British police.
This appears to be based on a prior agreement with the Metropolitan Police Force. From both Extinction Rebellion spokespersons and the Met there have been widely reported statements during the protests about the unusually light-touch the police have taken towards protesters. There have been claims, from people I spoke to on Waterloo Bridge on Wednesday night, that there are simply ‘too many’ protesters for the Met to clear; that the ‘passivity’ of the protesters, as one tabloid reported, has disarmed the police; that police have been ‘really, really nice’, as I heard a protester with a microphone tell the listening crowd from a parked truck on the bridge, to those they have arrested; and from the Met themselves that the police ‘don’t do kettling anymore’.
Now, this is all rubbish. The Met alone has 50,000 officers, and even without the various other armed forces the Mayor of London and UK government can draw on, they could very easily clear away the protests on Waterloo Bridge, Oxford Circus, Parliament Square and Marble Arch in a matter of hours, and they could do so, as they typically do, under the cover of darkness after the press and media have gone home and having sealed off the relevant streets from the public. They could also easily charge each and every protester, no matter how passive they are, and issue them with a dispersal order making their return to the sites of protest a criminal offence. And I can report from first-hand knowledge that a police officer spraying someone in the face with CS-gas or punching them in the throat compels even the most peace-loving protester to raise his or her arms in protection, and that’s all it requires for a charge of ‘Assault PC’. More to the point, although Extinction Rebellion requires that all participants ‘maintain nonviolent discipline both externally and internally’, however admirable this may be it does not dictate how violent the police are in return. As for not kettling anymore, that’s exactly what the police did in Oxford Circus – although it didn’t stop them allowing Emma Thompson through (and presumably back again) to address the press from the pink yacht protesters had moored there.
So the otherwise inexplicable circumstances that have permitted a truck and a yacht to block two of the major thoroughfares in London for a week can only be explained as the result of a prior agreement between the leadership of Extinction Rebellion and the Metropolitan Police Force, most likely through the mediations of the London Mayor, who likes to depict himself as an environmentalist while doing nothing to curb CO2 emissions and authorising the sale and destruction of our green spaces for investment opportunities for global capital.
Something very similar to this happened in July 2017 when the Tories Out! march was held in London, and the demonstration gathered in Portland Place, just up the road from Oxford Circus, with an even bigger truck than the one Extinction Rebellion parked on Waterloo Bridge. At the time I wondered how the organisers of the march had got permission for such an occupation, but it quickly became clear that, behind its ostensibly ‘grass-roots’ appearance, this was a Labour Party-organised event that had appropriated the language and spectacle of street protest to serve its parliamentary aspirations.
Earlier that year, in February 2017, a demonstration against the impending visit of Donald Trump to the UK, also purporting to be grass-roots in origin, was held in Parliament Square, on which had been erected a huge stage with a lineup of musical acts, performance poets, a gospel choir and speakers from the Houses of Parliament. Again, I was struck by the fact that this ‘protest’ was in a Government Security Zone, where the Metropolitan Police Force has free reign to arrest someone on the mere suspicion that you’re about to do something anti-social let alone illegal, and that holding a march there requires prior authorisation from the London Mayor – who had in fact given it. And, once again, it turned out that this ‘popular’ protest was in fact organised by the Guardian journalist Owen Jones, the Socialist Workers Party, the People’s Assembly against Austerity, Unite the Union, Momentum and other fronts for the Labour Party.
In contrast, and to its credit, Extinction Rebellion has separated itself – at least verbally – from any political party or pre-existing organisation, such as the Green Party or Greenpeace, and in this it has common ground with the Gilets jaunes. In doing so it is strategically different, so far, from the Labour fronts that have reduced the equally effusive housing movement of 2015 to the obedient acolytes for Jeremy Corbyn of 2019. But apart from its similar adoption of the spectacle of street protest, which has presumably drawn into these protests far more people than are aligned with its umbrella organisation, Extinction Rebellion also clearly has more than a few quid behind it. The first thing I thought when I saw the pink yacht moored in Oxford Circus was not: ‘What a great way to block the busiest high street in London!’, but rather: ‘Who’s got a yacht to spare?’ (though I have no doubt it will be returned by the police to its rightful owner – the right to property being the only human right observed in the UK). So, where’s the money coming from?
On its website Extinction Rebellion says that it has raised £180,000 over the past six months, some of it from donors, a lot from grant funds, even more from crowdfunding. This doesn’t strike me as anything like enough to pull off the stunts it has. And even if it is, it doesn’t explain the apparent influence it has with the London Mayor, the Metropolitan Police Force, Transport for London, the BBC, and all the other forces of the establishment that might otherwise have been expected to rally in organising opposition to it, as they have, for instance, in silencing the protests against London’s housing crisis and homelessness.
A clue might have been let slip last Thursday when, on the advertisement that is wrapped around the London Evening Standard, beneath the headline: ‘Fourth day of chaos from climate protests’, Adidas had taken out a double-page spread with the sales-pitch: ‘We can’t change the world in one day. But we can take the first step.’ This paraphrase of the civil rights activist Martin Luther King was followed by a masterpiece of marketing specifically designed to appeal to the youth market:
‘For the past 6 years we have been working on a product that you’ll never throw away. A shoe that is made to be remade. You buy them – wear them – and when you’re done you give them back to us. We remake them. It is our first step. A statement of intent to end the problem of waste. We have a problem with plastic waste. We buy, we use, we throw away. But there is no away. Every piece of plastic ever made is still in existence somewhere on our planet. In our ecosystem. Poisoning our earth. Before this makes-use-waste e-system changes everything, we must change it.’
For some time now I’ve been arguing that protesting is the new clubbing, and just as multi-national corporations very quickly turned the underground scene of acid house and rave into a form of stadium rock back in the 1990s, so the same corporations – which shape and mould our desires and futures far more than the Houses of Parliament – have cottoned on to the fact that in the 2010s the newest popular social phenomenon on which they can capitalise – and in doing so subsume that phenomenon into a reaffirmation of capitalism – is protest.
Why else, if not in order to appeal to a teenage consumer market, has Extinction Rebellion chosen a 16-year old Swedish girl in pigtails to be its global spokesperson? Protesters might argue that in doing so they are using the strategy of mass marketing against itself, but in that struggle history shows there can be only one winner, and its name is Adidas, Nike, McDonalds, Coca-Cola, Amazon, Apple, Google, Facebook, Twitter, etc. But besides finding new markets for their environment-consuming commodities, why else would multi-national corporations be interested in climate change?
As the West loses its economic grip on the world, and the economies of formerly impoverished countries like India, Brazil and China expand at exponential rates, the demand on the world’s resources increases. As we watch the Communist Party of China buy up vast tracks of land in Africa and across the world, the call on such rapidly industrialising and competing economies to slow production, curb expansion and reduce emissions is more likely to find acceptance amongst a European and North American middle class experiencing a drop in its standard of living for the first time since the Second World War if that call is aligned with green politics, in which the approaching disaster (for us) of the West losing its economic pre-eminence in the world is equated with an environmental catastrophe faced by the entire world.
Emmanuel Macron tried something similar in France when he justified the raising of fuel taxes for the working classes by arguing that it was necessary to reduce carbon emissions – a typically capitalist response that accords the rich a greater right to consume the world’s resources than the poor. As it is, the wealthiest 20 per cent of the world’s population already consumes 86 per cent of its resources. And, to their credit, the Gilets jaunes saw through and rejected this attempt to capitalise on the environmental crisis by the same corporations that have created it. The vast sums of money donated to the rebuilding of Notre Dame de Paris in France by France’s billionaires in the same week that Extinction Rebellion has been calling for a drastic reduction in CO2 emissions in Britain has revealed the extent of the French President’s lies about his programme of fiscal austerity imposed on the working classes.
In contrast to this clarity, Extinction Rebellion’s demands to have our global climate and ecological decline declared an ‘emergency’, to ‘act now’ to reduce carbon emissions, and to form a ‘citizens assembly’ to oversee that action, attributes the environmental disaster we’re facing to abstract forces. But the changes to the environment that threaten us are not caused by ‘humankind’ or ‘greed’; nor are they a product of the ‘anthropocene’. This newly popular term, which has been adopted by Extinction Rebellion, attributes the current state of the natural world to the humanist, anthropological and a-historical abstraction called ‘man’, with which environmentalists and feminists alike are so disgusted. However, a growing body of research argues that the environmental changes threatening us are a product not of man but of capitalism, to describe which the corrective term ‘capitalocene’ goes some way to attributing the ecological deterioration of the world to the historical particularity of capitalism’s structural need to increase production in order to continue generating profit from consuming the world’s finite resources.
Despite this, nowhere in their demands have Extinction Rebellion named this economic cause or called for its change, presumably because doing so would align them with social and political forces from which Farhana Yamin’s negative description of a ‘rabble’ has taken care to distance them. As Extinction Rebellion state in their list of principles: ‘We avoid blaming and shaming – we live in a toxic system, but no one individual is to blame.’
Some of us disagree. The ‘rabble’ that, for 23 weeks running, has protested across France against the capitalism they have identified as the cause of the rising economic inequality to which they are not alone in being subjected, and of which the environmental disaster we are facing is a bi-product, has rejected Macron’s attempt to place that disaster in the service of monopoly capitalism and its political administrators. As the leadership of Extinction Rebellion meets with UK politicians this week to discuss their demands and the London Mayor announces it’s ‘business as usual’, will they risk alienating the class and corporate interests that have given them this platform by aligning their environmental demands with the social, political and economic revolution that alone is capable of averting this disaster?
What is becoming increasingly clear is that capitalism will either be overthrown and superseded as a global political economy or it will lead us to extinction as a species. If it is not to be just another ideology of liberalism to which Extinction Rebellion unfortunately bears numerous points of resemblance, an environmentalist project must at the same time also be a revolutionary project.
Architects for Social Housing
P.S. In response to this last statement, a reader asked how this revolutionary project starts. The answer is in many ways, but recognising a corporate marketing strategy for what it is is a start. Not abandoning our critical faculties to the collective frisson of ‘rebellion’ is another. Seeing through liberalism’s eternal claim that capitalism can be tweaked into something munificent is another. Rejecting the dangerous illusion that non-violence is an antidote to state violence is another. Not being lulled into thinking the stage-managed performances of the past week, including the art-inspired ‘die in’ at the Natural History Museum, constitute a form of political action is another. And – while recognising the difference between the totalitarian state-regimes of the 1930s and the global corporate-state complex of today – by remembering what Walter Benjamin wrote in 1936:
‘Fascism attempts to organise the masses while leaving intact the property relations that the masses strive to abolish. Fascism sees its salvation in giving these masses not their rights, but instead a chance to express themselves. The masses have a right to change property relations; fascism seeks to give them expression while keeping these relations unchanged. The logical outcome of fascism is the aestheticising of political life.’
As it does for so many of today’s populist movements, this statement uncannily describes the mobilisation of the masses by Extinction Rebellion last week.
P.P.S. Contrary to Extinction Rebellion’s refusal to allocate blame, Decolonial Atlas has identified the names and locations of the top 100 individuals in the world whose companies are responsible for 70 per cent of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions since 1988, with the size of countries representing their cumulative CO2 emissions between industrialisation in 1850 and 2011. What this map shows is that it isn’t humans that are killing life on the planet, it’s capitalism; and the individuals responsible are the billionaires who own and run the world’s biggest companies. We don’t need to declare a climate emergency; we need to create a socialist revolution, and soon.