Extinction is clearly occurring – but is rebellion enough?
Over a number of years, prior to the Covid19 lockdown, the activities of Extinction Rebellion had created considerable interest, not to mention opposition and condemnation. Some of their tactics were so disruptive to everyday life for many people, that criticism even emerged from people sympathetic to their concern of ecological destruction and climate crisis. That type of disruptive activism was encountering the same responses faced by public service employees and those in the private sector who by striking or demonstrating, interrupt the normal functioning of capitalist economic activities. In other words such disruptive activities make the oppression of working class victims of this damaging mode of production worse by interrupting their ability to travel for paid employment or for shopping.
Those campaigning against climate change (and many other ‘single-issue’ problems) have followed a familiar, but dead-end process, which will ultimately end in failure. The dubious freedom of one set of workers to pursue their own perceived separate interests whilst interrupting those of other working class citizens, has never been really effective. Despite the bravery, persistence and dedication of Extinction Rebellion activists, their focus so far has been extremely narrow (ecology), their direct targets (government) superficial. Their tactics suffer from the collateral damage their activist campaigns inflict upon other sufferers under the system. Climate change and ecological damage is a serious and existential threat to all humanity and it affects everyone irrespective of their political views or current voting patterns. However, this acknowledged fact does not automatically result in a greater mass of people organising together to press for change. An alternative perspective of change and tactics need to be devised.
Moreover, the notion of a ‘rebellion’ is also problematic for it hinges around the intention to ‘rebel’ just enough to make those in political power do what they have consistently failed to do for decades – if not centuries. In fact rebellions, as with uprisings, are predicated upon forlorn attempts to persuade or force those with power – within a socio-economic system – to implement policies which are against the class interests of the powerful. The dismal results speak for themselves. Politicians in local and national government have been lobbied for decades on pollution and ecological destruction, (not to mention poverty etc), but politicians left, right and centre in government, have done little or nothing over the past half century. The stubborn fact is that big money can lobby politicians far more effectively and reward them far more handsomely than climate campaigners or any other type of reformist campaign. Since its origin in the ancient Greek Polis, politics has been an intermediate problem, inserted between the interests of ordinary citizens and their ruling elites. Politics has never been a solution and it remains so.
In modern times, the political classes of all shades are pledged to uphold the current capitalist mode of production and it is the mode of industrial production with its private wealth accumulation motive which determines pollution, climate change and ecological destruction. It also determines how politicians relate to it. In this respect, Extinction Rebellion thinking has not followed the logic of elite economic domination and culpability further than this first intermediate political level. Such inability to think outside the capitalistic box becomes transparent once the aims and target of Extinction Rebellions demands are considered. Their ideas and actions are primarily addressed to the same political system that has nurtured and deepened the ‘extinction’ problem in the first place.
‘Extinction Rebellions’ 3 Founding Aims.
“1. Government must tell the truth by declaring a climate and ecological emergency..”
“2. Government must act now to halt biodiversity loss and greenhouse gas emissions…”.
“3. Government must create ..and be led by…a citizens assembly on climate and ecological justice..”
Let us briefly consider these three points.
‘The government must tell the truth.’ Two naive idealistic assumptions are expressed in this first aim. First, the concept of ‘truth’ is a slippery concept derived from religious ideology. In response we always need to ask ‘whose truth’? Second, governments are political institutions using methods and approaches, which are far from being fair or even rational. Indeed, politics is based upon bias and hidden evidence and all governments are founded upon secrecy and ‘establishment’ propaganda. So there is no chance of getting anything other than elite determined aims and outcomes. Even the ‘true’ (ie accurate) numbers of huge demonstrations and large petitions are routinely falsified and ignored.
‘The government must act now…to halt biodiversity loss and ..emissions….’ This too is a naive demand. For a start, political institutions do not control the processes of industrial production and distribution which drives biodiversity loss and toxic emissions so even supportive politicians cannot halt them. The capitalist mode of production and consumption in private and public hands is the source of both these symptoms (and many others) and the economic elite are more powerful and influential than the political elites they finance and support. Financial and economic elites have invested heavily in the current means of production and are not going to damage them let alone scrap them.
‘Government must create and be led by..a citizens assembly.’ Governments are never “led by” their citizens. As the Brexit and other antics in the UK Parliament and the US Senate budget setting, demonstrate, governments are able to find ways to avoid being led in directions they do not fully embrace. Consultations with citizens in general are invariably a sham to make it appear the public are involved in altering their opinions. The political class in the UK invited citizens to vote to leave the European Union and then failed to act upon it for over two years. And as we know climate urgency has been ignored for many decades. [Check out the 1960’s classic book ‘Silent Spring’.]
The missing socio-economic dimension.
Those academics and intellectuals who initiated the Extinction Rebellion movement, have failed to openly confront the fact that it is the capitalist economic mode of production which is the primary engine of environmental destruction, climate change and toxic emissions. Many thousands among the middle-class already know that so why do those in Extinction Rebellion withhold it and keep silent? Most of them also know that politics serves the needs and interests of the dominant pro-capitalist economic elites, so why stay silent on that question? They also know that it is not the ordinary worker and the poor who are causing global pollution and climate change etc. These symptoms are first-world creations via a mass production based economic system, driven by a powerful pro-capitalist elite whose incentive is profit and wealth accumulation. Consequently the decisions of those who are the wealthiest propel the consumption of more and more resources and thus create more pollution and ecological damage than millions of the poor.
I suggest two further factors have nurtured that middle class failure to identify capitalism as the problem. The first is the fact that Extinction Rebellion is exclusively an expression of middle-class environmental worry and parental concern for the future employment opportunities for their offspring. In general the middle-classes do not want to change the current economic system, because their position (spread across the middle of it) is either reasonably, or overwhelmingly, comfortable. It is only their own and their children’s future environment and employment which is considered a serious enough problem to make activists of them. The second factor is an inadequately analysed outcome of previous anti-capitalist politics which has immunised them against taking up a potential or actual revolutionary-humanist anti-capitalist stance.
Their own class-based mis-identifications of the Soviet Union and Communist China (et al) as ‘anti-capitalist modes of production’, loom so large as to represent an insurmountable intellectual barrier to their thinking. However, it should be obvious that in all areas of human endeavour many early attempts fail disastrously. Particularly when these are ‘led’ by those with the arrogance to think they always know best. As was the case with the state capitalist forms of the Bolsheviks and Moaists. In contrast, the wise approach to failure is to persist and rectify the manifold previous faults. It would seem that Extinction Rebellion’s failure to move on beyond capital is rooted in the failure of the middle-class intellectual to be radically critical and self-critical and give up their current stipends.
Politics – all politics – is of course, the problem, not the solution. But the solution to the existence of sectarian and divisive politics is to build social movements based upon openness and inclusiveness. The humanist answer for middle-class activists is not to become involved in existing politics or to invent a new form of politics nor to adopt the least worst existing form. The solution is to follow the logic of a humanist concern to save the planet – and not just for middle-class humanity, but for all humanity and other life forms. This logical extension of saving the planet would mean adopting an all-round humanist approach to all the capitalist inspired problems facing humanity, for these are many more than emissions and biodiversity loss. For such an aim, rebellions are insufficient means, revolutionary transformations are required.
The limitation of rebellions.
The type of rebellion Extinction Rebellion suggest is similar to the Arab Spring rebellions against various dictators. These ‘rebels’ also desired to convince a systems representatives which had created the problems in the first place to reverse their chosen path and start down another. Modes of production, as with many other systems of course do not do this, they conserve themselves until they internally collapse and an alternative emerges. Indeed, the capitalist mode of production has all but collapsed twice before. It was a collapse which resulted in two world wars, in which mass extinctions of people, infrastructure and natural ecology took place around the globe, but no satisfactory alternative emerged. Instead, the middle-class rebellious academics and intellectuals of that pre- and post-war period, (1920’s to 1950’s) in the west supported the systems attempt to reform and clean up the mess 20th century capitalist inspired warfare had made of the world in 1945.
So in many ways 21st century Extinction Rebellion is another case of a Radical Reformist Rebellion which urges the capitalist system to reform itself in order to survive. However this time the crisis is more extreme than the one in the 20th century. It is depressingly frequent that otherwise intelligent people fail to think things through or thoroughly study past experience before thinking they have arrived at a potential solution. The capitalist mode of production and it’s representatives among the elites are those elements which have created the climate and extinction problems we face. Asking them to stop doing what they are doing is the equivalent of trying to convince fully evolved predatory animals (such as lions and tigers) to suddenly become vegetarians.
Roy Ratcliffe (May 2021)