Just stop being manipulative
Blocking roads, throwing paint at buildings, gluing themselves to paintings, what’s it all about? It’s all in the title. Just Stop Oil. In other words, keep capitalism but just stop extracting and using oil. In itself, it’s a completely unrealistic proposition. Even socialist society would have to use some oil for some purposes, even if not to burn on a massive scale to generate electricity or to power trains and planes and cars, vans and lorries. It is essential as a lubricant and can be used to make other products such as plastics, paints and ointments. But under capitalism, taken literally the demand to stop extracting it is way off the scale of unachievable demands.
Capitalist production is not production with the rational aim of meeting human needs. It is uncontrollable production by separate, competing enterprises for sale with a view to profit. The battle of competition is won by those which can keep their costs the lowest, not lastingly by cutting corners but by using the cheapest suitable materials and by installing new machines or adopting new methods of production that reduce the cost per unit of what the enterprise is selling.
At the moment oil is the cheapest practical source of energy, when burned, for powering transport, whether by land, air or sea, and transport is essential for getting goods to market and workers to work. If oil was stopped today from being used for transport, society would literally grind to a halt; millions would die. Nor is any government going to adopt this on its own as currently available alternatives are either not scaled up sufficiently, nor reliable, or would increase costs massively and render enterprises operating in and from its territory completely uncompetitive.
It could be that those behind Just Stop Oil are demanding the maximum in order to get something less such as a more rapid transition to alternatives. That might well be why some look on their campaign with some sympathy. On the other hand, it could just be a tactic to get people to demand something that the campaign’s initiators know to be unrealistic and that when their followers realise this they will turn to demanding something more radical than just stopping the extraction of oil. This wouldn’t be the end of capitalism since those behind the campaign have explicitly rejected such talk. It is more likely to be questioning ‘industrial civilisation’ and returning to a ‘simpler’ way of life, to an imagined earlier stage of production for the market when this was to meet local needs.
But we know that the leaders of the campaign are more manipulative than this. The campaign was planned before the war in Ukraine when there was an expectation that no more licences would be granted to drill for oil in the North Sea. The leaders’ declared aim was to demand something they thought was going to be achieved anyway and to pass this off as a victory for the campaign, so as to build up the confidence of its activist foot soldiers and gain more of them and reach the figure they consider enough to bring about a change that will stop and reverse global warming.
They have declared that figure to be around 3 percent of the population engaging in non-violent civil disobedience. Roger Hallam, the group’s chief strategist if not leader, has been quoted as saying: ‘You can basically save the next generation with 2 per cent of the American population mobilised, engaged in an intense intra-relationship between high-level disruption and intense mobilisation… If you don’t upset people enough, then nothing happens’ (Times, 24 October).
Something has happened. The government has brought in a new law to deal with Just Stop Oil’s tactics, adding to the state’s arsenal of repressive laws. But this, too, will be part of the group’s leaders’ strategy to attract more activist followers, this time from those who object to non-violent protestors being jailed. Grist for the mill to reach the 2 or 3 percent. As if such a small number could impose its will on the majority or even win majority sympathy. Not even minority insurrectionists believe that.