Extinction? Rebellion?

Extinction Rebellion (XR) was founded in 2018 based on the following:

  1. That there is a ‘Climate Emergency’ due to an imminent threat of extinction from global warming not just of other species but of humans too.
  2. That because the government has failed in its duty to protect the security and safety of its citizens, they are no longer obliged to obey its laws.
  3. That net-zero carbon emissions should be achieved by 2025.
  4. That 3.5 percent of a country’s population practising non-violent civil disobedience can bring about political regime change.

Just Stop Oil is an offshoot inspired and led by one of XR’s founders, Roger Hallam. In 2021 it was called Insulate Britain. Last year it became Just Stop Oil. The difference with XR is over the immediate aim and tactics. Basically, Hallam is more militant. While they talk of love, he talks of toppling the government.

In his Common Sense for the 21st Century, that came out in 2019, Hallam wrote of ‘the system spiralling out of our control and the likelihood of global collapse within a decade or two’ and of ‘6-7 billion people’ dying as a result of climate change ‘within the next generation or two’ (bit.ly/3jQIFMx).

He repeated this claim in an interview on the BBC Hardtalk programme on 16 August:

‘The capitalist system, the global system that we are in, is in the process of destroying itself and it will destroy itself in the next ten years. The reason for this is because it’s destroying the climate.’

‘I am talking about the slaughter, death and starvation of 6 billion people this century – that’s what the science predicts’ (bit.ly/2MDBhSZ).

Actually, it wasn’t what science said or says. It was just a worst-case scenario should average global temperature rise to 5 degrees centigrade above the pre-industrial level, which no scientist expects to happen. Admittedly, if it did it would be catastrophic. But it is not going to happen, not even those who rule under capitalism are so stupid as to allow that.

XR subscribes to the myth that the government exists to serve and protect its citizens and argues that, in not doing enough to protect them from climate change, the government has failed in its duty and, worse, has betrayed those they are supposed to protect; the government having broken its side of the bargain, they as its citizens are absolved from having to obey its laws.

The political philosophy behind this justification for engaging in civil disobedience, ie, not obeying the law, is surprisingly old-fashioned. It’s based on the ‘social contract’ theory of the origin of government that underlies the 1776 American Declaration of Independence. This famously declares that all humans have

‘certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.—That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed…’

And goes on:

‘That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government.’

XR say they are exercising this ‘right to rebellion’. Hence their name.

In short, they subscribe to the conventional view of what governments are there to do, whereas in fact governments are there to protect the interests of the rich owning class. It is their government not ours.

Beyond politics
In the beginning they considered themselves to be ‘beyond politics’ as the situation was supposedly so urgent that politics must be set aside. This included not just the trivia of everyday conventional politics — the Westminster Passing Show — but talk of ‘capitalism’ and ‘socialism’ was also part of politics that they were beyond.

They have since come to recognise that they too are involved in politics in the broad sense and now say that they are beyond only ‘party politics’. In fact they have gone further and say they want political, economic and social change and spell this out as ‘a rapid change in wealth distribution and power structures, preventing a rich elite from perpetuating a self-serving ideology’ (bit.ly/3QjCug2).

That should mean that they are now open to discussion about ‘capitalism’ and ‘socialism’ as well as discussion of the best means to get to the sort of society they say they want. They still dismiss ‘socialism’, though, no doubt because of what the word has unfortunately come to mean.

Changing slogans
XR’s demand of net-zero carbon by 2025 was unrealisable. Even if socialism had been established in 2019 we wouldn’t have been able to reach that by then. Yet this demand is still on their website where – with only two years to go – it is even sillier than it was in 2019.

Hallam didn’t think that this was good enough as a slogan to mobilise enough people to engage in civil disobedience on the scale he envisaged. He thought that what was needed was something felt as more immediate. The first such mobilising slogan he came up with was ‘insulate Britain’. Not that this demand would make much difference to global warming as the contribution to this from poorly insulated houses on an island of 65 million people off the north-west coast of the Eurasian land mass will be fairly minimal.

At the beginning of last year this slogan was dropped and later replaced by ‘Just Stop Oil’. Originally, it was meant as a slogan for a campaign to stop any further licences being granted to drill for oil and gas in the North Sea.

Hallam’s Common Sense in the 21st Century – which, subtitled Only Nonviolent Rebellion Can Now Stop Climate Breakdown And Social Collapse, is intended as a handbook on how to topple a government:

‘We must adopt the most successful model for regime change shown by the social scientific research – the civil resistance model. This involves mass participation civil disobedience: tens and hundreds of thousands of people blocking the centres of cities to demand change. There are a number of tactical options, but the main process is as follows:

  • The people conduct mass mobilisation – thousands need to take part.
  • They amass in a capital city where the elites in business, government and the media are located.
  • They break the law – they cross the Rubicon. Examples include blocking the roads and transport systems.
  • They maintain a strictly nonviolent discipline even, and especially, under conditions of state repression.
  • They focus on the government, not intermediate targets – government is the institution that make the rules of society and has the monopoly of coercion to enforce them.
  • They continue their action day after day – one-day actions, however big, rarely impose the necessary economic cost to bring the authorities to the table.
  • The actions can have a fun atmosphere– most people respond to what is cultural and celebratory rather than political and solemn.

After one or two weeks following this plan, historical records show that a regime is highly likely to collapse or is forced to enact major structural change.’

At the beginning of the year XR announced what seemed to be an attempt to implement this ‘model for regime change. They are going to organise a mass presence over a number of days of at least 100,000 people in Parliament in London beginning on 21 April. Describing it as the ‘Big One’ and part of ‘Project 3.5‘, they declared:

‘Gathering peacefully in such large numbers at the nation’s seat of power will create a positive, irreversible, societal tipping point’(extinctionrebellion.uk/the-big-one/#).

If they really think that this way they can topple the government and usher in ‘a fair society and a citizen-led end to the fossil fuel era’ within a couple of weeks, only one word comes to mind — delusional.

In praise of minority action
The underlying assumption of XR and Just Stop Oil is that political change can be brought about by as little as 3.5 percent of the population practising civil disobedience. The XR website says that its mission involves

‘Mobilising 3.5% of the population to achieve system change – using ideas such as “Momentum-driven organising” to achieve this. The change needed is huge and yet achievable. No regime in the 20th century managed to stand against an uprising which had the active participation of up to 3.5% of the population’ (for Erica Chenoweth’s research, see bit.ly/3Gn0NoV).

XR typically give three instances of this working: the Civil Rights movement in the US, the collapse of the ‘Communist’ regimes in Eastern Europe, and the Arab Spring. What these have in common is that they were political changes in the political superstructure of capitalism that were not incompatible with the operation of capitalism as an economic system. There are no examples of the economic laws of capitalism being overcome by this kind of action.

Supposing (just for a moment) XR or Just Stop Oil managed to topple the government, what then?

There’d still be capitalism, the cause of the problem and an obstacle to its solution, and to get rid of that requires majority understanding and democratic political action, not civil disobedience by a small minority. The capitalist economic and social system could not be toppled by the determined ‘rebellion’ of some 2 million activists, as they claim (2.3 million being 3.5 percent of the population of Britain).

Their strategy is not a democratic one. It is an attempt by a minority to impose its will on society by coercion (blocking roads is a form of coercion even though non-violent).

In his Common Sense in the 21st Century Hallam openly stated:

‘We should not make the mistake of thinking “the people have to rise” in the sense of the majority of the population. We need a few to rise up and most of the rest of the population to be willing to “give it a go”.’

Citizens’ Assemblies
He envisages that, once the 3.5 percent had toppled the government, decision-making power should be handed over to a National Citizens’ Assembly (chosen by lot) to decide the precise measures that should be taken to deal with the ‘climate emergency’.

Leaving what to do to citizens’ assemblies is a cop-out. For all the merits of such assemblies, most ‘citizens’ today will have the same ideas that they express in elections, ie, that they see no alternative to capitalism, and so would come up with proposals to be implemented under capitalism and which in all probability would accept its constraints. A majority of them would still have to change their ideas about society before they could decide what was required to deal with global overwarming.

Helping this change of consciousness to emerge – ‘making socialists’ –must be the priority as a majority in favour is a precondition for any effective ‘change in wealth distribution and power structures, preventing a rich elite from perpetuating a self-serving ideology’.

Hallam himself is still thinking within the capitalist box. His long-term goal seems to be the sort of mixed state/private economy geared to the market that we have today (plus a few social reform measures) ‘only there will be no oil, coal or gas industry’, as can been seen from the sort of measures he thinks his National Citizens’ Assembly would have to take:

‘the application of taxes, subsidies and mandates by government. Some examples include: Carbon taxes and dividends to both drive behaviour but also to compensate the poor;’ ‘taxes on all virgin materials to encourage investment in recycling; feed-in-tariffs to drive distributed energy and storage in homes, schools and factories.’

In claiming that we should give priority to campaigning for ‘climate justice’ rather than socialism, XR and its offshoots are begging the question by assuming that the threat of serious climate change can be lastingly and effectively tackled without getting rid of capitalism. But it can’t. In rejecting the common ownership and democratic control of the Earth’s natural and industrial resources – socialism, properly understood – they are rejecting the only framework within which the climate change crisis can be lastingly and effectively tackled.


Next article: Something’s lurking around the corner – but it isn’t a world war ⮞

2 Replies to “Extinction? Rebellion?”

  1. “Like the old Labour Party [Extinction Rebellion] imagine that by having the right kind of government in charge of capitalism they will be able to administer it in the interests of the whole community. The reason the Labour Party failed should be obvious. In its everyday operation capitalism staggers along according to its economic laws which cannot be controlled or rationally directed, on the basis of an economic antagonism between classes with capital trying to maximise its profits at the expense of wages and salaries and workers struggling to maximise wages at the expense of profits. It staggers along on the basis of competition and economic rivalries between enterprises and between capitalist nations.

    “Yet [XR] thinks it can form a government which somehow, as if by magic, can ignore this reality and act on the basis of a common community interest through cooperation and socially responsible policies. This cannot be done. The tragedy is that we’ve got a lot of sincere and enthusiastic people in [the climate & ecology movement] being side-tracked by these out-dated illusions which have dissipated so much energy and wasted so much time in the past.” – Taken from ‘Where are the Greens Going?’ by Pieter Lawrence (Socialist Standard, May, 1990). [Originally about the Green Party]

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