The two faces of Extinction Rebellion

The movement’s stated ambition to “go beyond politics” sits uneasily with its pursuit of parliamentary legislation.

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On 1 September, on the first of ten days of protest in London, Cardiff and Manchester organised by international environmentalist group Extinction Rebellion (XR), Extinction Rebellion UK issued a tweet declaring: “We are not a socialist movement. We do not trust any single ideology, we trust the people, chosen by sortition (like a jury service) to find the best future for all of us through a #CitizensAssembly.” 

The tweet appears to have been a response to right-wing scaremongering about the alleged role of the far left – specifically the Young Communist League – within XR. This theory was boosted by the Rupert Murdoch-owned press, which was evidently piqued by an XR stunt on 4 September when activists blocked three of News Corp’s printing plants, where its titles such as the Sun and the Times as well as other newspapers such as the Telegraph are printed, delaying the distribution of the next day’s papers. On 6 September, the Telegraph gleefully proclaimed “Extinction Rebellion at war with itself after infiltration by Marxists”. The following day, the lead article in the Times announced that “Extinction Rebellion has allowed a hard core of ideologues and Marxist infiltrators to dictate its agenda”. 

XR UK’s public disavowal of socialism – and of “ideology” altogether – was a self-defeating overreaction to the hyperbole of the country’s press. But it is consonant with Extinction Rebellion’s stated ambition to “Go beyond politics” – the last of its three demands (the other two are “Tell the truth” and “Act now”). 

What does XR mean by “politics” and where might be the value in transcending it? Beneath “Go beyond politics” on XR’s website are a series of expansions of the mantra, including “Go beyond party politics”, “Go beyond Westminster politics”, “Go beyond personal politics”, “Go beyond identity politics”. “Politics”, like “ideology”, seems to be a byword for tribalism and dogmatism – which, by implication, divides people, and produces political stasis. 

There is some logic to the notion that we should discard political identifications: the climate crisis is an existential problem that ought to be of concern to everyone, no matter how they vote or what they believe. A majority of people in the UK are now worried enough about the climate that they think net-zero emissions should be achieved sooner than the government’s 2050 target. But environmental concern remains a partisan political issue, with Labour voters more in favour of aggressive climate action than Conservatives. It is clear why XR is keen to avoid labels: if ecological concern remains the exclusive remit of those who identify as left wing, mass support for radical climate action is unlikely to be achieved in the short term.

Yet the question is whether the mass support required to precipitate political change is best achieved by less politics or more of it. Whereas XR seeks to depoliticise the climate crisis, there might instead be ways of politicising it better: finding means to connect the global problem of a warming planet to the more immediate, local concerns arising from people’s everyday experience. For the conventional aim of political movements is not simply to avoid driving bystanders away – by appearing too radical or ideological – but to draw people in as active, engaged participants. One could describe XR’s attempt to transcend politics as locating the strength of a movement in the breadth, rather than the depth, of its appeal. This tendency also relates to XR’s limited objective to be the prompt for, rather than mechanism of, change – hence its demand for citizens’ assemblies – and in that sense its metric of success may be notoriety rather than popularity.

Aside from problems of strategy, there is also the question of whether such an escape from politics is possible – for the refusal of politics itself entails a set of political assumptions. Likewise, however carefully one avoids identifying with a specific political tradition, everything from one’s choice of tactics to the sociological make-up of one’s members, to the language in which the project is articulated, has political meaning, attracting some social groups and alienating others. Blockading News Corp’s printing plants in protest against the Murdoch-owned media’s position on climate change, for example, presumably did little to endear Extinction Rebellion to readers of the Times who were temporarily deprived of their weekend paper. The same applies to the commuters who were angered by XR’s rush-hour disruption of the Docklands Light Railway in October 2019 – a bemusing stunt, for which the group expressed regret, given the importance of electrified public transportation to any future low-carbon economy. 

Whatever political labels they claim or refuse, all movements evoke a particular political culture, and one suspects that as in social life, where popularity is rarely guaranteed by trying to please everyone, an activist group is more likely to inspire conviction in itself by owning its politics, rather than aspiring to do away with the whole category.

[see also: Extinction Rebellion: Green rebels with a cause]

As with “Act now”, by which XR specifically means, “act now to reach net-zero by 2025”, the slogan “Go beyond politics” refers to the creation of a climate citizens’ assembly (one has already been held in Birmingham over a series of weekends at the beginning of this year, with the final report published on 10 September). “Politics” thus alludes to the traditional organisations and institutions of representative parliamentary democracy (as opposed to the direct democracy of a randomly selected assembly). Moreover, somewhat confusingly, under “Go beyond politics” on XR’s website can be found a subheading, “CCE bill” – information about a new Climate and Ecological Emergency bill, which XR members were involved in developing and which was tabled in the Commons on 2 September. Politics is an amorphous term but introducing a bill to parliament is one fairly unequivocal form of it.

[see also: Are citizens’ assemblies really the answer to the climate crisis?]

This incoherence underscores a broader tension within Extinction Rebellion: the extra-parliamentary tactics of “civil disobedience” and post-political rhetoric are combined with a pragmatic pursuit of concrete legislative progress. A neat emblem of the contradiction between XR’s theatrical confrontations with “the system” and its business-like efforts to work within it could be found in the image of activists gluing themselves to the entrance of parliament on 3 September, preventing the entry of MPs the day after the introduction of the climate bill that other XR members helped to write. More than simply dealing in disruption and confrontation, XR’s métier is the performance of disruption and confrontation – often in creative ways: activists did not just block the News Corp’s printing presses, they did so by chaining themselves to elaborate bamboo structures. 

Given its work on the CCE bill, we should perhaps understand XR’s aversion to politics as a matter of style rather than substance. This is not to accuse the movement of hypocrisy; the two-pronged strategy – loudly rebellious consciousness-raising and industrious legislative activity – appears to be working. But with the right-wing press casting XR as overrun by far-left ideologues and the government threatening to reclassify the non-violent network as an “organised crime group”, it’s important to keep a clear sense of the movement's real character in view, so we can recognise its real contribution – and heed the reminder of another global crisis for which we are catastrophically unprepared.

[see also: Extinction Rebellion ‘flattered’ by government claim that it poses cyber threat]

Lola Seaton is assistant editor of the New Statesman

This article appears in the 18 September 2020 issue of the New Statesman, Planet Covid

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