Extinction Rebellion (XR) has been in the limelight again over the last couple of weeks, as environmental activists ramp up protests once more. This raises important questions about what direction the climate movement is heading in – and how to win this fight.
In particular, in recent days, XR has come under attack from the Tory government, who have threatened to classify the group as a criminal organisation. This has rightly provoked a huge backlash from XR members, as well as from others in defence of the right to protest.
Pillar of the establishment
On 5 September, XR protestors physically blocked the distribution of various right-wing newspapers. These included the Telegraph, the Mail, and various Murdoch-owned titles. Activists targeted these reactionary rags on the grounds that they back the fossil fuel industry, and have shown disregard towards environmental disasters such as the Australian bush fires.
Boris Johnson and Tory home secretary Priti Patel responded by claiming that this blockade was against ‘freedom of speech’, and that all newspapers should be able to speak freely in order to ‘hold the government to account’.
This morning people across the country will be prevented from reading their newspaper because of the actions of Extinction Rebellion.— Priti Patel (@pritipatel) September 5, 2020
This attack on our free press, society and democracy is completely unacceptable. https://t.co/3DfasjD6sS
But the right-wing press has never held Johnson and his government to account. Rather, they have backed the Tories in all their most disgusting decisions.
The media is an important pillar of the capitalist establishment. And every major news outlet in Britain consistently defends the interests of the ruling class over those of workers.
The Murdoch press is amongst the most abhorrent and backwards of these. But all the billionaire-owned papers are fundamentally the same: supporting the capitalists, whilst showing nothing but disdain for workers, young people, and the oppressed.
An injury to one
These recent Tory threats are part of a worrying trend in the use of state repression and restriction against protests. Johnson cynically claims to care about ‘freedom of speech’. But he is clearly more concerned about attacking activists’ freedom to organise.
We must be clear: under capitalism, freedom of speech only genuinely exists for those at the top – for the billionaire bosses, including those who own all the main newspapers and TV channels. The voice of the working class, meanwhile, is never given a platform in any of the capitalist media.
For workers, the youth, and the oppressed, power comes from organisation and action. This is why the Tories have sought to cut away this right whenever they get the chance. For example, Margaret Thatcher imposed draconian laws on the rights of trade unions to organise and strike. And it seems that Johnson wants to continue where she left off.
The labour movement and the left must stand up against these latest Tory attacks. We must expose the hypocrisy of big business politicians who talk about ‘freedom of speech’ whilst suppressing dissent. And we must also call out Keir Starmer and the right-wing Labour leadership for siding with the Tories over protestors.
Above all, we must firmly defend the right to protest. The repressive measures threatened against climate activists today will no doubt be turned on striking workers tomorrow. An injury to one is an injury to all.
Climate change is political
Since the onset of the coronavirus crisis, the climate catastrophe has not been at the forefront of most people’s minds. But the latest wave of action by XR has focussed attention on this key question once again. In turn, debates have resurfaced over how to fight climate change.
On this, XR recently declared categorically on Twitter that they are “not a socialist movement”. This statement stirred up a storm on social media. But it should come as no shock.
Just to be clear we are not a socialist movement. We do not trust any single ideology, we trust the people, chosen by sortition (like jury service) to find the best future for us all through a #CitizensAssembly A banner saying ‘socialism or extinction’ does not represent us 🙏🏽🙏— Extinction Rebellion UK 🌍 (@XRebellionUK) September 1, 2020
XR have long held their head above the proverbial water of ‘ideology’. As the group says in their recent provocative tweet, they “do not trust any single ideology”. And their ‘spokespersons’ (i.e. leaders) have boasted many times that there is no ideological string tying the organisation together.
XR’s organisers hope that by adopting such a ‘broad church’ strategy, they can build a bigger movement and convince politicians – including Tory MPs – to listen to their demands.
But the burning issue of climate change is not above politics. Climate change is deeply political. It is capitalism that is at the root of the climate crisis. And establishment politicians – who represent the bosses and defend the profit system – are never going to take serious action to avert the destruction of our planet.
These recent attacks on climate activists by the Conservative government demonstrate clearly that XR are wasting their time trying to appeal to big business politicians. The Tories take their cue from the City of London, not from protestors on the streets.
Extinction Rebellion must learn from this: steering away from a firm, radical political position does nothing to help the movement. Weakness only invites aggression. At the same time, it acts to sow confusion – disorientating activists who are looking for a clear direction in the fight against climate change.
In place of this political vagueness offered by the leaders of XR, climate activists should reach out to the labour movement: linking up with workers’ organisations; using the methods of class struggle; and fighting for socialism.
For example, in place of ‘direct action’ by a handful of activists to blockade printing presses, we need mass strike action by print workers and journalists to shut down the capitalist papers. This should be linked to political demands for public ownership and workers’ control over the press, to take control out of the hands of billionaire media moguls.
Connecting the climate movement to the labour movement, in turn, would strengthen the hand of activists and protestors in relation to state repression.
Whilst the government and the police can easily clamp down on isolated groups or individual publicity stunts, they would have a far harder time suppressing coordinated strike action and mass mobilisations of organised workers.
The #YouthStrike4Climate movement showed the way forward in this respect, with efforts to join forces with trade unions. Similarly, under Corbyn, Labour made steps in the right direction by linking the question of climate change to class-based demands for nationalisation of the big energy networks.
Socialism or extinction!
It is not enough to wave a banner against the climate catastrophe. If XR protestors genuinely want to tackle climate change, then they must fight alongside organised workers – against not only this Tory government, but the whole capitalist system.
It is capitalism that has ravaged our planet. And it is capitalist politicians who are now trying to remove our right to stand up against this – an experience that striking workers and trade unionists will be all to familiar with.
XR cannot treat this struggle as merely a climate movement anymore. Only a fundamental transformation of society – based on a socialist economic plan and workers’ control – can prevent climate change. Socialism or extinction!