Or, why thinking about social movements actually matters
When people ask me what I think of XR, my usual answer is that I’m worried it will be many people’s first and last experience of ecological activism.
Back in another century, I used to meet people who told me that they were tired of trying to save the world, or that they’d given up on politics. Often enough, if the conversation carried on, it would turn out that they had been involved in precisely one organisation and had given up after getting disaffected with it – but that they had believed the story it told itself and its members, that it was basically The Only Game In Town for Serious Politics.
What that meant in practice was that the organisation did its best to keep newcomers isolated from people in other organisations and gave them to understand that its way of doing things, its strategy and perspective were not just the best but pretty much the only one that wasn’t entirely laughable. Its participants rarely had any real sense of the debates within the broader political tradition it came from, and certainly didn’t know just how much it was a local organisation, with significant presence only in a small number of countries. And its emotional temperature was a mixture of massive in-group loyalty, a feeling that the external stakes were all-or-nothing Right Now, and incipient burnout driven by the constant attempt to build the brand.
The problem of groupiness
As experienced activists in Ireland and the UK will have guessed, that organisation wasn’t Extinction Rebellion (XR) but the Socialist Workers Party (SWP). As often with such organisations, the endgame was an implosion that is still continuing today. There are far more ex-SWPers – in all too many cases permanently turned off politics – than there were ever members, even at its high point.
This kind of groupiness isn’t uncommon, not only on the sectarian left but also in the world of NGOs and brands, which XR straddles rather awkwardly. Common to all of them is not only (rightly) stressing the problems and their urgency, but (wrongly) generating what we would have called a bubble before the term got debased in op-eds: a situation where members talk messianically at the outside world about the crucial importance of Their Way, but rarely meet or discuss with people in other organisations who use other strategies and tactics.
Often there is little or no awareness within such organisations that other people have also been working on these issues for a long time, perhaps even with more success, and that there are other organisations and approaches both in one’s home country and in the rest of the world. Part of the reason for this is a good one: that the organisation is bringing in new people, with little or no previous experience of activism, or who have been inactive for long periods. The downside is when the more experienced members allow or encourage the newcomers to believe that their way is the only way worth taking seriously, and not being honest with them about the crucial question: “how can we know what will actually work?”
Raising this sort of question about XR does not mean taking the climate crisis lightly, refusing to engage in radical action, or being hostile to new approaches. The climate strikes, for example, have mobilised far larger numbers of people, on a far more international scale, but do not run these same risks. For a start, they don’t involve the claim that this is the only way to resist climate change or to force political action. The strikes are not scrupulously branded, but involve the participation of a wide range of different organisations. And while their participants are in many cases equally new to activism, the school students at least can be expected to learn as they go, and eventually move into other forms of struggle.
The point in writing this is not to attack XR, but to encourage a bit more openness, reflection and learning – not just “training” where the organisation is assumed to have all the answers already. It would be a huge pity if XR were to become the new SWP. Nobody in their right mind wants to see the 2020s full of people saying “I tried activism and it was a waste of time” as the sea rises and the land burns. It would be fantastic if there were thousands, or even tens of thousands, of experienced activists able to say “I started out thinking that if enough of us were arrested the government would have to come on board, but then we learned a bit more through actions and discussion, and developed more effective ways of doing things”.
Changing the world is a practical skill
I’ve had a few discussions with XR organisers and participants who have looked at me rather strangely when I talked about learning about how to change the world. But movement activism, at the end of the day, is in many ways a practical activity, not too different from DIY plumbing in this respect: there is something you’re trying to achieve, in a complicated world which doesn’t always behave as we think it should. In Aristotle’s terms, it is perhaps a kind of techné, a skill. Often enough, in activism as in plumbing, we start out with an idea of what we’re going to do and how, and why it should work. There’s nothing wrong with that – but we all know the kind of person who will carry on doggedly on their preferred strategy as the water pours out around them, until exhaustion (or perhaps their partner) forces them to step back and maybe think about it again, ask someone with a bit more experience, or look at a video of someone fixing the problem.
I’ve spent many years working in social movement education and training, at different levels, for many different kinds of movements – because getting it wrong, in movements, is painfully costly on a human level. It is costly if the issue you are trying to solve doesn’t get solved. It is costly for those who have put in huge efforts on a failed strategy. And it is costly in terms of the struggles involved in an organisation either shifting tack, learning and developing – or (as seems likely with XR) falling apart as people find that its “one weird trick” brings neither an end to climate change nor to overweight. To put it very simply: if activism is a skilled activity in a complex world, there is no sure-fire way of getting it right. But listening and learning to people in other movements is never time wasted.
I don’t normally write about organisations or movements I’m not involved in – it is after all up to those involved to think about what they’re doing, and the process of debate around “what should we be doing?” is a very helpful one, both in terms of personal and organisational learning but also in terms of internal democracy: an organisation which can have a sensible debate about this is well on the way to being politically effective. But I have met one too many XR enthusiasts who have clearly been encouraged not to think about these things – and one too many experienced activists who have been deeply put off XR by this tone.
When the cool kids notice you
Over the summer I spent a couple of weeks in England around people involved in XR – including several people from Stroud where it is commonly said to have started, and a London district organiser. Many of these people have known me for over a decade in other contexts, and have heard me talk about some of the movements I’ve been involved in, about running a Masters for activists, or publishing a number of books on social movements.
Over two weeks I had maybe two conversations on the subject (at the height of XR excitement) – and then on the last day of the event, half a dozen people came up to me separately and asked me what I thought about XR. Clearly one of the insiders had said something about me, and one by one various people trooped over to ask me about it. Which was flattering in one way, but also worrying: these were not 19-year-olds, but adults, mostly parents and well-educated, from their 30s to their 50s, who seemed to need a hint from one of the Cool Kids to notice that I might know something about movements. Of course being involved in a movement, training activists, or writing books on the subject no more means that you are right than does being noticed by an insider – but the episode felt indicative of an inability to think independently, or a lack of curiosity about “how can we actually resist climate change effectively?”
To be fair, it can sometimes be hard getting people to think about social movement struggles. I recently wrote Why Social Movements Matter as an attempt to discuss movements in general with a wider audience who are new to the subject, in part because there are very few books that do so other than university textbooks. It is, after all, entirely understandable that most new activists haven’t previously thought about movements practically.
Part of the challenge which any new activist organisation faces, then, is how to help them to do so; to take the energy that they have previously put into simple outrage and opinion (both important) into talking with their peers about “how do we do this?”, or to take the energy they may have put into reading books, or listening to talks, that simply describe how bad things are – and put some of that into learning about how we change things. An organisation that gives people a simplistic answer to that question, and encourages them to think that that answer is enough, is failing them – and failing the people and things it is working for.
XR are very keen on “science”, which is a good thing – but seem almost entirely ignorant that there might be more research about how social movements work, and what works in social movements, than the problematic piece of research that is frequently misrepresented as justifying their approach. Of course anyone familiar with social movements researchers will know that few of us are interested in dressing a complex area of study up in what might seem like “science” to the newcomers, but it is worrying to see people falling for what – in the Chinese whispers form it has come down to XR participants – has become a form of pseudoscience, nicely “sciency” in apparently offering simple answers based on numbers and an understandable level of stats but in practice dissolving into sand.
A bit of context
A little bit of context might be helpful, in terms of resisting climate change and bringing about positive social change. On any serious analysis, the most effective resistance to climate change to date has come from indigenous groups, particularly but not only in the Americas, who have prevented fossil fuel extraction and transport on a dramatic scale.
Last year I co-published the second edition of the indigenous activist Ken Saro-Wiwa’s last letters before his execution by the then Nigerian military dictatorship: they are free online. They show a fine mind, very experienced, who had managed to make Shell persona non grata in the Niger Delta, on trial for his life and still directing the campaign, certainly with a particular flavour and direction, but thinking openly and intelligently.
By contrast, southern England – the home of XR – is not doing particularly well in terms of social movements in recent years; this may of course help to explain the rise of XR there, in good and bad ways. England is, for example, one of the few countries in Europe still actively supporting fracking (it has been effectively stalled in Scotland and Northern Ireland, at least for now). The Republic of Ireland, next door, has just seen three massive and successful social movements – around abortion rights, marriage equality and the commodification of water. Elsewhere in Europe the ZAD successfully defeated airport expansion, while long campaigns are resisting coal extraction in Germany and the TAV in Italy; the struggle against Shell in Ireland slowed its pipeline down by 15 years and paved the way for a ban on fracking.
None of this means, of course, that XR might not surprise us all; this happens all the time with social movements. But it might mean placing a question mark over the utter confidence with which XR participants speak about how to resist climate change and wage what they think of a “rebellious” social movement. So far, I have yet to meet a single XR participant who is capable of putting any of this in context: to Irish eyes, it looks a lot like a new version of the assumption that London is the centre of the universe.
Often my feeling when people ask me about XR is that there isn’t – yet – much to ask about. It’s a very young brand, in a world where it is easy to meet people who have been struggling against ecological destruction for many decades. With all respect to XR participants who are planning to risk arrest or going through the courts, activists who’ve been around a while know just how many of us have been arrested, tried, done time. And unlike XR, experienced people know just how much violence the police (including in the UK) are willing to inflict on ecological protestors.
It’s age-appropriate for 15-year-olds to talk about their bands as though nobody else ever picked up a guitar. I get more worried when professionals in their 40s and 50s ask me what I think about XR with the implication that it’s the only show in town, and the only thing to happen for decades. The question to ask is “We who, paleface?”: these assumptions say a lot more about their own lives and political context, and the brand’s unwillingness to talk honestly about that context.
As I write, activists in Germany – where blocking roads is quite normal – are sniggering at XR, who turned up briefly to help block a bridge in Hamburg and then left when someone shouted“F*ck the police!” Back home in England, Green and Black Cross, who have provided legal support to protestors of many kinds over the past 9 years, have taken the unusual step of publicly stopping working with XR after many failed attempts to get XR to pay attention to basic advice from people who knew what they were doing in dealing with the police and the courts. A litany of related stories is piling up: encouragement to activists to write letters to the police explaining their actions, the publishing of memoranda of understanding (!) for other activists who might want to work with XR, people turning up for “voluntary interviews” with the police and giving them their passwords… If you won’t bother listening to experienced local activists (we could ask), why are you so sure that you know what you’re doing?
In fact various experienced activists have written thoughtful and constructive critiques of XR’s analysis and strategy. Andrew Flood, who was involved for many years in the struggle against Shell in Ireland, discusses how XR misunderstand the research they claim to rely on (here and here). Activist trainer Natasha Adams put together this very nuanced analysis. The grassroots groups in “Wretched of the Earth” offered various important reflections. The first part of “Out of the Woods’” analysis is also well worth reading (more is promised).
Together, these critiques reflect a generalised sense, on the part of people who do know what they’re talking about, that XR are locked into a range of approaches and ideas that don’t work, and are not really interested in discussing them. Tellingly, the responses from XR (where any have been forthcoming) have largely been defensive or tokenistic, rather than any serious attempt to engage and learn from these constructive criticisms – all of which are coming from a deep commitment to resistance to ecological destruction and considerable experience of direct action of different kinds.
An unkind reading would be to say that in many cases XR participants have simply failed to understand what their more experienced and thoughtful peers have been trying to tell them.
To take a local example: one of XR’s three key demands relies on the belief that a citizen’s assembly will solve the problem of climate change. This is frequently justified with relation to the Irish citizen’s assembly on abortion rights. As Irish people have come to expect from the southern English (the Scots and northern English are often much better informed), no XR person I have talked to has had any sense that defeating the 8th Amendment took a 35-year struggle involving feminists, LGBTQ+ activists, liberals and the left, culminating in several years of radical direct action on the issue; that the Assembly was the government’s attempt to kick the issue to touch; that the government would not have put the CA’s recommendations to a referendum without popular pressure; or that what won the referendum was a massive effort both at door-knocking across the country and of women telling their own abortion stories. Nor (of course) that the Republic of Ireland has become a far more politically literate and active country than Brexit Britain, and had just been through a huge struggle over water charges and a referendum on gay marriage. The “magic bullet” story about the Irish citizen’s assembly is about as honest as the “non-violence” story about the ANC.
Thinking more seriously
There is a broader issue, though: how does social change happen? Many of the big social changes of the past 100 years – the rise of welfare states, the defeat of fascism in Europe, the end of empire in Asia and Africa, civil rights, the end of the Vietnam war, feminism, LGBTQ+ struggles, the collapse of the Soviet empire – definitely involved social movements, both massive and radical.
However if you say massive, meaning very large numbers of people participating in more than occasional events, you also mean (by definition) diverse: people struggle in different ways, depending on what their priorities are, how they have previously resisted, what modes of action are most within their reach, their opponents’ mistakes, and so on.
Some people do indeed engage in the sort of aggravated photo-opportunity that XR specialises in: a disruption which is not in fact about shutting down fossil fuel production or transport, preventing the meetings of elites or stopping economic activity, but gets you arrested in full view of TV cameras. Such activity definitely has a value – for some people: those who will not lose their jobs (or children) when arrested, whose arrests are newsworthy and who are unlikely to be physically or sexually assaulted. Indeed in some cases, such as the US Civil Rights Movement, even people who face these risks may be willing to engage in such activity – although in that case with the specific intention of forcing Washington to intervene in what it would much prefer to have left as a Southern problem.
However, these kinds of activities always go hand in hand with other strategies: depending on the situation these might involve voter registration drives, desertion, guerrilla warfare, economic strikes, forming political parties, sabotage, barricades and many, many other things.
So there is a variety of strategies which have worked in the past – and whose participants might be said to have earned the right to talk about what they did as a route to success. In practice, of course, getting to the point of success often involves a willingness to learn and a recognition of the situational nature of different strategies that means that only some such veterans have any interest in selling their strategy as the only route to social change.
Again, we can ask the Greek question: how do we know who to take seriously when they say they know how to do something? One kind of answer points towards experience and results: this might suggest that an organisation which to date has achieved … a meeting with Michael Gove … could still have something to learn from listening to movements with slightly more impressive achievements when it comes to social and political change. Another kind of answer might involve reasoned arguments and empirical evidence: which again means a bit more discussion and self-education. Refusing to engage with other strategies, and asserting the sole expertise in this area, is not a good look.
XR and the state
Many activists, those from ecological direct action and others, have pointed out that XR’s line that the police should be treated as friends and kept in the loop fails to learn anything from the experience of actual ecological resistance, in which the police are anything but. It also fails to learn anything from the experience of activists of colour and working-class activists, and reproduces a (southern, white, middle-class) experience of the police as the people you call if you have a problem, not the people who regularly kill young black men with no repercussions.
Perhaps even more importantly, the one thing that environmental movements have learned again and again is that the state is not on our side. Not just individual governments, but the whole state apparatus, is tied into the current economic system and understands itself very explicitly and consciously in this way. That does not mean that this alliance cannot be broken – but it does mean that we have to think much more seriously about what it takes to force the state to step away from the petroleum companies that it has consistently seen as strategically central, the airports that it understands as key to expansion or the agribusiness that it loyally suppports. Those with longer memories in the UK might remember how that state behaved in the miner’s strike, and recall just how much members of the present government venerate Margaret Thatcher’s approach to politics.
It is worth looking back at the history of how states came to see the petroleum industry as non-negotiable, and about the prospect that we may at last be coming to the end of that era. This last point is an important consideration: but all this means is that we may be able to imagine forcing the state to break with petroleum without an actual revolution. We will still have to assemble the kinds of social pressure that were involved in winning women the right to vote, forcing through welfare states or bringing the superpowers to the negotiating table around nuclear weapons.
Simple photo opportunities – embarrassing though they no doubt are for politicians – will not do this. Ask anyone who has actually resisted a petroleum extraction or pipeline project just how much it takes to win. Even, on a smaller scale, consider what it took for the Norwegian state not to replicate the corruption and inequality that goes with the petroleum industry in most contexts. And then consider what else we might need to do to get the state to break with fossil fuels, the airline industry and agribusiness.
XR from above, XR from below
XR itself, of course, insofar as it has become a relatively large organisation in the UK, with offshoots in some other countries, is diverse and contains multitudes. I am told that founders Roger Hallam, Gail Bradbrook and others don’t speak for XR in the UK, and that XR in the UK doesn’t decide what happens internationally. In practice, things seem a bit less clear-cut than that: the “tyranny of structurelessness” analysis seems to work quite well for XR and its branded, hip-managerial approach. There are no leaders, and yet there are.
As Natasha Adams notes, XR’s organising borrows from the (US) Momentum model which is geared to replicating a particular organisational “DNA” quickly and on a large scale. Its three demands also amount to an attempt to build a particular strategy into an organisation, or put another way to remove key items from discussion. Talking to a local XR organiser on last week’s climate strike, his view was that what XR provides is trainings: in other words, telling people how to do things “the XR way”. For discussion and ideas, “people watch Youtube”: in other words, there isn’t a space for internal discussion of politics, strategy and tactics.
Of course, things might look very different in different places. Research on movement organisations consistently shows tensions between the strategies of the centre and what might happen locally, or what working-class, ethnic minority, women etc. participants might do within a particular organisational framework despite their celebrity leadership. The question is always which of these will win out in practice. Some local XR groups seem to be engaging in genuine dialogue with other activists, trying to learn and build alliances.
There is no “one weird trick” to resisting climate change, no one magic bullet that is bound to work. This is why it’s important to start by being aware of other movements, the people who have already been struggling around this issue, the people who are doing rather better elsewhere than you might be in your own country, and even the people in your own country who are looking at your activism and not getting involved. This is why it’s important to read, and discuss, with other people who have some experience and understanding of the issues involved.
And this is why it’s important not to tell newcomers that this is the only possible way forward: because it isn’t. It may work, but not on its own; and it may just not work at all.
A confident and mature organisation should be able to be more honest with its own participants about this. There is no need to pretend to a level of infallibility which XR simply doesn’t have, and has no basis for claiming. It is entirely possible to discuss honestly, with your participants and others, how we might know what might work, and what we can learn from other movements, other places and other times.
That way, if the strategy of getting arrested fails to dislodge the Tories from their close alliance with the fossil fuel industry, agribusiness and airports, XR might be able to go on to develop a strategy that has a better chance of working, in England at least.
Amilcar Cabral, one of the leading figures in Africa’s post-war liberation struggles and partly responsible for the independence of Guinea-Bissau and Cape Verde, wrote this:
“Hide nothing from the masses of our people. Tell no lies. Expose lies whenever they are told. Mask no difficulties, mistakes, failures. Claim no easy victories . .”
That might be good advice for an organisation which has a very long way to go before it can claim to have had a fraction of Cabral’s effect on the world.
Taking climate change seriously
Climate change is too important an issue not to think seriously about how we can resist it. That means not being happy with convincing ourselves that we know how to bring about social change on this level and not stopping at the TED-talk version of non-violence, but making the effort to find out and learn. That in turn means, above all, listening honestly to other people, particularly in movements that have been working on this issue for longer and with more success (so far), whether in your own country or elsewhere. It means discussing strategy openly and honestly with experienced activists from other movements. And it means being honest with each other that you is not the only game in town; that your current strategy is a strategy, which may or may not work. Of course this is not just true for XR but for any of us.
The good side is that there is really nothing to lose, and there is nothing inherent to the idea of rebelling against extinction which mandates a refusal to learn, an unwillingness to listen or an inability to recognise that other people may actually know more, and have done more, than you have (so far). When we’re trying to do something difficult, it really does help to be more honest about what you actually know how to do, what you’ve learned from others who really knew what they were talking about – and what sounds good but won’t work.
And unless XR’s non-central non-office goes full SWP in blocking open discussion of strategy and tactics, preventing conversation and collaboration with other activists and organisations, and wider reading about how movements and social change work, there should be nothing stopping local XR activists from doing this and working out, through practice and discussion, how we can best resist climate change.
Laurence Cox is one of Europe’s leading researchers on social movements and has published very widely on the subject, most recently Why Social Movements Matter. He has been involved in a range of different movements for over three decades and co-edits Interface, a global open-access activist/academic journal of social movement research. He is associate professor in sociology at the National University of Ireland Maynooth.
 A quick summary: photo-opportunities with arrests, particularly when many of their participants are such “respectable” people that newspapers will ask them why they are taking risks, can be helpful for putting an issue on a certain kind of public agenda, and even embarrassing the government into token gestures. They are not enough to bring states to disengage from what they understand as geopolitically central industries, even if the state was otherwise predisposed to take a hostile orientation towards major economic interests and if (in this case UK) government members had no personal commitment around issues such as fracking, airport expansion or agribusiness. This isn’t rocket science: it is undergraduate sociology stuff.