The emergence of Extinction Rebellion is a good thing. After a long period where there has been very little mass environmental activism, it is good to see someone doing something.
However, if this new movement is going to develop into something worthwhile, it will need to confront the problems faced by similar movements that have gone before.
In 1999, after the J18 Global Day of Action (where anticapitalists protested in the City of London), a series of articles were published on the state of the anticapitalist movement. One article, “Give Up Activism”, generated a great deal of discussion at the time.
The author is not from the AWL tradition and offers no answers, but their central argument remains important. They describe a contradiction between the tactic of “direct action” or civil disobedience and the goal of social revolution.
The anticapitalist movement came about as a result of lots of single-issue campaigners arriving at anti-capitalist conclusions: “Our methods of operating are still as if we were taking on a specific corporation or development, despite the fact that capitalism is not at all the same sort of thing and the ways in which you might bring down a particular company are not at all the same as those in which you might bring down capitalism”.
This type of “direct” action politics is essentially liberal reformist, seeking to change the behaviour of this or that corporation. It leads to a self-isolating culture where “activists” perceive themselves as “specialists in social change” sharply differentiated from “ordinary people”.
The article was written as the anticapitalist movement was growing. Following J18 there were large international mobilisations against capitalist summits in Seattle 1999 and Genoa 2001. However, as the police repression increased, the dead end of the “shut them down” tactic became all the more apparent.
Were we going to risk life and limb for these one day spectaculars? How does shutting down a summit challenge capitalism? By the time the G8 met in Gleneagles in 2005 the movement was already on the wane.
From the remnants of the anticapitalist movement in the UK came Climate Camp in 2006. Climate Camp organised weekends of collaborative living and political discussion combined with attempts to shut down a major polluter. 2006 focussed on Drax power station, 2007 Heathrow, 2008 Kingsnorth power station.
In 2009, after declaring itself officially “anticapitalist” the Camp decided to target the City of London. This Camp coincided with a workers’ occupation of Vestas wind turbine factory on the Isle of Wight which was threatened with closure. Instead of orienting to the first ecologically-concerned workers’ struggle since the 1970s, the Camp opted for instead for a smaller, less international re-run of J18.
A decade earlier J18 activists had well understood the problem with direct action against banks: “Instead of campaigning against Monsanto and going to their headquarters and occupying it, we have now seen beyond the single facet of capital represented by Monsanto and so develop a ‘campaign’ against capital. And where better to go and occupy than what is perceived as being the headquarters of capitalism – the City? So we have the bizarre spectacle of ‘doing an action’ against capitalism.”
But capitalism is not something that can be shut down by occupying a financial district. Capitalism is a social relation between people mediated by things; it is reproduced by us all in our social interactions. After 2010, Climate Camp ran out of direction and energy and petered out.
From 2007, AWL activists, with other class-struggle environmentalists, organised as Workers’ Climate Action. We sought to bring the energy and urgency of Climate Camp into the labour movement, and bring a class struggle orientation to Climate Camp. We were instrumental in initiating and then supporting the Vestas occupation.
We argued that greenhouse gases (and machines that produce greenhouse gases) are produced by workers following the bosses’ orders in exchange for a wage. To halt climate change we need collective defiance of the bosses’ power in the workplace. We need mass working-class organisations to take industry out of private hands and into collective ownership where it can be democratically controlled.
This is the only democratic way of organising the rapid and unprecedented transition to a zero carbon economy. Those who grasp the urgency of this task should organise together to build the movement for a workers’-led just transition.
The civil disobedience that is now being organised by Extinction Rebellion is a promising way of building a movement around the alarming trajectory of climate change. However, at a certain point people will start to ask the same questions – how does sitting in a road or clogging up the courts help halt climate change? If the goal is simply “consciousness raising” then what next? It is important that this movement does not end up in the same direct action cul-de-sac as the movements that went before it.
The perspectives promoted by Workers Climate Action still offer a way forward.