Environment: "moral issue", or politics and class?

Submitted by martin on 20 November, 2018 - 4:41 Author: An Extinction Rebellion volunteer interviewed
XR graphic

Activists blocked bridges in central London on 17 November, and plan to do the same on 24 November, at the call of the new movement Extinction Rebellion. A volunteer with Extinction Rebellion spoke (in a personal capacity) to Mike Zubrowski from Solidarity.

The printed paper includes a shorter version of this interview.
MZ: I’d like to ask about XR’s strategy for tackling climate change, and your political analysis behind this strategy. From what I’ve seen the strategy seems to be gaining publicity to shift the “Overton window”, bringing about wider recognition of the urgency on climate change, and through doing so pressure the government into making changes, while leaving detailed demands for later. Would you say this is accurate, and do you think this strategy is enough in the fight against climate change?
XR: Yes, ultimately it is about changing awareness so people face the reality of the issue, its severity, and contextualising it. I see XR as a marketing tool, where we’re trying to raise this kind of awareness, and using a method of civil disobedience to add weight to it. Though, it doesn’t wholly stop there, the type of civil disobedience chosen is meant to be symbolic to attract media and public eyes, but also to disrupt the economic system itself. Road blockades in London grind the city to a halt. If London stops moving, so does the flow of money. This we believe is the leverage we hope to have on our government.
When it comes to the demands themselves they’re intentionally kept at quite a high level, and vague, because we’re not policy makers, we’re not decision makers, we’re people from a decentralised organisation trying to raise awareness. There are experts such as climate scientists which have fed into our studies, but we’re not here to provide solutions. We’re more here to strengthen awareness so that others can provide solutions later on. We do offer some suggested solutions, e.g Banning Fossil Fuels, replacing our automotive industry with a mass transit system, etc., but we are not in the business of defining policy. That is for the people to decide.
MZ: Solidarity believes that to bring about the necessary changes to stop climate change will require a strong movement capable of exerting significant leverage, and of transforming society. This requires direct action, but also requires transforming the labour movement, and a building working class, mass, environmental movement. We believe this because the working class, performing the labour which makes society function, has the power to cause immense disruption, and so wield immense leverage.
XR: I agree with the first have of your statement. Climate actions need a strong movement, with significant leverage within in this political landscape to invoke change, i.e where western neoliberalism exists. However, XR does not see the “masses” of them working class as a necessity. Change within our landscape are invoked by having a cause that the people believe is just and challenging the system in method that has a response. This is why media and civil disobedience is so vital. A single story can be spread to the thousands, replicating what a conventional march can do in minutes. A group of 500 people can block roads across the city to grind everything to a halt. Government listen when their cities lose productivity and people are on our side.

MZ: From what I’ve seen of XR’s approach – perhaps this is linked to what you said to raising awareness and marketing – more so than even most of the current environmental movement, it looks not to the material power of the working class to change capitalism, but to a general and somewhat vague appeal to civil disobedience by people in general, without a class analysis.
XR: I haven’t seen anything in particular within XR which is targeting the working-class in particular. We’re an inclusive diverse organisation, and we don’t try to use any kind of political or class system as a stepping stone to cause this movement to be recognised. Ultimately we go from the narrative of “this is a moral issue, this is a non-political issue, no matter what class system we are in you are going to be affected by climate change”. In some respects you could say the working-class are more embodied together, the higher classes are more individually led. I don’t think that’s the strategy or conversation we’ve had within XR.
What has been said is that the inability of some classes to mobilise up the class ladder is a symptom of a systematic issue, and climate change is also a systematic issue; in that inequality, special interest groups, stop certain things from happening: like equal pay or a more diverse country. The rational reason behind that is because of special interests, and climate change is another symptom of that political issue. It’s a tricky thing to say because the front end of things isn’t trying to completely trying to tackle that issue wholeheartedly. It’s trying to raise awareness of that issue and say “there is a better way of doing things, and that better way of doing things is a democratic process”. That democratic process would be inclusive of any class because you need to – in my opinion anyway – have a level of experts, who are competent people in the relevant fields in that conversation.
So I don’t see us targeting the working-class in particular, I think we’re trying to be a unifying organisation irrespective of whatever demographic – gender, religion, class, whatever – and appeal to people’s moral duty that we need to do something. At this time when the world is pretty divisive, targeting a particular class is, in my head, great in one sense, but should be used as part of a diverse set of tactics. We’re not trying to be divisive, we’re trying to be unifying.
The concept of civil disobedience is not meant to be vague, but more rooted on the notion that the government is acting in criminal neglect by not acting in a effective manner to combat climate change. Thus justifying the rationale to break the law. Obviously there are limitations of the types of what law breaking is acceptable. We endorse only a non-violent approach. This narrative is further supported by historical context where there is evidence for direct action civil disobedience such as the civil rights movement and the suffragettes.

MZ: Obviously, climate change in many ways is a scientific and moral issue, because the evidence that it is happening and is caused by human behaviour is unquestionable, and is obviously going to have devastatingeffects. But it’s also a political issue because, as you said, there are “special interests”, there’s the fossil fuel industry in particular, but various other interests which are tied up with driving climate change. There’s a section of the ruling class which is tied up with fossil fuels and so on.
XR: That’s a different side of it. There is the fundamentals of: is this an issue which should appeal to everyone? Yes it is. Why? Because even those that don’t care about the needs of the poor or working class, need to ensure their profits and legacy lives on. They need to planet to be functioning for that So as a starting concept we all care about climate change. The next question is - How do we implement change? And then it becomes a political issue, it’s how we institute something, how we play politics and make things change. Do we fall within the capitalistic model of working on the inroads, making compromise to our economic goals? Or do we try to do something quite drastic and quite rebellious, react to the issue with the urgency it requires, make no compromises on whats important and offer a new political model to work within, one that its fairer and more democratic. The latter requires as disrupting things to the point where we are using non-conventional methods. I see your point that there is politics to it, but that is more on the level of implementation of climate change policies, as opposed to a belief in its urgency.
MZ: So you see XR as almost prior to that, as a first step, and then a later step is politics?
XR: Yes. Though XR do not at this stage talk about entering politics itself.
MZ: I’d just like to clarify that I wasn’t saying that in any way that organisations or campaigns should be exclusive to people from a working-class background. What we think is important is engaging the organisations and movements of the organised working class: trade unions, the labour party and so on.
XR: It is worth mentioning that we do have an outreach team, and that outreach team goes out to engage with different demographics and different communities. There is a lot of work within Bristol trying to engage with a lot of Muslims in the area, and similarly there will be people trying to engage with trade unions, because we’re trying to build a mobile mass of people. So it’s not like we won’t target them to build our collective, but we won’t pick and choose certain groups to fulfil a certain narrative.
We are still a young organisation (only four months old). Those inroads into trade unions take time. (I am a trade union rep myself so still trying to make those moves very slowly). We do have Labour councils on board. The Labour Party is a much bigger machine with its own PR strategy. We are focusing on a certain strategy of civil disobedience that is not always immediately cohesive with other organisations. Uniting with others takes time.

MZ: I’m not convinced that that dichotomy can hold up in practice: of raising an issue, or raising wide awareness of an issue, as separate from organising a movement that can actually be about the campaign. How you go about raising awareness of an issue feeds into how the movements develop which can change that issue. The strategic position of the working-class – which includes people from all different demographics – within international capitalism places them in a necessary position for challenging fossil fuel capital in particular, and capitalism more generally.
XR: Obviously the people most affected by climate change are people from working-classes, and so we are appealing to their needs. We are pushing forward in models which are appealing to the working-class, both in models for tackling climate change, and how we organise ourselves as an activist group.
This is evident for our call for a sortition service in our list of demands, where we hope to use a democratic process, for the people by the people to decide on policy. This is then reinforced by the method of our campaign which is mobilised by people from all walks of life, organised in a non-hierarchical consensus-driven approach.

MZ: I’ve seen quite a lot of discussion of XR’s attitude towards the police and the prison system. What would you say that is and why?
XR: We’re obviously non-violent, and we try to engage with the police. On the rebellion itself, the five bridges were notified to the police. Some people would go and visit the police, and try to keep in good communications. Part of that is because we’re not trying to target the police as a force to be hated at all. The police in the end of the day are just people trying to do their job. We are aware that the police aren’t being representative of the people themselves, so that is what we’re trying to rebel against. We don’t see some laws as representative of who we are as people, so there is a level of open dialogue, it’s completely transparent, but there is a necessary level of dialogue to make sure ambulances and fire engines are getting through, to make sure we’re not perceived as too radical. Ultimately when we’re trying to disrupt things, some information is always withheld a bit.

MZ: Criticisms I’ve heard, that I’d agree with based on your outline, is that XR hasn’t been sufficiently critical of the police or the prison system, and by doing so implicitly encourages an attitude which sees them as benign. For a lot of activists on the left it’s important to recognise that – there is a separate question with the individuals – as an institution the police force exists as a repressive force, and has a long history of repressing working-class movements, repressing environmental movements. There’s a lot of violence and repression against black and minority-ethnic or working-class communities.
XR: We have a limited remit, we can’t possibly do everything, our aims are to bring attention to climate change to the mainstream. There are individuals within the organisation that have that critique, but is it the need of XR or Rising Up! to have that stance on the police. When we approach them we aim to ensure non-violence. If demonstrations become violent we lose control, we lose any kind of respect in the media. We do get lots of media attention, but as a cause we’re no longer valued. We do respect that most police individuals are just doing their job. The institution itself has a founding principle of protecting the people. If that is what they were doing we don’t have any disagreement with that. It’s more a question of how the police force is used nowadays, it isn’t really representative of that at all, it’s more based on not being on someone’s private land. There are a lot of criticisms within XR of that not being right at all, and so we’ll take opportunities be arrested, to protest against that to some extent. Ultimately it’s an issue that we’ll tackle as and when it needs to be tackled around what we’re needing to achieve.

MZ: I disagree, if you look at the history of the police force, the claim that “the police have a founding principle of protecting the people” is a difficult claim to justify. Obviously, in the current situation we couldn’t demand the abolition of the police because there aren’t currently other institutions for dealing with certain violent and sexual crimes. Central to the police coming about and how they exist currently is repression of working-class movements, protection of property, and so on. I don’t think it’s something it is possible to be neutral on. XR has brought in large numbers of new activists into environmental activism, which is good and positive, but how you relate to the police and the attitudes you encourage is having educational effects on them. In the long run not being critical of the police will harm our movement, harm our ability to do the kind of mass climate direct-action that we need to tackle climate change.
XR: Though we may not be openly critical police in our media strategy, we do try to protect ourselves in what we’re doing. That is evident from the fact that we have legal observers out, so that we have a secondary source of information if we do get charged. I was at the demonstration on Saturday, and the police asked us to move, they told us “go to Westminster Bridge because it’s easier to manage” and we plainly refused. So we’re not completely doing what the police are saying at every point, although we’re not critiquing them at every step of the way. Ultimately there are a lot of people in the world, and a lot of people in this country who believe the police system is fine, and they uphold it’s laws. If we start entering that argument, we start disenfranchising ourselves from people who could rally against our cause, but they may be pushed away because of our open views on the police. In many ways awareness of climate change is the issue, the institution of the police is an issue, but is it the primary issue?

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