A Pinch of Salt: Where next for Extinction Rebellion in the UK?

  • XR-UK’s September rebellion is using the same basic strategy that worked in April 2019 but didn’t in October. It hasn’t changed to fit a new context.
  • XR-UK pin their hopes on a Climate & Ecological Emergency bill that will never pass under a Tory government.
  • XR’s theory of change (mobilizing 3.5% of the population) is also flawed.
  • The issues are connected with a lack of effective internal structures in XR, leaving decision-making power to unaccountable, informal networks of insiders (the “Tyranny of Structurelessness”).
  • XR-UK needs a period of deep reflection on its core identity as a direct action movement.
  • XR should balance disruptive action with prefigurative action that brings a new world into being.
  • XR needs empowered, fair, transparent deliberative assemblies for internal decision-making.
The lightship Greta Thunberg.
The Burns Day occupation of the Scottish Parliament in January 2019. XR Scotland’s first major action.
  • Just for starters, we’re in a pandemic! The UK is struggling to emerge from lockdown without triggering a second wave of infection, as has happened in Spain, for instance. Is it really a smart move to hold mass urban protests / occupations right now?
  • There are many other important targets for direct action now: in England, first and foremost, the HS2 mega-project, which is destroying ancient woodlands and other irreplaceable ecosystems, and which will not achieve carbon neutrality within the next century.
  • In October we effectively had a hung parliament in Westminster, with a socialist opposition leader and constitutional chaos over Brexit and prorogation. If the tantalising possibility of real change through parliamentary means existed then, it was snuffed out in December’s general election. We now have the most right-wing government in recent history, with a working majority of 80, and a hard Brexit due to kick in within months. Sure, it might be nice if the CEE bill were to pass (Rob Hopkins, cofounder of the Transition Movement, has written optimistically that it could lead to a “revolution of the imagination”); but we need to accept that under any Tory government, including the present one, it certainly won’t.
The “Burning Pink” twitter feed, August 2020.
XR-UK’s website, August 2020.
  • Roger Hallam has founded a new splinter group (or “political party”), appropriating XR’s slogan “Beyond Politics”, their use of the colour pink, and the look and feel of their online presence. XR-UK have stated that this new “party” has nothing to do with them, but are unable to stop it. XR continue to use the Beyond Politics slogan in their own publicity, and to prominently feature Hallam on the XR-UK website, despite his no longer holding any formal role in the movement; so a casual observer would be hard pressed to tell the difference. Hallam himself is now on remand for conspiracy, but his group will be present during IR3, seeking to blur the distinction between themselves and XR as much as possible; which XR needs to challenge unless they want to be associated with whatever far-out nonsense Hallam comes out with.
  • On the positive side, perhaps, there’s a big groundswell of anger against Boris Johnson’s government for its incompetence, corruption, and mishandling of the COVID-19 crisis. Ironically for XR, maybe, the hashtag #3point5percent seems to be trending among people seeking “regime change” in the UK of the kind Chenoweth was talking about. This could mean there are many more “rebels” on the street come September than XR could mobilise by itself; whether that means there’s a chance of building coalitions is another strategic question that XR needs to consider.

Let’s make our actions as disruptive as they need to be, and as prefigurative as we can

I see the idea of prefigurative action as very similar to Gandhi’s principle of satyagraha (“holding to truth”). The classic example of satyagraha was the Salt March of 1930, in which he and thousands of Indians marched to the Indian Ocean and made their own salt, in defiance of the British monopoly. They protested by exercising non-violently the very right for which they were fighting — their right to the fundamental necessities of life, represented in this case by salt; thus prefiguring a world in which they would be free to do so without hindrance. Other examples of prefigurative action could include the Kinder Scout mass trespass of 1932 (claiming the right to roam the hills freely), or the bus and restaurant sit-ins during the Civil Rights era (claiming the right for black people to go about their business on an equal footing with whites.)

Launch of the Climate Citizens’ Assembly campaign at Holyrood Rebel Camp, June 2019.
  • What’s the question we’re trying to answer?
  • Who’s in the assembly and how are they selected?
  • Who’s facilitating and how are they selected?
  • How and from whom do we get our information?
  • What processes do we use to reach a decision?
  • And when we do, what power does that decision have?

If XR are asking the government to create deliberative assemblies with decision-making power, selected by sortition, shouldn’t we be using them to make our own strategic decisions on a permanent basis?

If we believe enough in the idea of a Citizens’ Assembly that we’ll ask the government to set them up, why isn’t there a fully empowered “Rebel Assembly” — selected from among all rebels, by sortition — at the heart of XR itself? (I’ve already proposed to create a Rebel Assembly for XR Scotland, as part of the XR Scotland strategy review process.) The decisions of this Assembly could be ratified by an online vote of all rebels.

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