Extinction Rebellion’s Self-Defeating Liberal Tactics Won’t Stop Climate Change

by Melanie Buer

Nascent climate activism movement Extinction Rebellion has come under fire recently as videos continue to surface of the group cheering and clapping as their fellow demonstrators are led away in handcuffs. Hundreds of protestors have been arrested in the last few months as the group continues to stage disruptions across the UK and US. Extinction Rebellion leader Roger Hallam was filmed last November lamenting the low number of recent arrests and suggesting to police that they bring in buses to arrest more people. He looks visibly frustrated as he speaks to an officer, saying, “It’s just not acceptable… Because we don’t really want to block the roads. We just want to get a load of people arrested.”

As far as we know, this ethos has not changed in the months since the group’s formation. Extinction Rebellion remains convinced that the police will “soon join with the rebellion” and step over the lines onto the right side of history. Extinction Rebellion activists have been filmed preparing for the eventuality of arrests at their demonstrations, training each other to “go limp” so police are forced to carry them off to be detained.

A tweet from Extinction Rebellion’s official Twitter account that exemplifies their misplaced faith in the potential for cooperation with security forces.

Ben Smoke, an activist who was arrested for helping to blockade an airport in March 2017, recently wrote an opinion piece for The Guardian, in which he states, “This is the issue with Extinction Rebellion’s ethos. The notion that 2,000 arrests will evoke the kind of systemic change needed to fight climate change is naïve at best.” At worst, these arrests could prove to be irreparably damaging to the environmental movement and potentially life-ending for the activists arrested. Imagine if other groups, adopting this stratagem, used the same tactic of willful submission to mass arrest. We’ve now shifted crucial funding toward legal defense when it could be utilized in more impactful areas, taken bodies out of action when they could be in the streets, and played directly into the hands of state forces, who are all too happy—oftentimes, it seems, sadistically gleeful—to force dissidents off the street and into zipties and police vans.

The legal defense resources available to activist movements are generally limited, often maintained only by the activists themselves. Those who are arrested might spend months in jail or years embroiled in lengthy court battles that take a toll on all involved in the defense. The J20 defendants spent over a year in nerve-wracking suspended animation, traveling hundreds or thousands of miles to and from Washington, D.C. to sit in courtrooms and worry endlessly about whether they would be imprisoned for their participation in the Trump inauguration protests. There is nothing glorious about being locked up in the judicial system for months on end, fighting to maintain your freedom.

These worrisome assumptions speak to what appears to be a core component of Extinction Rebellion’s organizing tactics: a reliance on the mechanisms of the neoliberal state. For at least the last ten years, leftists across the spectrum have been debating the efficacy of combating climate change by leveraging the state to implement proposed solutions. Their logic is that the state (and the institutions that are born out of the state) are already established and can be leveraged to institute policies that would ideally mitigate the present and future damage wrought by climate change.

Members of the Anarchist Federation, upon witnessing this debate in the 2009 Climate Camp, wrote, “[Capitalists’] way of running the world has landed us in climate chaos, with the logic of profit and the market economy coming before all other concerns […] We have to raise the question of whether this institution will take the drastic actions we need to combat climate change. Is it able to act against the capitalists who hold its reins?”

Foreclosing the possibility of insurrectionary direct action is woefully short-sighted, particularly when movements are coming up against the inherently violent state apparatus.

The answer is no. The institutions that have set us on this path toward climate catastrophe have invested too much in the maintenance of our current capitalist system to ever take any meaningful steps towards protecting us from anthropogenic climate change. The repressive state apparatus is designed to insulate the ruling class from the repercussions of their exploitation. To think that the same structures could somehow deliver us from the very ecological crisis that neoliberal capitalism has engendered is utterly myopic.

In working directly with police, Extinction Rebellion is endangering the movement for environmental justice. The police are class traitors; they are a material force fundamentally at odds with any genuine rebellion. The very nature of their job is to uphold the ruling class and ensure that those of us agitating from the bottom don’t get very far. Working with police is playing directly into their hands. Rather than training activists on the best way to get arrested, Extinction Rebellion should be studying de-arresting tactics and methods for successfully breaking police ‘kettling’ maneuvers. Instead, they happily march straight into the maw of the state.

Throughout human history, social movements for justice and popular liberation have prized a diversity of tactics. Foreclosing the possibility of insurrectionary direct action is woefully short-sighted, particularly when movements are coming up against the inherently violent state apparatus. “In a head-on clash between violence and power,” Hannah Arendt reflects in her essay On Violence, “the outcome is hardly in doubt. If Gandhi’s enormously powerful and successful strategy of nonviolent resistance had met with a different enemy—Stalin’s Russia, Hitler’s Germany, even prewar Japan—the outcome would not have been decolonization, but massacre and submission.”

Different struggles call for different strategies. In order for nonviolence to work, Stokely Carmichael famously stated, your enemy must have a heart. If one thing is abundantly clear, it’s that the CEOs of the hundred or so corporations poisoning our planet long ago traded whatever was left of their hearts for filthy lucre. And as Peter Gelderloos points out, “An ostensibly revolutionary movement would have constrained itself to a horribly mismatched battle, trying to win hearts and minds without destroying the structures that have poisoned those hearts and minds.”

“Pacifism can’t even keep itself from being co-opted and watered down,” Gelderloos continues. “How do pacifists expect to expand and recruit? Nonviolence focuses on changing hearts and minds, but it underestimates the culture industry and thought control by the media.” In 1944’s Dialectic of Enlightenment, Horkheimer and Adorno demonstrated conclusively that the culture industry possesses a monopoly on public opinion. How, in a discursive landscape overwhelmingly populated by corporate messaging, could a rebellion ever hope to use the media to challenge the hallmark of neoliberalism: the totalizing state ideology of austerity and class warfare?

Strategies geared towards the performance of “wokeness” may garner flashy headlines, but if the direct actions we take to avert climate catastrophe do not challenge the material conditions of our society, then they are little more than futile gestures. Holding a “climate congress,” super-glueing your hands to a building, or disrupting an intersection for 12 minutes (one minute for each year remaining before the climatic event horizon) looks great on the evening news, but it falls woefully short of the kind of decisive action that could directly challenge the hidebound institutions that have set us on this path.

Nonviolent disruptions and civil disobedience will mean nothing if, as a global movement, we dull our own claws before we join the fight.

Action must be taken that actually threatens the existence of the state and the coercive mechanisms that maintain its monopoly on force. In the struggle against the capitalist hegemony, we cannot delude ourselves into thinking that a strategy that employs only nonviolent direct action to generate minor state-sanctioned disruptions is going to successfully buckle the institutions that are sending us hurtling toward the edge of an ecological cliff. Our only option is to instead construct a militant movement that directly challenges the system that has created this existential crisis.

As Gelderloos suggests, civil disobedience is a type of strategy that “can only create pressure and leverage; it can never succeed in destroying power or delivering control of society to the people… A rebellious population that is conducting sit-ins or throwing rocks cannot stand up to a military that has been given free reign to use all the weapons in its arsenal.” By supporting a diversity of tactics (peaceful disruptions and acts of outright sabotage, for example) and fostering militancy in our movements, we can rattle the state and defend ourselves against the escalating violence that will accompany the backlash from the ruling class. If there’s anything we can learn from France’s gilets jaunes, J20, or the mass movements in Ferguson and Baltimore, it’s that the police can never be made to serve an anti-capitalist movement’s ends. To delimit our tactics within state-proscribed boundaries of ersatz rebellion is to kneecap our efficacy, to perform only kayfabe, the illusion of a muscular resistance. Nonviolent disruptions and civil disobedience will mean nothing if, as a global movement, we dull our own claws before we join the fight.



Melanie is a Scottish literature scholar and co-host of the weekly Coffee With Comrades podcast. She has been organizing on the left for the last few years, working on various projects in her home state of Nebraska as well as in the wider Midwest region. You can yell at her via Twitter @coldbrewedtool or email at coldbrewedtool@gmail.com.