Nihil Unboned

My feelings towards Extinction Rebellion are mixed, as many people’s are, and the common formula “all discontents about strategy, tactics, messaging and ideological basis aside, this is a good thing” doesn’t quite cover it. It’s a good thing that people are acting courageously and en masse to confront the unfolding emergency of anthropogenic climate change. It’s right to be hesitant with criticism, because when people move en masse there is usually a great diversity of opinion and motivation within that movement, and it’s foolishly reductive to treat the whole as the expression of a single position which can be evaluated all in one go. While my instinct is to be dismissive, and to shoot from the hip, I cannot take in the figure of 750 arrests (so far) over the course of a week and feel that those arrested deserve anybody’s scorn.

Graham Jones has done a good job of explaining the strategic premises behind the kind of action XR have undertaken over the past week. Anyone who felt that Srnicek and Williams’s notion of “folk politics” was a straw-bogeyman should take note of the logic laid out explicitly here, which is that given the right reinforcement acts of symbolically resonant disruption can seed and encourage a wider, structural dissent — a sort of transformation of quantity into quality that is supposed to occur when you have the active support of 3.5% of the population.

On the one hand, this is consonant with the folk-political metaphorics of resonance, which pictures the wider population as a sort of inert body through which political fervour will propagate like a wave if you make a big enough splash in one place. It’s wholly in line with that theory for an XR tweeter to suggest that the police, or a fraction thereof, will hopefully come around to their side — a marvel never previously beheld, yet somehow predicted by this model. If you see the wider social field as politically unpotentiated, just awaiting ignition or fecundation by radical ideas (or, in XR’s case, panicking into action by a message of apocalyptic existential urgency), that’s where you’re likely to end up. An analysis of the reactionary forces confronting any attempt to restructure society around the goal of arresting the degradation of the biosphere would be useful here; XR’s rhetoric is largely directed at government inaction, as if politicians were simply unaware that anything needed to be done.

On the other side, the emphasis on training, reflection and reinforcement suggests an analogy with the cadence of “agile” software development: “sprints” of activity punctuated by “retrospectives” in which successes and failures are evaluated and improvements considered. The emphasis of this kind of continuous improvement feedback cycle tends to be on improving effectivity, becoming more performant. It may be a good way of ironing out tactical misalignments, but it isn’t in itself a strategy, or the kind of activity from which a strategy is likely to emerge by itself. The notion that important strategic decisions can be made by general assemblies is one that should have been abandoned after the Occupy experiment: the development of strategy is an epistemic function of the movement, and requires intelligence-gathering, forward planning, the creation and maintenance of a detailed model of the strategic terrain. Militancy without polemology is destined to exhaust itself in bursts of activism which signal sincerity — and perhaps, indeed, inspire imitation – without securing defensible territory.

Two things about XR have struck me as symptomatic of a constrained political imagination. The first is the choice of symbolic targets and actions - the creation of a sort of miniature Glastonbury in Parliament Square and on Waterloo Bridge - and the emphasis on petitioning Parliament to “tell the truth” and declare a state of climate emergency. By itself this is all quite conventional for an environmental pressure group working within the UK, but it sits strangely with the second thing: XR’s insistence that the collective human reaction to anthropogenic climate change is “beyond politics”.

“Politics” in the broadest sense concerns the collective organisation of human affairs. There is certainly a politics to XR’s chosen organisational approach, to its eschewal of representative structures in favour of the “decentralisation plus figureheads” model of supposedly non-hierarchical organisation. The question of how human beings are going to deal with anthropogenic climate change is inexorably political, and inextricable from the immense question of how we are to move beyond the domination of capital. How are we to overcome the division of the world into enclaves of owners and consumers, surrounded by a vast sea of human beings denied access both to the rights secured by the command of property, and to the dwindling affordances of consumer purchasing power?

The ultimate horizon of human extinction is indeed “beyond politics”, in that it is the horizon beyond which there are no human affairs to organise. But it is strictly meaningless to seek to organise a “rebellion” against this inevitability. What XR is really rebelling against is a system of social organisation which is unable to apprehend the reality of anthropogenic climate change, or adjust in such a way as to mitigate its worst effects. It is in fact the inability of this system to countenance its own extinction — its own impermanence and transitivity — that constitutes the major imaginative obstacle to realising such a rebellion. Like “social justice”, the slogan “climate justice” suggests a form of redress that could be brought about through the redistribution of social goods — ultimately, it’s a matter of deciding to be fairer. But what is really at stake in facing up to climate change is the entire system of production, and the supporting matrix of social relations, under which all social goods are realised. To accomplish the necessary revolutionary change to this system requires not panic, in the face of onrushing disaster, but an extraordinary confidence in the ability of human beings to remake their own social world. It is not enough to sit down in the middle of the public thoroughfares and petition governments to act on our behalf.