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The Revolution may be vague

Extinction Rebellion caused mass disruption last year but what do they have planned for the new decade? We send our reporter, Joseph Rachman, to find out…

In 2020 a small group beats the odds and manages to vault into Tokyo’s Olympic stadium disrupting the athletics events, protesting against its sponsors, and exercising its anxieties about climate change. During elections across the world - from Germany to the United States - politicians are targeted by eco-zealots - not even the Green candidates are safe. In France, a new wave of protesters succeed the gilets jaunes to attack Macron’s latest reform plans. In Hungary, anti-Orban protests take on an unexpected eco-edge. In Poland, protestors hope their struggle will be transformed into literature by their new Nobel laureate - and outspoken vegetarian - Olga Tokarczuk. Meanwhile, central London is once again occupied by drummers, people in octopus costumes, and “uncooperative crusties” intent on causing havoc for everyone else proving Extinction Rebellion, aka XR, is bigger than ever and up to its usual tricks.

Of course, all this remains hypothetical. No one knows exactly what XR will be doing this year because they do not know themselves. If you go on their English-language website and look up planned events there is very little information on what they have in store for us aside from an “XR Boycott Fashion” show starting on 1st May, “XR Befriend Svalbard” in August, and an XR patrol of the Barents Sea in September. No one specifies what action will take place nor is it clear what they hope to achieve - shutting down catwalks aside - beyond a rather chilly, Arctic holiday.

So I had to go out and try to ask the activists themselves to reveal the specifics. Fortunately, there were plenty of XR activists hanging about in the streets of London. But though they all seemed certain that they would still be involved in XR this year and that it will continue to expand, they were mainly focused on parroting their demands: “Tell the Truth”, “Act Now” and “Beyond Politics” - their overall aim being to declare a state of public emergency, reach zero carbon emissions by 2025, and create a Citizens’ Assembly to deal with “climate and ecological justice.” They do not mention how they’ll effect this and if they continue to dodge questions about it we might perhaps help them craft a fourth slogan: “Be Vague.”

Ultimately, XR is an umbrella organisation which was founded in May 2018 and started gaining in support that October when a hundred academics signed a “call to action” letter which was published in the Guardian. Today it consists of many different groups which anyone can join providing they can proclaim their allegiance to XR’s Three Demands and Ten Principles. Usually members have little sense of what is going on outside their own specific group let alone what might happen in future. Most activists I talked to seemed happy to continue much as they had done last year - insisting that they had helped push environmental issues up the agenda and pointing to polls which proved as much. During the 2019 UK general election campaign, I went to speak to some XR members who were on hunger strike outside Conservative Party headquarters in Westminster to try to investigate further and was told that one of the leaders of their movement was outside Labour Party HQ five minutes’ walk away trying to buttonhole the then-Shadow Chancellor, John McDonnell.

Never mind that a man in a bee costume glued to a bus proclaiming he’s ‘part of an active insurrection against the government’ is absurd - it gets attention.

Dr Larch Maxey - to give him his full name - appeared gaunt after concluding a “seven day hunger strike” supposed to highlight risks to food security. Now slimmer than Gwyneth Paltrow, he was sat in a camp chair next to two policemen who looked slightly bored, and commenced an hour-long exposition of the XR line in an unrelenting wave:

The earth faces an ecological catastrophe that threatens to wipe mankind from the map. Radical action must be taken and XR’s programme represents the best way forward. And so on and so on and so on.

Halfway through all the proselytising, a homeless man came over for a chat, and as Maxey turned his attention away I noticed the XR leader was wearing what appeared to be a Red Army coat. Later on, he opened up a suitcase containing various banners and I noticed a canvas Daunt’s bag…

If the revolution comes it seems likely to be staunchly middle class.

But could Dr Maxey tell me what XR would do in 2020? Alas not, he explained because “I’m not in charge - no one is.” However, he could fill me in on XR tactics which are all based on “the science of social change.” Big protests, for instance, will take place in the spring and the autumn because the weather is mild and in summer and winter it’s either too hot or too cold, and people prefer to go away on holiday.

XR’s objective is to create a non-violent movement that manages to mobilise 3.5 percent of the population. This is based on a niche reading of the history of the Indian Independence and Civil Rights movement - the logic being that governments are unable to deal with the strain of mass civil disobedience among that proportion of the population and will accede to their demands. This is why they’re so keen on getting arrested. But their political theory seems more Lenin than Ghandi thanks to a vanguardist belief that a disciplined minority can, and should, dictate the tenor of all our politics to come.

It also means that XR is essentially a consciousness raising exercise which puts pressure on politicians and pulls in more recruits, maintaining just enough institutional presence to keep the movement together in between protests which take place when the weather is temperate. This is why so much of their “activism” consists in dressing up and forcibly attaching themselves to public transport. Never mind that a man in a bee costume glued to a bus proclaiming he’s “part of an active insurrection against the government” is absurd - it gets attention.

Kevin J. Frost / Shutterstock.com
Kevin J. Frost / Shutterstock.com

Viral stunts are likely to be the movement’s chief weapon during the US election campaign. Already the Sunrise Movement, which is linked to XR as well as the new insurgent left of the Democrats - are planning disruption and you wouldn’t put it past them to don animal attire as they do so. Disruptions will be primarily aimed at driving clicks. Major sporting events are another likely target for protest - as a critical mass of cameras gives the potential to offer access to millions of viewers worldwide. In America, the Yale-Harvard American football game was interrupted in November last year by climate protesters. Protesters in the UK have so far steered clear of this, perhaps because the last protestor to try to disrupt the Oxford-Cambridge boat race, in 2012, came close to being deported.

One fears for their lives if they try getting in the way of England fans getting to Wembley during Euro 2020. XR made a spectacular misjudgement when trying to shut down the London Underground at Canning Town station last October. The sight of well-off middle class white men who could presumably afford to take the day off trying to prevent working class and ethnic minority commuters getting to work first provoked incredulity and swiftly rage. In one video of the incident a bystander can be heard shouting, “I have to get to work too – I have to feed my kids” before the crowd takes matters into its own hands by pulling the protestors off the roof. That clip was shared everywhere - with exactly the opposite of the desired effect. XR may have wanted to show they cared about the environment but only exhibited a tone-deaf disregard for the needs of ordinary Londoners trying to live their lives while using eco-friendly transportation.

XR seemed to prove itself middle class and out of touch - a charge which is now so pervasive, and potentially so damaging, the FAQ section of XR’s official website includes suggested responses to the questions: “Aren’t you just a group of middle-class left-wing activists?” and “Are you professional lifestyle activists?”

But while the backlash after Canning Town did serve as a shock to XR - and led to the immediate cancellation of similar protests - XR is unlikely to be able to prevent such massive miscalculations happening again because it has no central control over its affiliates, many of whom are utterly convinced of the righteousness of their cause. In 2019, they at least had novelty on their side. In 2020, their antics may soon seem monotonous.

Certainly as I listened to Dr Maxey drone on and on, I felt he had a point when he revealed his principal weapon to be “psychological disruption” or the art of pushing people to act by making them feel very uncomfortable mentally. It remains to be seen whether this will win XR a mass of converts or simply alienate the masses. In difficult economic times, Dr. Maxey threatens “economic disruption” may be “necessary” though what this might entail he was loath to say. For now vagueness heaped upon vagueness is the order of the day…