Extinction Rebellion founder, Roger Hallam, has published his ideas on how to build a movement that can win real change. Sadie Robinson responds
The only chance of stopping catastrophic climate change is with a “revolutionary transformation of our politics”, according to campaigner Roger Hallam.
Hallam is a co-founder of Extinction Rebellion (XR), the environmental group that is demanding action on climate change.
XR has pulled thousands and possibly tens of thousands of people into political activity in Britain and has inspired others here to launch protests using the same slogan.
Its mass occupations of sites in central London in April pushed climate change to the top of the political agenda.
XR managed to close major roads in the city for several days, defying police attempts to clear them.
And pressure from campaigners meant that the British parliament agreed to pass a motion acknowledging that we are facing a “climate emergency”.
The group demands that the government tell the truth about the climate emergency, reduce carbon emissions to net zero by 2025 and set up a citizens’ assembly to oversee the changes.
XR has been a big success and the ideas of those behind it should be taken seriously. Hallam’s booklet, Common Sense for the 21st Century, looks at how to organise, what actions are most effective, and how to win real change.
He argues that whether we become extinct “largely depends upon whether revolutionary changes happen in the next decade”.
And he says that the focus must be on organising “mass participation civil disobedience”.
“We are looking at the slow and agonising suffering and death of billions of people,” writes Hallam. “The structural change we need has to happen too fast for a reformist strategy.”
Hallam argues that ordinary people, not politicians, must take charge. For him this means a “national citizens’ assembly” made up of people from across Britain.
He stresses the importance of “ordinary people seeing people like them (as opposed to activists) declaring a climate emergency”.
Forces in the way
It’s right to say that we need radical change to tackle climate change. And it’s heartening that activists are thinking about how to involve more working class people in the movement.
So what about the forces ranged against us—the fossil fuel industries, the rich and the governments that back them, and the repressive apparatus of the state? All are barriers to radical change. How do we overcome them?
Hallam says that people must take action for more than one day, should break the law and should be “strictly nonviolent”.
“After one or two weeks following this plan, the historical records show that a regime is highly likely to collapse or is forced to enact structural change,” he says.
This is too optimistic. Hallam says that mass civil disobedience forces the government to “agree with us or repress us”. He rightly points out that repression can provoke more people to take action.
But victory or repression aren’t the only possible outcomes. Governments are expert at appearing to agree to demands only to backtrack once the heat is off. They may agree to some things but demand compromises in return.
Hallam says the movement won’t compromise. But there will be disagreements about what is an acceptable outcome. And if campaigns don’t seem to be making headway, some people can become disillusioned and drop out.
Repression doesn’t always push more people into activity—it can scare people off. Hallam doesn’t say how non-violent protesters should respond in such a situation.
The risk of repression comes across as remote, largely because of how Hallam treats the cops.
“A proactive approach to the police is an effective way of enabling mass civil disobedience,” he writes. Police may not be aggressive “as long as activists are civil and open with them”.
It can seem that the recent XR blockades in London back this up. But the broader history of social movements shows the opposite. Time after time it is police who initiate violence against protesters, not “violent” activists.
When people protested against the Poll Tax in 1989, cops on horses rode through the crowd without warning. Police infuriated people by arresting a disabled, non-violent, protester.
One marcher said, “I didn’t think the police hit people without a reason. But they came for people who were doing nothing.”
The police exist to protect the rich and their system. It’s dangerous to think they could be won over to supporting or sympathising with our side.
The fact that cops didn’t smash up the XR blockades probably has something to do with the big numbers of people involved—and the widespread support for them. But ultimately the cops did clear them.
Hallam makes repeated references to the need for revolutionary change. But he also focuses on operating within the current system.
So the citizens’ assembly could be “set up in competition” with the government but “parliament would remain”. Why? Because this would help win the “hearts and minds” of wider layers of people who don’t want radical change.
So politicians who have failed for decades to tackle climate change would stay in place. So would the bosses and the rich.
Hallam says we should focus on governments because they make decisions. These decisions matter. Politicians can give the go-ahead to new fracking licences or they can refuse them.
They can fund public transport or cut it. They can invest in renewable energy or open a new coal-fired power plant.
But governments don’t make the major decisions about how our economy is run. The big firms decide what is produced and how much, what materials are used and so on.
Real power lies in the hands of unelected and unaccountable top bosses, bankers and the rich. What about an economic revolution to tackle this ruling class?
Force for change
Presumably the citizens’ assembly, if it gets underway, would make very good decisions. It could instruct all firms to switch to using 100 percent renewable energy by a certain date, for example.
But how would it enforce such changes?
Revolutionary socialists see the working class as key to transforming the world.
Workers have a unique position in capitalism because they can switch off the flow of profit. They have the numbers and expertise to create and run a more democratic and sustainable society.
And they are repeatedly pushed to organise collectively to fend off attacks. All over the world, action by working class people has challenged rulers and regimes.
Strikes played a key role in the movement that forced out dictator Hosni Mubarak in Egypt in 2011. And today strikes are deepening the crises for the regimes in Algeria and Sudan, where dictators have again been toppled.
Workers can stop the system in its tracks. But Hallam fears that taking action that hits profits is “highly polarising”.
So he advocates appealing to the right-wing press by framing the climate crisis in terms of “order, security and legacy”. And he describes a “massive opportunity to build up right wing support”.
“Words like honour, duty, tradition, nation and legacy should be used at every opportunity,” says Hallam.
It seems he thinks that, if we stop right wingers from stifling the movement at the start, it can become unstoppable.
But promoting ideas such as “national pride” encourages divisions that ultimately weaken us.
“The rebellion has to morph at the last moment into a general rebellion,” says Hallam. This will take argument and organisation. Pandering to the right, who will fight to limit the radical change we need, makes winning this harder.
Working class people and the poor have the most to gain from fighting climate change.
Environmental catastrophe hits poorer people hardest. Meanwhile the ruling class benefits from the unsustainable system.
Could we have a revolution where working class people took control of production and society as a whole?
Hallam sees attempts to create socialist societies as having failed—“been there and done that!”
He blames a “lack of post-revolution planning”. The Bolsheviks who led the Russian Revolution in 1917 had a plan. They argued for workers’ councils to run the new society and they knew that the revolution would have to spread internationally to survive.
The revolution didn’t fail due to lack of planning. It failed because capitalist armies from across the globe invaded and helped to fight a bloody counter-revolution.
And revolutionary parties elsewhere weren’t strong enough to lead successful uprisings, leaving Russia isolated.
The defeat of revolutions isn’t inevitable. But climate chaos is inevitable if capitalism continues. And workers remain the only force capable of overthrowing it and ushering in a sustainable world.
Republished from Socialist Worker UK
Common Sense for the 21st Century by Roger Hallam is online at www.rogerhallam.com