It would be prudent for me to open with the affirmation that this is an ‘opinion piece’. It is the opinion of one aging anarchist who has been active in class struggle and ecological resistance for the best part of four decades. As the bandwagon of political focus has shifted over the years, my own passions have gone in and out of fashion. One minute dancing with 40,000 comrades as we Reclaimed The Streets, the next protesting fracking with four people and a baby in a pushchair outside a branch of HSBC facing 2 x mounted police, 2 x police liaison officers, 2 x uniformed police and 2 x CID, who were sat watching from a car across the street. I have written in various guises throughout this time; defending animal and earth liberation when class struggle anarchy was in vogue, and arguing for greater class consciousness when the environment last took centre stage in the 1990s.
I mention this not to present some kind of activist CV, but simply to show that I am more than used to the puritanical nature of the kind of anarchist who dismisses anything which falls outside their all-too-rigid worldview, even if it is simply a case of not liking the title of an essay. Which I’m sorry to say is exactly what happened in response to a recent Freedom article by Bill Stickers entitled ‘In defence of Extinction Rebellion’.
That is, admittedly, a click bait-title if ever there was one, but the barrage of complaints from people who openly admitted that they hadn’t even read the piece in question was testament to the dogmatic, ‘I am right, you are wrong’, posturing which keeps anarchy in the UK in its little, self-marginalising ghettos.
Yes, XR has many, many, many faults. Everybody knows this. The majority of XR groups outside London are highly critical of the eXtreme aRrogance of ‘central’. I am not going to go over old ground here, the critiques cited in the Bill Stickers article are not wrong. Nor are the positive aspects of XR described by Bill in their opinion piece (we’ll come back to the need for positivity in anarchist circles shortly).
One of those ‘positives’ is XR’s branding. From the adoption of Goldfrog ESP’s Extinction Symbol to near Nudge Unit levels of dexterity in their use of colour, font and imagery, XR are the Don Draper of the activist world. As Bill rightly points out, we have our own instantly recognisable symbols in both the Circled A and the black flag, but are we really using them in a way which brings feelings of hope, joy and unity to any non-politicised people who see them?
I didn’t ‘get into’ politics, politics jumped onto me. It came in the shape of the thousands of police (and army) who invaded my hometown during the miners’ strike and who nearly killed the man who would become my very lovely father-in-law. For a long time my politics, born on the picket line and shaped by direct action and protest camps, was one of self-defence. But my stance slowly changed from protective to pro-active thanks to Michael Heseltine and the Zapatistas.
The influence of the Zapatistas is straightforward, Heseltine less so. On January 1st, 1994, the world (and this northern working-class tree-hugger…) witnessed the first revolution to be played out on the internet, and with it we were introduced to the beautiful writings of Subcomandante Marcos; easily comparable to Gabriel Garcia Márquez or Eduardo Galeano, with whom he corresponded. Here was a middle-class, Marxist revolutionary who had gone to the mountains of Chiapas to convince the local Mayan population to launch a proletarian revolution, only to find himself converted to what was arguably a wiser and definitely a more wondrous indigenous worldview which better understood the land not as property, but as the heart of community.
I am not here to argue that the Zapatistas or the Maya are ‘right’, or that they have all the answers, but we anarchists must acknowledge that they present an example of what we must strive to build; autonomy and sociocultural (and, indeed, political…) diversity. Autonomy should be a given for anyone describing themselves as ‘anarchist’, but it is also crucial in ecological terms. Cultures which grow as a response to their immediate eco-geological surroundings are, in the main, less destructive. Nobody likes to shit where they eat.
There are obvious exceptions, such as Rapa Nui (Easter Island), but these only help to illustrate the need for fluidity and diversity in culture, and the self-destructive mechanisms which are inherent in hierarchy and the dogmatic surrender to ‘tradition’. The original culture of Rapa Nui weakened their ability to sustain themselves through their program of continual deforestation. This ecological decline was further exacerbated by the introduction of an invasive species, the Polynesian rat. The people were ultimately wiped, however, out by a far more dangerous ‘pest’ — colonialism.
In all but the colonial era, the people of Rapa Nui had every opportunity to change the way their society was run. Instead they fought wars for the scarce resources, destroying crops in a scorched-earth policy which led to famine and even further ecological decline. The arrival of the Europeans was the last nail in their coffin.
Faced with the same decisions (and arguably a better understanding of what the future holds), the colonialist culture in its latter-day form — neoliberalism — is making exactly the same mistakes. This time around there is an entire planet to lose, but the same old addictions to greed, dogma, tradition and hierarchy give us little hope that the system might address its own failings. We all know this. Which is why more and more people are calling for “system change, not climate change.” But we must always be careful not to simply replace the mask that our oppressors wear. As Marcos learned from the people of the Chiapas:
“The problem with being revolutionary is that the taking of power must be considered and one must think that things can be transformed from above. We do not think that: we think that society, and the world, should be transformed from below. We think we also have to transform ourselves: in our personal relations, in culture, in art, in communication…and create another kind of society.”
A society transformed from below. That, right there, is a description of anarchism. That is why anarchists should be more interested in creating practical examples of anarchy in action than they should be about the perceived ideological, strategic and/or ethical failings of XR.
Back to Michael Heseltine. In October 1996, the No Opencast pressure group — comprised of members of the NUM, ex-miners, Miners’ Wives and Earth First!ers — dug an opencast mine in the then deputy prime minister’s back garden. The action fired people’s imaginations and the following year, October 1997, saw what is still the largest ever act of monkey-wrenching in UK history; the trashing of the Doe Hill opencast mine at Tibshelf in Derbyshire.
The coming together of the NUM (National Union of Mineworkers), Miners’ Wives and Earth First! Led to some very interesting debates (debate was something we used to do a lot of before the age of ‘blocking’, ‘unfriending’ and ‘Twitterstorms’). A sample of what I am talking about can be found online in this article from the very excellent Do or Die (there is a lot to be gained from reading the discussions in the pages of Do or Die, XR would have done well to give them a glance before declaring themselves the only people to stand up to climate change).
In my youth I was often woken for school by the sound of miners’ coughing loudly in the street as they hacked up the emphysema-inducing dust of the coal mines to clear their lungs. Too many of these men died young. So despite living in a mining area, I was (and still am) opposed to the reintroduction of deep mines. But I was also already witnessing the results of government-induced socioeconomic decline. So my obvious question was: how should our communities support themselves after mining? And, more importantly, how do we protect ourselves from top-down decisions made beyond our control? I began to realise that my eco-anarchist beliefs meant nothing if they were not directly relevant to the people and communities I loved.
This is when I decided to dedicate my energy to local, bottom-up, community activism. I felt that the only way to defend ourselves from the perfect storm of neoliberal capitalism — poverty, climate change, wage/debt slavery, growing authoritarianism, etc. — was to seed essential skills that would allow people to have some level of autonomy when it comes to food, energy, shelter, water and culture (culture is an innate human need which is all too often overlooked in political circles), and show that we can lead happier, healthier, more fulfilling lives with existing resources. As the authors of Total Liberation (Active Distribution, 2019) put it:
“It’s time to seriously ask ourselves: if the collapse happened tomorrow, would we really be ready? With every passing day the question becomes more unavoidable. Fortunately however, the key solution is also quite straightforward … make anarchy liveable. By securing our material autonomy now — something highly valuable in itself, whatever the future brings — we increase our chances of coping and even expanding during any unpredictable moments of future turbulence. As this civilisation tumbles into the abyss, it will appear to pull each of us along with it; yet that outcome can be avoided, insofar as we already fully know how to live on our own terms. It would be ridiculous to wait for the supermarket shelves to be looted clean before trying our hand at growing a cabbage. What we do before things get serious will be decisive.”
That right there is the positivity we need. It puts me in mind of my favourite Durruti quote:
“We have always lived in slums and holes in the wall. We will know how to accommodate ourselves for a time. For, you must not forget, we can also build. It is we the workers who built these palaces and cities here in Spain and in America and everywhere. We, the workers, can build others to take their place. And better ones! We are not in the least afraid of ruins.”
Have we forgotten that the anarchist society which Durruti died fighting to defend was built on over 50 years of practical work. We don’t have 50 years, but we do have some serious motivation as the effects of climate change become all too apparent. Like them or loathe them (or, do as I do, and be completely indifferent to them), XR have helped to give much-needed urgency to the situation we find ourselves in. Instead of wasting much-needed energy moaning about XR (there are plenty of navel-gazers on the left who will happily do that for you), use them to present viable alternatives to the status quo.
As it becomes more obvious to more and more people that appealing to the very institutions who got us into this shit in the first place isn’t going to bring about the change we need, they will begin to look elsewhere for answers. We should be in place with visible anarchist answers.
And as the richest 10% of the world’s population redouble their blatant ‘flight to innocence’ by blaming everything on ‘overpopulation’, even though they alone are responsible for 51% of global emissions produced by individuals (still just a fraction of total emissions as noted below), we, as anarchists, must work to protect those poorer communities who will be scapegoated and punished just so the powerful can maintain the status quo for a little longer.
Anarchy is nothing if it is not lived. To be an anarchist you are obliged to live a life which offers practical examples of better, brighter, freer, fairer ways of doing things. This is not to say that we should not also be engaged with protest and direct-action against injustice whenever we see it. In terms of climate change we should certainly be taking the fight directly to the 100 companies who are responsible for 71% of all emissions (the emphasis on individual responsibility is just another aspect of the ‘flight to innocence’ of the wealthiest 10% — eat less meat and fly less and you have done as much as is in your individual power). But spending time moaning and judging as the world quite literally burns, is as unproductive as it is boring. Why not go plant some (literal and ideological…) seeds instead?
Wonko the Neuro-Fluid, on behalf of the TLC (Total Liberation Club)