The Extinction Rebellion group is at its centre linked to a not-for-profit company called Compassionate Revolution, set up by activists who had been involved in the Occupy! Movement. XR now has groups in at least 28 countries. The organisation’s “civil resistance model” seeks to create the essential social tension required to create change.
It is the focus upon entire System Change that marks the maturity of the XR movement when compared with many previous environmental campaigns which have based themselves on highly moralistic admonitions against the polluting behaviours of individuals. XR is building towards a critical mass of activism, recognising the need for the inclusion of many millions in each nation, not a few stunt heroes martyring themselves for the Cause.
There are many debates taking place inside the Movement, not least about the appearance of participants as White and middle class. Symbolism is to the fore and as such, the visual messages are vital. When the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom derides us as “crusties” it rings a bell with those who have to any extent bought into the System, tried hard to behave in a way that obeys the rules and receives the pay-off of a manageable income and reasonable life.
The portrayal of XR activists as Middle Class is quite absurd from my experience. The elders include many State pensioners (living on the lowest pensions in the developed world), the middle-aged are generally out-of-work (perhaps with a private income, perhaps not) and the students are in-betweeners, probably subsided by parents to a bare extent but not assured of achieving a professional salary.
True, most of XR are well-educated, but the definition of middle class doesn’t really include nurses, teachers or most caring professionals anymore – they’ve been “proletarianised, and given 6-months without a salary they’ll be on their uppers. Only the top 20% of society earn money that allows for savings and security. And only the top 10% earn over £50k a year. Ideas of a huge and burgeoning middle-class are illusory, and politically motivated. In reality, however we choose to fool ourselves, the actual Middle Class with a vested interest in the current System are a very, very small strata of society.
At the other end, the at least 14 million who live in significant poverty in the UK have a right to feel particularly detached from messages of crisis and coming catastrophe. When you’ve lived hand-to-mouth for years the horizon closes in, too painful to remember too far back in time, and certainly too hopeless to look to the future with any hope.
Cries of “don’t use plastic”, “go Vegan”, or even “give-up your car – use public transport” are most likely to fall on deaf ears or produce immediate and deep resentment amongst those who have nothing, scrimp to manage a main meal each day, and dream of becoming a successful owner of one of those super-fast cars the subject of one-in-three TV advertisements. Using the privatised and cash-starved public transport these days is an experience of frustration and discomfort. Don’t preach to me!
Then there are the workers, a disparate layer of around 32 million people in Britain. Whilst the average annual wage is around £28,000, about two-thirds of workers earn less than that (such is the falsity of averages compared with means and medians), the figure being more representative of entire pre-tax household income. More than 5 million workers rely upon government welfare top-up payments in order to survive. We all recognise this as the tax-payer effectively giving hand-outs to the employers who pay the worst wages.
Around 6 million of the working poor can be described as “the precariat” with serial part-time, low-income, hire-and-fire vulnerable work. Employment tends to be repetitive, boring, tedious and impersonal, viciously overseen by the supervisory and managerial classes disproportionately paid and driven to force productivity through inhuman relationships based upon unaccountable power, bullying and threat.
Most workplaces run on fear. Most workers live with a constant negative piquance of stress about the payment of the rent or mortgage, heating and fuel costs, kids clothes, and the weekly food shop. Few if any can afford to challenge the Boss, show political dissent from what they produce or the way society works.
The bottom 50% of UK society share 8% of all the wealth produced in Britain each year. Women overwhelmingly bear the brunt of low wages, part-time precarious work, and the stresses of household management. People of Colour, anyone non-white or with a surname that may be considered on paper as “ethnic”, experience barriers to opportunities from a very young age and sense their treatment as “different” from their White friends.
Black people (the political term for all non-White skinned) are disproportionally prevalent in the poorest quartile of the population irrespective of ability or belief in the “Capitalist Dream”. From unemployment to stop-and-search, the visibility of being Black in a racist society requires you to walk hood-up, head down and without a sound. The Police, representing the Power, the System, Babylon, are not on your side.
Austerity, a political tool to refund the finance sector after the gross-corruption of that industry caused a global crash in 2008 for which, world-wide, only a handful of people were ever punished, has deepened inequality exponentially. More Billionaires at one end, far more homeless at the other. And poverty has a job to do for the Government: it creates the fear that keeps people from protesting.
After the Universal Credit website has demanded you stay on-line for 35 hours a week to prove you’re looking for work or lose your entire £60 a week income; as you walk home after being on a final warning for having been minutes late for work in the last month; when you’ve just juggled cash to ensure the kids are fed and clothed and you’ve put-off replacing your own leaking shoes for another month; the idea of the End of the World could almost feel like a blessed release.
Little wonder protesters were kicked and punched by commuters whose train to work had been held-up. Inequality has produced a social tension quite perceptible on the streets. There has been absolutely no social mobility in the UK for the past 35 years. To demand a no-Growth economy false on stones ground where those who have lived such Truth can either laugh or sneer at such irrelevance. Money goes to money, the rich protect themselves, they have complete power, we have none.
Climate protests have to focussed, understanding and compassionate. It is not in the power of the ordinary consumer – few of whom can ever afford luxuries rather than necessities – to change the world through their individual methods of consumption. The terrible Truth of the Climate Emergency is that the politicians have to own the crisis, and the producers – the Capitalists who own the means of production – have to change the basis of production. If both or either fail in the very near future, they will have to be removed. Citizens Assemblies can organise social infrastructure, workers can organise the methods of production. It will take a world revolution.
Environmental activists have to understand not only how society works but how it feels for the majority. The vision of system change requires links between all elements of drive for social progress – for civil rights, for decent wages, for affordable housing for all, for access and inclusion for all, for diversion and against discrimination, and so forth. We will only mobilise the millions we need if we begin from how they see and feel the world, not any high-minded impatient demands of our own.
I was talking with self-professed revolutionaries the other night. They were clear if not outspoken that revolution will not be fermented let alone succeed through any semblance of compassion. It will be civil war, indeed world war, based upon the class hatred that comes from outrage at the inequality and repression of the Ruling Class. Revolution requires the working class to be empowered and full-voiced.
I wanted to agree but with a cautionary caveat. Humanity shows so much compassion, day-to-day, across all societies that caring has a vital role to play. We are moved daily with care and concern for people less well-off than ourselves: the child receiving a drug for Cystic Fibrosis after years of State rationing; the migrants asphyxiated in the backs of lorries or drowned in the Med; those burnt to death in California or the Congo; the Kurdish children of Syria. Notions of “counting your blessings” are unhelpful here, being pacifiers rather than mobilisers. But putting yourself out for others does appear to be part of our nature.
Indeed, most climate activists are fighting for the rights of future generations, not our own. On the anniversary of the Russian Revolution, the first example of where workers took over a society (even if it was finally crushed by invading Capitalist armies), we should not think for one moment that system change is impossible. There are currently uprisings around the world, mostly against poverty and repression, the climate protests being relatively small and passive by comparison.
A Compassionate Revolution is indeed possible. We have to stand with the poor and the oppressed, we have to understand the experiences of the majority of whom we are a part. We have to challenge and repress our own prejudices and high-minded morals that betray empathy and compassion. The revolutionary socialist journalist, Paul Foot, once wrote, “there can be no Revolution without Love”. I agree wholeheartedly.
Most of all, we have to build the collective power of the working class in the workplaces. Today’s images from the million-plus march in Chile against Austerity and State corruption shows the potential strength of workers. The concurrent images of State Police beating and brutalising unarmed civilians, mostly the young, highlights the tension in the phrase, “compassionate revolution”: exactly how does non-violent direct action respond when the ruling class shoot us, incarcerate and torture, “disappear” us and drive tanks over our camped-out bodies? We will need the compassion of the majority to come to our defence.
Saturday 26th October 2019