Of the Environment and the Working Class

After 24 hours, 320 people had been arrested in London for playing their part in the October Rebellion against Extinction. The purpose of the rebellion is not to “take power” or overthrow Capitalism, or even become decision makers. The stated aim of Extinction Rebellion is to put sufficient pressure on Government and Corporations for them to take the action needed to save humanity and stop the accelerating ecocide. 

The plan is to raise consciousness of climate change and thereby force economic and political action through sheer force of numbers. Clearly, despite more than 8,000 activists putting themselves on the frontline in London yesterday (oh, and 8 million across the world just two weeks ago), the protests are not having the desired effect on our elected political leaders or their courtiers in the Press. 

Boris Johnson, the latest rabid Prime Minister of the 7th largest economy in the world has made light of the roving shut-downs of central London and his beloved Westminster. He has called us “uncooperative crusties” and gone further in demanding the protesters should abandon their “hemp-smelling bivouacs” and stop blocking roads. 

Establishment toadies lambasting the protesters include the always delightful Toby Young of the chatterarty, showing grim determination to be yet more abusive despite calling himself a classical liberal. “I was sceptical about the necessity of returning to a pre-capitalist, agrarian way of life if we want to tackle climate change, but having now been prevented from crossing Westminster Bridge by a group of protestors doing yoga I’ve completely come around, obviously”, he tweeted.

The general media response has been far smaller than the issue should command. It has also been negative. Our local “newspaper”, the Plymouth Herald, chose to headline “7 protesters in Plymouth” rather than the 50 in London, and carefully choose words and images to denigrate rather than report the facts. It is a small long-haired section of smelly middle-class hippies who are predicting extinction, the 99% of climate scientists staying unheard and unconsidered.

Channel Four News managed to find a young man in workman’s garb who believed “hotter summers and colder winters will get me more work – what’s not to like!” Clearly climate change will be a boost for self-employed plumbers everywhere, for a while.

There is a serious challenge here. Not only that, as we have always known, 50 people out of a city of 250,000, or 5,000 people out of a country of 50 million do not represent the critical mass needed for system change. Extinction Rebellion can be ridiculed and dismissed on current size alone, but also as unrepresentative of the ordinary citizen.

This is a very serious charge. In the constant quest for the divide-and-rule tactical advantage, always so effective for any ruling class of any society, the accusation of being a middle-class drop-out is particularly effective. Johnson’s script-writers (yes, it’s true, his every word is orchestrated) know that opposition by the worker who has been held-up from getting to work can be amplified and consolidated by officially labelling the offenders “middle-class”, with all the privilege that implies.  

After a lifetime of building protests and picket lines, I have grown impervious to passing insults of “get a job” as well as “get back to Russia”. After 43 years of full-time employment I am only too aware of the grinding and tedious repetition of getting to work in the morning and holding back my emotions and thoughts until the following weekend. For most workers there is a tendency to think anyone not working flat-out is a loafer or a privileged ne’er-do-well. Why is my life so shit compared with “others”?

There is a powerful emotional sensation of ire, of rising bile and anger, that accompanies thoughts of social class position and comparative disadvantage. For this reason, anyone with the modicum of consciousness required to perceive that they are, indeed, working class – that is, will be on the streets and homeless inside six months if they lose all employment and use up their scant savings – has more than a fleeting sense of support for anyone fighting the System. In this we suffer a clash of consciousness, easily manipulated and perverted by the Media.

So it requires a period of thoughtful reflection to truly understand what the accusation of “being middle-class” actually means. It was once thought that bank clerks were middle class, or that house-owners were middle class (those with fat mortgages included), or that nurses and teachers and social workers and other Council workers were middle class because they were professionals.

It simply doesn’t work like that today. The social care professionals have been thoroughly proletarianised. Whilst two-thirds of workers earn less than the average wage (that’s the law of averages – it is skewed by the fat incomes of the minority of salaries that are above average), the professional practitioners are not fat cats. The average is distorted by the high-paid manager-class above them. 

The truly middle-class in UK society – those actually owning their properties and sheltered by assured inherited wealth that will protect them through the lean times or even economic collapse – are small in number and certainly not above 20% of the population. Yes, they are the well-educated, or at least they are those who have had easy access to discover art and culture and history and travel, but they also have a sense of investment in the system as it stands, and stand to lose if the system is levelled-out and the wealth redistributed.

It then stands to reason, or fact, or the Truth, that precious few of those in Extinction Rebellion are truly of the middle-classes. Indeed, those around me are poor, not from choice but from the fragility of youth employment and erosion of well-paid work. Certainly the numbers needing help to pay for transport to London in order to protest, for donations from the XR Hardship Fund to help pay the fines, and seeking secure if shared housing, condemn the accusation of being “middle class” as a complete fabrication.   

In addition, Extinction Rebellion has a set of self-aware value statements for those wishing to associate with the Movement. A significant strand includes detailed examination of White Privilege, fully recognising the horrific scale of inequality between rich and poor, not only in terms of class but because of racism, sexism and the mix of discriminatory values ensconced in Capitalist society. 

The fact that Black people in the UK are far more likely to be arrested, imprisoned, stop-and-searched, harassed and targets of violence is beyond doubt. So accusations that XR is full of the middle-class privileged whites has that horrible kernel of Truth that upholds such a Great Lie. The reality is people of colour in the West are wary of the call to stand up, stand out and “get arrested” because they know they’ll be the first whether offering themselves up or not, and their treatment will be harsher. 

The deeper reality for the average environmentally aware activist is that Climate Change will devastate the People’s of the Global South, Africa and Asia, first and most powerfully in the short -term (an aside is the recognition that the vast majority of historic warming gases have been emitted by the predominantly White North-West). So institutional racism is an active component of the impact of Climate Change.

It doesn’t take a middle-class eduction to understand this. The majority of working class families have been, over the decades, influenced by migration. We are an hotch-potch of inter-cultural (the old so-called mixed-race) families. Irish navies and African seamen meeting-up with Eastern-European Jewish migrants and Caribbean wage-slaves to intermix with remnants of the Anglo-Saxons and Celts to produce the modern army of factory and office workers. 

It tends to be the real middle classes, the rural landowners and medium-sized business owners, who have sought to maintain the myth of racial purity and kept their heritage “White”. So the idea that it’s “middle-class” to be anti-racist or anti-sexist (or accept LGBT+ when so many working class families have at least one gay, bi- or gender-uncomfortable relative) is wholly absurd.

Just as absurd is the notion that its middle class to have an allotment (think about it – they’re provided by local Councils as an affordable social outlet for those without land). Given the history and size of the Ramblers Association, this too is a wonderful example of the widespread working class appreciation if not actual worship of Nature and the Environment. 

In truth it is the real middle-classes who are put-out by the October Rebellion and most vocal against it. Workers may make the occasional sly comment, mirroring the defensive culture of banter and sarcastic commentary that is part-and-parcel of the alienating and competitive workplaces we suffer, but underneath we care about the Planet, the Future and Survival. We love our children too.

The issue of Class is always on the Agenda. Today it is the likes of Johnson-of-Eton (grandson of one of the last interior ministers of the Ottoman Empire government who was usefully assassinated in 1922 during the Turkish War of Independence) and Young (son of Baron Young of Dartington and descendant of Admiral Sir Robert Moorsom who fought at the Battle of Trafalgar) who call upon the working classes to condemn the climate protests as Middle-Class. The irony and hypocrisy couldn’t be greater.

It is for this reason that we working class socialists are hoping to engage the organisation of the working class with XR to lay bare the lie. We know it will take the organised appearance of working class trade unions on the streets, hand-in-hand with  besmirched “tree-huggers”, to defeat the attempts at division and imposed isolation.

At the height of the struggle across the Western World for Civil Rights and Peace it was the students, mostly children of working parents, who occupied Paris in 1968 and led the cross-continent revolt for social justice. At it’s height, as the Police moved in with ferocity and armed violence to break the Sorbonne, the organised workers from trade unions across France downed-tools and marched in to join the Youth and prevent the carnage. 

That is why we are building for trade unionists to join in a day of action on Saturday, coming from across the country to join Extinction Rebellion in Trafalgar Square and march on Westminster. It is the dispossessed, the poor and we who are dependent on next month’s wages or paltry pension income to survive who will suffer first and worst from the impact of global heating. It is the working class who have the most to gain from unity with Environmentalists and complete System Change.

Tuesday 8th October 2019

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