You are currently viewing Extinction Rebellion: Not the Struggle we Need, Pt. 2

Extinction Rebellion: Not the Struggle we Need, Pt. 2

Content note: non-specific mentions of abuse, including sexual abuse


In the first part of our critique of Extinction Rebellion (XR) we argued that their tactical approach to direct action – seeking to get participants arrested, prosecuted and imprisoned – is dangerous, both to those participants and to the future of collective mobilization against ecological crisis more broadly. In Part 2, we switch from a focus on the tactics employed by XR to its organisational form and, again, find it severely lacking.

Some commentators have focussed on XR’s organisational structure to explain its remarkable rise. Yet whilst such a method is useful for explaining its success in mobilizing large numbers of people, it risks functioning as a form of ‘institutional fetishism’, abstracting formal institutional structures from relations of power.

We offer two broad critiques here. First, that XR’s ‘leaders’ gain from the risks undertaken by its participants; and second, that XR’s claims to nonhierarchical organising obscure the ways in which informal hierarchies and structural oppressions operate within the group. These arguments should not be understood in absolute isolation from our tactical critique, nor from the critique of XR’s broader strategy (forthcoming in Part 3). Were XR more open to internal and external dissent then it would have adapted its tactics, whilst its politics of exclusion are in part tied to its strategic desire for good ‘optics’ in order to enact change through mainstream channels.

As in the first part of our critique, we want to make three things absolutely clear. Firstly, our critique is focussed on XR in the UK. Those of is involved in writing this critique are UK based, and we feel we have sufficient knowledge of XR UK to make these arguments. We are aware that XR groups in other countries differ in their tactical, organisational and strategic approach to combating ecological crisis. Inasmuch as they repeat the modes we critique our analysis applies to them; inasmuch as these modes differ, they do not (though other criticisms may, and we would welcome further interrogation of XR beyond the UK). We also add a further caveat here: that there is increasing struggle within UK XR. While we are sceptical about the possibility of this transforming XR for the better, it is a welcome development and we discuss it at length below.

Secondly, we write from a position of solidarity with many of those involved in XR’s actions. We admire their commitment and courage, and as we note, hope that the return of large scale direct action in the UK does provide some pedagogical value even despite (and perhaps because of) its flaws. Indeed, we write these pieces in that spirit: so that lessons can be learned and a collective memory be constructed. It is, we believe, in part the absence of such a collective memory that has enabled ecological crisis to be intensified by the state and capital with relative ease; and which has allowed an organisation so deeply flawed as XR to establish itself as ‘the’ form of resistance to this.

Thirdly, our criticisms come not from expecting perfection from the off. A corollary of there being little collective memory of struggle in the UK is that few people have experience of it. Any mass movement will make mistakes and undergo a sharp learning curve. Yet for all its talk of decentralised power and bottom-up organising, XR is unwilling and unable to learn necessary lessons. Quite the opposite, in fact: they have recently ramped up their ludicrous, love-bombing of the police encouraging participants to write about their activism to the police , to “turn themselves in” to the police , and to fill in a form stating they are willing to be incarcerated. As we discussed in part one, these approaches continue to place participants and their networks at greater danger of arrest, surveillance and harassment by the state. In part 3 we will explore further the flaws in the wider strategy that deems these tactics necessary. We write not to condemn XR participants, but in the spirit of a pedagogy of dissent. Such a method will be vital in building something beyond XR; a movement of thousands that truly does enable ecological flourishing.

A note, too, on our use of the term ‘leaders’. XR claims not to have leaders, something we address critically in the second section below. Until then, we use the term, but with scare quotes to signal its contested nature.

Your Risk; Their Reward
Fetishizing XR’s formal organisational form at the expense of power relations is a little like seeking to explain Amazon’s rise by focussing on how it organises technologies and ‘human resources’ whilst ignoring its exploitation of labour power.

XR is not, of course, a profit-seeking company. Yet just as Amazon’s profits are ultimately dependent on the labour of its employees, XR’s ‘success’ is due to participants. More specifically, it is because XR participants put themselves in considerable danger (from the police and state violence discussed in part one) that XR is achieving such notoriety. Participants will of course say that they are taking these risks for the planet, for each other, for the world’s poor, for their children, and for the environment. We do not doubt their sincerity. Yet we cannot help but think that their actions primarily help XR reproduce itself, and in particular bolster the power of XR’s ‘leaders’.

Scholars of institutions have often noted that institutions ostensibly focussed on an external goal often end up expending resources on self-reproduction. XR’s model, which is reliant on media attention and the frequently enormous donations they bring, makes it particularly vulnerable to this failing (in addition to the enormous amount of crowdfunding money, substantial donations so far include £500,000 from a Hedge Fund, £200,000 from Sir Christopher Hohn, a man who has significant stakes in Ferrovial, the company that runs Australia’s brutal Nauru and Manus migrant detention camps, and “is one of the main private airport investors and operators in the world” (including Heathrow); seed funding from Lush’s foundation, between €20-40,000 from the Guerilla Foundation; and the proceeds from Radiohead’s OK Computer demos and The 1975s’ song ‘The 1975’). The strategic placement of XR’s logo during protests-which help ensure it is widely distributed throughout visual media-is evidence of our concerns here. We would also point to stunts such as the XR ‘crop circle’ at Womad Festival: ostensibly designed to ‘highlight climate change’, all it actually does is highlight XR.

A full analysis of this phenomena requires engaging with XR’s strategy, which we will undertake in the third and final part of our critique. Here it will suffice to say that XR’s strategy is predicated upon spectacular, brand-managed actions that help generate these donations. These actions are made possible by participants, who act on the instructions of XR’s ‘leaders’. Yet XR finances are not used to support participants through the consequences of participation: XR does not, for example, provide legal funds to assist those prosecuted, many of whom are facing prison sentences and criminal records as a result of XR’s wilfully careless tactics. Given the amount of money they have raised this is utterly shameful, and contravenes the principles of mutual aid so central to struggle: an injury to one is an injury to all.

The media attention that XR actions generate helps to position it as a key voice in debates around ecological crisis. At times it uses the space this affords it to introduce important perspectives, and it should be commended for this. The recently published Extinction Rebellion book This is Not a Drill, for example, contains chapters on Indigenous struggle in relation to climate change, whilst a number of contributors make clear that ecological crisis is unevenly distributed. Yet it also repeats many of XR’s specious claims and functions to reinforce the sense that they are the only alternative to ecological crisis.1
But the opportunities generated by XR’s position remain unevenly distributed, and are too frequently afforded to its ‘leaders’: in particular XR founders Roger Hallam and Gail Bradbrook.2
Since XR’s rise to prominence Hallam and Bradbrook have, between them, written for The Guardian, The Ecologist and The Telegraph; been interviewed by The Times, BBC television’s Victoria Derbyshire programme, Today on Radio Four, BBC Radio Four’s Profile, the Financial Times, the Evening Standard, the Morning Star, Chris Hedges on RT America, RT UK, Sky News, the Korea Times, the Sustainable Food Trust and on Good Morning Britain; been featured extensively in The Guardian’s video documentary on ‘life inside Extinction Rebellion’; and spoken at an Amnesty International conference, Campfire Convention and the HSBC sponsored CogX. Whilst they will not have been paid for many of these (and may have channelled funds back into XR where they have been, though they should be clear about this), their voices dominate media discussions of XR and, by extension, they have become the movement experts on ecological crisis. Whether their intention or not, they are building the foundations of solid careers off the back of the actions of XR participants. This is analogous to the relationship of boss to worker under capitalism and to Trotskyist groups, where leaders draw wages and expenses from money raised by rank-and-file members selling papers.

Not so Nonhierarchical
XR describes itself as a ‘holocracy’ [pdf], a term it opposes to ‘hierarchy’. This, in theory, means that key tasks are divided among the organisation on a non-hierarchical basis, with clear structures of accountability and communication. Anyone who agrees with their ‘Ten Principles’ is welcome to get involved as a participant, but there are also supposed to be opportunities for them to shape XR’s direction. This is further laid out here, and in a google doc, which anyone is free to make suggested changes and pass comment on.3
The ambition, if taken at face value, is admirable, and we would be interested in hearing from XR members about instances of the structure working as it should. Whatever the failures of XR, it is important that we keep hold of what does work, as well as what does not, and as outsiders to the organisation we are perhaps less privy to examples of the former. What is clear to us, however, is that all-too-often XR’s claims to nonhierarchy fail to stand up to scrutiny. The prospects for participants in struggle to shape the overall direction of the organisation is limited, the scope for vanguardist action against the wishes of others is large, and accountability is weak.

Out of the Woods is of course fully in favour of nonhierarchical organising. Yet nonhierarchy can only ever function as a guiding principle: it is not a state of affairs to be achieved once-and-for-all.This is because hierarchies are not solely formal (i.e. organisational structure): traditions, charismatic authority, bullying, financial disparity, harassment, habit, the withholding of information and other organisational/interpersonal relations can all (re)produce informal hierarchies. These informal hierarchies are complicated and deepened by the structural oppressions that categorise our present: hierarchies of race, class, gender, sexual orientation and (dis)ability cannot simply be shaken off when we step into a nonhierarchical space.

We believe that XR is riddled with informal hierarchy and that it does not do enough to tackle structural oppression. Whilst XR’s foundational raison d’etre – getting people arrested to force the agenda – is the biggest single obstacle to them having a positive impact, these factors hinder attempts to challenge problematic tactical, strategic, financial and organisational issues within XR.

Informal Hierarchy
In the introduction to this critique we noted that our use of the term ‘leaders’ is somewhat contingent as XR does not, officially, have leaders. We do not agree. Whilst XR is clear that it was founded by members of activist organisation Rising Up!, which emerged from another organisation, Compassionate Revolution – founded in 2015, it is less transparent about the clear leadership role they continue to play. As a sympathetic critique by La Vera Planedo notes:

Extinction Rebellion as an organisation is controlled officially by RisingUp!, which is, itself, governed in a centralised, hierarchical manner by a small group of people…This small group of people is called the ‘Holding Group’, and, although anyone is technically eligible to become a member of it, its members have direct control over the membership of the Holding Group, causing the group to be a bureaucracy. As the result of being a bureaucracy, the Holding Group can be considered as contradictory to the principle of decentralisation, but the contradiction that it creates within the Extinction Rebellion is enhanced, and made especially problematic, by the power and control that the Holding Group has within the Extinction Rebellion; the Holding Group decides what is officially part of the Extinction Rebellion, and is, thus, able to exclude individuals and groups from the movement.

The power that those in this group draws on the authority they have accrued as founders. It also feeds from and into the vastly disproportionate media and NGO attention given to (and accepted by) Hallam, Bradbrook and, to a lesser extent, Robin Boardman-Pattision. In this sense, then, the holding group provides direction, inspiration and sets limits for XR. This, in a word, is leadership, and from here-on we lose the scare quotes around the term.

We should be clear at this stage that leadership itself is not necessarily a problem: where it inspires, determines clear aims and objectives, and can be claimed by or is accountable to the movement as a whole it can play a key role in galvanizing movements – particularly those which seek widespread participation or support. Leadership may also be imposed on leaderless movements, or movements with distributed leadership, by the media, which is ill-equipped to comprehend (and thus accurately cover) leaderless organisation. Media power is such that by naming participants in movements as leaders those participants may become de facto leaders. The Zapatistas are a good case in point for both tendencies: they made considerable use of the media’s appetite for charismatic ‘leaders’ through the figure of Subcommondante Marcos (aka Delegate Zero/Subcommondante Galleano), whilst their philosophy of ‘mandar obedeciendo’ (‘to lead by obeying’) guides the manner in which delegates are led by and must be answerable to the communities from whom they draw their power. There is considerable literature in and around longstanding enrivonmental, antifascist, Indigenous, anarchist, autonomist, antiracist and feminist movements on precisely these issues, as well as in the systems-thinking derived organisational theory that XR ground themselves in.

XR, however, seems more interested in disavowing leadership than interrogating its complexities and responsibilities. The Zapatistas are not above criticism, but they make clear the roles their ‘leaders’ play, ground their authority in the collective and ensure that they are recallable. By denying that they have leaders, XR allows its leaders to act without scrutiny. This thread by a disabled activist who sought to reform XR talks, for example, of ‘invisible hierarchies’: very often the most insidious kind. Indeed, the inspiration for XR’s ‘holocratic’ structure seemingly comes not from radical political organisation but from corporate governance strategies: the diagram outlining it in their handbook [ pdf appears to have been lifted from this corporate powerpoint on business metrics [slide 13].4

Despite the plethora of literature detailing the structure of XR, it is not clear to us what practical power XR participants have to challenge decisions made by these leaders, nor to hold them to account. Yet there are clues, and they are not good. In this video of XR’s Local Coordinator Training in Bristol, posted in November 2018, Hallam (leading the training) refers to ‘difficult political people’. He contrasts these to the ‘practical’ people like ‘most of us in this room’. These ‘difficult people’, he says, ‘don’t want to get things done because they’re so political’, and ‘grind’ struggle ‘to death’. Clarifying in response to a question, he refers to ‘political tribes’ who will do this, and lists the ‘extreme hard left’, ‘extreme intersectionalism’ [sic] and ‘anarchists’ (as well as ‘extreme veganism’), arguing that they will halt action on a large-scale until they achieve ‘perfection’ in their own ranks. As we note below, this is an extraordinarily bad-faith and patently incorrect reading of these tendencies, which do not grind struggle to a halt but are vital parts of struggle. This is a clear example of an XR leader determining what is and what is not part of, or welcome in, XR; and that what is not welcome, simply, is politics beyond a certain point.5
Because that is precisely what those messy discussions that Hallam does not want are: they are struggles over distributions of power within movements, and over the directions that movements should take. They are struggles that threaten his grip on the shape and direction of XR. They are struggles which would mean he would not be able to lead as he currently does.

Many of those working with or within XR who have sought to challenge the leadership have not fared well. One co-founder left early on after his concerns over their approach were dismissed, and was by no means alone. In a now deleted tweet Emily Apple, a longstanding activist, had her concerns dismissed as those of a ‘sociology student’. The mutual aid legal support group Green and Black Cross, was also frustrated, writing that they:

tried to work with XR and to provide support as best we could, answering questions and explaining what we thought should (and should not) be done. In some cases this advice was taken, but often the boundaries we set were pushed back, and many times our advice was simply ignored if it did not align with XR’s aims and values.

It is notable, too, that XR leaders rarely engage with critics from outside XR. Instead, they make vague, bad-faith references to approaches they deem incorrect, fall back on the authority of flawed readings of flawed academic studies (more of that in part three), repeat bare-faced lies, and shadow-box with straw men (Roger Hallam’s interview on the Political Theory Other podcast is a good example of this: note that he repeats his utterly false claim that Prison Officers are primarily Black). Laurence Cox has rightly pointed out that XR seek to position themselves as the only viable game in town, a move that simultaneously helps firm up their image and allows them to avoid critical scrutiny from the off. XR’s approach functions to prevent processes whereby participants learn from their experiences and can use these to influence an organisation to better respond to circumstances.

More of a picture regarding the limited accountability within XR emerges from the furores around the foundation and hasty dissolution of XR Business and the actions of XR splinter group Heathrow Pause in September 2019. The former was announced via a letter signed by business leaders and Bradbrook in The Times in April 2019, and was to be a platform ‘to engage business leaders, investors and advisers’. This led to significant anger from sections of XR, and just over a month later XR announced that the group was no more. Whilst this at least shows that significant opposition to actions taken by XR’s leaders can result in those actions being reversed, there is no interrogation of the manner in which a leader could act in such a way: rather, the incident is blamed on a ‘slip-up in communication and coordination’ at a ‘particularly busy time’. In this, there were no assurances that XR’s ‘leaders’ would not act unilaterally again, either publicly or behind the scenes, and Hallam’s actions around the planned Heathrow drone action suggest that this is precisely what has occurred.

Following criticism of this planned action by XR Youth, XR statedthat ‘the action will neither be condoned nor supported as designed’ as ‘the process for attempting to decide to have an action at Heathrow had been divisive, poorly conducted, and left many people across Extinction Rebellion feeling unheard and exhausted.’ Thus, they said, ‘If an action with drones takes place at Heathrow it will be by an independent group outside Extinction Rebellion.’ This is what happened, with Hallam and others forming ‘Heathrow Pause’ and announcing the action in September 2019. The action failed: their drones were jammed and they were arrested (many pre-emptively as they’d seen fit to inform the police of their actions). Yet Heathrow Pause has been widely conflated with XR in public discourse: not simply because journalists are lazy, but because of (no doubt deliberately) confused messaging from Heathrow Pause members (the shared colour scheme, an article about the action by another XR co-founder and this tweet/video on an “XR activist”, for example6
). As such, it is difficult to suggest that there is any meaningful separation between the two organisations. This raises further questions about accountability: when XR’s members are able to exercise power over the direction of the movement, leaders simply sidestep the organisation to do things their way anyway.

Exploring Hallam’s past sets off further alarm bells. He has made repeated reference to his role in organising London’s ‘first successful rent strike’, yet the campaign to which he is referring – UCL Cut the Rent – states that he ‘was removed from our campaign long before the successful UCL rent strikes due to his actions jeopardising the campaign and activists involved. He also received £2,000 for research he did around our campaign, none of which made its way to us, even when funds were desperately needed.’

XR, then, has leaders. Their influence within and beyond the movement is largely dependent upon the dangers taken by XR participants, to whom they feed constant misinformation and who they fail to properly support. They misrepresent their past successes and make catastrophically bad strategic and tactical decisions.

If ‘leaders’ doesn’t quite sound right here, then there’s another word in the English language to describe someone who fulfills these functions: ‘boss’.Yet at least you know where you stand with your boss. As a rule, bosses do not disavow their power over you. XR’s leaders do, and are all the more dangerous for this denial.

Reproducing Oppression
Even the most profound, powerful and successful political struggles operating against and beyond the oppressions of our present end up reproducing some of them. Acknowledging that this is unavoidable does not, however, mean that we should not expect those struggling to simply shrug as if there is nothing they can do. XR’s tactical focus on getting participants arrested already reproduces broader societal oppressions, but here we want to focus on their refusal to incorporate structures designed to challenge these in organisation.

XR, for example, has no safe(r) spaces policy and there is no clearly determined accountability process. There is no formally mandated group to deal with abuse within the movement, nor any guidelines for local groups to do so. Given that recent radical movements in the UK have been marred by well-publicised cases of sexual abuse, transphobia and the reproduction of racialized, gendered, classed and (dis)abled hierarchies, these missing elements exhibit further disregard for the wellbeing of participants. As @pancake_puns on twitter points out, this means that the burden for change falls entirely on those already marginalised and oppressed: they are then frustrated by XR’s informal hierarchies while they try do undertake this work.

The absence of such structures likely follows in part from XR’s leaders’ hostility to intersectionality, and here it is important to challenge Hallam’s claim that it ‘grinds’ struggle to a halt. Accountability processes designed to deal with abusers within movements, for example, can be slow, hard work and exhausting. They can lead to burn out, fall outs and a loss of focus on what is, ostensibly, the group in question’s primary focus. Yet without them, abusers know that they can operate within a movement free from scrutiny. This allows abuse to flourish.

Safe(r) spaces policies, meanwhile, allow those who experience oppression in society to operate with a degree of freedom from such oppressions. This, in turn, allows oppressed and marginalised people to narrate their experiences without fear of being derailed by those who do not experience such oppression. Given that ecological crisis is unequally distributed along these lines of oppression (something XR notes, albeit inconsistently7
), XR should jump at the affordances that properly enacted safe(r) spaces policies can provide oppressed and marginalised groups to relate their experiences (and, in turn, shape XR policy).

Ideological hostility to intersectionality is not the only factor that should be considered in XR’s failures in this area, for ideology does not operate free from material interest. This means that we must ask whose material interests are being defended. The answer, in this instance, is abusers (and their friends); and others who benefit from current distributions of power. The lack of proper structures to facilitate the full and equitable participation of oppressed and marginalised people helps XR’s leaders shore up their position.

Struggle Within XR
In the first part of this critique we stated that we would not encourage people to get involved in XR and we stand by this call. Yet we must be careful not to do a disservice to those fighting internally, against great odds, to improve it. In addition to some of those quoted above, this includes XR Youth, who have claimed that they are “really based on talking about indigenous communities”, with the “global south [at the centre] of what we talk about and how we express ourselves”. XR Scotland, too, have taken a critical stance vis-a-vis “deep rooted problems at the heart of the Extinction Rebellion movement”, with a particular focus on its whiteness; and the presence of groups such as Global Justice Rebellion in the movement is also encouraging. We believe that the struggles they are centreing are incompatible with the approach taken by XR, and that were they to be successful XR would be a wholly transformed organisation. The chances of this occurring are, we think, slim. We must also be alive to the dangers of XR ‘liberation-washing’: co-opting these struggles in a manner akin to the liberal ‘diversity’ tactics employed by large institutions in order to avoid making structural changes.

Perhaps we should not be too hasty in writing off these struggles as futile, however. If XR’s ‘success’ is indeed in part due to a lack of historical memory of radical struggle in the UK then these internal struggles within it may prove invaluable in the long run, even if they do not achieve their laudable aims in the short run. Many people are experiencing activism for the first time in XR and whilst we feel comradely-but-forceful critique from outside the movement is important, there is potential for groups within XR to make substantive pedagogical contributions in this context. We have all been involved in struggles that were imperfect or, sometimes, downright wrongheaded. We do not come into this world perfect activists. The experience of many in XR may prepare them for other struggles that are still to come.

Those hostile to XR’s tactics and strategy are often encouraged to join the movement, taking advantage of its ‘holocratic’ structure to change it for the better. Our hope is that this essay has made clear just how difficult – if not impossible and potentially counterproductive – this will be. XR’s ‘holocracy’ reproduces informal and oppressive power structures, and actively works against serious changes. It has permitted occasional critiques of XR’s leadership, but not in a way which prompts serious questioning of power structures.

Further, the supposedly decentralised nature of this ‘holocracy’ allows XR to brush off critique: if it has no leaders, then how can its leaders be failing participants? We hope to have been clear that ‘leadership’ isn’t the sole preserve of those occupying positions of formal, codified, hierarchies; and that XR has clear ‘leaders’ who do, indeed, fail participants.

Those participants deserve better. Our current moment deserves better. We all deserve better.
In the final part of our critique, we turn to XR’s strategy, arguing that their broader hopes for achieving social change are based on misrepresentations of flawed research.

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