Book review: Extinction Rebellion: Insights from the Inside

Political historian and Green Party member Andrew Pearmain reviews Rupert Read’s collection of essays Extinction Rebellion: Insights from the Inside, which reflect on the development of Extinction Rebellion up until the coronavirus pandemic and how the movement’s strategy and framing must be shaped going forward.

Extinction Rebellion activists and police surround a vehicle during a protest on Waterloo Bridge
Extinction Rebellion activists and police surround a vehicle during a protest on Waterloo Bridge

Martin Hearn / Flickr / cc-by-2.0

Andrew Pearmain

First of all, a personal disclosure. Rupert Read is a close friend, whose company is always a delight. We have a shared academic background in philosophy and history, and a grounding in the culture and politics of the 1970s and 1980s that now seems positively prehistoric. But we also come from quite different political traditions, him from liberal ecology and me from Eurocommunism. We usually meet somewhere in the middle, exploring the terrain where the necessary politics of the future (if there is to be one) will be formed from some kind of 'red-green alliance', with compatible emphasis on the social and the environmental, on equality and ecology. This is not necessarily a comfortable mix, given the historical anti-humanism of ecology and the industrial 'growthism' of socialism. It makes for interesting conversations! 

Ruper Read's book Extinction Rebellion: Insights from the Inside

So I approached this collection of Rupert's essays and interviews on Extinction Rebellion (XR) – Extinction Rebellion: Insights from the Inside – as something of an outsider, sympathetic but slightly wary, in just the same way I wandered around the XR occupation of Waterloo Bridge last year. At that stage, with Greta Thunberg a global celebrity and Rupert a panellist on BBC Question Time and an interviewee on the Today programme, XR quite literally had the world at its feet, with a flood of funding from environmentally-aware philanthropists, support and remarkably little opposition from right across the political spectrum. Rupert even got an invitation to explain XR's objectives with Environment Minister (and old university chum) Michael Gove, and to the super-rich jamboree in Davos. Briefly, perspectives on apocalypse – which have a history as old as history itself – found new expression in the language of climate collapse and species extinction, and rose above the empty rhetoric of “emergency talk”.

What went wrong? How did XR fall off the 'news cycle' just as quickly as it clambered on? Clearly coronavirus didn't help, despite its synchronicity with XR's message. It seems we can only handle one global catastrophe at a time. But there were more local failings. The early morning disruption of tube services at Canning Town, in the 'second wave' of the campaign last autumn, looked to everyone but those directly involved like a stupid attack on a public service relied upon by 'ordinary people' to get to and from work, and violated XR's strict code of Non-Violent Direct Action. There have been other, less spectacular problems, some of them familiar to anyone who's done time in political and campaigning organisations – the debilitating grind of day-to-day bureaucracy, the compromises required to attract substantial funding, the divisive effects of leadership contestation and faction-fighting – and others deriving from understandable attempts to avoid these older pitfalls.

In particular, and this is horribly familiar to those of us who cut our political teeth in the other 'new social movements' of the last fifty years, there is the vacuum formed by the 'tyranny of structurelessness', invariably filled by the loudest voices and the largest egos in the room, which not surprisingly empties out as people grow weary of dogma and harangue and succumb to 'burnout'. Focus is lost as other arguments come into play, often imposed by the ruthless impatience of the 'news cycle', which constantly demands new headlines and images for the 24/7 'rolling news', especially under our government of Times and Telegraph columnists.

How to stay afloat amid the relentless churn? You have to put down permanent organisational roots, as to its great credit the Green Party has managed to do, and somehow also retain your initial evangelistic zeal, as the Greens have up to a point. But you can only keep on shouting for so long before you lose your voice. Out of the bureaucracy and the belief, you need to synthesize a third element: a workable, effective and sustainable political strategy for the transformation of the society, economy, culture and morality around you, so that (as my intellectual hero Antonio Gramsci put it) your 'good sense' becomes the 'common sense' of the age. That's where, in my opinion, UK Greens have so far failed to succeed, like pretty much every truly radical transformative project before. For a brief moment of opportunity last summer, it looked like XR might have pulled it off. It may still do, but it needs to absorb the lessons in Rupert Read's essential collection, and get a move on. For all the immediacy of modern communication, political change in 'western' liberal democracies (which we still just about are) is horribly slow. The question is: need it be slower than the catastrophic changes in the climate already rapidly under way?      

Andrew Pearmain is a political historian, author of 'The Politics of New Labour' (2011) and a forthcoming biography of the Italian Marxist philosopher Antonio Gramsci, a founder member of the Greenhouse think tank and a Green Party member. Andrew Pearmain's history of green politics in the UK can be found on green-history.uk