The DNA of Extinction Rebellion

XR has gone viral - because its DNA resembles self making life systems. So what can activists learn from this fecundity?

The DNA metaphor isn't just for show, but points to the particular mode of action and growth.

Extinction Rebellion (XR) is now on its fifth consecutive day of occupations of central London sites having started at Oxford Circus, Waterloo Bridge, Marble Arch and Parliament Square.

The left has generally been quite critical of XR, particularly of what is seen as their naive and liberal approach to the police, but this tone seems to have shifted in the past days. The critiques are still there - and valid - but there's now a more reflective attitude.

Clearly, despite all the problems we might have with the organisation, there are a huge number of people out on the streets, many of them newly politicised, and taking what is quite impressively disruptive action. Without forgetting our critiques of its political content, is there anything we can learn from how XR has been organising?


In my book, The Shock Doctrine of the Left I have tried to show - in broad theoretical terms - how an organising approach similar to XR's can be relevant to base-building unionism, the cooperative movement, social democratic pressure groups, anarchist and antifascist action.

Given this was written a few years prior, and XR is the first example I know of where a UK-based organisation has followed this model successfully, I thought it was worth setting out in short again, in the light of XR's 'proof of concept' if you will.

I'll touch on what typical leftist organisations currently don't do, show what XR do do (or try to do), and then to give some more specific suggestions for how this could be applied to a broader revolutionary organisation in the current context.

Imagine if you will an international base-building socialist organisation, focused around grassroots community and workplace unionism, capable of carrying out coordinated global strikes, that could grow into hundreds of regularly active groups in numerous countries, in the space of a year.

I'm going to call this hypothetical organisation Socialist Rebellion - for comparative purposes only.


I'm framing this as what a new socialist organisation can do, but there is nothing to say that existing organisations can't adapt and take on aspects of the following; clearer processes for starting new groups, more regular training, a more proactive strategy and so on can only help.

But in my experience there is a certain inertia to an established organisation, what you might call 'path dependence' or 'lock-in', that makes this is easier said than done. Reforming a years old organisation can be like trying to turn a shipping tanker around. 

The model goes by numerous names - distributed organising, hybrid momentum-structure organising, swarm organising and others.

It comes in different variations, but on the whole is an attempt to avoid the pitfalls of both rigidly hierarchical organisations and purely spontaneous grassroots mobilisation.

The DNA metaphor isn't just for show, but points to the particular mode of action and growth.

This involves firstly having a lot of explicit structure, which is front-facing and accessibly written. This is passed on through mass training. And direct action is taken, with the explicit aim of polarising the public. These might be thought of as the DNA of an organisation, its replication, and a catalyst for kicking off that process.


The aim is to enter into a growing feedback loop, whereby the direct action attracts attention, creates an inflow of new people into training sessions, who enable the organisation of more and larger autonomous groups, which can then do larger actions etc.

Ultimately enough people join the moment to allow for actions which can shut down urban centres for extended periods of time, just as you would have in, say, a general strike. 

The DNA metaphor isn't just for show, but points to the particular mode of action and growth.

It's like a new human body, which shares enough DNA with others to maintain coherence as a species, but from the moment of birth is effectively autonomous, acting of its own volition but cooperating.

If done well, this allows for creativity and experimentation in the grassroots (including room to fail), whilst maintaining a consistent, unified movement. 


Some people have argued to me that the autonomous / anarchist left already does all this. In terms of all the parts separately, that's sometimes true: structure, training and action are nothing new. But it's in the way these are articulated that the left usually falls down.

Public direct action occurs, but reactively or without being part of any explicit long term strategy. DNA is written out, but its incomplete, its scattered, its written in inaccessible language, and new recruits have to jump through hoops both formal and informal to feel empowered to use them.

And most importantly, the mechanism of replication is weak: training events happen, but only once in a blue moon, on a random day, on some general topic, rather than specifically to feed all the elements of the DNA to a new group of people, and to allow them to immediately use it without supervision.

If you're too slow, its too late: the training has to absorb the energy and interest created by the direct actions, but on the left you frequently see trainings have not been pre-arranged before an action, are not adequately advertised, and are not comprehensive.

Without that intensity, the feedback loop that creates exponential growth fails to kick in. Entropy takes hold, the effects of the action fade away, and the moment is lost.


Following XR's earlier actions in October 2018, I counted numerous training events per day, for weeks afterwards, in London alone, not to mention other cities. It is this focus on replication that has allowed them to grow rapidly but in a controlled manner.

And that growth has been nothing short of spectacular. In the space of less than a year, XR has grown from nothing, to 300 groups in over 30 countries.

The week of action was coordinated internationally, and although the London actions were significantly bigger than elsewhere, there were nonetheless events occurring across at least 20 different countries, including Italy, Spain, Sweden, USA, Australia, Switzerland, Austria, Denmark, Germany, New Zealand, Netherlands, Portugal, Turkey, Scotland, Belgium, South Africa, Norway, Ireland. 

There will be aspects that can't apply to all organisations, but using this broad model - with tweaks to fit your own context, resources and goals - we can begin to examine where we might bring in improvements to our organising. Even if we completely reject everything else about XR, there is something here we can learn. 

I'm going to follow this up with further posts looking in more detail at DNA, replication, and catalysts, setting out some tools for creating or improving them. Check back for more soon.

This Author

Graham Jones is the author of The Shock Doctrine of the Left. You can support his work on Patreon, where this article first appeared.

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