The life of Extinction Rebellion

| 22nd April 2019
The lifelike DNA, structure and story of Extinction Rebellion can be used to revive socialist organisation.

A compelling story is vital because it's the initial emotional hook that takes someone from interest to feeling motivated to act.

I have described the organising model used by Extinction Rebellion in terms of DNA (explicit organisational structure), replication (mass training), and catalysts (public direct action) in this article published with The Ecologist.

You can read the first part of this series at The Ecologist

Although these three aspects are usefully seen as separate moments in a cyclical process, it's necessary that the latter two be fully integrated into the DNA itself, given that our DNA has to express everything that we want to be reproduced as we grow.  

In this post, I'm going to focus on some of the details of putting together a DNA for our hypothetical base-building organisation Socialist Rebellion.

Dogma

As in the previous post, you could take any aspect of what follows alone and it could help to tighten up an organisation's growth, but really it is how each of them work together that produces the kind of explosive results we've seen in Extinction Rebellion (XR). 

It's important that we contextualise this in terms of existing organising, so let's take two examples of recent base-building groups aiming at mass movement.

In November 2018, a conference of communist parties from across the US came together to form a new base-building organisation called Marxist Center.

Simultaneously, over the past year, a growing group of US-wide radical municipal projects has been coming together as Symbiosis, building towards their first congress in September 2019. You can read articles from the Symbiosis Research Collective at The Ecologist

Both seem to be animated by a desire to move past old dogmas and ideological divides, focusing around the need to organise at a grassroots level to revitalise working class struggle.

Intellectual

At Marxist Center, two debates occurred that reflect age old conflicts on the left: what is the appropriate organisational form, and how should it relate to the wider public.

The main choice was between the traditional idea of hierarchical party building, and the alternative of 'existing as a network of autonomous groups in a loose federation, acting as catalyzers in struggles'.

The ultimate consensus drew towards the former, whereas Symbiosis appears to lean towards the latter, although what comes out of the congress remains to be seen. 

What is interesting about the DNA approach used by Extinction Rebellion and set out in the last post, is that it can be used to straddle both of these: a singular organisation, unified in strategy and action, and yet composed of a network of autonomous parts acting as catalysers in struggles.

We can avoid some of the problems of a intellectual vanguard, whilst maintaining its benefits, allowing us to produce what Rodrigo Nunes calls 'vanguard functions' without a formal rigid leadership. I'm not necessarily saying that XR always functions in this way, but that it is a potential enabled by the DNA approach.

Front-loading

The basics of XR's DNA can be seen on its website, here. which also demonstrates its three key aspects. This is only the DNA in short, but a more thorough version will be needed for other purposes such as training.

Firstly there's the Story, that is the shared narrative and social analysis that you are creating unity around; then there's the Strategy, which is the actions you are taking both immediately and over the long term; and there's the Structure, which is the way in which you organise and make decisions. 

Leftist organisations frequently fail to make all three of these aspects clear. Their Story will either not be stated, or will presuppose specific background knowledge and familiarity with leftist terminology, at the expense of making any accessible, vivid and emotive case to non-leftists, or even to newly radicalised leftists still feeling their way around.

The Strategy will either be veiled behind tons of impenetrable theory you'll only find out about much later, or maybe hasn't even been thought about at all.

The Structure will either be informal and understood only after a long period of interaction with the organisation, or will be formalised but available to only a few insiders, buried amongst process documentation on someone's hard drive. We'll look at the Story aspect here, and the latter two in the following posts.
  
XR's Story 

A compelling story is vital because it's the initial emotional hook that takes someone from interest to feeling motivated to act.

Extinction Rebellion has clearly hit on a strongly emotive story, indeed to the extent that some have felt uncomfortable with the use of apocalyptic language to mobilise people.

Either way, it's clearly been very effective. It does this by always considering the listener's emotions, rationality, and embodiment - or if you prefer their heart, their mind, and their hands.

We do need facts and statistics and argumentation to engage us rationally, but it's important that you also engage the listener emotionally through your language and imagery, through fostering empathy with you and others affected.

You also need to provide mental models of other people who have taken action for the first time, and you need to get people doing things themselves.

Stir

Balancing these three aspects of mind, heart and hands together is far more likely to inspire action than the dry, theoretical statements you tend to see written by leftist organisations. 

While it can be a challenge writing a Story, this can be broken down sequentially. The 'public narrative' system developed by Marshall Ganz is a very useful tool for this, whether you're creating a personal story, an organisational story or a political story.

In all cases, a simple narrative can be constructed in a three act structure: Challenge -> Choice -> Outcome. 

The central emotive framing device in XR's Story is clearly extinction, an extremely vivid and emotive image. There's the Challengeof climate change and the inaction of elites; the Choice to either wait around or take matters into your own hands; the possible Outcomes of extinction or survival.

XR's presentations are designed precisely to stir people's emotions about impending extinction, alongside teaching them facts and figures about climate change, and making clear the necessity and urgency of each of us acting to bring about a different outcome.

Support

For an example of how XR communicates this in their general presentations, see the first half of this talk they've given hundreds of times up and down the country over the past year to build up to their Rebellion Week.

The first half of the video looks at the broader global story, the second half starting at 49:20 begins with the organisation's story, and then moves into aspects of Strategy and Structure that we will look at in later posts.

As well as facts and figures, there are readings of personal narratives from survivors of famines and hurricanes, the lead speaker weaving in mentions of their own personal history and relationships and experiences, and giving a sense of their own vulnerability.

These aren't surface aspects which can simply be removed to get to the meat of the content, its a hugely important part of building support. They help to move abstract concepts into seeming much more real 

Our Story

We need to try to create as powerful a hook for our hypothetical Socialist Rebellion organisation. Again, think Challenge > Choice > Outcome.

Start with an acknowledgement of a common shared problem motivating us, then note the key choices we have to make. I'll mention two here I think are particularly important. Vividly describe the world we will leave behind if we don't act, versus if we do. For a short example:

Challenge: We live in a world where we have to struggle simply to pay for rent and bills and food, and have little control over our lives and communities. Many people suffer, more economic collapses are coming and will repeat cyclically, and all but the very richest risk homelessness, poverty, and unbearable precarity. 

Choice I: We have a choice of either waiting around and electing more politicians who will either screw us over or be screwed over themselves; or we could act to build our own power that gets to dictate the rules itself, our own real democracy.

Choice II: Secondly, we have to choose whether that real democracy is one that only helps those on our small island, simply making us the new rulers over the misery of others, or if we commit to helping every human being.

Outcome: We're left with either an outcome of misery for many (barbarism) or prosperity for all (socialism).

Narrative

As before, combine this with some shocking figures to engage the mind (e.g. half of England is owned by 1 percent of the population, or more land is used for golf courses than housing).

Weave in personal narratives from workers in different historical and geographical situations and prompt people to consider their own friends and families and communities, to engage the heart. 

And give examples of successful actions like the Glasgow Rent Strikes, or the struggle for the eight hour day - and hopefully, eventually, examples from your own organisation - along with providing next steps to get organised, to engage the hands.

If we were to conduct XR-esque public presentations, we could likewise include emotive stories about our own individual work or housing situations.

Politics

The public narrative system mentioned above also includes a 'Story of Self' aspect, where you use the Challenge > Choice > Outcome framework to set out your own history. 

The personal struggles you've been through, how you came to be in a position where you are giving talks and trainings on behalf of a socialist organisation, and how it changed your life.

It is this that provides people with that mental model of taking action for the first time, and helps to break the notion of you being an abstract 'socialist' or 'activist', turning you into a real, complex and relatable human being. 

If our aim is to be relatable in order to get our foot in the door, we must be careful to construct our DNA, our presentations, and our person-to-person agitations so that they do not assume specific background knowledge of our politics.    

Language

This means keeping language accessible. Firstly, we should try to avoid overly niche or intellectual terminology, and complicated sentence structures. But also it should tap into some existing discourses that will be broadly familiar and positively felt.

This isn't about pandering or pretending you're less radical than you are, its about presenting radical ideas in a way which makes the most sense to people.

In my experience, this accessibility is often done quite successfully by many housing and community groups, who are often run by anarchists and communists, but who avoid presenting those politics explicitly.

However, these localised groups very rarely situate this within a historical and analytical metanarrative, as you would find in an explicitly Marxist group. Balancing the two in an accessible metanarrative is the aim.

XR sometimes does this quite successfully, using neutral language yet maintaining a space for radical interpretation. And then in other cases it just goes fully liberal, such as in the Declaration of Rebellion which glowingly quotes liberal political philosophers and talks about 'restoring dutiful democracy' as though such had ever previously existed. 

Theoretical

We can get around this slide into liberalism by on the one hand avoiding concepts that require radical political knowledge, but by still setting out broadly what we mean by those concepts.

For example, rather than saying 'we are communists' you might say 'we believe in direct control of our communities and workplaces by people who use them', or 'we believe that land and property should be owned in commons and not held by individual rich people' etc. 

I don't want to be too specific in seeming to proscribe particular words however, as this will be an issue for different organisations to approach in their own way in relation to their own needs and context.

And it may be that I'm wrong, and that a DNA front-loaded with phrases like 'revolutionary Marxist communists' could explode: I would love it to happen. Just as a general rule though, the more niche and technical you make your terminology, the more this will restrict its popular uptake. 

It's not necessarily the case that you have to choose between the two approaches however, between either theoretically specific language or a popular idiom.

Educate

Indeed, an organisation could actually do both separately. An umbrella group or party like Symbiosis or Marxist Centre could retain their function as intense revolutionary cadres with theoretical rigor, but could also design and launch a new DNA-based mass platform using simplified language.

Their role could be the maintenance of the DNA and of any centralised aspects like websites, as well as providing the democratic forum for adjusting  the DNA over time.

This would certainly be an answer to the debate which occurred at Marxist Center about using language which is alienating to the working class: instead of closing the door to some rather than others, why not provide multiple doors?

This might seem superficially like having a 'front' organisation, but its important to re-iterate: you are not presenting a different ideology to ensnare people as a front organisation does, you are presenting the same ideology in more accessible terms.

Either way, my personal belief is that right now we should be creating a lot more organisations that bring people in and then educate them once you've got them through the door, rather than pushing them away at the first page of the website.    

Workshop

It can be tough to predict in advance what will work, and often experimentation and failure is required before landing on something that clicks.

It's worth bearing in mind that XR is not the first organisation that the core organisers had been involved in using these formulas, merely the first one that has really blown up.

Again, like with natural evolution, you throw new organisms into the mix, some will die and some will thrive. Rather than spending years trying work out the perfect program and never acting, create something imperfect, try it out, fail, and adapt.

I'm going to attempt to put together some example DNA documentation as these posts come together and will attach them to the final one in the series.

In the meantime however, follow the links for existing documents used by RisingUp, the parent/predecessor group to XR. Particularly note the DNA overviews and the training documents section which are most relevant to what we've been talking about.

I've also linked the crib sheet used for XR induction sessions, and a public narrative workshop guide. I highly encourage you to take these documents, redesign and adjust them to fit your organisation (or idea for an organisation), and try them out. 

The next part will deal with Strategy, and the final part will be on Structure, so keep your eyes peeled.

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.

You can read the first part of this series at The Ecologist

Help us keep The Ecologist working for the planet

The Ecologist website is a free service, published by The Resurgence Trust, a UK-based educational charity. We work hard - with a small budget and tiny editorial team - to bring you the wide-ranging, independent journalism we know you value and enjoy, but we need your help. Please make a donation to support The Ecologist platform. Thank you!

Donate to us here