Extinction Rebellion and anti-capitalist politics

| 10th May 2019
XR protest shell
Samuel Hayward
XR is anti-capitalist in practice and principle, but demanding that its critique of capitalism be pushed front-and-centre would destroy the movement.


The UK government declared a climate emergency a week after Extinction Rebellion (XR) chose to pack down and clean up its last London site.

XR herald this as a step toward the UK Government fulfilling its first demand – ‘Tell the Truth’.

While it can’t be denied that XR’s bold and creative fortnight of action opened the way for the government’s declaration, it stands on the shoulders of those who have lobbied, marched and locked-on before them. 

Legitimate criticisms

The group has received some legitimate criticisms for its confused public positioning on the police.

But buried deep in its FAQs page is a more sensible and inclusive stance, which recognises “the structural racism in our policing and legal system”, and that “people of colour (PoC) have been more at risk for generations in defence of the environment and their lands […] It is time to for white people to take this risk too so that PoCs, who are threatened by structural racism, don’t have to.”

This kind of language needs to resonate throughout the movement. 

Fair criticisms aside, XR have been the target of people who believe that the imagination and politics of the movement is not sufficient to tackle the root cause of the climate crisis: the pursuit of endless profits on a finite planet.

These critiques fail to recognise two things: first, the current of anti-capitalist practice and principle that runs through the movement; second, that adopting a strong anti-capitalist stance would be movement suicide.

Targeting the culprits

XR has begun to hit out at the culprits of the climate crisis, targeting oil majorsbig banks and investors and the home of capitalism, Canary Wharf.

Promisingly, the Bank of England, which has the ability to print hundreds of billions of pounds for the just transition, was one of XR’s targets during its day of action in the city.

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As XR grows and develops, with offshoots and new affinity groups forming every day, it should be encouraged to continue to draw the media’s attention to our failing economic system. 

Instead of pulling XR apart from the outside, those with strong anti-capitalist motivations should be forming affinity groups within the movement and be organising disruptive actions that target corporations and financial actors.

There is appetite and energy inside XR for this kind of work. If you build it, they will come.

Recreating London

XR reclaimed and reimagined how our public spaces could be used during the International Rebellion.

Spaces that had been reclaimed were subsequently decommercialised, eradicating pricing systems and excluding no one based on their ability to pay up.

This beyond-money system was expressed in every single one of the thousands of free, healthy meals that were served every day by the volunteer-led guerrilla kitchens at each site. 

This value-system, newly instated across the five London sites, echoed a late stage communist society, which, according to Marx, will consist of self-organised communities, free from private property.

The ideological implications of the occupied sites were most significantly felt at Oxford Street, a symbol of consumer capitalism. 

Bypass the lobbyist

The use of the Citizen’s Assembly is a crucial plank in XR’s strategy. The Assembly is composed of a representative sample of the UK’s demographic and is skilled up in climate issues and the deliberative decision-making processes.

It is designed to overcome the UK’s failing democratic institutions, which are beset with partisan conflict and in-party splits, as well as being dogged by industry and corporate lobbyists

As an independent body of citizens, the Assembly is shielded from any attempts by lobbyists to shape discussion and policy.

The function of the group moving into the future will be to design solutions and keep the government on track, as they are pressed by groups like Labour for a Green New Dealto deliver an industrial strategy that is moulded on the tenants of an internationalist Green New Deal

Movement building

By not providing an explicit critique of capitalism, XR has opened the doors to a bipartisan coalition of citizens who feel disenfranchised by a political process that facilitates the exploitation of people and planet.

While this deviates from the approach of explicitly politicised climate groups, XR’s strategy has so far mobilised thousands of people to take part in civil disobedience over consecutive days. 

As many climate organisers on the left will know, mobilising people to actions and demos is notoriously difficult, with those turning up being drawn from the same small circle of people.

To demand that XR adopts an explicit and overarching anti-capitalist narrative, which has previously failed to move enough people to action, is to demand that the movement gives up part of what has made it successful. 

And the successes of the movement are monumental, with climate breakdown hurtling up the news agenda, politicians being forced to the table, tens of thousands of people signing up as new recruits, and radical social and political spaces being established across major London sites for well over week.

Though not explicitly anti-capitalist, XR is challenging the old economic and democratic paradigms that dragged us into this crisis, and, crucially, it is opening up the space for discussions on how we’re going to get ourselves out of it. 

This Author 

Samuel Hayward is the project officer of climate change campaigns at ShareAction

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