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We need to have a talk about capitalism in our struggle for climate justice

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Photo: Brent Patterson

This summer, I had the opportunity to participate in an Extinction Rebellion (XR) march from Hackney Downs to London Fields in east London, as well as to visit the tomb of Karl Marx in Highgate Cemetery in north London.

A little compare and contrast reflection is bound to happen.

First of all, I'm looking forward to seeing what happens with the disruption XR is planning in London and other cities around the world this coming October 7 to 19.

It reportedly will be larger in scale than the disruption that took place this past April. That's when about 10,000 people occupied four sites (including Parliament Square and Piccadilly Circus) in London for 11 days resulting in more than 1,150 arrests.

XR Berlin says, "Politics and conventional approaches to political engagement such as voting, lobbying, petitions and demonstrations fail to address this crisis. History shows us a promising, democratic means to bring about social change: nonviolent, civil disobedience."

That's a refreshing departure from the traditional NGO approach of campaigns based on symbolic protests and e-petitions targeted at indifferent politicians.

But our struggle needs to go further than that.

Last December, XR activists Cameron Joshi and Boden Franklin wrote, "So far, the [Extinction Rebellion] movement hasn't focused on neo-colonialism and capitalism as the engines of climate breakdown, and it has actively chosen to disassociate from Leftist thought."

They highlighted, "Anti-capitalism, decolonization and anti-oppression work cannot be an afterthought -- shoved into a five-minute window between speeches or tucked away at the end of an action."

And then this past May, The Wretched of the Earth wrote in an open letter, "We commend the energy and enthusiasm XR has brought to the environmental movement, and it brings us hope to see so many people willing to take action."

The grassroots collective continued, "The strategy of XR, with the primary tactic of being arrested, is a valid one -- but it needs to be underlined by an ongoing analysis of privilege as well as the reality of police and state violence."

It adds, "XR participants should be able to use their privilege to risk arrest, whilst at the same time highlighting the racialised nature of policing."

The amount of friendly chatting between XR organizers and the police that I witnessed in east London suggests that analysis is still lacking.

The Wretched of the Earth letter then notes, "Though some of this analysis has started to happen, until it becomes central to XR's organising it is not sufficient. To address climate change and its roots in inequity and domination, a diversity and plurality of tactics and communities will be needed to co-create the transformative change necessary."


One of the signatories of The Wretched of the Earth letter this past spring was the UK-based direct action network Reclaim the Power.

When I was at the XR gathering at London Fields earlier this month, a Reclaim the Power activist had set up an information table to share news about their Power Beyond Borders camp this coming July 26 to 31 in England.

The camp will be a base for actions targeting both new fossil fuel infrastructure and the hostile environment against people of colour, migrants, and the Global South.

The Reclaim the Power website notes that the group's aim is "to build a broad based movement, working in solidarity with frontline communities to effectively confront environmentally destructive industries and the social and economic forces driving climate change."

More explicitly, it says, "We need to talk about capitalism."

It further specifies, "Climate change and environmental collapse are the products of an economic system based on infinite growth on a planet of finite resources, on colonial plundering and on the many inequalities of a class based system. The fight for climate justice cannot be removed from this social and economic context."

When I asked the Reclaim the Power activist how XR was on migrant justice issues, he politely replied they say the right things, but that more is needed than that.

Earlier this month, Richard Walton, the former Scotland Yard head of counter-terrorism, made newspaper headlines when he said the police must stop their "soft touch" approach toward Extinction Rebellion and recognize that the group has a "subversive" agenda rooted in the "political extremism of anarchism."

An XR activist who had been arrested at the Waterloo Bridge occupation replied in The Guardian, "To my mind, anarchists are anti-government, are destructive in their aims, and are not afraid to use violence. We are none of those things…"

That's a deeply flawed reading of anarchism. If you don't believe me, just read self-identified anarchist Noam Chomsky's description of anarchism

More officially, an XR spokesperson replied, "Climate breakdown and ecological collapse threatens us all, regardless of political persuasion, so it's time to set aside differences and work together to find a way through this."

Perhaps that's true of "political persuasion," but not class. We don't even need Marx to tell us that, we can just look to the real estate market and a UN diplomat.

The Guardian has already reported that, "A pattern of climate-driven gentrification is taking hold across the U.S., as those who are able to retreat from floods, storms, heatwaves and wildfires shift to safer areas, bringing soaring property and rental values with them."

And now the UN special rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights Philip Alston has introduced us to the concept of climate apartheid.

Alston recently warned, "An over-reliance on the private sector could lead to a climate apartheid scenario in which the wealthy pay to escape overheating, hunger, and conflict, while the rest of the world is left to suffer."

That's a class analysis that gets lost in a "neither left, nor right" approach.

This past January, XR co-founder Stuart Basden wrote, "the climate's breakdown is a symptom of a toxic system" of colonialism, white supremacy, patriarchy, Eurocentrism, hetero-sexism/heteronormativity, class hierarchy, and other oppressions.

As climate breakdown intensifies and lessons are learned through experiential action and reflection, that view may one day become an organizing principle rooted in the work of mainstream NGOs, Extinction Rebellion, and various other climate justice groups.

Brent Patterson is a political activist and writer.

Photo: Brent Patterson

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