Critical Dharma for Thinking Minds
[Editor: The following article is an excellent summary of the strategy of movement extremism, how the far left, like the far right, uses extremist tactics to generate public and media attention, and how that contributes to the extreme polarization in US politics today.]
Beyond Politics or beyond parody?
Last week the offices of Friends of the Earth, Greenpeace, Amnesty International and Christian Aid were all attacked. Pink paint was thrown over their facades, with a new organisation ‘Beyond Politics’ (BP) taking responsibility. What was the motivation behind this? Beyond Politics is apparently the latest project from Extinction Rebellion (XR) co-founder Roger Hallam, who has dedicated recent years to combating the climate emergency.
But to really understand what is going on, we should look at how climate deniers operate.
In Australia, despite rising temperatures, droughts and, most dramatically, huge fires, the government has made support for coal one of its defining features. Prime Minister Scott Morrison once took a piece of varnished coal into parliament, to praise its qualities and ridicule the opposition
Morrison has built on the work of the previous Prime Minister Tony Abbott. Like Trump, their aim was to bait opponents, upsetting them, which meant they would engage with the messaging, spreading it further. Abbott’s trick was to bait the left. This is a common strategy of the Republicans, transplanted from the US to Australia. Conservatives have realised they can elevate their message to national news by saying something provocative on left-leaning platforms like Twitter. Abbott peddled myths about renewable energy, and people would share posts saying ‘It’s NOT true wind and solar cause blackouts or increase power prices’. All it did was reinforce Abbott’s preferred frame.
Extreme messaging gains attention: rebuttals amplify the original message rather than refuting it. Doing something offensive gets people talking and spreads the message. Paint bombing Greenpeace upsets people, so gets them talking and tweeting about Beyond Politics. As Oscar Wilde suggested, there is only one thing worse than being talked about, and that is not being talked about. The reasonable message that respects others does not get attention.
Extinction Rebellion was based on such a strategy. Get attention, perhaps by upsetting others, milk the publicity and build a movement. An early action involved occupying Greenpeace offices, and hunger strikes were instigated outside the headquarters of political parties. XR did some serious good but some actions, such as trying to shut down the tube, caused confusion and even led to violence. An action where by XR protesters glued themselves to Jeremy Corbyn’s garden fence captures what was going on. It is not that Jeremy was the worst politician, but targeting a climate denying MP would have generated less publicity.
Climate change deniers, like Abbott, Morrison and Trump, tend to use concrete examples and simple slogans to get people arguing, tweeting and – above all – engaging. Abbott notoriously would argue that renewable energy would raise the cost of roast lamb. Food examples seem to have a special kind of magic but, above all, it is about offending others.
For example, the Beyond Politics account tweeted, ‘Why give a big NGO £3 per month to sit around eating avocado on toast, when your donation could help us #BringDownTheGovernment for you?’ A message guaranteed to upset anyone who works for or donates to the listed organisations, including Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth. Just think of those people eating toast paid for by your donation, when you could send cash to these brave people who waste no time on avocados but are busy bringing down our government. There will be no need to employ campaigners once citizens’ assemblies run Britain.
So if you are asking why would environmental campaigners attack environmental pressure groups using rather crude Trumpian tactics, the answer is that such Trumpian tactics have worked in the past.
It is less certain that they will keep working. It is difficult to keep the level of outrage high enough to sustain interest. From XR to Beyond Politics, perhaps more extreme messaging is needed to attract attention.
Beyond Politics solution to the climate emergency, of replacing a genocidal government with citizens’ assemblies, is simple but ultimately too simplistic. Political change is a complex process after all. Beyond Politics, so far at least, does not seem to be gaining traction. For example, their crowdfunder with the ambitious aim of funding revolution has attracted just £380 out of the £50 million target. Having said this, it may be this is a deliberate move, setting up a crowd funder with a ridiculous target to generate more publicity and blog posts like this. Likewise, tweeting articles from the Sun newspaper may be due to incompetence, or could be a deliberate move to annoy people like me so we write about them. Beyond Politics, or is it beyond parody?
Yes, the climate crisis is urgent and we must take dramatic action but it needs to be effective action. Roger Hallam has a reputation as the Dominic Cummings of the ecological movement, but outrage is not enough to sustain activism, let alone meaningful change.
This is the politics of the spectacle. You create spectacular events for the media and social media. US film maker and musician Boots Riley argues that spectacles are not sustainable; deep rooted organisation in contrast is necessary. Base building ecosocialism is growing in the US, we could look at the example of the work of Cooperation Jackson, where grassroots community organising is transforming communities. Beyond Politics aims to provoke us; if it provokes us to re-think our strategies and get more serious about political change it will have achieved something.
What next? Will Beyond Politics be throwing paint over Jeremy Corbyn or Caroline Lucas, or barbecuing puppies in Leicester Square, to generate attention? One thing is for sure it is going to need to construct ever more unusual, extreme, and counter-intuitive spectacles to gain our attention.