As Extinction Rebellion tactics ignite controversy, we need to resist the right wing characterisation of all climate activists as middle class, triple-barrel-surnamed hipsters
It’s increasingly impossible to reach anything resembling a consensus on the hot button issues of the day, but if there’s one thing everyone seems to agree on, it’s that the climate activist group du jour Extinction Rebellion are middle class hippies. Sky presenter Carole Malone kicked off a no doubt productive debate on environmentalism by dubbing them a “loopy middle-class doomsday cult”. Her privately educated Oxbridge grad colleague Adam Boulton seems to delight in regularly giving XR spokespeople a good cashiering as “middle class” and “self-indulgent.” The establishment-approved anti-establishment Spiked-cum-BBC panellist and pundit Brendan O’Neill algorithmically generates reams of literature to the effect that they are “waging war on the working class” on the daily. Boris Johnson, a Bullingdon boy and conscious scruffbag, dismissed them as “uncooperative crusties”. The entirety of Twitter, including rehabilitated phone hacker Piers Morgan, scoffed at a clip of young protesters doing an apparently alienatingly middle class dance and/or street theatre routine. Even prominent XR supporter and columnist George Monbiot has openly stated the charge that the group are “too middle class” holds water.
At this point, it’s certainly worth acknowledging – as Monbiot did – the validity of many of the criticisms squared at Extinction Rebellion. Wretched of the Earth, a grassroots climate justice collective of indigeneous and BAME organisations representing diaspora from the Global South, penned an extremely useful open letter to XR critiquing the composition of the movement, its language, and its aims. They outlined how it was too centred around the experience of the white and privileged, all at the expense of the more marginalised and those already suffering the effects of climate breakdown. The letter also calls into question XR’s cavalier approach to getting themselves arrested as an exclusionary tactic, one that should only be undertaken by those who risk very little within a structurally oppressive carceral system, and from a subsequent criminal record.
There have been a number of actions and strategies which would generously be described as ‘tone deaf’ in their optics and intended outcomes, including but not limited to: applauding police arresting their number; sending flowers to Brixton Police Station, where Sean Rigg died in custody; preventing Smithfield Market traders from operating by turning the site into a vegan pop-up; and – at the time of writing – disrupting commuters on London’s tube network, despite electrified public transport evidently being far better for the environment than any feasible alternative for those unable to walk or cycle to work. With that said, the baffling misguidedness of the latter is no way excuses the entirely disturbing footage circulating of protesters being pulled from a train carriage and then attacked by a group of furious passengers. That the incident has provoked round condemnation of XR on social media from across the political spectrum, including Green MEP Alexandra Phillips, for seeming to alienate the working class commuter from the cause speaks to a greater tension at play.
This might be a less troubling if it was merely being asserted that people were being turned off by XR, specifically, as an individual organisation, but the clear implication is that the tide of public opinion will turn against climate justice entirely, should they fail. The foregrounding of XR at the centre of the cause is a problem partly of their own making (one which has, understandably, irked many whose pre-existing efforts, voices and concerns have been subsequently drowned out), but also must be seen as part of a concerted effort by political actors with vested interests to dismiss the climate activist movement, as a whole, as ‘middle class’ frivolity.
Dr Catherine Happer, a sociology lecturer at the University of Glasgow, writes convincingly of an empirical observation within her research that “among lower economic groups, (there is) a marked tendency to use distancing terminology such as ‘middle class tree-huggers’ and ‘green lobby’. This is fed by a mainstream media that positions environmentalism as the privilege of the wealthy who don’t need to worry about bread and butter issues.”
It’s easy to conjure all sorts of egregiously tin-eared, tie-dye sporting, triple-barrel surnamed climate activist phantoms, hailing from the shires’ most landed gentries, going on jollies to the city to lecture the put-upon ‘normal person’ about reducing their electricity bills by buying a great big Aga, or cutting out meat by growing their own vegetables in the non-existent gardens of rented box flats, or swapping out the car and replacing it with a jaunty five hour cycle to their precarious employment. In this conception, the middle class bogeyman uses climate activism as a means to cloak their snobbery in sanctimony. Not only do they disapprove of anyone who doesn’t own a fabulously green country manor, but they justify flaunting their wealth with apparent moral superiority, disapprovingly tut-tutting at anyone who would contribute to the planet’s supposed demise among muck, filth, and pollutants. This is who Brendan O’Neill is trying to invoke when he describes climate activism as ‘class war’. Even if we accept that many different versions of this caricature does exist in various forms – and of course, they certainly do – we need to resist attempts to characterise the movement in their image.
“The more climate activism is codified as middle class and bourgeoisie, the more its composition inevitably will be. It’s self-fulfilling”
I have written elsewhere on the right wing’s often successful tactic of achieving consensus against policy, proposals or causes which might otherwise threaten their position by depicting them as the preserve of a self-interested ‘middle class’. It would be hugely beneficial for those in power for the mission of climate justice to be siloed into a non-concern held by dislikeable, day-tripping, hemp-huffing, myopically-middle class poshos. The clear intent is to sow a negative solidarity to obscure the most pressing competing class interests; between the majority of the world’s population and the grotesque concentration of capital distributed among a pitiful few.
There is something immensely frustrating about the sheer effectiveness of this tactic. The more climate activism is codified as middle class and bourgeoisie, the more its composition inevitably will be. It’s self-fulfilling. Hettie O’Brien spoke to XR activists for an illuminating article in the New Statesman, in which a co-founder of the Stoke-on-Trent spoke frankly about the difficulty of attracting working class members, and illustrated this circular problem neatly: “If we continue to only get people from a certain social background, then people from… outside will come in, and even if there’s nothing explicit going on, they’ll feel unwelcome.”
The same holds true of various sustainable and green products, services, and foodstuffs. While they are seen as coveted status symbols for the middle class, as many invariably are, they will continue to come at an added premium, necessarily reducing their accessibility to those less financially well-off. When you’re being maligned for your personal consumption choices, while also feeling excluded from being able to actually change them, it’s not difficult to see where justified class resent might arise.
Make no mistake: climate justice is a class issue. It is already ravaging communities in the Global South, and will continue to affect those bearing the brunt of structural oppression at every level up, until – and far before – it reaches the richest. The beneficiaries of a disjointed and fractured climate justice movement are those who find its message most troublesome; that dominant capitalist structures are most responsible and need imminent dismantling.
This divide and rule argument says the middle classes are trying to put you out of work by shutting your greenhouse gas farting industry down, that they want to stop you going on that holiday you spent all year saving for, that they want to dash your smartphone on the floor, snatch the burger out of your hand and force-feed you and your family a diet of expensive organic mulch which will turn every weekly shop into a gauntlet of bankruptcy or starvation. This argument says that the only action that can be taken is to make the ordinary person suffer, and that this is what the pernicious middle class hippy wants. It’s all about eliding responsibility and culpability for those who could actually make significant change.
“Make no mistake: climate justice is a class issue”
We need to make sustainability accessible to all, rather than have it appear an exclusionary, conscious lifestyle choice, and we can achieve this through a radical and transformative policy platform which fundamentally alters this country’s infrastructure. It needs to encompass – though is not limited to – the creation of green jobs, subsidies for green producers and services, a massive extension of public transport, an overhaul of our energy companies, and huge effort to replenish our housing stock with sustainable homes. This is, of course, an enormous undertaking, but one which must be undertaken, and one which requires investment, taxation and the re-acquisition of public services from private hands. It’s not hard to identify whose interests all of these things run counter to.
This is not to preclude or exempt the methods, actions, and hierarchies of XR from entirely necessary class critique, but we must acknowledge our shared cross-class interests in preventing further climate breakdown, instead of turning on one another. Like them or not, they have achieved enough momentum to warrant a nakedly authoritarian response from the state – a state which would love to have you believe it was XR who are the self-serving careerists acting in their own class interests, ahead of themselves. It’s they who we should focus our ire on, not the fabled perma-gap year “crusty” doing avant-garde unicycling-as-performance art in Trafalgar Square, however annoying they may be. It’s a fallacy I’m guilty of buying into myself. I’ve noticed a sneering voice in my own head towards these apparently offensively-middle class protesters. I don’t like it. It absolves my inertia, a convenient lie which manages to position those doing something as somehow doing less than nothing at all.