Five lessons Extinction Rebellion should (but probably won’t) learn from WikiLeaks

I see that Extinction Rebellion have launched a new project and website called truthteller.life, tag line: ‘whistle-blow for the planet’. Here’s their pitch:

Do you have new, insider information about the Climate and Ecological Crisis?

Do you know anything about: efforts to cover-up environmental destruction, attempts to prevent positive action on climate change and biodiversity loss, the true scale of the threat of ecological breakdown or the fragility of our global systems to climate shock?

However large or small your revelation, TruthTeller is here to help you anonymously disclose what you know.

I like the idea, but something about it sounds familiar… Oh, that’s right, this is exactly what a lesser-known organisation called WikiLeaks has been doing for the past 15 years! Well, I don’t suppose they copyrighted the practice of publishing classified information, and maybe it would be good to have a platform solely dedicated to leaks on environmental issues. However, it would seem worthwhile, or even just polite, to acknowledge the organisations that have blazed a trail before you. Perhaps there are a few things you could learn from them; some lessons from their successes and failures that could be relevant both for your platform and for those passing sensitive information to it? For some reason this does not so far seem to be the case with TruthTeller.

A search of the website turns up zero results for ‘wikileaks’ and I haven’t seen it mentioned anywhere in the various promotional materials XR have put out about it (correct me if I’m wrong!) Maybe somebody told them that they have to present it with a USP in order to improve its chances of success? I suppose it’s possible the people behind it have never heard of WikiLeaks, though this would indicate supreme negligence on their part. Remarkably, searches of the main XR website, facebook page and twitter account also turn up zero results for ‘wikileaks’.

A self-styled ‘legal eagle’ edition of the global newsletter published on January 12th managed to avoid any mention of WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, whose extradition to the US had been refused on January 4th. The judge had validated all the antiquated espionage charges against him, effectively outlawing investigative journalism, but refused to extradite on the grounds of Assange being a suicide risk in an US supermax prison. She then proceeded to deny him bail and send him back to rot in a UK maximum security prison while the Americans figure out how to appeal the decision… For some reason it appears this isn’t considered a relevant subject or even a topic worthy of occasional conversation among ‘rebels’. This mirrors a general lack of interest from the corporate media, even at the most left/liberal end of the spectrum since the initial flurry of interest around the Iraq & Afghanistan ‘war logs’ in 2010 and following the 2016 leaks which revealed corruption in the US Democratic Party surrounding Hillary Clinton’s presidential bid of that year.

It could be replied that WikiLeaks’ main revelations have to do with geopolitics and thus lie outside of XR’s main remit of the climate and extinction crises. However, plenty of WikiLeaks’ documents are concerned with climate change policy, and generally speaking there is no way to extricate these issues from the wider political landscape. The 2003 invasion/occupation of Iraq, for example, was primarily motivated by a desire to control that country’s oil reserves. The ensuing mass death, displacement and torture, much of which exposed by WikiLeaks, was the price ordinary Iraqis were forced to pay for the onward march of the global oil economy. A direct consequence of burning this oil will be the catastrophic heating of the global atmosphere – the price we’re all eventually going to be forced to pay for the insatiable demands of the fossil fuel economy.

More to the point, if your concern really is with ‘telling the truth’ (one of XR’s core demands, lest we forget) then you have to stand with those who do reveal those truths, however uncomfortable they might be, and fight alongside them when the inevitable repression comes down on their heads. And particularly if you’re going to encourage others to risk coming forward with politically important material it’s beholden on you to be honest about the possible consequences of these acts based on the experience of other people in similar circumstances in the recent past. To their credit TruthTeller do note the following:

We will do our utmost to guard your identity but leaking information will always involve risk of detection and no technology is failsafe.

Before sharing information with us, please consider the possibility that you will be caught, what the consequences would be for you and whether you are prepared for them.

If you decide to proceed, follow our guide for how to contact us and take all other necessary precautions to protect yourself.

If your identity does become known, we will help to find you the support you need.

Ultimately we hope that if enough people have the courage to break ranks and reveal what they know, however large or small the revelation, we will reach a tipping point where leakers feel safe to share information that the public have a right to know.

But where is the acknowledgement and warning of potentially life-destroying consequences for leaking or publishing this kind of information, as seen in the cases of Julian Assange, Chelsea Manning and Edward Snowden among others? I understand that they wouldn’t want to discourage potential whistle-blowers, but it seems basic responsibility would demand an up-front discussion of the lessons to be learned from these examples. Since XR aren’t apparently willing to do this I will give it my best shot, based on my familiarity with both movements and general reading around the subject matter. No doubt I will miss some important things, but it’s a start at least, and better than nothing…

Lesson #1 – Don’t trust The Guardian

Really this applies to all of the corporate media which is structurally biased against honest reporting on the consequences of unfettered corporate capitalism, but because of initially favourable reporting and support from high profile journalists such as George Monbiot, The Guardian still mostly gets a free pass in XR circles. The TruthTeller site says that leaks they receive ‘will either be published directly on Extinction Rebellion’s online and social media platforms following a process of analysis and verification, or in partnership with a trusted media outlet with additional resources and expertise’ (my emphasis). WikiLeaks originally trusted corporate outlets like The Guardian, Der Spiegel and The New York Times enough to work with them to release their original leaks. These newspapers profited handsomely from this collaboration but it didn’t take them long to turn on WikiLeaks, perhaps none more viciously than The Guardian. This page pulls together a list of 44 headlines smearing WikiLeaks and Julian Assange in the strongest terms from 2010-2019. All the US government talking points about supposed dangers posed by WikiLeaks were routinely relayed as fact, allegations of sexual misconduct in Sweden taken at face value without right of reply or due process of law, fears of extradition and imprisonment downplayed or dismissed, character assassinations of Assange from every possible angle, a front page fake news story alleging secret meetings with Paul Manafort, a diplomat associated with Donald Trump, and then near total silence after Assange was finally dragged out of the Ecuadorian embassy and held in Belmarsh prison, now for nearly two full years.

It emerged during Assange’s trial that, contrary to the claim that he had cavalierly revealed identifying information about people in dangerous circumstances it was in fact the corporate ‘media partners’ he was working with who wanted to push ahead with publication before proper redaction of names, complaining about how ‘irritated’ they were by Assange’s fastidiousness in ‘[getting] rid of the “bad stuff”‘. Two of these ‘partners’ employed by The Guardian, Luke Harding (author of the fake Manafort story) and David Leigh later wrote a book about WikiLeaks in which they divulged a crucial password which defeated the encryption on masses of information held in files which then became accessible to anybody. It was this act which caused the real danger to informants.

It’s barely worth noting that The Guardian eventually mumbled a quiet objection to Assange’s possible extradition (I won’t even bother linking to it), naturally without apologising for the part they played in justifying his persecution and totally blackening his name in the public eye. The message should be clear: the corporate press, including supposedly left/liberal outlets, will exploit you for a while if you prove to be good for ratings, but challenge the power structures (of which they are an integral part) too strongly or consistently and they will smear you and hang you out to dry. Whistle-blowers should instead seek out non-corporate independent media outlets, which in any case will be more prepared to host information that challenges power, and incidentally help them to grow in stature and importance as a result.

Lesson #2 – Your values will be used against you

In the case of WikiLeaks, those most likely to be supportive of their work are on the left side of the political spectrum, especially in the strong anti-war constituency that has emerged since the War on Terror after 2001. Most often this is a moral objection rooted in strong conceptions of social and political justice, involving anti-racist, anti-imperialist, feminist and, yes, environmentalist struggles. One result of this strong public anti-war sentiment is that governments have resorted to more subtle propaganda techniques to persuade people to support their rapacious wars, culminating in the ‘Responsibility to Protect’ or R2P doctrine whereby ostensible ‘concerns’ about human rights violations, poor treatment of minority groups or women and allegations of atrocities, whether real, fabricated, or even future predictions, are used to justify massive military intervention.

Thus one stated reason for invading Afghanistan was to help women, Libya had to be bombed back to the stone age because pro-Gaddafi forces were planning viagra-fueled mass rapes, Syria had to be attacked because Assad gassed his own people etc etc. Lies to cover up the real motives for military assaults which are always based in machiavellian geopolitics and the control or outright theft of resources, and disingenuous to boot when compared to the cosy relationships with murderous, quasi-medieval dictatorships like Saudi Arabia.

The flipside to these cynical manipulations is that dissidents who oppose these wars and other predatory state behaviour are often targeted using the same tactic. The substance of their opposition is ignored and instead they are personally attacked for crimes, again, real or fabricated, which are most likely to alienate potential allies and supporters of their cause. The tool used to greatest effect against WikiLeaks were the allegations of sexual harrassment (not ‘rape charges’ as was consistently misreported) against Julian Assange made by two women in Sweden. Especially when coupled with the rise of the #MeToo movement, this could be relied upon to damage WikiLeaks’ support in a key demographic, those identifying as feminists, most especially those who had been persuaded that the most important thing was to ‘believe women’ before due process in a court of law. It could also be used to pin Assange down indefinitely for fear of extradition to the US. The account of Nils Melzer, UN Special Rapporteur on Torture makes it totally clear that the allegations were used to fit Assange up from the start, with the story illegally leaked to the press, a statement re-written by police and the first woman refusing to continue with questioning when it was suggested that Assange would be arrested on suspicion of rape, texting a friend that it seemed the police were just interested in ‘getting their hands on him’.

Again, the media played its role, with hardly a single person standing up in defense of Assange or WikiLeaks, facing ridicule or attacks when they did. Media Lens captured the universal, borderline fascist outpouring of toxic hatred & scorn from all corners of the UK press at the time of Assange’s arrest which still makes for stunning reading. Tellingly it wasn’t the work that was attacked, but Assange’s character was smeared from every possible angle, from accusations of arrogance, mental instability, sexual aggression, even down to claims about his personal hygiene – all bogus or exaggerated beyond any basis in reality. Arguably the most damaging attacks came again from the liberal/left extreme of the spectrum, as from the public perception if even these people weren’t defending Assange then he must truly be beyond the pale. As one who used to believe that comedy was one arena where truth could sometimes come out I was struck by the lock-step denunciations, as with Frankie Boyle’s despicable comments:

Julian Assange was dragged out of the Ecuadorian embassy, shouting ‘resist, resist!’ which is quite an ironic thing to shout when you’ve been accused of rape. There are women watching that in Sweden going ‘you’ve changed your fucking tune’. […] Some people say: why didn’t he try to escape? He was in the embassy for seven years, apparently because every time his tunnel got to a certain depth he tried to fuck it. There are other people who say: what Julian Assange is accused of isn’t actually rape, as he’s about to discover in prison. Actually he looked so pale, I think his best chance of survival is if an armed robber’s semen contains vitamin D.’

Or when Miles Jupp concluded on The News Quiz that ‘Julian Assange has backed Trump up, and in these times of mistrust it’s good to know there’s such a thing as brotherly solidarity amongst paranoid sex pests’ – a stunningly dense barrage of lies, libelous defamation, guilt by association and snide violence to the word ‘solidarity’ – which is what he should have been expressing, as the group ‘Women Against Rape’ had the courage to do at the time. For their part the token ‘radicals’ at The Guardian either stayed silent in the case of George Monbiot or delegitimised the fears of extradition (while saying that it would be wrong) and urged Assange to go back to Sweden in the case of Owen Jones (who was also happy to throw accusations of ‘misogyny’ at Assange’s defenders).

The Jupp comments from 2017 are an example of a later smear tactic, associating WikiLeaks and Assange with Donald Trump and alleged hacking of Democratic Party emails with the suggestion of ‘collusion’ with Russia which frustrated Hillary Clinton’s attempt at the US presidency in 2016. Naturally there was no evidence to support the claims of deliberate conspiracy to install Trump at Vladimir Putin’s behest, but associating WikiLeaks with these figures – already bêtes noires for most of the press – was another effective way to steer people away from supporting their work.

XR has so far escaped the worst of these cynical attempts to undermine it, though there have been shots across the bow as when The Guardian asked whether it has a ‘race problem’ or the attempts to show the events of Canning Town tube station as indicative that XR are ‘out of touch’ or hostile to working class interests. Founder Roger Hallam has been falsely accused of antisemitism and ‘relativising‘ the nazi holocaust but nowhere near to the extent that Corbyn’s leadership of the Labour Party was attacked on this basis. (You could write a book on the lessons to be learned from that sorry saga, indeed there was one published in 2019 which itself was promptly denounced as antisemitic!) Time will tell if XR are capable of defending themselves against bad faith attacks of this kind. Responses to state cries of ‘extremism’ have been reasonably strong IMO, but answers to these more insidious claims so far seem tepid and too apologetic or defensive. The way Hallam has been dragged over the coals and effectively hounded out of the movement over a few misunderstood comments is in my view disgraceful and indicative of a prioritisation of enforcing woke pieties over actual effectiveness. See him discuss his own case and the broader issue of countering elite propaganda narratives here:

The point isn’t that XR and other movements have nothing to learn and no internal problems that need addressing, but to recognise that when corporate-owned media and political figures start making these claims it’s not in a spirit of friendly constructive criticism, but rather a diversionary attempt to encourage navel-gazing and make the story about the movement and its failings, real or fabricated, instead of the problems the movement is attempting to draw attention to. The attempt is to divide activists along pre-existing fault lines, driving a wedge on tangential issues to encourage in-fighting and suck energy away from the main unified effort. The phenomenon was called ‘horizontal hostility’ by the feminist and civil rights activist Florynce Kennedy, neatly illustrated in this cartoon:

I first heard about this from the Deep Green Resistance book, written by a radical environmentalist group born in the US which calls for the total, active dismantling of industrial civilisation. Ironically they were soon fighting furiously & losing supporters over the issue of gender politics after being accused of ‘transphobia’, another excellent wedge device we can expect to see more of in the UK.

Lesson #3 – Your movement will be weaponised against others

I can’t actually think of an instance where this has happened with WikiLeaks. You could argue that the 2016 DNC leaks were used by the Trump campaign to ensure victory against Hillary Clinton, but if the Democrats didn’t want to be exposed for corruption then it was their responsibility to not be corrupt. Also, rather than negatively damaging Trump’s rival candidate the leaks could be seen as supportive of Bernie Sanders and the movement behind him, revealing how he had been cheated of the primary nomination by dirty tricks from the dominant corporatist wing of the party.

What I have in mind with this segment is a small but crucial insight into how environmentalism can be co-opted and used to advance the aims of capitalism and imperialism. Fittingly it also comes from diplomatic cables disclosed by WikiLeaks, this time on the subject of the Chagos islands. These are a small group of tropical islands in the Indian ocean formerly ‘owned’ by the British before they were sold to the US and had their population of some 1,500 people forcibly removed during the 1960s to make way for a military base on the main island of Diego Garcia. Tying our geopolitical and environmental threads together, the site was considered too valuable as a staging post for US air assaults in the middle east and a black ops site for CIA rendition, detention and torture, that the Chagossians’ persistent pleas to the UK government for a right to return had to be refused, time and time again on the flimsiest of pretexts. Perhaps the most cynical, underhanded effort was to designate the island group a marine nature reserve in 2010. In the leaked cables this was explicitly discussed as ‘the most effective long-term way to prevent any of the Chagos Islands’ former inhabitants or their descendants from resettling’. Furthermore (my emphasis):

[Colin] Roberts [then Foreign and Commonwealth Office’s (FCO) Director, Overseas Territories] acknowledged that “we need to find a way to get through the various Chagossian lobbies.” He admitted that HMG is “under pressure” from the Chagossians and their advocates to permit resettlement of the “outer islands” of the BIOT. He noted, without providing details, that “there are proposals (for a marine park) that could provide the Chagossians warden jobs” within the BIOT. However, Roberts stated that, according to the HGM,s current thinking on a reserve, there would be “no human footprints” or “Man Fridays” on the BIOT’s uninhabited islands. He asserted that establishing a marine park would, in effect, put paid to resettlement claims of the archipelago’s former residents. Responding to Polcouns’ observation that the advocates of Chagossian resettlement continue to vigorously press their case, Roberts opined that the UK’s “environmental lobby is far more powerful than the Chagossians’ advocates.”

For me this provides a perfect example of how peoples’ best intentions can be exploited to perpetuate horrors on others, and it shows the importance of having a deep understanding of all the factors in play before rushing to intervene in situations you don’t fully understand. The conservation movement has a long history of unwittingly or deliberately playing a supportive role in colonial land grabs and dispossession of indigenous people, which continues to the present day. XR needs to get real about these dangers, with presumably naive ‘rebels’ already sucked in to lending their support to US-backed regime change efforts in Bolivia and Ecuador. Not to mention the dangers of uncritical support for ‘green new deal’ initiatives that include biomass, nuclear, fracking, carbon off-sets based on phoney ‘net zero’ targets and massive expansions of mining for so-called ‘renewable’ technologies. Bolivia has the world’s largest supply of lithium, increasingly important for batteries used in ‘electric cars, computers, and industrial equipment’, a factor widely believed to be a key motive behind the 2019 coup against president Morales which put the country in the hands of anti-indigenous right-wing Christian fascists until the socialist MAS party was re-re-elected last October. Otherwise even benign-sounding ‘solutions’ like reforestation could result in mass ethnic cleansing and dispossession if the land usually suggested for such schemes – pasture rangeland for grazing livestock – is taken by force.

Lesson #4 – Attack the leaders, neutralise the movement

I’ve made a conscious effort in this article to refer to WikiLeaks as a discrete organisation and point to the work they’ve actually done rather than the cooked-up scandals that have engulfed their leadership, but it’s remarkable how hard this has been. This shows how effective the elite strategy is of making it about the people, not about the issues. Past a certain point you just have to engage with the smears to try and repair the damage they are doing to your organisation. Thus energy that was formerly dedicated to exposing the crimes of the powerful is now channeled into campaigns against the persecution of one individual. Even when this is used to remind the public of work that the organisation did in the past, this comes to feel distant and somehow irrelevant in the present moment. Even though I have actively sought out information about WikiLeaks and paid attention to the alternative news sites which covered its findings in the depth they deserved, it can be hard even for me to recall work they have done beyond the ‘greatest hits’ of the DNC leaks, torture revelations and of course the ‘collateral murder’ video which even sometimes gets shown on corporate TV outlets. Somehow it’s much easier to feel the emotional pull and empathy towards one individual facing oppression, and learn all the minutiae of the legal case against them. Not to say that there is no value in doing this of course, that we don’t owe Julian Assange anything for the service he’s provided, or that the legal abuses he has endured aren’t an urgent cause for outrage and resistance in themselves, but if this all gets reduced down to the drama of one person then the state has already won because it holds all the power in the courts and we can (for the most part) only passively observe its crooked deliberations. We more effectively assert our own power by supporting work like this:

Again, key documents exposing these elite tactics have come into the public domain because of WikiLeaks. The Stratfor emails briefly mentioned in the above video (around 8:45) are worth looking into for anyone who wishes to understand the deliberately formulated – not accidental or coincidental – strategies to discredit and neutralise movements that threaten power. Here’s a two-part article drawing conclusions from the leaks with this key passage:

‘Radicals, Idealists, Realists, Opportunists’

While its client work was noteworthy, the formula Duchin created to divide and conquer activist movements — a regurgitation of what he learned while working under the mentorship of Rafael Pagan — has stood the test of time. It is still employed to this day by Stratfor.

Duchin […] created a three-step formula to divide and conquer activists by breaking them up into four subtypes, as described in a 1991 speech delivered to the National Cattleman’s Association titled, “Take an Activist Apart and What Do You Have? And How Do You Deal with Him/Her?”

The subtypes: “radicals, idealists, realists and opportunists.”

Radical activists “want to change the system; have underlying socio/political motives’ and see multinational corporations as ‘inherently evil,’” explained Duchin. “These organizations do not trust the … federal, state and local governments to protect them and to safeguard the environment. They believe, rather, that individuals and local groups should have direct power over industry … I would categorize their principal aims … as social justice and political empowerment.”

The “idealist” is easier to deal with, according to Duchin’s analysis.

“Idealists…want a perfect world…Because of their intrinsic altruism, however, … [they] have a vulnerable point,” he told the audience. “If they can be shown that their position is in opposition to an industry … and cannot be ethically justified, they [will] change their position.”

The two easiest subtypes to join the corporate side of the fight are the “realists” and the “opportunists.”

By definition, an “opportunist” takes the opportunity to side with the powerful for career gain, Duchin explained, and has skin in the game for “visibility, power [and] followers.”

The realist, by contrast, is more complex but the most important piece of the puzzle, says Duchin.

“[Realists are able to] live with trade-offs; willing to work within the system; not interested in radical change; pragmatic. The realists should always receive the highest priority in any strategy dealing with a public policy issue.”

Duchin outlined a corresponding three-step strategy to “deal with” these four activist subtypes. First, isolate the radicals. Second, “cultivate” the idealists and “educate” them into becoming realists. And finally, co-opt the realists into agreeing with industry.

“If your industry can successfully bring about these relationships, the credibility of the radicals will be lost and opportunists can be counted on to share in the final policy solution,” Duchin outlined in closing his speech.’

This formula was used by Stratfor in its attempts to destroy the protest movement against the Alberta tar sands, to smooth the way for oil company financial support of the Sierra Club and to oppose the passage of climate change legislation, among other actions. As for Julian Assange and (then) Bradley Manning?

[Stratfor employee] Bart Mongoven has a simple solution to “isolate” them, as suggested by Duchin’s formula.

“I’m in favor of using whatever trumped up charge is available to get [Assange] and his servers off the streets. And I’d feed that shit head soldier [Bradley Manning] to the first pack of wild dogs I could find,” Mongoven wrote in one email exchange revealed by the “Global Intelligence Files.” “Or perhaps just do to him whatever the Iranians are doing to our sources there.”

Discrediting radicals in leadership roles also has a long and sordid history, as well as the subsequent emphasis and elite support given to those willing to compromise and dilute their principles away to nothing. In recent times the almost ritual political annihilation of Jeremy Corbyn and his replacement by moral eunuchs like Keir Starmer stands out as a key example of this. But questions also have to be asked about the treatment of Roger Hallam, and whether the concerted effort to smear him and kick him out of the movement he founded also follows this pattern of elite co-option and neutralisation (I have no evidence to confirm this has been an undercover psy-op, but it wouldn’t surprise me at all if that turned out to be what has happened).

The 2019 Policy Exchange report, ‘Extremism Rebellion‘ (pdf) can be seen as a Stratfor-esque attempt to damage the standing of key leadership figures within XR, as well as sowing division in the movement among the four ‘sub-types’ of radicals, idealists, realists and opportunists and seeking to portray entirely rational critiques of the global economic system as ‘extreme’ and thus unacceptable for mainstream discourse – possibly even a matter for police investigation. It’s actually quite a useful compendium of statements (some no longer available on the internet) made by the XR founders and other key figures as well as from previous organisations such as Rising Up! and Compassionate Revolution which show how sharp their analysis used to be, and how unafraid they were of naming the problems of capitalism and economic growth and proposing some pretty radical solutions. One article apparently posted to the Rising Up! facebook page even offers a pretty good critique of civilisation, suggesting that we ’embrace [its] collapse, and use the opportunity to create something better’. Tellingly, nowhere in the 76 page report do the two ‘counter-terrorism specialist’ authors offer a reason why these analyses are wrong. Instead they assert that :

the leaders of Extinction Rebellion seek a more subversive agenda, one that that is rooted in the political extremism of anarchism, eco-socialism and radical anti-capitalist environmentalism. (p.5)

with smears of ‘antisemitism’ (p.14) and potential ‘terrorist activity’ (p.55) thrown in for good measure to indicate that these people are not to be trusted. Founders Roger Hallam and Gail Bradbrook and influential figure Jem Bendell each have extensive sections detailing the supposedly outrageous things they’ve said (again not factually disputed), and there are explicit appeals for XR to ‘[change] its current strategy towards engaging in lawful protest whilst acknowledging the liberal democratic order’ (p.6) and speculation on how the movement could be ‘moderated’:

It is conceivable that these figureheads could eventually be side lined by more moderate figures who will seek to move into the mainstream. Under such a scenario, a more radical fringe might breakaway so as to have a free hand to undertake actions, such as those involving drones or hunger strikes. For the moment, the momentum of significant numbers of people joining the campaign’s demonstrations and the vocal support from politicians and celebrities may be incentive enough for the activists to rein in any more extreme elements. (p.70)

Is it a coincidence that a few months after this paper was published and splashed across the media XR were ‘unreservedly denounc[ing]’ Roger Hallam’s comments about the Nazi Holocaust in Die Zeit, before demanding he attend a ‘restorative process‘ that lasted nearly a whole year with Hallam not permitted to publicly associate with XR for all that time? It’s revealing that in their effort (pdf) to oust him from their platform XR Global Support called Hallam a ‘highly divisive figure’ with the ‘controversy’ around his statements and activism allegedly causing ‘damage’ to ‘our work’. He has indeed been forced to ‘breakaway’ [sic] from XR by forming the organisation ‘Burning Pink‘ which is taking a more hardline approach in messaging and actions. Score 1 for the moderates…

The obvious counter-strategy to this trend is to work to educate and push as many members of the movement to the radical end of the spectrum as possible and not tolerate those willing to sell out or capitulate on key issues (or at least not allow them near influential decision-making positions). Stephanie McMillan talked about how best to do this in the following talk for the DGR ‘Earth at Risk’ series (watch from 34:45):

Lesson #5 – Those in power will never tell the truth

One of the things that first excited me about Extinction Rebellion were these paragraphs near the end of the original ‘Declaration of Rebellion‘ in April 2019 which spoke bluntly in terms of the ‘social contract’ between government and citizens:

We, in alignment with our consciences and our reasoning, declare ourselves in rebellion against our Government and the corrupted, inept institutions that threaten our future.

The wilful complicity displayed by our government has shattered meaningful democracy and cast aside the common interest in favour of short-term gain and private profits.

When Government and the law fail to provide any assurance of adequate protection, as well as security for its people’s well-being and the nation’s future, it becomes the right of its citizens to seek redress in order to restore dutiful democracy and to secure the solutions needed to avert catastrophe and protect the future. It becomes not only our right, it becomes our sacred duty to rebel.

We hereby declare the bonds of the social contract to be null and void, which the government has rendered invalid by its continuing failure to act appropriately. We call upon every principled and peaceful citizen to rise with us.

I’ve heard it said that a key moment in the collapse of empires comes when a critical mass of ordinary citizens feel that they’re no longer getting anything in return for their participation in the project, with provision of a basic level of safety and security as the crucial part of the state’s responsibility in the bargain. Why continue to pay taxes to Rome when they can’t even keep the barbarians from the gates? For me this showed that XR were willing to entertain the possibility that the number one priority of the state was never really our safety, but rather the ongoing concentration of wealth and power from the systematic destruction of the living planet – and our lives along with it. (Same as it ever was, as John Dewey put it back in 1931: ‘as long as politics is the shadow cast on society by big business, the attenuation of the shadow will not change the substance’.) It suggested that XR were willing to move beyond the liberal framing of how it’s all one society, and we’re ‘all in it together’, and start building an actual oppositional force, pointing out enemies and declaring war on the whole system rather than accepting the toxic lie that we’re all responsible and complicit and have to ‘be the change we want to see’ etc etc. The removal of this sense of identification – a toxic mimic of location of a sense of identity in the wider group which was adaptive in a context of small-scale tribal societies but totally synthetic in the modern landscape of mega-cities and globalisation – is crucial for the formation of serious resistance movements capable of challenging the death march of the dominant culture.

But this messaging hasn’t been repeated or built upon since the early days of the movement, and the emphasis has moved to one of weak bargaining for governments to ‘tell the truth‘:

Governments worldwide are failing to act, consistently refusing to acknowledge the serious and imminent threat posed by this twin crisis.

Without leadership, citizens, corporations and institutions lack direction and purpose in the fight against this climatic and ecological nightmare that worsens with every passing day. This leaves all of us – and the planet we call home – in a desperate and dangerous position.

That is why “Tell the Truth” is the first of Extinction Rebellion’s three core demands.

We demand that governments everywhere tell the truth by declaring a climate and ecological emergency, working with the public, businesses and other institutions to communicate this urgent need for change. […] Governments have delayed long enough. The advanced state of the twin crises unfolding today is proof that such empty rhetoric is simply not enough to even begin to address the situation we find ourselves in.

The only ‘failure’ here is the inability of bright green environmentalists to break through their denial about the true nature of these institutions. ‘Delay’ and ’empty rhetoric’ is all we will ever get from them because what these crises really call for – complete dismantling of the industrial infrastructure and a return to sane & sustainable ways of living within the global solar budget – is complete anathema to the corporate interests they represent. They don’t ‘lack direction and purpose in the fight’ – they are actively fighting against any restriction on their relentless planet-killing sociopathy. They are our enemies, and we should start treating them accordingly.

WikiLeaks never had this problem, a radicalism which is probably the real reason they were hated not just by the establishment but by reformist liberals still desperately clinging on to their illusions that maybe change was still possible within the system. Implicit in the very structure of the organisation was an understanding that power maintains itself through systematic dishonesty, cover-ups and false PR about its true nature & priorities. Asked by Der Spiegel back in 2010 why he founded WikiLeaks when he could have ‘started a company in Silicon Valley and lived in a home in Palo Alto with a swimming pool’ Assange replied that:

We all only live once. So we are obligated to make good use of the time that we have and to do something that is meaningful and satisfying. This is something that I find meaningful and satisfying. That is my temperament. I enjoy creating systems on a grand scale, and I enjoy helping people who are vulnerable. And I enjoy crushing bastards. So it is enjoyable work.

A world away from the collaborationist mentality on display in the above statement from XR, and a combative attitude which would probably lead to expulsion from the organisation as it stands today. Truth here is being used as a weapon to expose state/corporate criminality, to aid the pursuit of justice for the victims and to deter future abuses for fear that they too will be revealed. It is not imagined as some kind of magic wand, that if those in power start using the Correct Words everybody will change their minds and start living a different way. Plenty of local and even national government bodies have happily declared climate emergencies as XR suggested they do. What has actually changed as a result? HS2, more road building, new coal mines, airport expansions, fossil fuel investments, onshore oil production etc. are all still getting green lights in the UK (all protested by members of XR to their credit, alongside locals), showing yet again that government bodies are more than happy to employ ’empty rhetoric’ if it will take some heat off them and allow them to kick the can down the road for a bit longer.

I originally titled this section ‘speaking truth to power is a waste of time’, but I know that with its efforts at grassroots movement-building with the ‘heading for extinction‘ talk and the still somewhat promising emphasis on citizens assemblies, this isn’t a totally fair summation of XR’s approach. Nonetheless, the Gandhian belief in the power of truth-telling seems oversold and based on a very liberal understanding of social change happening through education and changing ideas. The DGR book is well worth reading on this subject too, summing up the fundamental distinction between liberal and radical approaches thus:

Liberalism also diverges from a radical analysis on the question of the nature of social reality. Liberalism is idealist. This is the belief that reality is a mental activity. Oppression, therefore, consists of attitudes and ideas, and social change happens through rational argument and education. Materialism, in contrast, is the understanding that society is organized by concrete systems of power, not by thoughts and ideas, and that the solution to oppression is to take those systems apart brick by brick.

It might not even just be the powerful who have an aversion to hearing the truth on these matters, but the cognitive dissonance inherent in being forced to live within a system of turbo-charged capitalism means that most people are literally unable to keep these truths in their minds, let alone rearrange their lives according to them (if that were even possible). In the words of Upton Sinclair ‘it is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends upon his not understanding it’ and many are still in that position, at least while the economy remains stable enough to keep the salaries coming… In any case this is where the discussion and organising needs to happen, face to face among peers who can then formulate suitable plan of action to build resistance to this omnicidal culture, and XR do still seem to have this part right. Governments and corporations might never tell the truth, in fact are probably incapable of telling the truth, but that doesn’t mean truths about the climate & ecological crises can’t be used to generate movements to challenge and eventually overthrow a system that ultimately must lie about itself and everything else or fall apart. Noam Chomsky put it this way:

[M]y Quaker friends and colleagues in disrupting illegitimate authority adopt the slogan: “Speak truth to power.” I strongly disagree. The audience is entirely wrong, and the effort hardly more than a form of self-indulgence. It is a waste of time and a pointless pursuit to speak truth to Henry Kissinger, or the CEO of General Motors, or others who exercise power in coercive institutions — truths that they already know well enough, for the most part.

Again, a qualification is in order. Insofar as such people dissociate themselves from their institutional setting and become human beings, moral agents, then they join everyone else. But in their institutional roles, as people who wield power, they are hardly worth addressing, any more than the worst tyrants and criminals, who are also human beings, however terrible their actions.

To speak truth to power is not a particularly honorable vocation. One should seek out an audience that matters — and furthermore (another important qualification), it should not be seen as an audience, but as a community of common concern in which one hopes to participate constructively. We should not be speaking to, but with. That is second nature to any good teacher, and should be to any writer and intellectual as well.

Concluding remarks

I hope these comments will be received in a spirit of constructive criticism, but honestly I doubt if the liberalising momentum or ongoing NGO-isation of XR is amenable to course-correction at this point. I can see the reasoning behind ducking out of taking a stance on controversial issues like WikiLeaks/Assange, the antisemitism witch-hunt, Israel/Palestine, the militarisation of society and other topics – it would be easy to get bogged down in conflicts about subjects that aren’t the main focus of your campaigning, sapping away precious energy from where you could perhaps be most effective. However, in my view this effectively legitimises those controversies, the lack of solidarity making it that much harder for others to speak up without immediately getting their heads bitten off. Of course, that’s exactly the reason the controversies were stirred up in the first place, to make the subjects taboo and those involved not acceptable within polite discourse. On the flip side there’s no reluctance, or penalty for taking political stances that are in line with state/corporate priorities, as with XR’s de-facto support for US-backed regime change ops in South America, or for taking swipes at socialists in the UK, or saying Joe Biden’s election brings ‘hope‘. No controversy there!

I guess my main point is about the futility of siloing yourself off into a single-issue movement. If you don’t stand with others, build connections and common cause, learn from each others’ successes and failures and stick up for one another when the hammer comes down, then not only will your movement be the poorer for it, but it will be that much easier for the powers that be to swat you away when they decide your time has come.

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