tl:dr Almost 40 people were treated as ego-fodder by an organisation that is deader than it realises. Opportunities for connection and innovation were, of course, missed. We’re toast
Diggers? Diggers, alluding to Gerry Winstanley, is a retronym for “Deluded Inane Gibberish Gets Extinction Rebellion Sarcasmed”
The wife told me not to go. For once she was wrong (this is newsworthy). I had a whale of a time and gathered material for this blog post and “Hudson’s three laws of movement organisation drain-circling” (see below).
The event was one of the last legs of the “National Strategy Tour” of Extinction Rebellion (you may remember them from 2019). It was every bit as diabolically bad as previous experiences of XR had led me to expect (see below) but in interesting ways. What follows is a more or less chronological account of the 90 minutes I spent there (the whole thing was a THREE HOUR event, but unlike capitalists and economists, I believe there are in fact limits, and these limits should be respected, so I law of two feeted it at half time).
What was interesting is that numbers – 38 people, slightly more female than male, mostly young with a smattering of coffin-dodgers and almost entirely white – were clearly higher than the organisers had expected. They’d booked a small ground floor room at the Fiends Meeting House, one that comfortably sits no more than 20. Also, the amount of food they bought suggests they thought they’d have the three speakers (and boy did they speak – I wouldn’t call them organisers) and maybe 15 punters. I would have guessed the same, given that it was terribly advertised – not even on the XR Manchester website, which seems not to have been updated since last April or so. Didn’t see anything on Twitter or Facebook or the bulletins of other outfits like Friends of the Earth (we will come back to this question of how XR seems to see itself in relation to other groups later). But nope, 30 at 6pm, and a few stragglers.
We milled around in the foyer for a good thirty minutes. There was no announcement to explain the delay in the start time, nor particular encouragement to speak to anyone we didn’t already know (I had a good chat with a young woman who shares a name with a Doctor Who companion though). Eventually we were told that we were to be in a bigger upstairs room.
We then sat in rows facing a powerpoint (my misgivings were growing), not being told when we would start. Some people talked to the person next to each other, others were nosedown in their phones.
Eventually they did that not-bad thing of sticking their arms in the air, others followed and silence fell.
There was no “thank you for coming”, no effort to find out where folks had travelled from, or “who was in the room.” There was a “talk to the person next to you” so-called check-in. I talked to a guy who I thought might be a cop, but turned out to be SWP. And to someone else.
The XRers didn’t seem to know or care that “turn to the person next to you” means folks are likely to be talking to the person they came with, and that a superior variant is “turn to the person behind/in front of you.” So it goes.
After that perfunctory and tokenistic exercise…
BAM! Straight into being talked at for 45 minutes.
No effort to find out who had read the strategy (I’d skimmed it). No effort to tell people the shape of the evening or what they should expect, or what was expected of them.. No effort to tell people where the toilets and fire exits were. No effort to orient anyone to anything.
No, the most important thinking was for the three people at the front of the room, the Experts From HQ, to talk at us. So they did.
Apparently we should be optimistic because this strategy document is the shortest one, delivered closest to deadline,, and didn’t cook the strategy team.
Oh, we’re back to the moronic “3.5%” meme from 2019. As if Hong Kong didn’t prove otherwise. FFS.
There may have been some undercover police in the room, but there certainly weren’t any irony police, because nobody performed an arrest when one off the speakers intoned “If we don’t tend to our relationships with each other, this isn’t going to work.” The design and execution of the meeting was already showing that there was absolutely no tending of relationships here, just the same old sage-on-the-stage, info deficit ego-foddering.
We then got the “strategy.” You can read it here, and you can read a long article in the Ecologist which basically misses the point here.
This is not a strategy. A strategy examines the terrain on which a fight is being fought, the disposition of the opponent’s forces, its likely battle order tactics, its weak points, the battle readiness of your own side (resources, personnel, weak points), drawing on lessons learned. It ISN’T just a worthy shopping list of nice-to-haves.
It’s a sign of everyone’s need to believe six impossible things after breakfast that nobody guffawed when we were told “we recognise the current reality and where we’re at.”
It is akin to the Levelling Up White Paper, with its 12 missions (8 cribbed from Theresa May’s Industrial Strategy, killed off last March) and lifted from wikipedia.
Then we had someone literally reading out what was on the powerpoint (a dreadful turgid cringe-worthy slide called “Act Now”) Perhaps they didn’t trust any audience member not to laugh while reading it out?
That text talks about “common sense.” If Gramsci were here he’d be trying to explain the difference between common sense and good sense. If Gramsci were here he’d be slashing his wrists right about now.
Apparently Citizens’ Assemblies are “the tool.” Not “a potentially useful tool within a suite of activities.” Nope, they are THE tool. Nowt reductive or magical-thinking-y there then…
On and on it went. “Growth is mass mobilisation for us.”
Yes, we know. How’s that working out for you (spoilers – not well – even they admit “we’ve got lower numbers of people” – but just blame covid…)
Then we got treated to a graph. And I guessed it before it went up – the Bill Moyer Action Plan (more about this later in this interminable blog post).
According to one very sweary (bid for authenticity) speaker, XR is “teetering on the edge of success.”
Reader, I am not making this up.
Then we are told, by one of the three people who have been talking at us for half an hour and saying how important everyone’s voices are that “you guys have a tendency to be performative… when we talk about people we need to not be centering ourselves.”
Reader, I swear to you on a stack of Roger Hallam tracts, I am not making this up.
[Another time I will write about guilty middle-class white people liking a bit of flagellation, liking to be epater-ed for the purification and atonement tokens. But not today.]
Apparently we need to put ourselves in uncomfortable situations. But this seems not to apply to those at the front of the room, who have travelled around the country laying down their law.
What’s that they say about Johnson and his cronies – “one rule for them…”?
Because now we come to the crux…”come rebellion time” – everyone has to be in London for a Hyde-ing to nothing. They allude to another leg of the tour when people pushed back and were told not to say no. Because, you know, radical democracy and all that (btw, they alluded to Manchester having the youngest crowd – have the other places been mostly the grey beards? Who knows or cares. What was striking was how few of the Manchester usual suspects were present).
Then a speaker said “we have creativity.” Well, you have good graphic designers (though it’s getting a bit same-y. But you don’t have creativity when it comes to designing and executing events. This is the same recycled and ultimately disempowering rubbish that it ever was, that I’ve seen again and again (see below)
And again, they call themselves a movement rather than a movement organisation.
Why do I bang on about this? Surely it’s splitting hairs? No.
Movement or movement organisation?
When XR refers to itself as a movement, it insults the other groups – old and new, big and small – that are active. It says they don’t count, unless they rebrand as XR offshoots. But it also blinds itself to the benefit IT could get from engaging with these groups. So, it didn’t, as far as I can tell ask any of the other groups in Manchester to publicise its event. If it had, it might have gotten a bigger and more diverse turn-out. It might have done something USEFUL. It would have had to allow those groups to say a bit about themselves, and maybe that was the sticking point? Or maybe XR are still stuck in early 2019 when they were so Big and Sexy that nobody else seemed to matter? Or maybe they simply don’t have the resources at all??
Back to movement/movement organisation. Perhaps it is that “movement organisation” doesn’t sound as impressive, I guess, and mostly these people are trying to pull a puffer fish tactic, for their own (short-term) benefit. So it goes.
One of the revolutionary and radical things folks were asked to do was “paint the symbol” from March. MCC graffiti teams – you have been warned to charge up your water cannons.
Then there’s more reheated Bill Moyer, with “affinity groups” as “our mojo”. Well, your mojo has gone all Bojo.
April is going to be about “how we can cause the most economic damage ever.” Uh, okay.
It will be a “single action/target” with an “array of risk levels.”
At this point I was reminded of another event I attended in the Friends Meeting House, in 2007 or 2008, after one of the climate camps. In both cases, there were people at the front exhorting, cajoling, “informing” to a bunch of people sat in rows. From sixty feet up the events would be identical, and indistinguishable from, well, any meeting, by any organisation, about anything. So much for creativity and democracy.
By now I was losing the will to live. It was 1925, and one of the speakers came out with that tired old line about “the definition of madness is doing the same thing and expecting a different result.”
Definitely not any irony police present.
They then went on to say “Maybe it [April] will change things if we’re lucky. Who knows?”
That’s a very telling moment to slip out. Magical thinking does that, in Freudian slips.
Then the buzzword salad of community resilience, succession planning and the admission that even the media team hasn’t been able to recruit and retain (see below). And that after April, with prison and burnout, things look bleak
By this time, 7.30pm, I had had enough in every sense. The person I had been trying to have a conversation about XR’s failings with (but meeting ‘diversity of tactics/covid’ as diversions and deflections) seemed more concerned by the number of F-bombs from one of the speakers than the format of the event. I guess when you’re a goldfish, it’s hard to see the water, innit?
I left at the 10 minute break (apparently there was going to be a Q&A afterwards), overhearing very uncomplimentary things about the attendees in the Scottish events as I left.
Okay, so, short-term predictions and then further observations.
The police will not be in a mood to go nicely. They are bruised by their failures over Partygate. Morale will be low in the aftermath of Sarah Everard, Charing Cross Whatsapp etc. Within the XR folks in April there will be various undercovers/provocateurs of various status, providing, pretexts for kettling and more (and don’t forget, this will probably be taking place under the latest draconian legislation.
Their numbers will be high, while XR numbers will be tiny. If it is as many as 5 thousand I will be surprised. – Very few from outside London. Crushingly white. The usual teens and twenty somethings and retired folks. Lots of non-violent action (glueing yourself to things) and lots of away-from-the-cameras “responses” to that by police.
Rest of “movement” won’t be there – will be gearing up for fuel poverty stuff etc.
Media – Largely sneering.
Everyone – Easter.
This will be the final bounce of the cat, the final twitch of the corpse.
Let’s see if I am wrong. It’s an empirical question.
I will divide this into three sectionos
- Psych experiments
- Hudson’s rules of movement organisation drain-circling
- Those XR meetings in Manchester
In a past life I did undergrad psychology. The most interesting stuff was social psychology. Three classic experiments seem apposite herre.
The smoke filled room (known as – oh the irony – “Group inhibition of bystander intervention in emergencies.” I wondered during my time in that room if I was the only one seeing the smoke of delusion gradually spread and engulf so many. Why did nobody speak out>
What’s the line, and how long (can we say) it is? Asch conformity experiments – Wikipedia Or “who you gonna believe – me or your lyin’ eyes?”
Festinger and “When Prophecies Fail” Anthropologists should grab their notebook and dictaphones and head out to do some proper ethnographic work, because the Saucer People are doubling down.
Hudson’s three laws of movement organisation drain-circling.
One “The Moyer is less law”
Once a group starts talking about the Moyer Action Plan, you know it is dead. It didn’t talk about the dip beforehand, because the only way was UP. Now it has to – for the benefit of those faithful who haven’t exited and those newbies who have stumbled in – explain away the dip.
It is akin to the bewildered animals in Animal Farm singing “Beasts of England” – the sort of self-soothing activity, detached from reality, that you do when you realise but can’t say out loud that you are completely screwed..
[I saw this in the late 2000s with a Plane Stupid offshoot. I saw it again last night.]
Two The inverse proclaiming-learning law
The more a group talks about learning lessons and the ‘definition of insanity’, the less it will actually innovate. It will just double down on the repertoires that made it feel good at the beginning.
Media as canary in the coal-mine (gotta love the image)
If even the media team – the place where all those humanities graduates actually might fit – can’t keep itself replenished with new recruits then that’s a pretty clear indication that the organisation’s absorptive capacity is cooked.
If in the first half of a meeting the only people really able to speak are the invited speakers, the group isn’t serious about democracy, voices, learning, any of it. Those running the meeting are just interested in their moment of (a sense of) power.
Three meetings in Manchester
|September 2018||Partisan||25ish – mostly white and young and sub-culture-y||Dreary info-deficit model from Saint Roger’s “Extinction” talk, whatever it was called. The power-destroying pointless powerpoint that went on and on and ON. Didn’t matter, because XR was on its way UP|
|May 2019||That nightclub opposite Sandbar||250 to 300, very diverse||100s of people being talked at, told they missed out on a really cool experience (the April “Rebellion”) but if they stuck around, they could at least hang out with the Kool Kids. Those people – mirabile dictu – did not stick around. XR could tell itself it was on the way up.|
|February 2022||Friends Meeting House (a bigger room than they thought)||38. Almost all white. Mostly young. Smattering of old farts||Dreary info-deficit model reading out of colourful powerpoint slides. What comes next? We shall see..|
Also I dimly recall some dire event in mid-2019 at the Cross Street Chapel, where locals were lectured and hectored by some self-appointed busybodies from London who knew nothing but were very confident in asserting it
What is to be done
The same as it ever was.
Movement building, while understanding that movement building and mobilising are not the same thing, and that the latter can get in the way of the former
Wise up about the dynamics of social movement organisations, and their pathologies
Support those individuals who get cooked by the emotacycle
I am a proud coffin-dodger and old fart. I also rather enjoyed this rant because of my middle-class fondness for flagellation. But this relentless negativity seems to be just self-indulgent intellectual masturbation – more irony there!
Hi Peter. Thanks for your comment, despite its resolute and telling failure to engage with the SUBSTANCE of my critique. I remember discussing with you, two years ago, the reasons that XR should a) be careful in assuming a simple upward trajectory for themselves and b) the dangers of calling themselves a movement rather than a movement organisation (something you did and I pointed out the dangers). Rather than engage with either of those points, you seem happy to dismiss critique as “relentless negativity.” The funny thing is, if any of our lords and masters read your recent academic article about the failures of UK climate policy they would dismiss your work as “relentless negativity” and you would have a low opinion of them for not engaging with the substance of your work.
The only logical conclusion I can draw is that you are not bothered about third parties’ opinion of you. So it goes, I guess.