The Politics of Paradox

Extinction Rebellion (XR) has had a permanent transformational effect on the place of climate and nature in British politics and society, and beyond. XR will continue to play an important role: radical non-violent direct action (NVDA) is effective at pressuring government and corporations, but so far the movement hasn’t mobilised masses of people as is required to force systemic change. The percentage of the population it has mobilised is far less than that recommended by social change theorist Erica Chenoweth. XR has successfully set the scene, which now needs filling by a substantially larger mobilisation. We explore here how this might be achieved.

Political parties that are serious about learning from the pandemic and about going into an increasingly climate-damaged future with an adequate programme should learn from XR’s [and Greta’s] success: from the power of radical truth-telling, of authentic emotion relating to the broader audience (and existing policy-makers), of properly-targeted non-violent direction. Relative to XR, they should consider becoming moderate flanks. This is the opposite of the Burning Pink ‘strategy’; instead, what we are envisaging is political parties themselves (starting with subsets thereof) doing a vanilla-ised version of what XR did. This applies to the Lib Dems; it applies to Labour; it might potentially apply to some extent even to the Conservatives, as the 2020s come to manifest more starkly the phenomena of climate decline. (Watch here for Claire Perry O’Neill’s forthcoming book. And check out Hallam’s article on the Conservative case for XR, the best thing he has done since co-creating XR. The appeal to conservatives should be an appeal to their wishing to conserve things; whereas, unbridled neo-liberalism is ripping everything up and harrying us over a cliff. It is anti-conservative.)

But the point we are making applies most certainly and obviously and profoundly to the Green Party. The Greens are different to the other three parties: it has never got anywhere near power in the UK, and almost certainly won’t under the first past the post (FPTP) system, at least not within this decade (which is the relevant time-scale now for the climate crisis). Whilst the Lib Dems are currently almost an irrelevance (though that might change, after their remarkable success in Chesham and Amersham), they were in power only six years ago, and have risen from very low ebbs before.

The Green Party has not succeeded in the UK in its historic mission: of coming to power and saving the world through the ballot box. Recognising this truth will bring more authentic power to green voices; the way to come into our full power now as change-agents, paradoxically, is to recognise our near-impotence thus far.

The Green Party needs to return to its roots: to its mission as a truth-teller about ecology, to its philosophical basis, incorporating the need for justified, targeted NVDA that makes sense to most of the public. That can be electorally successful too!

The Green Party, in other words, needs to radicalise, and step up to deal head-on with the terrifying reality of our time, of how we are over the brink. But, relative to XR (and there is a significant overlap of personnel between the two), this would be the Green Party functioning as a moderate flank. This is the strategy envisaged by the new ‘Greens Climate Activist Network’ (GreensCAN) that we’ve co-launched with Teal and former Deputy Leader Shahrar Ali. GreensCAN has attracted support from Jonathon Porritt, former MEP Molly Scott Cato, GPEx Campaigns rep Britta Goodman, Baroness Jenny Jones, as well as a laudatory mention from Caroline Lucas.

And in this way the moderate flank can be a force in party politics; and this offers some hope, because part of what is needed if there is to be any chance of transformation is likely to be: change via electoral politics (as Sunrise has pulled off in the USA). Imagine electoral politics not just affected by the agenda-shifting caused by the radical flank (This effect was obvious in the May 2019 elections in the UK, with the Green Party clearly reaping benefits in the local and European elections from XR’s April Rebellion… the #GreenWave was partly an accidental gift of the radical flank effect that at that point XR had successfully undertaken; the same may be true to some extent of the impressive Green performance in the May 2021 elections), but materially-altered by the presence inside it of a growing ‘moderate’ flank, for example, an ecology/nature/climate/future movement like GreensCAN, which looks vanilla compared to XR but which radicalises actually-existing party politics in exactly the way that our time calls for.

It is in GreensCAN’s ethos to undertake actions that do not alienate; GreensCAN actions are and will be carefully calibrated to build support. GreensCAN sees a key part of its role as being to bring the power of radical truth-telling into party politics itself – including about the way that the COPs this year will fail us; and even about the way that the Green Party itself has, tragically, not succeeded in its historic and vital mission. Such deeply-unexpected authenticity is potentially transformative.

The politics of our time is and will be a politics of paradox. To have any chance of succeeding in unleashing the power of righteous rage and love that could correct our course, we need to come clean about our failure to achieve power in time. To make the most of XR’s success, we need to be more moderate (especially in terms of methods) than them. To get somewhere, we need to give up our aspirations to ideological purity and our desire to scream “We told you so!” in favour of a caring, inclusive alliance-building. That requires a willingness to be ecumenical, and ‘moderate’.

The primary audience for the present piece is English-speaking countries across the world, which are roughly the countries where XR (and, in the USA, the Sunrise Movement, which has had real success influencing the programme of the Democrats, now in government) have most shown the efficacy of a radical flank. But XR’s effect has also been wider; and there are other movements too of a radical flank nature that have opened up the space for the conversation that this piece has taken on and seeks to initiate and widen in other countries.

Take Germany, for (an important) example: important, partly because the Greens might win the Chancellorship there this year. There – unlike in the UK – Fridays For Future includes some adults; there – unlike in the UK – one or two individual youth climate strikers have achieved a level of media-cut-through which has brought them almost onto a par with Greta herself in terms of domestic influence; and there – again, unlike in the UK – there is already a substantial, influential parents’ movement (most found in many Parents for A Future chapters). Furthermore, Germany has not only a thoughtful and impactful wing of XR, but also Ende Gelande, a radical direct action movement that hits hard especially at the German coal industry. We would foresee and argue for an expansion in size and ambition of the German parents’ movement, and also an upping of ambition in the zone of workplace-based activism there. All in the context of aiming for a broader realisation that political ‘leaders’ are not rising to the rescue: that the post-Covid reset is largely not being undertaken transformatively, that the climate-critical COP is poised to fail us badly. In Germany, the Green Party is on the brink of federal power as we write. But the German Greens are dominated by ‘realos’. Germany needs a movement orders of magnitude larger than XR and Ende Gelande, in order to bend the political agenda seriously in the direction of genuine and sufficient climate action. That movement is likely to function as a radical flank to Die Grünen. (In the electoral sphere, the new ‘Klima list’ may function as a needed radical flank to the German Green Party, but as a moderate flank to XR and Ende Gelande. In other words: it would be splendid if there were something like GreensCAN launched in Germany, too…)

GreensCAN is being careful not to undertake actions likely to annoy the substantial number of potential citizen-activists who will not resonate with the strategy of escalation being pursued by some of XR and in Roger Hallam-inspired radical flanks to XR. Through undertaking only actions that can make sense to many people, GreensCAN thus has the potential to mobilise a larger phalanx to engage in NVDA. This is what the moderate flank can do: get us nearer having 3.5 per cent of the population actually being willing to get on board with civil disobedience.