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Where are the workers in the Extinction Rebellion protests?

15 July 2019

5:42 PM

15 July 2019

5:42 PM

How utterly predictable that Extinction Rebellion should have re-emerged this week to block streets with its boats. You just have to ask yourself what happened last week: most universities broke up for the summer. The group’s activities have now settled into something of a pattern. When universities are on vacation we get these big protests, sucking in protesters from all over the country. During term-time, on the other hand, we get small protests in university towns as we had in Cambridge, Oxford and Edinburgh in May and June.

It says all you need to know about Extinction Rebellion – it is, above all else, a movement of students and left-wing academics. It was launched, last October, in a letter to the Guardian from 100 academics. Its leaders, in as much as it has any, are people like Gail Bradbrook and Roger Hallam, who have spent a large proportion of their adult life in academia (although there are a distinct lack of climate scientists among them – Hallam’s PhD on ‘digitally-enhanced political resistance and empowerment strategies’ is more par for the course). Extinction Rebellion has picked up support along the way disproportionately from students and school children. They are happy to proffer themselves for arrest, but they are just a little too middle class to want to put their careers in jeopardy by skipping their exams. Where, on the other hand, are the workers in these protests? People who have jobs outside academia seem remarkably less keen on these demonstrations. It is a movement driven by those who are sheltered from the real economy through subsidised education.

This is what makes it so different from left-wing movements of the 1970s and 1980s which tended to be driven by trade unions. If you think, for example, of the miners’ strike of 1984-85 there were, certainly, lots of students involved. But it was pre-eminently a protest about jobs on the part of people who feared they were about to lose them. It might have been wrong-headed, and the miners used as pawns in a larger political struggle waged by Arthur Scargill and his fellow union barons, but in one sense government and the strikers were on the same side – they both wanted better standards of living for the population as a whole. Extinction Rebellion is quite different in that it openly advocates lower living standards. It actively wants to reverse economic growth. It is, as a result, an indulgence on the part of people who feel divorced from economic forces and who don’t feel they need to engage with what would be the realities of a shrinking economy: mass unemployment and millions struggling to feed and clothe their families.

For anyone who remembers the 1980s, watching an Extinction Rebellion protester being interviewed on the BBC in April was bizarre. She had coloured, cropped hair – exactly the sort whom 35 years ago would almost certainly have been wearing a ‘coal not dole’ badge. But when asked if she had a message for miners in Poland who were worried about losing their jobs as a result of efforts to reduce carbon emissions she said: ‘This issue is more important that any one job’. Taken literally, that is of course quite reasonable – many issues are more important that any one job. Moreover, phasing out coal-fired power stations, as the government is doing, is not inconsistent with a healthy economy. But the sentiment behind the girl’s words was clear: screw the economy, our cause is far more important that that.

If Extinction Rebellion is looking for a slogan I would suggest ‘Dole not Coal’. That is quite a turnaround for the Left in little more than a generation.


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