Extinction Rebellion documentary exposes political weakness
Adam Powell-Davies, East London Socialist Party
Rebellion is the first feature-length documentary to go behind the scenes of climate campaign Extinction Rebellion (XR).
The documentary tracks the growth of XR since 2018, from a core of UK-based climate activists to an international environmental movement which has grabbed national headlines through direct action and civil disobedience.
The young documentary directors Maia Kenworthy and Elena Sánchez Bellot are interested in “storylines”, and focus on a few leading XR personalities, the relationships between them, and their personal battles in the organisation.
The film opens with former XR youth organiser, Savannah Hallam, being asked if she would join XR again. She sighs: “I think it’s hard to know whether I would do it again, because I am still not fully aware yet of how it’s affected me”. From the very first scene, XR is introduced as an organisation that leaves members confused and conflicted.
Savannah is filmed storming out of a meeting after her dad and XR co-founder, Richard Hallam, dismisses criticism by the organisation’s youth wing over a proposed action to disrupt flights at Heathrow Airport.
The directors’ focus on human drama – burnout, battling egos, tense relationships etc – reflects their own filmmaking sensibilities, and viewers seeking a more explicitly political commentary on XR might be better off looking elsewhere: for example, the article published by the Socialist Party in 2019 (see ‘Extinction Rebellion’).
All the arguments, frustrations and falling-outs point to a wider political disorientation in XR, and are the result of a fundamentally mistaken approach to fighting the climate crisis.
Socialists understand that the climate crisis is driven by a global capitalist system, in which nations and international blocs compete for the short-term profits of their ‘own’ capitalist class, with no consideration for the long-term existence of humanity and the planet.
XR figures in the documentary describe the system as “toxic” and “stuck”, which co-founder Gail Bradbrook says “relies on us feeling powerless”. But they never call it for what it is – capitalism. Nor do they come to the conclusion that we need to change this system – from capitalism to socialism – to end climate change altogether.
We see some XR activists groping for a correct approach by targeting protests at big businesses and important financial hubs. Indeed, mass disruption of the economy could hit the polluting bosses where it hurts most – their profits – and win some concessions for the climate movement, to at least slow the rate of environmental breakdown.
But who is involved in that disruption? Because national XR mobilisations often last for weeks at a time, participants are urged to book long periods off work. How can the XR leadership expect workers on zero-hour contracts to simply give up their wages for weeks at a time?
The best way to bring about economic disruption is to engage the mass of the working class who produce the capitalists’ profits. But instead, XR actions are seen alienating workers – for example, the infamous clip of XR protesters being dragged by angry commuters from the top of a DLR train.
Due to XR’s mistaken programme – and the tactics that flow from this – it can’t offer a real way forward to working-class and young people looking for an alternative to climate catastrophe. Savannah Hallam bemoans the XR culture of burnout – just “doing and doing and doing”. Many activists eventually hit a brick wall, because they follow a programme that fails to challenge the root cause of the climate crisis – capitalism.
This lack of political clarity plays out on our screens when XR Youth splits from its parent organisation partway through the documentary. The same may be said in the case of a number of former XR figures who are shown to leave the organisation throughout the documentary.
Capitalism and socialism
Roger Hallam is later kicked out of XR. When he comments: “I think I’ve learned how enormously tragic it is to be human, because humans find it enormously difficult to get their act together”, he reveals the inevitable pessimism from not understanding that our current crises, rooted in capitalism, can and will be overcome by uniting the mass of society in revolutionary socialist change.
The emotions and tensions in Rebellion point to an organisation that frustrates, confuses and misleads members through a fundamentally futile approach to solving the climate crisis. We need socialism, not a slightly greener capitalism.
- Rebellion is available on Netflix