A "Common Sense" for the 21st Century: XR's Roger Hallam lays out a theory of revolution to prevent extinction

Extinction Rebellion’s impact keeps reverberating, across many domains - as they doubtless intended it to do.

Their master strategist, Roger Hallam, was writing in the Guardian this week. It’s worth quoting extensively from the piece, and breaking down its recommendations:

Our strategy is based upon three observations.

  • Firstly that only through disruption, the breaking of laws, do you get the attention you need.

  • Secondly only through sacrifice – the willingness to be arrested and go to prison – do people take seriously what you are saying.

  • And thirdly only through being respectful to ourselves, the public and the police, do we change the hearts and minds of our opponents, which makes it easier for them to negotiate with us.

Specifically the strategy – the “civil resistance model” as we call it – needs to involve several key elements in order for successful outcomes to be optimised.

  • Firstly you need a lot of people – thousands need to be involved.

  • You need to go to the capital city because that is where the rich and powerful are – the government, big business and the media.

  • You need to break the law – sit in the road or glue yourself to the entrance of a building and such like. Unlike A to B marches this is what gets attention.

  • You have to stay strictly nonviolent. Indulging in violence and aggressive language excludes vulnerable groups – the old and young – from participation.

  • Crucially it has to go on day after day. Like a labour strike you have to impose economic and reputational damage on the opponent over an extended period.

  • Finally it has to be fun – many more people are attracted to celebratory cultural spaces than narrowly political ones.

Of course, this does not always guarantee success but it is vastly more likely to do so than the alternatives. In the real world you have a limited number of options to choose from and a limited amount of time in which to choose.

Conventional campaigning – sending emails, payments to NGOs and more reports – is not going to stop the outrageous destruction of our natural world. It is not going to stop our children entering the hell of social breakdown.

It’s time to get real. We need agreement on what works on the basis of the social science – just as we insist on following the natural science on the climate crisis.

Nothing written here is new. Extinction Rebellion is humbly following in the tradition of Gandhi and Martin Luther King. We are simply rediscovering what people do when they have had enough of failure and really want to make a difference.

Dozens of people have come up to me to tell me they have just had the best week of their lives. And that highlights maybe the most important finding of social science – that after covering basic material needs humans beings are not made happier through consuming more stuff.

Meaning and happiness – a sense of wholeness and calm – come from engaging with others as a community in making the world a better place. Instead of living the lie that there is nothing we can do we now have a pathway to effective action.

Go out with others and break the law. Let’s get on it while there’s still time.

All of this is explained further in Hallam’s new publication, Common Sense for the 21st Century: Only Nonviolent Rebellion Can Now Stop Climate Breakdown and Social Collapse (here’s the free PDF draft, but Roger is crowdfunding for further publication and translation into many languages - support him here). [Note: Penguin are also bringing out an Extinction Rebellion book, titled This Is Not A Drill, which seems supplementary to this].

“Common Sense” is an extraordinarily focussed text, which is indeed both the script and the theory behind the last few weeks of XR action (and also, obviously, echoes the original text from Tom Paine which fuelled the American revolution in 1770s).

Our interest in A/UK is in integrating, as best we can, so many of these different and new elements of civic power. It’s been our aim on this website, and guides our practice in places like Plymouth.

XR presents an excellent challenge to that integration. In particular, by being so explicitly aware of the exhaustion that people feel with the existing left-right political spectrum. And the need - when faced with the facts of potential extinction by climate meltdown - for completely new approaches and languages to be explored and used.

We’d really urge you to read Roger’s pamphlet, but there are two elements in it which speak to our own interest, which is in encouraging forms of local power that can build viable alternatives to the toxic norm, around climate crisis and the use of technology.

One is its interest in citizens assemblies. This is not just as talking shops, but as institutions which could be a genuine alternative source of democratic legitimacy and power - ones that prove their worth, as mass action reaches a critical peak. They’re not kidding about CA’s becoming primary over parliaments and municipalities:

In the case of climate breakdown and how society is going to avoid the worst effects of it, citizens’ assemblies chosen by sortition are our only democratic hope as the transition that will be shown to be necessary would be political death for any one party should they suggest the changes that will be required. It is the antidote to the corporate- captured broken democracy of today and indicates a future that can be run truly by the people for the people with the well-being of all as the only dogma that lights the way.

The post-revolutionary plan then needs some detailed working out to be credible. I suggest there could be a transitory period leading to a permanent new political constitutional settlement. For this then a professionally created and transparent National Citizens’ Assembly (NCA) would be created containing maybe 1000 people for a fixed period of two years. It would then create regional and city citizen’ assemblies so as to facilitate the decentralisation of power.

The national citizens’ assembly would then deal with social and political legislation, enacting emergency measures on the climate crisis. It would also create a new written constitution which we would expect would make sure such assemblies were a permanent fixture of our political life.

The second element is its interest in what Roger calls “transition labs”. These are concentrations of research and expertise that can generate practical and hands-on solutions, both technological and organisational, for a newly empowered citizenry to use in their everyday and community lives:

Building on the existing Transition Towns initiative, a major movement is needed to organise the mitigation of climate change as well as preparation and adaptation to the coming changes. For example, this process could start with the foundation of a Transition Lab that is focused purely on engineering and actioning solutions rather than another policy ‘think tank’. For example, Imperial College London could research and develop battery technology and give away the patent for free.

An expert group of data scientists could develop AI to help predict the worst affected areas of the UK, then engineers from Cambridge could design systems to mitigate the impact. Efforts like this are underway all over the world, but there is no central platform that citizens can engage with.

The lab would listen to citizens’ assemblies then support assemblies to actually organise people into citizen service (voluntary). Critically, the lab would not be government funded or corporate entity. It would be a service for the people, by the people rather than waiting for government to pass policy and commission agencies to work. We just get started.

This also acts as a plan B if the politicians don't listen to mass civil disobedience. They might ignore us, but the highly skilled scientists, experts + workers of the world might listen, and they get to work in a voluntary capacity.

This combination of learning, practice and voluntary activity, aimed at strengthening the structures of a community by amplifying its own initiatives, is what we’ve been trying to point at with our notion of CANs (Citizen Action Networks), comprising Collaboratories, Learning Clubs, new platforms of sustainable services, deploying computation in ways that empower rather than exploit citizens, etc. It’s exciting to see Roger come to roughly the same conclusions.

Our only difference might be that there is much scope for such “building” processes in the here-and-now, rather than waiting any “post-revolutionary” situation. But XR continue to be an inspiration to those interested in new strategies to recognise power from below, and an energetic revival of citizenship - when faced with the ultimate crisis.