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Is elite-disruption really the secret sauce?

9 min read

If you didn’t see it, an article recently appeared in ultra-prestigious science journal Nature making the case that climate groups should change the way they think about disruption. It’s pretty short and worth a read.

There are lots of reasons why it’s interesting: even as a ‘comment’ piece, it’s surprising to see Nature publish something so socially engaged (for their usual fare, see Fig. 1). It’s also lovely to see serious movement analysis happen anywhere – in a world saturated with discourse, this is a rare genre of conversation that we really need more of. And then on top of this: the argument itself is thought-provoking.

So much so that I recommended it for my Edinburgh-based social change reading group, and we spent a lovely evening discussing it (on Martin Luther King day, appropriately enough). Our group – which contains some incredible organising experience – agreed we generally loved the piece, but had some nontrivial quibbles. And since there’s a surprising lack of online hot takes about this kind of stuff in general and this piece in particular, I thought I’d throw some together here.

Fig. 1: Crazy shit

1 – More revolution please

According to the authors, ‘the climate movement is trying to shut down a whole industry’ – that is, the fossil fuel one. Perhaps we are; but in their account, this seems to be the extent of our ambition: their whole analysis revolves around shifting elite support for fossil fuel interests.

This is a partial picture in two ways. For one thing: the world’s ecological crisis goes far, far, far beyond just carbon emissions. No doubt the authors know this much better than almost anyone, but even so – leaving this complexity out of the analysis means understating both the scale of the problem and the course-correction.

Relatedly but separately: there’s widespread commitment throughout the movement to ‘climate justice’ in the fuller sense. Just transition, reparations, an end to economic depredations at home and globally.

Again, no question the authors are deeply aware of this. The quibble shared by many in my group is that their analysis, despite its anchoring in Birmingham 1963, doesn’t seem to have much relevance to liberation as such. It’s very much a case of convincing one set of elites to nag another (and it’s hardly likely to be more than this – under the authors’ apparently favoured outcome, the blood barons at the top of fossil death machines would almost certainly recast themselves as renewables saviours).

It feels significant that the only talk of justice appears in the last part of the paragraph of the conclusion. The rest is more a case of ‘policy’.

History is actually unreal sometimes

Our group had a conversation about the timeless reform v revolution debate. We totally agreed there’s nothing wrong in principle with championing the former (i.e. ‘we don’t have time to mess around with reinventing society’). On the other hand, we would have very much appreciated at least some sort of acknowledgement of the alternate conclusion: that any change that isn’t genuinely radical won’t actually work, to say nothing of the ethics of a resurgent green capitalism continuing its global horrors.

Aside from end-goals and objectives, by eschewing politics for interests this paper simply gets less persuasive than it could be. As if in a simulation, movements are reduced to their numerical dimensions, sweeping away subjectivities and narratives and visions. To paraphrase David Graeber, sometimes the means are the ends. The action which launched Extinction Rebellion into prominence was disrupting five bridges in London, and in doing so expressing a vision much broader than just elites and carbon drawdown. It’s not just who you disrupt – it’s how you disrupt.

Further along this spectrum is something like Cooperation Hull, graduates of XR who’ve basically lost interest in disruption as a primary tool: for them, disruption is more a possible symptom of a healthy political vision, rather than a primary pursuit. Or, indeed, the Black Panthers who appear briefly in the article itself, and who according to the FBI presented “the greatest threat to the internal security of the country” in 1969 – a fear evoked precisely by the Panthers’ compelling political vision, rather than elite-disruption.

This is all underpinned by the bleak reality that the Black South, much like the anti-apartheid movement whose success also hinged on cooperation from business elites, may have won legal concessions within the existing system – but decades on, these places continue to suffer unconscionable exploitation from the basically-unchanged political systems. For the sort of change we seek and need, elite disharmony might well be necessary – but it’s surely not sufficient, and in my own view it’s risky to suggest otherwise.

2 – About armchairs

The authors use the words ‘must’ and ‘should’ quite often. As in: ‘Climate organizers should select tactics based on…’, or ‘As it disrupts elite power sectors, the climate movement must also…’. They also wield right/wrong categories confidently, as in ‘These groups have the right idea’.

I think this kind of tone/voice matters. It’s not like this voice needs to be ‘fellow kids’ and/or ‘veteran activist’ to be credible (indeed, it seems like the authors might actually be the latter and are using the academic voice because of course they would, it’s Nature, they’re not going to get away lightweight chatter like this here!); but I’d submit all the same that their analysis would benefit from a slightly more ground-level outlook.

The medium is the message

This is partly just for rhetorical reasons: despite the lack of good movement analysis I mentioned at the top, there’s no shortage of half-baked takes on how social movements should be x y z, injunctions literal and otherwise. Thus, the people who would most benefit from this (I must stress, wonderful) analysis are very likely desensitized to being told what they ‘must’ do, whether that’s from genuinely brilliant academics or tabloid hacks or dodgy cops or punters.

But then also, and perhaps more importantly, this more inquisitive approach might actually offer more understanding to the paper’s audience. There are good reasons and indeed entire alternative theoretical frames behind JSO’s slow-marches (e.g. the Gene Sharp model, and just their whole experience of 2022), and XR and others’ long-running difficulty with making the financial sector a primary antagonist (I myself was part of a whole City Airport vs Heathrow process, and similar debates about The City vs Parliament back in the XR heyday; advocates of the latter leaned on the importance of reaching ‘real people’ as had worked in November ‘18 and April ’19, along with more conventional legislative theories of change, and the more prosaic tactical reality of City security being comparatively brutal).

Perhaps the authors’ analysis is more persuasive or perhaps it isn’t, but the way they present it tends to discourage further dialogue between these alternative schools of thought – or even recognition of these schools as being such.

This is a serious man

Also, things get messier but much more useful and interesting when getting dirty with the details. It’s deliciously easy to gesture generalities about disruption targets. To proclaim that actions should/must be ‘targeted’ and ‘creative’, sounds great but means little.

I remember being in a conversation where something like this was said to a JSO person, who replied ‘yeah, we did try to be targeted and sustained – we spent weeks running into oil refineries and getting beaten up and no one seemed to care’. Sure this campaign didn’t turn out to be sustained in the way Y&T-W (the paper’s authors) prescribe, but this was part of the plan – hinging on a 2019-esque recruitment boom which failed to materialise thanks in large part to a seeming media blackout.

All of which is not to say that Y&T-W are ‘wrong’ – just that it’d be helpful to acknowledge how much contingency and mystery there is when you’re actually sitting down to plan and execute a campaign, even one informed by a wicked strategic analysis.

They do give us the commendably specific idea of sustained campaigns on bank branches: “a team of dedicated activists leafleting outside a bank or insurance office every day may ultimately be more disruptive to the company’s profits—and indirectly, to the fossil fuel industry’s ability to obtain financing and underwriting—than an occasional act of vandalism”. This is a cool moment, but sadly not really developed, leaving my group with unanswered questions about how financial giants seem to have shrugged off a lot of efforts like this in the past.

3 – Critical distance

Relatedly, I couldn’t shake the feeling while reading that the authors in their exhilarating big-picture sweep might not be missing some important ground-level details. Which if so, totally fair enough – none of us is ever going to have all of the information. But on re-reading I felt a notable absence of XR’s Money Rebellion, which seems like a significant pre-existing answer to the paper’s prescriptions together with a host of conscious elite-targeting. Maybe they knew about these and had reasons to omit it anyway; my point here is that the strident voice described above adds a lot of obscurity to that gap.

Perhaps more jarring is when they tell us about how there are tens of millions of teens and adults who are up for direct action and that “Messaging and recruitment efforts aimed at those segments of the population could help the climate movement create a new cadre of organizers and activists”.

Oh, we know! Quite aside from the obvious examples of XR’s legendary 3.5% target (and ensuing campaign, project 3.5!) and the literal Climate Majority Project, it’s hard to think of any serious aspiring mass movement that doesn’t stay awake at night fantasising about reaching those all those elusive people.

Seriously, where are all these legions of climate justice people hiding?

Do these niceties actually matter? In lots of ways they don’t – but if nothing else they do suggest some possible misreading of existing efforts. And, since, again, our movements need this kind of insight like a disco need a beat, the more attuned these takes can be the better. (I’m writing these words very much in the spirit of such attuning.)

So there are some hot takes.

It seems worth repeating that these are all just good-faith quibbles written precisely because both the paper and its authors seem totally rad and worth engaging with. Further, that large swathes of these quibbles could be easily accounted for by supposing that Y&T-W were accommodating what were surely stringent stated and implicit editorial demands from Nature et al.

In a better world I’d love to write a little more enumerating all that my group and myself thought was cool and useful about this piece, but we do not live in that world and anyway it’s probably self-evident.

Here’s hoping 2024 will be the year the exasperating reply-guy discourse around social movements gives way to a world of analysis as constructive as Y&T-W’s.

P.S. – it’s also worth mentioning that this paper is also a kind of teaser trailer for a whole book soon to be released by Kevin Young. Look out, elites.

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