SOAPBOX

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THE MAN WHO FELL TO EARTH

By Mike Hembury

It’s not often that you see one of the shooting stars in the firmament of the climate justice movement crash and burn as thoroughly as Roger Hallam, co-founder of Extinction Rebellion, did last week.

From posterboy and ideological eminence grise of the movement to persona non grata in the German branch of XR in the space of a single day—that really is the kind of political fall from grace that is almost unmatched in recent years.

The trigger was an interview that Hallam gave with the German newspaper Die Zeit, in which he described the Holocaust as “just another fuckery” in human history. To give Hallam his due, the context was a longer statement talking about genocide as a recurring event, and climate change as being the potential cause of further genocides on a hitherto unimaginable scale (hence the name “Extinction Rebellion”). However, to imagine that such a crass relativization of the Holocaust would not cause incredible offence to Jewish people is, at best, politically naïve in the extreme. Hallam however made things worse by going on to talk about how German society was “paralyzed” by the trauma of the Holocaust, and essentially needed to get over it.

This is where Hallam really proceeded to put himself beyond the pale, and moves into the company of some very unsavoury characters indeed. As far as German society, and the German political spectrum is concerned, the only people arguing that it’s time for the country that caused the Holocaust to finally get over it, are the extreme right themselves. For almost everyone else, the trauma of the Holocaust (and let’s face it, it’s largely the trauma of the perpetrator society that we’re talking about) is one of the fundamental constants of post-war political discourse, and a thorn in the side of the resurgent neo-fascist right in the shape of the AfD (Alternative für Deutschland) party.

Let me put this in a practical perspective for you.

The 2019 elections in the German states of Saxony and Thuringia produced results of 25.3 % and 23.4% respectively for the AfD. In Saxony the fascists received the largest percentage of the vote of all parties. In Thuringia the fascists came second, beating the Christian Democrat CDU (the largest party in the current federal government) into third place. 

In both states, it would be theoretically easy for the CDU and AfD to form a coalition with unassailable majorities.

The only thing preventing such Italian-style coalitions, is the “trauma” of the Holocaust, the fact that even in mainstream politics, coalitions with fascists are still taboo.

Frankly, most people in Germany are grateful for the taboo, grateful that society at large has still internalised the lesson that fascism leads to civil war, war, and genocide. 

Yet the clamour for coalitions with the AfD is already becoming loud within the conservative ranks of the CDU.

The mass media has been drip-feeding hatred of foreigners to the population ever since Merkel briefly opened the borders to Syrian refugees in 2015. And ever since then, the CDU has been haemorrhaging votes to the AfD.

Aside from impending climate catastrophe, this is the immediate political background to Hallam’s intervention, and a large part of the motivation behind the statement published by XR (Extinction Rebellion) Germany:
“We firmly distance ourselves from Roger Hallam’s belittling and relativizing remarks on the Holocaust. Roger violates the principles of XR, who do not tolerate antisemitism, and is no longer welcome at XR Germany.”

Denouncements of Hallam’s statements were also published by XR organisations in the UK, Ireland, the USA, and France.

A leaked email to the German newspaper Freitag has revealed that far from being an act of political naivety, Hallam’s instrumentalisation of the Holocaust was a conscious attempt to recreate a so-called “dilemma” strategy in the media sphere, giving XR Germany the chance to re-affirm the dangers of coming genocides when confronted with hostile questioning regarding Holocaust revisionism.

Unfortunately for Hallam, and fortunately for the rest of us, XR Germany refused to play ball.

However, this failed attempt to instrumentalise the Holocaust to the supposed benefit of the climate justice movement also says a lot about the shortcomings of XR’s broader strategy and Hallam’s apparent frustration with the pace of change.

In spite of a previously undisputed leadership position within the movement, Hallam has been noticeably pushing for more confrontational actions in recent months, most specifically with the “drones over Heathrow” action. Even though the action found no favour within the broader movement, Hallam insisted on going it alone by attempting to fly toy drones inside an airport exclusion zone in September of this year, whilst under a court order not to do so. As a result he was re-arrested and spent roughly a month in prison.

In my opinion, Hallam’s frustration at the pace of change has in no small measure to do with the way that XR’s demands are exclusively geared towards asking the capitalist media and government to get serious about tackling the climate issue. Governments must “Tell the truth” and “Act Now”, and set up a “Citizens’ Assembly”, which is “beyond politics”, yet which has legislative powers.

In the UK, in spite of initial successes for XR in terms of public awareness, the government response to the movement’s demand can at best be characterized as lip service.

In Germany, in spite of a relatively massive environmental movement, with over a million people on the streets of the country during the last Global Climate Strike, support for XR remains marginal. And XR’s somewhat messianic message of having the one true approach to climate justice (thanks in no small part to Hallam himself), has seen the movement distance itself from other environmental and climate justice groups, with a refusal to enter into broad-based coalitions from a sectarian fear of being tainted by leftism.

Indeed, it’s somewhat ironic that a movement that comes pre-equipped with a non-negotiable set of ten principles and three demands, handed down on high from Hallam himself, should see itself forced to excommunicate its pre-eminent guru. XR has also been taking a lot of flak recently for its lack of democratic accountability and a perceived refusal to engage with issues of racism and intersectionality.

In many ways, the movement is at a crossroads.

Quite apart from the crisis of leadership facing this supposedly leaderless movement, XR activists are faced with their own dilemma: whether to continue a strategy of mass arrests via non-violent direct actions whilst pursuing “apolitical” appeals to sitting governments, or to forge viable coalitions not only with other climate and environmental groups, but also with the organisations of the working class and the oppressed, at the same time as coming up with a program of demands, and a platform of action, tailored to meet the existential threat of catastrophic climate change.

At the moment, XR is characterized by an almost total lack of discussion around what to do about climate change, beyond asking others to tell the truth and leaving the specifics to a randomly selected citizens’ assembly.

But just as turkeys don’t vote for Xmas, you can be sure as hell that there’s never been a case of capitalist governments voting themselves out of a job. The likelihood of reactionary governments assigning legislative power to citizens’ assemblies in the current situation is practically nil.

By contrast, current debate around the Green New Deal in the USA is getting very specific about the ways and means of transforming society. And even though it’s legitimate to criticize the GND for leaving the structures of capitalist exploitation intact, the mere fact of opening the debate means that it represents a huge step forward for people asking questions about how a Just Transition could make for a meaningful and necessary transformation of the economy.

The kind of societal transition that we need to avert catastrophic climate change can only be based on a genuine movement of movements. An essentially petitionist strategy, even a high-profile direct-action one, ultimately does little to advance the level of mobilisation of the working class and the oppressed.   

A climate justice movement that is beyond politics is a contradiction in terms.

Mike Hembury is an Anglo-Berliner originally from Portland, England.  He’s a writer, translator, musician, coder, sailor, environmentalist and guitar nerd in no particular order.  He is the author of New Clone City, nominated as a “Hot Berlin Read” by Exberliner magazine. You can follow Mike on Twitter here: twitter.com/schnappz

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