Herd Mentality, Deathbed Radicalism and Other Things On My Not-To-Do List

by Nora Ziegler

6th September 2022

 

The Not-To-Do List

In 2018, when Extinction Rebellion (XR) started off, I was living and working at the London Catholic Worker. I was part of a small team of live-in volunteers coordinating a house of hospitality for refugees and migrants who had no recourse to public funds. We tried to reconcile three aims: hospitality, community, and resistance. We aimed to run a stable and well-organised night shelter for people who are denied access to housing, while also creating a communal space where everyone could participate and feel at home. At the same time, we hosted activists, offered our space for activist meetings, and were involved in activism ourselves.

In June 2018, we hosted Roger Hallam and his group Rising Up who were holding a hunger strike outside Labour Party HQ. Then, in Autumn 2018 and Spring 2019, we hosted members of Christian Climate Action who were part of Extinction Rebellion. The climate activists completely took over our space, and for months it seemed like everything was about XR and climate change; nothing and nobody else mattered. This put a lot of pressure on the already strained relationships between volunteers and the migrant and refugee guests at the London Catholic Worker. I will come back to these relationships and the possibility of building trust and community across differences of power, at the end.

In 2018 I was already steadily burning out, but it was during these months that I had a big breakdown in my mental health which meant that, although I was still living at the Catholic Worker, I had to disengage from most of my work and any kind of activism. I have always found to-do lists helpful, and now, to help recover from burn-out, I started a not-to-do list. On this not-to-do list, I had things like activism, attending meetings, talking to visitors, answering the phone or door, and most importantly, talking about XR.

The reason I’m telling you about my not-to-do list is because when thinking about grassroots organising there is a danger of only talking about what needs to be done, how to build something new, when it is just as important to talk about what not to do. Very often our problem is that new possibilities and ideas are suppressed, and not only by capitalism, bureaucracy, or state repression, but by our own organising efforts and activism. All the different groups and activities that make up grassroots movements are interconnected, which means that my organising might undermine someone else’s.

This is especially a danger because of the way grassroots movements, locally and globally, are divided and polarized by unequal distributions of power. The people who have the most power and resources to take effective social action, are also invested in the capitalist colonial patriarchal systems that they are trying to challenge. People who are exploited by these systems are more immediately invested in radical change, but often lack the means, or face higher risks when taking action. These divisions of power therefore undermine effective climate action, not only through exclusion but also through the complicity that comes with inclusion. This is a fundamental dilemma for grassroots organising that cannot be resolved by good strategy or mass mobilization.

The rest of this paper is divided into three sections. First, I look at how climate activist groups in the UK like XR and Just Stop Oil respond to apathy and denial around climate change by trying to mobilize people into action using misanthropic and individualistic concepts such as herd mentality and the deathbed fantasy. Second, I will argue that there are contradictory barriers to people getting involved in climate activism rooted in divisions of power. Finally, I return to my example of the London Catholic Worker, reflecting on how these divisions of power might be dismantled.

 

Herd Mentality and Deathbed Radicalism

In his recent book, A People’s Green New Deal, Max Ajl argues that lefty liberal road maps for climate action lack a subject. He asks: “Who is to carry out this massive program of change, and demand to be included in such a blurry program?”[1]. I would say the same is true for XR, Just Stop Oil, Insulate Britain, and other direct-action campaigns such as Palestine Action. Who is this enlightened empowered militant subject who has both the revolutionary consciousness, and the material means and social power to carry out their theory of change? Who are the hundreds of thousands of people who have both the means and the motivation to do high risk actions, get themselves arrested again and again, go to prison, get beat up by cops, give up their jobs, without eventually burning out or becoming too cynical and defensive to engage with any kind of conflict or constructive criticism?

Groups like XR and Just Stop Oil deal with this problem by mobilizing people into action using guilt and manipulation. They hold talks and meetings where they scare people and fuel despair by telling them that within thirty years, they or their children will experience mass starvation, war, and extreme violence. Then they offer participation in their campaigns as an immediate solution. For example, in an essay addressed to young people, Roger Hallam writes “when you act, your despair will lift … you will find the happiness which presently feels impossible”[2].

This manipulative approach is justified with a number of misanthropic tropes, often subtly and sometimes more explicitly. A very obvious explicit example is Hallam’s concept of “herd mentality”. In a video from a couple of years ago called “Pivoting to the Endgame”, Hallam argues that as mammals we are essentially herd animals and herd animals mindlessly follow the group[3]. His argument is that people ignore climate change even though they are aware of the science because everybody else is ignoring it. The solution, he argues, is for a “radical fringe” to herd the group into a more active response to climate change.

First of all, herd mentality is not even real among actual herd animals. For example, a study into collective decision making among bison, published in 2015, observed a “voting process”[4]. Bisons use body language to elect leaders and collectively decide in which direction to move as a herd. Secondly, herd mentality does not explain what motivates the self-appointed radical fringe. How are they different from the masses?

Another common theme among climate activists involved with XR and Just Stop Oil is the “deathbed perspective”. Activists say they are motivated by the idea of one day being on their deathbed and wanting to be able to say that they did all they could to prevent catastrophic climate change. The emphasis here is not so much on the consequences of activism, but on having done something, anything at all. This is a type of activism defined by Paolo Freire as “action for action’s sake”[5].

What is missing here is the collective, relational aspect of social action. I am not saying that consideration of consequences is more important than the immediate impact and symbolic meaning of an action. If that were the case, we might never do anything at all because who knows what the complicated and unexpected consequences of my actions might be. However, let’s imagine an activist who has given up their full-time job, made personal sacrifices, spent time in prison and had some traumatic experiences as a result of their activism. They now end up on their deathbed and explain to their grandchildren that, even though they couldn’t prevent climate disaster, at least they did something. What if the grandchildren reply that that wasn’t good enough, or that the activist should have acted differently?

Children and grandchildren figure in this deathbed fantasy, not as real people whose needs and criticisms need to be taken seriously, but as an imaginary tool that helps the individual work out the correct thing to do all by themselves. The problem with the deathbed perspective is its underlying individualism. It is a motivation based on the idea that, at the end of the day, we are alone and accountable only to ourselves.

And in some ways, this is true for white and middle-class European activists, because we don’t have strong communities that we have responsibility towards to hold us accountable. The reason for this is that we are divided by hierarchical power relations that undermine mutual responsibility and accountability. For example, the reason that children are able to figure so naturally in the deathbed fantasy as a passive audience, legitimising the activist’s choices, is because of their subordinate status within patriarchy.

The reason why people are ignoring climate change, is not because we are stupid herd animals, or inherently selfish, or inherently limited to them vs us thinking, or any of these misanthropic tropes. It is because we are collectively crippled by pervasive, intersecting, exploitative divisions of power. Empowering ourselves and others to take action against climate change requires understanding and dismantling those divisions. Trying to mobilize people into action is a short cut and a dead end.

 

Barriers to Action

There are two contradictory barriers to people getting involved in climate activism. Both barriers are linked to divisions of power. One, the resources that enable people to engage in militant and sustained activism also make us dependent on the very structures that we are trying to challenge. This complicity distorts how we understand the world and ourselves. We are disempowered on the level of consciousness. Two, to the extent that we are excluded from these structures and have a more immediate interest in radical social change, and understanding of what it takes, the material and personal costs of activism are higher. We are materially disempowered.

These two barriers overlap since most people experience both inclusion and exclusion in some form. The two barriers are also related so that the more I overcome one, the more I struggle with the other. The more power I have, the less invested I am in social change. The more I become radicalized, the less power I have to change anything. This means that it is impossible for one person or one homogenous group to overcome both barriers on their own. The perfectly empowered revolutionary subject with perfect politics does not exist. Or, rather, the revolutionary subject is always a relationship.

Power relations constitute a social dilemma that can only be resolved socially, and dynamically, by engaging in ongoing mutual dialogue and accountability. Following W.E.B. Du Bois, I would argue that climate and other grassroots movements are divided by contradictory aims rooted in differences of power. In 1903, Du Bois argued that Black American intellectuals were confronted with the following paradox: “the knowledge his people needed was a twice-told tale to his white neighbours, while the knowledge which would teach the white world was Greek to his own flesh and blood”[6]. Du Bois here makes an important observation about how power operates as a dialectic.

Applied to our grassroots movements, I interpret his observation like this: The demand for money and for human rights by poor, working class, queer, and disabled activists, by women and by people of colour can seem like a twice-told tale to people who already have money and rights. To middle-class, white, or cis male activists these demands can seem reformist, even reactionary. They are a twice-told tale because money alone can’t solve our problems. But for many people, money and basic human rights specifically are the problem, the main barriers to them being involved in collective organising.

I’ve heard climate activists saying they are acting because they want to be on the right side of history, but a lot of people don’t need to do anything at all to be on the right side of history. And yet those people are often not seen as part of grassroots movements. For example, the refugees and migrants living at the London Catholic Worker, who have migrated or fled because of capitalist imperialism, and who were hosting climate activists in their space, were not recognised as participants in the climate movement, because they were not doing what white middle-class people in the UK consider to be activism.

On the other side, the practices through which privileged activists and allies try to disinvest themselves from capitalism, and radicalize their consciousness, can seem like Greek to their less privileged comrades. Veganism, non-violence, ethical consumerism, and voluntary poverty are all practices through which people refuse and disengage from their complicity in state violence and capitalist exploitation. Direct action, squatting, and dumpster diving can also sometimes fulfil this purpose. For example, Erica Lagalisse describes middle-class anarchists eating the worst food out of the dumpster as “The Rotten Grapefruit Class Power Cleanse”[7]. The worse your food tastes the less bourgeois you have to feel.

On their own, both class power cleanses and the demands for money and human rights, can become self-serving. If the goal is simply to have more power or feel less bourgeois, then both positions are reactionary. However, when practiced together, in relationships of mutual solidarity, both practices can empower people to get involved in sustained and revolutionary grassroots organising. Mutual solidarity, for me, means that people divided by power relations are empowered in asymmetrical ways by working together.

 

Mutual Solidarity

To some extent, the London Catholic Worker tried to build such relationships of mutual solidarity between live-in volunteers, the majority of whom were white or middle-class, and guests who were migrants and refugees with no recourse to public funds. On the one hand, the project provided consistent material support to people targeted by border violence, and on the other hand, it was a space where volunteers practiced voluntary poverty and ate a lot of half-rotten food. This was always a precarious balance. There was always a danger of one of these aims dominating, and us becoming either just another charity or just another self-absorbed anarchist clique. However, there were periods and moments where I felt that it was working, where there was mutual trust and support between people divided by class, race, and migration status.

I remember a conversation with a guest who reminded the live-in volunteers that we were not only giving the guests a home, but the guests were also giving us volunteers a home because they were the reason for us being there and running the project in the first place. This was an explicit recognition of the fact that both guests and volunteers were dependent on each other and benefiting from the project in different ways. This asymmetrical reciprocity had the potential to challenge and begin to transform the racist and patriarchal division between guests as passive recipients of care, and volunteers as active but ultimately expendable providers of care. This division dehumanizes and exploits both guests and volunteers and both therefore benefit from overcoming this division.

While I was there between 2014 and 2019, the London Catholic Worker provided accommodation in shared rooms for 20 men, most of whom were street homeless before they were referred to the house. The project was run by a small group of young live-in volunteers. We were only able to do this because most of the guests understood the project and worked to help make it possible. Any decision that volunteers made had to be communicated and enforced ourselves, and so we usually got direct and personal feedback from guests. We constantly made exceptions and we spent a lot of time having difficult conversations addressing conflicts and issues in the house.

All this was incredibly exhausting, but I refuse to believe that I burnt out because we didn’t have enough professional middle-class boundaries and work-life balance. The reason the relationship between guests and volunteers ultimately deteriorated is because the wider society and activist movements that we are part of do not recognize the agency of refugees or the needs of allies and activists. We were trying to unlearn and dismantle an exploitative and dehumanizing dynamic that is constantly reinforced and re-internalized.

To conclude, while groups like XR and Just Stop Oil do some good actions, it is important to consider how they impact the grassroots communities whose power and resources they draw from. In order to dismantle the divisions of power that polarize and undermine our movements, we need to build relationships of mutual solidarity across differences of power. These relationships enable us share the material means as well as the sense of belonging and collective purpose that we need to engage in sustained and radical climate action.

 

References

[1] Max Ajl. 2021. A People’s Green New Deal. London: Pluto Press, p. 88.

[2] Roger Hallam. 2019. “Advice to Young People, as you Face Annihilation”. Available at: https://www.gwern.net/docs/sociology/2019-hallam.pdf

[3] Roger Hallam. 2020. “Pivoting to the Endgame”. Available at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XEdXgB9urN0&t=4248s

[4] Amandine Ramos, Odile Petit, Patrice Longour, Cristian Pasquaretta, and Cédric Sueur. 2015. “Collective decision making during group movements in European bison, Bison bonasus“. Animal Behaviour 109, pp. 149-160.

[5] Paolo Freire. 2017. Pedagogy of the Oppressed. London: Penguin Random House, p. 61.

[6] W.E.B. Du Bois. 2007. The Souls of Black Folk. Oxford: Oxford University Press, p. 9.

[7] Erica Lagalisse. 2016. “Good Politics”: Property, Intersectionality, and the Making of the Anarchist Self. Montreal: McGill University, p. 91.