The Mad King
Extinction Rebellion and the tyrant that reigns over us in 2021.
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The climate protest group Extinction Rebellion have set up camp in my part of London.
So this week, reflections on their mission, its legitimacy, and what it tell us about the nature and uses of power in 2021.
Every day I walk around my neighbourhood in a massive, twisting loop that would look deranged if you traced it on a map.
It started as a balm for lockdown. Now it’s just a habit. After all, these days my home and office are exactly the same place. If I didn’t walk in circles, I’d hardly walk at all.
This week, though, the all-too familiar scenery – houses, shops, a couple of old churches – was augmented by something new. The climate protest group Extinction Rebellion (XR) has pitched a camp on the large open heath that gives my part of London its name. A multi-coloured collage of about 50 tents are sleeping, I’m told, around 200 people. They wake early each morning and head to central London to cause a nuisance.
Currently, XR is conducting a two-week protest on the streets of the UK capital. And when I say they’re causing a nuisance, I don’t mean it to be a criticism. I’m just stating an agreed fact: nuisance-causing is what the XR protestors are here to do. A few days ago, for example, they parked a whopping great double-decker bus across London Bridge, one of the main routes in and out of the city’s financial district.
So there’s a question that we Londoners must contend with at the moment. Is XR’s nuisance-causing – or civil disobedience, if you prefer – legitimate? Are they right to do what they do, or not?
It’s a compelling question for this newsletter, because it taps deep into the origins of the historical phenomenon that underlies everything I write about here: modernity. In fact, it’s a question that – albeit in a different form – helped create what we call the modern.
Can active resistance against a sovereign government ever be legitimate? Because this question prompted a re-examination of the nature and origins of political power, it helped bring an end to the age of divinely appointed kings and usher in what came next. But ever since, issues of legitimate resistance have haunted us moderns.
Leviathan, by the 17th-century English political philosopher Thomas Hobbes, was the first work to deal seriously with the question. Hobbes’s answer was unequivocal: no. Four decades later another Englishman, John Locke, was inspired to make his own reply: resistance can be legitimate if the sovereign fails in his duty to protect life and liberty.
Locke’s answer is the one we adopted. Few today believe that a sovereign government can do whatever it likes, no matter how egregious, and retain its legitimacy. But Locke’s answer leaves much ambiguous, and we’ve argued about the grey areas ever since. How do we know for sure when a government is failing us? Who gets to decide?
The spectre that haunted Locke was that of tyranny: a king gone bad, or mad. But the spectre that now afflicts us is different: it is environmental collapse, via rising global temperatures, into a permanent and degraded afterworld. We fear that the precipice is getting ever closer. And there is no mad king pulling us in his wake. We live in a democracy. We are, in principle at least, doing this to ourselves.
In these circumstances, is XR’s brand of protest legitimate? We can move towards an answer by looking more closely at what it is, exactly, they are protesting against.
XR’s stated position on that is clear: they are protesting against government inaction on climate change. But the full truth is more complex. We in the Global North live under governments of the people’s choosing. Our representatives will take action on climate only if they sense that we demand it. So we, all of us, are the more fundamental underlying targets of XR’s protest. XR wants us to rethink our priorities. To be more specific, they want us to forgo what is easy for what is necessary.
I’ve written before on the idea that our democracies are being hijacked by an accelerating quest for tech-fuelled convenience. We’re handing over personal information and ever great power to the big technology platforms with little thought for our freedoms. As Google and Facebook become centres of socio-political power to rival that of our elected governments, it’s no overstatement to say that our thirst for convenience is the Mad King that besets us in 2021. Via that King, we are tyrannising ourselves.
XR understands that something analogous is happening with climate.
As with Big Tech, people say they care. Survey data released by Ipsos MORI last week showed that 32% of Britons agree that climate change and pollution are ‘a major issue for the country’, making them second only to COVID in the list of national concerns. Climate anxiety is higher in the UK than it’s ever been. But the effect on our politics has been small; we’ve seen nothing like the electoral earthquake that these numbers would suggest. As with Big Tech, we can all hear the alarm bells. They’re becoming deafeningly loud. But day to day, we’re stuck in paths of least resistance.
XR’s protests are aimed at these truths. By blocking the roads and stopping the trains they want to make it impossible to forget that these times are far from normal.
Yes, their protests cause inconvenience. But that’s the point. Inconvenience is the point. We are currently leading ourselves over the cliff for the sake – at least in part – of convenience. For the sake, that is, of our inability to imagine making radical changes to lives we have become used to living.
Don’t mistake me: individual behaviour change won’t solve global heating. The drivers are systemic; addressing them will mean government action. But we must ignite that action, and must be willing to accept the changes to our way of life that will result. All the signs are that this is not going to happen on its own. It will take something new; some exogenous shock.
If XR’s protests can be that shock, then they are legitimate. If they can wake us from our zombie shuffle, and remind us there’s something more important, right now, than today’s Amazon delivery or meeting at the office, then they are taking aim at exactly the right tyrant.
The message they send, and that we must hear, is that the Mad King that reigns in 2021 is us. It’s time to dethrone our old selves, and make ourselves anew.
Thanks for reading this week.
Thomas Hobbes’s Leviathan inspired one of the greatest illustrations in all of English literature.
What’s more, the book still has much to teach us about one of this newsletter’s great obsessions: the nature of political power inside modernity.
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