An interview with Roger Hallam — on radical politics, youth mobilization, Extinction Rebellion, and much more
Roger Hallam was interviewed by Athina Karatzogianni and Jacob Matthews in February and March 2021. Their discussion focuses on ideology, leadership, organisation, communication and mobilisation strategies in radical movements, class and youth politics, transition, community, and resilience, as well as conflict within Extinction Rebellion (henceforth XR), delving into Roger’s thinking on radical politics more broadly.
Athina Karatzogianni: How did you get involved in radical politics?
Roger Hallam: I’ve been involved in radical politics since I was 14 or 15. In the 1980s when I was a teenager, I was involved in the peace movement in Europe. I got arrested and went to prison during that period. So, I was well aware of civil disobedience as a method of bringing about political change. And then when I was at the London School of Economics, I studied Gandhi and non-violence for a year.
Athina Karatzogianni: This was in your early twenties then?
Roger Hallam: Yes, and then I became involved in workers collectives and organic farming and other things in my thirties and my forties. But when I went to London, the main thing I was working towards was how to mobilise people to engage in mass participation, civil disobedience. I was particularly influenced by research in the United States. It seemed enormously clear to me that the most effective way to bring about rapid political change was mass, non-violent civil disobedience. I studied various different forms of direct action as part of my field research: light strikes, occupations, rent strikes and suchlike. Then I was asked to advise climate change activists on how to be effective. So, I talked to them about creating a more civil resistance sort of model based upon the global south, which is to occupy major cities. Given that part of the problem is obviously systemic, as it were.
Athina Karatzogianni: When were you advising climate change activists?
Roger Hallam: Around 2007 I think, and through those discussions, Rising Up was formed, which was a sort of network of activists and academics researching how to engage in mass participation, civil disobedience. Then I did a paper called Pivoting to the Real Issue in January 2013, which proposes that we create a rebellion against the British government on civil resistance principles and that led to the foundation of Extinction Rebellion. And since that’s been formed, I’ve been one of the main strategic voices in XR on how to do that effectively.
Athina Karatzogianni: Your first very publicised action was at King’s College when you were a PhD student there. You were arrested for that and then you were vindicated. In relation to that specific period of your life, how did that particular action inspire you? Given that arrests are a tactic that is used by XR, what was your own experience of that arrest and how did it influence what you were doing in XR?
Roger Hallam: As I was basing my action designs on the principles developed by Martin Luther King and Gandhi, and the classical theory of non-violence is that you engage in disruption in order to get attention and force an opponent to come to the table and negotiate. That’s the other side of classical non-violence: once the opponents come to the table, you’re very respectful towards the opponent and focus upon a change in behaviour or policy, rather than denigrating the opponent in a in a sort of traditional political way. So those are the two elements. The hypothesis, as you might say, of the King’s College campaign was that direct action would produce a result a lot quicker and more efficiently than traditional forms of campaigning. Usually, a divestment campaign to force a university to divest from fossil fuels can take anything from one to five years.
The campaign I engaged with changed their whole corporate policy in five weeks. The outcome of that case today, as it were, was that vigorous non-violence is massively more effective than traditional campaigning, and the mechanism was to create criminal damage with lawful excuse – as it turned out, causing £7000 worth of damage to the building and then carrying on a 14-day hunger strike. That produced a change of policy in those two weeks. They had an emergency investment meeting. I was suspended from King’s College, banned from King’s College for ten days, and then they reinstated me, because it was too embarrassing for them. And then when we came to an agreement, everyone shook hands and were friends as it were, so it was a classic Gandhian sort of progression of giving an ultimatum, engaging in direct action, negotiation and reconciliation. What I took from that was to replicate that on a mass scale towards the government or towards larger institutions. The main hypothesis being that in any power relationship, there is a certain point of non-cooperation or pressure, at which an opponent will be forced to negotiate and no one has absolute power, and it is all a question of numbers and a non-violent force, those that are two criteria.
Athina Karatzogianni: Were you influenced at all by Gene Sharp?
Roger Hallam: Yes, I mean he was one of the main scholars in classical civil disobedience, very much so. And you know, as I just said, his main proposition is that power is relational. It’s not absolute. In other words, a group only has power over another group to the extent that the oppressed group cooperates with the oppressor, and to the extent that there will come a point where the oppressor will be required to negotiate. That is a very positive philosophy of action and it is empirically robust, as we know.
Athina Karatzogianni: I want to move from the ideological discussion and that of strategy towards organisational matters. From attending some meetings about self organisation tactics, I am aware that in the last six months there has been a restructuring of XR. I broadly understand it is based on the holacracy model, and that this organisational structure is based on distributed, decentralised architecture, distributed authority. There are differences between this kind of architecture and the model of Occupy, for example, that was consensus-based, and where things tended to be a little bit slower, what activists call ‘the muddle of Occupy’, whereas XR has follows the ‘by consent’ model. I wonder about your views on how this architecture of organising came about and what whether you had contributed to the organisational structure yourself. What are your views on movement organisation more broadly?
Roger Hallam: Well, the plan for XR took about a year and a half of research and conversations, so it didn’t come out of nowhere. It wasn’t like Occupy where there was no pre-organisation. We had twenty or thirty people involved in designing a modern social movement. And there were six or seven sort of key elements which made it successful. One, of course, was mass civil disobedience and another one was trying to transcend the conflict between hierarchy and horizontalism. The middle way or the transcendent sort of notion was a whole structure where there is delegated authority to mandated groups to have autonomy to get on and initiate creative action within their mandates and so on. The big advantage was that it created an institutionalisation of the social movement, to avoid it collapsing because of structurelessness, as has happened with all the horizontal movements over the last twenty-thirty years. But it didn’t take on a traditional left wing, sort of top-down, leadership structure, as you might say. It was very successful to the extent that thousands of people joined it very quickly.
But in my view, it’s been extremely unsuccessful in being able to create a leadership structure that can create strategic coherence and inspiration, in the context of the biggest existential crisis in the history of humanity. Sociologically speaking, all crises require a top-down leadership in order to create strategic coherence, so there’s a big contradiction between the sort of high-tech model and the necessity for rapid decision making, which is always needed in non-violent confrontation, if it’s going to be successful. As you can see from Martin Luther King and Gandhi models, there was always a central hierarchy that is even more essential now, because we’re going to have billions of people starving to death in the next twenty to thirty years, if we don’t create some sort of coherence. So, there’s a big clash really between the existential emergency and the idealism of some that don’t understand the urgency of the situation.
Athina Karatzogianni: You talked about being a teenager in the 1980s and the peace movement and getting arrested, etc. Going back to the 60s and 70s, the civil rights movement, the student movement in the US and Europe, basically you had the emergence of this idea of more participatory, shared and decentralised leadership, to recognise the emotional labour of activists, to have more participatory leadership. And right now, in the global north, you find this obsession with decentralisation and horizontalism. For example, Alicia Garza has talked about the same problem of the misapplication of decentralised leadership, decentralised structures in Black Lives Matter. This for me is of particular interest: if you go back to your formative years, what were your impressions from people that mentored you, so to speak, or that you worked with? And what’s going on in this continuum of the last fifty-sixty years? What are your impressions of this leadership question?
Roger Hallam: There was a big transition from what you might call traditional left social democratic organisational structures, which were rooted in the mid 20th century, but lasted until the 1990s, and decentralised New Left and postmodernist sort of orientated movements, which originated after 1968 and became even more prominent after 1989. Since 1989, the horizontal dogma has dominated radical politics. In my view, this has been the primary reason for the failure of radical politics, because of its inability to create material power formations that are capable of presenting a material threat to the neoliberal system. Horizontalism is part of the neoliberal construction of society, which enables radical people to virtually signal their opposition, but not to create any material opposition. You can obviously see that in the failure of the climate movements to prevent a 60% increase in carbon emissions over the last fifty years, and in the failure of the left to stop the massive increase in social inequality.
The left has catastrophically failed, in my view, over the last thirty years, and the radical left has been a disaster, insomuch, as it’s been incapable of creating strategic coherence and mass organisation. This is largely a function of its domination by the privileged urban middle class in the Global North that has been disconnected with the older working-class formations of the mid-twentieth century, such as a structural default. But I think horizontalism now is reaching a crisis point, because of the determination, as it were, of the climate crisis. The climate crisis will be manifested through a rise of right-wing populism and fascistic movements.
Over the next five to ten years, the moment of truth for social movements is whether they break out of that domination of the radical left and move towards a more twentieth century realist model of alliances across different social and economic groups – a little bit like in the 1930s – and accept the democratic hierarchical models which were most effective in the 20th century, where you vote a leadership in, the leadership is given executive control, and you can vote them out if you don’t like it. So, for me, it’s a sort of return: what climate change is going to do is that it will force a return to a modernist political culture in the next ten years. The postmodernist period will be seen as an aberration of northern privilege.
Athina Karatzogianni: I want to ask you about the digital communication experiences you have had in the last three or four years. To my understanding XR used WhatsApp up until a point and then changed to Signal and Telegram due to privacy and security concerns. There’s a platform that is based on a carbon neutral server in Switzerland, and there is also Glassfrog and mattermost that is used by XR activists as well. When you consider communication aspects both internally (their role within the group, the movement) and externally (publicising, coordinating actions with the masses), what role do you think communication has particularly played in the trajectory of the movement? What is your own experience of this?
Roger Hallam: Well, my view is that social media has a heroin like aspect to mobilisation processes, in other words, you get a quick hit and then you got a quick collapse. Social media undermines the ability to create effective hierarchical organisation that will maintain the material resistance to the neoliberal state. What social media does is that it creates very rapid mobilisations and then facilitates very rapid collapse, because it can only and it’s only really good at creating action. It’s not good at creating decision-making structures. It undermines decision-making structures, because it overloads people with information and it also privileges outside voices that are usually destructive. It is a major problem and it doesn’t add anything, in my view, to the process of effective mobilisation. Effective mobilisation really has to be rooted in in meetings and in in face-to-face mobilisation contexts such as public meetings and people’s assemblies and such like, where you can enable people to engage in active speech, which is the primary mechanism of personal empowerment and then free people engaging in the ICT stage. You can go through a process of aggregation and once the aggregation is happening, then there needs to be delegation to an executive to take the aggregation and put it into action. The big problem with social media is that it privileges only a few voices, because there’s too much information on it and it degenerates into aggressive sort of speech. It’s impossible to aggregate, because unless it’s specially designed, you can’t aggregate. And last of all, there’s no implementation because there’s no agreement on who the executive should be. All those things make it extremely difficult, and really a diversion from material resistance to the state. Extinction Rebellion realised this in its design stage of not engaging in social media mobilisation.
Another problem with social media and organisation is that you tend to speak to people similar to yourself and that leads to a dead spot, to disconnected network structures which over and over radicalise people and turn things into a sort of cult-like, paradox of political identity-esque situations. So, what Extinction Rebellion decided to do was to mobilise through 19th century mechanisms, which is the public meeting. And the great thing about the public meeting is that it invites a lot of people. You’ve got the emotional connection and people together. You revisit the age-old successful oratory, which in my view is essential for maintaining and promoting mobilisation, the emotionality of the speech and the testimony of ordinary people. Those are the things that drive mobilisation, the emotionality of collective spaces. Obviously, that’s a major reversal of a lot of the wishful thinking of social media utopianism, but I’m just being empirical about, you know, not looking ideologically against social media. Everything I’m telling you is broadly empirical.
Athina Karatzogianni: I wanted to ask you about this meeting where XR youth came and occupied the meeting. Can you talk to me a little bit about this experience, if you faced challenges from a part of XR in relation to your role in the movement, how you dealt with those, and how you feel about this conflict? Has it harmed the movement, this conflict in relation to you in particular and on a personal level?
Roger Hallam: Well, you know, as you probably noticed, I take a broader sociological view of social situations. What I’m trying to communicate to you – and a lot of scholars have a difficulty understanding this – is that in the next ten to twenty years, it’s highly likely that there’ll be social collapse around the world, and that realisation is creating an exponential increase in social stress psychologically, materially.
You need to understand that we’ll be going over 0.5 degrees above pre-industrial temperatures in the next five to ten years, which will lead to the collapse of the Paris agreement, which was never serious in the first place. And we’ll be going over 2 degrees in the next ten to twenty years, which will precipitate mass starvation events. Given that that’s 5 to 6 degrees in inland areas, which means 10 to 20 degrees above pre-industrial temperatures during heatwaves, it makes it impossible to grow food. We have an absolute crisis, that will continue to create a fragmentation in the social space, as is well documented in previous social periods, when a society faces annihilation. The fragmentation is between fatalism or hedonism or revolution. Those are the three main fragmentations, and they always happen simultaneously. And these fragmentations interfere with each other, as you might say.
One of the dynamics in Extinction Rebellion is the intense emotionality of people realising that all that they wish for is not going to come true and it is particularly true for young people. There are two sorts of polarisations there. One is to move towards self-pity and try to create safe spaces and avoid what is horrible, as you might say, and another one is towards explicit resistance. Now, those two approaches obviously conflict. And one of the reasons in my sense is that a lot of young people are conflicted between those two: their desire for safety and their need to enter into resistance. So that conflict is working its way through and it leads to a lot of denial and fear. This leads to a bigger tension in middle class northern social movements. Social movements tend to attract people who are very likeable and want to see a good world. They find it very difficult to engage in confrontation. And so, paradoxically, they withdraw from confrontation, because they think confrontation is what they’re against. It is a major challenge to persuade people that you might have confrontation.
Most social resistance movements make that crossing of the Rubicon moment where they decide they’re going to create whatever confrontation is necessary. Because, you know, in the words of one of the girls who did the children’s march in 1963, we are going to get hurt anyway. The realisation you’re going to get hurt anyway for me is the major impetus towards civil resistance. In other words, you can’t escape. You’re already going into the gas chamber, right? There’s no alternative. And obviously, the more privileged you are, the more you can deceive yourself. So really, in a sense, Extinction Rebellion is a transitory movement that has mobilised the wrong demographic. It has mobilised the demographic that’s the most privileged and the keenest on nice things happening.
XR needs to mobilise the traditional revolutionary demographic, which is the lower middle class, which is the main revolutionary demographic. Either it goes to fascism or it goes to the left-wing movements historically. The reason for that is because it doesn’t have skin in the game as much as the professional middle class. But it’s intelligent enough, educated enough and has enough time and money to effectively rebound. So, it’s a sweet spot in the social structure in terms of civil resistance. The major strategy in our transition has to be connecting and integrating the climate crisis with the social crisis. Through that integration, we can create civil resistance that is centered on the lower middle class in Western societies. But that’s a massive challenge because, the professional middle class has monopolised the climate movement for the last thirty years and it doesn’t want to give it up.
Athina Karatzogianni: I want to ask you about your experience, because obviously at some point you said, this is the strategy, in connection to Heathrow airport, and then you were arrested a few days prior and then after. At that point, XR and yourself were at odds with going ahead with that action. How did this conflict arise? I’m talking specifically about XR youth, which, of course, you explained to me really well. What do you think is going on with XR Youth? I want to ask about this particular conflict in relation to you and your strategies. Do you think that this group dominates now? How do you see your role inside XR now? Because I know you have created other organisations, such as Burning Pink. What is your experience of this struggle?
Roger Hallam: In my previous answer, I gave you the sociological structure of the division and conflict. A particular side of that conflict was the inability of Extinction Rebellion to agree to engage in flying drones, safely, to the extent of closing down the airport. So, it wasn’t agreed by XR, largely because of the intervention of those young people. It went along independently insomuch as effective material resistance to the general project is ethically and strategically imperative. A bunch of people did that and it obviously largely failed to have the impact because it didn’t have the infrastructural support. One of the reasons for setting up Burning Pink is to create an infrastructural support for civil resistance projects, Extinction Rebellion being largely appropriated by the privileged middle class of the global north. As a consequence of that, they’re not willing to engage in in classical civil resistance, because they’ve got too much skin in the game.
Athina Karatzogianni: I have noticed that you still post and that you still work with colleagues in XR. You must still feel that there is a role for you to play there.
Roger Hallam: Yes, Extinction Rebellion is a broad church. There are still twenty-five to fifty percent of people in XR around the world who are actively engaged and wishing to bring about civil resistance episodes. There is still a role to play, as you might say. However, I think once we come out of the pandemic, then the movement will probably diverge. Part of it will return to the traditional denial of the old model environmentalist movement. And other people will move forward to a civil resistance social model. My prediction is that the latter will thrive and the former will discontinue, because they’re historically irrelevant, because of the structural determinants of a system.
Athina Karatzogianni: Now some specific questions regarding framing. Your argument is that there should be a culture, not a neutral language, for the mass movement to be built. But then you say that the movement might need to create separate mobilisations to be channeled into a movement of movements. You talk about the need for workers to organise themselves, people say from the black community should organise themselves separately – to have this set of mobilisations that they feed into a movement of humans.
Roger Hallam: To understand what I mean you need to have quite a sophisticated analysis of this area, because it’s quite easy to talk about in simplistic team terms which don’t really relate to the underlying causal determinants of how to be successful. One of the common misunderstandings with the notion of movement of movements is that it doesn’t differentiate between what you might call top-down alliances and bottom-up alliances, which are fundamentally different sorts of strategies, so that the top-down and likely movement alliance idea is that you go to the gatekeepers and leaders, the central power holders of an alternative movement space. And then you persuade those to enact civil disobedience with you. The alternative strategy is to go in at the side of the movement, as it were, and cooperate with people locally or in the local branches. A third strategy is to just create a completely separate mobilisation, which includes people in that demographic, as an alternative. For instance, the three strategies with trade unions would be either to talk to the trade union leaders and they come on side. That’s number one. You go to a trade union office, to branches, and recruit them to do stuff. And the third one is the separate mobilisation of trade unionists who have their own structure. What I was suggesting was that the two that are meaningful and work are the latter two, which is going sideways and going in to create separate mobilisations of people from that demographic.
The reason for that is largely empirical in the sense that if you go and talk to the main gate keepers, power holders or leaders of other social movements, spaces or left political spaces, then what you find is entrenched, reformist orientations, which means that people in positions out of ideology or privilege are going to be unwilling to enter into civil resistance, and they will block your attempts to mobilise for those reasons. I don’t think there’s anything particularly unusual in terms of social theory about how this works, because the vast majority of civil resistance episodes are created by autonomous mobilisations, separate from the official organisations. For instance, in 2012, in the Egyptian revolution, it was the grassroots of the Muslim Brotherhood that joined the revolution, it wasn’t the hierarchy and the leadership; the hierarchy and the leadership came in at the end. There’s no point going to the hierarchy in the leadership before the revolution, because they don’t have the political imagination, courage or willingness to risk their status to engage in a revolution. The primary strategic sort of point I’m making here is to criticise conventional movement building, which pursues an elitist, reformist method, and therefore ineffectual political change.
Athina Karatzogianni: I want to take you back to a term you have used, “culturally neutral language”. That is the very classical problem, strategy or identity in a movement. The more open the framing is, the more people can feel included in that, and be mobilised and recruited. But then you have the problem of what is the strategy and who is included. This is the alliances that you’re mentioning externally and then internally. When you use the term “culturally neutral language”, I was wondering about that because the next point is about the separate mobilisations as well. It seems like a paradox, that tension.
Roger Hallam: What I’m proposing is a dual strategy. The first strategy is to make the mainstream movement space as opening open and neutral and welcoming as possible. There’s a whole number of concrete micro designs that ensure that that happens, in order to encourage different demographics, cultures and ethnicities to create their own mobilisations, so that they can draw in the benefits of attracting people. The major mechanism of mobilisation is to have people from the group talking to that group. Neither of those are perfect and both of them have dangers. But the point is that both of those strategies are a lot more preferable to the default political identity problem, which is a movement builds and it ends up manifesting just one particular demographic or culture, excludes people from joining the mainstream movement, and therefore limits its growth and prevents it from becoming a mass movement.
By refusing to enable other groups to self organise, then you end up not being able to integrate groups who do fundamentally want to organise on their own within their own identities, because their identities are quite strong or different to what you might call the mainstream identity. None of that is conflict free. There’s no utopian solution to movement building. What we’re looking at is the best suboptimal scenario and that’s better than what you’ve got at the moment, which is often combined with superficial tokenism, the idea of bringing black people in to make a speech, but not enabling black people to organise, because they won’t fundamentally change the culture of the organisation to welcome black people in.
Athina Karatzogianni: That’s actually very true. You can see it also with how some councils work and the representation there, especially in that sense. I was going to ask you about the Citizens Assembly. It is quite central in what you are proposing and also in relation to the transition period, specifically, because I think you don’t seem to be settled on that one yourself in terms of design, because you talk about a transitional period of two years, where perhaps you will have a thousand people for a fixed period of that, and then you have regional and cities citizens assemblies. I was wondering about this transitional period for the citizens assemblies because it’s a national city/ regional focus. But how does that work in a global context as well? So definitely on the transition point, I have questions in regards to that and the role of the citizens assemblies.
Roger Hallam: One of the annoying things about social change is it’s unpredictably non-linear. It’s very difficult to design transition periods, which don’t involve highly unpredictable breaks in previous social arrangements. In other words, usually what happens is a crisis that will throw up various potentialities and then basically the revolutionary leadership has to scramble around to innovate very quickly because it’s all or nothing. That’s not because it’s proactive design. That’s because no one’s on the street and suddenly everyone’s on the street, because of the collective action dynamics and the herding dynamics of mobilisation. Having said that, I don’t think there’s anything particularly intellectually or academically challenging about a transition to a citizens assembly based constitution.
Citizens assemblies is a constitutional mechanism in the same way as representational democracy is, as the same way as sort of autocratic kingship is. We’ve got numerous examples historically about how you make constitutional revolutions. I mean, there’s been dozens of them. But the general gist is that people on the street demand for a new constitutional arrangement and then that comes in and then the elites fight back against it. People come onto the street and you have a to and fro scenario for two years or a few months, depending upon the historical example. That new constitutional regime becomes embedded and then maybe ten or twenty years later, it gets challenged again. An example is French history over the last 200 years, how many constitutional breaks that they had? About four or five, something like that. So that’s what we’re really looking at. We’re not looking at some total collapse of the social system or something. What will happen, the big break, is when in terms of real political power, citizens assemblies have more political and moral authority than the representational bodies. I think that will probably happen quite rapidly because of the optics of citizens assemblies, given the mass alienation from the political class. I think the big attraction of certain assemblies is not that people are making decisions, so much as that people are being seen to make decisions. That would be highly attractive in terms of real popular political power.
Jacob Matthews: When you mention the fact that in the movement at the moment, you see a clear division between middle class interests. And what you said is that the upper middle class have effectively confiscated the ecologist movement over the past 30 years, that they are not willing to relinquish their position, and that sociologically this is what you’ve seen play out in XR. Now, my question really is, what are the structural elements to actually constitute these two groups as a class? Why would you still consider that they belong to the same middle class? And secondly, I understood what you said about the lower middle class and obviously having had access to better social capital education. That’s where you think lies a soft spot and where the potential for revolutionary change is coming from. This is a slightly polemic question here. Have you actually kind of given up on the working class completely?
Roger Hallam: Whenever you’re talking about this, you’re talking about sort of rules of thumb and a certain degree of generality, because there’s loads of exceptions to the rule that you might cite, because the categories you talking about are obviously very big. There’s lots of diversity within those categories. And the boundaries of categories are highly fluid in terms of definitional elements of them. I think an appropriate approach here is to use the notion of that sort of family resemblance. As you know, there’s no central foundational notion in the lower middle class, but there’s five or six characteristics of that group which interrelate. Often, individuals will display some of those characteristics, but rarely all of them. I think that needs to be said before you engage in an analysis of what the broad dynamics are: you have to accept they are broad dynamics, right? We’re not talking about some vulgar Marxist sort of determinism here. But at the same time, I think that class is massively underestimated in terms of the dynamics of politics in Western societies. And obviously, class does coincide with culture. The two things are quite a bit of a tortuous debate. But there are many elements of class, all cultural, and of course, a lot of cultural elements are very class-based as well. So, it’s difficult to separate the two out. But having said all those caveats, let’s go back to your first question…
Jacob Matthews: When you said that the movement had been, in a sense, confiscated by the upper middle class over the past thirty, forty years, which is something that we definitely relate to, although we’re not using those precise terms. To what extent is there still a unity of class between what you call the lower middle class and this upper echelon? Does it still constitute, a single class?
Roger Hallam: I’m not really bothered by the terminologies. I think what I’m trying to highlight is fundamental differences between the regional middle class and the urban professional middle class. The upper middle class is a bit of a problematic sort of category, because that really assumes the top three or four percent of the population, arguably. What we’re talking about here and various scholars have pointed out that potentially, the biggest division in society is between university educated and the non-university educated, because that has a class element to it, but it has also a strong cultural element to it as well. To a certain extent, this is reinforced by age. The older people who are university educated have a very different orientation between educated urban people that somewhat coincides with urban, educated young people in their thirties. This is a major fracture in society and this is exacerbated by the culture wars and this general sort of cultural irrationality that sees uneducated people moving to the populist right, while educated university people are moving to the elite left, as you might say…
Jacob Matthews: The extreme centre, as we call it, in France.
Roger Hallam: Yes, there are interesting things happening. There’s a specific orientation with the green movement and then there’s a matter of strategic orientation, about how to save ourselves from fascism. My orientation in terms of movement building is that we can provide more specificity about the paradox of the political identity problem. Because my proposition is that the paradox of political identity is a key problematic element in mass mobilisation. I agree that it reinforces its culture and its initial success, but it’s the primary reason why it fails to get further success, a dynamic you see in loads of systems. First movers are not like second movers in very entrepreneurial first movers, all nerdy, and you have to get rid of the first movers in order to get to the second movers.
In terms of a social movement strategy, you have to obviously recruit the urban middle class because they are the quickest to mobilise. But then you have to reduce the power of the urban middle class or persuade them to allow in the rural lower or lower middle class, which is a very different culture, and the regional lower middle class has greater numbers. This is how you create the mass movement. The sort of liberal urban middle class is actually a very small demographic. It’s not half as big as people think it is. Whereas the regional low middle class, of course, is a very large demographic, so people get confused between proportions and absolute numbers.
You might say you’re going to mobilise ten percent of the urban professional class. But that in absolute numbers, it’s less than three percent of the rural, regional, middle class. So strategically, you should focus on the regional middle class in terms of mobilising. Now, the thing to understand about the lower regional middle is although they’re socially conservative, they’re politically left or at least open to political arguments, because objectively they’re in a position of their lifestyles being degenerated and status degenerated for the last fifty years, because of globalisation and the rich running off with tax avoidance and all the rest of that.
That’s really the central conundrum of XR and the ecological movement: to move towards mobilising people that never been in the green movement. A data point on this, for instance, is when I went round and did my speeches two years ago. If I went to North London or Brighton, I would get plenty of people, but only ten, fifteen percent of them would be prepared to be arrested, while in Sunderland or Derby or Newcastle, it’d be more like 30 percent of people prepared to be arrested. I would estimate that at least half of them, and maybe even three quarters of them had never been involved in politics before. So, this is the move that has to be made more generically on the left: to talk in the language and in the interests and in the culture of the regional middle class. And of course, that is what the populist right has done, which is why the populist right is able to mobilise a lot of people, because it’s mobilising people that are being excluded or feel excluded from politics. The problem is with the urban professional class and identity politics, which is completely alienating to the rural and middle class. That’s the conundrum that has to be negotiated.
Jacob Matthews: That would also apply to the working class or what’s left of the working class.
Roger Hallam: Working class is quite a complicated space as far as I can see, and I’m still not entirely clear about this. My general orientation, as I am on record saying, is that you have to separate the lower working class from the higher working class. The lower working class is characterised by chaotic lifestyles. This is not criticising them; it’s just being analytical about it: broken families, irregular financing, drug problems, domestic violence, all that sort of stuff. But the established working class, objectively it’s in its class interests to join a left mobilisation. And obviously for climate catastrophe mobilisation, they should be on that street, because they’re the people who are going to lose most from it.
But I think in the respectable working class, there are two problems. One problem is that they’ve lost their political confidence, because they don’t have any mentors and they don’t have any revolutionary sort of tradition, within living memory. So, it’s very difficult for them to really get re-empowered by that glorious tradition, as you might say. Then the other problem is, insomuch as they do have collective organisations, those collective organisations are demoralised and dominated by old men who have no imagination and no zest. But I think they are one of key mobilisation demographics. So are the urban working-class youth, which is a different kettle of fish.
You saw this reinvigoration of working-class culture with punk and the anti-racist movements in the late 70s where you’ve got a demoralised youth culture that sprang into some confidence. I think there’s a good chance of that happening. But again, you’ve got the political identity problem that you know: all the climate youth mobilisation is even more middle class than the adult mobilization, and that’s one of the reasons it’s been co-opted by the NGOs ineffectual reformist strategies. I think there’s the space there to mobilise lower middle class urban youth and working-class urban youth, because they’re all so pissed off, of course. At the moment, they don’t have any mentors.
Athina Karatzogianni: About youth mobilisation. I wanted to ask what kind of experience you’ve had of mentoring young activists. In relation to what we said about XR youth that it is dominated by the middle class. What is your experience working with youth or mentoring other young activists over the years? I know you joined as a teenager the anti-war movement in the eighties. I was wondering about this interplay with how you feel you were mentored in terms of leadership or other qualities to be a movement activist.
Roger Hallam: What I’m saying is going to be pretty damning, really. The most disastrous element in global mobilisation at the present time is the inability to radicalise global youth. People promote the world youth for rising up and influencing climate change. However, I think the international youth are totally disorganised, totally ineffectual and totally demoralised given the objectivity of the injustice being impacted upon them. I think in terms of Western societies and particularly Anglo-Saxon sort of America and us and to a certain extent Canada and Australia, the youth spaces are dominated by a completely ineffectual therapeutic organisation of politics, which has the counterintuitive consequence of demoralising, depressing and individualising the suffering of youth, which is what therapeutic action is. It’s basically a post-war strategy of demoralising and dividing rule and atomising people and creating a narcissism of the self. To my mind, this is an imposed ideology by the dominant sort of left space, which all about victimisation, suffering, trigger warnings and all the rest of it.
The problem here is that this creates a sort of downward spiral, which is that as the objective conditions get worse than the desire to protect young people, it becomes even more extreme if both conditions are imposed by adults and reproduced by young people. This creates an even greater counter-intuitive sort of degeneration of their mental state. The counter proposition is that you’ve traditionally, in terms of revolutionary activity, been fearless, joyful, humorous and strong and all these elements, which is what you traditionally associate historical youth movements with. The challenge here is to really empower working class youth and regional lower middle-class youth who haven’t been infected with this reactionary ideology and enable them to go out and enjoy resistance.
The religious dogma of the radical left is that joy is taboo, right? Enjoyment. It’s pure Calvinism and it’s no surprise that it’s encouraged by the same class that is the traditional Calvinist class, which is the urban professional middle class. This is revolting structurally and culturally, I think, to working class youth, which is why working-class youth are completely alienated from political space, because they are excluded by middle class from participation, through this imposed ideology of middle-class etiquette.
Athina Karatzogianni: What have been your own efforts in that? Have you worked in that direction?
Roger Hallam: Well, I’ve been looking for a year and a half to try and organise youth who want to move away from that self-defeating sort of culture and strategy. And I think there are two things that are opening it up. One is that with working class youth and lower middle-class youth, you periodically get to some sort of critical mass. And when they do, then things will take off. The other thing is that for a lot of middle-class youth can only be in that space for a year or two, before they either burn out, or realise how dysfunctional it is. As people go through that process and come out the other side, then they’re potentially more interested in engaging in a real strategy, which is a mass mobilisation strategy. So, it may happen, but it’s impossible to predict. I mean, this is a bunch of people at the moment trying to create impressionable mass mobilisation events for youth. I think it will obviously take off at some point in the next five years, but it will be despite of the youth movements, not because of them. That’s my prediction.
Athina Karatzogianni: Going “beyond politics”, there is a sense that in your own political spaces and organisations youth and younger activists is not something that you focus on in particular…
Roger Hallam: It’s part of the project, but creating a revolutionary project at a time of massive social repression and social denial is a mug’s game right now. Because if you want to get out, then you join a reformist space, which is why the reformist spaces are so powerful, because of the hurting effects. It’s not because there’s any objective rationality in that strategy. Before revolutionary upheavals, you always get this massive tension between people wanting to break out of the system and create a revolutionary alternative and people in the space realising that everything they do is completely useless and hopeless, and all the cognitive dissonance that goes along with that. So that’s where we’re at the moment.
Athina Karatzogianni: What has been your own experience of mental health? And your own well-being, being part of a rebellion. How do you get motivated to continue? Because, in some respects, this is a really excruciating experience where there are controversies and you have to explain yourself. I have watched you do it on Facebook, for example, where you have these tensions and conflicts. You are one of the founders of this movement and you have to battle every day, not just externally with the governments, the police knocking on your door and so on, but also internally inside that movement and also lead separate organisations as well. I wanted to hear a bit, if you don’t mind, about how you are coping in all of this, if that’s not at all an indiscreet question to ask.
Roger Hallam: I think it’s a vitally important question. This comes back to my previous analysis, which is that, historically, the rebel personality is rooted in virtue ethics. Virtue ethics has been more or less destroyed by neoliberalism, both on the left and the right, and one of the central reasons in my mind, why movements are so fractious: it is because of individualisation and utilitarianism. In other words, all strategy has become rooted in utilitarianism, i.e., if you do that, will that happen? But in the historical experience, rebel uprisings initiating movements are all motivated by virtue ethics, which is: it’s my duty to God to rebound and achieve immortality. If I die, you know, they can come and do what they like because I’m over this shit. This is the central explanation for the inability of Western societies to mobilise: they’ve got a philosophy of life which is completely dysfunctional at a time of annihilation and will.
My prediction is that there’ll be a massive collapse of the utilitarian cultural edifice over the next ten years as people start to disappear into hedonism or, you know, self-destruction or revolutionary activism. And the revolutionary activism will be primarily sustained through virtue ethics construction. What that practically means, of course, in terms of emotional sustainability is that you have no expectation of success. And if you don’t have expectation of success, then you don’t get burnt out. It’s as simple as that, right?
Athina Karatzogianni: If you don’t have great expectations and you can keep going, because you are less disappointed. But it is hard living with disappointment!
Roger Hallam: …No, my life has been one long disappointment, but that doesn’t matter. This is why it’s very difficult to see from ninety percent of human beings have a virtual ethics orientation. The role of my life is to fulfil my tradition and be good and look after my kids and do my duty to my superiors, period. That said, there’s no expectation of social balance. There’s no expectation of, you know, ego sort of massaging or whatever. You’re just a cog in a system that’s a spiritual and material system. And that’s how most people see life apart from the western middle class over the last thirty years. We have to return to that orientation in order to become sustainable. You see what I mean? But it’s an orientation that most people don’t get, particularly university lecturers.
Athina Karatzogianni: Well, thanks for that! I want to ask you something about the concept of resilience. I mean, you use it a lot in your book Common Sense for the 21st Century, in the section on preparing the community for resilience in the Great Transition. What is resilience for you, because it can be seen as neoliberal discourse. As you know very well, resilience is that you can get hit repeatedly but you bounce back, you survive. But I don’t think from what I read in your book this is what you have in mind. You have in mind also some form of flourishing, not just surviving. There’s an extension to survive: you try to bring back the ecosystems, and working towards that, you won’t have to necessarily make decisions about who survives and who doesn’t. These decisions are made by governments. Therefore, the efforts would go toward influencing them, and involves the labs, the scientists. You write about creating a large voluntary service where people contribute and then you have economists looking at the economics of this as well, in your broader vision of this effort of preparing the community for resilience in the great transition. So, I want to ask about resilience in particular, and whether you think it’s perhaps a good concept, or is it overloaded.
Roger Hallam: Resilience means different things to different people, right? To explain how I see resilience on an individual level, there are three elements. The first element is a spiritual orientation where you’re not dependent upon the world: you’ve made that transition and transcendent move, where what happens in the world is not of your concern; what is of concern to you is how you respond to what’s in the world, what is under your control and how you act in the world, which is under your control. The outcomes of the world are under your control. This is a fundamental mental principle. When you get up in the morning and someone doesn’t show up to a meeting, you’re not going to get upset, because that was outside your control. You see what I mean? All people that are highly resilient have that orientation, that transcendent orientation. And obviously it’s embedded in various cultural, secular and religious constructions. But the fundamental structure is the same. The second thing is having a service orientation, which obviously is embedded within the broader Christian tradition, which is to love your neighbour and to be of service to your society. So you’re not looking for personal aggrandisement. What you’re looking to do is make things better for people. And that’s been shown, you know, conclusively to produce better mental health and all the rest of it from looking after number one. The third element is group community. You have a group of people around you that can support you practically in terms of being attacked in the press for example. That will help you prepare responses as a practical element to it. And then obviously there’s an emotional element that you’ve got a shoulder to cry on when you have a bad time. So, you know, that does seem to me to be the three elements of what needs to be created, and that can be juxtaposed to the victimisation sort of neurotic self-worship, pseudo-spirituality of Western individualism.
Athina Karatzogianni: You mentioned Christian values. How influenced are you by religion? Are you a believer yourself? I mean, I don’t know enough about this, about you.
Roger Hallam: Well, I was brought up a Christian, in the Methodist church. So, I’m fully embedded in that from a cultural point of view and in a moral point of view as well, in the notion that the highest value is to love other people, in the sense of seeking their well-being and that’s the purpose of one’s life, is to seek the well-being of others, both as a spiritual principle, i.e., you know, that’s how you can fulfil your soul. And secondly, because of the pragmatic, spiritual principle, which is people that help other people generally have happier lives because you’re outwardly focused.
Athina Karatzogianni: So, you’re not an atheist or you’re just culturally Christian…?
Roger Hallam: I think in a cultural sense that Christianity is at the heart of Western culture. In terms of its social orientation, like we just said with, with reductive Calvinism, that’s part of the Christian tradition. But there are also elements of the Christian tradition, which is about loving your enemies and suchlike. And that’s one of the big strengths, you know, which is the basis of our democratic and dialogical culture: when you don’t like people, you don’t shoot them. You sit down and talk to them.
Athina Karatzogianni: Yes, that’s the basic principle of politics. Can I take you to the leadership question again, in your experience, who is a good leader? What are the qualities? What are they doing and how are they doing it? What have you experienced yourself, as a good leading figure that you aspire to that influenced you at all? What kind of organisation enhances leadership, brings forward emerging leaders, younger people to get involved? We talked before about this evolution of leadership from the 60s and I want to ask more about you and whether you think that you were influenced by a leading figure, or do you think of yourself as a leader, so to speak?
Roger Hallam: Leadership is an extremely complex phenomenon, and I think everyone agrees on that. Ever since I was a teenager, I stood out from the crowd. I’ve always initiated things and been in a leadership position in groups – informally in some cases, as I’ve been involved in left-wing anarchist social groups, but I’ve always been initiator and an organiser, that comes quite naturally to me. Now I’m 54 and I’m arguably quite good at what I do. So I’m quite happy in that position.
What I’m trying to investigate, I suppose, is how to become a better leader. I’m not quite sure what I’m doing on that, but I think a lot of it’s to do with not being reactive to criticism. I’ve worked quite hard on being gracious around getting criticism, becoming detached from it and even welcoming it. I think a sign of a real mature leadership is to encourage criticism even when it’s unfair. That obviously involves negotiating with your ego and making sure you have self-mastery over yourself, as you might say, from an Eastern perspective. For me, that’s the main thing. I mean, obviously, the other side of leadership is being fearless, you know, from a prophetic point of view and leading from the front to being unpopular. The two things go together and in a revolutionary situation leadership is absolutely the central causal factor, I think, of progressive outcomes, which completely counteracts the orthodoxy of the last thirty years. This is coming from somebody who was an anarchist for fifteen years. I’m fully aware of the literature, the last two hundred years of literature of opposition to hierarchy and opposition to leadership. It’s got a lot going for it. But like all orientations, it’s not an absolute right.
There are times and spaces and situations where you need leadership. And we do need leadership in the present context, because what we’re facing is existential: everyone’s going to die, and it’s exponential. We need to get on with that so we haven’t got the time. We’ve got the massive pressure of the horror of it and we’ve got the massive, massive pressure of having to get on with that. Both of those things structurally determine the necessity of leadership in the social system. Like I said before, whether we like it or not, it’s a matter of sociological determinism. If you’re just running a wholefood shop in 1975, you don’t need a leader. But when you’re facing three billion deaths in the next thirty years, it’s a world of difference. You need to have fast moving leaderships.
Basically, what I think I’m trying to communicate to you is that in a revolutionary period, you have a build-up of a certain sort of a mobilisation and then a complete flip to mass mobilisation. Like with the dissidents in Eastern Europe, they were the leaders of the movement. They’d been doing it for 30 years. They were good at what they did. They were really pragmatic, they were valued, and they got to a certain point. And then when mass mobilisation happened, that space collapsed because they couldn’t adapt. What you got was a mass mobilisation of ordinary people, which had a pragmatic aspect. It was an idealist movement, you might say, or whatever: they just wanted to get rid of communism and spend lots of money. What’s going to happen in the climate space is that all the present mobilisations are going to collapse, in my view, because they’re all dominated by the elite urban middle class and they can’t make that transition to mass mobilisation. And if they don’t, then the populist right will take over in the next 10 years. The challenge we have right now is, when the mass mobilisation comes along, whether it has a pragmatic realist left leadership. And at the moment, that’s not there. You see you see what I mean? It’s a dramatic thesis but I think I’m right because it’s happened so many times before.
Jacob Matthews: I’m wondering about where it’s going to spring from, this leadership that we need so desperately.
Roger Hallam: I’m being entirely pragmatic and realistic about it. In the mid-twentieth century, there was no problem with leadership in the 1930s and until the 1970s, on the left, everyone understood that you need a mass organisation and you need leadership, which obviously had to be democratic and all the rest of it. That was how the 20th century left dominated politics. You know, from the 1930s to the 1970s. So that strategy needs to be really reinvented.
Athina Karatzogianni: But the with the present conditions, it seems that we are looking at something more revolutionary than social democracy and that a strong welfare state is not going to solve the problem here…
Roger Hallam: Any social democrat now has to be a revolutionary. That’s the point right now, like liberals or revolutionaries in the nineteenth century. There’s nothing intrinsic about an ideology and the strategy of revolution.