A line drawn in stone

What precisely separates Extinction Rebellion from Nazis, Stalinists and other massive, disruptive movements?

There once was a young man named Thomas who grew up in poverty and without hope, until one day a leader and a movement came and gave him hope and something to fight for.

He marched and demonstrated for a better future. He worked alongside others like him and felt the thrill of idealism and the bond of solidarity.

But his movement was the Hitler Youth. And as an old man he gave me a warning.

In another time and another place, there was a seventeen-year-old girl named Marie who followed a more decentralized, grassroots movement. She too had seen hardship and despair all around her. This movement wasn't just against something. It was for something--for equality and justice.

She knew hope and was willing to die for her cause. As an old woman living in the ashes and rubble of the Soviet Union, she showed me the Stalinist pins she collected that year she was seventeen.

Creative Commons image by Eric Wüstenhagen

Creative Commons image by Eric Wüstenhagen

After decades passed and the world changed, there was a young student of nineteen named Jan, idealistic, yet savvy. He'd studied all of the history and he knew to be on guard against power-hungry leaders. He beat the pavement and struggled none-the-less.

His band of anarchists and revolutionaries organized a few anti-globalization demonstrations, kept their independence and managed not to fall into the pitfalls of the past. But finally bickering and exhaustion took them down. Jan left his ideals behind and joined the exploitative world of unsustainable business-as-usual he had once raged against.

Again time rolled by and now there is a sixteen-year-old girl named Josefina wielding hope against despair. There is a movement and a stark black symbol on a flag.

This time the fight is not just against poverty, hunger and injustice, though it is about all that. It is a fight for our very lives, for the last hope of a future where our children will even be alive.

If there has ever been a worthy struggle, this is it.

All around the world, people are rallying and demanding change. I have been in activism for thirty-odd years and I have never seen a movement grow like this, doubling in weeks, raising people out of quiet backwaters in the middle of a sweltering, lazy summer to come to meetings and organize action.

i was sixteen when I met Thomas and I didn't judge him because he had never been in it for hatred and he regretted it. And because I too wished for a movement that would give me hope. I only knew I didn't want to fall for something corrupted as he had and idealism seemed a discredited thing for a lost generation.

I was twenty-five when I sat with Marie and I had been an activist but I didn't feel I belonged anywhere. A lot of my friends said they just weren't joiners, but I wanted to be a joiner. I just didn't see anything worth joining.

There were causes and activist organizations, but many of them had all the warning signs of cliquish social exclusivity, abuse of power, cult-like dynamics, unreliability, lack of accountability or demands that were either too watered down and vague or too specific and exclusionary. Even Jan's movement, though I personally liked him, had many of those flaws.

Now, I am forty-three and I stand in awe next to Josefina on the front line of an Extinction Rebellion blockade. This is where I make my stand.

Here in the Czech Republic an internet meme recently appeared showing the XR hourglass symbol with the caption: "The Nazis had the swastika. The Stalinists had the hammer. The climate-ists have this."

And most of our rebels just laughed at it. They made fun of it and passed it around on the internet as a joke. "Haha. How twisted!" But I didn't laugh.

What is it exactly that separates us from the early Nazis or Stalinists or other "idealistic" movements that went bad and turned to genocide?

We either answer that question unequivocally or we have no right to call the likes of Josefina to stand with us.

We are vast and incredibly fast growing. We are uncompromising in our convictions and we're willing to do almost anything to achieve our goals. We are willing to disrupt the lives of ordinary people.

We demand sacrifices for the greater good and for the future. We are done talking and discussing. When climate deniers come along and want to engage us in a long discussion about the science, we send them a few documents and then block them on social media if necessary.

Ain't nobody got time for that. We are in a fight for our lives and the lives of our children.

So, what is it? What makes us the good kind of massive, disruptive mob?

We are non-violent. Sure, we are, but not every climate activist is. And many an idealistic movement started out declaring non-violence. We like to talk about Gandhi and the US civil rights movement. And those are good examples but not every social movement that starts out non-violent ends that way and some end up simply being the non-violent wing of something that goes bad.

So, I don't think it is a laughing matter to ask this question. We ourselves say we are facing the very real likelihood of massive death, caused by climate change. Is it so hard to imagine that in ten years, as the crisis deepens and great numbers of people are thrown into desperation for survival, that our massive, coordinated movement could become a force for hurt?

It is not hard for me to imagine and that is why I am determined to put my energies into a safeguard.

Non-violence is a good start. But it is the concept of Regenerative Culture, developed over generations of activist experience, from the US civil rights movement to the anti-nuclear blockades in the UK, through the anti-fracking movement to today's Extinction Rebellion, that makes this movement different.

As my readers know, I'm mostly blind and I've seen my share of social exclusion and bad human behavior in my time. When I walked into my first Extinction Rebellion meeting, I had my doubts and skepticism. I'd seen enough examples of flaky, egotistical and/or slapdash activist groups to be wary.

And that first meeting blew my mind. Not only were they organized but there was a welcoming and friendly atmosphere that I have rarely encountered in groups of any kind. I didn't know it then, but that atmosphere was no accident caused by the people in the room just happening to be well-adjusted and nice.

It comes from a consciously developed and conscientiously implemented practice called "Regenerative Culture," which incorporates social inclusion, mutual support, conscious awareness, rigorous non-violent communication training, social sustainability and self care.

The concept of Regenerative Culture is not a nice, fluffy extra added onto Extinction Rebellion activities to make good atmosphere at meetings and sing songs during blockades. Instead it is the bedrock on which the foundations of the movement have been laid.

That is why we are different and as long as we don't ever lose sight of it, it will guarantee we don't go either toward tyranny or toward dissolution. At its core, Regenerative Culture is that line, a line that must be drawn in stone, not in sand.

The fact is that everyone thinks they are the good guys. Thomas thought he was just reaching for hope. Marie thought she was standing for justice. Jan was convinced that his activist group, not the one next door, was the only hope for social justice.

And in Extinction Rebellion we are equally convinced that we are right. We have now ninety-nine percent of climate scientists saying we are correct that human activities are destabilizing our climate, that this will have devastating and lethal effects and that we have a few short years to change course. We have reason to be staunch in our convictions.

The difference lies in how we treat one another first and second how we treat others.

The elements of Regenerative Culture are:

  • Non-violence in action

  • Non-violent communication

  • Respectful behavior toward all, including those who insult, jail, beat or kill us

  • Mutual support materially and emotionally

  • Acceptance of everyone and every part of every one

  • No shame and no blame

  • Rotating roles of power

  • A focus on amplifying the voices of underrepresented population groups

  • Self-care and prevention of burn-out

It is impossible to convey the entirety of Regenerative Culture in one post. I will be posting more about this, including this week’s post on conflict resolution in groups for inclusive resistance, social justice and environmental defense here.

The real-world test of Ayn Rand's theories

Here's that moment when we realize--thirty years on--that an ideological icon was actually a sellout. 

When I was in college Ayn Rand was huge. Everyone was obsessed with her work and her insistence that people should never ask for or accept help from society. She equated even the most conservative "social programs," such as Social Security and Medicare for retirees, with "slow rot" and stepping stones on the road to Soviet-style communism.

Her theory was that if your disability or illness is so great that you can't be completely independent, you simply "lack value." And implicitly you should allow yourself to die without complaint.

Creative Commons image by  Elvert Barnes

Creative Commons image by Elvert Barnes

Yet unknown to us at that time, Rand had already accepted social help to cover medical expenses. Her poisonous theory is still spread as gospel and she never publicized the fact that she realized she was wrong in the end.

A social worker revealed in an interview that Ayn Rand was brought to financial hardship toward the end of her life due to huge health care costs for lung cancer--almost certainly linked to her life-long addiction to cigarettes.

Though the social worker said Rand resisted the decision for some time, she eventually gave in and accepted Social Security and Medicare as a means to keep her household afloat. She never publicly admitted this or recanted her public shaming of those who made similar decisions. She also never rescinded her vehement denial that cigarettes cause cancer. 

If you delve deeply into Rand's theory you find that her main objection to Social Security and Medicare as well as other social programs is the fact that they are considered a right. She repeatedly labeled all those who accept any sort of mandated social assistance as "parasites." While she agreed that charity is possible and not evil in and of itself, she insisted that anyone in need must simply wait for random charity and no one should ever be given sustenance simply because they are a human being.

Your ability to "produce" was to Rand the entirety of your "value."

In some ways, Rand may have been naive. While she experienced some hardship early in life, the period of misfortune was brief and not marked by illness or disability in her family. In fact, she rarely addressed the issues of illness or disability in her writing. On one rare occasion she wrote only, "The small minority of adults who are unable rather than unwilling to work, have to rely on voluntary charity;"

One reason Rand's theories are still so popular today is that they have a cohesive internal logic. If you accept the tenets of her theory--that only humans have any value as living beings and that all people of value can produce enough to satisfy their own needs despite any difficult circumstances or discrimination against them--then the theory is well-laid out and seems to lead to inevitable conclusions.

Creative Commons image by  DonkeyHotey of Flickr.com

Creative Commons image by DonkeyHotey of Flickr.com

One thing Rand never seemed to understand, but perhaps finally did grasp as she lay receiving tax-payer funded cancer treatment is that there is no great difference between government road construction and Medicare. Sure, the Medicare beneficiary is an individual receiving something, while a road seems to be something everyone benefits from all at once.

But when you get right down to it, the individual driver driving down that road is only different from the Medicare recipient in that a car can drive over anyone who stands in the way--for instance, the men, women and children who stood on the roads in Honduras asking for tips from drivers for having filled in gaping potholes after Rand's theories were explicitly adopted in that country and no "social program" was around to fix the roads.. 

Had Rand simply written some books and been quoted by some intellectuals this might all have been something to laugh about, but her influence has been far reaching. Companies--such as Sears--have adopted her philosophy as a management blueprint and been devastated within a few years. Whole countries, including Honduras, have been brought to poverty and devastation by her theories.

I cannot count the times  I have seen Rand's theories used to shame or dismiss people facing disability or illness, environmental concerns or racial prejudice. Over the past twenty years, since my college days, Rand's theories have migrated from upper-middle-class intellectual circles to the halls of power., especially in the United States. 

Representatives Steve King (R-IA), Mike Mulvaney (R-SC) and Rep. Allen West (R-FL) became her devotees. Senator Ted Cruz (R-TX) promoted her book on the Senate floor. Alan Greenspan slipped her theories into economic policy. The list of senators and representatives--mostly Republican--who give Rand credit for inspiring their careers is long and she has in no small part inspired the current right-wing take-over of that party..

The most dire problems of the United States--from climate change to authoritarianism and vast economic inequity--stem directly from the lifestyles and corporate policies of the wealthiest ten percent (or even one percent) of the nation. For many years, this group considered Rand's philosophy to be a kind of secret pleasure--a way to congratulate themselves on the morality of their selfishness and yet something that probably shouldn't be widely circulated to avoid embarrassment.

Creative Commons image by Matthew Hurs

Creative Commons image by Matthew Hurs

Rand tantalizes young adults with the dream that satisfying momentary whims and ignoring burdensome ethics can be considered heroic. She still gifts college students in expensive liberal arts schools with an imagined identity as guardians of virtue and justifies a moralistic way to look down on people who take a long-term or interconnected view. 

Not only did Rand make it “moral” for the wealthy not to pay their fair share of taxes, she “liberated” millions of other Americans from caring about the suffering of others, even the suffering of their own children.

The continuing influence of Rand's work and her lack of openness about her own use of social programs takes her beyond hypocrisy into another realm entirely.  She took the benefits and allowed people with disabilities and illnesses to be ridiculed and humiliated in her name for decades (and likely generations) to come. Today it is difficult to say how much suffering has been caused by policies she inspired. 

That said, there are days when I wish the wealthiest one percent who largely control corporate policies in the United States would take a closer look at her theories. If we are to take Rand literally, she would have us believe that her theory is not wrong but her actions were a mistake. She should have saved more of her wealth earlier in life in order to be able to cover her medical expenses or she should have invested in better private insurance. Her concept is that selfishness coupled with forethought and intelligence will always lead to the best results.

So, each person should save (i.e. conserve) according to their possible future needs. It should follow that a person should conserve other things besides money. If trapped on a desert island, Rand would surely advise conserving one's resources of food and fresh water. 

Creative Commons image by  Andrew Toskin

Creative Commons image by  Andrew Toskin

However, today corporate leaders continue in a spending spree--throwing money, fuel and non-renewable resources into the system as fast as they can in order to generate momentary wealth without regard to the disasters of debt, resource depletion and  climate change they are creating for themselves. 

Rand made it known in no uncertain terms, that she didn't believe in anything like "the common good." She stated several times that she didn't believe environmental concerns were very serious. Once she wrote, "Even if smog were a risk to human life, we must remember that life in nature, without technology, is wholesale death."

At the time when she wrote this, the wealthy could easily pay more to live far from environmental pollution and Rand would no doubt have considered that to be the ethical response. But just as lung cancer caught up with her, climate change is now catching up to the wealthiest in our world. The internal documents of large oil and coal companies, when leaked, have shown that those who set corporate policy know the truth, even while they fund denialist campaigns to spread disinformation to the public. 

It is eerily similar to how tobacco companies hid scientific proof that cigarettes contribute significantly to the risk of lung cancer but denied such knowledge to the public in Rand's day. Rand was fond of saying that knowledge is key to exercising good self interest and many tobacco leaders at the time realized smoking wasn't in their best interest, while Rand herself believed their propaganda. Knowledge was in that case a viable defense. 

But today even the wealthiest have little hope of escaping the effects of climate change, which are unlikely to be as simple as a gradual trend of warming in which buying real estate further north might be considered a solution. It is in things like this that Rand's theory begins to unravel.

The one percent know of--or at least their hired scientists have documented--the threats to their own security posed by climate change, and yet their self-interest does not goad them in the right direction. Similarly no purveyor of Rand's theories--not even Rand herself--is willing to die of preventable causes rather than accept Medicare to pay the  bills.

When these tenets of the theory fall, the internal logic disintegrates and each part of it falls in a line of dominoes. Self-interest does not lead to the good of the individual, and the good of the individual is inextricably interconnected with others. 

Randism has been proved to be a false and hollow economic theory as surely as Marxism. And if Karl Marx can be blamed for a host of horrors brought about by those who used and abused his theories, then by the same token Ayn Rand leaves a similar legacy. to that which she most despised