Why are so many successful social movements anti-capitalist? (Part 1)
The most successful example in Britain is NIMBYism. When it comes to stopping a housing development, Tories and Greens are suddenly best buddies.
To a lesser extent, this is also true of the (unfortunately much smaller and far less successful) countermovement, the YIMBYs (Yes In My Back Yard). Most YIMBYs are of a Centre-Left persuasion, but they are nonetheless very welcoming to liberals and reform-minded conservatives.
During the Brexit wars, both Leave and Remain were broad cross-ideological coalitions. In the case of Remain, this came easily and naturally. In the case of Leave, it took some work, but in the end, they did manage to assemble a ragtag coalition of Singapore-on-Thames Thatcherites, nationalists and Lexiteers.
Once you’ve successfully built up a coalition around a single issue, the last thing you’ll want to do is risk splitting that coalition by overloading your cause with other issues. It would be very strange if, for example, an anti-housing initiative suddenly declared that they are also an anti-Brexit initiative, or an initiative against government subsidies for woke arts. They would needlessly alienate people who don’t agree with them on this secondary issue, without doing anything to further their primary issue.
Yet over the past couple of years, we have seen the rise of a number of political movements which may look like single-issue groups at first sight, but which are clearly nothing of the sort. The most prominent ones are Extinction Rebellion (XR), Just Stop Oil (JSO), the Greta movement, and Black Lives Matter (BLM).
XR, JSO and the Greta movement describe themselves as environmentalist movements, and BLM describe themselves as an anti-racist movement. Environmentalism and anti-racism are very popular causes. Virtually everyone, whatever their political persuasion, agrees that climate change is a problem, and virtually everyone, whatever their political persuasion, agrees that racism is bad. It would, in principle, have been possible to build very broad coalitions around these causes.
But these movements could not be further away from that. If you had to place them somewhere on the ideological spectrum, you would not hesitate for a moment before placing them on the far-left. And you would be right.
This has been somewhat obscured by the fact that even though these movements routinely use far-left terminology to express far-left positions, they also protest and act offended when somebody else describes them as “far-left”.
Take BLM UK, who say on their website:
“[W]e are not a Marxist organisation. While some of the members of UKBLM are Marxists, not all members are.”
But they then immediately go on to say:
“We are however, all anti-capitalists”
Technically, there is no contradiction between these two statements. You can be an anti-capitalist without being a Marxist. But it does narrow things down quite considerably, and it tells us what they mean when they say that they are not a Marxist organisation. They don’t mean “We want to be a broad coalition of anti-racists, and therefore, we will not take a view on what the best economic system is, because that would unnecessarily split our coalition. Anti-racists who support capitalism are just as welcome as anti-racists who support a different economic system.” Far from it. They mean: “We are an organisation that is both anti-racist and anti-capitalist, so if you support capitalism, go away. You are not welcome. However, as long as you are an anti-capitalist, we don’t particularly care whether you get your anti-capitalism from Marx, or from elsewhere.”
They also say on their GoFundMe page (through which they have raised over £1.2m):
“Black Lives Matter UK (BLMUK) is […] guided by a commitment to dismantle […] capitalism”
The main BLM organisation uses its Twitter account (which has over a million followers) to promote anti-capitalist messages all the time, e.g.:
“We organize against colonialism, capitalism, imperialism, & all intersections of oppression.”
Or take Extinction Rebellion. They once tweeted “we are not a socialist movement” in order to distance themselves from a banner with a hammer-and-sickle symbol, displayed prominently at an XR march. But they then quickly went on to clarify:
“[S]tating that we aren’t a socialist movement is not the same as saying we reject socialism. From the offset, […] we have been an “and” not an “or” movement.”
“Capitalism on the other hand can largely f[***] right off. We’re not idiots”
Again, technically, there is no contradiction between these statements. You can be an anti-capitalist without being a socialist. But, again, it narrows things down considerably, and, again, it shows us what XR mean when they say that they are not a socialist movement.
They don’t mean “We want to be a broad coalition of environmentalists, and therefore, we will not take a view on what the best economic system is, because that would unnecessarily split our coalition. Environmentalists who seek solutions within capitalism are just as welcome as people who seek solutions outside of it.” Far from it. It means: “We are an organisation that is both environmentalist and anti-capitalist, so if you support capitalism, go away. You are not welcome. However, as long as you are an anti-capitalist, we don’t particularly care whether you want to replace capitalism with socialism, or with something else.”
Just Stop Oil are slightly different, in that they do not usually make sweeping statements about economic systems. But actions speak louder than words anyway. They signal their anti-capitalist credentials by attacking Westminster’s free-market think tanks (as do XR), and by teaming up with Jeremy Corbyn (see e.g. here and here).
Which brings us back to the initial question: why would you turn a successful single-issue campaign into a dual-issue campaign by loading some completely unrelated issue on top? Why would you deliberately limit your appeal to one corner of the ideological spectrum? And more importantly – why is this working so well for them?
We’ll try to answer those questions in the next part.
Continue to Part 2