Only an authoritarian state proscribes dissent

First published in Morning Star, 28th January 2020

In a recent ‘official’ advice document, which has since been withdrawn, Counter-terrorism police included Extinction Rebellion in the list of groups they believe are promoting extremist ideologies. The list included neo-Nazis and Islamic terrorists[i]. This document, to all intents and purposes, creates a culture where climate activism is proscribed by association.

Aimed at members of the general public that work with young people, the document was intended to inform them of the various signs and behaviours to look out for, in case their children were being radicalised by these organisations. The underlying ‘call-to-action’ was that if the adults saw these sorts of signs they should inform the authorities via the Prevent programme[ii].

While this document was quickly withdrawn, once the predictable media backlash occurred, it does still give an interesting insight into the mindset of government and law enforcement in relation to activism and protest in general. The state is grouping teenagers dancing through the lobby of a multinational, alongside well funded and trained paramilitaries trying to cause as many civilian casualties as possible.

And while the usual excuses are likely to come out, this document could not have been a disgruntled employee, or an oversight by a junior. It was an official communication. Which means that it was written, designed, probably proof read, signed-off, and disseminated all before any member of the general public ever saw it. A great many people will have had that document pass across their desks before it even left the building.

If the Counter-terrorism unit of the police sees teenagers blocking a road as an act of terrorism, to which they can respond with force, and their superiors and the teams tasked with overseeing them are both aware and comfortable with this operational framework, then it is of paramount importance that anyone looking to become involved in these protests needs to know and understand the rules of engagement ahead of time. This is why unpicking this document in order to understand the mindset of those tasked with policing dissent is so important.

On the section advising on what to look out for in people falling under the spell of Extinction Rebellion, it describes the group as “a campaign encouraging protest and civil disobedience to pressure governments to take action on climate change and species extinction”[iii]. The state is targeting police resources at groups that are using non-violent methods to raise awareness of the scientific consensus over the climate crisis. So clearly the problem isn’t violence, because they openly acknowledge that non-violent methods are being used.

So is the actual problem, that people affiliated with Extinction Rebellion are trying to influence government to respond to the science of the climate crisis outside of the traditional democratic channels? If this is the case then it raises further questions. For instance has the traditional democratic process been tried, and if so has it failed to represent the will of the people, and if it has failed then what other course for democratic representation do people have when living in such a society?

These are all big questions that really need addressing, but elsewhere. However, there is a second fact that is immediately relevant to this positioning of Extinction Rebellion that is notable from its absence in the document. And that is that there is a group of people that have been taking part in the most effective and long running campaign to influence government policy on fossil fuels, and they have been doing this outside of the normal democratic processes for decades.

According to evidence given recently to the US House oversight committee, for over forty years now Exxon has been spreading misinformation, lies and doubt, through lobbying, political donations, advertising and PR to influence and pressure subsequent administrations around the world to ignore the mounting evidence of the link between burning fossil fuels and the climate crisis[iv].

And it is not just Exxon. The fossil fuel industry is currently spending hundreds of millions of dollars globally to pressure governments to respond to the climate crisis in a way that will minimise the impact of future legislation on their profits[v]. Perhaps if law enforcement really wanted to stop people trying to pressure governments over climate change, they could start with the fossil fuel companies who have been doing exactly that since before most of us even knew there was a problem[vi].

But the issues raised by this document don’t end there. If you haven’t had a chance to see it you might wonder what some of the signals of environmental extremism are. The document states, “You may also hear people speaking in strong or emotive terms about environmental issues like climate change, ecology, species extinction, fracking, airport expansion or pollution”. Going on to say that “They may neglect to attend school … or participate in planned school ‘walk-outs’”[vii].

If they are really worried about people speaking out in strong or emotive terms around environmental issues, or encouraging children to walk out of school as a protest, then a good place to start would be with David Attenborough. He is on record as telling a House of Commons committee that when dealing with climate change “We can not be radical enough”. In that same session he also referred to the school students global strike as a beacon of hope[viii]. But the truth is that it is not about how knights of the realm behave. It is about how the rest of us behave.

This ‘official’ document is a treasure trove of insights into the minds of the 1% and how they view the rest of us. One section titled ‘Internet Use’ gives its reason for inclusion as being that the internet “… is a cross-cutting theme relevant to all the ideology types presented in this document”, and that “the internet is a largely ungoverned space in which users can share or be exposed to extremist material”[ix]. Put simply, the state believes that not only is the internet one of the key tools of those bent on spreading extremist ideologies, but it is also largely beyond the control of even the most authoritarian governments.

The ‘Internet Use’ section explains that one of the behaviours to look out for in the young people most at risk is the quantity and the quality of their relationship with the internet. Specifically, that adults should be on the look out for “individuals spending a disproportionate amount of time online at the expense of real-world relationships”[x].

This is a difficult one because society en-mass has been driven, largely by businesses and governments, towards a social model where our lives are increasingly taking place online. We now do much of shopping, distance learning, social networking, entertainment, communicating with friends and family, interacting with local and national government, accessing public and private transportation, medical advice, and even certain more intimate aspects of our sexual relationships, all online.

The real questions someone should have asked before including this was how much is disproportionate, and which online behaviours specifically are taking the place of our real-world relationships. It is difficult to see where the line is, because it is different for everyone. And because of this subjectivity, it is not difficult to make the case that the application of this measure differs based on who we are talking about.

It was discovered that over the course of 2015, the computers on the IT network in the Houses of Parliament visited porn websites on average 540 times a day. It appears that parliamentarians and/or their staff had been spending a large amount of their working day looking at porn online. Was this at the expense of their real-world relationships, like their jobs as civil servants and elected representatives? And was it a disproportionate amount of time, or just the right amount of time spent watching porn while being paid by their real-world employers, the tax payers[xi]?

We will never know, because according to this advice document, being glued to the screen for hours on end when you are meant to be working isn’t the real issue. One of the key problems, in terms of how the internet spreads extremist ideologies, is in its capacity to propagate ill-informed fanaticism. It states, “You may speak to people who unquestioningly cite ‘facts; or opinions that they have heard on the internet or social media, including ‘fake news’, or find them using dubious sources to justify their beliefs or ideas”[xii]. Does this apply to everyone, or just those who dissent from the neoliberal consensus?

If this really was one of the objectives, and it applied to everyone equally, then why aren’t investigative resources being allocated to look into the current President of USA. Who, The Toronto Star argues, has made over 5,000 false claims since becoming President[xiii], while CNN has him making misleading or false statements over 10,000 times in his first 869 days as President[xiv], and Politifact has him side-stepping the truth around 85% of the time[xv].

This President is regularly citing facts and opinions that he has supposedly heard on the internet or through social media to justify his beliefs and ideas, which later turn out to be taken from highly dubious sources that use incorrect information[xvi]. And these ideological positions he promotes, argued by many to be extremist in nature, are influencing intellectually vulnerable citizens in the UK[xvii]. Those same citizens are then parroting those opinions to justify inciting hatred and violence here, within the jurisdiction of UK law enforcement[xviii].

How this does not fit into the warning signs for the Counter-Terrorism police is difficult to understand. Unless of course the rules for the 99% simply don’t apply to the 1%. And if that is the case then the implications of this document are even more far reaching than first imagined. Not least of all, in terms of shining a spotlight on the world-views of certain sections of the state and law enforcement.

But perhaps the most important role that this document will play, is as yet another source of information for the next generation of activists and protesters, to better understand exactly what obstacles they will face in creating a fairer and more sustainable society.