There has been much debate recently over the logic of direct action. Over the last month, an activist group named Just Stop Oil have embarked upon a series of eye-catching protests. In a short amount of time, they have blocked roads, occupied bridges, stopped oil tankers, climbed on top of police vans, spray painted car showrooms, and thrown soup at a Vincent van Gogh painting. It was this final action which attracted the most attention. The painting was behind glass and undamaged, but clearly people were shocked. Some were furious. “They’ve absolutely lost me,” fumed the journalist Andrew Marr, “Forever.”
This protest was not perfect, no protests ever are. It was destructive, performative, and incoherent. But it was, perhaps counterintuitively, the weakness of this protest which leant it power. Throwing a can of tomato soup at a painting in order to make a point about climate change makes no real sense. And that was precisely what fascinated people. It was a cry for help, a desperate howl of rage. It got people talking and, in doing so, it drew attention to other protests which more directly targeted oil infrastructure. Different protests achieve different things; no one action is going to topple the government, or spark the next revolution. This protest was designed to grab your attention, and it did so spectacularly. “The attention economy is what it is”, said one of the protesters, “we don’t need to be popular, we need to grab attention.” By that metric, it was a resounding success.
Protesters have, of course, done this sort of thing before. The suffragette who defaced Velázquez’s The Rokeby Venus was called Mary Richardson. She was a former art student, a determined activist, and one of the first women to be forcibly fed under the Cat and Mouse Act. During her lifetime, Richardson engaged in many dramatic protests, including attempting to burn down an unoccupied house, smashing the windows at the Home Office, and bombing a railway station. Explaining her decision to deface the painting, Richardson said at her trial: “I have tried to destroy the picture of the most beautiful woman in mythological history as a protest against the Government for destroying Mrs Pankhurst, who is the most beautiful character in modern history”. Richardson was taking this dramatic action following the violent arrest of Emmeline Pankhurst. She believed that if people were angry about an attack on a piece of art, it might provoke them to think more about the government’s attack on a human being. It might have seemed strange or nonsensical at the time, but the action soon became an iconic moment in the struggle for female suffrage. Like all great protests, it also transcended its original purpose. The vandalism became an aesthetic intervention in its own right, shaking the art world and forcing people to rethink their attitude towards the female nude.
Activists have always relied on previous movements to lend them legitimacy. While defending acts of civil disobedience, I often find myself saying, “this is what the suffragettes did, you know?”, “this is what happened in the civil rights movement”, “this is how we won the rights we have today”. This is all well and good, up to a point. Protesters are often deeply unpopular in their time, and it is only later that they are lionised and feted. It is important that we make this point clearly and passionately, and that we defend our right to take direct action. But, in doing so, we should not inadvertently iron out the kinks of history. The past was not perfect, either. They got things wrong, they made mistakes. They advocated for the use of different tactics and violently disagreed with one another about politics.
History is riddled with contradictions. Not everything protesters do, even in successful movements, is good, or right, or even particularly effective. Just because something happened, it doesn’t mean it helped. And the desire to keep escalating — to garner more attention, more publicity, more controversy — pulls people along with an inevitable logic. It is worth pointing out that Mary Richardson was not the first suffragette to attack a painting. Previously, suffragettes had targeted paintings by shattering the glass around the frame. But, with the blessing of Christabel Pankhurst, Mary Richardson took a meat chopper to the canvas. “You can get another picture”, she said, “but you cannot get another life”. The violence used by suffragettes is well documented. They were responsible for hundreds of arson attacks on houses, police stations, theatres, and government offices. Depending on who you speak to, their move towards violence is either the reason they won or the reason the movement collapsed. But the violence was not indiscriminate. One of the most destructive fires of the period was at a coal wharf, causing tens of thousands of pounds in damage. The suffragettes often claimed responsibility for fires which people suspected they had nothing to do with. This fire, however, was not claimed by the movement. Neither were many actions which resulted in people being hurt or the loss of life. Even at their most militant, the suffragettes argued about tactics. They disagreed about ethics. They feared for their own reputations and the damage they might do to the cause.
Tactics are a matter of efficacy, but they are also a matter of ideology. They carry within them their own logic, their own understanding of power. Occupy a bank, blockade a road, smash a window. See, over time, how your ideas change. Set up a food bank, go on strike, stand for election. See how your politics transform. Do violent actions breed violent politics? Mary Richardson, the suffragette who famously defaced The Rokeby Venus, would later become a prominent organiser in the British Union of Fascists. Richardson was good friends with Oswald Mosely and, like him, had stood as a parliamentary candidate for the Labour Party. After suffrage, Richardson struggled to find a new political identity. She wrote at one point, “I was first attracted to the Blackshirts because I saw in them the outrage, the action, the loyalty, the gift of service, and the ability to serve which I had known in the Suffragette movement”. After two years, Richardson was expelled from the British Union of Fascists for, seemingly, attempting to organise a protest. In turn, she would later complain about their cynical support for female suffrage. Who would have guessed? The suffragettes and the fascists were not perfectly suited.
Direct action has a distinct moral power. It forces us, as a society, to think through what is and what is not morally acceptable. By pulling down the statue of a slave trader, protesters are ridding their city of a colonial relic. It is a practical endeavour, but it is also a moral intervention. The protesters are posing a series of questions: “How do we remember the slave trade?”, “How do we structure public space?”, “How endemic is racism today?”. The most powerful protests force us to rethink the things we take for granted. At its best, direct action is revelatory. It is as if, somehow, a new logic has supplanted the old, and what made sense before has now been rendered nonsensical. Three years ago, climate activists transformed Waterloo Bridge into a community garden. We blocked cars and replaced them with trees, plants, and tents. Children played on the tarmac; musicians sung from a makeshift stage. People who walked past stopped to look at what was happening. Many of them stayed, shared food with the protesters and spoke to us. I remember one man telling me, “I did not understand what you people wanted until I saw it, until I was here.”
What, then, did the soup achieve? At first glance, throwing a can of tomato soup at a Vincent van Gogh painting may not seem particularly useful. Perhaps it was a misjudged stunt, a howl of rage, another piece of meaningless performance art. Perhaps it was a comment on ecological destruction, on the damage that is done every hour without comment or controversy. Perhaps it was forcing us to ask: “What do we find outrageous? What do we pay attention to? What else are we ignoring?” For many of us, I suspect, the revelation came later. Within moments of the news breaking, commentators rushed to condemn the activists. Gradually, however, the anger subsided. Public sentiment began to shift. “The painting is fine”, I overheard an old woman say to her husband on the bus, “and they started millions of conversations.” Her husband looked slightly surprised. “Well, they’re right, aren’t they? We have to do something.” It seemed the protest had achieved one thing, at least. Some people were rethinking their opinions of direct action.
It would be a shame, however, if this led other activists to replicate the protest. The soup action was successful in all the ways I have already described, but it was also unsuccessful in many more. It failed to communicate its message clearly, it failed to make a coherent demand, it failed to put any real pressure on anyone in power. Direct action does not need to be destructive. It can be beautiful, and touching, and an effective means of building real power. This protest was none of those things. It grabbed attention and helped to boost the profile of a specific organisation. But it is certainly not the basis of a longer campaign. This is what happened in 1914, following the attack on The Rokeby Venus. In the next five months, fourteen more paintings were slashed and nine women were arrested. These copy-cat protests arguably caused more disruption than Mary Richardson ever did; Grace Marcon alone damaged five paintings, including Giovanni Bellini’s The Agony in the Garden and Gentile Bellini’s Portrait of a Mathematician, but failed to attract the same level of publicity. Fast forward one hundred years. In Germany, activists have now thrown mashed potatoes at a painting by Claude Monet. In The Hague, a man — and I promise, I am not joking — glued his bald head to Johannes Vermeer’s masterpiece Girl with a Pearl Earring. You have to admire it, from a purely Dada point of view. But nobody cared. Nobody even raised an eyebrow. Is this what we have been reduced to? Tomato soup and mashed potatoes? Is this really what we want?
Attention might feel like progress in the moment, but it is not the basis for a strong social movement. We should not be building our movements around the whims of the attention economy, or with the sole intention of courting controversy. Protest is, after all, about power. If you profess to want system change, then what is your strategy for achieving it? To answer this question, we have to move beyond judging individual protests, deeming them “successful” or “unsuccessful” in the same way that we might pass or fail a test. Some protests are capable of destroying the reputation of an entire movement, but they are few and far between. More often, it is the patchwork of different protests, the repertoire of actions, that gives our movements strength. If a woman enters the National Gallery and slashes The Rokeby Venus five times with a meat cleaver, her actions will be seen as a sign of delirium. She will be arrested, the public will be appalled, and the incident will be quickly forgotten. But if that woman is a member of a movement, everything changes. The strategy is what we should be talking about, not just the tactics. You cannot look at any protest in isolation.
Most of us are not purists when it comes to strategy. Not least, because we are often the exact same people. The people who sign petitions on weekdays are generally the same people who march on weekends; the people who go to long trade union meetings after work are generally the same people who smash windows and scratch cars after dark. We do not choose one or the other, it has to be both. Action generates action. Movement generates movement. For too long, the horizontalism of social movements has been seen in opposition to the vertical organising of the labour movement. Clearly, when it comes to climate change, we need both. We need mass mobilisation campaigns and we need targeted direct action. We need rallies and we need sabotage. We need political change and social change. It is not one or the other, and different parts of the movement must do different things. We are all part of one expansive network, an activist ecology that replicates and reinvents itself. Climate activists are fond of calling this the “movement mycelium”, referring to the root network of mushrooms that are constantly adapting to changes in their environment and distributing nourishment to the areas which need it the most.
This is how we need to approach the issue today. What is missing from the soup? What needs to happen next? To understand the gaps in our current strategy, it is worth considering what has worked before. In his book Power in Movement, the social movement scholar Sidney Tarrow identifies four important conditions which signal the start of a new protest cycle. The first condition is opportunity; activists seize upon opportunities and emphasise the deep cleavages in their societies. The second condition is a new story; Tarrow calls this the master frame which motivates people to take action. The third condition is innovation; the activists experiment with different tactics and formulate new strategies. The final condition is coalition; activists form an alliance with other groups, no matter how formal or informal this coalition may be. Tarrow argues that these conditions mark the beginning of a new protest cycle. If they are present, society is about to experience more strikes, more protests, more civil unrest.
Let us apply this frame, then, to the British climate movement. Four years ago, Greta Thunberg began a series of school strikes. She started alone, but the tactic was soon replicated around the world and the strikes became weekly. In Britain, thousands of schoolchildren refused to attend their schools. At their peak, organisers estimated four million schoolchildren were participating in the strikes. Meanwhile, Extinction Rebellion organised ongoing acts of civil disobedience. In London, hundreds of people were arrested and thousands of activists held five iconic sites, day after day, until their demands were met. It felt, at the time, like fate was with us. I remember being in Parliament Square at midnight, as the police picked us off one by one. We had been reduced to a handful of determined protesters. We were locked on, holding hands. I had already called my fellow organisers to tell them that we had lost the occupation. Then, I heard the sound of chanting, singing, drumbeat. Over the horizon, people began to stream into the square. Our numbers swelled, the police were overwhelmed, and we held the site for another night. That story happened again and again, night after night, week after week. Every time, it felt like a miracle. After two weeks of protest, the government gave into our first demand and parliamentarians declared a state of climate emergency.
What triggered this new wave of protests was not simply a worsening crisis. It came after a long, hot summer, and a damning report from the United Nations. Unlike previous reports, this one did not hold back. It stated that in order to avert catastrophic climate breakdown, we would require “rapid, far-reaching and unprecedented changes in all aspects of society”. There was opportunity, sure, but three further changes enabled it to happen. The first was the emergence of a new story: “this is an emergency”. Activists successfully argued that climate change was an emergency, and this new framing mobilised millions of people to take action. The second change was the innovation of an old tactic: “because this is an emergency, we are going to occupy public spaces and go on strike”. Pink boats appeared in roads, bridges were transformed into gardens, and millions of schoolchildren walked out of their classrooms. These tactics were fun, exciting, and genuinely inspiring. And, finally, we were part of a tentative coalition; we had a parliamentary vehicle to ensure concrete gains and enough elements within the establishment were prepared to aid the protesters, in so far as the protests were helpful in pursuing their own agenda. In short, all four conditions: opportunity, story, innovation, coalition. And, for a short time, the secret fifth. Fate. “There is no way to bridge the gap between what is possible and what is necessary without magical thinking,” says Tadzio Muller. “We all need a magical element, because what is necessary is not yet possible.”
More material gains followed later; the government adopted a legally binding net zero target, parliament began to trial experiments in direct democracy, and the Labour Party adopted the Green New Deal. But then came the period of decline. The movement fractured, the media doubled down, the police banned our protests. The conditions which enabled the School Strikes and Extinction Rebellion to mobilise so successfully have since disappeared. A couple of years later and activists now engaging in peaceful protest can be given a lifetime in prison. The police illegally banned Extinction Rebellion protests and the rightwing press dislocated and delegitimised the movement. Meanwhile, the frame which once proved so successful is now clearly redundant; “this is an emergency”, protesters shout. Everyone replies, “yeah, we know.” We won the argument, and then failed to move on. In this at least, we were a victim of our own success. Our tactics, too, have become boring and predictable. The school strikes are no longer interesting to their own organisers, and strategies which once relied on press coverage are hitting up against hard limits. Activists are burning out, very quickly, and the prospect of decades spent in a prison cell is a serious barrier to mass mobilisation.
So, what does the soup need now? It needs the four same ingredients: opportunity, story, innovation, and coalition. Let us consider these in order. Has the opportunity for radical change diminished? No. Obviously, the climate crisis has only intensified over the last few years. But this, by itself, is not enough. A good analogy might be the American peace movement. During the 1950s and 1960s, the United States amassed tens of thousands of nuclear warheads. Despite the material conditions clearly worsening, the movement struggled to define their demands and therefore failed to mobilise people. In the 1980s, the American peace movement coalesced around a new proposal for a freeze on all new nuclear weapons. This story allowed activists to inject a new urgency into the movement. Those who believe that a worsening crisis always leads to an uptick in revolutionary activity would do well to reflect upon this. We cannot rely on deadly heatwaves to kickstart a revolutionary moment, especially in the minority world where the impacts of climate breakdown are less obviously felt. The timescales we fight on will not allow it. And, besides, modern politics is adept at normalising crises. They have become expected and unremarkable. Without a coherent story to tell, the opportunity is lost and the moment for action passes. For a new wave of climate protests, we need a new frame, one which addresses the fundamental cleavages of the time. The debate is no longer whether climate change exists or not, whether this is an emergency or not. The debate today is over solutions. “Climate change is an emergency, so what are we going to do about it?”
There are many new frames that go some way to fulfilling this new opportunity: no new oil and gas, climate debt and reparations, public control of energy, the Green New Deal. Perhaps one or none of these will provide the next rallying cry. The important thing, however, is to fit your demands to your campaign. If you are a small direct action group, look at the campaigns that have been successful in recent years. The groups which came after Extinction Rebellion have proved unable to mobilise more than a couple of hundred people. Some have used this to their advantage, like Palestine Action who have successfully used a small number of activists to shut down arms factories. Others, like Just Stop Oil, have become fixated on attracting attention and getting arrested. What would happen if the “radical flank” of the climate movement picked a villain, like Shell, and decided to do everything they can to make that business unviable? Force anyone that attacks you to defend Shell. Force the government to prop them up, time and time again. What kind of message would that send out? How much more helpful would that be than simply another roadblock?
What, then, will be the next great innovation? It would be clearly ridiculous to pretend that I have the answers. Innovation requires experimentation, it requires activists to get out there and try things. In other words, chuck soup at a painting and see what sticks. Innovation might sometimes seem like a dirty word, but it simply means to “renew, to make new”. That is what the climate movement today desperately needs. Once upon a time, the word was intimately associated with rebellion; Shakespeare writes in Henry IV of “fickle changelings and poor discontents, which gape and rub the elbow at the news, of hurlyburly innovation”. Great innovations tend to precede successful revolutions. So what will be the next tactic to capture the public imagination? To successfully weaken the rich and the powerful? To topple the government? We must keep questioning, keep organising, keep experimenting.
We must also build new coalitions. For many people, the cost of living crisis is going to be the most immediate concern in the coming months. This is a chance to build a strong coalition around a central issue, hammering home the message that climate justice is economic justice. The youth movement already understands this. They know that the climate crisis is a crisis of capitalism, of colonialism, of power. They are demanding we do something. By following their lead and by making these connections, we can build stronger coalitions. It is also, to be blunt, about time the radical left started taking things seriously. When Extinction Rebellion first burst onto the scene, the reception from much of the left was far from complimentary. Instead of getting involved and changing things from the inside, or modelling alternative forms of direct action from the outside, many were content to criticise from the sidelines. That has to stop. We need to get involved. We need to start persuading people to engage in civil resistance. What is the point of the Enough is Enough campaign? Where is the energy of the COP26 Coalition? Climate activists organised one of the largest civil disobedience events in modern history and leftwing commentators remained largely uninterested. “It isn’t radical enough for me”, they said. “Ineffectual rallies and long, tedious marches, that is still the future”. We need radical interventions to tackle the climate crisis, and our old strategies will not suffice. So if you see a direct action group you like, join it. If you don’t, let’s set one up. But you have to do something. We all have to do something.
There is one clear opportunity. I am convinced that a new movement needs to emerge that is once again focused on mass mobilisation. Whilst most people waste their time debating whether someone should or should not have thrown soup at a Vincent van Gogh painting, we are all missing the bigger opportunity. Staring straight at us. The biggest problem in our movement is not what is happening on the “radical flank”, but what is not happening in the “middle”. The School Strikes and Extinction Rebellion have been incredibly successful in the past, but they are no longer able to mobilise millions; the movements that have succeeded them are not mass movement campaigns. They cannot persaude more than a couple of hundred people to take action. There is a gap in our strategy, a gaping chasm in our movement. This is something the left can provide, it is something that needs to happen one way or another. It may well come in the midst of environmental catastrophe, triggering global protests and an outpouring of grief. It may well come in a period of economic turmoil, when the fossil fuel economy is at its weakest. Either way, we have to be ready. We must work towards it, prepare for it. Build our cadre, unite our class, organise our communities. And keep experimenting.
And so I return to Mary Richardson and The Rokeby Venus. Who knows whether this particular protest helped or hindered the cause of female suffrage. At the time, many other suffrage organisations denounced the protest. Other suffragettes were not convinced that it had presented them in the best light. But it managed, nonetheless, to lodge itself in the canvas of our collective consciousness. Until the day she died, Mary Richardson was referred to as the “Ripper” and “Slasher Mary”. The protest changed her life. It changed history. It changed how we talk about the suffragettes, how we think about the female nude, how we throw soup at Sunflowers. Powerful actions capture our imagination. But powerful actions can also be silly, dum, and counterproductive. And there will many more powerful actions to come. As the climate and ecological crisis worsens, we will see many more protests. We will witness many more people trying, and failing, to do something significant. Next time, it happens cut them some slack. Think about it. Let it capture your imagination. Or, better still, let it be you. “I could do better than that”, one of my friends texted me. Go on then. Please. Go on.