Dr Lisa McKenzie
Dr Lisa McKenzie is a working-class academic. She grew up in a coal-mining town in Nottinghamshire and became politicized through the 1984 miners’ strike with her family. At 31, she went to the University of Nottingham and did an undergraduate degree in sociology. Dr McKenzie lectures in sociology at the University of Durham and is the author of ‘Getting By: Estates, Class and Culture in Austerity Britain.’ She’s a political activist, writer and thinker. Follow her on Twitter @redrumlisa.
XR is back in the headlines after a protest in central London. These middle-class eco-warriors are happy to fight for indigenous people in Brazil, but have no understanding of the plight of Britain’s poor, nor do they care.
Last weekend, the sun came out and so did the cranks from Extinction Rebellion, bringing attention to the plight of indigenous people in Brazil, who have quite literally found themselves on the front line of fighting the fire of capitalism.
XR showed its solidarity by throwing fake blood down the steps of Trafalgar Square, to be cleaned up later by London’s army of working-class people in high vis.
And what’s wrong with that, you might say? I agree the indigenous people of Brazil need global support – they are battling the effects of Covid-19 while fighting for the future of the world’s lungs, the Amazon rainforest. So why does Extinction Rebellion seem to get on everyone’s nerves?
In November last year, I spent a few days in Stroud, filming a pilot documentary for Channel 4 on class inequality in the UK. Stroud, for those of you who don’t know, is a town in Gloucestershire that is Britain’s ground zero for everything Extinction Rebellion.
It’s also the place where many of its leading members live, and where XR has an office and regular meetings. It is a very wealthy town, with beautiful, massive old stone houses nestled into the astounding Cotswold vistas – and it’s also a place of real class contradictions.
As I was in a taxi from the station, the driver took me on an excursion to show me some of the hotspots. For example, we drove past the home of former new age traveller turned-green industrialist Dale Vince (OBE), which can only be described as a castle.
The town is full of new age shops selling crystals and dream catchers – it’s quaint, and half of the population are dressed in funny-shaped vegan shoes and have no accents.
But the other half are very different. Stroud has council estates and working-class people who share the same struggles as every other working-class person in the UK – a lack of affordable housing, jobs that don’t pay enough and are precarious, and the constant punching down from the middle class, who care nothing for their lives.
The Gloucestershire accent was alive and well among the working class of Stroud, and so was their frustration at having Extinction Rebellion in their town. The contradictions of this beautiful English idyll in the Cotswolds is lovingly exposed in Daisy May Cooper’s ‘This Country’, a faux fly-on-the-wall documentary about young working-class people growing up in the Cotswolds.
I met with four of the key players from Extinction Rebellion in their favourite vegan café, and they urged me to try a cappuccino with coconut milk, which I did and it was very nice.
We spent three hours discussing politics, and I really did get the sense that they are terrified by what humans are doing to the earth. I share that fear with them; plastics poisoning our seas, pollution in our cities causing lung disease in our children and the elderly – I can totally get behind that. Their message was loud and clear.
However, I raised the issue of class inequality and their ignorance of and arrogance towards the British working class. Two months before, some XR activists had climbed on top of a tube train at Canning Town station in East London early in the morning. This was after what XR called a ‘two-week rebellion’, where it had brought the capital city to a standstill, making it impossible for working-class Londoners to navigate what was already a nightmare commute for most. The crowd of construction workers and cleaners at Canning Town had clearly had enough, and hauled the protestors off the carriage.
Over my coconut milk cappuccino, I asked the group from XR about ‘The Battle of Canning Town’, but they had no idea what I was talking about. They did tell me, though, how they and their family members had taken two weeks’ annual leave to camp out in London for ‘the rebellion’.
I explained what I meant by the Battle of Canning Town, where the protesters had been dragged off the train, and I asked them why staging this stunt was a good idea. Who exactly did they think would be on an East London platform at 6:45am on a weekday?
To be honest, they looked blank, and when I explained the trauma of what it is to be working class in the UK now with austerity, severe welfare cuts and no housing, they were upset and shed a tear or two. But they maintained their cause was greater than that of class inequality.
Originally, I had been invited to attend their meeting that evening, and I was hoping to discuss this more widely with them and how the climate agenda and class inequality need not be at odds with each other. But later that afternoon, I received a telephone call and was told I would not be welcome to the meeting after all.
The next day, I went to a local nail salon to get my nails done; nail salons and hair salons are always the best places to find out what is going on in any community. ‘Anna’ did my nails and told me about the exclusivity of the climate protests in the town, and in particular how her own daughter wanted to join in the schoolchildren’s ones that happened regularly on Fridays.
But she was unable to, because Anna worked and couldn’t have the time off to take her. The irony was not lost on Anna – as a working-class single mum, she knew that it was only the middle class that could really afford the time and resources it took to be a climate change activist.
For years, I have watched climate and environmental campaigners show an utter lack of empathy for the everyday issues that working-class people face, and instead focus only on one issue: stopping climate change.
This is honourable and important, and I have never met anyone working class who doesn’t see this as a major problem. But they realise there is little they can do about this when their own lives are already so precarious.
As much as people don’t want to see the planet being ruined, their immediate needs will always take priority. This is how capitalism works, and it puts the working class in chains, giving the middle class a perch to look down on them from.