Just Stop Oil's style of climate protest is a struggle for status through biblical notions of virtuous suffering – Dr Azeem Ibrahim
For just a few minutes seemingly every day, the country is united in delight at the latest footage of an everyman dragging Just Stop Oil protesters to the curb. Rapturous applause for Jonny Bairstow dispatching an orange pitch invader at the Ashes, and praise for pranksters giving them a taste of their own medicine show that disdain for JSO has fast become visceral and near-universal.
First, we must concede that they are straightforwardly wrong about the climate, and this goes some way to explaining the popular opposition. The UK is responsible for such a small proportion of global emissions (just under two per cent) that net-zero zealotry at home will make precious little difference in a world where China, which emits a third of the world’s greenhouse gases, has been opening two new coal plants a week.
We won’t be able to convince the developed world to become poorer, let alone convince the developing world to remain in poverty, and therefore efforts to combat climate change will not be achieved overnight or at great cost to living standards. JSO’s puritanism does little to ingratiate them with anyone except fellow extremists. By every metric available for a movement supposed to achieve action on climate change, it has, at best, utterly failed, and at worst has critically undermined its own cause. But the protesters won’t be losing any sleep over it.
That’s because what drives them on a personal level is the search for status. As a key social good, both for humans and animals, considerable literature has developed in sociology, psychology, and economics to the study of status and the things we do to signal our status to others. It’s an incredibly powerful force – status is what often drives young men to join gangs or become radicalised.
History abounds with curious examples of status symbols. Perhaps the most universal is that delicate and restrictive clothing signals that the wearer doesn’t need to toil in the fields. Poorer labourers cannot afford to make the same signal – meaning the signal is a good one. In the modern era, when most work in the service sector, some rely on ostentatious designer goods to make the same signals, but these can be too common and morally suspect for the discerning, modern-day, status seeker. New trends like “quiet luxury” aim to fill this role, though imperfectly.
The key motive that unites all manner of status-signalling activities is the craving to elevate yourself into distinction above the masses. This gives rise to the fashionable or “luxury” opinion, characterised by distaste for anything the unwashed masses might enjoy. These opinions can be identified by the same criteria, what Pierre Bourdieu described as “distance from necessity”. The more costly a taste, opinion or activity is to acquire or carry out, the better it works as a signal for cultural capital.
It didn’t take the country long to realise that JSO protestors are predominantly white, middle-class and university-educated. Many are pensioners. Go figure. Not only can they afford not to be in work and to be arrested, but they are insulated from many of the enormous costs of the policies they advocate. They hold textbook luxury beliefs, yet in this case they’re additionally imposing the costs on the general public trying to get to work, to school or even to the hospital. Humans are deeply social animals; we can smell status-seeking behaviour from a mile away, yet as a country we’re being asked to pick up the tab to indulge them. That is one of the key reasons opposition to JSO is becoming so instinctual.
Note that this does not mean that the protesters are being insincere. The quest for status is a fundamental and powerful driver for all of us – the desire to feel important and virtuous. The best of us are swept up by it. As is often the case, TS Eliot describes it best: “Half the harm that is done in this world is due to people who want to feel important. They don't mean to do harm; but the harm does not interest them. Or they do not see it, or they justify it because they are absorbed in the endless struggle to think well of themselves.”
We call this ‘virtue-signalling’, and it partly is, but it also reduces to a particular form of status-signalling. The conception of ‘virtue’ they seem to hold is, as has been often pointed out, reminiscent of peculiarly Christian ethics. As Janan Ganesh wrote, “although the West has secularised, one biblical notion lives on: that there is virtue in suffering. To be wronged is to be right.” To atone for their sin of having never suffered or wanted for anything, being arrested or fined is the kind of martyrdom they crave to feel virtuous. Perversely, the more hate they receive, the better they feel about themselves for having suffered through it, and all the more higher status their ‘peaceful’ selves will feel above the masses.
If Just Stop Oil was really interested in stopping oil, they’d be better off starting an effective grassroots political and lobbying campaign. But where’s the status in that? As one mole inside the JSO machine opined, “they’re more interested in being arrested and becoming the face of a rebellion than actually wanting to fight climate change”. That’s why they aren’t going to China with their protesting tactics where it is evidently needed most.
Azeem Ibrahim is a research professor at the Strategic Studies Institute US Army War College, director of the Newlines Institute for Strategy and Policy in Washington DC, and author of Authoritarian Century: Omens of a Post-Liberal Order
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