I've just finished reading Andreas Malm's latest book - "How to Blow Up a Pipeline" - it is quick and easy to read and makes several very interesting points. I'd recommend it as required reading for anyone who considers themself any kind of climate activist, whatever your attitude to non-violence and pacifism. This is not a book to change your mind, but it is a book to help you understand more aspects of the context within which climate activism must take place.

The first thing to say, in case you are in any doubt, is that the title is misleading - it is not a manual on monkey-wrenching, nor is it a call for the climate movement to change tactics - or at least not for everyone.

It is probably also useful to read Rupert Read & Joeseph Eastoe's recent paper[1]  on the need for a Moderate Flank to complement XR style climate activism. Rupert characterises XR as being a radical flank, whereas in Malm's view XR is not offering the radicalism that is now needed. This conclusion comes from XR's stress on NVDA and refusal to countenance any deviation from the ideology that holds that it is a historical truth that only NVDA can be successful in forcing large scale change.

Read and Malm both recognise that XR is far from morphing into a mass movement, and that, whilst it has undoubtedly succeeded in shifting the basis of social debate over climate change (and to a lesser extent ecosystem collapse) - the "Overton Window" - it is unlikely to attract the level of support needed for a revolutionary change. "Revolutionary" here being used as the correct term for a change, or set of changes, that over-turns the existing system - the world is turned upside-down and "the loser now will be later to win".  

Malm does a very good job of debunking the claims made by the founders of XR, and which have become part of its DNA, that previous successful movements; slavery, suffragettes, Indian independence, US civil rights, the overthrow of the South African apartheid regime, were all based on and succeeded through NVDA methods. This has always seemed a pretty dubious claim to me based on what little I know (and in some cases remember). Malm gives chapter and verse as to how all of these used targeted, and usually constrained, violence against property as a tool of a radical flank to the central non-violent movement. This allowed the powers-that-be to eventually sit down and negotiate with the mainstream of the movement rather than see things disintegrate into chaos.

In a similar way, in the second section of the book, he undermines the core premise, much articulated by Roger Halam, following the research of Ericka Chenoweth and Maria Stephan[2] , which claims that XR merely needs to mobilise 3.5% of the population to engage in NVDA in order to force a change. In almost all cases cited by Chenoweth and Stephan the change demanded could be accommodated within the existing structures - only the personnel needed to change.

A key difference for the climate movement today from many historical movements that have achieved change without recourse to violence (if not open warfare) is that they did not seek to fundamentally change the core engine that powers society. The anti-slavery movement, the suffragettes, the civil rights movement, all were only seeking to change access to the table, not to overturn the table and replace it with something new.

Arguably the anti-apartheid movement, and independence movements were seeking a more radical change - but at the end of the day they were still only demanding a modern industrial state in which the all people (or different people) had a say in how things were run, and not to overthrow the capitalist system built on the fossil fuels that powered their society - a change of access to the levers of power, but not a change to the engine itself.

About the only movement for change which has successfully overturned the underlying organisation of power relations in a society might be the communist take overs in Russia, and then China (and also Cuba and a few other places). Notwithstanding the retrenchment in the late 20th century in both places, these were initially truly revolutionary movements that sought to fundamentally change the relationships between labour and capital, between the state and the individual. Arguably the later failure of both these revolutions to persist has been due to the fact that they didn't go far enough. They thought that a rearrangement of social relationships between people would enable them to continue to to use the tools and energy that was derived from an abusive relationship with the rest of the natural world. Unfortunately some form of capitalism seems to be predicated by the use of fossil fuels as a primary power source for society.

The challenge for the eco-activist movement is that the changes required to return society to a harmonious relationship with its environment (often called the natural world, as if it is something separate from human society) require changing the fossil fuel engine which powers society - and now doing it in a very short timescale. This is something that has never been done before.  

The switch from water to coal power during the industrial revolution, and the switch from horse power to internal combustion power, both played out over many decades. Even then they were merely implementing a technology change that was building on forces put into play centuries earlier. The direction of travel - towards greater alienation of humankind from the environment - remained the same. Today we don't have many decades, and we are wanting not merely a technology change, but also to reverse the direction of travel back towards greater harmony between humankind and the environment it is part of.

For existing society to end its dependency on fossil fuels is to ask nothing less than a complete revolutionary change. Not only must the hands on the levers of power change, but the engine to which those levers are connected also has to change.

That can never be achieved by NVDA alone, and it is doubtful that NVDA in itself will trigger any larger movement for change. Certainly as far as the existing make-up and tactics of XR are concerned they do seem to be reaching a dead end. Without expressions of support for the goals from a much wider section of the population can it get any further? In order to dismantle the capitalistic structures whose lifeblood is the continued use of fossil fuels, it is essential to disrupt the flow of either capital or labour to the pumps of power and wealth. 

This seems to mean either making money worthless, or making labour unobtainable for the purposes which the capitalist class needs. Labour is the key here which could undo this gordian knot.

Clearly there is a place for NVDA movements like XR, and we need to respect their adherence to the principle of non-violence to both people and objects that they articulate. But XR itself needs to develop to move forwards. Whilst continuing the periodic large scale disruptive actions, aimed primarily at the perceived seats of power, they must use the time between rebellions not merely for regeneration (important as that is) and navel gazing, but to proactively reach out into the workplaces, the colleges, the schools, the churches. Here, in the organisations that already exist, they must find the recruits to build their movement and provide new momentum for each successive rebellion.

Unions have been emasculated by capitalism; what XR can bring to the workplace is a call not just for better conditions - but for better work. Traditionally workplaces activism has focused on the conditions of work, and a more or less competitive scramble for improvement in a zero-sum game - every pay rise and extra day's holiday means less for the capitalists to cream off (and quite right too) - but what about addressing the actual quality of work, instead of taking it as a given. The pioneering events at Lucas Industries in 1976 developing the 'Lucas Plan' points the way, as did the NSWBLF in 1968-1972 with its 'Green Bans' boycotting work on projects that they considered environmentally unsound.

A similar point is made both by Rupert Read[3] in his Sept'21 paper for Green House and by Jess Walsh[4] reviewing Malm's book for Socialist Worker, although neither of them endorse Malm's call for a campaign of eco-sabotage as well. I see the necessity for both approaches at this stage.

Imagine shopworkers coming to realise that they have the power to directly influence the products their shops sell by refusing to sell harmful products or industrial food. Imagine bank workers talking to their management about the investment policies the bank is promoting and pushing for more social investment. Imagine call centre workers understanding the real corrosive nature of pressure selling techniques and refusing to use them. Imagine distribution centre and warehouse operatives forcing their location to make greener choices. Imagine these people demanding time off to attend demonstrations and rebellions against fossil fuel corruption, or simply taking Fridays off for their own future. The potential is massive but the learning has to be enabled.

Teachers have been neutered and shackled by metrics and targets and a prescriptive curriculum. Suppose students were to start to demand the learning that they need rather than being spoon fed grades. Teachers do have the power should they decide to use it to simply refuse en-masse to follow a prescribed curriculum. Time for them to throw off these mind-forged manacles and rise up to meet the true challenge of their noble profession. Students, especially post 16, do have the right to make informed choices about what they should learn. The activist movements are full of people whose first and formative rebellion was against what they were being taught - let them go forth and share their experiences with today's young people - not to push knowledge on them but to open the doors of perception. 

The religions have become timid (or at least they have in western culture). If they have a useful social role it must be to provide clear moral leadership, to provide an inspiring vision. Their leaders have ceded their moral authority and must reclaim it or fade from the stage - but it needs to be an authority that speaks of a harmonious relation between man and nature, not an exploitative one. For Christianity it is back to the roots before it became a patriarchal power structure - the teachings are there, they have just been corrupted by time and the ratio-scientific denial of spirituality and a peculiar form of monotheism. The churches need to become centres of debate again.

Read & Eastoe have identified the trap the XR is falling into - that organisation now has to make a choice. It has established a hugely successful "brand" but it is in danger of loosing it if it pushes to become more radical. Its urgent task now must be to do the work outlined above - engaging other organisations and sympathetic groups from the bottom up and using that renewed energy to continue to build the disruptive, but not too-disruptive, rebellions that have become its hallmark.

Meanwhile there is also a need for elements like the young people's Fridays for the Future and Halam's Insulate Britain and Animal Liberation, which will evolve their own principles and practices that may go beyond the comfort zone of XR activists. Smaller, more flexible, cadres that hit at the system while broadly staying within acceptable limits - but pushing the boundaries a bit.

And then there is the need for what Malm is calling for - essentially a below-ground loose organisation that starts to conduct a carefully targeted campaign of eco-sabotage and disabling of fossil fuel and other damaging infrastructure - from the bottom, the oil well, the coal mine, the quarry, the arms factory - to the top - the boardrooms and gated communities of the hyper rich. Not personal violence, but violence towards people's actions and ability to act and their tools.

In may well be that such a thing is already active and developing below ground, there is no way that you or I could know about it until we see its fruits burst forth like a fairy ring.

And when it does burst forth our task has to be absolutely not to condemn it but to ask "is it surprising that some people are starting to see that as a viable course of action in the face of endless procrastination and delay?" and to throw the blame squarely back where it belongs "Well if you wont listen to and act on what reasonable people are telling you then you have to accept the responsibility for these actions yourself"


References & Footnotes
  1. Read & Eastoe, 2021: Rupert Read & Joeseph Eastoe, The Need for a 'Moderate Flank' in Climate Activism, web article June 2021
  2. Stephan & Chenoweth, 2016: Erica Chenoweth & Maria Stephan, Why Civil Resistance Works, 2021
  3. Read R, 2021: Ruper Read, Between XR and COP, Sept 2021, Published by Green House Think Tank.
  4. Walsh J, 2021: Review of Andreas Malm How to Blow Up a Pipeline in Socialist Worker, April 2021

Comments powered by CComment