'… let’s hope that things kick off again quickly'. An Interview with Andreas Malm
ACTA: After writing two books on fossil capital and on nature and society in a warming world, you have just published How to Blow Up a Pipeline, where you say: "the climate movement has had its Gandhian moment; perhaps the time has come for a Fanonian one" [our translation from French version]. What do you mean by that? What is the assessment that leads you to write this?
Andreas Malm: The climate movement has been civil, polite, gentle, even cute for two and a half decades. It has brought us some distance, but we have a long way to travel and we must do it fast. Gandhian ideals of non-violence – often upheld as absolute dogmas, even though they are sorely incoherent – can no longer serve as the sole lodestar for the movement. The legacy of Fanon and his theories of political violence point to one alternative. It consists, first of all, in making distinctions between forms of violence: not all violence is the same; not all of it has an evil ethical or political profile: some of it strikes from above, some from below; some violent acts reproduce oppressive and destructive structures, others challenge them; some give vent to hatred of subaltern groups, others express the desire to live and the rage that comes from being denied a full life or indeed any life at all. It follows, as Fanon argued, that some forms of violence can have emancipatory potential. Translated to the present moment of climate breakdown, this is, I believe, very much the case. The kind of property that devastates this planet and kills subalterns on a daily basis – namely, machines that dig up and burn fossil fuels – should be physically destroyed. That would count as a form of violence, even if it – as it should – avoids doing harm to any person. It would have all the positive aspects Fanon discerned. The Gandhian tradition would censure it at least as strictly as any other form of violence. Now I think this is a case of ethical and political blindness, and the worse the climate crisis becomes, the more apparent this blindness will be – and the more constraining for the movement.
ACTA: You develop an eminently tactico-strategic approach to the question of political violence by "denouncing strategic pacifism". On the one hand, you describe how, in the history of revolutionary movements, the existence of a radical wing has always allowed progressive advances that have responded more or less satisfactorily to reformist demands. On the other hand, considering the nowadays power relations, you argue that we have to intensify the level of antagonism. Could you elaborate this?
AM: The climate problem is shot through with antagonism on every level. The question is whether the movement – and indeed anyone who strives to avert uncontrollable catastrophe and favours stabilisation of the climate – articulates the antagonism or tries to blunt it, sweep it under the rug, wish away its existence, glide over it. The task of the movement should be to rally masses of people around an uncompromisingly honest agenda for radical and immediate transition away from fossil fuels. This requires isolating and confronting an enemy – most obviously, the fraction of capital that lives and profits from the continued extraction of fossil fuels. My favourite French case, as we’re speaking in a French context: the largest capitalist corporation in France is Total. It has to cease to exist as an oil and gas company. Everyone with the most basic insight into the make-up of the climate problem knows this. There is no way around it: Total, the single largest capitalist corporation in the nation of France, must be put out of business. Of course, this entails antagonism – its definitional, axiomatic – because the owners of this company, just as owners of any other oil and gas company, plan on a daily basis for expanded operations. They are intent on digging up more fuel to pour on the fire. Any headway, any progress implies inflicting a defeat on this fraction of the capitalist class – as a minimal start.
I don’t know of any example in history where a social antagonism of this intensity and magnitude has been resolved without an element of militant confrontation with the ‘vested interests’, to use the standard term from climate politics. Strategic pacifism is a school of thought that likes to believe that enemies of this kind have always been overcome by means of absolute non-violence. I’m not interested in denouncing it so much as in reminding climate activists and others that this idea has very little connection to actual historical reality. I offer a brief rebuttal of strategic pacifism, but one could pile up entire encyclopaedias to bolster the case against it further – or just look at what’s going on in the world today.
Black Lives Matter exploded as a mass movement not after another round of serene vigils and well-mannered petitioning. It did so once the people of Minneapolis had stormed the police station in the third precinct and set it on fire. Strategic pacifism predicts that such an act should instantly alienate the masses and condemn the movement to marginality and futility, but exactly the opposite happened: the storming showed that the police is not above the law, not untouchable, not beyond the power of people to bring it down, and this was a catalyst for the widest possible spectrum of anti-racist, anti-police mass activism in the US and beyond. Needless to say, not all of that movement has consisted in militant acts, like storming police stations or toppling statutes. But the radical flank has been an integral component of it, and I cannot see how anyone could seriously suggest that the movement would have reached further had it been exclusively peaceful, never burning or destroying anything. It is fairly evident that the concessions this movement have wrung from the US state apparatus on various scales are unthinkable without the element of militancy on display since the murder of George Floyd.
Now, the problem for the climate movement is that is has remained devoid of a commensurate radical flank. There has still been no equivalent to a storming and burning of a police station, even though there’s no shortage of fossil fuel infrastructure that houses centres of permanent violence – against non-white lives in particular! In September 2020, the climate movement is still in a paralysis, in place since the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic. 2019 was our strongest year so far, with a peak in popular mobilisation, although still completely in the pacifist mode. When our movement regains its momentum, there might be another fifty or hundred gigatons of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. All the more reason, then, to escalate.
ACTA: In your argumentat, you elaborate a genealogy of uncommon struggles for Western climate activists, from the Black Panthers to the PFLP, from the radical wing of the suffragettes to the national liberation struggles, and you insist a lot on the resistances in the South. Could you discuss some of the "white and bourgeois" features of the current movement in the West, and the importance of rethinking a true internationalism for the climate movement that integrates anti-imperialist issues?
AM: The suffering caused by fossil fuel combustion hits people in the global South every day. Just look at the most recent months: catastrophic flooding in Yemen and Somalia, inundation of swathes of Bangladesh, the locust crisis in east Africa, unrelenting drought and wildfires in Argentina – there’s no end to it. Our media is better at reporting on wildfires in California or hurricanes in Texas, but the bulk of the human losses takes place in the South. That means that the climate struggle aligns itself with the survival interests of people in countries that used to be in focus for anti-imperialist solidarity movements inside the Northern centre. It’s about time that tradition is revived.
There is, however, one qualitative difference: in the era of anti-colonial struggles, people in what was then called the Third World faced the enemy in their own lives, in their cities and fields, face to face, and were thus perfectly positioned to strike back. Anti-imperialists in the core acted in secondary solidarity with these struggles in situ. Today, people in the global South suffer the consequences of a large-scale fossil fuel combustion undertaken and maintained and expanded far away from them. Refugees in Yemen who have had their tents washed away by torrential rains have limited capacity to strike against the enemy, precisely because it is so distant. But inside the metropolis, the fossil fuel infrastructure is everywhere, and this is where the profits from it are accumulated. This makes combat inside the metropolis even more imperative. The Algerians could kick out the French from Algeria on their own territory, but the Yemenis and Bangladeshis and Argentinians cannot possibly vanquish fossil capital on their own, at home, because that’s not where fossil capital has its headquarters and concentrated technomass. An action against a lignite mine in Germany is an action in their interest. This is, if you like, third worldism 2.0, or the anti-imperialist front in Western Europe devoting itself to climate justice. Or this is what should be happening, if the climate movement rose to its historical task.
This is not the only qualitative difference though; the climate problem is, of course, uniquely constituted. Western activists in the era of the Vietnam War sometimes made the point that if the barbarism wasn’t stopped in the peripheries, it would eventually come home to roost in the metropolis as well, in the form of fascism or murderous tyranny or some other such bane. Today, this dynamic is a literal, physical fact: if the plight of the global South in an overheating world is ignored – as it has been for three decades – it will reach into the North too. We are now seeing this scenario playing out on a daily basis, most recently in the Pacific Northwest of the US. If the fires that first burn poor non-whites are not put out, they will burn everyone in the end. All the more reason, again, to wage militant struggle in the North; and all the more glaring its absence.
ACTA: There is something you don't speak about a lot in your book, and that is the organizational translation of your "division of labour" between a moderate and a more radical wing. One could infer from this that you are proposing to the climate movement a kind of frontal form. In other texts, however, you call yourself an ecological Leninist, study war communism closely, and are very critical of certain forms of horizontality, whether in your ecological activism or in the Tahrir uprising. Could you explain? What forms of organization do you think are appropriate for the climate movement?
AM: My plea is one for tactical and organisational pluralism. We need nearly all the forms of activism and organising we can get – with some exceptions: we don’t need terrorism; as I stress in the book, it would be disastrous for us. This means open mass mobilisations of the Fridays for Future kind and Extinction Rebellion-type civil disobedience and climate camps and electoral campaigns – and, yes, militant direct action organised by smaller cadre groups. There is a lingering misconception that direct action is the exclusive terrain of anarchists and others bent on horizontal, ‘libertarian’ politics. But, of course, the history of the left – including the post-1968 European left – is one of Leninist groups conducting some of the most daring direct actions. There is no contradiction between being Leninist and executing property destruction: to the contrary. Neither the Black Panthers nor the PFLP nor the groups in Europe that acted in solidarity with them were anarchists. There is a history to relearn here.
ACTA: In your book you talk about certain campaigns, for example attacking the tyres of SUVs or sabotaging pipelines. Are there other interesting forms of action that you could cite?
AM: Not for the moment, given that everything has been suspended… let’s hope that things kick off again quickly.