Response to Alan Thornett’s Critique of Andreas Malm



David Jones

I understand Alan Thornett’s reaction to the provocative argument Andreas Malm presents. But in my opinion Alan fails to acknowledge both the nuance and contingent nature of that argument, and mischaracterizes it in several respects. Considering the time crunch the climate justice movement faces, we should welcome interventions, controversial as they may be, that force us to consider the nature of militancy, violence and the roles of direct action and civil disobedience. Continual re-evaluation of strategy and tactics is the only method for keeping current with changing circumstances. To remain stuck in one “theory of change” and avoid reflection is to spell our own doom as a movement. Malm is correct that we are losing and it is time to escalate; the question is how?

Malm goes out of his way to qualify and contextualize the tactical options he promotes, beginning with these two rules: 1.) “non-violent mass mobilization should (where possible) be the first resort, militant action the last; and 2.) no movement should voluntarily suspend the former, only give it appendages.” This “radical flank” approach makes sense to me. What he is primarily asking is that we avoid “the temptation to fetishize one kind of tactic”, be it property destruction, other forms of violence or pacifism. We should question strictures that assign “the sole admissible tactic” in the struggle. Personally, I would not make a moral claim one way or the other concerning property damage or use of force, but I agree with Malm that “there must be grounds for believing mellower tactics have led nowhere” before escalation is considered. And through his critique of “Deep Green Resistance”, it should be clear Malm is not an unthinking promoter of eco-terrorism. He has studied the history and found plenty of evidence to support the “radical flank” approach, “the need for complementing (strategic non-violence) with other kinds of strategies that are more militant.”

As for the “fee and dividend” proposal put forth by Citizens Climate Lobby and promoted by Allen, the fact that such a tepid program has gone nowhere for a decade speaks to the dysfunctional politics of the U.S. But from an ecosocialist position, I believe the proposal legitimizes the tyranny of market forces and risks creating even more complacency in the energy consuming public.

Where I take exception is when Malm claims civil disobedience has been given sufficient time to prove itself viable, necessitating the consideration of property destruction. I would argue the range of CD actions has been severely limited to the “Blockadia” tactics promoted by Naomi Klein or the one-off mass arrests organized by Extinction Rebellion and that old/new forms, such as those used successfully by the Civil Rights movement (and others) have been ignored. For instance, during the Birmingham campaign, Martin Luther King and SNCC organized mass arrests which filled the jails, using young students, workers and faith communities. This is how the large-scale, non-violent direct action was described by historian Howard Zinn:

“Thursday, May 2nd, is “D-Day” as students “ditch” class to march for justice. In disciplined groups of 50, children singing freedom songs march out of 16th Street Baptist church two-by-two. When each group is arrested, another takes its place.

There are not enough cops to contain them, and police reinforcements are hurriedly summoned. By the end of the day almost 1,000 kids have been jailed.

The next day, Friday May 3rd, a thousand more students cut class to assemble at 16th Street church. With the jails already filled to capacity, and the number of marchers growing, Eugene “Bull” Connor, the Commissioner of Public Safety in charge of the police and fire departments, tries to suppress the movement with violence.”

Between April 3rd and May 7 roughly three thousand are arrested and booked, filling not only the jails but an “improvised fairground prison…and open-air stockade” as well. This all takes place in conjunction with a well-organized boycott of downtown businesses and public transport. Televised scenes of savage reaction by the racist police are broadcast throughout a horrified nation which is then forced to confront the injustice.

Compare that to today’s protests, demonstrations and direct actions. These have become repetitive, boring, scripted affairs and have generally failed to build the energized, militant force required to confront our planet’s, converging, cascading crises. Therefore, movement strategists will need to re-think all these sclerotic, contemporary forms; the one-off mass mobilization/ rally with its predictable signs, speeches, chants and outcome, the isolated, dispersed acts of non-violent civil disobedience, the embrace of “diversity of tactics” to include street fighting with police or right-wing groups and certainly the random, undirected property destruction which the mass media and their advertisers so love. It is my hope that organizers will look to these historical accounts of highly trained, thoroughly disciplined but otherwise ordinary workers, students and citizens peacefully yet militantly facing down the most brutal, violent regimes of state oppression. Consider the consequences African Americans in Birmingham 1962 faced. The risks they were willing to take. And what they achieved.



DisclaimerOpinions expressed in articles are the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the views of other members of the Global Ecosocialist Network

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1 Comment

  1. A witty person once quipped to me that ‘Feel The Fear And Do It Anyway’ by Susan Jeffers was a book that you didn’t have to read because it told you what it was about in the title. ‘How To Blow Up a Pipeline’ is both the opposite – it does not tell you how to blast a hole in an oil pipeline even though there are some airports you might get delayed in if it was your in-flight reading – and the same – it IS a call for escalation of the climate movement up to and including blowing up pipelines. But it is not quite the same because it is indeed delicate and rich in its argumentation and content. As I said in my long critical essay* on the book,

    “…whatever the intention, the book is more nuanced than the title, the advance publicity and even the coverage in Los Angelus Review of Books. As well as its audacious crie de guerre the book presents throughout balanced considerations, even second thoughts, which at times recognise the hazards of its own message and the better, if less sensational, strategy to be pursued.”

    He shreds, with the thorough capacity for hitting the jugular of sophisticated nonsense that we have come to love in Andreas Malm, both ‘strategic pacifism’ and fatalist chic. Within the book’s erudite discussion however he continuously vacillates from the case for his proposal to the case against. He in fact presents enough conclusive evidence along the way to refute his own proposition. But all in the context – despite the clearest of statements like the rules quoted by David Jones above – of a serious demand for a turn to the tactics, and by implication the strategy, captured in the book’s title. ‘How To Blow Up a Pipeline’ IS nuanced and contingent. Andreas is well aware of contingency and tactics. He thinks his new (actually old) tactics are dependent on CURRENT conditions. I suspect Andreas was really thinking out the cases for and against his hit-and-run offensive as he wrote. I also suspect he came close to talking himself out of his own manifesto and into the manifesto he should have written, for a global mass movement against global warming.

    I suspect too that the way the book is written – conclusive considerations on one side but then the other – has caused, or allowed, the polarisation on the book among people who are otherwise politically close. This is reinforced by the attractiveness of how he buries some tiresome strains in the climate movement. Plus, no doubt, the disconcertion of Malm fans that his latest release is so shockingly uneven. I am less shamefaced than I was for going through ‘How To Blow Up A Pipeline’ with a fine tooth comb and allowing it to speak for itself through inordinately long and inordinately numerous extracts. 


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