Gentle Protests: An Interview with Andreas Malm

It might be necessary to consider escalating

How to Blow Up a Pipeline deals with a major myth that plagues mainstream climate activism and anti-capitalist, anti-colonial movements in general: the too-widely promulgated principle that non-violence is the only adequate form for resistance. We hear discourse like this from a wide spectrum of people, from liberal politicians, to prominent academics like Judith Butler, to activists who police the actions of other demonstrators in the streets. White Skin, Black Fuel, on the other hand, investigates the political theater of what political scientist Cara Daggett calls “fossil fascism.” In short, both texts unfix ideologies — some shared on the Left, others mediatized by the Right — that have very clear materialist impacts, both on the planet and on the forms of resistance that seek to upend fossil capital and its incumbent colonial, genocidal, carceral, and extractive apparatuses.

Here, we discuss questions of climate militancy, the validity of counterposing mass climate movements to seemingly more radical liberation struggles, and whether state sovereignty is necessary to combat fossil capital. The interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.


Andreas Petrossiants.— Let’s start with How to Blow Up a Pipeline. Can you introduce the book and discuss the liberal myths of nonviolence you critique from a historical perspective and from your own activist projects?

Andreas Malm.— This book, which is a brief intervention, came out of the conjuncture of 2019 when we experienced intense mobilization around climate issues on the streets here in Europe and around the world. And this, of course, was largely mediatized by Greta Thunberg and the Fridays for Future movement, as well as Extinction Rebellion and the building up of climate camps in Europe. I wrote the book with a feeling of excitement, but also with some frustration that the climate movement, in the broadest of terms, is stuck in a form of protest that’s quite gentle — not to mention timid, even — and rarely goes beyond the most peaceful forms of civil disobedience. And given the stakes of the struggle and how little time there is to solve these issues, I argue that it might be necessary to consider escalating our tactics and diversifying with things like sabotage and property destruction.

So far, so-called “strategic pacifism” has been hegemonic in the climate movement, the idea being that if a social movement goes down the route of violence in any shape or form, including property destruction, it invariably alienates its support base, or that ordinary people will turn their backs on the movement and it will decline into a kind of fringe phenomenon. Take Extinction Rebellion (XR), for example: this was the premise for the whole movement in its inception. A number of historical examples are often reduced and misrepresented to back up this case for nonviolence: the struggles to end slavery in the US and other parts of the Americas, the struggles for women’s right to vote, the struggle against Apartheid in South Africa, struggles against dictatorships, including the Arab Spring, and so on.

All of these are said to be entirely peaceful and therefore successful struggles. And I argue in my book that that’s not in accordance with the historical evidence. The George Floyd uprisings and the Movement for Black Lives, which was kicked off by the burning of the Minneapolis Police Department’s Third Precinct, was a relatively violent action that was accomplished by means of Molotov cocktails and fireworks and various types of projectiles lobbed against the police. And that action did not in any way scare people off or deter them from joining the movement. To the contrary, it opened people’s eyes to the fact that the police can be disrupted and overwhelmed. It’s not a force beyond the influence of ordinary people; we can defeat the cops and take over their property and even destroy it.

After the Third Police Precinct was burned down, there was a poll done and something like 54 percent of Americans were in favor of the torching of the precinct, which definitely challenges the myth that political violence always scares people off.

I think the climate movement has some lessons to learn from this episode, one being that mass militancy is possible. It’s not true that it’s impossible to combine mass struggle with a degree of militant confrontation and property destruction. And I’m not saying that that property destruction is a panacea, as if it’s the one thing that everyone involved in the climate movement should engage with at the expense of everything else. I’m simply arguing that it should be one ingredient in the toolbox of unrest, and that it is indispensable to get a transition going and force states to rid their economies of fossil fuels.

In How to Blow Up a Pipeline, you’re mostly talking about mass movements organizing against fossil capital, as opposed to the many examples of smaller, coordinated destruction of the fossil fuel apparatus, violent resistance to logging companies, the actual destruction of pipelines, and so on, a large part of which is carried out by Indigenous militants and groups.

Why do you think it’s helpful to sketch such a large gulf between the climate movement in the Global North and other sorts of political mobilizations? I ask this because 2019 also saw large social movements that turned into rebellions in a lot of different countries and cities: in Chile with students who rose up against fare hikes that eventually led to the re-writing of the Pinochet Constitution, in Beirut, in Port-au-Prince, in Hong Kong, and really all over the world. I bring this up as a way of thinking how rebellions continued from 2019 into the COVID era in 2020 and 2021. Now, as the COVID crisis continues to worsen in many parts of the world, and as states continue to use the pandemic to ramp up repression, how have you been thinking about climate struggles, broadly considered?

Regarding the difference between the climate movement and other social movements: if we stay in the Global North and if we compare the mass climate movement with something like BLM or the Yellow Vests, the mainstream climate movement stands out for being entirely peaceful and never engaging in anything like large scale property destruction or confrontation with cops. And why is that? Well, there are probably several different explanations, but I suspect it might have something to do with the circumstance that many “leaders” in the climate movement come from a certain kind of white, middle class background that is loyal to its own class standpoint and doesn’t take out the perspectives of other classes or, indeed, other racial groups in society. That’s one part of the explanation, but certainly not the entire one. The climate movement has held back rage and other emotions and led it down a path of much more gentle appeals to politicians to mend their ways.

There are other components that need to be invoked to explain this difference. One, of course, is that the violence of the climate crisis is hard to capture in one image or text as opposed to the violence captured, for instance, in the video of Derek Chauvin kneeling on George Floyd’s neck. We don’t have clips of fossil fuel executives literally strangling farmers in India or pastoralists in Kenya to death; that violence is mediated through the atmosphere. But at the end of the day, it is a form of violence, a systematic destruction of other people’s lives. And I think sooner or later that will dawn on a greater number of people, and larger segments of the climate movement will radicalize. The movement needs to learn to express feelings of anger and rage and turn them on the sources of this violence. And those sources are not very hard to find in Europe or in the U.S.

On the question of repression, one objection to the book I have received is that if we were to escalate, then this might bring much forceful and ferocious repression on us. That risk exists, of course, so how does one deal with that? Well, to begin with, you try to avoid repression as long as possible. In 2019, XR did it the other way around. They made it a strategic task to try and get as many people arrested as possible on a civil disobedience model. And I think that’s the wrong way to go. I think we should try to avoid arrest, keep going, and achieve as much as we can in terms of direct action (destroying property used for fossil speculation and production, shutting down mines and deforestation projects through acts like tree sits, and so on), rather than jumping into the laps of police and asking to be arrested. In fact, civil disobedience can work in concert with other more militant operations to destabilize different parts of the fossil apparatus at once, instead of shaming those who see a window for escalation. But, of course, we will have to grapple with escalating repression as long as as we escalate our tactics. And that’s what happens when antagonisms in society come to the surface. And I think given the incredibly deeply entrenched interests that we need to challenge, if we’re going to get rid of fossil fuels, then our struggle will inevitably mean an encounter with repression.

One of the important differences with the climate struggle is that we know that global heating is wired to exacerbate it. With every gigaton of CO2 emitted into the atmosphere, the problem gets worse. And when we think about strategic and tactical choices in the climate struggle, we need to think precisely about this as the central feature of our problem: that it only gets worse all the time. And it’s with an eye towards this declension, this acceleration of the problem, that we need to consider our tactics.

It’s dumbfounding for me that people critique the prospect of escalating tactics when the police and the state are constantly escalating, with every person killed by a cop and with the continuous building up of the world’s fossil fuel infrastructure. Your book does document moments of climate sabotage as well as the violent forms of repression that follow — for example, the 110 years in prison given to Jessica Reznicek and Ruby Montoya, two climate activists. That being said, you also talk about smaller-scale acts of disruption and sabotage that carry less risk — like the tire actions you did with comrades, in which you deflated the tires of SUVs in luxury neighborhoods in Swedish cities, later picked up by XR activists in Bordeaux. Can you talk about these different scales of sabotage and resistance?

Regarding Reznicek and Montoya, who are sort of the heroines of my book, I know that they were facing something like 110 years in prison, but I’m not sure they’ve been convicted yet. They will likely receive long sentences, even if not over a century. One of the interesting aspects of what they did is that they went up and down the route of the Dakota Access Pipeline when it was under construction and ripped it apart, burned equipment, diggers, and tractors, set them on fire, but they never got caught. They kept doing this for months and inflicting quite serious economic losses on the construction project. But in the end, they couldn’t singlehandedly stop it because they were only two individuals.

After the construction was finalized, they went public about it because they wanted to make their actions more widely known. That’s at least how I understand their reasoning. They willingly exposed themselves to arrests. And now, in an ideal situation, of course, they wouldn’t have been two people, but several hundreds of thousands doing this. And if they had been, maybe they could have stopped the pipeline entirely and kept going without being arrested. Although, of course, if you have that many people, the risk is higher that some people will get arrested.

Forms of property destruction can look very different. They can be small scale, they can be made in the dark, but they can also be massive. They can be conducted by crowds of people, as with the case of the precinct in Minneapolis. And they can erupt spontaneously or can be premeditated and planned, as when people tore down monuments to slave owners and Confederate generals in the US or the UK. In another way, sabotage can be very gentle. It can be done without even destroying anything, like the tire actions you mentioned. Then, property destruction can be much more destructive, as in actually blowing up pipelines. And there’s no shortage of examples of people who have done that, although that has largely happened for reasons apart from climate struggle specifically, as in when the Egyptians rose against Mubarak, or other examples of Colombian or Nigerian guerillas doing the same. Popular forces in many different places in the Global South.

My general point is that we need to use our imaginations. What are the best ways to go about this and how do we do it without harming people’s bodies and lives? How do we do it in a way that is justifiable and that can be explained to people and gain mass support? And how do we do it in a way that aligns with a mass movement against climate change and for climate justice, rather than being separate from that movement and potentially even in opposition to it. So, for instance, XR in the UK now seems to have a campaign to smash the windows of banks that are pouring billions and trillions of dollars into fossil fuel extraction. And I see that as a positive development because redirecting these kinds of disruptive actions that XR did in 2019 from general city life towards the actual sources of accumulating capital through fossil fuel extraction is a wise redirection.

White Skin, Black Fuel takes a very different approach to discussing the climate crisis, analyzing decades of fascist conspiracies and right wing party positions on climate change. In the introduction, you make the point that even though most right wing parties of the last decades have taken a denialist stance, liberal, or even left-of-liberal ways of discussing the climate have much more in common with those of the right wing. Or, in other words, as you all paraphrase German philosopher Max Horkheimer in the introduction, “she who does not wish to speak of fossil capital and the liberal ideology that has sustained it should also be silent about fossil fascism and its prefigurations.”

This book is a much larger historical project than HtBUaP, because we wrote it as a group of twenty comrades. And we started back in summer 2018. It was a bit delayed because of the pandemic, and we ended up writing the last material in January of this year. In the first part of the book, we look at thirteen different countries in Europe and the US and Brazil and studied what the far right has done and said about climate and energy in the last two decades. The second part is an attempt to go deeper into the historical roots of this phenomenon. But the amazing thing about working together with this many people is that we know a lot of different languages in this group and therefore we’ve been able to draw out similarities and of course, differences between countries such as Hungary, Spain, Sweden, the US, Brazil, and so on.

So, what does this research show in 2021? Donald Trump is no longer the president, which is a great relief from my horizon, at least. You can obviously have all kinds of criticisms about Joe Biden. But it’s certainly a setback for the global far right that Trump isn’t there any longer. He doesn’t exercise that magnetic pull that galvanized the far right in Europe and in places like Brazil any longer. But the far right is with us for sure. It’s extremely strong in a lot of countries in Europe, from France to Sweden to Denmark, as the last elections showed. And as temperatures continue to climb, the far right will still be defending the privileges that come with fossil fuel consumption. And that aggressive defense must be grappled with just as repression will have to be grappled with. Our book is an attempt to follow these lines in history and see how they have intensified in the past decade and where they might lead next. Ultimately, of course, our hope is that this will stimulate strategic discussions in the climate movement and in various anti-racist, antifascist movements around the world about how to battle this common enemy. That is, where is the far right and how can it be vanquished. Why is it that the far right so intensely defends fossil fuels and denies the climate crisis in one way or another? And where does this whole complex of racism and fossil fuels come from? When were they conjoined?

You make examples of people like Trump, Bolsonaro, AfD politicians, and so on, but as we know, other ostensibly well-meaning leaders are no less beholden to whiteness and fossil capital, whether or not they are white themselves. Biden may seem to offer some sort of “greenness” with his infrastructure plan, but it doesn’t even come close to the prospects of a Green New Deal, which, in its various chimerical versions, is also insufficient.

In some of your previous writing, you’ve discussed what some have termed “climate Leninism,” which, in a nutshell, would be something like a very powerful intervention against fossil capital, organized through a robust state apparatus, albeit one that is more democratically organized. Personally, I would push back on a proposal like that, as I suspect that statist apparatuses, even if radically reimagined, are incompatible with genuine transitions away from production and consumption models, forms of development, let alone fossil capital. Or perhaps Mick Smith says it better when he argues that sovereignty is an essentially “anti-ecological principle.”

These questions are so central and vital and big — we could talk about them for hours. But let me just make a few points that I think are essential. My reading of the Green New Deal project is that it certainly has a lot of utopian content. The literature that I’ve read is filled with hopes for the social transformation that this can unleash. Obviously, you have some people who think that the Green New Deal is too nation centered and could potentially entrench rather than transcend exploitative relations between the Global North and South and so on. But I think that it’s a vibrant discourse and conversation, where clearly there is the scope for very critical and radical perspectives. And I’m quite sympathetic to it.

Now, on the much broader question of the state and ecological Leninism, a term I haven’t coined, but one that I’m thinking through by reading the work of people like Jodi Dean, Kai Heron, and Derek Wall: This is a discussion to take up different elements of the Leninist legacy and politics to experiment and think of whether they can be relevant for the present.

I have a few different takes on this. But if we are going to stick with the question of the state, I find it difficult to see how we could address the climate crisis without exercising state power, either directly or indirectly, either by forces close to the climate movement actually taking hold of state power — i.e. electoral breakthroughs that haven’t happened yet — or by the climate movement and its allies becoming so strong that we can dictate what must be done to the state, even if it’s potentially run by forces alien to us.

If we’re going to cut emissions in rich countries by ten percent per year, who even has the capacity to enforce that? If we, as a movement, could do it, we would be constituting ourselves as a de facto state, because it entails that you order economic agents to desist with certain things and you ban certain things. I mean, almost every advance and every kind of real progress on the climate front takes the form of an intervention into how markets operate. Just today, the French state has mandated that flights cannot fly inside France if there is an available train journey that is two and a half hours or less. Obviously, the left wanted this ban to go much further. But that’s a very typical kind of state decision about what you can do in an economy or not. And I don’t see how we can address this crisis at the root without making these kinds of decisions. And the most central one to me would be to nationalize fossil fuel companies, take them over, turn them into public property, and instruct them to terminate all fossil fuel production and do something completely different –– for instance, taking CO2 out of the atmosphere through various types of drawdown. So, the Leninism here would be a recognition that in a moment of emergency and in a moment of very rapid transition, you can’t wish the state away; the state’s muscles must be deployed against fossil capital.

Now, I’m entirely aware that this could degenerate into various kinds of authoritarianism because that’s what any kind of deployment of state power can do. And we need to think about how to avoid that. In the still entirely hypothetical scenario that something like this would happen, you would need counter forces to make sure that you don’t have that kind of degeneration. How do we build those counterforces? Well, I don’t know. But if you accept that states will only start moving in this direction, if pushed to do so by popular forces, then already you have that tension between popular forces and the states. And throughout the transition, that tension would remain in place and you could potentially have those powers external to the state working in a fraught relationship to the state trying to prevent it from becoming authoritarian. I should say, as I say to everyone else that I’m talking to right now, that there is no better resource about how to think about this that I know of than Kim Stanley Robinson’s masterpiece of a novel, The Ministry for the Future, which outlines how messy and turbulent the transition will be if it ever happens, and how the state apparatus would operate in relation to popular forces that would push and propel the transition.

I’m certainly less hopeful about the ability of counterforces to operate in concert with a state in this way, especially when the state still has big muscles to flex. Those sorts of organizing production, distribution, and so on that assume the existence of a state, to my mind, will inevitably progress the climate crisis rather than limit it. I was just talking to a close comrade of mine this morning about the new law in France that you mentioned, and I said to them how interesting it would have been if workers in the airline industries were organized to such a degree that they could have instituted that policy themselves by engaging in sabotage and strike. I’m not necessarily talking about a union formation, but rather a wider climate consciousness that would lead to these types of creative work stoppages, not to mention the kind of property destruction that you point to in the book.

That would have been wonderful. But I see that as quite hard to imagine because workers in the airline industry are unlikely to strike against their own jobs. That’s not what a union of airline workers would normally campaign for. And it’s the same in the coal industry in Germany. You won’t see the coal workers demanding that mines get shut down. So, I don’t think that we can expect the initiative for these kinds of decisions to come from workers in those industries whose most immediate trade union demand is to maintain their jobs. I think that the initiative has to come from the outside. The important thing, of course, is to ensure that those workers who would lose their jobs when the planes are grounded and the mines closed are transferred to other work as smoothly as possible.

I’m just not so sure that a transition to a different kind of waged labor, even if slightly less polluting, would allow for the kind of mass, systemic changes necessary to tackle the pervasiveness of fossil capital and the use of fossil fuels. My thought is that we need to think of repairing the climate through the prism of repairing social relations, by targeting the nature of waged work itself, for example. I’m thinking here of Mario Tronti’s remark that the working class is simultaneously the articulation and the dissolution of capital — meaning that to stop work, to leave work, to exit, is the only thing that can stop the wheels of (fossil) capital from turning.

I’d be 100 percent in favor of any movement in this direction when I see it.