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n his last book, Andreas Malm continues to point out the responsibility of global capitalism and Western governments' passivity on the climate change catastrophe. He warns against the return of business-as-usual after the Covid crisis. As usual, Malm's text is a pleasure to read: scientifically-informed and politically engaged; factual yet literary; even poetic at times.
The main question the book addresses - and the next logical step to Malm's previous books - is now: is recourse to violence justified in order to fight climate change, given the urgency and the inertia of the capitalistic system (both governments and private sector) in the North? More precisely, is recourse to property destruction (the kind of violence advocated here) justified? The answer, according to Malm, is yes, since this violence enables us to avoid much greater - namely, climate-induced - violence, and also because this violence is acceptable in itself, since it is directed towards objects and not people: in ethical terms, not only the ends, but also the means, are acceptable.
In the first part of the book ("Learning from past struggles"), Malm recognizes that capitalism and the ruling classes will never stop accumulating capital and burning fuel by themselves. So "change will have to be forced upon them", and "[t]he [climate] movement must learn to disrupt business-as-usual" (p. 20). So, Malm asks, "[w]hen do we start physically attacking the things that consume our planet and destroy them with our own hands?" (p. 9). This question raises what Malm calls "Lanchester's paradox" (p. 13): why has the climate movement always remained strictly pacifist (including with respect to property destruction), and never had recourse to violence, terrorism, "the world's most effective form of political action" (according to British essayist John Lanchester, p. 11), so far? Is it politically and historically justified? True, there is a strategic advantage in being non-violent, because it attracts more people and ensures appreciation from the press. But is it a sufficient reason? What if non-violent protests change nothing to business-as-usual - as, indeed, it is the case, since investments in fossil industry continue (p. 30) - until the Earth becomes uninhabitable? Is non-violence the only strategy (p. 24)? To answer this question, Malm investigates typical examples of pacifist activism brought forward by the doctrine of climate movements such as Extinction Rebellion (XR).
Malm first presents a caricature of moral pacifism, according to which it is always wrong to have recourse to violence. It is easy to see, with the example of Mohammed Rafiq who fought the white extremist trying to kill Muslims in a Mosque in Oslo in 2019, that in this case having recourse to violence as an act of defense was right. More generally, for Malm (whose ethical position can be characterised as consequentialist), violence can be justified as soon as it is the only way to prevent greater violence. It is thus no wonder that, when Malm illustrates the absolute pacifism with Bill McKibben - a figure of climate activism promoting the "spiritual insight" of "turning the other cheek, of taking on unearned suffering" - he finds such redemptive non-violence (allegedly inspired by Martin Luther King) "repugnant", in so far as it justifies the suffering unearned by innocent victims of climate change (p. 34).
Is absolute non-violence at least strategically - if not morally - justified, then? One answer is given by Roger Hallam, cofounder and ideologue of XR, who states that "[v]iolence destroys democracy and the relationships with opponents which are vital to creating peaceful outcomes to social conflict. The social science is totally clear on this: violence does not optimize the chance of successful, progressive outcomes. In fact, it almost always leads to fascism and authoritarianism. The alternative, then, is non-violence." (p. 35) Violence, according to such a view, also frightens people who might be tempted to join the movement.
In response to such claims, Malm historically documents and convincingly shows that many social advances and emancipations which were widely regarded as pacifist (eg the movement against racial segregation in the US, the suffragettes in the UK, the movements against apartheid in South Africa, or against British colonialism in India, etc.) were in fact led together with a violent "flank" (violent against property, not people). Such flanks took (e.g. the suffragettes destroying private property) or were ready to take (e.g. the people protecting Black activists in the US, or people from Mandela's party ready to burn police stations) violent actions, to press the governments and to ensure that the cause the pacifist part of the movement served (the right to vote for women, the end of the apartheid) would prevail. Malm's "theory of the radical flank effect" is that without these violent alternatives, which made the initial pacifist movements appear as a lesser evil to the eyes of the governments in place, these social movements would never have got what they demanded (p. 49).
Thus, according to Malm, non-violence should be a (partial, or provisory) tactic (which can and should be supplemented by violence if necessary), not (as XR claims) a doctrine. For Malm, non-violent political action should be seen by public authorities as ready to easily turn into violence, thus striking at established political interests. The climate movement should treat non-violence as a provisory tactic, instead of pursuing its current unhistorical support of a non-violent doctrine - unless it is able to show that there is something special about the system of fossil fuels which distinguishes it from the aforementioned oppressive regimes. Yet, as Malm points out, the system of fossil fuel extraction and consumption is so entrenched in the prevailing order that it will not fall easily, especially given the enormous and widening gap between the real emissions and what should be done to curb global warming.
Another objection to non-violence is that fossil fuels are not a political arrangement but a productive force (p. 55), and that the current situation has no precedent in history. Whereas the "civil resistance model" of the climate movement is based on movements for ousting dictators, "[b]usiness- as-usual is not a sideshow to bourgeois democracy, a relic from an authoritarian age that requires correction - it is the material form of contemporary capitalism" (p. 56).
Of course, the fact that at least some violence was present in all the historical examples quoted by Malm does not strictly show that violence is necessary for a social movement to succeed: it is only a historical induction, based what is more on selected cases. One can also add that these were other, much more violent times, when people were less educated, and democracy-spreading information and communication technologies were non-existent. Malm does not take into account the economic violence done to the people working in these sectors either - though granted, this violence may be smaller than the coming planetary violence of climate change, especially in the South where it has already begun. Nor does he contemplate the possibility of a non-violent ecological and political transition (as, for example, the growing popularity of the ecological party in France may give reason to hope for) - but indeed, such a possibly still seems still remote, and time is against us (p. 62). Apart from Malm's somewhat dogmatic lamenting of the "demise of revolutionary politics" (p. 61), therefore, one cannot but agree with his historical and political demonstration.
In the second part ("Breaking the spell"), Malm shifts from diagnosis to resolution of the problem. He contrasts the "extraordinary inertia of the capitalist mode of production" against the "reactivity of the earth" and positive feedback mechanisms, which provoke the self-amplification of global warming (p. 66). Following the recommendation of scientist Dan Tong of "a global prohibition of all new CO2-emitting devices" on how to avoid an increase in global temperature beyond 1.5°C, Malm thus recommends that societies enforce this prohibition, force their "ruling classes" to implement it, and (since the latter most probably won’t comply) destroy new CO2 emitting devices if necessary (p. 67). Since, however, the second condition for reaching the +1.5°C target is a substantial reduction of the lifetime of current CO2-emitting devices according to Tong et al., not only new, but existing devices have to be deactivated.
This, of course, means a significant loss of capital, and for this reason no state seems prepared to do it, because private property is sacred (p. 68). But Malm rightfully argues that the value of private property is not, and does not stand above the Earth. Existing CO2-emitting devices must be dismantled in order to disincentive further investment in them, and show that this is possible. But in the end only the states - which do nothing for now – are capable of executing the transition (p. 69).
What is more, the problem does not only lie in production, but also in private consumption – that is, first and foremost of the rich. Luxury and unnecessary consumption of the rich – not subsistence and the necessary consumption of the poor, who are "locked in a fossil economy" (p. 88) – typically symbolized by SUVs, must be disrupted, as this small portion of the population accounts for a big share of gas release. In fact, given the urgency of the situation, even poor countries must now cut their emissions as fast as possible, but they can still ensure their development through renewable energies.
Unfortunately, the "ruling classes" will never cut the consumption of the rich by themselves. Nor will the capitalist states, which are more likely to cut subsistence emissions (as the example of the Gilets Jaunes in France shows, p. 93). Thus the only way is to do it ourselves, through property destruction and "sabotage" – as the example of Jessica Reznicek and Ruby Montoya attacking a pipeline in the US illustrates. Interestingly, Malm explains that such sabotage is not considered violence in the Catholic Worker tradition to which these activists belong, as it prevents further and greater violence.
Malm then develops a very interesting reflection on the concept of violence. According to Malm, physical force intended towards inanimate objects, since they are not sentient beings, does not deserve to be called violence. Granted, violence towards objects deserves its name inasmuch as it inflicts damage towards something owned by someone who does not want it to happen and is indirectly hurt, but there is a difference in kind with direct violence towards humans. One exception to this is violence towards means of subsistence (p. 103). For the rest, violence against normal property, as it is less grave than violence against humans, cannot be absolutely condemned in itself and must thus be balanced towards other considerations (p. 104). In the case of climate change, the calculation is easy, as it is the fate of the world which is at stake! And contrary to the example of the suffragettes, the property aimed at (CO2-emitting devices) is the problem.
As the theorist William Smith (2018) explains, violence towards property is justified when 1) it can "disrupt practices that might result in, or imminently threaten to generate, serious and irreversible harm" and when the urgency of the situation overrides other options such as lawful advocacy or civil disobedience; 2) previous tactics have led nowhere and "this lack of progress is itself a symptom of the structural depth of the ills" (this is maybe where Malm's account is the most fragile, as one could always argue that not all peaceful options have been exploited, and that the situation has been getting better in the last months or years, with an increasing international awareness of the problem, including in the US) and 3) there are charters and conventions which the wrongdoers have infringed (pp. 105-106). Now climate change fulfills all three conditions.
Malm then reviews potential objections to such material violence. First, he discards the position according to which we have not exhausted non-violence, and must be patient (against my previous suggestion): there is no more time for this.
Second, he considers the objection according to which violence harms the cause, and is unattractive to the masses: but no one says non-violence should be abandoned, and that violence is for everyone. Violence only comes as a supplementary option, and only for some people capable of assuming it, as it is very demanding indeed – but then again it is nothing in comparison to what "struggling people in history have gone through" (p. 123). According to the radical flank effect theory, there is a division of labor between moderates (who offer a way out to authorities) and radicals (who ensure their demand is considered). One must also beware of a negative radical flank effect, should the movement as a whole be ostracized because of violence, and there is an appropriate dosage to find. But the approval of such violence will most likely rise in proportion to the global temperature.
Third, in the context of movements against dictatorships, violence has been deemed anti-democratic, detrimental to the goal of peaceful, constitutional deliberation. For Malm this objection does not hold, because climate-related violence takes place against "a set of productive forces flourishing in mature democracies", and does not threaten the "plutocrats" whose property is targeted (p. 116). Malm concludes his reflection by claiming that the climate movement (especially XR) should be more socially, racially and politically aware, in order not to alienate people who have the least to gain from business-as-usual, but nevertheless must participate in it in order to "feed the kids".
In the third and last part ("Fighting despair"), Malm shows the absurdity of what he aptly calls "climate fatalism" (in authors such as Roy Scranton and Jonathan Franzen), which claims that it is too late for acting and that it is not worth resisting – instead, one should let oneself peacefully die (p. 140). Such position is illogical: just because someone does not have the will to do something (in this case, these authors who do not want to renounce their way of life) does not mean that they cannot do it. Neither is it justified to project this personal capitulation on the entire society. Nor to conclude, because one's emissions are negligible, that it is not worth cutting them, or because the situation is grave, that we should do nothing – on the contrary. In addition, there is nobility in fighting a hopeless situation. In sum, climate fatalism is a bourgeois, spoiled attitude.
Such a fatalistic position - based on the probability of the outcome most likely to happen - is contradicted not only by past historical struggles which seemed unlikely to succeed at the time, but is also self-contradictory (inasmuch as these authors themselves expect their readers to follow their recommendations, thus to act politically in some way as well). Worse, such a position may become a self-fulfilling prophecy (that which is repeatedly asserted to be impossible can thereby become impossible). That the end of capitalism is less thinkable than the end of the world, or that a large-scale intervention in the economic system is less thinkable than a large-scale intervention in the climate system (namely, geo-engineering), or that learning to fight is less thinkable than learning to die: this is symptomatic of the climate absurdity. Instead, Malm recommends using our emotions (including despair) to fight. In sum, a very convincing and moving appeal.
Smith, W (2018) “Disruptive Democracy: The Ethics of Direct Action” Raisons Politiques 69 (1), 13-27.
Philippe Stamenkovic is a post-doctoral researcher at the Jacques Loeb Centre for the history and philosophy of the life sciences (Ben Gurion University of the Negev, Israel). He is interested in the relationship between science and society.