Our Times 3

Andreas Malm’s new pamphlet on climate, corona, and communism fails to ignite


One of the left’s richest traditions is the polemical pamphlet written amidst crisis. Who can forget the November 1917 postscript to Lenin’s State and Revolution, where he admitted that he hadn’t finished the final chapter of the book due to the October Revolution, explaining “it is more pleasant and useful to go through the ‘experience of revolution’ than to write about it”?

The crisis of COVID-19 certainly hasn’t been wasted by leftist publishers. Within weeks of full lockdowns hitting Europe, OR Books had somehow pumped out Pandemic! by Slavoj Žižek (the slim book, reviewed as “forgettable” by The Guardian, is already being followed up with a sequel aptly titled Pandemic! 2). OR also managed to rapidly repackage Mike Davis’ The Monster At Our Door as The Monster Enterslosing none of Davis’ trademark dourness in the process—while Between the Lines Books pulled together a star-studded pay-what-you-can essay collection titled Sick of the System (with proceeds going towards the Migrant Rights Network).

Verso Books hasn’t neglected the opportunity to platform some fast-footed analysis of the devastating crisis, publishing four new entries of its Pamphlets series in September, all themed around COVID-19 (and all sporting near-identically designed and bright coloured covers). Seattle lawyer, academic, and trans activist Dean Spade wrote about mutual aid, while the London-based Care Collective outlined the politics of interdependence and Grace Blakeley argued that “this crisis will tip us into a new era of monopoly capitalism.”

These are important and necessary interventions to make, at a time when governments around the world are preparing to unleash fresh waves of devastating austerity on the working class and the bourgeois press are happily laying the ideological groundwork for the assaults.

Unfortunately, Andreas Malm’s entry in the Verso series—Corona, Climate, Chronic Emergency: War Communism in the Twenty-First Century—reads as rushed and theoretically underdeveloped, spending more time taking shots at other leftists than fleshing out what would be required to implement “war communism” (which, as it turns out, Malm doesn’t really believe in at all). Less central but still noteworthy is Malm’s insistence on fortifying a nature-society schism argued for in his 2017 The Progress of This Storm, an archaic and unhelpful divide long critiqued by Indigenous, post-structuralist, and some Marxist scholars.

As a result, the work comes across as needlessly acerbic and favouring the appealing aesthetics of communism over the grueling organizing required to enact it. There’s far more “we should” than “here’s how,” a tendency on the left that is all too easy to fall into (myself included).

Part of this can be explained by the fact that Malm finished writing the 174-page text in late April, meaning it must have been written in a month or so. But if the pamphlet form is going to serve as an effective organizing tool in the time of COVID-19 and associated crises, we have to expect considerably more from our supposed luminaries—as well as the publishers that promote them.

Your regularly scheduled climate emergency programming

Malm is an associate senior lecturer in human ecology at Sweden’s Lund University. His first book for Verso, 2016’s Fossil Capital, was a monumental achievement in radical energy history (there’s a good reason it continues to be blurbed on the back of his new titles, including Corona).

It would be fair to describe Malm as Verso’s go-to author on radical energy and climate issues. Verso is publishing not one but two more books by him in the near future: How to Blow Up a Pipeline in January 2021 and White Skin, Black Fuel in May 2021 (the latter, on the relationship between fossil capital and fascism, is being co-authored with the Zetkin Collective).

It’s for this reason that we should take Corona, Climate, Chronic Emergency seriously as a text despite its intentional brevity. Malm is a very clear and engaging writer who makes convincing cases for his perspectives. But while some aspects of his analysis are obviously correct, other parts warrant comradely critique. Malm is most effective when he’s writing historical and analytical work: his theoretical interventions are more often obfuscating and incredibly petty.

Corona, Climate, Chronic Emergency is broken into three sections. The first interrogates the close linkages between the pandemic and climate change. One of the dominant explanations that Malm pushes back on is that Western states responded uniquely effectively to coronavirus—shutting down economies, nationalizing industries, declaring a war on the virus—in contrast to lackadaisical approaches to emissions.

The idea that rapid response was taken because old white people were most affected by the pandemic rings hollow, Malm argues, as many old white people are also impacted by extreme weather events (and as we’ve seen in long-term care facilities, are being decimated without any apparent concern from their governments). The science of COVID-19 is similarly rife with uncertainties as climate change—which is how scientific work goes, but doesn’t always translate especially well to widespread public comprehension (to put it gently). And like greenhouse emissions, we can’t see coronavirus, so it’s not a problem of visibility.

With that said, Malm does outline some key distinctions. Climate change is manifesting most brutally in the Global South, but it’s been countries in the Global North most decimated by COVID-19. He notes that at the time of writing, eight of the ten countries with the highest pandemic deaths also had the highest cumulative emissions since 1751, the start of the Industrial Revolution. If coronavirus had hit the Global South—say, African countries—hardest, the most the Global North would have done is send some aid packages.

This reality affects state responses. Rich countries have responded with nationalism and border closures. But unlike the mandatory social distancing requirements of the pandemic, Malm emphasizes that real solutions to climate change would mean more sociality: taking transit, sharing food, having street parties. It would require a permanent end of capitalist production, not just temporary shutdowns to mitigate health hazards.

“Not only could a climate emergency programme skip the interferences with rudimentary mobility in space, it could offer improvements in the quality of life, as the movement has demonstrated by years of propaganda and praxis on subnational scales,” Malm smartly writes. “Such win-wins merely presuppose enemy losses.”

Pulses of viral excretion

So far, so good.

Malm’s second section, on “chronic emergency,” is equally as revealing. Like Mike Davis, he hones laser-focus attention on global deforestation as the enabler of zoonotic spillover driving animal-to-human disease spread. “Capital abhors the vacuum of wild nature,” Malm writes (bringing to mind the World Bank’s recent controversial tweet that Bhutan’s forests represent a “contribution of only” two percent of the country’s GDP per year).

In a wonderful segment on bats—the suspected origin of COVID-19—Malm explains how the creatures are uniquely suited to carry disease due to their constant movement and body heat that results in adaptations by viruses to fever-like conditions. “Bats, in other words, live by breaking the two principal rules of the 2020 lockdowns: do not travel and do not form crowds,” Malm writes in his characteristically cheeky style.

Deforestation, motivated by privatizations and deregulations in the wake of structural adjustment programs and capitalist hunger for commodities like beef and palm oil, has led to chronic stress and undermined immune systems in bats. This stress in turn leads to further increased movement by bats and “pulses of viral excretion” onto potential hosts. It’s an “ecologically unequal exchange,” Malm writes, between the foreign capital and countries kept in exploitative states of underdevelopment.

Malm makes an especially important clarification in this section against racist explanations for disease transmission. For instance, “bushmeat”—a descriptor “de facto reserved for the tropics”—has only accounted for two percent of zoonotic spillover since 1940, compared to 44 percent by changes in land-use, food industry, and agricultural practices.

Further, Malm resists tendencies to pathologize Chinese people for participating in “the extinction market,” noting this is “part of how the one per cent lives, not the essence of any national culture.” China’s centeredness in disease transmission, Malm writes, is due to capitalist globalization and transportation greatly accelerated by technologies like aviation. This compression of time and space greatly heightens the chances of deadly zoonotic spillover.

COVID-19 is a “global sickening to match the global heating” of the climate crisis, he writes, meaning we can’t pathologize them as unique problems or tendencies. In fact, climate change will only worsen the potential for terrifying disease spread, with recent pandemics all emerging from drought conditions. Both the conditions of vulnerability and the drivers of disease and disaster are produced by society, which is to say capitalist exploitation of natures and workers. This isn’t a particularly new idea: Neil Smith was reiterating “there’s no such thing as a natural disaster” back in 2006 following Hurricane Katrina.

Rather than only confronting the symptoms of this mass death and harm through “palliative” solutions of ending austerity, implementing universal healthcare, and nationalizing drug production, Malm calls for a politics that also meaningfully confronts the origins of the disasters before they happen: fossil fuel consumption, deforestation, capitalist production of natures. While it’s a bit uncharitable to suggest that leftists are categorically ignoring the root causes of COVID-19 and climate chaos, the point is generally fair.

Malm’s solution to this is producing a What Is to Be Done? for the present moment. Unfortunately, Malm is not Lenin, and the book’s argument quickly falls apart as a result.

Andreas Malm, author of a new pamphlet entitled Corona, Climate, Chronic Emergency. Photo by Anders Hansson.

Compounding contradictions

Like in The Progress of This Storm, Malm draws on the work of the late James O’Connor and his theory of “the second contradiction of capitalism.”

O’Connor, whose work is often overlooked relative to other eco-Marxists like John Bellamy Foster and Jason Moore, argued that capitalism faces a second fundamental contradiction of increasingly degraded conditions of production (the things not produced as commodities but essential to commodity production) along with the renown first contradiction of overproduction that leads to collapsing demand and a crisis of realization. In the context of COVID-19, Malm argues that zoonotic spillover’s severe impairment and destruction of labour power may be resulting in “the first true O’Connor crisis.”

This analysis is astute and welcome, expertly connecting the crises of capitalist production of nature with the state’s interventions to uphold exploitative systems. Malm builds upon this to argue that the second contradiction is itself leading to the first contradiction, hence the forecasts of long-term recessions and suppressed consumer demand. He also issues a mild and common critique of O’Connor’s analysis: that while capitalism may eventually experience an intractable crisis and revolutionary opposition due to self-destruction of its own condition of production, it will likely be too late to change course: “The risk, clearly, is that a climatic second contradiction hits home after too much damage has already been done.”

At this point, Malm begins to build his own half-hearted critique and visioning process.

It inevitably starts with a denouncing of both social democrats and anarchists. The first levels the fair critique that social democrats “work on the assumption that time is on our side,” meaning that we can incrementally progress towards socialism “without having to crash head-on with the class enemy and break up its power.”

The second, however, takes some truly pitiful shots at anarchist organizing, strawmanning the entire ideology with a single example from a James C. Scott book in which Scott speculated about the removal of traffic lights from an intersection as recommended by a renown Dutch traffic engineer.

Malm then condemns mutual aid efforts due to it performing functions that should be conducted by the state—as if people involved in mutual aid aren’t hyper-aware of this fact—and suggests that similar endeavors are being done by drug traffickers in Rio de Janeiro. If these absurd caricatures don’t make any sense, it’s because they don’t. Making it somehow worse is that Dean Spade wrote an entire book in the very same Verso series about mutual aid!

Critiquing anarchists for failing to meaningfully engage in state power is not original or insightful. But such disparagement—and it’s worth noting at this juncture that I’m not an anarchist myself—would be at least in line with a revolutionary Marxist perspective if that’s what Malm was actually calling for. While he details the need for “some degree of hard power,” including brief accounts of the Soviet Union’s war communism in the face of counter-revolution from the White Army, it becomes increasingly clear that Malm doesn’t actually believe in his own call at all. He wants war communism without the war, or the communism.

The changes that he is calling for are indeed radical: audits of all supply chains into countries using advanced surveillance and data collection to restrict imports from tropical forests, payments for tropical areas to be reforested, banning meat from countries in the tropics, and potentially imposing “mandatory global veganism.” A particularly intriguing example that he provides is the rapid curbing of deforestation in Brazil under Lula, slashing greenhouse gas emissions by 40 percent.

Yet in one of the more bizarre moments of the book, Malm calls for Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and the European Border and Coast Guard Agency (Frontex) to somehow be repurposed to close borders to the wildlife trade while simultaneously opening the same borders to people—as if it’s not people who transport these goods, or as if these institutions don’t have inherently racist and xenophobic logics to their operations. One might even dare to whisper aloud that Foucault would have something to say about this.

The recommendations march onwards and upwards: banning “bushmeat,” providing incentives for communities to switch to protein-rich plant foods, nationalizing or expropriating fossil capital, and conducting a mass buildout of direct air capture and sequestering the emissions underground using the industry’s infrastructure: “The demand for nationalising fossil fuel companies and turning them into direct air capture utilities should be the central transitional demand for the coming years,” he argues.

This will be an era of rationing and restraint, banning air travel and cruise ships, mass producing wind turbines and solar panels, massively expanding transit infrastructure, and refurbishing old homes. No capitalist state will do this willingly, Malm correctly argues, necessitating experimentation with an “ecological Leninism.”

Forging a bloodless ‘ecological Leninism’

So what does ecological Leninism mean, exactly?

To Malm, it is transforming crises of symptoms (mass death and misery due to pandemics or extreme weather events) into crises of the causes, to leverage O’Connor’s second contradiction to categorically break from systems of capitalist exploitation. This break must be immediate, decisive, and requires “some coercive authority,” according to Malm.

Yet he immediately admits that “no dual power of the democratic organs of the proletariat seems likely to materialise anytime soon, if ever.” Strike one against war communism, it seems. In place of a workers’ state of soviets, Malm writes that all we have to work with is the “dreary bourgeois state,” with popular pressure—consisting of everything from ostensibly DSA-like electoral engagement to mass sabotage—forcing its hand. Malm argues that the role of ecological Leninists is to reroute spontaneous actions towards drivers of catastrophe.

But how? Malm asserts that ecological Leninism is a “lodestar of principles, not a party affiliation.” He argues there are no Leninist formations capable of seizing power. And despite venerating the Soviet Union’s defence of its revolution against the White Army using violent force, Malm concedes that “invoking war communism is not to suggest that we should have summary executions, send food detachments into the countryside or militarise labour.” The only lasting takeaway that Malm appears to draw from the Soviet Union is their implementation of zapovednik natural reserves, examples of “some truly vast landscapes on this planet where humans do not tread.” This entire conception of proper ecological relations with “wilderness” is a problematic tendency of colonialism, as will be explored briefly below.

Claiming that neither anarchists or social democrats dwell with the dilemma of what it means to establish a dictatorship of the proletariat, Malm pulls one of the most comically anti-Leninist moves imaginable by concluding: “There can only be a set of inviolable principles, first among them to never ever infringe on the freedom of expression and assembly.” For those unfamiliar with Lenin’s What Is To Be Done?, which Malm explicitly self-styles this work after, the entire first chapter of the book is an outright denouncement of freedom of expression as a bourgeois enabling of ruling class domination and opportunism (the rest of Lenin’s book is a combination of slamming social democrats and advocating for a revolutionary vanguard party).

Here isn’t the place to litigate the lessons of early Soviet actions, or to mount a defence of the vanguard party form. But it is an absurd rhetorical—or perhaps marketing—move to frame a text as an argument for “war communism” while systematically undercutting every actual element of war communism as an overreach or vice. It’s fine if Malm doesn’t believe in the use of violent purges to neutralize reactionary opposition, but that’s the legacy that he’s signing up for when using such language. Further, the anarchists who he has spent much of the text deriding have plenty to say about state bureaucracy and associated violence.

For someone vitriolically opposed to “hybridism,” Malm spends a whole lot of time trying to create his own linguistic hybrids unrelated to any material histories or realities.

This artist’s rendering shows Carbon Engineering’s design for an ‘air contactor’ to pull carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. Image courtesy of Carbon Engineering.

Class hatred against hybridists

A failure to seriously engage with the hard work of organizing tactics is not unique to Malm. It’s a problem endemic to the left, opting for pie-in-the-sky utopianism over consideration of material circumstances and struggles. The first several years of my own writing career was unfortunately mired in this tendency (however, whether for good or bad, I’m not one of the leading leftist commentators on all matters of energy and climate).

Malm’s upcoming book, How to Blow Up a Pipeline: Learning to Fight in a World on Fire, will presumably deal with some of the missing tactical questions at hand. But this existing text hints at some fairly concerning tendencies that will likely continue throughout upcoming works.

One is the shtick of militant cosplay, calling for “war communism” or “ecological class hatred” behind the safety of a computer screen. It’s not great practice for leftists to demand that comrades explain the exact organizing projects they’re involved in—let’s not do the work of the cops for them—but it’s also not unreasonable for prominent authors to back up their words with actions (or at least point precisely to what such actions would look like, with all the requisite consideration of social, legal, and carceral implications).

That’s especially true when the author is calling for things like a magical reconfiguration of ICE into a wildlife trade police force, which reeks of police reformism in an era of demands for abolition. Or, for that matter, “mass sabotage.” What have we learned from the J20 trials, the infiltrations at Standing Rock, or RCMP surveillance of anti-fracking protests to prepare us for such a moment—organizationally, legally, financially? Who is going to do this work and what form will it take? There are no details. As Max Ajl notes in his brilliant review of the book for Brooklyn Rail, there are no references at all to existing agents of ecological Leninism such as Movimiento al Socialismo or La Via Campesina: “Forest-dwellers, small peasants, the rural proletariat, the lumpenproletariat do not appear.”

A second related tendency is a long-standing problem in Malm’s analysis: a seething disdain for scholars he derides as “Latourians, posthumanists, new materialists and other hybridists.” This position is more clearly outlined in his previous work, The Progress of This Storm, a 200-plus page attack on the likes of Bruno Latour and other Marxist scholars including Neil Smith, Noel Castree, and Jason Moore. But it constantly bubbles below the surface of Corona as well.

In general, Malm’s critique of this extremely vast field of socionatures that attempts to destabilize the divide between nature and society suffers due to his chronic relapsing into absurd strawmanning and condescension. There are many important conversations to be had about the dangerous dilution of agency through actor-network theory, or the dissociation of theoretical critique from revolutionary acts. However, the ways that Malm and others are going about engaging in such debates sabotages any potentially generative outcomes.

The more concerning aspect of this critique—and the way that it ties into the aforementioned bent towards a militant cosplay—is its implicit opposition to Indigenous ontologies and lifeways. As always, Malm is extremely firm in Corona about the “indelible ontological distinction between humans and non-humans.” He doesn’t engage with any Indigenous scholarship on this critical question, perhaps due to his location in a European institution, and it shows: one couldn’t carefully read Zoe Todd, Vanessa Watts, Eve Tuck, Leanne Betasamosake Simpson, Glen Coulthard, or Sarah Hunt and maintain such an deeply rigid position.

This position also spills over in places like his musing about mandatory global veganism, ignoring an incredibly fraught history of Greenpeace and the Inuit seal hunt (or for that matter, the WWF’s funding of anti-poaching paramilitaries that have allegedly killed and tortured Indigenous people around the world). Indigenous peoples have very long-standing networks of kinship and reciprocity with non-human animals and natures, and ignoring this in the name of efficiency is a dangerous road to race down. As geographer Emilie Cameron has warned: “it is crucial to observe that colonial history is replete with examples of sweeping interventions that were justified precisely through their urgency.”

For Malm, this debate of nature-society comes down to a political choice: we need to maintain full focus on capital in order to combat it effectively. The same goes for theorizing coronavirus. We can’t get caught up in only treating the symptoms—we have to assault the roots. This is an understandable response to the unbelievably dire conditions of the world.

But in contexts like North America with ongoing systems of colonial violence and dispossession, this also means thinking very carefully and reflexively about the role of the left in supporting struggles by Indigenous land and water defenders, particularly given such communities face immeasurably higher risks of violence by states and capital than white writers such as Malm and myself do. These are the people blockading and setting fires near railway tracks in solidarity with Wet’suwet’en, and who are now facing lawsuits from rail companies for an alleged $270 million in economic damages—but there’s no mention of their courage and convictions in this book.

At the very least, leftist writers must consciously work to avoid accidentally reproducing epistemic violence by silencing the knowledge systems motivating defence of land and waters by Indigenous peoples. Of course, this isn’t to claim that Malm himself is calling for a new ban on seal hunting (or some equivalent) but that we need to centre our analysis in the Indigenous-held centrality of lands, waters, and non-human animals/natures. This doesn’t mean we have to personally believe or participate in such systems, but we should certainly acknowledge them as real, literal, and legitimate.

Indeed, the most fundamental problems in Corona emerge when Malm levels unnecessary attacks against the knowledge and experience of those on these frontlines of fighting fossil capital, carceral violence, and capitalist exploitation. It’s an especially unfortunate flaw to what would otherwise be an insightful and timely text, as it could easily be avoided with more considered writing and editing. For all the talk about learning from the vices of the Soviets, this hyper-sectarian writing style may be one to actually move beyond.

At the end of the day, it’s pleasant and useful to write about revolution, but it takes a very different set of skills to locate such writing in material struggles—and potentially one day go through the experience of revolution itself. That means writing in meaningful connection and collaboration with Indigenous peoples, actual revolutionary Marxists in the Global South who don’t shy away from what a call for “war communism” implies, and, yes, even anarchists (take a listen of an It’s Going Down episode to get a sense of what anarchists are actually doing in the streets to protect their communities).

The greatest attribute of pamphlets is that they can lead its readers to theoretical development and refined action. This entry misses the mark on both.

James Wilt is a freelance journalist and graduate student based in Winnipeg. He is a frequent contributor to CD, and has also written for Briarpatch, Passage, The Narwhal, National Observer, Vice Canada, and the Globe and Mail. James is the author of the recently published book, Do Androids Dream of Electric Cars? Public Transit in the Age of Google, Uber, and Elon Musk (Between the Lines Books). He organizes with the police abolitionist organization Winnipeg Police Cause Harm. You can follow him on Twitter at @james_m_wilt.



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