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How to blow up a movement: Andreas Malm’s new book dreams of sabotage but ignores consequences

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Andreas Malm’s latest book calls for rapid escalation by the global climate movement into the realm of sabotage and property destruction. Image by Canadian Dimension, adapted from a photo by Mike Benna/Unsplash.

Andreas Malm’s latest book—his second in less than six months from Verso—is a call for rapid escalation by the global climate movement into the realm of sabotage and property destruction.

While the book does not live up to its titular promise of providing instructions to detonate a pipeline, it does make an unflinching case for carrying out such activities in advanced capitalist countries. Malm specifically advocates for the destruction of luxury commodities like SUVs and superyachts, along with fossil fuel infrastructure like gas stations, petroleum refineries, and pipelines. Doing so, according to Malm, will “force states to proclaim the prohibition and begin retiring the stock.”

This is not a new argument. In fact, for someone who supposedly despises anarchism—deriding it as an ideology that wants to get rid of traffic lights in his previous book—Malm has a tendency of rehashing many well-established anarchist ideas.

The moral bankruptcy of fetishizing nonviolence and the imperative to embrace a “diversity of tactics” has been explored over many decades in Peter Gelderloos’ How Nonviolence Protects the State (2005), Ward Churchill and Mike Ryan’s Pacifism as Pathology (1998), Derrick Jensen’s Endgame (2006), and a literal mountain of zines distributed at book fairs around the world (both Churchill and Jensen have been discredited due to sketchy claims to Indigenity and transphobia/going to the FBI, respectively).

But most anarchists do not discuss this kind of a thing in a vacuum. At the forefront of any contemplation of escalation is serious consideration of the repercussions of militant actions, especially against so-called “bad” protesters. Bail funds, abolitionist participatory defense campaigns, legal resources, prisoner support, de-arresting, security culture, detailed strategy: these are the priorities of people who actually think through the consequences.

Yet Malm spends no time at all in this text on the very real threats of policing, surveillance, or incarceration. Only occasionally does he hint at the costs: the possibility of a pair of pipeline saboteurs facing 110 years in prison is handwaved away as a potentially positive thing as it could be a “signal to others that this is worth fighting for, even spending the rest of one’s life in prison for.”

This is an astonishing abdication of responsibility. As British Trotskyist Alan Thornett noted in his recent review of the book, “anyone taking the title of this book seriously could find a large team of armed police kicking down their door at 4 am if they’ve been discovered researching online how to destroy industrial infrastructure.”

Malm is a scholar, not a cop, but this book veers awfully close to entrapment.

A fiery deterrent

Malm’s claims to authority on the subject are two-fold: a lengthy involvement in the climate movement dating back to COP1 in 1995, and more recent experience with relatively minor property destruction.

In 2007, Malm participated in deflating tires of luxury SUVs in a wealthy Swedish community as part of a group called “Indians of the Concrete Jungle,” an appallingly offensive name that he continues invoking throughout the course of the book following a half-apology. More recently, in 2016, Malm was part of a rogue Ende Gelände faction that tore down a few fences and sprayed a slogan at a coal mine before “police forces arrived and chased us away with their batons and spray.”

Unless there are other more covert actions that cannot be disclosed in print, these are his main claims to radical fame. About the SUV actions, Malm acknowledges “our actions didn’t even do any lasting damage to property; the mildest of nuisances” while claiming that SUV sales in Sweden plummeted as a result (this discrepancy does not appear easily reconcilable).

These examples supposedly point to a key argument in the text: property destruction should be strategically targeted and part of a much broader struggle for social change. Malm derides actions like Extinction Rebellion’s blockading of a London subway in 2019 and tens of thousands of sabotages between 1973 and 2010 by Earth First, Earth Liberation Front, and Animal Liberation Front as insufficiently strategic due to obstructing working-class mobility and failing to engage in a broader mass movement, respectively.

In contrast, Malm argues that climate activists should target the “luxury emissions” of the ultrarich: superyachts, expensive SUVs, and so on. The logic is that these emissions “represent the ideological spear of business-as-usual.”

“So here is what this movement of millions should do, for a start: announce and enforce the prohibition,” Malm writes. “Damage and destroy new CO2-emitting devices. Put them out of commission, pick them apart, demolish them, burn them, blow them up. Let the capitalists who keep on investing in the fire know that their properties will be trashed.”

Protesters with Extinction Rebellion, stand in front of a logging truck near Surrey, British Columbia, September 2020. Photo by Chris Bush/News Bulletin.

A history of (non)violence

Malm is keen to emphasize that he is not an adventurist or insurrectionist. In other words, he does not believe that property destruction is the only action, but something that cannot be preemptively dismissed on moral or strategic grounds.

His hope is such actions will scare the state into action, normalize more moderate demands, and intensify focus on the greed of the rich (in the context of the devastating power outages in Texas—and the ability for downtown skyscrapers to maintain access to electricity throughout the chaos—the prospect of taking out generation stations as an act of working-class solidarity seems a bit naïve, but it could potentially be construed as strategic in certain moments.)

Indeed, Malm references many militant struggles throughout the past as proof of this strategy’s viability: slave revolts in Haiti and the United States; widespread destruction by suffragettes seeking the vote; national liberation struggles in Algeria, Angola, and Vietnam; urban uprisings throughout the 1960s alongside civil rights actions; revolutionary resistance in Iran, Palestine, Egypt, and South Africa; the targeting of fossil fuel infrastructure by Naxalites in India, the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta in Nigeria, Houthis in Yemen.

He also pulls apart the renown argument by Erica Chenoweth and Maria J. Stephan that nonviolence is statistically more successful than violent resistance—a critique already issued by Gelderloos and others (but Gelderloos is not cited at all in the book, perhaps due to Malm’s irrational hatred of anarchists).

On this front, Malm is correct: sabotage and other forms of direct action have certainly been key features of revolutionary struggle around the world. If the point of the book was only to call attention to the success of property destruction, then these sections would do that job nicely.

However, Malm’s mission is not merely historical but to drum up support for doing the same in advanced capitalist countries, even if it is only a fraction of total interventions; he heralds the “ubiquity of potential targets” in Europe and North America as evidence of its applicability.

Replacing one morality with another

This is where things get weird—and reckless.

Malm claims that property destruction “can be done softly, even gingerly.” In an interview about the book, Malm suggests “we don’t have to think of direct action as necessarily having to expose ourselves to the police. It’s possible to evade arrest.” This surety appears derived from his own experience deflating tires and knocking over a few fences.

While Malm berates pacifists for moralistic resistance to property destruction, he applies a similarly arbitrary rule about not taking human life, writing “any climate militant who contemplates sabotage should abide by the original rules of the MK ‘not to endanger life in any way’” (“MK” is the abbreviation for Spear of the Nation, the armed wing of the African National Congress in the struggle against apartheid).

Assassinations and hijackings do not constitute “intelligent sabotage” to Malm. That is a defensible position to hold—but it cannot be reconciled with most of the historical examples that he spends so many pages outlining.

Malm poses a question at one point in supposed support of his case: “How did Algeria get free? Angola? Guinea-Bissau? Kenya? Vietnam? Ireland?” Certainly not just through property destruction and mass movements. These were all incredibly bloody conflicts that resulted in the deaths of millions of people. The reason property destruction could be successfully wielded as a tactic was because there were armed and trained militants to defend against the backlash.

Malm also dances around the specifics of people he cites. As noted by a Twitter user, the “West German columnist” who he approvingly quotes (“Protest is when I say I don’t like this. Resistance is when I put an end to what I don’t like.”) was Ulrike Meinhof of the Red Army Faction that frequently employed assassinations and deadly bombings.

The decision not to disclose the author of the quote is a refusal to own up to the history that he is invoking and a failure to reckon with the consequences. As Thornett noted in his review of the book, groups like the RAF and Italy’s Red Brigades “were crushed by the state and their members spent decades in prison, committed suicide or were killed by the police.”

In these moments, Malm is admitting to the reader that he has his own personal limits to militancy, writing that “the moral capital the climate movement has amassed could be depreciated or obliterated in one blow.” While posturing as a hard-nosed truthteller, he is forced to concede that these actions do indeed have impacts on individuals and movements. This is an accurate assessment, and one to be wrestled with. But he never admits it himself.

Accounting for consequences

Several years ago, I participated in a two-month peaceful blockade of a beloved forest that was set to be clearcut by a developer.

The encampment, led by Indigenous land defenders, stood up to increasingly escalating tactics by the owner that included setting up floodlights to inhibit sleep, 24/7 security, and private investigators following people from the property. The developer eventually won an injunction, and the encampment fell under threat of a police crackdown.

Soon after, we received notice that close to 50 of us were being sued by the developer for “millions or tens of millions of dollars” in alleged damages. We scrambled to find legal representation and funds for a retainer. Many lawyers turned us down given the scope and nature of the case, but we struck lucky with a firm that specialized in construction law.

It took us years of legal proceedings and scraping together money and resources before a settlement was eventually reached. We paid out tens of thousands in legal fees and tens of thousands more to the developer in the process. Many members of the group experienced severe mental health distress during this time, including suicidal thoughts.

All momentum and militancy behind the action was neutralized—as intended by the lawsuit. Popular support evaporated. The forest was clearcut. We unequivocally lost.

I bring up this particular anecdote not to brag of any radical credentials myself—the action was relatively tame and included no property destruction of any kind, meaning we faced civil litigation not criminal charges—but to point to the immense and growing consequences of direct actions, and how little they can actually accomplish at the end of the day.

The fact that dozens of us were put through this grueling experience is certainly not a reason not to act again at some point in the future, but to call attention to the extremely high stakes of any kind of struggle. Without recognition of these stakes, we cannot adequately understand why people are not engaging in direct action or what we need to do to prepare for such work.

Malm would likely interpret this analogy as indication of lacking connection to larger mass movements and constituting a risk that we have to take in order to affect the rapid change necessary. Further, he suggests in the book that anti-protest legislation is already crushing this kind of dissent, so we might as well ramp up our response—as if there is no distinction between civil and criminal charges, or fines and long-term prison sentences—or even life and death.

Perhaps this is true: that the debilitating depression and anxiety along with the draining of our personal bank accounts and organizing capacities is just part of what has to happen. But if this is the result when a few people park a tent in front of a mulcher for two months, what will happen if people start to follow Malm’s advice?

The Rooster Town Blockade in its early days. Photo by James Wilt.

Suppression of Indigenous and Black resistance

We already know what the crackdown will look like based on the state’s response to struggles of Indigenous land and water defenders across North America.

Recent examples of these responses garner almost no attention in How to Blow Up a Pipeline: there are a handful of references to Standing Rock in the book, but nothing about anti-extractivist resistance by Wetʼsuwetʼen, Miꞌkmaq, Secwépemc, Mohawk, Inuit, Tsleil-Waututh, and many other Indigenous peoples (Gabriel Kuhn noted in his review that Malm also ignored Sámi resistance, “because all Swedish leftists do”).

Few of these actions have included any kind of property destruction—at least not at the scale or targets that Malm is advocating for. Cop cars have been burned and fires set near train tracks, but rail blockades have mostly involved people using their bodies to occupy the tracks. Yet in each of those examples, we have seen brutal state repression, vigilante violence, and corporate power unleashed against participants. Yesterday, Indigenous land defender Stacy Gallagher was sentenced to 90 days in jail for conducting peaceful smudging ceremonies along the Trans Mountain pipeline route.

It is impossible to forget the photos of camouflaged police brandishing sniper rifles during the 2013 anti-fracking protests at Elsipogtog in New Brunswick, or learning RCMP commanders sought “lethal overwatch” against Wet’suwet’en land defenders and instructed officers to “use as much violence toward the gate as you want” in 2019, or knowing that Kanahus Manuel and other Tiny House Warriors opposing the Trans Mountain pipeline faced a vicious racist vigilante attack in April 2020 that cops failed to investigate.

But that would assume that one had learned about such instances in the first place, which Malm has apparently made no effort to do. As Sakshi Aravind noted in a recent article about the book: “Not remembering them or not learning from them before we set out with grand notions of revolution is a reproduction of settler colonial erasure.”

Further, we only need to look to the last summer of unprecedented uprisings across the United States against police violence—and the ensuing police occupation of cities for months, resulting in more than 10,000 arrests by June 2020—to know that these are not anomalous responses only relegated to remote or Northern locales. At least six men who were involved in the Ferguson uprisings of 2014 have been found dead in suspicious circumstances. Black Panthers and American Indian Movement members are still incarcerated for actions conducted in the 1970s.

These are the real human costs of what Malm is proposing. This does not disqualify the actions by any means—far from it—but it communicates the high stakes of such interventions. If Malm had any serious interest in interrogating why many people are hesitant to engage in property destruction, this would have been the place to start.

Inviting the ‘negative radical flank effect’

To be fair, Malm acknowledges that “middle-class whites can count on the good manners of the cops; working-class Muslims and blacks and migrants without papers don’t have that assurance.”

That is certainly true—we know in the context of Canada that Indigenous and Black people face a greatly disproportionate amount of police violence—but only up to a point. One must intentionally ignore the terrifying response to the Green Scare from the 1990s onwards, Wiebo Ludwig in the 1990s, G20 in 2010, or J20 in 2016 to know that the state will throw everything it has at participants regardless of race or ethnicity.

As Kuhn wrote in his review, militant environmentalists “made many huge sacrifices, spending years in prison,” with one of the Earth Liberation Front’s central figures killing himself while incarcerated (their militant actions were essentially what Malm recommends but he has quibbles about their relationship to mass movements—and nothing to say about the crackdowns).

But let’s assume that this book is only written to the middle-class whites, and that the sabotage in question is of the kind that can be “done softly, even gingerly.”

What does he think will happen if hundreds or thousands of middle-class white people start to engage in property destruction of superyachts, SUVs, coal mines, petrol stations, and pipelines? Does he truly think the state will just stand by and let the private property of the ruling class that it exists to represent be blown up in the name of climate justice? That it will realize the error of its ways and usher in a radical, anti-imperialist Green New Deal?

If pipelines and petrol stations start to explode across Canada, as Malm is calling for, October Crisis-inspired martial law will be introduced within weeks. Regardless of their actual involvement, Indigenous peoples will face the brunt of vigilante violence that ensues (take a look at any of the comments after an Indigenous person is murdered by police to understand this bloodlust). The “negative radical flank effect” that he alludes to will destroy what little remains of the organized left. Tanks will be in the streets; riot cops kicking down doors.

Of course, there is no discussion in this book of this inevitable carceral response: nothing about fundraising for legal costs, supporting those incarcerated and facing charges, grappling with the potentially permanent loss of activists from organizing spaces, supporting the families and loved ones of those who have been taken out, defending Indigenous and Black communities from fascist backlash, explaining to organized labour why their unionized workplace was destroyed.

Once again, this does not mean that escalation is not necessary and justified—but that it has to centre discussions of strategy and infrastructure rather than trying to figure it out after the fact.

Keep our heads down and organize

But actual organizing practices is not of concern to Malm.

This book is a primarily moral appeal (one supposedly against moral appeals) without acknowledgement, planning, or mitigation of consequences. Bringing up such concerns is likely a sign of despair to Malm. But How to Blow Up a Pipeline is itself a symbol of desperation: one perhaps warranted, but recklessly written, published, and marketed.

It is also representative of an ongoing failure by Malm to critically analyze carceral institutions as a whole, an especially egregious error in the context of ongoing anti-police resistance around the world.

In his last book, Malm speculated about transforming Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) into a wildlife trade enforcement agency, an unbelievably daft notion given the lengthy relationship between colonialism, racism, and wildlife management. In this book, he reifies the concept of “terrorism” in order to distinguish his prescriptions from it without adequately acknowledging the racist underpinnings of this discourse. Someone who is co-authoring a book on petro-fascism should have a far better recognition of these issues.

That could be said about the book as a whole. Property destruction (and other more “violent” acts) will continue to play a role in radical struggles around the world, as it always has been. There is a strong case for including and supporting it in the repertoire of tactics in the Global North, especially if conducted in solidarity with Indigenous peoples and the Global South.

But to advocate for it without any mention or planning for the inevitable backlash, particularly outside of situations of armed conflict, is to do the work of the carceral state for it. There is a reason that Malm is not himself doing life in prison despite claiming in a recent interview that “in principle, I would be prepared to do more or less anything that I advocate in the book.” In 2018, he admitted to having become an “armchair activist.”

The best thing that Malm can do for the organized left at this point is take a long break away from writing polemics and pay attention to actual struggles being waged by Indigenous and Black people around the world.

In the meantime, here is hoping that nobody takes this book remotely seriously—and instead sticks to building up the infrastructure and networks for long-term working-class power alongside tenants, transit riders, low-wage workers, unions, migrants, Indigenous land defenders, disabled people, people who use drugs, prisoners, survivors of police violence, sex workers, and the people most vulnerable to climate chaos.

Only out of this kind of deep organizing can any kind of escalation be actually planned for.

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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