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The kaleidoscope of catastrophe – on the clarities and blind spots of Andreas Malm

Originally published: Viewpoint Magazine by Bue Rübner Hansen (April 14, 2021 ) - Posted Sep 28, 2021

The course of history, seen in terms of the concept of catastrophe, can actually claim no more attention from thinkers than a child’s kaleidoscope, which with every turn of the hand dissolves the established order in a new way. There is a profound truth in this image. The concepts of the ruling class have always been the mirrors that enabled an image of order to prevail. – The kaleidoscope must be smashed.

– Walter Benjamin, Central Park1

Recently, I announced my intention to write a long essay about Malm to a circle of degrowth communists. One, a researcher and activist of U.S. pipeline struggles, was exasperated at Malm’s apparently contradictory embrace of a strategy of pushing the capitalist state to do the right thing in Corona, Climate and Chronic Emergency (2020) and his stringent support of sabotage in How to Blow up a Pipeline (2021). Another friend, who is a veteran leader in the climate justice movement, responded that Andreas Malm has “single-handedly saved Marxism from irrelevance over the past few years”. High praise for Malm and a harsh reproval of Marxism.

The frustration with Malm’s lack of clarity and the praise for his ability to bring together Marxism and environmentalism are of a piece: they both attest to the enormous expectations generated by his work, and his willingness to place himself in a position of intellectual leadership. More substantially, they testify to the difficulty and importance of the synthesis he is working towards.

Among environmentalists, a deep disillusionment with Marxism is common. The critiques are by now familiar: Marxism’s commitment to the unfettered development of the forces of production is attached to the idea of human domination over nature. Malm, as we will see, comes out of a very different tradition of Marxism, and one that has done much to demonstrate that Marx – unlike most of his 20th century readers – was an ecological thinker. Malm extends the theoretical and philological groundwork of John Bellamy Foster and Paul Burkett, and more recently Kohei Saito2, into a more empirical engagement with contemporary ecological problems, profused with a profound sense of political urgency.3

Malm is one of too few Marxists to center the question of what needs to be done in the climate crises, and certainly the most prominent. In short, Malm presents as a man of action, both in theory and in practice. His books detail organizing for the 1995 COP1 climate summit in Berlin, deflating SUV tires in Southern Sweden in 2007, and occupying a German coal mine with Ende Gelände in 2019. For Malm the academic, the question of action is also front and center:

Any theory for the warming condition should have the struggle to stabilize climate – with the demolition of the fossil economy the necessary first step – as its practical, if only ideal, point of reference. It should clear up space for action and resistance (The Progress, 18).

Malm’s practice may be described with a paraphrase of Gramsci’s old formula: optimism of the will, catastrophism of the intellect. “The prospects are dismal: hence the need to spring into action” (FC 394). It is this approach that has made his name as more than a scholar, but as a militant thinker, and it is this reputation that frustrates readers looking for strategic clarity. Is Malm a Leninist (and therefore authoritarian) or is he a movementist who is ready to try anything from lobbying the capitalist state to blowing up pipelines? The work of any prolific and wide-ranging writer will contain ambivalences, even one as committed to clarity and decisiveness as Andreas Malm. Not all these ambivalences are Malm’s alone: In our current ecological predicament unanswered questions abound: How can we come to want the abolition of the energetic foundation of our everyday life? How do we feel about the end of growth and progress? Is the state part of the solution or the problem? Such questions entail ambivalence because of the gap between what needs to be done, and what we want to do – given our attachments to the present state of things.

Malm develops a method designed to abolish ambivalence: herein lies the clarity of his work. His approach may best be described as kaleidoscopic: it orders the heterogeneous shards of history through the mirrors of his theory of history, while a singular eyepiece provides focus, and the basis for a unified political perspective. But this method only avoids ambivalence in theory. When it comes to practice, ambivalences reappear–but in the blindspot of theory. Reviews of Malm’s individual works may miss these blindspots and ambivalences, but once we read them side by side, we can begin to understand that they are structural to his work.4

1. Urgency and destruction

Whenever in need of poignant metaphors, Malm returns to the experienced and prophetic catastrophism of inter-war Jewish-German intellectuals. The title of Malm’s The Progress of this Storm (2018) is taken from Benjamin’s fragment on the Angel of History, for whom progress is “a single catastrophe”, “a storm blowing from paradise”, “which keeps piling wreckage upon wreckage and hurls it at its feet”. History has a kaleidoscopic character in this image, in which the unity of history (the storm) and the observer (the angel) provide a perspective from which the chaos of the accumulating ruins can be understood (but which provides no notion of comprehension and organisation arising among those in the rubble). The image of catastrophe serves to conjure up the desperate urgency of our situation, and to negate all doubt in our minds and throw our bodies into action. Determined to “snatch mankind at the last moment from the catastrophe which is always threatening”, Malm, like Benjamin’s Blanqui, declines “to draw up plans for that which came ‘later’.”5

Malm’s catastrophic imagery does more than stress the urgency of our situation: it serves to justify his method’s focus on decisions and action. His polemical works display a will to cut through unresolved problems by transforming them into oppositions, among which a choice has to be made. The Progress of This Storm is organized around a series of decisions: realism not constructivism, nature-society dualism not hybridism, historical materialism not new materialism, etc. How to Blow up a Pipeline makes a clean decision against any strategy relating to transformations of habits, lifestyle, and consumption. Instead, it focuses on the question of the shutdown of fossil infrastructures, in relation to which he urges the climate movement to make another hard choice: to abandon its commitment to non-violence. And in Corona, Climate, Chronic Emergency, he asks us to choose between state and non-state solutions to the chronic emergency of our time.

Malm is very explicit about his approach. In The Progress, a chapter deals with the “Use of Opposites: In Praise of Polarisation”. The reason is simple. Malm is profoundly aware of climate science, and how the prognoses of the IPCC are consistently too optimistic.6 The urgency of the climate crisis calls for action, and action calls for decisions. Decisions are not for the faint of heart. Self-consciously, Malm likens his approach to Walter Benjamin’s figure of the destructive character, “whose deepest emotion is an insuperable mistrust of the course of things”. The destructive character reduces what exists to rubble – “not for the sake of the rubble, but for the way leading through it… It is Nature that dictates his tempo, indirectly at least, for he must forestall her. Otherwise, she will take over the destruction herself.” (The Progress, 223). Nature is cast in the feminine, the force that can stop her blind destruction as an opposed, masculine will. The activist is caught up in a storm dictated by the temporality of capitalist and natural catastrophe, whose unilinear, accelerating movement is a simple reversal of the exponential logic of progress. In the essay on the destructive character, we find another characteristic that may apply to Malm: the work of the destructive character entails a “rooting out [Radizierung] of his own condition”. In other words, the destructive character is not merely radical–going to the root of the problem–but constantly uprooting itself. The effects of the destructive personality, its blind spots, and clarities, are all over Malm’s work.

2. Fossil capital and the timeline of catastrophe

Catastrophist visions justify Malm’s decisionism rhetorically, but his catastrophism is itself grounded in a specific theory of capitalist history. In Fossil Capital, Malm carefully disentangles the first industrial revolution from fossil fuels, demonstrating that for a long time, indeed for more than a half century after Watt’s steam engine, waterpower played a bigger role in British industrialism than coal. In short, for Malm, an industrial civilization could be built on the energetic foundations of “the flow” (water, solar, waves, and wind), but capital opted for fossil fuels because they require less coordination than waterpower (which requires elaborate schemes of dams, locks, and energy distribution) and allowed capital to place factories next to concentrations of labor in the cities, rather than be dependent on smaller labor forces near water sources.

Fossil Capital is an impressive and important study of how capitalists adopted coal as a way to control labor and avoid the planning and collaboration needed to construct dams for waterpower. However, studying fossil capital as a narrowly British pheonomenon, Malm does not explore how it was, from the beginning, shaped by the global relations of trade and colonialism. In this respect, Malm’s methodology and conception of history mirrors the account of the origins of capitalism pursued by political Marxists such as Ellen Meiksins Wood and Robert Brenner.7 Just as they do, he centers the property relations of Britain in the emergence of (fossil) capital (FC, 277), and likewise gives very little attention to the liminal conditions of capitalist development in colonialism and the merchant capitalist expansion of commodity frontiers.8 With a notable metaphor, the geographer J.M. Blaut described this as Brenner’s “Tunnel of Time”.9 In Fossil Capital, the question of the energy sources of British industrialism occupy hundreds of pages, while the question of the inputs necessary for this industry–cotton and sugar produced by slaves in plantation monocultures–receives hardly a mention. For instance: to what extent would the shift to fossil fuels – a much more scalable energy source than water – have happened without the actual and projected need to process an ever-increasing material inflow from the colonies? Or: how was the factory colony, which Malm analyses in detail as a key social technology of early British industrialism, related, as an idea or institution, to the technologies of power in actual colonies? Such questions, which could situate fossil capital within broader relationships of violence and trade, are not posed.

Malm’s narrative is that capitalism spread out from one geographical location, enveloping the world in a social logic that was specific to that place. Such an emplotment mirrors the Enlightenment conception of history in which one subject/spirit gradually spreads across the globe – disconnected as it is to material questions of how capitalism was, not only in 19th century Britain, but from the very beginning to entangled with geoeconomic shifts (Spanish colonial silver, incipient colonialism, the opening of a sea route to East Asia, etc.). Bracketing such questions, Fossil Capital’s conception of history as catastrophe simply reverses the terms of the liberal philosophy of history as progress. In both teleologies, capitalist modernity is conceived as a unified process with a European origin and a global terminus.

The overall effect of centering property relations is a focus on capital as a social relation within the political and legal order that constitutes property ownership, and a relative neglect of capital as a regime of direct ecological and extralegal violence. The focus on fossil fuels, which characterizes all his books with the partial exception of the book on the pandemic, compounds this: Malm shows little interest in other drivers of extinction and eco-system breakdown such as colonialism, plantation agriculture, slavery, extractivism, landgrabs, pesticides and fossil-based fertilizers, etc. For the most part, the indictment of capitalism does not concern the model of industrialism itself as premised on a global regime of economic and ecological violence, but on capitalism’s energy regime as a historical symptom of the property relations separating owners and workers in the core. Class struggle is then conceived through the mirror-chamber of the capital-labor relation universalizing itself.

The mirror chamber of European history gives unity to history, while the eyepiece allows the theoretician to see order in the fragments of the past. Whatever lies besides, beyond, or beneath this mirror chamber is cast as backwards, irrelevant, or buried in engine noise. In Fossil Capital, this is the status of the non-modern, non-western, the non-capitalist, and of that which is only connected to capitalism through chains of primitive accumulation and what Anna Tsing, insisting on the continued importance of formal subsumption, calls “salvage accumulation”.10 In Malm, such struggles appear in the tensions or at the margins of the argument.

On the last page of his magnum opus, Andreas Malm invokes the heritage of the oppressed, which may inspire us to “derail the ultimate disaster of the present”. As if to underline the point, he calls on Walter Benjamin’s famous words that revolutions may not – pace Marx – be the locomotive of world history, but “an attempt by the passengers on this train–namely, the human race–to pull the emergency brake.” Both injunctions appear sound, but to pull the brake and to derail a train are not quite the same, nor is the position from which each is done. Ambivalence reappears in the midst of catastrophic urgency. In later works, Malm takes solace in the image of Fanonian armies rising out of their climate victimhood. In Malm’s overarching conception of history such figures appear as Messianic disruptors, not as carriers of alternative histories, differently intertwined with capital and colonialism, figures who may teach us how to persist and resist despite and against the end of our world. This also, as we will see later, results in weaknesses in the way the question of international solidarity is posed.

Meanwhile, the critique of the technologies that make up the forces of production–mechanical, organizational, educational–is largely limited to their functions of class domination within a social formation and in terms of their unintentional environmental byproducts, first among them of course greenhouse gas emissions. Again and again, we see that Malm’s historical logic is more amenable to an environmentalist than an ecological critique of capitalist destruction of nature: capitalist destruction is more easily imagined as a destruction of an exterior space–the environment–than as an aspect of capitalist production itself (the noxiousness of industrial labour, the ecological degradation of plantation monocultures, etc.).

This allows for an ambivalence to arise between Malm’s invocations of progress as catastrophe and his speculations the state may solve the problems of climate change and decline through massive investments in renewable energy.11 Here we have progress as progress, epitomized in the blurb on the back page of Fossil Capital, which states that the book “forcefully unmasks the assumption that economic growth has inevitably brought us to the brink of hothouse Earth … it has been the logic of capital …, not technology or even industrialism per se, that has driven global warming.” Despite Malm’s rhetorical indictments of progress we find within him a certain attachment to technological modernism. In the Swedish podcast Stormens Utveckling, named after his book, Malm dismisses the anti-nuclear movement as naive.12 Malm praises carbon storage technologies whose capacity to work at scale remains hypothetical13, while seemingly “non-modern”, but existing and developing technologies of ecological and climate repair such as agroecology, restorative agriculture, and permaculture get no mention.14

Certainly this ambivalence has to do with the difficulty of synthesizing a Marxism committed to taking over industrial modernity, and an environmentalism which knows the time for swift disruption of the world economy is approaching. But the ambivalent relation to progress–it is catastrophe and technological wonder–is, of course, not characteristic of Malm alone, but of Marxism more generally, especially after the cataclysms of the 20th century. This is a Marxism that is horrified by the world historical disaster of capitalism, yet attached to its world. The audience for this sensibility has rarely been greater than today. Such ambivalence may be detrimental in many other genres, but in climate writing they are beneficial for the simple reason that many share it. Many more than Malm, and here I would include my own habits and tastes, are deeply attached to industrial modernity no matter how much we know a rapid disruption is necessary. This affective resonance may be part of the reason Malm has become the first international star of eco-Marxism in the age of climate crisis.

The resonance and prominence of Malm’s writing makes it important to approach it critically. If Malm’s ambivalences are our ambivalences, his blindspots may become our blindspots, and his limitations our limitations. When this happens, Malm’s work becomes an obstacle as much as an aid in dealing with the problems we all face.

3. Lines of demarcation in the storm

By making theory the servant of any practice that can stabilize the climate, Malm draws the logic of politics into theory. The Progress of This Storm reads like a long series of attacks of his theoretical enemies and adversaries: Constructionism, hybridism, and new materialism, as well as the world-ecology of fellow Marxist Jason Moore .15 Malm greatest foe is Bruno Latour whose The Politics of Nature he describes as an “orgy in the mud” and “sludge dumped on the poor reader” (p. 187). In such passages Malm’s style echoes Lenin’s in Materialism and Empirio-Criticism, which Maxim Gorky–who was sympathetic both to Lenin and his Machist foes–described as an act of “philosophical hooliganism”, which nonetheless “did the job”. Readers with mixed allegiances may respond similarly to The Progress of this Storm.16

Malm’s Leninism is more than stylistic, it is political (as we will see in Corona) and methodological: Drawing lines of demarcation between correct and incorrect theoretical lines, his aim is not to synthesize the insights of different theoreticians (as in Jamesonian totalization17) or to locate their promises and limitations historically (as in intellectual history). Rather, he invokes the urgency of fighting capitalogenic climate change to force a choice against alternative approaches. According to Malm, constructivist theories fail to reckon with autonomous nature as an “unpredictable, unruly, and recalcitrant” force (199). In this, they mimic capital’s attempts to subsume nature under the law of value (217). In an opposite way, new materialism reflects the dawning, but false notion that nature’s autonomy is so strong that humans cannot do anything to stave off disaster (218). Hybridism takes joy in dismantling the opposites of society and nature, providing a “theoretical mirror image of the homogenizing bulldozer of capital” (219). And Moore, supposedly drawn in by the theoretical innovations of Latour’s hybridism, abandons the politically crucial distinction between human societies and nature.

For Malm, the premise of theory in the warming condition is that it contributes to the struggle to stabilize the climate. The most important aspect of that is to ascribe culpability and agency correctly. Latour comes under fire on both counts. By endorsing the notion of the anthropocene and scepticism about the category of capitalism , Latour lends credence to the idea that humanity as such–rather than fossil capital–is responsible for ecosystem breakdown and climate change.18 Moreover, Latour’s ontological hybridism, which sees agency everywhere, obscures the fact that only humans have the intentionality that is needed to consciously dismantle the fossil economy. Malm summarizes the correct line in the following formula: “Substance monism, property dualism”. This means that ontologically speaking, society and nature are of the same substance, but that their properties have diverged historically to the point where society faces nature as an alien, destructive force. Put differently, the binary between nature and society is not organic, but analytical and historical: a useful and even necessary distinction to understand that the problem and the solution both lie with mankind.

The choices that structure The Progress of this Storm root Malm’s focus on agency and action in the philosophy of science. Malm valuably steers us away from the mystifications of theories of climate change and ecological degradation that neglect capital and towards the need for urgent, intentional action. Yet his polemical stress on the catastrophe, nature/society dualism, and agency-as-will pulls us into a timeline and temporality which mirrors capitalism’s accelerating drive towards ecological destruction. This is a contest between two uprooted subjects: fossil capital and humanity. We are in a race with two finishing lines: “no extractions and no emissions” (The Progress, 227).

On the face of it, Malm’s sharp focus on fossil fuels is salutary, as it trains our sights upon the single greatest threat to the habitability of the planet. However, fossil fuels play such a fundamental role in social reproduction today that it is doubtful they can be replaced by renewables fast enough to avoid a simultaneous and fundamental reorganisation of the reproduction and metabolism of human societies. Most obviously, fossil fuels will have to be cut so fast that a significant energy shortfall is increasingly unavoidable. In other words, constructing the problem of climate change as a problem of agency in relation to fossil capital is not wrong, but one-sided. To approach the problem of the fossil economy as a problem of action is very different from constructing it as a problem of (natural) history, ecology, or care.

In the first preface to Capital, Marx invites us to conceive of the history of the economic formation of society as “a process of natural history”. In this process, Marx writes, individuals are bearers of class relations and interests, and the creatures rather than creators of economic processes.19 Posing the problem this way shifts attention from agency and will to more structural questions of how the reproduction of human societies can be disentangled from the reproduction of capital. Such a transformation cannot simply be willed, and natural history cannot simply be disrupted, only rearticulated. How was social reproduction disentangled from non-human life–and how may it be re-entangled? Or rather, how was the entanglement of social with natural ecologies pushed to the edges of social ecologies, so that a core was insulated from damage and afforded carelessness? Such problems will not be resolved by arriving at what Malm calls “a planful mode of production” (Corona 153), which is more likely to maintain an environmental imaginary than replace it with ecological thought, attention, and practice. To do that, we need to pay heed to and reweave networks of interdependence, beyond any clear boundaries between social and natural ecologies. Such matters raise questions of entanglement and hybridity, and the corresponding agency is more a matter of care than of will.

Instead, Malm is focused on whatever agency is responsible for global warming and whatever agency may disrupt the production of fossil fuel. Malm’s focus on agency in terms of culpability and intentionality is filtered through his vision of history. As world history is subsumed by a unified vision of capitalist history, it becomes necessary and possible to imagine a unified concept of humanity in two senses: humanity as the unified substance of capitalist history (understood in terms of the unique human “capacity for abstraction” which Malms sees as a trait of true intentionality and a “prerequisite for capitalist property relations”; The Progress, 167), and humanity as the unified subject necessary to end fossil capital. This provides a way to imagine climate change as an epic battle between fossil capital and humanity, considered in the future tense as “a self-conscious global subject” (Corona, 174), which mirrors the global quasi-subject of capital. Malm intuits the difficulty of navigating this hall of mirrors: But “[w]here is that global subject? Who is it? Merely asking such questions is to weigh up the void in which we fumble” (Corona, 174).

Despite such admitted ignorance, Malm treats humanity as the answer rather than the question. Or, put differently, he takes humanity for granted, and ignores the problem of anthropogenesis. That problem concerns the question of how humanity emerged as an infinitely variable species (think of the multitude of social, climatic, and ecological adaptations and inventions), and the more narrow question of how the idea of humanity as separate from nature arose. Had Malm posed the question of anthropogenesis, he would have been more hesitant to affirm the idea of humanity as separate from nature. He would, importantly, have been more sensitive to the blindspots of the idea of humanity-as-separate: what fails to be counted in this notion is those modes of cognition and activity, often cast as “indigenous” or “female”, which refuse to see themselves or act as separate from what, in a gesture of grand abstraction, is called “nature”. Put crudely, the definition of humanity as opposed to Nature, while loosely rooted in monoteistic cosmology, has only become established through the material and ideological separations produced by capitalism and colonialism. Moreover, we may ask whether the human capacity for abstraction is originary, or a mental reflection of the socio-ecological practices of abstraction inherent in commodity exchange?20 Certainly, Malm is sensitive to the geographic universalization of capitalist history, its imposition of uniform space-time, and treatment of all human activity as potentially abstract labour, etc. Yet the teleological drift of his description of capitalist history and strategies for transformation neglect the actual and necessary incompleteness of these processes, and the reliance of capitalism upon commons that are human–and more than that.21

Malm is disinterested in such entanglements, for within the tunnel of his kaleidoscope, the problem and the solution lie in human history. Hence, the task is to defend the distinction between humans and nature, rather than to undo or lessen it. We must leave nature to itself, as wilderness, at least in the Global South (Corona 128), in order to maintain barriers between natural reservoirs and human societies (129). Ultimately, global veganism would be called for, he writes (130), and clearly “the state would have to do this” by imposing “draconian restraints” (131). To make his case, Malm choses a good if imperfect example–the Lula government’s legislation against deforestation in Brazil–and ignores uncomfortable questions, such as whether he would urge the Swedish government to impose veganism upon the Sami people, who live off reindeer herding while participating in ecological struggles with other indigenous peoples, or on the estimated 268 million people living as pastoralists in Africa.22

In Corona’s remarks about wilderness, the reader is left without arguments against considering indigenous people either wild, not fully human, or ready for eviction. So it was with some relief that I read Malm’s long essay “In Wilderness is the Liberation of the World”, in which he rejects talk of absolute wilderness, and describes how maroon communities escaped slavery and Jewish partisans fighting the Nazi occupation of Poland were sustained by “relative wildernesses”. Yet even here, he is interested in wilderness as a sanctuary rather than a space of ecological inhabitation. More broadly, Malm’s tends to reduce human intentionality to the intentionality of humans as carriers or victims of capitalist civilization. The activities of people who reproduce themselves without contributing to ecocide, from indigenous people and agroecologists, are only mentioned when they provide leadership to pipeline protests. But they may give much more leadership than that. This leadership may be political: take the largest international class-based mass organization to combine the fight for ecology and livelihoods: the global peasant confederation La Via Campesina, which Malm does not mention.23 And their leadership may be technological: indigeneous people and agroecologists obtain food including animal protein without factory farming, while maintaining nutrient cycles without fossil-based fertilizers. Socially speaking, peasant agroecology and indigenous livelihoods are not only ways of life, but bases of struggles against deforestation, pipelines, and against forms of agriculture that transform land from a carbon-sink to a carbon source.24

This points us to the limitations of Malm’s iteration of the theory of the metabolic rift, when it comes to thinking ecological transition: While it powerfully opens to an analysis of the problem, the question of undoing this rift opens other, more hybrid questions. Here lies problems of ecological restoration and care, landownership and land use, forms of agriculture beyond the monocultures of the plantation economy, and the pesticides, gas-based fertilizers, and capital- and oil intensive machinery of the so-called Green Revolution. More broadly, Malm’s distinction between society and nature, just as his focus on fossil fuels, leaves us within an environmentalist paradigm of thought and action, and stops short of ecological considerations of entanglement.

Certainly, human action (including by way of the state) and modern technology are needed. But so are the politics, ethics, and amodern technologies of ecological repair, mutuality, regeneration, and making-habitable. Both sides are necessary, neither is sufficient. But once our thinking becomes limited by the urgent temporality of catastrophe, the latter disappears from view. Malm’s appreciative mention of the work of Carolyn Merchant suggests he is not inimical to such concerns, but it remains inconsequential to his vision, both politically and theoretically. Readers interested in moving beyond Malm’s blindspots may consider the importance Merchant’s concept of “earthcare”, or the work of other Marxist eco-feminists who have developed rich concepts of “hybrid labor” (Battistoni), the “forces of reproduction” and “earthcare labor” (Barca), as well as those who have much to teach us about life in capitalist ruins (Tsing), and the systemic importance of the “meta-industrial labor” to capitalist civilisation, which is carried out by the racialized, feminized, dispossessed who reproduce humanity by taking care of the biophysical environment that makes human life possible (Saleh).25

Basing his theory of climate action upon the cross of human agency and culpability, Malm looks for a will defined by separation and hence capable of cutting through ambivalence: the scissions of decision. The epic simplification of agency to humans results in a limited view on the types of human agency needed to end fossil civilization. Questions of care and other forms of non-productive and non-consumptive social agency, such as play and idleness, are left aside, as are questions of our rooting in soils and non-bordered ecologies, and our imaginaries of the good beyond the carbon economy, and the bad within it. Yet the answers to such questions are essential not just for a post-fossil society (a point to which I will return), but for the awakening of social desires. Because only with such desires can the non-catastrophically affected come to see not just the scientific need for an end to fossil civilization–and science is a weak motivator, as we know too well–but come to feel existential disgust with this civilization, and the subjective desirability of its end. In short, the epic reduction of agency to human intentionality, which is meant to spur us into action, diverts our attention from the “non-intentional” conditions of agency.

4. The Decision-to-Action Pipeline

In 2005, reflecting on the vulnerable American occupation of Iraq, the Pipeline and Gas Journal confirmed that “Pipelines are very easily sabotaged. A simple explosive device can put a critical section of pipeline out for weeks”. Some readers may be disappointed to learn that Malm’s book on that subject, more properly titled Why Blow up A Pipeline, has no DIY recipes. Written in late 2019 as an intervention into the fast growing climate movement of that year–Fridays for Future, Extinction Rebellion, Ende Gelände–the book is a forceful call to action. Malm pays attention to the mostly non-environmentalist history of pipeline sabotage in the Global South, from the ANC’s attacks on the energy supply of apartheid South Africa, over anti-colonial attacks on pipelines in the national liberation struggles of Syria and Palestine, to the fierce environmentalism of the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta. Operating on the timeline of fossil capital and its negation means centering actions that humans, and only humans, can take. Accordingly, Malm works by way of opposition and decision. A singular choice structures How to Blow up a Pipeline: The choice between strategic non-violence, and the strategic use of violence not against people, but against the property that will cost us the earth: from pipelines to the thousands of SUVs Malm and his comrades deflated in Sweden in 2007.

Malm writes about and for the environmental struggles in the countries most responsible for the climate emergency. Here, his focus is not on the organizational lessons and limitations of different parts of the environmental movement, but on its “dogmatic” attachment to a strategy of non-violence. While he acknowledges that the climate justice movements would not have grown so large if it had engaged in sabotage from the get-go, he asks if the time for sabotage is ripening. Certainly the challenge is monumental and mounting:

The current global energy system is the largest network of infrastructure ever built, reflecting tens of trillions of dollars of assets and two centuries of technological evolution’, 80 percent of which energy still comes from fossil fuels.26

And for decades, strategic non-violence has failed to transform the economic calculus that drives continued fossil fuel extraction and makes the planet uninhabitable for humans and a multitude of other species. In this suffocating world of apocalyptic expectation, acting (and the same goes, I suppose for acting out), can be liberating and relieving. The joy of blocking a German coal mine with Ende Gelände is described in visceral terms, as is the frustration of not sabotaging its equipment once there. Unsurprisingly, Extinction Rebellion comes in for harsh criticism, especially its complete failure to consider the politics of race and class, as illustrated most clearly in the incident where XR activists disrupted the metro line of diverse working-class commuters in London.27 The strategy of XR’s Roger Hallam is effectively demolished, as is the selective historiography upon which his academic sources, Chenoweth and Stephan, make their arguments for purely non-violent civil disobedience. Fridays for Future are mentioned, but neither criticized nor appraised. Malm seems hopeful in bringing over some of its participants to his line, but less interested in assessing the politicizing effects of the school strikes, despite their overt contestation of a key institution of social reproduction, the school.

The book’s provocative title makes a pitch for viral controversy, but its contents are more nuanced and equivocal. The argument is not for a distributed and immediate adoption of vanguardist ecotage a la Earth First! or Earth Liberation Front (ELF). Rather, Malm argues that mass-based sabotage (156) guided by “collective self-discipline”, submitted “to the guidelines of the operational leadership” and “conducting an action according to plan” (24), should not be ruled out a priori. Instead, it should be considered “a few years down the road”, when and if the current strategy of pacifism has failed. Yet in the introduction, written during the pandemic, Malm puts aside such caution: ”Sabotage, after all, is not incompatible with social distancing” (3).

The book is a powerful polemic against strategic non-violence, perhaps aimed at a recently politicized audience. But the discussion of ecotage doesn’t delve into existing debates, and crucial questions of organization and strategy are absent. Thus, the problem of how a disciplined mass movement may come into being is nowhere discussed in the book, as if the size and disciplined non-violence of the 2019 climate movement made such reflections superfluous. But as radical environmentalists have learned in the past, the discipline and secrecy required to engage in sabotage in the face of anti-terror legislation, mass surveillance, and militarized policing–and the following media backlash–can be very hard to combine with mass appeal and mass organization. This problem may not be insuperable, but it cannot be solved unless it is posed.28 But had he posed it, Malm’s choice would have been less clear. Instead of a choice calling for a decision, he would have given us a problem calling for invention and experimentation.

Malm’s decision-to-action pipeline puts its faith in the connection between proving what needs to be done and the motivation to actually do it. But objective necessity, whether established in terms of climate science or strategic rationality, may fail to dispel the attachments, fears, and desires that keep us in ambivalence, incapable of acting or acting sufficiently. In the focus on agency and intentionality, the question of the tension between what must be done and what we want or dare to do gets lost.

Here we see another consequence of the stress on the unique intentionality of homo sapiens: It ignores the constitutive ambivalence of the species. With consciousness–the ground of intentionality–comes the unconscious, and contradictions between need and desire. Such problems cannot be dispelled by force of will and reason, but only through the realignment of conscious and unconscious motivations. And unconsciousness of groups, communities, and societies, and overt if unreasoned feelings of safety and trust, have a much greater effect on our fears or courage than rational arguments. Here is a vast range of questions whose theoretical and practical dimensions are lost to the method of choice: questions of our desiring or caring attachments to the catastrophic and non-catastrophic in the present, questions of our experiences of hybridity with other species, or our alienation from them, questions of how we reproduce ourselves subjectively, socially, and in nature.29 The inattention to social reproduction results in a superficial understanding of the conditions of courage.

Take Malm’s dismissal of the ecotage movements of the 1990s: While it is true that they were not rooted in movements as broad as Extinction Rebellion or Fridays for Future, they did not operate “in a void”, as Malm claims (Pipeline 155), but out of tight-knit networks of solidarity rooted in forest camps, leftist neighborhoods, and social centers, especially on the American West Coast. Here saboteurs and tree-sitters got the recognition which kindled their desire and pride, and found refuge and legal aid that sustained their courage.30 Or take the indigeneous-led struggles against the Keystone XL pipeline, where Malm pays no attention to how this struggle was immediately sustained and coordinated from First Nation camps–spaces of social and cultural reproduction–and rooted in their relation to the land and centuries of resistance to settler colonialism.31

Taking his cue from the chapter on violence in Fanon’s The Wretched of this Earth, Malm looks to subaltern struggles for images of courage and sacrifice, but sees only their roots in the absolute enmity to the colonizer. Noting how “realisation and suffering” in the Global South is mirrored by a denial and escape that produces it in the Global North, Malm’s binary conception of enmity against fossil capital takes its most convincing, Fanonian shape. But he is also skeptical about Southern leadership. This is not merely because struggles in the South are often far from the drivers of climate destruction, but also perhaps he pays more attention to failed revolutions (Egypt, Syria), than to ongoing struggles (Zapatistas, Naxalites), or successful if complicated revolutions (Bolivia, Cuba). While Malm’s invocations of the Global South provide moral and political clarity, they are of little strategic consequence. As Max Ajl has pointed out, this sleight of hand ignores actual ecological Leninists in state power, such as Bolivia’s MAS party.32 Meanwhile, on the terrain of the Global North, where Malm’s text clearly seeks its core readership, war communism and ecological Leninism are solutions enacted by as yet non-existing agents. Here radical enmity bypasses the need for a critique of the intertwinement of middle and working class reproduction with fossil capital, both in the form of everyday needs and aspirations. In short, Malm avoids the problem of what Brand and Wissen call the imperial mode of living, which are “based on a principally unlimited appropriation of resources, space, labour capacity and sinks elsewhere – secured politically legally and/or through violence”.33 Doing so allows him to bypass the question of how to make a break with this mode of living desirable on a mass scale, that is the problematic of degrowth.34

Bracketing questions of social reproduction and consumption, except for the case of wild meat, Malm does not ask how effective disruptions of fossil infrastructure will affect ordinary people through price rises on essential goods. And so, he does not pose the question of how to avoid resistances and ambivalences stemming therefrom.35 It is telling that Malm’s recent books do not mention some of the most forceful “carbon struggles” between 2018 and 2020: the protests against cuts to carbon subsidies in Iran and Ecuador.36 Perhaps this is no coincidence: in a 2018 blog post dedicated to the Gilet Jaunes, Malm rides the hope of a Green New Deal to paint a rosy image of the abolition of the key global energy source. This, we are told, would require neither the sacrifice of jobs nor the living standards of working people, “but could improve both, while most certainly clipping the wings of the ultra-rich”. But would such social democratic policies not face the limit they always do, namely the need to maintain capitalist profitability to maintain a tax base? And how to avoid a Green New Deal starting a new round of destructive growth and resource extraction? Such questions are being posed, but not by Malm.37 This, as we will see, is not the first time Malm takes the shortcut of the sovereign will of the state to obscure certain essential contradictions and ambivalences stemming from labor’s intertwinement with fossil capital. Again, such problems are not insuperable, but they cannot be solved without being posed.

These are general difficulties of climate politics in the Global North–far from Malm’s alone. They pertain to writing or thinking from a place where disaster and urgency is clear, but catastrophe is imagined as an event (a specific hurricane, the coming cataclysm, an unusually hot summer), rather than experienced as the reality of everyday life. In the global north, hope against hope, or what Lauren Berlant calls cruel optimism, is a constant temptation.38 This is the optimism of those who are not stuck in the mud of everyday struggle, but can choose their mode of struggle. It is the hope that science will convince (ignoring that it’s a weak motivator) or that carbon storage technologies will work and be scalable (we don’t know if they will). And it is the belief that the state has the force to shut down fossil capital (ignoring that it may only be taken over and turned against capital after a profound weakening), and that masses of people will act in their patent interests (ignoring how they are intertwined with the imperial mode of living). Such optimism profuses the profound catastrophism of Malm’s book on the pandemic and climate change.

5. Lenin’s Kaleidoscope

The second (though first published) of Malm’s recent book-length pamphlets, Corona, Climate, Chronic Emergency, was written in haste during the early phases of the pandemic. In the first chapters, Malm pushes beyond the strictures of his method, providing a masterful synthesis of the research literature on bat physiology, viral aetiology, ecosystem decline, and zoonotic disease. In this chapter there is, forgive me, great hybrid descriptions of the ways humans encroach on bat habitats, leading some bats–do they have agency?–to seek a life near humans, where they shed viral matter on humans and their livestock. Drawing on his deep engagement with climate science and his overview of extreme weather events across the globe, and especially the Global South, Malm also provides a lucid list of the differences between the climate crisis and the pandemic. In the pandemic, the enemy is a virus disruptive to the global capitalist economy. In the climate crisis, the enemy is fossil capital, and its currently essential economic function. Dealing with both requires shutdowns of business as usual. But where the pandemic lockdowns are temporary disruptions to safeguard the economy, the shutdown of the fossil economy must be permanent.

What is needed, according to Malm, is not the abolition of both capital and the state which props it up and relies on it for tax revenue, but the abolition of fossil capital by the state. Here Malm looks to the war communism of the early Soviet state. Thus the key choice of Corona is pitched in terms of the old debate between anarchism and a politics aimed at seizing state power. Once more, as we will see, the hard choice meant to provide sharp orientation introduces a strategic blindspot.

To argue his point, Malm points to two examples of revolutions whose outcomes were decided by the question of state power: recently, the Arab Spring Revolutions failed because they did not take over the state (124)39, and a century ago, the Russian Revolution was secured through the Bolshevik insurrection of October 1917. Malm is, however, not interested in the events from the February revolution to October, but in what the Bolsheviks did with state power in the catastrophic years of 1918-21, during which they faced civil war, foreign invasion, economic collapse, hunger, and a pandemic–all under conditions marked by half a decade of devastating war. During those years, Lenin led a desperate fight against total social collapse while attempting a transition to “a superior mode of production” (125). The Bolsheviks had to contend with a blockage of their supply of oil and coal. In response, they shifted their energy supply to peat and wood, human and animal labor. In effect, Russia became “a biofueled workers’ state” (160). Malm writes unsentimentally about how this sowed the seeds for the militarization of labor (161), but assures the reader that such coercion will not be necessary in a transition relying on renewable energy (162). Ecological war communism means

learning to live without fossil fuels in no time, breaking the resistance of dominant classes, transforming the economy for the duration, refusing to give up even if all the worst-case scenarios come true, rising out of the ruins with the force and the compromises required, organising the transitional period of restoration, staying with the dilemma. 167

The dilemma–to maintain democracy in the state of exception–is, however, not an immediate one. Because in the concrete strategic situation Malm is realistic bordering on resigned: “No capitalist state is likely to do anything like this of its own accord.” So while the capitalist state “is constitutionally incapable” of taking the necessary steps,

there is no other form of state on offer. Waiting for it would be both delusional and criminal, and so all we have to work with is the dreary bourgeois state, tethered to the circuits of capital as always. 151

The tragedy of the present, for Malm, may be expressed with a paraphrase of a tired old adage: it is easier to imagine the end of human civilization than the end of the capitalist state. In short, Malm’s war communism isn’t a strategic proposal as much as an exercise of the imagination: just think of what we could do with the state if we somehow controlled it. This imaginary is, Malm argues, necessary: it is, and with this I agree, hard to imagine “an actual transition” without “some coercive authority” (151) to forcibly end the extraction and burning of fossil fuels.

If Fossil Capital and The Progress of this Storm provided a theory of the relationship between the world and the ends of capitalism, Corona and Pipeline try to solve it practically. For Malm, practice usually means will. But his portrait of this will is contradictory. Malm shifts from visions of a unified Leninist strategy to a praise of a more movementist diversity of tactics: thus the “whole spectrum of popular leverage, from electoral campaigns to mass sabotage” is needed (146). In Pipeline, he proposes we shut down fossil infrastructures down ourselves, with little regard for questions of state repression and legitimacy within a population whose livelihoods remain tragically soaked in oil. In Corona, he suggests such disruptions are compatible with electoral strategy without noting the difficulties. He writes that the climate crisis can only be solved by socialist planning, but that there is no option but to work with the dreary capitalist state. Such apparent contradictions lead to contradictory responses among readers. In private, I have heard some describe Malm as an authoritarian, while others complain that he is not able to choose a line, suggesting that he is, in a sense, not authoritative enough. In public, perceptive writers have tried to come to terms with this return of ambivalence:

Alberto Toscano has described Malm’s embrace of the capitalist state as a kind of tragic instrumentalism. In the unfolding climate catastrophe, any thinking must be tragic, Toscano suggests, about the disaster’s closure of utopian horizons (Malm: ”there can never be a clean break”) and the inescapability of coercion in political affairs (Corona, 17).40 Pushing in the opposite direction, Davide Gallo Lassere has suggested Malm engages in a “pluralization of practices”, drawing on his call for a “diversity of tactics” in Pipeline (p.116).41 Thus Malm can be read from two directions. Gallo reads Malm as suggesting that in the face of the unresolved problem of the climate crisis all avenues of practice must be explored, and Toscano focuses on Malm’s argument that o nly state power is sufficient. But while these readings are convincing and compatible, they are neither symmetric nor complimentary. The idea that only state power is sufficient rubs against the logic of pluralization, making it acceptable only insofar as it is instrumental to taking power.

In Corona, Malm suggests the options are ordered in time: Today, all that is possible is a combination of parliamentary and extra-parliamentary activity, whose job it is to push the capitalist state to do the right thing. In time, as the climate crisis deepens, it is likely to open revolutionary possibilities. We already know that extreme weather increases the likelihood and severity of riots and civil disobedience, as Malm has also analyzed in his 2017 essay “Revolutionary Strategy in a Warming World”. There and in Corona, Malm suggests it is “…the mission of ecological Leninists is to raise consciousness in such spontaneous movements and reroute them towards the drivers of catastrophe” (Corona 152). The tunnel of history makes for a good Leninist Kaleidoscope: the beautiful chaos of popular struggle ordered by the mirrors of class struggle, plus the singular focus of the eyepiece, through which the willful observer gazes.42

But while this temporal ordering does away with the ambivalence, it introduces a new problem. The Leninist choice Malm argues for cannot be made until certain conditions outside its control are in place. The question, then, is the following: how does Malm’s theorization relate to the creation of an agent that can make such a choice and of a situation in which it can be made in practice?

6. October without February

Malm’s portrait of ecological war communism is valuable for pushing the boundaries of the imaginable. But his description of war communism is severed from any discussion of its historical and contemporary conditions. We arrive in 1918 without the February revolution and the failure of the Provisional Government. Surely it is significant that the revolutionary process was opened by protesting women rather than Bolsheviks, and that the Bolshevik insurrection of October happened in the face of a breakdown of government capacity? And when Malm discusses the relevance of war communism today, he is doubtful about the likelihood of proletarian councils and dual power (151)–and dismissive of strategies of class autonomy.His contemporary invocations of class politics all concern the class enemy–fossil capital–while he speaks of a “mass politics” when focusing on the side of the friends.  In short, Corona has plenty of Leninist will, but little to say about the processes of class composition which allowed Lenin’s rise.

On the most basic level, Malm poses the problem of mass politics in a warming world as the problem of democracy in the state of exception: the “dilemma” mentioned before. Malm is aware of how “the journey from war communism to tyranny was short to non-existent” (165), but his recipe for dealing with this risk is vague: To stay with the dilemma and uphold the principle “to never ever infringe on the freedom of expression and assembly” (166). But this reminder, reminiscent of Google’s “don’t be evil” slogan, would perhaps be less necessary if he was able to imagine the people as a true counter-power to the state.

Taking the covid-lockdowns as evidence, Malm argues that the state–and only the state–has the capacity to shut down the fossil economy rapidly enough to avoid run-away climate change. It was the state that acted in a moment of relative autonomy (112). However, Malm’s argument squares poorly with the fact that in many countries, and especially those where governments acted slowly, statistics show a marked decline in restaurant visits and ticket sales to public transport, cinemas, and theaters, days or even weeks before the official lockdowns etc. In such cases, we may talk of the relative autonomy of ordinary people, and the insufficient autonomy of the state from the interests of the businesses it tried to keep open. Admitting for such variations, would take us from the reified discussion of “the state” (which Malm shares with anarchism), and bring us to more nuanced discussions of different states and the relations of class forces.

Such an approach would make it less possible to outright dismiss the mutual aid initiatives that popped up in many places. Doing what “the state should have done” is a “minus sign, not a plus”, writes Malm (123), but while this may be a meaningful statement in Sweden, where the state’s capacity in other fields leaves little room for autonomous organizing, this is extremely different in states of abandonment. Paul Richards has carefully documented the importance of community knowledge and mutual aid in Sierra Leone’s 2013-14 Ebola outbreak. And beyond that, mutual aid is a key element of class formation.43 Think of the importance of the Black Panther Party’s “survival pending revolution programs” as a strategy of class composition, or the key tactics of the most powerful movement in the housing crisis that started in 2007, the Spanish movement of people affected by mortgages (PAH): mutual psychological and legal support, and mutual aid in resisting evictions.44

The difficulty of thinking popular counter-power (be it as movement or nonmovement 45) is neither incidental to the historical analogy nor the contemporary situation. In his epic Trotsky biography, Isaac Deutscher pointed out how the Bolsheviks drifted towards dictatorship because its social base, the proletariat, had radically diminished by war, civil war, famine and epidemics, worst among them the Spanish flu.46 In short, state power, consolidated in the party, substituted for soviet power. In Malm, it is unclear if the need to substitute state for class power lies in the absence of a theory of class formation in Malm, or in the contemporary character of class itself. Certainly, the missing theory could have answered this question, and provided tools to grasp the difficulties and ambivalences of building material interests in the abolition of fossil capital, which continues to shape the experiences and expectations and the lives and livelihoods of millions.

Missing these elements, Malm fails to engage the question of the conditions of ecological Leninism and war communism. Worse than that, he defends Leninism by dismissing the practices of popular autonomy that transform social desires, and that may turn an organic crisis into a revolutionary crisis in which a Leninist wager would become possible in the first place. Malm is right to dismiss the fetishisation among some political groups of anarchism and mutual aid as strategies that would build another world without confronting the world that is still hegemonic–but we are not much further if they are dismissed simply by replacing them with another, mirroring fetish: that of Leninism seizing the state. Practices of popular autonomy are, finally, essential to infuse organic crises, and their riots, and uprisings, with solidaric and democratic, rather than exclusionary and authoritarian ideas and practices.

With Malm we arrive in 1918 with the state on hand. But there is no October without February, and there is no Soviet Union without the soviets, the workers’ committees, and the deserting soldiers. Leninist practice always relies on an ecology of struggles, but demands a strategic decision which radically suppresses it. Its line–take state power–is fiercely critical of, yet relies on a popular power it cannot bring into being, and that it does not respect, even as it mythologizes it. Again, the prioritization of agency-as-unified-will–be it a green Lenin or a climate Leviathan–obscures other forms of agency which are as essential to the abolition of fossil capital.

Conclusion: The kaleidoscope, undone

Andreas Malm’s greatest contributions are his work to combine Marxism and environmentalism, and his tireless efforts to put questions of tactics and strategy at the forefront of the climate discussion (not that they have been absent as Malm sometimes seems to imply). But his ambitious contribution is also marked by structural blindspots, more often than not connected to the way invocations of catastrophic urgency elevates theoretical decisions and political will to absolute virtues and necessities. By sidelining, ignoring or rejecting forms of agency and temporality which are also essential for dealing with global ecological crisis, his works risks limiting our capacity to solve the problems which he sets out to solve.

Malm work is expansive and open enough to constitute a fast-moving target. His focus may shift and his method develop: perhaps his long-announced book on fossil imperialism may overcome some of the blindspots noted above?

For now, there are ways to learn from Malm without being limited: read him not as a master thinker, but an important contributor to a vast field (as I presume he would like to be read). And unpick the kaleidoscope which structures his work and its blindspots.

If we draw a diagram of the kaleidoscope, we see that it has three parts: an eyepiece, mirrored chamber, and the shards seen through it:

The chamber of the kaleidoscope is the tunnel of history: Malm’s theoretical framework. This is the conception of capitalist history becoming world-history through a process of class struggle driving technological change, which its local, British start. Within this chamber, we see little of how the rest of the world enabled the birth and survival of capitalism through violence and trade. The complex webs of violence and interdependency which constitute the mobile and fractal frontiers of colonial capitalism are not considered as its ecology, but as its environment. In short, it is seen as other, rather than the conditions upon which it depends. The unity of this history allows Malm to imagine the unity of human society in its opposition to nature. This, in turn, allows him to organize the shards of history into a dialectic of class struggle: two subjects mirroring one another. The struggles of capital and labor past are globalized and projected into a final battle between fossil capital and humanity itself constituted as a “self-conscious global subject”.

In her 1970’s “Let’s Spit on Hegel”, the Italian feminist Carla Lonzi pointed out that the mirror chamber of the master-slave dialectic reduced struggle to a binary, frontal clash: the heroic oppressed against the oppressor. But, she asked, what of the non-heroic, yet courageous actions of run-away slaves, deserting soldiers, and women who abandon their patriarchal families? Just as Lonzi and her feminist comrades, indigenous people and eco-feminists provides us with a notion of agency, resistance, and history that do more than mirror the enemy.

The point which connects the past and the future is the focal point, which projects the kaleidoscope’s light onto the retina of the scholar-activist gazing through the eyepiece: Malm’s epistemology. Studying the accumulating rubble of history, he projects a strategy and a hope for the future. He is not among the rubble, but observing it, like the Angel of History.47 Like Blanqui and the destructive character, he seeks to act, always in motion, always uprooted. Unable to make roots in the rubble of land, ecologies, and other modes of living, only the will is left.

Eco-feminism helps unpick this imaginary, and it’s opposition of Man vs. Nature. In such imaginaries there are no lessons of reconstruction or regeneration. So may ecology: As long as the problem and the solution are cast as fully human and social, all that guides the scholar-activist is historical analogy (war communism) and contemporary necessity (working with the capitalist state): the poetry of the past and the policy of the present. Beyond such restrictions, a world of desirable solutions open, in the human and non-human agency of ecosystems (re-)establishing themselves.

Malm often invokes the experiences of climate havoc in the slums and wildernesses of the Global South. These are the shards of the kaleidoscope, shifting chaotically, yet in ordered ways: Malm’s empirics. They provide cautionary tales, eco-Cesairean tidings of the spill-back of colonial violence and extreme weather onto the core: de te fabula narratur. Manichean mirrors organize the rubble into a neat pattern of friend and enemy, victims and perpetrators, humanity against fossil capital. These provide moral and political clarity about catastrophe among those who for now mostly observe it, and a way to avoid the difficult questions of how needs and desires are intertwined with the burning of fossil carbon.

However, in Wretched of the Earth, Fanon did more than draw oppositions between colonizers and the colonized. Moving beyond the sharp antagonism of the first chapter–the one invoked by Malm–he analyzed the tensions and conflicts among the colonized: The co-opted elites, the middle classes longing for European lifestyles, and lumpenproletarians paid off by the colonizer to fight their people. The Manichean opposition does not dispel such tensions, rather the tensions throw light on the blockages of anti-colonial struggle. Instead of the mirrors of enmity and national unity, the shards would have to be composed, needs and desires transformed and organized by the anti-colonial struggle. This required and requires a radical break with the European timeline:

Come, then, comrades, the European game has finally ended; we must do something different. We today can do everything, so long as we do not imitate Europe, so long as we are not obsessed by the desire to catch up with Europe.48

For the psychoanalyst Fanon, this was a question of disentangling both needs and desires from capitalist modernity, but without resorting to ideas of an originary national-ethnic culture. Instead, the task was to build a new world drawing on whatever knowledges and technologies were at hand, judging them on their use and effects, with no view to their geographical origins or status as “traditional” or “modern”. Malm’s concept of “salvage communism” in Corona, drawn from the Salvage Collective, gives a hint that he may be sympathetic to such an approach, even if he gives little content to the term. For that, we could do worse than to look at the practices of salvage and commoning among those who persist and resist after the end of their world. Here we find a world of technologies which are necessary for a post-carbon world, and forms of solidarity and mutual aid that may help build the struggle.

Postscript: if we need a revolutionary hero

If we need a revolutionary hero, the figure of Amílcar Cabral may be a greater teacher than Lenin. In the 1950s, the Lisbon-trained Guinean agronomist took a job with the Portuguese authorities. He was to conduct a land survey of Guinea-Bissau, which the colonial government hoped would identify areas suitable for cash cropping. Cabral did something different. He used the project to document the ways existing cash crops like ground nuts were devastating soil ecology and rendering producers dependent on the world market. He brought himself into contact with villagers across the country, discussed innovations in indigenous land-use practices, and weaved a network of allies in which a liberation struggle could take root. At a lecture in London in 1971, he described the armed struggle he had come to lead:

We are in a flat part of Africa. […] The manuals of guerrilla warfare generally state that a country has to be of a certain size to be able to create what is called a base and, further, that mountains are the best place to develop guerrilla warfare. […] As for the mountains, we decided that our people had to take their place, since it would be impossible to develop our struggle otherwise. So our people are our mountains.49

Cabral proceeded by studying the land, making connections between the technologies of contemporary agronomy and local peasant technologies, multiplying his knowledge of the social and natural ecologies of Guinea, and of points where the colonizers were vulnerable to attack or sabotage. As an essential part of this research he made connections to and between different villages and ethnic groups (including on the islands of Cape Verde), and circulated revolutionary ideas and tactics through his encounters. When Cabral’s party, the PAIGC, took up arms, the struggle found safety, food, and information through peasant and urban networks of mutual aid.

Cabral provides us with an image of the ecological revolutionary: they engage in militant inquiry, situate themselves in relation to both land and people, and connect technologies without presuming the superiority of the most “modern”. And they pursue a strategy that is both militant and sensitive to the task of suturing the metabolic rifts caused by exploitation and extractivism. This is a politics appropriate to the rubble of the ongoing catastrophe, but considered not merely as a space of ruin and victimhood, but as territories of survival and resistance.

Breaking the kaleidoscope we search for ways to articulate care and radical decisions, urgent movement and the slow work of rooting. How can networks of mutual aid enable sabotage, and how may popular autonomy enable an assault on the capitalist state, or drive a wedge between the state’s functions of social and capitalist reproduction? When the Kaleidoscope is smashed, the tunnel of history shatters and becomes a horizon. Here we face catastrophe not merely with the urgency of fear and sympathy for the victims, but with existential disgust with our intertwinements with fossil capital and desire for other forms of life.


References:

  1. Thanks to Rut Elliot Blomquist, Emanuele Leonardi, Oliver Bugge Hunt, Søren Mau, and Eskil Halberg for providing valuable suggestions to various drafts of this text.
  2. John Bellamy Foster, Marx’s Ecology: Materialism and Nature (Monthly Review, 2000); Paul Burkett, Marxism and Ecological Economics: Toward a Red and Green Political Economy (Brill, 2006); Kohei Saito, Karl Marx’s Ecosocialism: Capital, Nature, and the Unfinished Critique of Political Economy (Montly Review, 2017).
  3. As such, it is part of the third debate about Marxism and ecology. Leonardi and Torre, “Marxist Contributions to Ecological Thought”, The Handbook of Critical Environmental Politics (eds. Viviana Asara, Emanuele Leonardi and Luigi Pellizzoni), Elgar, forthcoming 2022.
  4. The point is not to criticize Malm for what he does not write about (all writing is selective), but to show that throughout the tensions of his work there is a methodological and theoretical coherence, and that this coherence entails certain systematic blindspots, silences, lacunae, absences, etc. To these I count facts, connections, and conditions which are not mentioned, facts which are mentioned but not connected to the whole, and essential connections and conditions which are treated as incidental. The critique is not aimed at a lack of consistency as much as a form of consistency which, by obscuring forms of agency essential to dealing with the climate crisis, becomes an obstacle to solving the problems which it is meant to solve.
  5. Walter Benjamin, “Central Park,” New German Critique, no. 34 (1985): 53.
  6. Glenn, Scherer (2012), “Climate Science Predictions Prove Too Conservative”, Scientific American. Common critiques of the IPCC reports is that they underestimate the risks of tipping points and positive feedback loops, and overestimate the likelihood of technological fixes from renewable energy production to carbon sequestration.
  7. Robert Brenner, “The Origins of Capitalist Development: A Critique of Neo-Smithian Marxism,” in Introduction to the Sociology of “Developing Societies,” ed. Hamza Alavi and Teodor Shanin, Sociology of “Developing Societies” (Macmillan Education UK, 1982), 54–71.
  8. Anievas, Alexander, and Kerem Nişancıoğlu. How the West Came to Rule: The Geopolitical Origins of Capitalism (Pluto Press, 2015). Banaji, Jairus. A Brief History of Commercial Capitalism. Brief edition (Haymarket, 2020). Banaji. Theory as History : Essays on Modes of Production and Exploitation (Brill 2010). Marx, Karl. Capital: Volume I. Translated by Ben Fowkes. (Penguin, 1976).
  9. While providing a sharp critique of the blindspots of Brenners’ approach, Blaut’s article is too eager to refute and dismiss him to mention and build on his significant contributions. James M. Blaut, “Robert Brenner in the Tunnel of Time,” Antipode 26, no. 4 (1994): 351–74. It is also worth noting that Brenner’s later work, Merchants and Revolution (Verso, 1993), does make up for some of the shortfalls mentioned by Blaut. For a recent defense of Brenner see Pal, Maïa. “My Capitalism Is Bigger than Yours!’: Against Combining ‘How the West Came to Rule’ with ‘The Origins of Capitalism.” Historical Materialism 26, no. 3 (2018): 99–124. Note, however, that Pal’s incisive defense of Brenner’s work against Anievas and Nişancıoğlu is much less applicable to the question of the emergence of a fossil economy in Britain in the 19th century, than it is to the emergence of capitalism in 16th and 17th century Britain. Malm, unlike Brenner, writes of a well-established colonial capitalism.
  10. Anna Tsing, The Mushroom at the End of the World: On the Possibility of Life in Capitalist Ruins (Princeton University Press, 2015).
  11. FC, chapter 15. Elsewhere, Malm warns against fully discounting that such a transition can happen under capitalism. See Malm, Andreas. “Long Waves of Fossil Development: Periodizing Energy and Capital.” Mediations 21, no. 2 (2018), p.34
  12. Stormens Utveckling: “Mobilisera”, podcast 11 April 2019
  13. Malm agrees with mainstream ecomodernists that technofixes can work, but with the proviso: only after the revolution. See Corona, 140-143 and Andreas Malm and Wim Carton, “Seize the Means of Carbon Removal: The Political Economy of Direct Air Capture,” Historical Materialism 29, no. 1 (March 16, 2021): 3–48.
  14. Soil is one of the earth’s major carbon sinks, and healthy soil does more than store carbon: it allows an increase in vegetation, which in turn is a carbon sink, and prevents erosion and nutrient run-off. Moreover, healthy soil makes the agricultural use of fossil-based fertilizers superfluous. See, for instance, Bronson W. Griscom et al., “Natural Climate Solutions,” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 114, no. 44 (October 31, 2017): 11645–50. Hannah Ritchie and Max Roser, “CO2 and Greenhouse Gas Emissions,” Our World in Data, May 11, 2017, URL: https://ourworldindata.org/co2- and-other-greenhouse-gas-emissions. Keith Paustian et al., “Soil C Sequestration as a Biological Negative Emission Strategy,” Frontiers in Climate 1 (2019).
  15. As illustrated by the almost comically hostile debate between Malm’s former professor and regular collaborator Alf Hornborg and Chirstopher Cox, who wrote a glowing review of Moore’s Capitalism in the Web of Life in the pages of Historical Materialism, the debate between supporters of Malm and Moore has now become so toxic it is best approached obliquely.
  16. For a contemporary engagement with Machism, first of all Alexander Bogdanov, see McKenzie Walk’s Molecular Red. (Verso, 2015).
  17. Stathis Kouvelakis, Fredric Jameson: An Unslaked Thirst for Totalisation”, Critical Companion to Contemporary Marxism (Brill, 2008).
  18. See also Andreas Malm and Alf Hornborg, “The Geology of Mankind? A Critique of the Anthropocene Narrative,” The Anthropocene Review 1, no. 1 (April 1, 2014): 62–69.
  19. Karl Marx, Capital: Volume I, trans. Ben Fowkes (Penguin Books, 1976), 92.
  20. Here a cue may be taken from the study of the relation between mental and practical abstraction which was pioneered by Alfred Sohn-Rethel, and sophisticated by Richard Seaford. Richard Seaford, Money and the Early Greek Mind: Homer, Philosophy, Tragedy (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2004); Alfred Sohn-Rethel, “Intellectual and Manual Labour: A Critique of Epistemology” (Macmillan, 1976). It should be noted that these studies bring us into a similar dilemma as that surrounding the origins of capitalism: Do we see the emergence of money and abstract thought as a diffusionist phenomenon spreading out from Ancient Greece, or do we see it relationally, as a function of an always translocal trains of commerce, and production and procurement for a market?
  21. Ariel Saleh, “Sustainability and Meta-Industrial Labour: Building a Synergistic Politics,” The Commoner 9 (2004): 1–13; Tsing, The Mushroom at the End of the World, chapter 19.
  22. Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, Pastoralism in Africa’s Drylands (2018).
  23. For a good introduction to La Via Campesina, see the documentary Globalize Hope. See also Sophie Redecker and Christian Herzig, “The Peasant Way of a More than Radical Democracy: The Case of La Via Campesina,” Journal of Business Ethics 164 (July 1, 2020): 1–14 and Hannah Wittman, “Reworking the Metabolic Rift: La Vía Campesina, Agrarian Citizenship, and Food Sovereignty,” The Journal of Peasant Studies 36, no. 4 (October 1, 2009): 805–26.
  24. Nick Estes, Our History Is the Future: Standing Rock Versus the Dakota Access Pipeline, and the Long Tradition of Indigenous Resistance.
  25. Carolyn Merchant, “Earthcare: Women and the Environment,” Environment: Science and Policy for Sustainable Development 23, no. 5 (1981): 6–40; Alyssa Battistoni, “Bringing in the Work of Nature: From Natural Capital to Hybrid Labor,” Political Theory 45, no. 1 (2017): 5–31; Stefania Barca, Forces of Reproduction: Notes for a Counter-Hegemonic Anthropocene (Cambridge University Press, 2020); Saleh, “Sustainability and Meta-Industrial Labour.”
  26. Pipeline, p. 69
  27. For a critique of XR along those lines, see Wretched of the Earth, “An Open Letter to Extinction Rebellion”, Red Pepper, May 3, 2019.
  28. And, moreover, the problem may disappear if we shift attention from sabotage as episodic direct action, to sabotage as an inherent possibility of the labour process. Gavin Mueller has recently written about luddism as “collective bargaining through riots“, while Evan Calder Williams draws on the legacy of sabotage as a creeping sense of dysfunction, going back to the first sabots – the clunky wooden shoes that signified the newly proletarianized peasants who, not fully subsumed by the labour process, worked badly. “What the idea of sabotage did, long before any talk of the anthropocene, was insist that this is the terrain we’re operating on, whether or not we would prefer it otherwise, and that this intimacy with its conditions of production opens up distinct chances for disturbing the social and physical structures upholding, perpetuating, and policing it.” Drawing on Williams and Mueller, we may ask what power lies in the tragic complicity of workers in “batshit jobs”, which demand you participate in the undoing of the conditions of life to make a living.
  29. While his formulation is somewhat imprecise and dated, Guattaris question of the three ecologies (psychic, social, natural) remains of utmost importance. Félix Guattari, The Three Ecologies (Bloomsbury Publishing, 2005).
  30. The documentary If a Tree Falls: A Story of the Earth Liberation Front provides a good introduction to ELF.
  31. For a critique of Pipeline from this perspective, see Sakshi Aravind’s “How To Write About Pipelines”, Progress of Political Economy.
  32. Max Ajl, “Andreas Malm’s Corona, Climate, Chronic Emergency,” The Brooklyn Rail, November 10, 2020
  33. Ulrich Brand and Markus Wissen, The Limits to Capitalist Nature: Theorizing and Overcoming the Imperial Mode of Living (Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2018), 31. See also Ulrich Brand and Markus Wissen, The Imperial Mode of Living: Everyday Life and the Ecological Crisis of Capitalism (Verso, 2021).
  34. Stefania Barca, “The Labor(s) of Degrowth,” Capitalism Nature Socialism 30, no. 2 (April 3, 2019): 207–16; Giorgos Kallis et al., The Case for Degrowth, 1st edition (Cambridge, UK ; Medford, MA: Polity, 2020). Bengi Akbulut, “Degrowth,” Rethinking Marxism 33, no. 1 (2021): 98–110
  35. >Here the perspective developed by Timothy Mitchell in Fossil Democracy provides a crucial entry point into the discussion. In a different register, Matthew Hubers’ study of how oil became inseparable from “the American way of life” also provides an important call to attend to the reproductive and ideological attachment to the fossil economy. Matthew T. Huber, Lifeblood: Oil, Freedom, and the Forces of Capital (University of Minnesota Press, 2013). Huber’s response to the problem, however, is a more overt version of Malm’s ecomodernism: to blame climate change on capital (correct), while imagining it can be solved by the deus ex machina of GND funded green technologies and green growth. This allows him to ignore how the end of fossil capital will entail a substantial transformation of working class habits, preferences, and consumption in the Global North. On the extreme unlikelihood of green growth, and the incompatibility of green growth strategies with the precautionary principle, see Jason Hickel and Giorgos Kallis, “Is Green Growth Possible?,” New Political Economy 25, no. 4 (2020): 469–86. For working class struggles against the noxiousness of capitalist labour and production, see Feltrin and Sachetto: “The work-technology nexus and working-class environmentalism: Workerism versus capitalist noxiousness in Italy’s Long 1968”, in Theory and Society, 2021. Also see the original declaration against noxiousness of Porto Marghera Workers, “Against Noxiousness”, Viewpoint Magazine 2021 . See also Barca and Leonardi Stefania Barca and Emanuele Leonardi, “Working-Class Ecology and Union Politics: A Conceptual Topology,” Globalizations 15, no. 4 (2018): 487–503., and my text on batshit jobs in Open Democracy.
  36. All these struggles started as fights for the poor’s right to affordable fossil fuels, as an essential part of their cost of reproduction under fossil capitalism. To various extents, the struggles took up explicit demands that the rich, not the poor, pay for ecological transition.
  37. Philippe Gauthier, “The Limits of Renewable Energy and the Case for Degrowth,” Resilience, September 25, 2018. For the importance of this question in the debate about the Green New Deal, see Thea Riofrancos, “What Green Costs,” Logic Magazine 9 (2019); Nicholas Beuret, “A Green New Deal Between Whom and For What?,” Viewpoint Magazine, 2019; Riccardo Mastini, Giorgos Kallis, and Jason Hickel, “A Green New Deal without Growth?,” Ecological Economics 179 (January 1, 2021): 106832.
  38. Lauren Berlant, Cruel Optimism (Duke University Press, 2011).
  39. Elsewhere Malm writes that “there lingers a fetishization of horizontal direct action as a self-sufficient tactic and a reluctance to consider Lenin’s lesson: ‘The key question of every revolution is undoubtedly the question of state power.’ Rarely if ever has it been more important to heed that lesson than now.” Andreas Malm, “Revolution in a Warming World: Lessons from the Russian to the Syrian Revolutions,” Socialist Register 53 (2017).
  40. Alberto Toscano, “The State of the Pandemic,” Historical Materialism 28, no. 4 (November 20, 2020): 3–23.
  41. Davide Gallo Lassere, “Retour sur le présent. Espaces globaux, nature sauvage et crises pandémiques”, Contretemps, November 16, 2020.
  42. Malm’s is not the only proposal for an ecological Leninism in recent years. For a useful overview, see Gus Woody’s triple review, “Moving towards an ecological Leninism”, in RS21. For recent examples of how to engage with the Leninist legacy without falling into the pitfalls I identify in Malm, see Rodrigo Nunes’ “It Takes Organizers to Make a Revolution”, and Salar Mohandesi’s “Party as Articulator.
  43. Bue Rübner Hansen, “Surplus Population, Social Reproduction, and the Problem of Class Formation,” Viewpoint Magazine, no. 5 (October 2015).
  44. Ada Colau and Adrià Alemany, Mortgaged Lives (JOAAP, 2014); Melissa García-Lamarca, “Creating Political Subjects: Collective Knowledge and Action to Enact Housing Rights in Spain,” Community Development Journal 52, no. 3 (July 1, 2017): 421–35. See also the documentary, SÍ SE PUEDE – Seven Days with PAH Barcelona.
  45. The sociologist Asef Bayat describes nonmovements as “the collective actions of noncollective actors; they embody shared practices of large numbers of ordinary people whose fragmented but similar activities trigger much social change, even though these practices are rarely guided by an ideology or recognizable leaderships and organizations”. Asef Bayat, Life as Politics: How Ordinary People Change the Middle East, (Stanford UP, 2013), p.14.
  46. Isaac Deutscher, The Prophet: The Life of Leon Trotsky (Verso, 2015), 551–59.
  47. In a provocative re-interpretation of the fragment on the Angel of History, Benjamin scholar Jacob Bard Rosenberg has suggested we read it as a satire of bourgeois intellectuals. The angel sees all of history as an accumulating disaster, just as the bourgeois ideologists of the Communist Manifesto, who “have raised themselves to the level of comprehending theoretically the historical movement as a whole” [my italics]. Understanding the approaching cataclysm of bourgeois society, these intellectuals have gone over to the side of the proletariat which “holds the future in its hands”. Both the angel and these intellectuals see history as one uniform process, and both want to “make whole what has been smashed”. Pushed by the storm called progress, they become a kind of involuntary, backward-looking vanguard: spectators of the undifferentiated accumulation of rubble. What Benjamin’s image suggests is that the concept of catastrophe is a mirror image of progress itself. Jacob-Bard Rosenberg, “Angelic Satire: Benjamin and Marx on Standstill,” Prolapsarian, accessed April 4, 2021.
  48. Frantz Fanon, The Wretched of the Earth (Grove Press 1968), 312
  49. Amílcar Cabral, “Our People Are Our Mountains: Amílcar Cabral on the Guinean Revolution”, Committee for Freedom in Mozambique, Angola and Guinea, London, 1971, p 11. For an exploration of Cabral’s revolutionary agronomy, see Filipa César, “Meteorisations: Reading Amílcar Cabral’s Agronomy of Liberation,” Third Text 32, no. 2–3 (2018): 254–72.
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