If You’re Not Building Power, You’re Just Admiring the Problem

Our planet is hurtling toward a climate disaster, and we’re running out of time. Scientists have said so for years, but few thought the global rise of a different force could now run out the clock for humanity: fossil fascism.

 

Donald Trump not only erased the gains and momentum of the climate movement at home, he emboldened authoritarians worldwide to use easy money from fossil fuels to settle scores and crush dissent in every corner of the globe. 

 

In this multi-book review of Andreas Malm and the Zetkin Collective’s White Skin, Black Fuel: On the Danger of Fossil Fascism (2021), Malm’s How to Blow Up a Pipeline: Learning to Fight in a World on Fire and Kim Stanley Robinson’s The Ministry for the Future, we are going to take a deep dive into the relationship between the global Far Right and climate change. 

 

The stakes are high; if we don’t defeat the Far Right and fossil capital at the same time, we are headed straight to climate apocalypse.

 

So this is not another exercise in admiring the problem; we will open up a conversation on how to disrupt and dismantle the Far Right and win a just transition off of fossil fuels. 

 

The good news – if there is any – is that justice movements can still wrest this moment of crisis away from the Far Right and rebuild power to save our planet, but only if we fully understand the unholy alliance between fossil capital and the Far Right, so we can dismantle it.

 

Malm and the Zetkin Collective lead us through the first systematic inquiry into the political ecology of the Far Right in the climate crisis, covering thirteen European countries along with the United States and Brazil. In each of the countries they examine, the Far Right is organizing toward a “racially defined nation powered by fossil fuels.” 

 

White Skin, Black Fuel is chock full of jargon, but it helps us peel back the layers of the Far Right’s Power Onion. Malm and the Zetkin Collective start by describing the ”ideological state apparatus” (ISA), for which they use Louis Althusser’s criteria: “‘a system of defined institutions, organizations, and the corresponding practices’, which, through their day-to-day activities, uphold some elements of the dominant ideology.” In this case, the dominant ideology is the doctrine that fossil fuels are good for people.

 

“Fossil capital” is the term Malm and the Zetkin Collective use to describe the conflux of the primitive (as in primary) fossil fuel industry and the capital for which fossil fuels are a necessary auxiliary in the production of other commodities. In other words, money from the profits from the extraction and combustion of fossil fuels is then reinvested in new fossil fuel infrastructure, over and over again. 

 

Malm and the Zetkin Collective argue that the only hope for humanity is to eliminate any class fraction’s ability to accumulate fossil capital, and thus to force individuals, industries and institutions who rely on this wealth to shift toward climate mitigation and eventually non-fossil capital. 

 

But if there’s one thing that we’ve learned, it’s that every action taken by people and organizations in the global climate movement brings about an equal and opposite reaction from the Far Right, fossil fuel companies, and modern racial capitalism that depends on cheap energy and labor to profit. Stopping the climate emergency, winning immigrant rights, and ending inequality is now synonymous with defeating the Far Right along with fossil capital. 

 

So here we have two crises that either the Far Right or justice-based movements can use to build power: one is an existential crisis for primitive fossil capital as demands for a phase out and just transition grow, and the other is a structural crisis to shift economies across the world toward renewable energy. 

 

Climate has become a partisan issue in the United States because the corporate forces which fund climate denial and delays have increasingly cloaked their goals in the ideology of white supremacy and nationalism. “Ethnonationalism is the primary standpoint that subsumes all others, the beginning and the end of far-right politics,” argue Malm and the Zetkin Collective. Exhibits A, B and C: Trump’s Muslim travel ban, Mexican border obsession, and rejection of climate change as a Chinese hoax designed to undermine U.S. business and capital. 

 

The term “interpellation” shows up frequently in White Skin, Black Fuel. It also comes from Althusser, who used this term to describe the process in which we encounter our culture’s values and internalize them; we come to believe that ideas generated elsewhere are our own. 

 

The Far Right’s interpellation of immigration as the primary issue of our time enabled them to build a base among people who should be with progressives on economic issues. The question for Malm and the Zetkin Collective then becomes: “What is it in the historical production of whiteness that has primed people at that location to respond to anti-climate interpellations from the far right? Or, when and how did being white come to mean burning fossil fuels?” 

 

Malm and the Zetkin Collective describe fascism as “palingenetic ultranationalism.” The term ‘palingenesis’ combines the Greek word for birth (génesis) with that for again (palin). They continue: “Fascism is a politics of palingenetic ultranationalism that comes to the fore in a conjuncture of deep crisis, and if leading sections of the dominant class throw their weight behind it and hand it power, there ensues an exceptional regime of systematic violence against those identified as enemies of the nation.” From this emerges the myth of palindefense. “It says: we defended ourselves and our inestimable estate in the past; we were under siege but eventually rebuffed the enemy; we fought hard and gallantly for what will always be ours and now we have to do it again.”

 

The bottom line here is that fossil fascism arises directly from climate crises. The more we win Green New Deal type policies and both stop new fossil fuel infrastructure and phase out old infrastructure, we will inevitably cause crises for fossil capital. They will in turn finance and unleash the Far Right to neutralize us. Remember Trump urging the far right to “stand up and stand by” on live television? Like that. 

 

Our job as organizers is to anticipate and plan for the reaction of fossil capital and the Far Right. We can’t be playing checkers when the other side is playing chess; we have to game out the next decade’s work of building power, changing the landscape, and winning stepping stones that lead to structural reforms. “Every year of inaction necessitates more revolutionary action the next,” argue Malm and the Zetkin Collective. 

 

From my direct experience leading Greenpeace USA’s campaigns for three years, I saw how the momentum of the climate movement was deflated by the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic just as the movement was growing into a real force. The Far Right lost some momentum too, but quickly regrouped by integrating anti-vaccine and anti-mask planks into their platform and opposing pandemic lockdowns. 

 

So what is to be done? Malm takes a solo crack at this in his How to Blow Up a Pipeline, which is less an Anarchist’s Cookbook than a call for a strategic division of labor in the global climate movement. The core argument in How to Blow Up a Pipeline is that despite waves of climate mobilization that have coalesced a global climate movement, we are losing. He asks: “At what point do we escalate? When do we conclude that the time has come to also try something different? When do we start physically attacking the things that consume our planet and destroy them with our own hands? Is there a good reason we have waited this long?”

 

Malm declares that: “For the first time, the climate movement had become the single most dynamic social movement in the global North, known for its youthful, joyful, exuberant, respectful, orderly manifestations.” How did this happen? Easy, Malm says. The climate movement gained momentum, he argues, when it combined tactics to disrupt business as usual:  “blockades, occupations, sit-ins, divestment, school strikes, the shutdown of city centers, the signal tactic of the climate camp.” Malm has a particular affection for the climate camp, which combines two of the fastest ways to radicalize people as every organizer knows – training and non-violent direct action. When they are combined in a multi-day event of hundreds or thousands, people are transformed wholesale.

 

Malm’s argument flows like this: there is too much at stake, and too much injustice inherent in fossil fuels from extraction to combustion not to include sabotage against property that causes no direct harm to people. He deeply appreciates the inspired actions of Greta Thunberg and the Fridays For Future movement that she sparked, Extinction Rebellion, and the environmental justice movement across the globe. But he also appreciates the labor of groups like Earth First!, Animal Liberation Front, Earth Liberation Front and others that conducted 27,100 actions between 1972 and 2010. They didn’t kill anyone and 99.9% of the time no one was hurt. 

 

Malm calls for the formation of a radical flank to the popular climate movement. This is different from the ‘diversity of tactics’ debate where individuals and groups piggyback on popular climate mobilizations to engage in sabotage and property destruction, while the majority engage in peaceful activities. He sees these two streams as separate but interdependent, even if popular climate movements need to disavow those engaging in sabotage. Malm finds the peaceful discipline of the climate movement to be remarkable but stifling in its single mode of action, calling it gentle and mild in the extreme.

Malm offers a vision for what this could look like: “Arguably constituting the most advanced stage of the climate struggle in Europe, Ende Gelände spanned the cycles and grew year on year; in the summer of 2019, 6,000 people closed the largest point source of emissions in Germany, backed up by several thousands more in the camp and some 40,000 in a Fridays for Future demonstration.” 

He shares a vision of the way forward to expose the crisis and escalate the conflict which is only fair because the primitive fossil capital and fossil capital in general have also escalated, and their fossil fuel racism is actively killing millions of people, especially BIPOC communities, every year. Imagine one hundred simultaneous or rolling climate camps that actively resist fossil fuels happening at the same time as thousands of peaceful actions by climate striking students and popular mobilizations. This is the scale of reckoning that is called for when capitalist climate governance delays serious action on climate change.

There are many striking parallels between How to Blow Up a Pipeline and The Ministry for the Future, a work of speculative fiction by Kim Stanley Robinson, who has an eerie knack for prediction. In his Green Earth trilogy, a superstorm named Sandy hits the east coast of the United States and floods Washington, D.C. He wrote this several years before the actual Superstorm Sandy hit. 

 

The Ministry for the Future starts with a monumental climate catastrophe that catalyzes large scale geo-engineering to prevent further disasters, and introduces readers to the work of the Ministry for the Future, a subsidiary body established under the Paris Agreement whose mission is to advocate for the world’s future generations of citizens as if their rights are as valid as the present generation’s rights. 

 

I began reading Ministry for the Future for fun during the pandemic, but it quickly became clear that Robinson and Malm share some perspectives on what it is going to take to stop the climate emergency. The techno-bureaucratic solutions that the director of the ministry, Mary Murphy, and her team come up with are solid structural reform campaign ideas for today’s global climate movement: convincing central banks to issue a new digital currency disbursed on proof of carbon sequestration (1 coin per ton of carbon kept in the ground or sequestered from the atmosphere), quantum-encrypted, open-source instruments that take the place of the big social media sites, which allows people to control and sell their data as they wish (or not), an international credit union organized as an open network to distribute credit that could only fund biosphere-friendly activities, and geoengineering that slows down glaciers by draining the water underneath them to slow their slide. 

 

The Ministry’s capstone policy occurs later in the book, a direct refutation of the Far Right’s campaign against non-white immigration, when the 58th Conference of the Parties to the Paris Agreement (COP) proposes a refugee plan that offers global citizenship, with shared responsibility to accept climate refugees and help stabilize their countries of origin in proportion to what Robinson writes are the historical disparities in carbon burn. It’s not quite the full reckoning and reparations owed from the imperial colonial period, but it represents a resounding defeat for the Far Right and fossil capital. 

 

These authors also coincide in the suggestion that the transformational change we require cannot happen solely through the top-down, incremental changes of a techno-bureaucracy – in Stanley Robinson’s speculative world it requires a parallel “dark ops” program that has the secret support of the Ministry. “Crash Day” comes when terrorists take down airplanes across the world, making it immediately unsafe to fly and ending the highly polluting airline industry. Similar acts against cargo ships also force wholesale change, and assassinations of primitive fossil fuel executives makes that a dangerous industry to lead. There is a Householders’ Union that backs the Student Debt Resistance in a payment strike together with a stay at home general strike. Stores and distribution centers get torched, the Internet is taken down for a day. 

 

Robinson also posits Modern Monetary Theory, a Keynesian approach to the climate crisis, that makes full employment (a jobs guarantee with a wage floor) the policy goal of governments and central banks. This is what it looks like to “move to a new political economy, rather than merely adjusting capitalism,” according to Robinson. Malm and the Zetkin Collective share this vision: “the transition is an opportunity to rebuild society from the bottom up, because it demands a total and extreme material make-over” that would open up space for transformational change. Robinson is ultimately optimistic about the long-term survival of humanity, a thread that runs through many of his novels – the Mars trilogy and the related book 2312, Green Earth, and again here. 

 

Mary Murphy and her fictional team at the Ministry for the Future have what our real-life climate movement needs right now: a binder full of policies that are ready to deploy in times of crisis. Robinson is clear that: “In a situation like this, there has to be a plan. You can’t make it up on the fly in the middle of the breakdown…So take this in: there has to be a pre-existing Plan B. And it can’t be a secret plan, popped on the world in the time of chaos.” Central banks have taken extraordinary action in the past–to bailout private banks–but this time they would be bailing out the sinking ship of humanity. In the story, with their backs against the wall as the global economy plunges into depression, the central banks cooperate to issue the carbon coin currency. This moves entities like the Arabian government to immediately switch to solar and stop extracting, the value of which would be several trillion U.S. dollars paid out on a schedule that matched the planned extraction rate. The least profitable thing, keep it in the ground, becomes the most profitable thing overnight. 

Now let’s pull it all together. As organizers, we know that every act of oppression is met with resistance. Resistance is the appropriate equal and opposite reaction to the violence of slavery, colonization, imperalism, and of course fossil-fueled racism. “Slavery was not abolished by conscientious white people gently disassembling the institution,” Malm explains, “The impulse to subvert it sprang, of course, from the enslaved Africans themselves, and they very rarely possessed the option of non-violent civil disobedience; staging a sit-in on the field or boycotting the food offered by the master could only hasten their death. From Nanny of the Maroons to Nat Turner, collective action against slavery perforce took on the character of violent resistance.” Similarly, national liberation movements in Africa, South Asia, East Asia, Central and South America, all would not have been successful without the radical flank. 

But wait, you say, isn’t there a rule that says that if 3.5% of a country’s population is actively engaged in non-violent protest that change is virtually guaranteed? A previous review covered Erica Chenoweth and Maria Stephan’s Why Civil Resistance Works: The Strategic Logic of Nonviolent Conflict. Too many people, however, have either not read that book or the data sets, books, articles and scholarship that came afterward from the authors, leading to a lot of confusion. 

To clarify and advance the discussion around this issue, Chenoweth wrote, Questions, Answers, and Some Cautionary Updates Regarding the 3.5% Rule (Spring 2020, Issue 2020-005, Carr Center for Human Rights, Harvard Kennedy School). Chenoweth clarifies that “The rule is derived from—and therefore applies to— only a specific kind of campaign. The movements on which it was based were maximalist ones, i.e. overthrowing a government or achieving territorial independence. They were not reformist in nature, and they had discrete political outcomes they were trying to achieve that culminated in the peak mobilization that I counted. Because of this, we cannot necessarily extrapolate these findings to other kinds of reform or resistance movements that don’t have the same kinds of goals as those in the NAVCO dataset.” 

The climate movement should read this discussion paper closely to guide its strategy – because reducing the 3.5% rule to a law is not what Chenoweth intended. As Hahrie Han, Elizabeth McKenna, and Michelle Oyakawa argue in Prisms of the People: Power & Organizing in Twenty-First Century America (also covered in a prior review), having an organized and strategic constituency can be more important than scale, as Chenoweth acknowledges in the paper. 

Malm argues the relationship between violent and nonviolent movements can be interdependent and synergistic, more the rule than the exception. Here is Malm’s call to action: “So here is what this movement of millions should do, for a start: announce and enforce the prohibition. 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… If we can’t get a prohibition, we can impose a de facto one with our bodies and any other means necessary.” 

Malm imagines this division of labor: “The festive atmosphere in a square taken over by protesters has more to speak for it and less to scare people away than a mayhem of stone-throwing. This is one reason why 1.) non-violent mass mobilization should (where possible) be the first resort, militant action the last; and 2.) no movement should ever voluntarily suspend the former, only give it appendages.” 

The worse things get, Malm argues, the more tolerance there will be for property sabotage, as it will look justified in the face of inaction by governments and corporations to phase out fossil fuels. Malm would prefer a peaceful and just transition, with Green New Deals sprouting across the globe, but the door is closing on the possibility of policy change happening fast enough to forestall climate catastrophes that kill the tens of millions that Robinson writes about in the opening of The Ministry for the Future

More specifically, Malm urges: “the next time the wildfires burn through the forests of Europe, take out a digger. Next time a Caribbean island is battered beyond recognition, burst in upon a banquet of luxury emissions or a Shell board meeting. The weather is already political, but it is political from one side only, blowing off the steam built up by the enemy, who is not made to feel the heat or take the blame.” 

To be clear, Malm does not advocate for terrorism of any kind. He does however envision a wing of the climate movement that engages in actions that are not merely symbolic: he advocates strategic property destruction in order to help win the rapid wind down of fossil fuels and the just transition to a renewable energy economy (all the better if it’s owned by people and the public).

This will, of course, provoke an equal (or disproportionate) and opposite response from the Far Right and fossil capital. The key for organizers is to anticipate the next reaction, develop scenarios around it, and build enough power to disrupt it while advancing our goals for a structural transformation. 

The climate movement really needs that binder of policies and narratives to deploy in times of crisis. Indeed, this is where the Far Right has outflanked us for decades: they’ve flooded legislatures and city councils with draft laws to support extractive industries, and funded the campaigns of lobbyists, lawmakers and judges to advance their cause. 

We have no time to waste. We have to plan backward – as quickly as possible – from what must happen in the future to determine what we must do today. So we should start – now – by organizing everyone who should be with us, and do that by listening, not lecturing. If we do, we can build power – and is what the global climate movement needs most. 

First published in Social Policy: Organizing for Social & Economic Justice (Spring 2022, Vol. 52, #1).

 

BOOKS REVIEWED:

 

Malm, Andreas and the Zetkin Collective. White Skin, Black Fuel: On the Danger of Fossil Fascism. Verso, 2021. 

 

Malm, Andreas. How to Blow Up a Pipeline: Learning to Fight in a World on Fire. Verso, 2021.

 

Robinson, Kim Stanley. The Ministry for the Future. Orbit, 2020.

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