On the Duty to Obstruct

On the Duty to Obstruct


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Yves here. I hate again to sound like a naysayer, but there are two issues with Andreas Malm’s “destroy CO2 emitting property” as a solution to climate change.

First, unlike the suffragettes, climate changes activists are not seeking rights that can be conferred legislatively. They are proposing to destroy infrastructure that is used to support the provisioning of society. I can see a persuasive case for wrecking or interfering physically with the installation of new facilities that will add to the greenhouse gas load, but existing plant and equipment involves moral issues of its own. And I don’t mean damage to the owners. How do these CO2 obstructionists propose to deal with the livelihoods of those whose homes or businesses used this energy? It’s a no-brainer that the ones most exposed to downside will be the poor.

And if we are talking purity, do the activists not use cars, busses, and public transportation? Even though some forms of mobile transport are less bad than others, most involve carbon. Across the US, 60% of the electricity used in EVs still comes from natural gas and coal and a smidge of petroleum. Have the eschewed the use of plastic, which is mainly composed of oil and gas derivatives and takes energy to “crack”?

Climate change activists need to work towards creating consensus for radically different living and production arrangements so that society can operate, even if at a more modest level of activity. I have yet to see ideas or plans that are remotely adequate to meet the real challenge. As I wrote in an intro to Neuburger’s earlier post about Andreas Malm:

The reason I’m not at all a fan is our only hope of avoiding worst outcomes is building communities and networks. By contrast, attacks on property, even if they are unquestionably bad carbon-emitters, violates one of Sun Tsu’s rules of combat: “Tactics without strategy is the noise before the defeat.”

If you don’t think the government won’t support aggressive and heavily subsidized programs to rebuild energy infrastructure destroyed by “domestic terrorists”, you are smoking something strong. And that means even more carbon generation in transportation and construction. And property destruction (which may wind up involving deaths or maiming) is also a gimmie to carbon emitters, since it will help them in depicting climate change realists (as in those who correctly say radical action is necessary) as allies of thugs.

Second, most people put obligations to their spouses and their children, and sometimes to their parents, as taking precedence over duties to society. That is one reason that the 1960s rebellions were led by the young. Not only did they have energy and idealistic zeal, but comparatively few were burdened by family obligations.

As we also said on the earlier Andreas Malm post:

So why are we so stuck on a bad trajectory? Simple explanations are always simplistic, but I hazard that humans have seldom been good at working out how to manage competing levels of responsibility, and the tensions and contradictions get greater as societies become more complex. Let me turn the mike over to that great philosopher, Jamie Lannister:

So many vows…they make you swear and swear. Defend the king. Obey the king. Keep his secrets. Do his bidding. Your life for his. But obey your father. Love your sister. Protect the innocent. Defend the weak. Respect the gods. Obey the laws. It’s too much. No matter what you do, you’re forsaking one vow or the other.

And I hate to say it, but the cases where non-violent resistance has succeeded is when the cause generated true and sustained mass demonstrations. That hasn’t happened with climate change. There was a large-scale turnout around the world for the September 2019 climate action, with an estimate of participation as high at 7.6 million globally, and 2 million in a second action a week later. Wikipedia says 250,000 turned out in New York City. By contrast, BBC estimated that anti-Iraq war protests brought out between six and ten million demonstrators. That seems light give that Wikipedia reports 3 million protested in Rome and 1.5 million in Madrid. I know the New York City numbers were badly underreported; BBC claims only 100,000 turned out that cold day. Seasoned protestors who were there told me the numbers were higher. The police formed a cordon at Second Avenue, including a full complement of mounted police to prevent the riff raff from getting near UN Plaza. They were shunted uptown to Harlem.

By Thomas Neuburger. Originally published at God’s Spies

“The easiest way to win most games is to put yourself in position to block all progress by any other player until you get what you need first. The game of Monopoly is a perfect example. You can win most of the time by first buying properties that block all monopolies, then trading to your advantage.”
—Yours truly

“Let the capitalists who keep on investing in the fire know that their properties will be trashed. We are the investment risk.
—Andreas Malm, from How to Blow Up a Pipeline

When is the decision to obstruct a moral one?

Consider these two problems, one from the House vote on Biden’s infrastructure bill, the other from the problems faced by the climate movement. Seemingly disconnected, they share a common problem — and a common solution.

Dealing With Corporate Democrats and Their Leaders

First this, from a recent Naked Capitalism piece by Michael Hudson, who asks in his headline, “Did the Squad Give Away Their Bargaining Power?

[A]fter teasing the Progressive Caucus for a few months by letting them think that the BBB [President Biden’s Build Back Better bill] really was “Bernie’s bill,” [the Biden administration] made an about-face and treated it as merely a starting point to be scaled back. That has given new meaning to the word “transformative” for Biden’s Administration. It seeks to transform the economy to favor the Donor Class One Percent.

The six House Democrats who voted against the [corporate-friendly infrastructure] bill are Missouri Rep. Cori Bush, New York Rep. Jamaal Bowman, Massachusetts Rep. Ayanna Pressley, Michigan Rep. Rashida Tlaib, New York Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, and perhaps the most outspoken member, Minnesota Rep. Ilhan Omar. The New York Times post mortem … after the Friday midnight capitulation described how Black Caucus leaders negotiated a “trust them” compromise. “The progressives slowly caved. The no votes dwindled from 20 to 10 and finally 6.” [Jonathan Weisman and Carl Hulse, “The Congressional Black Caucus Was Key to the Infrastructure Vote,” The New York Times, November 6, 2021]

Recall that the progressives’ gift to the corrupt corporatist Democrats was to promise to support their neoliberal infrastructure bill in the House in exchange for corporate Democrats’ support for the social programs in the BBB bill in the Senate. In other words, the two bills would be taken up as a set, in tandem, with the passage of one guaranteeing the passage of the other.

What actually happened? Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi broke her promise and decoupled the two bills. She put the corporate infrastructure bill up for a stand-alone vote in the House before the Senate approved the BBB bill, challenging progressives to vote it down. House progressives, including progressive caucus leader Pramila Jayapal, folded. All but six House Democrats supported the corporate bill, even as they watched their own policies in the BBB bill cut to the bone, and even as the passage of BBB in the Senate was put in jeopardy.

(And note: Not all of the six No votes were meaningful or truly oppositional. Ayanna Pressley, for example, voted No only after the corporate bill was assured of passage.)

The House vote on the stand-alone corporate bill is here. As it turned out, 13 Republicans voted Yes against just six No votes from the so-called Progressive Caucus. Smart money, or at least mine, says that if more Republican Yes votes were needed, Pelosi would have found them. Once more, the corporatists won because progressives (and “progressives”) couldn’t, or wouldn’t, say No.

Hudson continues: “By capitulating, the Progressive Caucus has lost its single effective bargaining point: its ability to do what Manchin and Sinema have been doing–using the leverage of President Biden’s desperation to get some law passed, to do something in the wake of Tuesday’s losses in Virginia and elsewhere throughout the country.”

He decries the decision that led most progressives to retreat from theonly strong negotiating point available to them: the ability to block the Blue Dog/New Democratic Coalition dilution” of the original BBB bill.

The takeaway from this is simple: Saying no to corporate Democratic leaders means actually saying no. Anything else is a yes. As Krystal Ball pointed out in the video above, Manchin said he could live with zero — no bills at all. Progressives on the other hand, even Bernie Sanders, could not.

I’ll have much more to say about using obstruction to win against the Democratic Party. For now, consider the above sad tale as yet another example of progressives failing to use power when power is given them, and abetting rule by the rich as a result.

The Immorality of the ‘Moral’ Choice

The second piece I want to consider involves the climate movement — in particular, Adam Tooze’s review of Andreas Malm’s book How to Blow Up a Pipeline.

(For my own first thoughts on Malm’s ideas see, “Andreas Malm: ‘Because Nothing Else Has Worked’” from last July. As you will read below, events — especially the fate of the “clean energy” provisions that Biden has removed from his BBB bill — are proving Malm absolutely right.)

Tooze ranges widely in his piece. Near the end he writes about how the climate movement has painted itself into a corner (my phrase) by choosing the “moral” (his word) path of non-violence, and especially by fetishizing (his word again) non-violence against property:

The question that drives How to Blow up a Pipeline is why the new movements of protest in 2019, despite their scale and dynamism, refused to adopt the techniques of physical obstruction and disruption successfully modelled by Ende Gelände.

(Ende Gelände is a German climate group that espouses and embraces direct action. For more, see here.)

Part of the answer is moral. The US movement, in particular, has imbibed a commitment to non-violent methods. Some argued that attacks on property would only produce a painful and repressive backlash, and indeed, this summer, Jessica Reznicek, who with Ruby Montoya mounted a sabotage campaign against the Dakota Access pipeline, was sentenced to eight years in federal prison. But, as Malm argues, these familiar tactical concerns have been reinforced in the current phase of the climate movement by a peculiar reading of history, in which the power of self-control and non-violence is fetishised. [emphasis added]

This is both a strategic mistake and a tragic misreading of the history of successful movements against oppression, including the movement to outlaw slavery in America:

[A]s Malm points out, the climate movement’s appropriation of history has been one-sided. How can one treat the suffragette movement seriously without emphasising its use of direct action and sabotage? Even more grotesque is the representation of the abolition of slavery as if it were achieved through the high moralism of Quaker ‘NGOs’, rather than slave rebellion or the radical example of militant abolitionists.

Consider the Toussaint slave rebellion that freed Haiti, or better, the American Civil War. Non-violent they were not, yet they were undoubtedly effective. In both cases, the abolitionists lost the aftermath, not the war.

The non-violent revolt against slavery in the United States

Because nothing else has worked, Malm sees the climate activists’ best leverage as the use of their bodies to block the carbon-producing machine to the greatest extent they can:

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. ‘We are the investment risk,’ runs a slogan from Ende Gelände, but the risk clearly needs to be higher than one or two days of interrupted production per year. ‘If we can’t get a serious carbon tax from a corrupted Congress, we can impose a de facto one with our bodies,’ Bill McKibben has argued, but a carbon tax is so 2004. If we can’t get a prohibition, we can impose a de facto one with our bodies and any other means necessary.

According to Malm, the activist should say, “I am your investment risk. I am why your fossil fuel investment will fail.”

What are the odds that this tactic will succeed? Not great at all. The world is still the world, and the rich still run it.

But that’s the wrong question. The right question is: What are the odds that passive resistance will fail? And the answer: Infinitely greater.

In both arenas we’re watching non-violent non-obstructive resistance as we speak. No corporate infrastructure bill was harmed in the progressive surrender for the scraps they hope to get from the still-unpassed BBB bill. And the fossil fuel industry still calls the shots in the Biden administration.

It’s Going to Take Force

If it hasn’t been obvious before, it’s obvious now — it’s going to take force to win back an equitable and habitable planet from the psychopathic hubris of the very very rich.

Tooze says, ‘“Given the reality of the underlying conflict, division and strife are not to be regretted, but embraced.” I would agree on both the issues we’ve discussed. If conflict is inevitable — if conflict is the only route to a truly moral outcome — then let’s embrace the tools we’re given and win with them. If those tools include a degree of obstruction that threatens the structure itself, so be it.

I would consider preserving a habitable planet unarguably moral. I would consider fighting for better living conditions for the preyed-upon many in America — an actual “build back better” bill, an actual Medicare For All system, an actual reduction in prescription drug prices — also unarguably moral.

Which leads me to ask: Should it be considered immoral not do those things?

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