Between Sabotage and State power

Bue Rübner Hansen
5 min readNov 14, 2023

The new conclusion of my essay on the work of Andreas Malm, written for the German translation of The Kaleidoscope of Catastrophe.

picture of emergency break

On the last page of Fossil Capital, 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.” Derailing a train and pulling the emergency break are far from the same, but the image of catastrophe is the same: It is imagined as a train, the image of history that of a unified, linear process.

This temporal imaginary of impending and unfolding catastrophe is key to Malm’s work and method: it provides his texts with their affective charge, their sense of urgency, and their courageous insistence on radical action. The narrative that emerges from such catastrophism is necessarily epic, its protagonism heroic. Its method procedure is one of decisions. In The Progress of the Storm, Malm seeks to force a choice between a good dialectical analysis of the opposition between “nature” and “society”, and hybridisms that refuses such binaries. In Pipeline, he encourages readers to make the hard choice between property destruction and non-violence, and in Corona between the state and non-state action. Malm calls for mass action without engaging in the question of how to build the social conditions and infrastructures for such action. He calls for a democratic climate state without considering the social conditions for democratisation. And he calls for revolution as the abolition of fossil fuels, without a strategy of class power, nor for how we may come to desire a world of lower energy use.

The result is a strategy fully geared towards the task of fossil fuel abolition, argued in terms of catastrophes experienced and predicted. This approach to climate strategy is common. It derives its urgency from invocations of the victims of climate change and the predictions of science, providing an impetus which is moral and scientific. When we pose the question of abolition in this way, it appears as an event, through which truth and justice — represented by heroic saboteurs, revolutionaries, and helmsmen of states — interrupt the apparently linear process of fossil capitalist history. Desperate times call for fantasies of desperate measures. In the face of an overwhelming problem and our (current) powerlessness, strategy becomes a matter of necessity and rightness, more than opportunity and power. Its tools become immediate and tactical, or premised on massive leaps of capacity: a blown-up pipeline here, war communism there. A similar blockage of strategic thought, a reliance on exceptional acts and states of exception can be found in Extinction Rebellion’s combination of disruptive action and appeals to politicians to do the right thing. We also find it in the most sophisticated contemporary climate fiction, in which fossil capital is halted through a combination of ecoterrorism of “the children of Kali”, and the institutional and sovereign action of The Ministry for the Future and central banks. What underlies these emplotments of climate action is a profound doubt about the political agency of the masses, and a reliance on enlightened leadership, be it by sabotage to state power.

In this way, the difficulties of Malm’s political writings are symptomatic of a wider difficulty of imagining popular — mass and class based — climate politics. As long as we conceive climate politics in terms of doing what is deemed scientifically necessary, transition is necessarily driven by enlightened leaders. In this framework struggles for justice and livelihoods become correctives to a transition that is imposed from elsewhere, rather than the source of climate struggle itself. Realistic as this approach may seem, it is exactly upside-down. The disruptiveness of vanguardist action and the authoritarianism of government imposition may set back the construction of popular movements. Reversely, by creating the conditions of courage and shifting social needs, desires and wants — and the means of their satisfaction — popular movements are essential to legitimating and materially sustaining life when sabotage, government action, or war communism act to abolish fossil fuels.

The only way to break this blockage is to build popular movements for transition and abolition. But as long as the reproduction of the masses is intertwined with fossil fuels, broad popular movements cannot be built solely on the necessity of their abolition. Nor can such movements be built on the discourse of transition, as long as it’s imagined as a matter of techno- and policy fixes, rather than struggle. In the hope of fixes, we see the last residues of the idea of progress. It is as seductive and pacifying as the idea of an immediate end to fossil fuels is mobilizing for many and frightening for more. Most will cling to the present that they know, rather than the future promised, unless the present is itself failing.

Rather than fight over the imaginary timeline of progress — its continuation or its end — we must situate ourselves in the complex and uneven time of ecosystems, disasters, and decline, where anxieties spread, as people’s livelihoods and orientations are undermined, or reactively shored up. Facing decline, nostalgia for progress runs rampant, expressed both in reactionary politics and in the hope for elite-driven “fixes”. Here embodied disgust and disaffection with the present and its stresses, pollutants, and anxieties is important, as is the desire for other, “alternative hedonisms” (K. Soper). Facing disaster, popular movements must build solidaric forms of resistance, adaptation, and resilience, including mutual aid — as opposed to gun boat survivalism — when disasters strike.

Experiences and expectations of decline and disaster is the ground on which popular movements can and must be built today. To see their potentials, we must break with the uniform timeline of catastrophism, according to which popular solidarities are but symptomatic of wider disaster, which — according to the timeline of statist socialism or liberal progress — should not be necessary (“a minus sign, not a plus”, in Malm’s words). Instead, we must move towards an ecological conception of time, in which recognize how disaster and solidarity, care and catastrophe co-exist, in which survival may not simply be a matter of self-defence against the destruction or revenge of “Nature”, but also of the (re-) ecologization of modes of life.

In short, popular movements must be rooted not just in scientific necessity and ideas of justice, but in the needs and desires of people, who expect and experience the present drifting into decline and disaster. Shook in our habits of thoughts and action, we become open to new orientations and strategies of life. This is an opening for progressive moments, but also for reactionary forces — and an arena those fixated on blockade-driven abolition and investment-led transition are equally likely to overlook. Ending fossil capitalism is not just a matter of vanguardist and government action but of a transformation of our mode of social reproduction.

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Bue Rübner Hansen

researcher, writer, editor writing about whatever extends democracy. mostly in #spain #denmark #uk & #europe but eager to provincialize them all