Sanitized history

A Reading Note

In How to Blow Up a Pipeline, Andreas Malm carefully details the violent elements of social movements long mischaracterized as entirely nonviolent. His argument is plain: while nonviolence has played a key role in human rights struggles around the globe, it has never done so alone, and—until recently—it was rarely considered the end of the road:

The remaining question is whether it is possible to locate even one minimally relevant analogue to the climate struggle that has not contained some violence. Strategic pacifism is sanitised history, bereft of realistic appraisals of what has happened and what hasn’t, what has worked and what has gone wrong: it is a guide with scant use for a movement with mighty obstacles. The insistence on sweeping militancy under the rug of civility—now dominant not only in the climate movement, but in most Anglo-American thinking and theorising about social movements—is itself a symptom of one of the deepest gaps between the present and all that happened from the Haitian Revolution to the poll tax riots: the demise of revolutionary politics. It barely exists any longer as a living praxis in powerful movements or as a foil against which their demands can be set. From the years around 1789 to those around 1989, revolutionary politics maintained actuality and dynamic potentiality, but since the 1980s it has been defamed, antiquated, unlearned and turned unreal. With the consequent deskilling of movements comes the reluctance to recognise revolutionary violence as an integral component. This is the impasse in which the climate movement finds itself: the historic victory of capital and the ruination of the planet are one and the same thing. To break out of it, we have to learn how to fight all over again, in what might be the most unpropitious moment so far in the history of human habitation on this planet.

Malm, How to Blow Up a Pipeline, page 61

Malm doesn’t go into detail as to why the nineties mark a shift in revolutionary politics. But reading this passage reminded me of a moment in Octavia Butler’s Parable of the Sower. Lauren Olamina is speaking with an old handsome man who has recently started walking alongside her group as they head north along the California coast, refugees in their own country. “Whole world’s gone crazy,” the old man says, and Olamina responds:

“From what I’ve read,” I said to him, “the world goes crazy every three or four decades. The trick is to survive until it goes sane again.” I was showing off my education and background; I admit it. But the old man seemed unimpressed.

“The nineteen nineties were crazy,” he said, “but they were rich. Nothing like this bad. I don‘t think it‘s ever been this bad.”

Butler, Parable of the Sower, page 229

Butler was writing this in the early nineties. At various points in the book, Olamina and her compatriots discuss whether or not it’s acceptable to kill people in order to protect themselves. They decide it is, but not without hesitation. It’s one of the prevailing themes of the book: righteous violence versus its opposite, and the difficulty sometimes of telling the difference. Did Butler see what Malm reflects back on now? She saw so much, I wouldn’t put it past her.

Related books

This is a clear-eyed call for the climate movement to go beyond peaceful protest in order to avert ecological collapse.

Parable of the Sower

Octavia E. Butler

Lauren Olamina lives in a walled neighborhood in Southern California; it’s dangerous to venture beyond the walls, where there’s little work, less food, and no law.