The Brooklyn Rail

JUNE 2023

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JUNE 2023 Issue
Field Notes

Deeds and Propaganda

Courtesy Neon.
Courtesy Neon.

In 2009, after the economy collapsed and the university wanted students and workers to pay for it, we occupied buildings. The participants in these occupations were various—mostly undergraduate and graduate students, a few faculty members, some campus workers, a bunch of radicals who had no formal connection with the university. Tables and chairs would be piled against the doors, then secured by the ratcheting straps sometimes called truck tie-downs, rated to withstand several thousand pounds of pressure, and hopefully, the assaults of campus police.

I was reminded of these ratcheting straps when watching How to Blow Up a Pipeline, the narrative film based, curiously, on Andreas Malm’s 2021 polemic of the same name.1 Using one of these straps, the film’s saboteurs hoist a barrel filled with extremely heavy explosives and secure it to the titular pipeline. Though I do not know why the barrel is so heavy, it makes for great cinema. In many scenes, the characters, hailing from diverse backgrounds and with likewise diverse reasons for involvement, work separately. There is an organic division of labor to this crew, determined by the nature of the work to be done but also the genre of the heist film, after which it is structured, where everyone has a specific role to play and a corresponding moral character. In this scene, however, the heaviness and seriousness of what they are doing requires concerted, brute effort, assisted by a simple though ingenious technical device. The work binds them together, just as strap binds barrel to pipeline. Even when the strap fails and the barrel falls, breaking the leg of the most skeptical member of the cast, who is there because her girlfriend organized the action, they nonetheless remain attached to each other and to their shared task. The others bind her leg and keep going.

Like the film, the campus occupations were carried along by charismatic technique. This was less a movement than a movement within a movement, which aimed to get everyone else to stop asking and start taking, to stop protesting or demonstrating or signing petitions and disrupt the reproduction of the university directly. Somewhat paradoxically, this emphasis on direct action gave the occupations a certain intellectual intensity: manifestoes, zines, words everywhere. In the publications which told you How to Occupy a Building, technique was emphasized more than strategy, how to do it more than why to do it, with the ratcheting-strap barricades given special attention, but truth be told the techniques were never that effective. If the police wanted to find a way in, they would. And when they were kept at bay it was usually because those who commanded them had doubts about the repercussions of a violent raid. It was sometimes more effective to fill the buildings with hundreds of people, or simply to pile up as much furniture as you possibly could in front of the doors. Crude methods succeeded where sophisticated ones did not. What worked was never what you thought would work. The point, learned in retrospect, was to keep going, keep experimenting, keep things in motion.

The occupations did spread from campus to campus, but not to the degree that would have been required to stop what was coming our way. In some sense, it was unclear what we wanted, what our strategy was, and of course my use of the pronoun here is in part fiction. There were many goals: firstly, to popularize certain tactics and stop the tuition increases and university austerity; more dreamily, to transform the university into a base for a broader proletarian insurgency, to occupy everything, as one popular slogan put it. We failed at most of these except the tactical one. There is a red thread linking these university occupations to the later Occupy movement, and certain tactics thought suicidal at the time, like taking over freeways, are now par for the course. Nonetheless we lost, and lost bad.

It's also not clear what winning would mean for the characters in the film. Their reasons for being there are usually not stated directly, but deducible from biography. In the first scene, we watch Xochitl (played by Ariela Barer, who co-wrote the film with Daniel Goldhaber and Jordan Sjol) slashing the tires of an SUV, and later we learn that her mother died in a climate-induced heatwave. Her friend from childhood, Theo, is diagnosed with leukemia she got from growing up next to a refinery. Dwayne, who lives close to where the action takes place in Texas, hates the oil company, we learn, because they took his land. Michael, a Native American who lives near the Bakken shale oil fields, presumably hates them for every reason you can imagine, read off the genocidal history of settlement in the Americas. Other characters, such as the two white punks, Rowan and Logan, (who turn out to be working with the FBI, improbably, in order to mislead them), may not have biographical reasons at all. What do all these characters want? What would success mean? To blow up one pipeline? To inspire others to blow up all the pipelines? To stop the flow of oil? To end economic reliance on fossil fuels? To mitigate climate change? To end capitalism? To give the lands now called North Dakota back to those whose ancestors originally lived there? All of this and more?

It would be hard for a film to be clear about these aims when few others are. We might look for answers in the book, but Malm isn’t so clear either. His argument is mostly an ethical one, and the title of his book mostly branding. His book is about why you should blow up pipelines, not how to do it. It is a polemic against liberals and progressives within the environmental movement who dogmatically reject sabotage and property destruction, but it does not present a vision of a radical environmental movement ending fossil-fuel use directly through sabotage. Sabotage, in Malm’s view, is more about raising the costs for fossil fuel producers and distributors, and boosting calls for the state to limit or curtail their use. In Malm’s view, we can’t wait because it’s already too late, so doing something that might only work partially is better than doing nothing.

Some of this reasoning makes its way into the film, though murkily. Xochitl argues that the point of their action is to show the oil companies are vulnerable, but pipelines and oil derricks rupture or break down on their own, all the time, with little effect on the overall oil economy, and often without anyone hearing about it. This act of sabotage might hurt the bottom line of one company, but in raising the price of oil this will redound to the benefit of other producers, even if it might marginally restrict consumption. OPEC’s chief function is to support the price of oil by limiting supply. When the price of oil rises, dirtier and more environmentally destructive oil production, such as the tar sands in Canada, becomes more attractive. The oil economy is propelled by the wavelike motion of its boom and bust cycle, and neither cheapening it nor raising its cost is likely to do much, though finding a way to keep it in the ground or keep it from getting to consumers might. This would involve something other than moving markets, however, and would require action on a massive scale.

Perhaps, then, the goal is to get other people, many other people, to engage in sabotage, just as our goal in occupying buildings was to get others to occupy more buildings. This is what the film’s ending suggests. Xochitl and Theo, who has a terminal diagnosis, get arrested, intentionally, with the hope that this will inspire others to imitate them, and in the film’s final scene we see something like that happening, with a bomb placed on a yacht.

In suggesting these two different goals, the film effectively reprises two different theories of propaganda of the deed that are often conflated, one which emphasizes propaganda, and another which emphasizes deed. “Let us act,” writes anarchist Paul Brousse, shortly after the crushing of the Paris Commune, “if only from the point of view of propaganda. Perhaps victory will crown our efforts, and if it is martyrdom let us remember that the idea does not perish by the sword, does not fall beneath bullets.” Where the goal is consciousness raising, the propagation of the idea of anarchy, or the Commune, then failure does not matter so much. Italian anarchists such as Errico Malatesta, however, had a different idea, and emphasized the power of such acts to inspire imitators, if selected correctly. Pushing a landlord down the stairs or stealing the lockbox in which an employer keeps his money has the “double advantage” of being “a direct assault on property and of being feasible for all, and applicable, in however varied a form, always and everywhere.” Where this is the goal, however, success is everything—getting arrested for doing something is not likely to inspire others to do the same, though it might broadcast a certain aim, or make you into a martyr. Moreover, such actions must be relatively easy to accomplish. Malatesta’s essay on the subject is a work of self-criticism, in which he recalls that he had once “raised bands of armed men” relying on “chosen weapons and specially trained personnel.” Even though conducted by anti-authoritarians, such actions had required a certain authority, technical expertise, and a division of labor, none of which was especially conducive to replication. Better that thousands of people pull off thousands of small actions than that hundreds attempt to pull off something big and occasionally succeed.

While destroying pipelines by some methods might be easy, the way the characters in the film do it certainly is not. The risks of getting caught or blowing yourself up are high and getting busted on purpose doesn’t really commend the action. Moreover, their disconnection from any visible movement raises the real possibility that they could do it and no one would hear about it. Malm criticizes previous eco-saboteurs such as the Earth Liberation Front for their remove from any enveloping movement, but though conducted in strict secrecy these actions were by no means invisible to or disconnected from movements. Their first acts of sabotage emerged from popular campaigns to defend old-growth forest in the Pacific Northwest. They had spokespeople within public organizations and their actions were celebrated by many within the very public anti-globalization movement. Even given these connections, they did not inspire uptake. But the saboteurs in How to Blow Up A Pipeline are, it seems, largely disconnected from any movements that might amplify their actions, lend support, or even replicate them. Though Xochitl posts a final TikTok before the cuffs are slapped on, relying on the self-generating power of the social media is a bad idea in this late age, as algorithms become more aggressively head empty or censorious.

Offering this criticism of the movie, I am aware that I am lending it credit no movie you can see sitting down in a theater, not even one based on a Verso book, deserves. Is it really a manifesto, an attempt to get others to act? Is it propaganda in search of a deed? Probably not, and insofar as people might take it as how-to, that’s likely a good thing. It is sincere, however, and approaches its subjects without cynicism and with naivete that seems innocent, not willful. It may be that the film is, like Malm’s book, talking to liberals and progressives in order to convince them that blowing up pipelines is ok, cool even, committed by people with compelling motives.

Narrative has a hard time with mass movements because it has a hard time with anonymity. Works such as Nanni Balestrini’s The Unseen or We Want Everything succeed through a plural point of view, drawing on the power of free indirect discourse to represent collective thought. Essay films, such as Chris Marker’s A Grin Without a Cat or Fernando Solanas and Octavio Getino’s The Hour of the Furnaces, achieve something like this through the use of voice-over and montage. But a character or plot-driven film will always privilege individual action and biography. The most charitable reading of the film is that what we are watching is an allegory of social movement against climate change, with the individual characters representative types, meant to stand in for the different proletarian fractions such a movement must comprise, and bind together, with crude or sophisticated methods. As Goldhaber notes, in an interview with Malcolm Harris for Jewish Currents, the film aims “to build an ensemble that represent[s] a cross-section of the American climate movement—to approach this issue from different standpoints and to create different points of access for the audience.” This is the reason that it takes its structure from heist films like Ocean’s 11 and Reservoir Dogs, Goldhaber continues, because “one of the great things about a heist film is that it’s inherently an ensemble movie; it lets us tell a story about collective action.” In the characters’ work together, shared reasons and shared motives are discovered, and necessary trust is built. But inasmuch as these few characters are supposed to represent a multiracial mass movement bringing together Indigenous activists and Trump voters, college students and residents poisoned by refineries, what it offers is a simplification, “an imaginary solution to a real problem,” to borrow Fredric Jameson’s description of “aesthetic ideology.”

The solution is imaginary because movements on the scale necessary to combat climate change require us to act alongside those with whom we have no direct experience, less Ocean’s 11 than Ocean’s 11 Million. No one action will suffice to unite these fractions, as massiveness will always require a certain degree of anonymity and opacity. As Rosa Luxemburg notes in her famous essay “The Mass Strike,” it is not possible to centralize decision-making when it comes to strike movements on a national or international scale, because would-be leaders don’t have the information they would need to make correct tactical decisions. Tactics are always local, though strategy might be global.

The solution is imaginary, furthermore, because there is a big difference between stopping a refinery from poisoning your town, or stopping a pipeline, and stopping climate change. Where the goal is to protect the habitat of an endangered animal, as it was when ELF saboteurs burned down part of the Vail ski resort, sabotage is a relatively direct means to an end. But you can’t blow up climate change, except by blowing up so many things that you’d basically be at war. And even then, a solution to the problem of climate change and ecological collapse more broadly requires acts of creation as much as destruction. It is far easier to plan a bank robbery than the abolition of ecocidal class society. Pipelines and the forms of life they support will have to be replaced by new ways of living, new ways of doing things. Such a movement, a revolutionary, communist movement, would need to be against pipelines but, even more importantly, for these new ways of life.

The most successful environmental movements of our era have been for as much as they have been against. In her final TikTok, Xochitl describes their action as self-defense. But defense of whom, what? The most successful environmental movements of the twenty-first century have been territorial, bound to the defense of concrete tracts of land and communities, places rather than spaces. This is true of the 2016 Dakota Access Pipeline blockade in defense of the Standing Rock Sioux, in coalition with hundreds of other Indigenous groups and thousands of non-Indigenous allies, collectively called water protectors and land defenders. It is also true of the current movement to Defend the Atlanta Forest, or Stop Cop City, remarkable for uniting local residents, Indigenous elders, community groups, tree-sitting activists and, yes, saboteurs around the shared goal of stopping the construction of an odious 90 million dollar police training facility and preserving one of the only green spaces in the area, called Weelaunee Forest by the movement, which uses its original Muscogee Creek name. In these territorial movements, which build across the span of years rather than months, shared commitments tie different groups together without producing any simple unity. Such movements require what Hugh Farrell has called “the strategy of composition,” which “proposes that the multiple segments of a movement remain multiple, while simultaneously weaving the necessary practical alliances between them.” Such a strategy is neither a synthesis, resulting in a new mass subject, nor a simple coalition, in which each group exits the same as it enters. As Farrell writes, “in order to maintain the composition of a movement, each of its component parts must be willing to step away from their identities to some degree.” In the movement to Defend the Forest and Stop Cop City, which is both for the forest and against the cops, crucial linkages between Indigenous activists, environmentalists, police and prison abolitionists, and Black-led community groups get articulated through a mesh of tactics. Collective strategy emerges in some way other than any one group could have conceived it.

The Atlanta Police and other authorities in Georgia have painted the movement to Defend the Atlanta Forest and Stop Cop City as an eco-terrorist conspiracy, organized by a single group, and charged dozens of participants guilty of nothing so much as trespassing with newly created “critical infrastructure” terrorism charges. In truth, movements like this are rarely organized centrally, but rather form through one-sided acts of solidarity, with relationships formed after the fact. The heist film structure, which focuses on a single conspiratorial act and a single fused group, travesties such organizational forms but, perhaps more importantly, leaves no opening for viewers to feel themselves part of a shared movement with those on screen. Identification works in a substitutional fashion, so that viewers feel that the characters act for rather than with them. The best fictional narratives of revolution, such as Kim Stanley Robinson’s Mars trilogy, often choose to tell key events from slightly outside their locus, so that we do not know exactly what happened or who did it. In Robinson’s recent novel, Ministry for the Future, members of the eco-terrorist group, the Children of Kali, which forms after a heatwave in India kills millions, are never introduced directly, and their actions remain opaque, narrated from a distance.

If you want to learn how to blow up pipelines, you would do better to read about the movement to Defend the Atlanta Forest or the French struggle to stop construction of a massive water reservoir in Sainte-Soline (which has also featured sabotage emerging from the matrix of a mass movement), or the occupation of the town of Lützerath in Germany to stop the expansion of a coal mine, or the dozens of actions taking place monthly by land and water protectors in Mexico, to give only a few possible examples. It must be acknowledged, however, that most of these actions do not pose a direct response to climate change through destruction of fossil fuel infrastructure. The motives of participants are more immediate, closer to the reasons of Theo, poisoned by a refinery, or Dwayne, who has had his land stolen by the oil company. These are struggles in defense of a particular territory, though a territory which has a wide-ranging and often symbolic appeal, calling out for defense and solidarity from those near and far. When climate change or ecological collapse more broadly are the target, however, there is no territory to defend except all territory. The effects of greenhouse gas emissions are dispersed, visible everywhere and nowhere, the worst delayed to some moment far in the future, some moment it will have been too late to stop. As effects become more and more removed from causes, self-defense requires time travel. We are less defending ourselves in such an instance than the lives of future generations. To do so will require expropriation not only of the oilfields and pipelines and refineries, in order to dismantle them, but of the industrial economy which they feed and upon which they depend. It will require the demolition of capitalist social relations, that is to say total social transformation through social revolution. Bombs and bombers may play a part in that revolution, even a key part, but not the starring role.

  1. This essay is dedicated to the memory of Manuel “Tortuguita” Terán, killed by police during a raid on the Defend the Atlanta Forest, Stop Cop City encampment, and echoes demands for an independent investigation into his shooting. Andreas Malm, How To Blow Up a Pipeline (London: Verso, 2021).


Jasper Bernes

Jasper Bernes teaches in the English Department at UC Berkeley. He is author of We Are Nothing and So Can You (2015) and The Work of Art in the Age of Deindustrialization (2017).


The Brooklyn Rail

JUNE 2023

All Issues