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The Morality of Obstruction

Updated: Nov 18




By Thomas Neuburger


"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

Quite often, elements floating in our common air, pieces which seem to be separate from each other, instead form a common whole if seen correctly.


Consider these two problems, one from the losing vote on Biden's infrastructure bill, and the other from the losing-so-far climate movement. Seemingly disconnected, they in fact share a common solution.


Saying No to Corporate Democrats Means Actually Saying No


First, consider 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 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.


What actually happened? Pelosi decoupled the two bills and 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 folded. All but six members supported the corporate bill, even as they watched their own bill being cut to the bone, and even as the passage of BBB in the Senate was put in jeopardy.


(And note that not all of the six No votes were meaningful. 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: "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 the "only strong negotiating point available to them: the ability to block the Blue Dog/New Democratic Coalition dilution" of the original BBB bill.


Saying no to corporate Democrats 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, 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 yet another example of progressives failing to use power when power is given to them.


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, not to mention the American Civil War.


How enslaved people actually free themselves

These were violent, yet effective, rebellions. In both cases, the abolitionists lost the aftermath, not the war.


Because nothing else has worked, Malm sees the climate activists' best leverage as the use of their bodies to block the 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.

For 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 very rich still run it.


But that's the wrong question. What are the odds that passive resistance will fail? Infinitely greater.


On both fronts, we're watching non-violent 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.


If it hasn't been obvious before (it has), 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 concludes: "Given the reality of the underlying conflict, division and strife are not to be regretted, but embraced." I would agree, on both fronts. If conflict is inevitable — the only route to a truly moral outcome — then embrace the tools you're given and win with them, including obstruction that threatens the rest of the structure.


I would call saving a habitable planet an unarguably moral outcome. I would also call the fight for better living conditions for the preyed-upon many in America — ian actual "build back better" bill, an actual Medicare For All health care system, an actual reduction in prescription drug prices — unarguably moral as well.


In this circumstance, it's true that "to adopt an antagonistic stance is to do no more than respond adequately to the situation." Which comes with a corollary: To reject an antagonistic stance is to respond inadequately — and quite possibly, immorally as well.

(To read all of my work, visit God's Spies at Substack.com. More information here and here.)

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