“Holding the public to ransom”: the strategy and tactics of Just Stop Oil

EDITION: 5th Birthday.

Just Stop Oil's strategic approach shows us that popular power already exists. What would it mean for the left to take this seriously?

This is part 2 of a short series of texts theorising Just Stop Oil. Introduction, Part 1

Before we begin, one further effect of left-wing criticism of Just Stop Oil needs mentioning, and that is the implications within the legal field. Currently, two Just Stop Oil militants and one militant from Insulate Britain are held in prison awaiting trial, and at least 138 militants have spent time in prison. In any meaningful understanding, including a merely ‘liberal’ understanding, these are political prisoners and it is right to name them as such.1 The number of those facing trial varies, and an escalation of disruption in April is likely to see many more militants face trials, long pre-trial imprisonment and possible jail sentences. When facing trial, it seems likely that those militants who are facing trial will rely on defences with a substantial degree of indeterminacy, especially in jury trials: possibly “self-defence”, as suggested in Louise Harris’s M25 gantry speech; or, perhaps more likely, necessity arguments (the action was necessary to prevent greater harm).

There is a particular responsibility for the left—even those who have tactical or strategic disagreements with the arrestees—not to do the state’s work in undermining these arguments. Ideological struggle outside the courts always shapes judgements; Hall and his co-authors noted this “stiffening of judicial attitudes towards crime, violence and sentencing policies” in the 1970s regarding the ideological theme of the “mugging crisis”.2 For the left to help this “stiffening” in the case of climate protests would be morally and intellectually equivalent to scabbing. To this form of scabbing, we should add that people on the left should not legitimate (and ultimately encourage) the violence of the bad-tempered commuter towards protestors. Positing one’s own helplessness—“nothing I could say or do can have any effects”—is nothing more than an alibi for irresponsibility.

If we’re going to consider Just Stop Oil properly, we need to understand the integration of practices and ideological effects in their refusal of indifference and their refusal to take refuge in helplessness. If we want to attempt an ecosocialist critique, moreover (and I think we must: Just Stop Oil’s politics are not precisely mine), we need first to understand the encounter, and how it has transformed the situation.

I think it’s possible to divide the path of Just Stop Oil (particularly after their shift away from the direct disruption of fossil fuel infrastructure) into two, or perhaps three, stages; stages which, whilst there is some overlap in time, broadly succeed each other. Firstly, there were the attention-grabbing individual (or very small group) actions, all of which ran a very considerable risk of arrest. Some of these, such as the interruption of football matches, and particularly the motorway gantry actions, caused disruption to everyday life. Ultimately, however, the major effect of these actions was to issue a ‘call’ to potential new climate militants, as well as demonstrating—both to these potential comrades and to the state—a capacity to have effects.

Then there have been wider acts of disruption, less attention-grabbing and with far less risk of arrest (at least at present), but extensive, and, importantly far less London-centred, with groups disrupting traffic in Liverpool, Brighton, and Norwich. JSO have threatened a further escalation of disruption in April; it remains to be seen whether this will follow the model of individual/small group dramatic and highly arrestable disruption, or closer to the model of the recent ‘go slow marches’. The latter path, of course, will require far more significant, though not huge, numbers, and is thus reliant on enough people hearing and responding to the call.

Positing one’s own helplessness is nothing more than an alibi for irresponsibility.

The actions of Just Stop Oil are a demonstration that popular power already exists, or at least is latent in the situation (we get this sense more clearly in Latin languages: power can be rendered as potentiality - potencia in Spanish, potenza in Italian, or in poder/potere as something closer to state power).3 In a discussion with Just Stop Oil spokesperson Emma Brown, Owen Jones asserted that “the problem is, we don’t have power.” Brown responded, “a lot of us feel we don’t have power… actually collectively we have a lot of power. You’d be amazed by how disruptive a few people can be. Imagine if that was thousands.” The practices of Just Stop Oil both assert and demonstrate that we do have power, that we are not helpless, and that we therefore have responsibilities which we cannot flee from. Power is not something to be built (and whose building will be endlessly deferred, because it might inconvenience someone), but something that exists within a situation: something to be discovered, demonstrated, and used.

Left criticism of Just Stop Oil tends to pivot on two intertwined points. Firstly, they take the aim of the actions as being generic “awareness raising” (this critique is to an extent appropriate for Extinction Rebellion, and, indeed, has been used as a legal defence, raising awareness of ecological devastation as a means to prevent greater harm than the action, and Malm attributes this position to Just Stop Oil at least in the Van Gogh action as the basis for his qualified, rather begrudging support). Some go even further, conflating any ideological effects with a sort of liberal/NGO, non-class based theory of change. (“I, by contrast, would simply make the junction between the labour movement and ecology” is the implication, to which we should respond: well, go on and do so, dickhead.) Secondly, they argue that the unpopularity of the action—especially because it apparently inconveniences working class people—renders it self-refuting: so one might well raise awareness, but the effects are likely to be negative because of that unpopularity. These critiques fundamentally misrepresent both Just Stop Oil’s intentions and their understanding of the situation, and they also misunderstand the relation between militant practices and ideological effects more generally.

The actions of Just Stop Oil are a demonstration that popular power already exists.

Counter to a lot of received wisdom on the contemporary left, unpopularity isn’t a failure of comms strategy. It is, in fact, part of the link between practices and ideological effects.4 As Louise Harris put it: “you might hate me for doing this, and you’re entitled to hate me.” Emma Brown made a similar point: “we don’t need to be popular.” It’s reminiscent of Nechayev’s ‘Revolutionary Catechism’: “the revolutionary despises public opinion. [They] despise and hate the existing social morality in all its manifestations.” In other words: if existing social morality is tied up in the processes that have led us to this point, if what is socially valued is wrong, if public opinion justifies helplessness, ignore it.

There is, however, a contradiction around public opinion, but this contradiction is not necessarily a ‘mistake’ by Just Stop Oil. It reflects the real contradictions and incommensurabilities of different social locations and state apparatuses, and their practices and ideologies (and part of Just Stop Oil’s implicit, activist theory of the state involves the opening up of breaches between state apparatuses). We find this contradiction in the various legal defences of the new climate militants, and the fact that these are often successful. Here, then, public opinion as incarnated in the jury process does matter: whilst the militants accept unpopularity and the risk of prison, it would be better not to get imprisoned. There is no strategy, as was sometimes suggested by Roger Hallam in the early days of Extinction Rebellion, of overwhelming the prison system by sheer numbers.

What distinguishes the legal process from press-mediated forms of public opinion, is, firstly, the level of deliberation involved; and secondly, the ways in which a certain social morality, qualifiedly achieved through popular struggle, is incarnated in law, and relied on in necessity-type defences (and of course the success or failure of these defences are, as we should learn from Hall and his co-authors, significantly shaped by wider ideological struggle). This specifically popular social morality is not incarnated in the press, despite what they would have us believe. One cannot imagine a contemporary John Lilburne (isn’t that, what to some extent Just Stop Oil are?), addressing the journalists of the Daily Mail as he did the jury in his third (!) trial for his life in 1653, as “the keepers of the Liberties of England”.5 As Lilburne argued and showed, moreover, this popular social morality is often incarnated in juries against judges, and here the forbidding of defendants mentioning climate breakdown in their trials is far more significant than the judge who suggested Just Stop Oil militants “should feel guilty for nothing”.

There is a danger of overstating the social morality and positive effects of deliberation in juries, which Just Stop Oil have so far avoided, but that Extinction Rebellion certainly succumbed to. The conflation of a legalistic sort of deliberation amongst individuals with the practices of politics results in a kind of technocratic “solutionism” (a concept derived by Rob Booth from josie sparrow’s critique of XR’s antipolitical ecology), perhaps best represented by XR’s calls for a citizens assembly as a way out of the climate crisis. The simplicity and direct nature of JSO’s demands perhaps inoculates them against this sort of mistake, but it is worth sounding a note of caution.

The practices of Just Stop Oil (and other new climate militant groups) appear not only to be indifferent to unpopularity – particularly unpopularity as organised through the press and much (but not all) of social media – but sometimes to actively court it. This is most notable not in Just Stop Oil, but in Madeleine Budd of ‘End [British] Private Jets’ throwing of a petrol can of human faeces over a statue of Tom Moore. But unpopularity is invited quite deliberately in both the traffic disruptions and in the Van Gogh action. There is, of course, something theological here, but something that should carefully be distinguished from the accusations of cultishness. There is a rigorous assumption, if necessary, of martyrdom; a sense that this practical demonstration of Truth is far more significant than an individual’s life or interests. The fact that this martyrdom is open to all, that any person can become the centre of the drama, in fact precisely diverges from the top-down, controlling logic of the cult. In these actions there is an ideological effect, a call, and we should probably note here the consciously religious connotations of the call (or interpellation) of the revolutionary militant as theorised by Althusser, that aims to subjectivate new climate militants: Emma Brown’s ‘thousands’ who’d realise all that latent collective power.

The necessity of recruiting new climate militants is not only part of extending collective power. Given the high risk of arrest (also freely assumed by the militants), it is also essential to the reproduction of an organisation which needs ever more human material to throw at the state. Here, there may be a certain need for caution: is there an unjustified instrumentalisation, or is the new climate militant willing to be made an instrument? Are we dealing, to borrow from John Sullivan, with a “primitive accumulation of cadres” that aims to crowd out more cautious, less showy groups, and particularly those whose members are more vulnerable to negative outcomes from interactions with the police? Does this end up centring the concerns of those least vulnerable to police violence, that is, for all the distances Just Stop Oil establish, those closest to the state?

The call is based on an austere logic, and the actions are a demonstration of that logic. Its power comes, to a significant extent, from the encounter between the extremity of the actions (and willingness to risk jail and/or abjection) and the moderation of the logic underpinning them: its closeness to what is supposed to be common sense morality. I say “supposed to be” because, although we all ‘know’ the chain of reasoning, do we really know it? Certainly, most of us don’t act as though we know it – there is a disavowal,6 – so it’s worth trying to put it as starkly as we can—as starkly as the new climate militant experiences it. The continued burning of fossil fuels will lead to significant temperature rises above pre-industrial levels (this is scientific consensus). These temperature rises, particularly as they disrupt already vulnerable agricultural systems, will probably lead to hundreds of millions of deaths. One should not be indifferent to this; indeed, one should do almost anything to interrupt the process; to, on Walter Benjamin’s terms, pull the emergency brake.7 This can and should include risking jail or social unpopularity. That is, unless—and we are constantly told that this, in other circumstances, is an obscene logic—while the death of one person is a tragedy, the death of hundreds of millions is nothing more than a statistic. In the face of all this, the assumption of unpopularity, even abjection, is its own practical demonstration, its own call. The hatred or the risk of prison is nothing compared to what will happen if that emergency brake isn’t pulled.

Equally, the situation is now so desperate that such action is necessary. No other plausible alternatives are offered, whether by the state, including its political parties, or on any significant level by the left external to the state. The ideological effect of Just Stop Oil’s attention-grabbing actions is therefore not aimed at the population as a whole. It is aimed at potential militants; it asks: why aren’t you acting on this? Why can’t you recognise the power we already have? What implication do you have in the current state of things that renders you practically indifferent to hundreds of millions of potential deaths, not to mention the deaths that have already occurred?

The call then constitutes a militant subjectivity, and this subjectivity has something in common with that of revolutionary Communist militants. As Hannah Proctor puts it, writing of Victor Serge, it is “a subjectivity paradoxically defined by the renunciation of subjectivity”. The acceptance of abjection, of potential physical danger, arrest, and imprisonment. In Just Stop Oil, moreover— and it is telling that both Malm and Owen Jones are unable to grasp this— there is a pushing beyond even Serge’s renunciation of subjectivity. For Serge, as Proctor puts it, the underpinning of the renunciation of subjectivity in the militant’s subjectivity is the “individual’s subordination to History (with an emphatic capital H).” What Just Stop Oil confront, through their understanding of catastrophe, is the possible end of history; not in the Francis Fukuyama sense, but in the sense that human extinction is a possibility, albeit an outside one. The sense that, whatever Malm might think, there may be no History to absolve them–or condemn us. Equally, in the present–and against the historicism that ultimately did structure Serge and many other heroic Communist militants— there is, for Just Stop Oil, no historical purpose incarnated or expressed in the conjuncture. It is a balance of forces, a set of possibilities that one must identify, and this identification is based not on some overarching historical meaning, but on the militant call, and a subsequent understanding of one’s duty.

Just Stop Oil’s attention-grabbing actions are not aimed at the population as a whole, but at potential militants. They ask: why aren’t you acting on this?

This moral injunction is not only austere. Like any militant call it is liberating (the renunciation of subjectivity is a liberation). It liberates from fear of the state—as Emma Brown put it, “we’re not afraid of what [the state] might do to us”—and from certain attachments. It even liberates us from hope and narcissism, including that narcissism of believing one will be vindicated by History. In the discussion between Brown and Owen Jones, Jones attempts to evoke the Big Other of vindication by History. “People now think well of the Suffragettes,” remarks Jones, suggesting that the same process of revision may happen for Just Stop Oil in the future. Strikingly, Brown seems impatient with this. The complacent notion that there may be future historians judging our present is undercut by the possibility, however remote, of human destruction, which means that there is no guarantee of a future in which unpopularity will be reversed, and therefore no Big Other to vindicate Just Stop Oil, or condemn our inaction.

In this refusal of the Big Other, JSO come quite close, again, to Althusser’s Communist interpellation—the “decentring” of “political ideology itself”; the possibility of interpellation without the Big Other; the notion that there is “no saviour from high…no prince or peer8—and also to Althusserian anti-historicism, where history can offer us no guarantees.

There is no guarantee of a future in which unpopularity will be reversed, and therefore no Big Other to vindicate Just Stop Oil, or condemn our inaction.

The freedom constituted by not worrying about unpopularity or causing inconvenience is one distinction between Just Stop Oil and Malm. A related distinction can be made around the question of risk of arrest. Malm argues that it is possible to engage in sabotage “softly” or “gingerly”,9 with little or no risk of arrest. This would seem either to imposes a very sharp limit on action - for all Malm’s invective against the limits imposed by moral or strategic pacifism, “gingerly” and the inconvenience prohibition, sharply curtail what can be done: what consequences for the capitalist state can be delivered without risking arrest? One certainly can’t blow up a pipeline with impunity (although states might…); one might be able to slash a few SUV tyres, which is not nothing, but is unlikely to have the effects needed. Alternatively, if one ignores “gingerly”, it slides into grotesque irresponsibility. James Wilt’s excellent review of How to Blow Up a Pipeline is striking on this question, and on how the use of “gingerly” allows Malm to evade crucial questions:

there is nothing about fundraising for legal costs, supporting those incarcerated and facing charges, grappling with the potentially permanent loss of activists from organising spaces, supporting the families and loved ones of those who have been taken out, defending Indigenous and Black communities from fascist backlash, explaining to organised labour why their unionised workplace was destroyed.

As Wilt demonstrates, Malm’s incitement to action offers no consideration of differential vulnerabilities to police violence when militants are arrested. Here we should note the composition of the Just Stop Oil militants who have been arrested or at risk of arrest: they are, as far as I can see, entirely white, and usually young, though there’s a smattering of retired people. Also determining for people’s ability to engage in militant action are responsibilities to others, these elements lie behind the over-representation of white people, and students and the retired, people for whom interactions with the police are likely to be less violent and whose arrest will not necessarily imperil others who rely on them. In my case, I have a young child, for whom my imprisonment would be very bad. This, in part, is why I haven’t ‘heard the call’. This may well be cowardice. The argument of this piece is, in part, an attempt to make myself useful without risking imprisonment.

Drawing on Wilt, we might argue that one can have a politics of extensive disruption, perhaps even sabotage, or one can have the long building of alliances, relationships and institutions, which is the only plausible ecosocialism. One can’t, as Malm might wish, have both, in this way, the extensive disruptive politics of Just Stop Oil may need to become the catalyst for a politics that replaces it, in a situation determined by the encounter of Just Stop Oil, particularly if their specific, limited goal is achieved - would this be akin to Noys’s reading of Benjamin’s emergency brake as the leaping of the tracks? If we were in Canada or the US, where there are real, often Indigenous-led, climate movements with a fairly extensive capacity to act (let alone if we were outside the imperial core), tactics along the lines of Just Stop Oil would indeed be wildly irresponsible because of their likely destructive effects on existing movements. They would also be unnecessary. A critical tweet did the rounds in response to the Van Gogh action, arguing that this is what happens when your climate movement isn’t Indigenous-led. One should accept this, at least as a description. Just Stop Oil is a response to British conditions, to the weakness or absence not only of a climate movement, but of some of the relations, infrastructures, and even ontologies that ground movements in other countries, and also, of the general absence (though there have been anti fracking protests) of a militant rural ecological struggle - that is a struggle away from those places (we can follow Machiavelli again here, where the forces of the state are most concentrated/easy to concentrate).10 In Britain, rolling the dice is worth it. There is almost no downside.

Since the soup can and motorway gantry protests, Just Stop Oil have undertaken a series of actions to disrupt urban traffic by a group of militants walking slowly down various streets. These seem to have had disruptive effects but attracted less media attention than some previous actions. Do these suggest a lack of human material for more daring (and arrestable) actions, a problem with institutional reproduction? Are we looking at a failure of the call, not least because the making of the call requires that it is tied to actions that are widely discussed? Has the encounter not lasted (there are never guarantees the encounter will hold)? Alternatively, would any actions short of massive escalations have seen less media attention, an inevitable waning of response, so less arrestable actions tell us little about institutional health?

On the other hand, the actions remained disruptive, caused inconvenience and costs, chipped away a little at the state’s legitimacy. The real threat posed by JSO to the legitimacy of the state’s is demonstrated by Sunak’s proposals to criminalise similar tactics in future alongside Suella Braverman’s demand for tougher policing, and her intemperate argument for the passing of the amendments to the Public Order Bill against Just Stop Oil’s “guerrilla tactics”. Again, what we are seeing here is the ideological struggle over what level of police repression is considered ‘acceptable’. Just Stop Oil have rendered this struggle visible.

Following Poulantzas’s conception of “authoritarian statism”11, we could perhaps identify an “authoritarian centrism”: a politics of extended repression to secure convenience. This is not to say, for example, that Braverman’s politics are not touched by the far-right. It is rather to identify the core of the measures not with “populism”—that is, with arousing the public as “a people”—or with a politics of ‘distraction’ or scapegoating, but with the increasingly repressive management of inconvenience. There are strategic consequences to such a characterisation. If we are dealing with authoritarian populism, or even fascism, then Just Stop Oil willingly casting themselves as scapegoats or distractions, or even offering a pretext for greater repression by enraging the public, could well be treated as (at the very least) irresponsible. If, however, we are dealing with authoritarian centrism, then the logic of scapegoat/distraction/pretext applies far less strongly. Just Stop Oil’s actions, in revealing precisely where the weak links in the chain are, enable us to arrive at a more accurate diagnosis of this particular authoritarian modification to the British state.

Rather than a diminishing of capacities, then, it is just as possible–or perhaps more so– that we are seeing a planned sequencing of events, building up to April’s threatened escalation; and that this sequencing correctly identifies the state’s legitimacy as being tied up with the prevention of inconvenience. The causing of inconvenience thus becomes a weapon and a means of leverage.

And if we recognise the Just Stop Oil strategy as a set of shifting but sequenced tactics to build up disruptive power, then we further move away from the notion (whether critical or begrudgingly positive) that the point of the Van Gogh action was a generic awareness-raising, and towards an understanding that the point was always to recruit enough militants willing to take disruptive but, at present, less dangerous and less arrestable action.

Gilles Deleuze famously wrote in “Postscript on the Societies of Control” that “there is no need to fear or hope, but only to look for new weapons”. If we were to translate Deleuze into the ethical-intellectual stance of Marx and Lenin, the context for this is the analysis of the conjuncture. Hall, describes it thus, drawing on Gramsci:

…when a conjuncture unrolls, there is no ‘going back’. History shifts gears. The terrain changes. You are in a new moment. You have to attend, ‘violently’, with all the ‘pessimism of the intellect’ at your command, to the ‘discipline of the conjuncture’.

For Deleuze, any “regime”, any situation, sees the clash of (even is constituted by) “liberating and enslaving forces”. Perhaps regimes are even constituted by such clashes. In that contradiction, one looks for new weapons. So what are the “new weapons” of Just Stop Oil? What do they bring to bear against a culture, including within the left, seemingly committed to taking refuge in helplessness? And how are they any different to Extinction Rebellion, who have also used disruptive and attention-grabbing tactics in service of an environmental politics external to the institutions and practices of the left?

One key difference between Just Stop Oil and XR is in the simplification of the former’s demand–literally, “Just Stop Oil” (to be precise: that the British government must “commit to ending all new licenses and consents for the exploration, development and production of fossil fuels” in Britain and the occupied 6 counties). This contrasts sharply with XR’s utopian-technocratic ‘recipes for cookshops of the future’, best exemplified in their insistence on sortition-determined citizens’ assemblies.

The simplicity, and indeed the negativity, of their demand constitutes Just Stop Oil as radically external to the state. They don’t particularly care how the state is organised; instead, the threat of disruption is used not only as a negotiating tactic, but to elevate Just Stop Oil into the position of a negotiating partner that is equal to the state. With this comes a precise refusal of the non- or anti-political ecology approach which demands that national leaders ‘do the right thing’ without first building up the leverage necessary to be able to make such demands.

Just Stop Oil’s strategy involves significant tactical innovations: the spray-painting of various state buildings (and we will return to the implicit, practical conception of the state), as well as luxury goods retailers, the disruption of motorway traffic and football matches (another willing assumption of hatred, this time that of tens of thousands of football fans), and the throwing of soup at artworks, or gluing oneself to their frames. Then, of course, there is the more generalised disruption of circulation of traffic in urban contexts. There is a mixture here of the shocking and the infliction of inconvenience. What is shared is the high risk of arrest and how once that is willingly accepted the action is very easy to perform, and very hard to stop in advance, it requires minimal resources, in most cases not much planning, and little need for collective organisation and institution building. The aimed-for effects are inconvenience and the call to persuade others to undertake similar action in response.

These political innovations are not fully unique. Some of them are shared with, for example, Palestine Action, including the dramatic use of paint. However, it seems that Palestine Action are more institutionalised, not least because accurate targetting and effects, as well as a capacity for the longer-term disruption of production, rather than temporary disruption of the traffic circulation, requires more planning and organising.

Both Just Stop Oil and Palestine Action refuse to take refuge in helplessness. They demonstrate that, with initiative and bravery, we can have political effects; that if something is as morally intolerable as the violence of the Israeli state towards Palestinians, or climate change, then something can be done; that not finding ways to have effects is its own sort of indifference. This is also the ethical call of Machiavelli: if something matters, if something needs to be done, then one has a duty to work out, through the concrete analysis of concrete situations, how to do it.

Where Just Stop Oil and Palestine Action differ is in their analysis of where they are able to exert leverage: different concrete situations obviously demand different strategies and tactics. In his 1978 essay ‘The Forward March of Labour Halted?’ Eric Hobsbawm draws a distinction between two different types of strike action–a distinction which might help clarify the distinction between Just Stop Oil and Palestine Action. Through exploring this distinction, we will also, in the final part, be able identify some aleatory aspects of the situation: precisely those points where there are no guarantees.

Both Just Stop Oil and Palestine Action refuse to take refuge in helplessness. They demonstrate that, with initiative and bravery, we can have political effects.

Hobsbawm wants to distinguish between strikes whose “basic target of pressure is…the bank account of private employers” (here the comparison would be with Palestine Action and their actions against Elbit), where leverage comes from the capacity to have direct effects on profits, and strike which aim at causing a generalised “inconvenience” in order to target “the political will of the government”. This latter type has affinities with Just Stop Oil’s strategy, where (as we have seen) leverage comes from the capacity to disrupt the normal functioning of society, and thus undermine the legitimacy of the state. Hence, Braverman’s “guerrilla tactics to hold the public to ransom”.

It is notable that critics of the new climate militants, such as Burtenshaw, seek to downplay or explicitly deny the fact that strikes have frequently taken the second form outlined by Hobsbawm–a denial that also elides the role of the state in the contradiction. In a tweet castigating Insulate Britain for their disruption, Burtenshaw states: “withdrawing your labour is designed to exert leverage on a company, [and therefore] people are inconvenienced only by the company’s refusal to meet demands.” It might be tempting to locate this elision in the wave of privatisations in the 1980s and 90s; the expansion of private ownership, the argument might go, has rendered the disruptive type of strike obsolete.

But the question of ownership, which indeed partially structures Hobsbawm’s distinction, is not necessarily significant. The current rail strikes, whilst undertaken largely against private employers, find most of their leverage in a capacity for generalised inconvenience. They are also, in the last instance, directed at the government–not least because the rail operators’ efforts to settle have been overruled by Westminster. If the general interest of capital could be expressed in a calculation of profit and loss, how are we to understand this intervention in the dispute? It would have cost less to settle the dispute than has been lost across the economy. The general interest of capital is not merely the aggregated interest of individual capitals. The general interest of capital includes both the organising and extension of its capacities to act and the disorganising, discouraging and subduing of popular (especially working class) capacities to act. This potentially exceeds any balance sheet calculations.

If we want a model for thinking the “new weapons” of Just Stop Oil—a weapon that merges practices, ideological effects, and the reproduction of an organisation of a certain form under the conditions enacted by the practices—the most useful is the analysis of the car bomb in Mike Davis’s Buda’s Wagon. In the use of the term “weapon,” as well as the car bomb comparison, there is, of course, a need for care. Just Stop Oil are, rightly, committed to non-violent action; whereas car bombs kill, maim, and traumatise. However, like the car bomb—and, crucially, with no death toll—Just Stop Oil have innovated a weapon which (as in the Orwell epigraph that Davis begins his analysis proper), “so long as there is no answer to it, gives claws to the weak”.12 Indeed, Just Stop Oil have given themselves claws. The very presumption that they, a group that came out of nowhere, can negotiate with and make demands of the government has a beautiful cheek to it.

The car bomb and the practices of Just Stop Oil are cheap, and operationally simple to organise. They enfranchise “previously marginal actors”, and involve a “seamless merger” of the tactic with “the cell phone plus the Internet”. This has organisational implications, allowing nationally- and even globally-networked action without “transnational command structures or vulnerable hierarchies of decision making”. There are also media implications: “propagandists of the deed” are no longer reliant on “enemy media” to report actions or, significantly, “interpret their manifestos”.13 These features, when coupled with the call that forms new climate militants, allow for a generalisability—including across borders. The call tells enough people they should take action, and the practices are easy to imitate, so that should automatically implies can. The enfranchisement of previously marginal actors enables encounters; it is the enfranchisement of those who come from nowhere, from outside existing institutions.

We could also note here how these practices, particularly the lack of a need for command structures, mean Just Stop Oil necessarily outrun any controlling influence of Roger Hallam. This is all to the good, and it has been notable how much the media have attempted to discredit Just Stop Oil by linking them to Hallam (and also how little purchase this argument has had outside parts of the left).

The very presumption that they, a group that came out of nowhere, can negotiate with and make demands of the government has a beautiful cheek to it.

In contrast to Extinction Rebellion, with Just Stop Oil we see an emergent, implicit theory of the state as the target of action, and this is crucial to the encounter constituted by them. With Extinction Rebellion this was marked most notably by the widely criticised pro-police line, and by the unpolitical appeals to the leaders of the precise social orders that have produced the devastation. We see in Just Stop Oil, by contrast, a targetting of institutions and materially-embedded ideologies that secure the reproduction of the social order that has produced the devastation, including paint attacks on Scotland Yard—and anyone who didn’t feel glee at this revolutionary élan is not a comrade. JSO are not (yet?) talking about something that is understood as a capitalist state, but they are talking about an ecocidal state, and that is not nothing.

Moreover, the state’s legitimacy in securing consent, for granting capital the right to explore, develop and produce fossil fuels (ie. for continued ecocide), is astutely understood as being bound up with securing convenient conditions. Inconvenience, then, is an attack on the state’s legitimacy, on the conditions of the economic reproduction of capital. Implicit in this is a very striking innovation: these convenient conditions might include the police being able to do their “normal” jobs, rather than being overwhelmed by Just Stop Oil’s actions. It’s worth reiterating that this theory of the state is implicit; it is embedded in practice, rather than explicitly stated or theorised; and there are still moments of not putting distance between the group and police, though this is increasingly part of a strategic (albeit naïve) attempt to effect a breach between the police and the government. The weapons of Just Stop Oil, then, aim to create enough leverage to make any new exploitation of fossil fuels in Britain so costly—both financially and in terms of risking certain breaches in both the state and the automatic broad popular consent—that the government gives in. To achieve this aim does not require popularity.

This is the first part of a short series of texts theorising Just Stop Oil. You can read the introduction here, and part 1 here.

  1. To name these as “political prisoners” (and not only these Insulate Britain and Just Stop Oil militants, we should also include the large number of Kill the Bill prisoners) is perhaps to make an argument internal to liberalism to call, at the very least, for respectable liberals to make good on their professed politics when it comes to political prisoners in Britain and the occupied six counties. Within a broader abolitionist framework, I am agnostic, on whether the distinction entailed in the category of political prisoners is useful, or if we should assert, that all prisoners are political prisoners. 

  2. Stuart Hall, Chas Critcher, Tony Jefferson, John Clarke and Brian Roberts. [1978]. 2013. Policing the Crisis: Mugging, the State and Law and Order. London: Palgrave MacMillan. p. 37. 

  3. See for example the distinction worked with by Antonio Negri, or Álvaro García Linera’s La potencia plebeya, translated into English as Plebeian Power). 

  4. The effects of “unpopularity” are also dependent on the situation and the goals being pursued: it would have been a mistake, for example, as part of an argument for a Green New Deal/Green Industrial Revolution for Jeremy Corbyn to have thrown a can of soup at a painting, or John McDonnell a can of human faeces over the statue of a beloved national figure, during the 2019 General Election campaign. 

  5. The attentive reader will note my reliance here on an argument drawn from E. P. Thompson, in a piece that broadly takes and Athusserian line and may be surprised given the level of Thompson’s invective at Althusser in his regrettable [The Poverty of Theory](https://www.marxists.org/archive/thompson-ep/1978/pot/essay.htm). I would argue here the Althusserian perspective is compatible with Thompson’s and indeed would serve as a corrective to some of the infelicitous “freeborn Englishman” tendencies in Thompson, including around jury trials. We might say the right to jury trials are a conquest of the popular masses but a conquest which only modifies the legal apparatus significantly without fundamentally transforming it. Moreover, as argued elsewhere the jury trial is necessarily shaped by class and ideological struggle external to the court. 

  6. As Andrew Key puts it, “A compromise is found between a perceived reality and the anxious narcissism of self-protection. So, on one level, I accept the idea that summers in the UK are getting hotter and worse, that it’s harder to breath in cities, and that these facts are related to human emissions; meanwhile, on another level, I don’t want to accept the horrible truth of climate change, and the enormous shift in lifestyle that adequate response to it will demand, and so I carry on as I was before, rejecting any sense that what I do could have any impact on how things are unfolding, or even that there is any possibility for change.” 

  7. The contrast between Fredric Jameson and Benjamin Noys’s reading of the emergency brake suggests an ambiguity within Just Stop Oil’s conceptions, and one I want to return to in the final part. On the one hand there is a conservative, even nostalgic, reading, which is suggested by Jameson and critiqued, “revo­lution means pulling the emergency brake on the runaway train of History, as though an admittedly runaway capitalism itself had the monopoly on change and futurity.” Here the pulling of the emergency brake is merely the effort to stop things getting worse. A reading clearly applicable to a certain stance towards climate change. Noys, by contrast, suggests a reading, drawing on Benjamin’s radio discussion for children on “The Railway Disaster at the Firth of Tay”, where the emergency brake is pulled with such force that the train leaps the tracks, avoiding the disaster, including the disaster that has already happened, “the act of braking prevents, although only barely, a second catastrophe”. Here then the interruption effects a qualitative change, it ruptures with the empty time (there is only one railway) of both progressivism (one can only go forward) and of nostalgia (one should wish to stop and go back). I will return to the distinction Noys makes and its implications for Just Stop Oil a little in the final part. 

  8. Louis Althusser. [1971]. 2014. On the Reproduction of Capitalism: Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses. Translated by G. M. Goshgarian. London: Verso Books. p. 198. 

  9. Andreas Malm. 2020. How to Blow up a Pipeline. London: Verso Books. p. 79. 

  10. Niccolo Machiavelli. [1513] 2014. The Prince. Translated by Tim Parks. London: Penguin Classics, especially pp. 63-80 and 111-16. 

  11. Nicos Poulantzas. 1978. [2014]. State, Power, Socialism. Translated by Patrick Camiller. London: Verso Books. 

  12. Mike Davis. 2008. _Buda’s Wagon: A Brief History of the Car Bomb. _London: Verso Books. p. 4. 

  13. Davis. Buda’s Wagon. p. 12.