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Rural Civil Disobedience and Fossil Capital: Toward Radical Futures


Nicholas F. Stump (@nicholasfstump) is a faculty member with the George R. Farmer Jr. Law Library at West Virginia University College of Law and the author of Remaking Appalachia: Ecosocialism, Ecofeminism, and Law.

This post concludes a symposium on the LPE of Rural America.


Civil disobedience has long been a core dimension in the struggles against the ravages of the coal, oil, and natural gas industries in the rural United States. While Indigenous-led resistance to the Dakota Access Pipeline is the most prominent recent example, the past decade has witnessed acts of civil disobedience in such far-flung rural locations as the Montana coalfields, the Keystone XL Pipeline in Texas, and pipelines in Minnesota and Louisiana. In my own home region of Appalachia and in the Eastern U.S., civil disobedients have spent decades engaging in actions against coal mining sites and broader coal infrastructure and, in more recent years, against the natural gas industry.

How should we make sense of anti-fossil fuel civil disobedience in rural spaces? In this brief post, I will contrast two orientations—the standard liberal analysis of civil disobedience and an approach that that is grounded in a framework informed by critical legal theory—and argue that the latter provides the more powerful approach. In particular, the radical approach allows us to include recent acts of resistance that focus on property-destruction and movement-building within the ambit of civil disobedience.

Expanding the scope of civil disobedience to incorporate these acts and aims is important for two reasons. First, as I will show, this expanded scope aligns with the views and practices of activists. So, re-envisioning civil disobedience in this way furthers principles of grassroots, collective self-determination. Second, “civil disobedience,” as a term denoting a specific mode of collective action, has a rich and well-regarded history. Re-envisioning civil disobedience along radical lines can thus help bolster those engaged in transformative organizing and movement-building efforts vis-à-vis such dissent practices. In short, civil disobedience is a powerful, established collective action mode that—as re-envisioned along radical lines—can help spark and build genuine solidarity.

Civil Disobedience: Liberal and Radical

The standard liberal account of civil disobedience was given its most influential articulation by the political philosopher John Rawls. According to his analysis, civil disobedience is distinguished from more standard law-breaking by the fact that it aims to communicate injustices to one’s fellow citizens in order to bring about change through the political or legal system. It is thus best understood as a certain kind of political communication: a “plea” for reform. More precisely, Rawls defines civil disobedience as “a public, nonviolent, conscientious yet political act contrary to law usually done with the aim of bringing about a change in the law or policies of the government” by striving to appeal to the “sense of justice of the majority.” Since Rawls views civil disobedience as a form of political persuasion that ultimately accepts the legitimacy of the broader legal system, he also argues that civil disobedients must accept the “legal consequences” of their actions and act more generally “within the limits of fidelity to law.”

In contrast to Rawls’ more abstract theorizing, a critical approach instead works backwards from concrete, real-world practices of dissent to arrive at a working framework for civil disobedience. The critical theorist Robin Celikates, for instance, argues that many practices of dissent that might best be characterized as civil disobedience—and which the dissenters themselves may assert are such acts—do not comport with Rawls’ criteria. For example, some actions are undertaken clandestinely rather than publicly (e.g., animal liberation efforts); some actions take the form of what liberals generally characterize as violence, but which others would not (e.g., property destruction); some dissenters do not accept legal punishment (e.g., avoid arrest or contest the legitimacy of the incarceration paradigm itself); some are not addressing the majority’s sense of justice (e.g., because they know the majority’s views are intractable); and some do not act within limits of fidelity to law, but rather pursue change to some degree beyond the political system.

Drawing on the tradition of radical democracy, Celikates also casts civil disobedience as possessing a fundamentally different role. The role, he argues, is often not to achieve greater protection for rights and liberties, but rather to engage in a collective “form of struggle in which the vertical form of state authority is confronted with the horizontal power of the association of citizens or the governed.”

My own work, while taking Celikates’ approach as foundational, also draws from the materialist tradition, which involves re-envisioning such critically conceived civil disobedience as a form of current and future-projected mode of ecosocialist class struggle. This approach, among other things, examines the strategic role of critical civil disobedience in bolstering ecosocialist organizing and broader base-building along intertwined labor, ecological, and intersectional lines (e.g., race, gender, Indigenous status, and LGBTQ+ status)—and more directly foregrounds the genuine (eco)revolutionary potential of a critically informed civil disobedience. It also involves an ultimately internationalist approach.

Rural Resistance from a Radical Perspective

In my view, examining rural dissent practices through such a critically informed lens has several advantages, and provides considerable opportunity for further theorizing, practice, and praxis. We can, first, examine real-world property destruction as problematizing the liberal prohibition against “violence.” In fact, destruction of fossil fuel infrastructure in the face of the global ecological crisis is the leading exemplar of reevaluating the role of property destruction in dissent practices, as demonstrated in part by the intense and nuanced debates surrounding political ecologist Andreas Malm’s recent book, How to Blow Up a Pipeline.

Consider, for example, the two activists who engaged in property destruction in the form of burning Dakota Access Pipeline worksite equipment with accelerants and using cutting torches to damage components of the pipeline itself. (These activists were later convicted under harsh federal law, including domestic terrorism sentencing enhancements: a tragic confirmation that police and prison abolition is a dire requisite for any transformative social change movement.)

While a liberal approach would categorically dismiss this as “violence” and thus non-civil disobedience, a critical approach instead examines these actions in the context of the actual collective contestations at issue. This analysis includes, for instance, explicit activist-assertions that the pipeline property destruction was indeed intended as a form of “nonviolent civil disobedience,” but also the broader Indigenous knowledge systems and ecological-leftist perspectives at work in these struggles, which explicitly reject Western private property regimes and their corresponding central role within fossil capital. Per these collective understandings, in part, the liberal-steeped sanctity of pipelines-as-private-property can be said to be stood on its head—with the pipeline and broader fossil capital itself constituting the real form of “violence” at work here, as waging an ecological war against the people and the planet. 

We can, second, examine the ultimate aims of rural U.S. anti-fossil fuel disobedience as problematizing the liberal requirement that disobedients act “within the limits of fidelity to law.” By examining the real-world practices and activist-assertions of the collective contestations at issue, it is abundantly clear that radical transformations beyond our current ecological political economy are a predominant end-aim. As Nick Estes chronicles in Our History Is the Future: Standing Rock Versus the Dakota Access Pipeline, and the Long Tradition of Indigenous Resistance, “a growing international movement is fighting the expanding network of pipelines across North America….each new flashpoint of struggle indicates a growing anti-colonial resistance, led by Indigenous peoples against settler colonialism and extractive capitalism.”

Dovetailing with Estes’ assessment, in my home region of Appalachia, activists have indeed articulated radical change and pursuit of leftist base-building as ultimate end-aims in their recent disobedient actions against the pending Mountain Valley Pipeline. Appalachian disobedients have, for instance, situated the natural gas industry within colonialism, capitalism, and imperialism, and disobedients have further argued that “[w]e have to think about how to turn community resources into environmental support outside of capitalist structures as climate chaos takes over.” Therefore, the liberal commitment of acting “within the limits of fidelity to law” appears largely incongruous with more transformative-minded anti-fossil fuel disobedients in the rural U.S.

Such a critical analysis of collected rural dissent practices detailed above is fruitful and, I believe, very heartening for the future. However, I must also note that a materialist analysis reveals that rural spaces throughout Appalachia, the Midwest, and the South are always uniquely situated and can present deep challenges for those committed to truly transformative change beyond “limits of fidelity to law.” For instance, in Appalachia at large, despite our deep history of women-led environmental activism and radical labor activism, broad swaths of the region are marked by a seeming-aversion to transformative leftist change and an accompanying commitment to fossil fuels–due not least of all to longstanding cultural manipulation tactics on the part of the fossil fuel industry.

Other rural regions face their own challenges, the vast majority of which are exceedingly steep. As a prime example, states (as aligned with fossil capital) have in recent years enacted legislation criminalizing fossil fuel disobedience, often in direct response to such bottom-up contestations chronicled in this piece. That such legislation has included domestic terrorism charges—and that state and allied actors increasingly use the rhetorical frame of “terrorism” more broadly to villainize such collected non-violent environmental dissent practices—amply demonstrates the dire nature of these challenges.

Nevertheless, for those of us engaged in the theory and praxis of transformative social change, such is our hard path forward. In my own work, I advocate for a “critical legal research”-informed approach to Marxist- and socialist-steeped radical cause lawyering, which involves those with legal and socio-legal expertise fundamentally supporting those social movements actually driving the social change process—including through vigorous, multidimensional defense of disobedients. Ultimately, I believe that such a critical legal approach (and those along similar lines) offer us the best hope for moving toward radical, ecologically viable futures in the rural U.S., as crucially furthered in conjunction with broader national and international struggles.