Reinhold Martin | Addendum on Oil Abolition: Fence Lines, Front Lines, and Color Lines

By Reinhold Martin

How does oil abolition connect, in theory and as praxis, with social and racial justice struggles discussed in previous sessions in the Abolition 13/13 series? With immense gratitude to Bernard Harcourt and his colleagues at CCCCT for what is now six years of unforgettable 13/13 seminars held around tables in rooms that we cannot yet re-enter, I add here a few brief reflections in dialogue with Alyssa Battistoni in her blog post for this week’s discussion on oil abolition.

First, in agreeing unequivocally with Battistoni’s argument, I must underscore her decisive contribution, with co-authors Daniel Aldana Cohen, Kate Aronoff, and Thea Riofrancos, to what we might call the radical Green New Deal hypothesis, in their indispensable handbook of political praxis, A Planet to Win. Interestingly, that book’s epigraph is an ambivalent exhortation from Roland Wank, chief architect of the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA, in 1941), that “There is no way to go but forward. But which way is forward?” In his professional role at the TVA, Wank, a Hungarian émigré who had designed social housing for Red Vienna, presided over the design and construction of the racially segregated drinking fountains, restrooms, and housing that I discuss in my article, “Abolish Oil,” to which Battistoni generously responds. I point this out not as a facile demystification of Wank’s modernism or by extension that of the Green New Deal, but on the contrary, as a gesture of solidarity with the incompletely socialist—or in practice, social democratic, or democratic socialist—project that both imperfectly embody, a gesture that begins with acknowledging contradictions to be worked through.

As Battistoni argues, approaching anything like climate justice requires building epistemic and strategic links among left, radical movements too frequently kept apart by the exigencies and urgencies of day-to-day struggle. To overcome the longstanding (though profoundly inaccurate) impression that “green” politics is a luxury for those with the resources to think and act long term, the climate movement’s intellectuals have learned from struggles against anti-Black racism in the US and those by Indigenous peoples against environmental racism around the world, including the anti-colonial struggles waged by Fanon’s “wretched of the earth [les damnés de la terre].” Whereas, many working in the spatial sciences have long contended with the mixed legacies of figures like Wank and other designers and planners of a socialist international, most of whom proved no match for the contradictions of their times. Here, I suggest that one way to work through those contradictions is to resituate the TVA drinking fountains in relation to fierce opposition to them, in that other product of the New Deal era refracted through Reconstruction: W. E. B. Du Bois’s concept of “abolition democracy.”

Here too, the historical sciences have much to offer. For advocates of a just transition to renewable energy, the TVA and other New Deal programs represent usable, if limited, examples of public power in both senses, as popular sovereignty and as electricity. Still, in notoriously subordinating democracy to technocratic expertise, those programs redrew what Du Bois called the “color line.” That line in turn became the infrastructure for fossil-fueled suburban expansion in the United States, which now represents an important front for climate activism centered on the system of private property, where opposition to systemic change is most concentrated. Along fronts like this, we see clearly that the color line has been joined by at least two others at every suburban gas station: what environmental justice activists call “fence lines” delineating the Carbon Empire’s sacrifice zones, like the toxic zone of oil extraction in the Niger Delta where the Ogoni activist Ken Saro-Wiwa was executed in 1995 for organizing political resistance against Royal Dutch Shell; and what climate activists call the “front lines” of climate change, like the rapidly advancing line of aridification and desertification wrapping the Middle East that Eyal Weizman and his colleagues at Forensic Architecture have shown uncannily maps onto patterns of Western drone strikes.

This, in other words, is one set of tools for the theory and praxis of oil abolition that the spatial and historical sciences can offer: a concrete, conceptual map of three types of lines—fence lines, front lines, and color lines—as they intersect and diverge at specific times in specific places, and the specific patterns that these intersections and divergences reveal. Whether it is the segregationist legacies of redlining, the seepage into the rural South of what Catherine Coleman Flowers calls “septic injustice,” or the patterns of drastically uneven exposure to climate change-related disasters like Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans, communities of color and other dispossessed peoples are far more likely to live lives bounded by lines like these than are those who draw them.

Spatially, such communities find themselves on the wrong side of the highway, literally and figuratively, from the bedrooms of those making the decisions and garnering profits both material and symbolic, which, as David Roediger has shown, we must learn from Du Bois to count among the “wages of whiteness.” But dividing lines also connect. Pipelines like that cutting through Lakota lands at Standing Rock, or the transcontinental Keystone XL, link tar sands and oil wells with refineries, power plants, gas stations, corporate offices, and financial markets around the world. The Carbon Empire is a fractal network of networks. Unless it is understood and opposed as such, replacing the internal combustion engines on its roads with electric Teslas will do next to nothing to prevent the ecological apartheid currently being planned in its boardrooms and—unfortunately—in its laboratories and classrooms as well.

As the authors of A Planet to Win also argue, one place where such lines converge is in housing policy. Decades ago, Marshall Berman made a gut-wrenching case for understanding the violence wrought on one redlined, fence-lined, and now frontline community by public works descended from the New Deal under the planner Robert Moses. In All That Is Solid Melts into Air, Berman showed how Interstate 95, a “main street” of megalopolitan sprawl, along with associated urban renewal projects including a sizable amount of public housing, tore through the South Bronx and left a trail of social and economic devastation in their wake. Some of the communities affected are now represented in the US Congress by one of the Green New Deal’s principal authors, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. A number of other GND proponents associated with the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA), including Jabari Brisport, Jamaal Bowman, Zohran Mamdani, Marcela Mitaynes, Julia Salazar, and Phara Souffrant Forrest, now represent similarly underserved districts in the Bronx, Queens, and Brooklyn in the New York State Senate and Assembly, or in Washington (Bowman). All of these officials strongly support the right to housing as, directly or indirectly, part of a Green New Deal. More and more, then, we hear public housing defended not only against real estate interests advocating for its demolition, but as an affirmative if under-resourced form of social, economic, and environmental justice. The state, so readily available to the governing classes as a means of capture, has become—if only nominally and precariously—a potential instrument of redistribution and reparation as well.

For decades, public housing and other social goods have been commonly associated on both left and right with paternalistic state power like that chronicled by Berman, often expressed as an insidious governmentality through the design of “defensible space” and other extensions of broken-windows policing. Well aware of the risks and contradictions, advocates of housing justice as a dimension of climate justice have sought instead to reconnect the state’s responsibility to administer and protect the rights of the demos, including the right to housing, with the planetary responsibility of those of us living at the epicenter of the oil system to oppose and dismantle that system’s infrastructure. Proponents of abolition democracy since Du Bois have argued that this responsibility includes replacing oppressive systems with others more just. After all, along with abolishing or defunding the police, it was the potential revival and refunding of social policies like public housing—now extended far beyond the urban periphery—to which the recently exiled Emperor of Mar-a-Lago was referring to when he warned armies of supporters that his opponents threatened to “abolish the suburbs.” If only.