November 29, 2013 § 6 Comments
For those unaware of my biases going into this piece, I would like to lay them bare. For one, I believe human industrial activity is destructive to life globally, through the addition of toxins to ecosystems and organisms, to deforestation, climate change, etc. I believe that unless human industrial activity is halted, the mass extinction that this activity has already set underway, will cause ecosystem collapse and likely human extinction as well.
I also believe that human political systems and economic systems have been designed to contain within them no “legal” means of dismantling them. This is to say for instance, that the U.S. government as it is laid out does not contain a legal and accessible path for the so-called citizens of the United States to unmake the U.S. government. The only power “citizens” of the United States have is to vote (so long as they have not been convicted of a felony, are not in prison, have a valid address, and are above the age of eighteen) for politicians and to ask these politicians to act in a certain manner. One cannot vote to end the U.S. government. One cannot vote to abolish the congress or the presidency, etc. This is the bind most people find themselves in around the globe. National governments are allied in purpose and practice with capitalist business enterprises which all seek to exploit the natural world and the labor of the masses for profit.
If the premises I laid out are true — that human industrial activity is destructive to life on Earth, and that this activity is supported and promoted by governments which cannot by any “legitimate” methods be unmade — then people who struggle against this system must break the law; that, or acquiesce to the fate laid out for them. My personal preference is the struggle, and this has been a topic of discussion lately in more and more mainstream circles. Even actor Matt Damon, reading a speech by deceased historian Howard Zinn on civil disobedience, recently aired this conclusion.
In radical anti-capitalist circles, the system at large which combines state and private wealth, force, and power is often referred to as “the machine.” It is an apropos description in that interworking human organizations are a technology of sorts, and that as in a machine, no one part is responsible for the machine’s total behavior, yet each part is necessary for it to function.
If the situation we find ourselves in which I described above is accurate, where then in this machine should those who resist it, strike? Which “gear” as it were, would be the most vulnerable to pressure, allowing those who would fight to save the living planet and human dignity even a remote chance at success?
Often, in conversation at various levels, the “consumer” is blamed for the ills of the world. It is the “consumer” who drives demand for petroleum products. It is the “consumer” who purchases sweat shop labor products from low wage paying big box retailers. This is the argument put forth by those who sit in the upper echelons of the social hierarchy, blaming those in the classes beneath them for “demanding” that corporations set out to drill new deep water wells in the ocean or blow up the mountaintops that sit above coal deposits.
It’s not surprising that those who are rewarded handsomely for sitting in a controlling position at a corporation that is responsible for massive ecological damage would shift the responsibility from themselves to those who ultimately buy their products. It’s more disheartening when those who are themselves a part of the underclasses of society accept this blame and hand it out horizontally.
What this myth of consumer responsibility actually accomplishes is not only to create a self-chastizing public that refuses to apportion responsibility to those who actively decided to engage in destructive practice, but it also generates a motive to seek products that are supposedly less harmful in their creation. This is the force behind “green capitalism.” With this mode of thinking in place, capitalism is safe to continue on it’s way, and the masses who are concerned with the continually growing pace at which ecosystems are destroyed will be convinced that the solution is not in resistance to capitalism, but is in fact on a store shelf waiting to be purchased. This is of course, ludicrous.
Capitalism has as it’s founding motivation, profit. Profit requires growth. As all production is sourced in the natural world, growth necessarily requires larger and larger swathes of the natural world be destroyed so they can be made into commodities to be sold for profit. It doesn’t matter at all if the cars coming off of assembly lines are hybrids, they still require vast mining operations to access the raw materials from which they are made, they still require energy drawn from fossil fuels to be assembled and distributed, they still require for construction a vast workforce fed by mono-crop petroleum based agriculture, and they still require a large quantity of purchasers who acquire the currency for said purchase through labor in the growth based paradigm.
The argument placing the bulk of the responsibility for the destruction of capitalist enterprise on the “consumer” (in quotes because I do not find it wise to condense people to beings whose sole function is to consume) is absurd for a multitude of other reasons. The most glaring, is that not purchasing a product will not necessarily make it disappear. Vegans and vegetarians could easily contest to the fact that their refusal to purchase meat hasn’t actually shut down a single slaughterhouse or feedlot. Their choice to abstain from purchasing product from an industry they despise may make them feel better, but it is not harming that industry. Also, certain industries are backed financially by the state. As airlines have found themselves less and less financially stable over the past decade, the U.S. government has stepped in to keep them afloat. The arms industry is another great example of this. Consumers do not buy depleted uranium munitions, fighter jets, or nuclear missiles, yet they exist in great numbers. The corporations that produce them reap billions and never once have to concern themselves with public perception. The same is true with petroleum companies who receive billions of dollars in subsidies from the U.S. government. If a massive boycott were to commence against oil companies, the U.S. government would deem them “too big to fail,” and would step in and support them financially, as the U.S. government itself is dependent upon a petroleum driven military apparatus and economy.
Less obvious, is that the organization of society itself requires that people utilize certain products in order to survive, primarily, petroleum. Using the U.S. as a template, before petroleum the physical layout of towns and cities was far different than it is today. Mostly due to the age of oil, the creation of the highway system, and with the implementation of zoning concepts, people’s lives and the necessities of life became more and more spread out geographically. The homes were built in one place, the food was grown in another place, and the jobs where people could labor to acquire currency were in another place. A reliance on cars and semi-trucks (a reliance intentionally manufactured by for profit entities such as Standard Oil, General Motors, and Firestone Tire with the aid of government) has built in a requirement for people to depend on the internal combustion engine. Even living in an urban area, where one may predominantly ride a bicycle (ignoring for a moment where that bicycle came from) the food people eat is grown an average of fifteen-hundred miles away from them on petroleum dependent farms, and trucked about the country until it reaches their nearest grocery store. This is true for the clothing they wear, the water they drink, the medicines they take; it all comes from somewhere else and becomes accessible to them via a hydrocarbon. This was a system designed for maximum profit, and no “consumer” can un-design it. To abstain from it would mean death, or at least destitution. The destitute fall victim to the police.
Even if we pushed on our “consumer” and barked, “Go live in the woods if you want to stop the machine of industrial capitalism! Stop supporting it!” Where would they go? Capitalism has sliced and diced all the land and sold it to those with access to capital, or the state has taken it for their own, so they can slowly sell it to industry. There is no place one can legally, permanently settle without first acquiring capital, which requires participation in the system. Not to mention, the surface water is now all poisoned with agricultural run off, mercury from coal fired power plants, etc. so even attempting to live in national parks, hiding from the park staff becomes mostly untenable, and leaves one prey for the state.
It is extremely common for people who have come to recognize the many political, economic, and cultural calamities we face to believe solutions will come from the top of the social hierarchy. The status quo meme is that by pressuring those with political and economic power, the masses can influence the decisions made in governments and businesses for the better. While this may occasionally be true on small issues, these issues are usually symptomatic of the greater malaise of industrial capitalism, and thus they are band aid measures only. If we are talking about actually taking apart the power structures that are rapidly bringing us closer and closer to our demise (and simultaneously existing on a foundation of human misery) then appealing to those in power is pointless. If they had any conscience to appeal to, they likely wouldn’t be actively making unconscionable choices to begin with. Beyond that, even from within the system the system cannot be demolished. The President does not have the power to unmake the executive branch of government. The congress cannot — and would not — abolish capitalism. It’s silly to even pontificate on how the rich and powerful would decide that they should no longer be rich and powerful, let alone go through the process of making this delusion a reality.
So where does this leave us? If the individual’s lifestyle choices have no ability to dismantle industrial capitalism, and if even the people who hold high offices in either state or capital cannot (and absolutely would not) dismantle industrial capitalism, then are we to believe that there is absolutely no method by which this destructive system can be dismantled? That does not seem possible. Systems of human organization are constructs that exist in human minds only. These constructs are made to seem real by the violence perpetuated against those who violate the edicts of the system, but they are indisputably imaginary. We cannot accept that the systems humans invented are permanent and fixed and we are resigned to allow them to play out to their cataclysmic conclusions.
The police, I would like to offer, are one of (if not the) largest obstacles to dismantling the overarching systems of state, capital, and culture which we must remove and replace if we are to survive, and to survive with dignity. I suggest this because without the police the system of capital could not stand. As it exists now, the world is extremely stratified as far as wealth and access to resources are concerned. Obviously, the wealth gap between the west and the global poor is enormous to the point of being disgusting. Even within the west, the wealth gap is quite significant we all know. This wealth gap is maintained they will say, by law, and law is maintained by the force of police and the penal system. I may be belaboring this point, but for a very specific reason, namely that my stated premise at the outset of this essay is that there is no legal method of dismantling the political or economical systems. At the very bottom of our understanding we must embrace the conclusion that the law must be broken, and that the police are the primary hurdle to strategic law breaking.
During the height of the Occupy Wall Street movement, multiple attempts were made across the United States to occupy not only parks, but buildings. in other words, to move the struggle from public space (which was still met with violence) to “private property.” The most notable attempt to occupy “private property” was arguably Occupy Oakland’s attempt to occupy a vacant convention center with the intent to create a community center to house the homeless, among other goals. The police in Oakland, working on behalf of the local government in one regard, but working on behalf of the entire system of capitalism and “private property” in another, used swift and brutal violence to beat back would be occupiers.
It seems obvious to me that the point of fracture that must be exploited is at the level of the police. Look at any resistance movement, whether a direct resistance to the claims of the owner class, a resistance to the ecological destruction and genocide of fossil fuel extraction, or even the small and constant unarticulated resistance of life in poverty (whether squatting, stealing to survive, being evicted, selling drugs, breaking zoning laws to garden, etc.) and you will find in every instance, the police are called in to exert violence against the so called “perpetrators.” People have been throwing their bodies into the gears of the machine for generations. Whether striking coal miners and autoworkers in the early part of the twentieth century, or environmental activists who defend forests from the canopies or who set bulldozers on fire, the will to resist capitalism’s immiseration of themselves and their communities has always been and is still real and present.
What there isn’t, at least at this time, is a willingness to overwhelm the police with a greater violence than they mete out, at least not in the comfortable west. Perhaps at this time, this unwillingness to go on the attack against the police is wise. After all, the consequences of failure are severe. In time, the consequences of not going on the attack against the police may become more readily severe and thus change this attitude, but right now, other strategies to sap the police of their power should be employed.
It’s common parlance when speaking of revolution to reference the pillars of power – the ideological and social foundations which hold up any system of power – and how successful revolutions must knock out these supports. In a popular web video called “Revolution, an Instruction Manual,” that was recently released, these pillars are referenced:
“There are three stages of revolution. They are sequential, and they correlate directly with the three pillars of power. The first is the ideological revolution. This is where we undermine the belief systems which support their control, this is where we systematically erode at their illusion of legitimacy, their aura of power. We expose these criminals for the scoundrels that they are and we inspire discontent among those who the state depends on for its functioning. If you’re new to this, welcome to the party. It’s already in full swing, and guess what we’re winning. The powers that be have lost control of the dialogue, and they know it. The second phase is of the revolution is strategic non-compliance or more accurately defiance. This can take many forms, and multiple approaches can be used at the same time. The goal of strategic non-compliance is to interrupt the chain of obedience for as long as possible as many times as possible, to publicize that interruption on as large a scale as possible, to document the police and or military brutality that follows and to distribute that footage far and wide. The purpose of this is to damage the ruling party’s image, because power is all about image. It’s all smoke and mirrors.”
There have been many instances in history where leaders have been overthrown. There have been very few, if any, in which a total revolution has occurred. Rulers and politicians have been ousted, new constitutions written, but almost all political revolutions have left some form of capitalism in their wakes, including the communist revolutions which never dissolved their states, and ultimately turned to state capitalism. It should be stated though, that in the instances where governments have been toppled, it has often been the case that the police and security forces have eventually capitulated to the will of the masses, in essence, ceasing to fight them and either fighting alongside them, or stepping aside altogether. This was the case in East Germany before the collapse of Soviet Communism and it was the case in Egypt before the ouster of Mubarak. It should be noted that in the latter case, anti-Mubarak demonstrators did burn police stations, free prisoners, and take the weaponry abandoned there.
According to Mohamed Gamal Bashir, who participated in the revolution:
“Let’s not forget what happened in the days between 25 January and 28 January, this glossed over part of history,” he says. “There were constant clashes in Omraneya for example, and there were people in Talbiya trying to get to the Foreign Ministry. The fighting continued long after the political elite were tear-gassed out of the square on 25 January.” Bashir speaks of the “harafish,” whom he defines as youth with no prospects who often skirt the edge of the law. He claims that their actions led to the revolution’s success. He says that they burnt police stations in their neighborhoods in response to decades of oppression by police against the poor. “The power of this revolution came from these harafish burning police stations and from the collapse of the Interior Ministry. That was utilized by the political elites who centralized the struggle in Tahrir Square. Without this confrontation, the revolution wouldn’t have been possible, and every police station was burnt to the ground because people have been dying inside them for years.”
Delegitimizing the police sounds like a monumental task, especially in countries of privilege and propaganda such as the US. In the US, Hollywood has carried water, so to speak, for the police for the better part of a century. TV shows and films have consistently presented the police as selfless heroes, who even when they break the law only ever do so for the greater good of the innocent. Reality television shows such as “C.O.P.S.” present a narrative of law breakers never getting away from the police, which not only adds to the mystification of the role of police, but makes law breaking seem impossible to get away with. Media outlets, pundit talk shows and the like, always present police and law as sacrosanct and unquestionable, shouting down anyone who suggests that police are violent or unnecessary. Even in cases of blatant abuse and brutality, media outlets run straight faced and supposedly “level-headed” statements about investigations into said abuse, asking the public for patience while the facts of the case are brought to light. Usually, after such statements in which police higher ups defend actions of brutality as “justified,” the case is swept from public view and the offending officer is returned to station.
Again, confronting the police then in the US and similar states not only means confronting their truncheons, but confronting their image. Cop watching is an amazing tool in this regard, as more and more people post to the internet videos of police acting out violently. But this is not enough. It’s not enough to witness abuse of power if it is not contextualized. The media, doing the work of the social hierarchy, will always blanket the police and their actions no matter how egregious under the context which preserves the system. Derrick Jensen describes this very well in EndGame with his fourth premise:
“Civilization is based on a clearly defined and widely accepted yet often unarticulated hierarchy. Violence done by those higher on the hierarchy to those lower is nearly always invisible, that is, unnoticed. When it is noticed, it is fully rationalized. Violence done by those lower on the hierarchy to those higher is unthinkable, and when it does occur is regarded with shock, horror, and the fetishization of the victims.”
The long and short of this premise is, “Cop hits you, he gets away with it. You hit cop, you do time.” There may be no immediate way to eliminate the legal consequences of defending oneself against a police officer, but the social context which surrounds this premise can change with concerted effort.
We must also acknowledge that it is not enough to decry the police for perceived misuses of their power, because this allows the police as an institution to remain valid in the eyes of the public. Police in general must be delegitimized. The very idea that a small group of primarily white males can use violence against anyone else, and that no one is allowed to defend themselves against this violence must be shown for the grotesque perversion that it is. Unfortunately, the status quo perception of society requires police to maintain it, so delegitimizing the police as an institution often first requires delegitimizing society itself. This is a difficult Mobius strip of reasoning to have to impart. Humans left free to associate and organize as they please do not require police to maintain their social structures unless these social structures create social strata of “haves” and “have nots.” I think it’s reasonable to assert that no person will voluntarily arrange themselves as a “have not,” and would instead leave a social organism that would make them “lesser” than others, ultimately meaning such social organisms would not exist, or would not exist for very long. Er go, truly liberated societies axiomatically are societies which do not need police and could not have them. Societies that require police to maintain themselves are not free societies, and are thus bound by violence.
This point is succinctly made by Earth First! Journal editor Panagioti in his essay, “The Ecology of a Police State.”
He starts off by stating, “Imagine being an environmental activist in a world where police can get away with killing young people for vandalizing a fast food joint; where a government’s local law enforcers are collaborating with giant energy corporations to stifle opposition; where a sheriff demands funding for a program urging neighbors to snitch on anyone who says they hate said government. Sadly it doesn’t take much imagination, does it? In case you weren’t inspired to click the embedded links above, they reference recent stories of these things occurring in the US. In light of this reality, it’s crystal clear that global ecology will never be stabilized as long as the police have anything to do with it.”
Further into his essay Panagioti references practical methods and attempts at weakening local police forces:
“I know, many of you are nauseous just reading the words “vote” and “election,” but I’m not saying you shouldn’t be sick to your stomach. I’m saying suck it up and learn what’s going on around you. If you avoided every bathroom that smelled like shit, you’d be in a lot of pain and doing possible damage to your excretory system. Likewise, if you ignore what your enemies are doing because its unsavory to your senses… maybe you’re more of a liberal yuppie than you realized. So hold your nose and try going to some City or County Commission meetings for starters. If you live in the New England area, local budgets might actually be something people are already organizing around. If you live anywhere else, it will probably be you and a few other Libertarian Party wingnuts in the crowd. Try and make friends with them, even if they’re drooling on themselves or foaming at the mouth. Chances are they can explain to you in simple terms how the budget works and who the players are. Oh, and try to look half-way decent. Most of these things are televised, and, for better or worse, its likely that someone will approach you in a local bar and say they saw you on the TV.”
What this boils down to is finding ways to make the police less effective. Whether through sticker and wheat paste campaigns using humor as the Otpor! movement in Serbia did, or through local referendums concerning police budgets, or sabotaging police equipment, the time to whittle away at police power is in between flare ups of massive social anger and action, so when it is crucial, police are weaker in the streets, and fewer and further between in the rural areas where devastating infrastructure usually is built.
Which tactic is best employed at which time is a decision to be made by individuals, the larger take away here being that the police and the penal system are the thin blue line between the will to move beyond capitalism, and the ability to do so. While frightening, is there any other conclusion when one recognizes the need for disobedience? When it becomes an accepted reality that laws must be broken for our continued survival, is it not cognitive dissonance to think attacking the law enforcement structure is unnecessary?
We won’t shop our way to a livable planet. We won’t vote our way to a livable planet. We won’t garden our way to a livable planet. We will not maintain a livable planet hiding in our homes, waiting for those with power and wealth to make it so. We will not survive if we are obedient to those who run the machine. To be sure, even outright attacking the industries that kill the living planet may not be enough. There is no reason to hope, only a roll of the dice that is heavily weighted against us. But we have allies. Hurricanes and droughts and wildfires and all of the other natural forces of destruction will grow in frequency as human civilization further destabilizes the climate. We can let the juggernaut of calamity bowl over us, primarily the least among us, or we can act strategically to save habitat, to save life, and maybe, just maybe, have something make it to the other side of the bottleneck.
November 6, 2013 § 7 Comments
If there is anything left to hope for, hope for calamity. Absolute and total industrial collapse is the only hope left for life on Earth should extinction of most, if not all life forms, not already be a certainty.
They say a writer should know their audience, so I feel that the above statement needs little background evidence to support it. For the uninitiated, who may have stumbled across this piece unwittingly, I will state that I am coming from a place where I acknowledge that climate change induced by human industrial activity is rapidly entering runaway territory, where even a complete shut down of global industrial activity may not be enough to undo the damage that has already been levied upon the planet and it’s life giving systems. Further, I am coming from a place where I acknowledge that political and economic architectures are not built with the capacity to undo themselves. Further still, I am coming from a place where I have come to accept that even the cultural programming prerequisite to civilizing the human animal is a psychosis.
Of course, the initiated may remind me of the danger posed by hundreds of nuclear power reactors world wide being left stranded of human maintenance should industry catastrophically shut down.
That’s why I said “If there is anything left to hope for…”
I have been active in so-called, “radical circles,” for years now. I have participated in many acts of civil disobedience, most of which went far beyond the tame and near pointless office sit-ins and political theater that is commonly mistaken for “direct action.” However, I also realize that most western people are suffering a combination of insulation and disempowerment which has rendered them doubtful of their autonomy and their right to act, as well as rendering them timid beyond any ability to do so. In realizing this, I have supported those who have slowly tip-toed out of their comfort zones into sheepish acts of sign waving and politician haranguing. Of course, I realize the futility of most of these acts, at least in achieving what the participants overtly intend to achieve. The personal empowerment and growth in self confidence that results from marching down the middle of street is valuable in itself, so I have and do encourage those who decide to do so.
However, a paradigm shift that has gone mostly unnoticed invalidates even small successes by those who have risen to action. The infinite growth model of civilization and the financial models that serve it, has ended. There has already been a peak in global petroleum production, and the world is quickly moving into a time of ever more expensive energy, both in financial and environmental costs. Without taking this into account, social movements will fail consistently. Unfortunately, the vast majority of social movements in the modern west are stunted by this lack of understanding fundamentals, as well as by their insistence on modeling themselves and their movements on past movements they perceive as having been successful which occurred in times of growth. Too often for instance, modern western social movements, be they fighting for environmental or social justice, claim the American civil rights struggles as their founding conceptual model.
This flaw was well analyzed by Henia Belalia who rightly suggests that if anything, those fighting to preserve the Earth’s ability to harbor life should look to the abolitionists movement to end slavery. Belalia writes:
“We are not fighting for access to an existing status quo. We are demanding a fundamental restructuring of society in order to have the possibility of a livable future. So let’s look at social movement history that might be more analogous.”
This is absolutely right on. Belalia goes on to note:
“Wide-spread direct action campaigns, organizing boycotts of sugar and cotton and other slave produced goods. Free people of African descent who fought slavery and the slave trade by any means necessary. African captives who led revolts on slave ships—men and women who refused to be cargo. Recent studies show slave revolts on one in ten voyages, and this caused a sharp increase in the carrying costs of the trade, helping to undermine its economic viability. And Africans on the coast that attacked slave ships before they sailed, cutting them off and freeing captives.”
What Belalia successfully demonstrates is that business models which are destructive to life must be actively attacked, via whatever methods necessary. The predominant view of the so-called “climate justice movement” however, is that industrial civilization can continue in a fashion that allows modern western people to live essentially as they do now, with only a handful of tweaks. (They even suggest that this life style can be extended to the global population.) Coal fired power plants replaced with windmills and solar arrays, gasoline powered vehicles replaced with electric vehicles (which I guess are powered by these windmills?) etc. This future of a fair trade, “green” capitalism powered by sunshine where we all still live in suburbs and drink mocha lattes before heading to work is a liberal fantasy. The industrial economy consumes vast amounts of energy, and the energy return ratios of technologies such as wind turbines and solar panels will never be favorable enough to fuel the global economy as it exists now, let alone as it grows to support higher consumption levels of a larger and larger human population. It’s not as if conservatives have a more intelligent analysis of this issue, but those of us who live in rural areas and who witness the massive diesel powered equipment used by modern farmers see very clearly that if the population is going to continue to eat, it will be because fossil fuels continue to be exploited. Seeing the necessity of the energy density of hydrocarbons, the right understands the weakness of so called “alternative energies” and instead, pretends that there are no consequences to the processes of acquiring and burning fossil fuels.
Hence the need for social movements that are fighting drivers of climate change to accept a view of a low energy future. Low energy future means low consumption future. It means not just a no growth future, but a future of decline. It means going beyond local to tribal. It means ending modernity as we know it, and breaking apart the homogeneity of globalization and massive state systems in favor of the small, and the many. In plain English, it means embracing the idea that your kids won’t go to college, but will instead grow turnips As I said above, no existing political or financial structure could achieve this, let alone advance the suggestion.
Some smaller more radical movements such as Earth First! and Deep Green Resistance get this point, and further, they celebrate it. However, these movements are small yet, and their philosophies don’t garner the attention that more “pragmatic” thinkers attract.
As for the pragmatic “fringe,” Chris Hedges recently wrote a piece titled, “Our Invisible Revolution” in which he argues that the decent into total and overt corruption on the part of business and government leaders is not going unnoticed, and that beneath the visible surface, an as of yet nameless fire grows in public consciousness. Perhaps he is correct in believing this, but his insulated western view comes to the fore in his writing in two glaring ways.
First, Hedges writes of ideas as being a keystone in revolution; dislodging old ideas first and presenting new workable alternatives ends regimes is his claim. Hedges:
“Once ideas shift for a large portion of a population, once the vision of a new society grips the popular imagination, the old regime is finished….An uprising that is devoid of ideas and vision is never a threat to ruling elites. Social upheaval without clear definition and direction, without ideas behind it, descends into nihilism, random violence and chaos. It consumes itself. This, at its core, is why I disagree with some elements of the Black Bloc anarchists. I believe in strategy.””
It should be noted that throughout his essay, Hedges seems to be trying to regain credibility he lost with anarchists after being hotly critical of Occupy activists utilizing black bloc tactics. I assume he is trying to regain this credibility primarily because he is aware of the energy amongst anarchists which drives them to actually be active, and to take to the physical realm beyond Facebook, you know – the real world – and to put their ideas into practice. But I digress.
Hedges’ emphasis on ideas is a very “civilized” approach to the topic of revolution. It is “logical” and “rational,” in all of the ways civil society demands. This is why Hedges doesn’t understand anarchist support for black bloc tactics, or at its heart, why he misunderstands revolution. It is because he negates feeling.
Feelings are just as if not more important than ideas when it comes to not only social upheaval, but also when it comes to decolonizing our minds of the inculcation of civilization, and shedding the culture that has been branded upon our very synapses. The hierarchy of ideas (which let’s be clear, are white, male, educated, upper class, “practical” ideas) over feelings (which are considered female, primitive, and weak by the dominant culture) is a large factor in how divisions amongst the masses are created. On this, I will turn to twenty-one year old blogger, Jacklyn Gil, who writes :
“I’d say white supremacy is a type of fundamentalism that is deeply, deeply, rooted and manifests in harmful ways, which the benefactors are mostly blind to. Fundamentalists are those most afraid of change. I would argue that many White, middle class people, however unknowingly, were raised with an (implicit) fundamental understanding of the world in which colonial characteristics, such as suppression of intense expression and/or an authoritarian/obedient reaction to the world in front of you, was seen as ‘successful’, or ‘respectable’.”
Hedges falls into this trap precisely because he negates his own cultural and personal baggage. It may seem ridiculous to the “rational” and to the “civil” but when you are not an academic, and you cannot articulate exactly how the society in which you are trapped exploits you, what you then have to guide you is your clear inner feelings of being exploited and of being oppressed. Feelings which are absolutely valid, and which form the impetus of articulation to begin with. Further, when you take to the streets and see others throwing bricks through the windows of banks, for many, it feels good. The justice is clear, if not pragmatic or rational. It is obvious to those who haven’t shut out their feelings. This is how riots happen. And riots are not necessarily ignorant, pointless violence. Riotous activity is the last vestige of power held by the underclasses, they are the primal howl from that wild place that still burns if ever so dimly within the human soul. Do they necessarily achieve strategic goals? Not always. But do they empower? Do they instill in the participants a personally granted permission to ignore the imaginary lines drawn up by the rich and defended by the police? Absolutely. How people get drawn into such behavior through the seduction of action is a topic well analyzed in a CrimeThinc Pamphlet, which opens with the question:
“We who fight to create a freer world face a fundamental contradiction. On one hand, we don’t want to become a vanguard, “leading” or imposing our will on others, as that would run counter to our anti-authoritarian values. On the other hand, we believe with good justification that our political goals—including the destruction of capitalism, the state, and hierarchy—can’t be accomplished without strategies that are currently unpalatable to most of our fellow citizens. The impoverishment of millions and the destruction of our ecosystems demand that we act decisively. What criteria will equip us to challenge these systems without resorting to the authoritarian means we condemn?”
Too often, fighting back against the forces that destroy the globe while shackling the masses into meaningless existences is dubbed, “Bad for the movement,” by pragmatic liberals. Their view is that people will be driven away from a social movement that does not condemn smashing windows or setting bulldozers on fire. Of course, they mean is will turn away people like them; other middle or upper class, predominantly white “pragmatists.” Large swaths of the population take no part in activism or social struggles for the same reason they don’t vote in elections; they see it as pointless. Lining up to demand incremental reform only after receiving permission to do so, behind a line of police in the free speech zone seems not only pointless, but pathetic. It’s admitting your defeated, puny, position before even stepping into the ring. And this is what Hedges and other “rational” thinkers are hoping to see.
It should also be noted that strategy and mass movements are two extremely hard partners to marry. Mass movements by definition contain massive numbers of people, that is massive numbers of egos, and massive numbers of education levels, goals, experience levels, etc. Finding consensus on what exactly lies at the root of society’s ills, let alone cataloging and prioritizing these ills, let alone coming to an agreement on how to strategically go about achieving a solution that leaves all participants happy, would be an effort beyond Sisyphean. Even if such unity of thought and action were possible, the powerful remain in a permanent state of counter-insurgency. I personally have encountered infiltrators across several movements, some of who have been successful at bringing felony charges against the most benign of activists. Looking at the green scare, which continues to this day, as well as the grand jury investigations into anarchists in the United States, definitively makes clear that organizing masses to behave strategically will face insurmountable hurdles, as organizers have their phones tapped, their emails read, their meetings infiltrated, etc.
It’s easy to demand “strategy,” and to decry movements that seem to lack it, but strategy is akin to handling on a vehicle. If you want maneuverability, you don’t jump in a city bus and start hugging turns. Mass movements are lumbering city buses, which are frankly more useful for smashing through barricades than gluing to the twists and turns of a formula one race.
“I do not say this because I am a supporter of revolution. I am not. I prefer the piecemeal and incremental reforms of a functioning democracy. I prefer a system in which our social institutions permit the citizenry to nonviolently dismiss those in authority. I prefer a system in which institutions are independent and not captive to corporate power. But we do not live in such a system. Revolt is the only option left. Ruling elites, once the ideas that justify their existence are dead, resort to force. It is their final clutch at power. If a nonviolent popular movement is able to ideologically disarm the bureaucrats, civil servants and police—to get them, in essence, to defect—nonviolent revolution is possible. But if the state can organize effective and prolonged violence against dissent, it spawns reactive revolutionary violence, or what the state calls terrorism. Violent revolutions usually give rise to revolutionaries as ruthless as their adversaries. “Whoever fights monsters should see to it that in the process he does not become a monster,” Friedrich Nietzsche wrote. “And if you gaze long enough into an abyss, the abyss will gaze back into you.” Violent revolutions are always tragic.”
Hedges is essentially betraying the liberal utopian inside himself, first exposing his belief that democratic systems have ever or could ever “work,” and then following that with a suggestion that a non-violent movement could even hope to have politicians, let alone the police, defect. I know Hedges has a history of reporting on revolutions in many countries, and he would claim to have seen such defections elsewhere, but could he really say that a real revolution has followed? Or has what’s come after such defections been merely a transfer of power to the neo-liberal system of global capitalism? Has he ever seen politicians and police defect, to not be replaced by different (or even the same) politicians and police afterwards?
He then goes on like almost all white, upper or middle class people do and decries violence as unnecessary (The exception being the gun nuts on the right, whose sense of patriarchal and race superiority make them believe order comes from force, not consent.) This is because Hedges and pretty much all modern western middle and upper class white people live lives completely insulated from violence. Violence for them is conceptual. It is something on TV after nine p.m. Most people of this milieu have never even killed an animal for food, as the machinations of capitalism have always done it for them, far away behind closed doors, so appetites don’t get spoiled. This leaves violence mysterious, dangerous, and best handled by professionals, in slaughterhouses and in the streets.
Not meaning to pick on Hedges, as I do like much of what he writes, I just have to point out that he seemingly wants to have his cake and to eat it to. Fair trade cake though. Cruelty free. It’s as Frederick Douglass famously said:
“If there is no struggle, there is no progress. Those who profess to favor freedom, and yet deprecate agitation, are men who want crops without plowing up the ground. They want rain without thunder and lightning. They want the ocean without the awful roar of its many waters. This struggle may be a moral one; or it may be a physical one; or it may be both moral and physical; but it must be a struggle. Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will.”
When violence is a reality from which you are not shielded by corporate and state entities, it is easy to believe that violence is a thing of the past with no place in modern living, even during revolution. Violence s very real and very present in the modern world however. In fact, the very foundations of modern industrial civilization are violence. Again, I don’t want to have to descend into a long list of examples, as I expect the reader to be initiated, but as this point is one that requires understanding, I feel compelled.
The modern “first” world extracts the majority of the resources it uses for production of goods from the “third” world, leaving destroyed ecosystems, destroyed ways of life, corrupt and bought off governments, and massive pollution in its wake. Resistors in these nations are often killed, as has been the case with peoples from South America to Africa to Asia — and yes, even North America, as locals and indigenous populations have fought invaders who seek their lands for everything from coffee and banana farming to the production and bottling of Coca-Cola to gold mining and fossil fuel extraction. Pushed off their lands, people — including children — across the globe have been forced into the slums of mega cities to work in dangerous factories for low wages, if not worse. Though white middle class westerners don’t see it, there is blood in their latte, in their sneakers, in their gas tank, and in their bank accounts.
Even within the confines of western society, the autonomy of the individual is robbed by the state who claims all acts of self and community defense, when possible, should be outsourced to police departments. Under the guise of eliminating social violence, disagreements, confrontations of abusive people, fights — all are to be avoided and instead proper authorities (people higher than you on the social hierarchy) are to be notified, who will come strapped with an arsenal of weaponry, from electrocution devices to chemical agents and firearms, and they will dole out the proper level of violence. Even the maintenance of the financial order is achieved through violence, as police (with weapons on their hips) evict families too poor to pay rent, lock up people who possess “outlawed” chemical substances, fine or jail people who opt to take food from trash dumpsters, and even line up in riot gear to separate passively protesting crowds from bank facilities and staff.
Living under such circumstances, it becomes easy for writers like Hedge’s to believe that violence is for people lesser than ourselves who have not yet out-evolved its use like we have. This leaves violence as a tool that only the state and capitalists will use, and they will, and do use it.
The real tragedy of the doctrine of pacifism is that so many people will fall so easily before the very real and very heavy handed violence that the arc of time has in store for them. Leaving behind the pointy-headed critique of western social movements, let’s go back to the beginning, and recall that apocalyptic climate change may very well already be baked into the cake. Forgetting to hash out the details of just how bad it will be in the end, let’s acknowledge for a moment what this looks like for average people on the ground as it comes to pass. In time, it will mean crop failures as droughts, floods, wildfires, early blizzards, etc. wreak havoc on the food supply. These are already current conditions, which are unfolding to occur more and more frequently. Spikes in temperature can cause grid failure in the southwestern US, leaving millions without air condition and potentially without water. Freak superstorms like Sandy and those that caused this year’s flooding in Colorado will continually destroy infrastructure while also creating classes of refugees.
All of this is coming at a time when the financial system undergoing collapse due primarily to its growth requirement becoming anemic in light of ongoing fossil fuel supply stagnation, meaning the money to repair damage done by climate catastrophes will go untended more and more frequently. It also means there is less and less money available to upkeep existing infrastructure like bridges, power substations, roads, water pipelines, etc. On top of that, there is less and less money available for the growing underclass, who are kept passive in large part by state subsidies.
As this cascading collapse becomes reality, social action is inevitable, from the very messy to the tightly organized. What to demand in times of decline will likely escape most, as they continually ask for access to more, or at least, for access to what they once had. My two cents is that the sensible demand in times of decline should be for autonomy, for the state to get the hell out of the way as people dismantle corrupt and broken systems, while simultaneously building hundreds of thousands of autonomous zones and collectives. To be sure, many of these newly created regions and groups will fail, as the climate fails, and as modern people realize how helpless they are in the face of creating dignified survival out of raw nature. But even failure in this regard is more dignified than further subjugation to a bloated, dysfunctional, and violent hierarchy.
To see this from a macro perspective, industrial civilization has outgrown its ability to be an efficient organism. Dimitri Orlov has written about this phenomenon very well, basically stating that societies, like living organisms, can pass a point of diminishing returns, where they more they grow to take care of themselves, the more there is to upkeep, rendering the growth meaningless. We face this, as civilization has gone global and has destroyed the planet in its wake, leaving itself a double bind. Continue unabated and quickly smother itself in catastrophe via climate change and resource scarcity, likely leading to war, or push the big red button and shut it all down, near immediately killing the majority of humans who are now dependent upon industrial systems in one way or another.
This is why only absolute and total catastrophe is all that remains to hope for. It takes the choice out of clumsy and cowardly human hands. If the defining characteristic of civilization is control, catastrophe is letting go. The chips will fall where they may, and nature’s law — which is and has always been the only real law — will return to the fore, wiping out humanity’s egotistic view of themselves. So let’s not fear calamity, let’s welcome it, let’s assist in ushering it in where possible. Understanding that it won’t be fun but at least it will be honest, making all things equal once again, we can know that it alone provides salvation from the meaninglessness of state-capitalism’s full spectrum dominance, while offering a glimmer of a possibility that life may just be able to pass through the bottleneck, and thrive again in a time after time.