Let’s Get Critical

April 2, 2014 § 8 Comments

“Any man who afflicts the human race with ideas must be prepared to see them misunderstood.”

HL Menken


To criticize the status quo is to invite volley after volley of personal criticism back in your own direction. I am sure this has likely been the case for a very long time, and I believe this may be partly due to the way in which humans learn through pattern recognition, as well as how the architecture of the human brain physically lays neural pathways to build understanding. Thus when an idea too astray from the usual is presented to the human mind, there is a high chance of a negative reaction because the new pattern is far too asymmetric for the current set of neural pathways to incorporate. That, or the derogator is a bored and obtuse malcontent with nothing better to do than shit all over other people on the internet.

I often write about the exploitation inherent in the model of civilization itself, and how this organizing framework which is dominant on the planet now is entirely unsustainable and will necessarily collapse catastrophically. This is some level nine stuff. By this I mean that if you have not been initiated, if you haven’t read about this topic or all of the feeder topics that lead to this conclusion, it would likely seem extreme. Thorough understanding of an issue requires prerequisite knowledge. We get to where we are by having been where we were, even philosophically and intellectually. Because my topics of critique often surround the civilization paradigm, its parts, and alternatives, I often receive flak from people which either demonstrates that they do not fully understand the gravity of the issues, or which merely indicts me as complicit in civilization’s crimes. The former generally comes in the form of people arguing that technology will remedy all of the converging crises faced and created by civilization. The latter is far more frustrating, as it is usually some pathetic attempt at a “got’chya!” moment where someone tries to defeat my greater thesis by pointing out my use of a computer or some other trapping of civilization. “Hypocrite!” they cry.

The hypocrisy claim is everywhere you find people critiquing any facet of the status quo. Antiwar activists who protested the Iraq war were called hypocrites for using gasoline. Occupy Wall Street participants were called hypocrites for using Apple products. My friends in forest defense have been called hypocrites for using paper. As an anti-civ anarchist I have been called a hypocrite for everything from having moved into a house during the winter, to having gone to the hospital when after forty hours of labor at home with a midwife, my partner was physically exhausted and wanted access to drugs so she could sleep. Every time these criticisms are leveled, it becomes a major energy suck to explain exactly how nonsensical they are. I would like to here dedicate this essay to shredding the “hypocrisy” argument once and for all, so it can forever be linked to by activists and social critics of all platforms and stripes, who neither have the time nor energy to swat at the many zombie hordes who become agitated when new ideas are presented to them which run counter to the comfortable patterns that they are used to, and who then proceed to scream “hypocrite!” in place of an actual counter argument.

Jean-Paul Sartre wrote, “Hell is other people.” Despite my anti-civ analysis, I am no misanthrope. Civilization is a system of organization, a power arrangement in which a small few control the many. Using their power, these few exploit the lands and beings around them so they can grow their power and comfort at the expense of others. Industrial civilization takes this paradigm full tilt and is wiping out habitat and species at a mortifying rate. Understanding this does not cause me to hate my species, but rather to be eager to help them understand why we must pursue new organizational methods. Still, the uphill battle of convincing fellow humans, especially those who are net beneficiaries of this destructive and exploitative set of arrangements, can be at times an infuriating engagement. Of course, this is not because I need people to immediately agree with me, but if they don’t, I do prefer they focus on challenging the content of my statements as opposed to nit picking the content of my life.

In “The Fall,” Albert Camus wrote, “Everyone insists on his innocence, at all costs, even if it means accusing the rest of the human race and heaven itself.” I believe that it may be this personal insistence on one’s innocence which leads people to quickly cry “hypocrite!” at those who critique the status quo. Because we are all mired in this paradigm, when it is critiqued, some individuals feel that the critique is of them individually, likely due to a personal identification with the system. Thus critiques become personal attacks against which they must defend themselves. “If the system is guilty, then I am guilty, and I’m not guilty!

The need for personal innocence runs deeper. If a critique against an overarching paradigm such as a government, capitalism, or civilization itself seems irrefutable, this can invoke in some a certain need to then utilize this new information as part of their own personal ethos. The problem here, is that this will mean that person will feel compelled to act accordingly with this information, and the actions required may seem difficult, uncomfortable, or frightening. For instance, if you’re told that capitalism is exploitative because employers retain the surplus labor value generated by their employees, and you happen to be a business owner, this new understanding will mean one of two things: either you rearrange the operating model of your business to fairly compensate your employees for their labor, effectively making them cooperative partners, or you change nothing but must go through life recognizing that you profit off of the exploitation of others. Here, your internal need to perceive yourself as innocent, or at least to believe yourself a good person, will run counter with your open acknowledgement that you exploit people for a living. What to do then to keep the ego intact?

If the action required to fall in line with the new ethos created by accepting new information is too hard, too uncomfortable, or you just don’t want to do it, you must justify inaction. Justifying inaction will be achieved possibly by denying the veracity of the new information. Like most capitalists in this scenario, you could convince yourself that your entrepreneurial and risk taking spirit give you the right to take the surplus labor value generated by the people you employ indefinitely. Of course, the justifications are endless.

In some cases though, if the new information received cannot be deflected through argument or justification, and the need to preserve one’s picture of their innocence is too great, then calling into question the character or behavior of the information’s purveyor can also suffice. For instance, if an activist is working to halt fossil fuel extraction for the myriad reasons that such a halting would be beneficial, it can be difficult to disagree with this activist on a purely argumentative level. How could you? Deny climate change? Deny ozone killing trees? Deny the death and destruction from Alberta, to the Gulf of Mexico, to the Niger Delta? On an argumentative level, you’d be wrong every time. However, you could call into question the activist’s use of fossil fuels, thereby deflecting the conversation, and basically insinuating that, as Camus also wrote in The Fall, “We are all in the soup together.” Because hey, if we’re all guilty, then none of us are guilty, am I right?

In the fall of 2012, I was in Texas working with the Tar Sands Blockade using direct action tactics to shut down construction of the Keystone XL Pipeline. On the side of a highway north of Nacogdoches, I sat with some friends as our comrades were perched on platforms fifty feet in the air with their support lines tied to heavy machinery, effectively making the machines unusable lest their operators not mind killing these young people. There were a surprising amount of supporters for rural east Texas, but of course, there were plenty of people who made sure we we aware of their disdain for us. One such person passed by, slowed down, and said “I bet you used a pick up truck to get that stuff out here.” In his mind, this was a real zinger. I replied, “Of course we did. Why wouldn’t we?

There are a slew of reasons why this man’s comment contained zero validity as a critique of our action. For one, the gasoline we used did not come from that as of yet unfinished pipeline. Also, though I wouldn’t, I could claim to be against tar sands bitumen, but not conventional crude. But really the truth is that anti-extraction activists are making what economists would even defend as an intelligent bargain; using X amount of fossil fuels to prevent the extraction of a million times X. Of course I would use a tank of gasoline to prevent the daily extraction and transportation of hundreds of thousands of barrels of bitumen. Not only am I seeking a massive net gain for the ecology of the planet, I am also not using any more fossil fuels than I would have used had I gone to work that day anyway.

In the same vein, it is not hypocrisy to write a book about the ills of deforestation. Though it may be printed on paper, it has the potential to affect policy which will then lessen the total amount of deforestation. Not to mention, the loggers are going to log and the publishing company is going to publish. Using those resources to ultimately dismantle that destructive activity is actually the best use for them. So no, the person who posts on the internet about the ravages of mountain top removal coal mining or hydraulic fracturing for natural gas isn’t a hypocrite. They are cleverly utilizing the paradigm’s resources to expose its flaws to the light of scrutiny, in the hope that the consciences of people will be stirred to ultimately upend the paradigm itself. This is, in fact, the most ethical use of the resources generated by destructive industrial activity.

Using the master’s tools to dismantle the master’s house is to be encouraged.

It feels ridiculous to even have to lay this out, but the “hypocrisy” barb is flung far too often and dismantled far too little. What’s worse, is that hypocrisy in this regard isn’t even being understood correctly. According to wikipedia:

Hypocrisy is the state of falsely claiming to possess virtuous characteristics that one lacks. Hypocrisy involves the deception of others and is thus a kind of lie. Hypocrisy is not simply failing to practice those virtues that one preaches. Samuel Johnson made this point when he wrote about the misuse of the charge of “hypocrisy” in Rambler No. 14:

Nothing is more unjust, however common, than to charge with hypocrisy him that expresses zeal for those virtues which he neglects to practice; since he may be sincerely convinced of the advantages of conquering his passions, without having yet obtained the victory, as a man may be confident of the advantages of a voyage, or a journey, without having courage or industry to undertake it, and may honestly recommend to others, those attempts which he neglects himself.

Thus, an alcoholic’s advocating temperance, for example, would not be considered an act of hypocrisy as long as the alcoholic made no pretense of sobriety.”

This being understood, we can unequivocally state that a forest defense activist who prints pamphlets about saving tracts of woodland is not a hypocrite, unless they also claim to never use any forest products. Sure, there is a reasonable expectation that people who see a social ill will do their best to avoid adding to that ill, but sometimes the requirements of society horseshoe people into activity even they do not appreciate because the alternative options are worse or non-existent. Of course, this is where detractors will still claim that if an activist wants to save the forests, that they should cease using anything made from trees because consumer demand is behind all economic activity. Ignoring the obvious benefits of the trade off between printing five hundred pamphlets to save five hundred acres of woodlands, I think further disemboweling of this notion about consumer choice activism is also necessary.

Derrick Jensen writes about how he got in an argument with a man who accused him of being just as responsible for deforestation as Weyerhaeuser because he used toilet paper:

Here, once again, is the real story. Our self-assessed culpability for participating in the deathly system called civilization masks (and is a toxic mimic of) our infinitely greater sin. Sure, I use toilet paper. So what? That doesn’t make me as culpable as the CEO of Weyerhaeuser, and to think it does grants a great gift to those in power by getting the focus off them and onto us.

For what, then, are we culpable? Well, for something far greater than one person’s work as a technical writer and another’s as a busboy. Something far greater than my work writing books to be made of the pulped flesh of trees. Something far greater than using toilet paper or driving cars or living in homes made of formaldehyde-laden plywood. For all of those things we can be forgiven, because we did not create the system, and because our choices have been systematically eliminated (those in power kill the great runs of salmon, and then we feel guilty when we buy food at the grocery store? How dumb is that?). But we cannot and will not be forgiven for not breaking down the system that creates these problems, for not driving deforesters out of forests, for not driving polluters away from land and water and air, for not driving moneylenders from the temple that is our only home. We are culpable because we allow those in power to continue to destroy the planet. Yes, I know we are more or less constantly enjoined to use only inclusive rhetoric, but when will we all realize that war has already been declared upon the natural world, and upon all of us, and that this war has been declared by those in power? We must stop them with any means necessary. For not doing that we are infinitely more culpable than most of us—myself definitely included— will ever be able to comprehend.

He continues:

To be clear: I am not culpable for deforestation because I use toilet paper. I am culpable for deforestation because I use toilet paper and I do not keep up my end of the predator-prey bargain. If I consume the flesh of another I am responsible for the continuation of its community. If I use toilet paper, or any other wood or paper products, it is my responsibility to use any means necessary to ensure the continued health of natural forest communities. It is my responsibility to use any means necessary to stop industrial forestry.

I believe it is dangerous to convince people that their only power is in their purchasing decisions, because this relegates people to being mere consumers, not active citizens, let alone autonomous beings who define their own struggles, explore a diversity of tactics, and experiment to find new and effective measures for countering power. It also reduces all of society to nothing but customer transactions. Doing so ignores the power people have to protest, blockade, persuade, legislate, and sometimes, to overthrow. Would advocates of consumer choice activism stand by the idea that American revolutionaries should merely have boycotted tea, stamps and British products? Would they advocate that these revolutionaries should have instead of smashing windows, burning buildings, and fighting back against the crown have instead started their own competing tea trading companies? How about American slavery? Was the real solution that abolitionists and free blacks should have started competing fiber plantations in the north, hoping to push slave produced cotton out of business? Should we brand Captain John Brown a hypocrite for not wearing fair trade worker owned flax linen pants when he raided Harper’s Ferry seeking weapons with which to start a slave revolt? Preposterous!

Fighting against a behemoth industry that is interwoven into the state apparatus and has insulated itself as a central pillar of day to day operations is not something easily done. For one to claim they know exactly how to win such a fight is audacious. When it comes to the extraction industries, there is a large buffer where no matter how much the public cuts their consumption, the state will offset their financial losses through subsidies and purchases. The US government will happily buy discount oil for the fifth armored division after a civilian boycott lowers the price. Because of this, all forms of resistance are welcome and necessary, and it should be understood that attacking such a monolithic industry requires people hammering away, figuratively and literally, on every possible front. If it takes two million barrels of oil to power the cars and trucks necessary to organize the ten thousand strong blockade that cripples the refinery complex at the Port of Houston, well hell, oil well spent.

Those who demand lifestyle purity of anyone who ever raises a critique of any facet of the status quo are creating a double bind paradigm of hypocrites and extremists so to establish two camps into which they can then package critics in order to isolate and ignore them. The hypocrite camp is obvious. By misdiagnosing via a false definition someone who is against civilization as a hypocrite because they use electricity to write their thoughts online, these detractors can in their own minds, suggest there is no reason to take the critique seriously. But suppose the anti-civ critic did achieve lifestyle purity. Suppose that they lived in a wigwam in the woods that they constructed themselves from branches and deer hides. Imagine that this person walked to the center of town every weekend in haggard clothing they had pulled from thrift store dumpsters and then this person stood on a bench to shout about the ills of industry and hierarchy. Is it likely that this person would be taken seriously? Of course not! They would be labeled an extremist. Passersby would write this person off as insane before listening to argument one. There is no middle ground in this double bind, and that is the point. Those who would cry from the wilderness about the death and the misery that civilization brings will forever be stripping more and more from their lives in a futile effort to gain recognition, to be valid in the eyes of those who called them hypocrites, until one day they are branded as lunatics, if they are not unheard and unseen, exactly as their detractors want them to be.

On this, we should remember too, that there are people who have achieved this lifestyle purity. They are the tribal peoples around the world who never have been drawn into the net of civilization. They are the global poor who do not benefit from the burning of coal or the sinking of copper mines. And their voices consistently go unheard. In fact, their voices are almost ubiquitously silenced. What do the defenders of the status quo say to the Kayapó, Arara, Juruna, Araweté, Xikrin, Asurini and Parakanã peoples who are fighting the construction of the Belo Monte dam which threatens their survival? What do the defenders of the status quo say to the animals and plants who have been nothing but victims in the story of human progress? There is no inconsistency in their lives. No iPhone to scoff at, no power tool, no window fan. What is the excuse for denying their right to live? What is the excuse for exterminating them and pretending it isn’t happening? Why is it OK to deny their pleas?

Analysis and critique precede action. Without first understanding a system and describing its flaws, it will never be repaired or replaced. To assert that one must excise themselves from a system prior to criticizing it is asinine, especially so when the system being criticized is a global power structure with tentacles in almost every geographical region. Such assertions if considered legitimate would render critique impossible. They are also so implausible as to essentially be nothing more than a dismissal of critique, a backhanded way of saying “Shut up!” To be sure, the horrors of the dominant culture always have required a silencing of those it would make victims, so such behaviors amongst the denizens of civilization should come as no surprise, but they have never been and will never be intellectually or academically valid.

If you are in a prison, eating the food from the cafeteria does not mean you accept being a prisoner. Likewise, if you are a prisoner and you detest the prison and the system that put you there with every fiber of your being, you are not a hypocrite for allowing the prison doctor to treat you. Navigating life in a system of dominance, violence, and control is difficult and miserable, and if you have any designs to resist, whether to organize others on the inside with you to demand improvement of conditions, or to dig a tunnel and to escape, staying well fed and healthy in the mean time will be necessary for your success. While you fight, while you resist, use what you must to survive, especially in light of the fact that not doing so will not bring down the walls around you.

With the ever worsening issue of climate change, on top of the issues of political rot, net energy decline, and economic sclerosis, there will be more and more critique and analysis of exactly how societies are breaking down and what people should do in response. With this will come wave after wave of nonsense rebuttal to muddy the waters. At least when the defense of the status quo defers to indicting the behavior of the critics themselves, we can likely presume that their critiques are probably accurate, or at least that the status quo defender has no legitimate argument. For if the detractor had a legitimate counter analysis, they would present it. Attacking the messenger is behavior of the beaten. If I say “we need to abolish fossil fuels because they cause too much ecological damage” and someone responds “but you use gas in your chainsaw,” they have not displayed that my statement is untrue. In fact, there is a tacit admission that what I am saying is true, they just want to drag me down into the muck as if I’m not already standing in it.

Yes, I am knee deep in the shit of global industrial capitalist civilization. Yes, circumstances have me dancing from rock to rock, doing my best to avoid participating in the destructive protocols of the dominant culture and obliging to where it makes strategic sense to do so. Most people understand this. Most people understand the nuance between having and living an ethic in a complex world which leaves little to our individual control. Those who would deny this reality in order to deny your point are a nuisance at most. Hell is not other people, just other people in the comments section on the internet.

A Digital Whimper

February 25, 2014 § 4 Comments

There is so much noise that it becomes difficult to stay focused. The constancy of information, of news, of propaganda, of gossip. Our minds are drowning in a sea of chatter. We choke on it as it updates every second on a TV screen or an RSS feed. Everywhere you go, people staring at their smart phone, scrolling, scrolling. Next. Next. Next. Ironically, no one doing, no one reacting. No one digesting the information and then using it as a starting point for action. Information reduced to just another product for consumption, it is dumbed down, simplified, stripped of meaning and value and made into to the mental equivalent of a cheese poof. Every human tragedy reduced to a status update. Every reported environmental catastrophe reduced to a one hundred character tweet. Follow the end of the world at hash-tag “digitalwhimper.” Like it. Reblog it. Scroll down.

Afloat in an ocean of noise, we filter, and our filters are born of our biases and our priorities. Terrence McKenna said that culture is our operating system. The dominant culture is a lot of things in its complexity, but I think it is fair to say that one of it’s primary components is that it is anthropocentric. The dominant culture puts humans at the center of existence. Of course, there are layers of nuance involved in which the lifestyles and comforts of some humans are prioritized over the well being of others. To be sure, the dominant culture has a tiered hierarchy of valuation of flesh, with white flesh prioritized over nonwhite. Human flesh, however, always trumps nonhuman, with the anthropocentrism of the dominant culture casting non-human life as non-sentient, non-feeling, non-autonomous. To the dominant culture, there is no web of life, no complex interplay between co-dependent species all with value unto themselves, all existing within their own right to be respected and treated as one living family. As far as the dominant culture is concerned, there is humanity and everything else is either the feedstock of industry, or it is in the way.

We’re trained to filter anything that suggest otherwise.

There is this conception in the US, and likely in other western nations, that commerce, civic life, and “business as usual” have a right to exist unimpeded. Protests and strikes that flare up, no matter how minor, that slow traffic, block public transit, or – gasp! – prevent people from going to work or shopping are lambasted by the worker bee populace. How dare some protester block a bus full of Google or Amazon employees! An orchestra of miniature violins wail like mothers clutching dead babies for the innocent victims of such tepid social disruption. I find myself repulsed at first by the complete and utter lack of anti-authoritarian fervor found in the average worker who is just so eager to be on time to grind away making some other person rich, and second I am reviled by the entitlement of these self proclaimed “productive members of society” who seem to believe with religious intensity that by clocking their eight hours, that they are doing God’s work.

These potentates of the church of capital trot out the same old tired harassments calling on protesters and activists to “get a job,” which is of course, demanding that they stop impeding the big game of capitalist society and instead play along and lend a hand generating higher quarterly returns for some shareholder somewhere. Almost always this “get a job” mantra is absolutely non-sequitir to the demands of activists, but of course, a valid rebuttal would require an examination of the issues at hand, and that would require a moderate amount of effort. Shouting a meaningless slogan feels like arguing, but is much easier and leaves all of ones biases in tact, so it is the tactic of choice for those who want to defend the status quo while leveling an attack on people who ironically will usually have the general public’s best interests at heart.

To be sure, it’s easy to get bogged down in the sludge of insults, ignorance, and outright obfuscation that passes for discourse in this society. Sometimes I catch myself engaged in a pointless conversation over some political viewpoint, and I have to return myself to my primary premises. Years ago I came to accept that without a healthy living ecosystem, nothing else matters. I’m embarrassed to admit that I was in my late twenties when I had finally come to such an obvious conclusion. It should have been self evident, and likely was, until years of noise and propaganda promoting the dominant culture and it’s primary objective of production and growth with humans at the center of existence clouded my thinking. It took many elders wiser than I as well as many writers more clear thinking to assist me in regaining my sanity. A sentence helped it all fall into place:

The needs of the natural world outweigh the needs of the economic system.

This premise from Derrick Jensen’s “Endgame” should have been a no-brainer. Without a foundation on which to survive, why hash out the intricacies of social interaction?

The overwhelming majority of political discourse completely disregards this fundamental truth. In fact, this fundamental truth is treated with outright scorn, and according to the dominant culture, the natural world exists solely for the exploitation of humans. Anyone who gets in the way of this exploitation is impeding the primary directive of the dominant culture to engage in production and growth, and must be removed by any means necessary. For indigenous cultures, this has generally meant genocide. For a white activist blocking a city bus or a bulldozer, it generally means a cascade of effects starting with public ridicule and leading to and through violent arrest and imprisonment while gleeful wage slaves look on. Containment of anti-capitalist energy is completed by the media which reinforces the mindless “critique” of the “get-a-job” crowd by proclaiming from their position of power and privilege the valid method of demanding redress of grievances: Petition leaders and vote. While waving the banner of democracy, the public is consistently corralled into ineffectual and morale sapping activity by the media who are but highly paid P.R. staff of the powerful. As this cycle repeats and the livestock populace becomes more and more complacent in their powerlessness, the object of protest and picket and strike becomes more diluted.

Protest is not about awareness. Protest is not a commercial in flash-mob format. The goal isn’t to advertise to the consumer culture and hope that they are convinced to buy a particular point of view. Protest is about disruption. Protests and pickets and strikes and riots are weapons of the masses. We may not have any sway in boardrooms and government halls, but we can shut down ports and plants and if it comes down to it, we sure as shit can burn their precious banks and factories to the ground. We can pretend it matters to lock ourselves to the White House gate, or we can shred pipelines with angle grinders and blow torches before they are ever in the dirt. Refusing participation in the mechanisms of commerce, and further, preventing others from participating is the only real leverage that any of us have against the weight of the machine of industrial civilization. Make no mistake, productive members of society are the problem. The only reason this thought is remotely uncomfortable is because we know that we are all trapped in the belly of the beast we are trying to slay. We understand that everyone is trapped in a deadly paradigm, and that we must reconcile deconstruction of that which destroys us with survival in the present. But there is no alternative. Inaction is acquiescence to the horrors which totalitarian capitalists will inflict upon us. Business as usual must grind to a halt. So long as the sum total of the machinations of capital and state are violence and repression, we must bind and hinder as many working arms and legs of this machine as we can.

In the deluge of static the meme of human supremacy is constant. The premise that humans are at the center of existence, while not always articulated so plainly, underlies almost all current politics and philosophy. In discussions that range in focus from ecology to economics to technology, the foundational premise is essentially that human beings are masters of their destiny and that what we ultimately choose to create as our collective destiny will necessarily manifest as so. The logic to such thinking is that humans possess the only consciousness and will in our sphere of existence, so any course of action deriving from human will is necessarily just, because the consent of any other consciousness is impossible. This logic also presumes that the planet is a non-sentient mechanism of complex yet conquerable systems. According to the dominant culture, anyone who considers the planet alive is crazy, and to be dismissed. Further, anyone who considers the sentience and inherent value of non-human beings is crazy, and to be dismissed. Further still, anyone who doubts the intellect and ingenuity of technological humans is crazy and to be dismissed.

Even many radicals and activists fall for these premises. Examining the taxonomy of even many anarchist labels, the presumption inherent in their descriptors is that our primary grounding will be in how we interact with each other. Anarcho-syndaclism and anarcho-communism, for example, have within their monikers a genus and a species that proclaim a philosophy of egalitarian human organizing and some form of cooperative work and exchange. Anarcho-transhumanism implies a human centric philosophy focused on the necessity of transcending our biological status. This is the essence of the dominant culture’s drive merely stripped of the baggage of hierarchy. Of course there is reason to contemplate how exactly we should best organize with one and other, and I think anarchism contains within it the most value and potential, but devoid of an analysis of where and upon what foundations we will be doing this organizing, the philosophy becomes moot. Any political philosophy that forgets or intentionally avoids the naked reality that without a healthy ecosystem we die, is useless. Any political philosophy that cannot face the reality that humans need habitat and that humans are increasingly destroying habitat, is just more useless chatter.

Anthropocentrism is a sickness of ego that holds the uninfected hostage to watch while the living world is plundered and killed. Those infected with this malady of ego are held fast and tight within a narrative about who we are and what our collective destiny holds. Daily this narrative is fleshed out by Hollywood as images of constant technological progress are manifested by graphical wizardry, while simultaneously, the rot of civilization grows. The media plays its part, singing the songs of where we are going with new hits about mining asteroids and golden oldies about free energy just around the corner. It matters not that green revolution technologies are rapidly destroying topsoil while every year relying more heavily on stronger poisons. It matters not that billions of humans are sustained by trading dwindling hydrocarbons for food calories. It matters not that overuse of antibiotics has spawned new treatment resistant bacteria at such a rate as to prompt an Assistant Director at the CDC to declare that, “We are at the end of anti-biotics, period.” None of this matters to the devotees of civilization and human greatness because, because, well, look at our slick new smart phones! The ability to download an app which will alert you to how many people in the room are interested in screwing a stranger is supposed to be proof that we can invent our way out of the toxicity that hundreds of years of industry and thousands of years of agriculture have meted upon the planet.

Without a a cataclysmic shift in the industrial-civilization paradigm, we’re going to kill ourselves and a lot of other living beings all because so many people are in love with the story they are being told about themselves. For the few who attempt to bring about such a shift, there is the condemnation of the worker bees whose willful participation in the system is indicted by those who dare give a damn. Even if sent to prison for their actions, radicals have it better than the indigenous and the non-human who are extinguished with varying degrees of complexity. For everyone else, there are the texts, the selfies, the pop-culture news feeds, the addiction to regularly proclaiming your mediocre self to the world via social networking. While the oceans die and the atmosphere gasps, we ride the wave of noise lost in our greatest technological accomplishment; a database of the mundane, a digital mirror into which we can continually stare at ourselves.

To Disobey and Get Away

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.

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