resistance


Before the book Deep Green Resistance came out and the organization of the same name formed, I was a big fan of Derrick Jensen. But not so much since. There are a variety of reasons why DGR lost me. I will mention three.

I just watched a video where DGR ally Stephanie McMillan reads a speech urging global fight against capitalism, while Derrick Jensen acts the interviewer. She makes many good points illustrated with her well-crafted cartoon strips. Her analysis makes a lot of sense. But when she gets to the part about “what to do,” she falls on DGR’s favorite line about “militant resistance” and on vacuous exhortations: we “must overcome the state apparatus” (and its lies, wealth and arms), we “must dismantle the system altogether and create an alternative”! On her site, she stresses (as she has for years): “Our collective strategy must be capable of smashing the entire global matrix of social relations — the economic, political, and ideological practices…” And so on. John Holloway has already very ably pointed out why this approach does not work. I really only have one more thing to say about it:

miracle_cartoon

In the book, Derrick answers a query he has received from his audience many times; “Daniel Quinn says we should walk away, what do you think?” Derrick says he’s got two problems with it; one is that there is nowhere to walk to (Arctic? middle of the ocean?) and the other is that those familiar with Quinn answer that this is supposed to be a mental state, that we are supposed to emotionally withdraw.

I have a problem with what Derrick says. Neither is true of what Daniel Quinn advocates. Quinn makes it pointedly clear that he does not mean it geographically, and he has spoken at length of what he does mean: socio-economic tribalism he calls “new tribalism, where people band together to make a living and a life.” He praises those who have been able to create such “business tribes” and hopes that even better ideas will follow. Either Derrick is shooting in the dark, or he is willfully misrepresenting Quinn’s ideas.

He follows the passage with this argument: if you know a friend is being tortured in a nearby basement, would you walk away? To which I answer, the torture of the planet is far more complex than that. What would you do, Derrick, when people and creatures were tortured in millions, billions of basements (as they indeed are, in a manner of speaking)? That is the situation we face, and that is what we need to deal with. Blowing up all those basements seems, well, not the ideal solution, shall we say? Walking away from the torture system itself and letting it collapse under its own weight may be our best option. And why interpret “walking away” as not caring, no longer doing anything for those who suffer? Quinn is our ally; trying to strawman him out of relevance is a hit below the belt.

Is this civilization redeemable, asks another person. Derrick argues that it is not. I too feel that this civilization is a lost cause, but not civilization in general. Babylon’s days are numbered, but it will try to take everyone down with it. I think that the image of global psychopaths hanging from lamp posts — as Orlov and Kunstler keep on about — is yet another soothing placebo. Things have changed since the days of the French and Russian revolutions. Nowadays, the global perps just change coats, rename things a bit, repaint the stage of the spectacle, change the props. That’s about it.

The question that occupies me is what I (we) can do to speed up the metamorphosis of this voracious caterpillar that is devouring the world into a “civilized civ” butterfly. I will write more about this when I talk about a way out of Babylon I have discovered, soonish. Meanwhile, things are bad enough; I am not interested in joining those out to vandalize the system that exists, trying to bring it down, feeding their precious energies into what they loathe, fueling yet another bitter conflict, yet another “war to end all wars.” Besides, compared to the banksters that are actively and effectively bringing the human world to the precipice, the DGR folks, they are just pikers.

If you crush the caterpillar, you destroy its chance to turn into a butterfly.

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Eritis insuperabiles, si fueritis inseparabiles.
You would be insuperable if you were inseparable.
— Edward Coke

I have often railed against “elites” who run things, as have many others, Joe Bageant’s rants being the most memorable. Recently, though, as a result of reflecting on the surprisingly enthusiastic reviews of Ralph Nader’s latest book Only the Super-Rich Can Save Us! I have modified my view. No, I am not falling for the persistent fantasy that those with vast amounts of wealth and power will suddenly step up to the plate in a brand new way. Paul Newman is dead, and Warren Buffett’s too busy playing bridge. Nevertheless, I have begun to see the division of rich and poor, privileged vs. non-privileged, as part of the ancient and still going strong “divide and rule” routine.

“Divide and conquer” is an old label for a rich trove of strategies that split and weaken a resisting constituency. These machinations range from sowing suspicion and fear, trashing capable leaders, inventing enemies, and stirring up trouble while blaming “certain people,” all the way to lavishing attention on wedge issues and extremists factions, and discriminating in the allocation of resources and opportunities. The aim is to induce opponents to fight among themselves, thus losing track of their mission and their chance at a unified front. Did you know that racism was fomented in colonial days to drive a wedge between black slaves and white indentured servants who often ran off together?

As James C. Scott shows in his well-researched study of a Malaysian village in Weapons of the Weak (an on-the-ground description of the ways the poor and disempowered discreetly defy the rich and powerful), the only division that really matters in the world is the division between the unprincipled, and the rest of us. Scott begins the book by describing in great detail two people, one a poor wily slacker, the other, a wealthy miser. Both are antisocial personalities and famous in the village for their excesses (which, strangely, are tolerated). Both the poor man and the rich man are always scheming how to game the system to their advantage. The poor man is aggressive in seeking charity gifts from rich neighbors, does not hesitate to sell the lumber given him to repair his house – twice! (meaning the first buyer got nothing) – and pilfers his neighbors’ rice harvest before it’s stored. The rich man, nicknamed Haji Broom because he managed to sweep large chunks of the village lands into his possession, lends money to area farmers who are in need, then hides when the loan is to be repaid so that the debtor runs out of time and loses the land.

Professor Scott is a Marxist who went to this village to study the strategies of the downtrodden. His intent was not to study the untrustworthy, and my interpretation of his data is my own. But reading of the exploits of these two individuals, what jumped at me was that the village as a whole was being screwed by both people. Screwed by a both kinds of people, that is; those – rich or poor — who want to game the system for their own personal advantage, no matter the harm to the polity. Both are tolerated, and both serve as a rich trove of outrageous stories validating for the rich their contempt of the poor, and equally validating for the poor their contempt of the rich. And nothing is done to stop their predatory ways.

When the poor villagers employ their “weapons of the weak” – dissimulation, backbiting, false compliance, feigned ignorance, desertion, petty arson — they always lose ground even though the strategies do work, and occasionally work very well. Scott does not address this particular ‘why.’ I think they fail because their society has been successfully divided along a misleading line… a line cultivated by aggrandizers since the Neolithic. This line divides a formerly-cooperative polity into the scorned, naïve, lazy poor, and the thriving, clever, provident well-to-do. It’s a ruse. The division is systemic – aggrandizers can gain status only when some others lose it. If all had status then the strategy of aggrandizement would not work. This is why, by the way, aggrandizer-run tribal economies (big man societies) have been known to destroy valued items when the items’ sudden plenty threatens their usefulness in the maintenance of privilege.

This class division focus has been picked up in our latter days by social reformers enraged by the injustices attendant to social stratification, effectively turning the poor into deserving victims and the rich into undeserving predators. There is allure in this way of dividing the world, because indeed the poor are frequently victimized, and the rich behave like dicks or sociopaths all too often. Still… isn’t it just another way to weaken the commonwealth?

The only boundary that matters is the one between those that game the system at the expense of their fellows, and those who by and large do not. (I say ‘by and large’ because none of us are perfect. Perfection is not required.) Human communities must wake up and take power away from antisocial types who come from all classes and layers of society. Which brings me back to Ralph Nader’s fantasy. While it is very hard to imagine the current elites who have most of the power and money in the world doing something breathtakingly wonderful and outstanding for the planet or for America, it’s indeed misleading to put them all into one basket. There are those who prey remorselessly, and there are those, like Paul Newman or Ted Turner, who try to do some good with their big sack of money and influence. Those are potential allies.

Suppose we sever our allegiance from that hoary ol’ rich-poor paradigm and do the radical thing? Suppose we say no to this fractured way of looking at the world? Cleansing the doors of our perception, we focus on the real culprits. Slashing boldly through the layers of social stratification, we expose those who, from within any stratum, any class, prey on the commonwealth. It could be that some of the rich and privileged are our allies. (And some of the middling and downtrodden are not.) Our allies can be anywhere and we need them all. Let’s not exclude potential supporters from the upper reaches of society on principle.

I would like to end my musings with an example from American revolutionary times. After independence, the newly-American gentry turned against their former democratic ideals, and successfully schemed to push democracy back. It is easy to see them as greedy aggrandizers, and clearly some of them were. But they, as a class, were in a pickle. They had become enmeshed in a web of generous flood of credit extended them by wealthy Europeans. When the tab came due and the French revolution threw a monkey wrench into land speculator hopes for massive European investment, many of the gentry’s finances were on the brink or underwater. The war debt IOU scheme got them out of the worst, but when the land bubble burst, even Robert Morris ended up in debtors’ prison. Many of these rich and influential people were so enmeshed in debt and speculation they were no longer able to act freely on their ideals. When their desperate policies were met with obstructionism and resistance from common taxpayers, they stood to lose a great deal. Sometimes everything.

The elites were faced with the choice of pleasing overseas bankers and continued prosperity, or pleasing their farmer and mechanick neighbors and getting punished, maybe even ruined, by the faraway lenders and investors on whose goodwill hung their personal future. The resistance of the ‘moneyed men’ to economic forms of democracy provoked the resistance of the poorer sorts to explotive policies, which in turn energized the gentry to make institutional changes to hamstring democracy. Resistance fed the “us against them” paradigm. While Americans had successfully united to win political independence, they lost the battle for financial independence and deeper democracy because distant financial manipulators managed to split them into inimical factions.

Thus the foreign financiers kept America on a leash by dividing its people into those who were willing to tighten the screws of economic warfare, and those who suffered from it. A bitter rift emerged where before there was a great deal of common ground. Ideals were abandoned in the face of economic realities. The more radical notions of the American revolution had to be put on hold, and all Americans were the losers.

The time has come, the walrus said, to talk of many things. Things left unspoken for too long; disturbing, difficult things. The time has come to unify across all social divides: economic, religious, dietary, ideological, ethnic, gender, parties, and any others the system so eagerly churns out. Enough already! Let us get away from the habit of harping on our differences, extremely annoying though they often are, and focus on the one key lever of change: unity. Only unity can disable and render null and void the millennia-old strategy of ‘divide and rule.’

Are you sick and tired of being conquered yet? Well, are you?

— wayfinding aid for ongoing series —

  • Logic of Power: even when resistance of the underdogs wins, the underdogs step into the shoes of the old elite and become the new dominators
  • Vive la résistance? Au contraire: resistance gives energy to the opposition which the opposition uses against the resisters
  • And a corollary: resistance puts the focus on “them” and “what we don’t want” (another energy drain)

    This seems to be the gist of Deep Green Resistance, being promoted by Derrick Jensen and friends (with a book forthcoming). Focus on the hated civ. Focus on bringing down what we don’t want. Giving the gift of energy to that we do not wish to promote… 😕

  • Resistance is readily coopted and commodified (see Sandy Krolick’s essay on his KulturCritic blog or on Guy McPherson’s blog with many comments)
  • Resistance helps the opposition evolve, just like pushing against bugs and pathogens with nasty chemicals helps them evolve stronger, wilier, more powerful forms.

    As Bill Mollison puts it: “Eventually the work we did became the basis for regenerative work, and for legislation; but the principle remains the same. We were protesting right from the 1950s, but whenever we did anything, we always set up a stronger suppression and denial. Police became armed. Next time we faced the police, we found they were dressed up like something from outer space. We would drive a spike into a tree, so when it went into the wood-chipping machine, the machine would fly to pieces. Next thing, there are armed guards with metal detectors. We found we were building a huge oppressive force, run jointly by the state and industry against their own people. Our phones were tapped, nice thick files were drawn up, later fed into computers and sent to the CIA.”

  • Resistance deepens the “us vs. them, divide and conquer” paradigm, weakening us and making us more vulnerable
  • Hegel was wrong. When political resistance kicks in, it rarely leads to thesis/antithesis/synthesis. It too often traps us in oscillation between two extremes: thesis/antithesis/anti antithesis/anti anti antithesis, and so on, ad nauseam. Nobody ever quite gets what they want and need. I want to get off the resistance see-saw!
  • Organized resistance provides an anvil for the hammer of power.

The series on alternatives has begun. First, the intimations of what they may be:

Second, the how, the strategies:

Sometimes when you win, you really lose.
— White men can’t jump

I had previously sounded off in comments on this blog that resistance does not accomplish anything. I was wrong. Resistance can accomplish plenty under the right circumstances. While studying the American revolutionary era, a sudden flash of clarity drove home to me the stupendous successes of the radical democrats of that age. Common people exuberantly entered the political process, first by pushing their way into the formerly elite Committees of Correspondence and by organizing themselves into militias in a shockingly egalitarian way. How’s this for amazing? One captain was asked how many men he had under him; “none,” he replied, “but there are 90 men who command me!” Farmers, millers, artisans and shopkeepers insisted on having a voice regardless of rules and tradition. Then, as soon as the old order fell, ordinary Pennsylvanians had much say in the creation of the state constitution and together with the gentry made it a visionary document embodying strikingly altered practices. A far more inclusive political process than had ever existed among them came into being within months of independence! In addition, people had the good sense to resort to extra-legal solutions when necessary; they were bold enough to interpret laws their way. Militias refused to march against neighbors when ordered to defend the interests of land speculators; they reasoned it would be against “the Very Spirit of our Laws & Constitution.”

When the people realized they could not stop the new American elites from legislating self-serving policies, they put in place resistance networks that were quite able to block their enforcement. Bouton’s Taming Democracy describes in detail the rings of defense circling communities. The first ring was staffed by county revenue officials who thwarted ruinous tax collection. The second ring consisted of county judges who refused to prosecute delinquent taxpayers and tax collectors. Juries acquitting the accused and sheriffs who refused to make arrests made up the third and fourth rings. Fifth ring meant stopping tax collection, foreclosures and auctions through non-violent protests. Violent protests and independent-minded militias completed the circles of resistance. During the 1780s, these protective networks shielded local communities from the excesses of depredation, and gave people an outlet for their efforts to create a more just society. While imperfect, they were for a time so successful that the collection of taxes ground nearly to a halt. (It is useful to remember that those taxes went to pay the gentlemen holders of the war debt IOUs who had created the tight money policies under which the people were suffering.)

It was this very success that was their undoing. Both the power of the local resistance and the people’s outspokenness in the political arena panicked the elites enough to change their minds and begin plans to restructure constitutions, take away local self-governance via top-down political appointees, remove states’ ability to modify contracts and issue currency, and do away with militias’ independence. Through such means and yet others, they pushed democracy way back.

The people’s resistance provided the motivating energy to those feeling threatened by it. Resistance provokes counter-resistance, and the more successful resistance is, the more it alarms and energizes the opposition. Hence the saying, “what you resist, persists.” The civil rights movement energized white supremacists. The environmental movement energized “wise use” anti-conservationists. Decades of official anti-fascist denunciations energized skinheads and neo-nazis. Greens have energized anti-Green opposition. Climate activism has energized climate deniers. Just as in the days of yore, successful radical democrats energized the Federalists who under the guise of democracy amplified the backlash and built it into the Constitution.

Many fed-up people in America and elsewhere long for a powerful movement which would put massive pressure on the elites to effect big changes. Be careful what you wish for! Considering that the odds are stacked in the elites’ favor, why give them the gift of extra umph by our resistance? We need that energy for us; why give it away to those who will use it against us?

And that leads to the million dollar question: if not resistance, then what?

“First we win power and then we shall create a society worthy of humanity!” That is the realism of power and can do no more than reproduce power.

Changing the world without taking power

Domination and violence are two very different things. Domination is power over other people. It can be achieved via violence (hard domination) or by more subtle, non-violent methods. The concern of this blog is not violence per se. Domination, in my view, is at the root of the problems of our unraveling human societies, both the civilized ones, and the few others civilization is in the process of destroying. If someone asked me if violence can legitimately be used in the transformation of a domination-based society to an autonomous, power-sharing society, I would say that I see violence as a weapon of last resort, but never excluded on principle. So hang onto your vintage Hebrew slingshots, Ewok bamboo spears, halberds and scimitars, and your great granddad’s inlaid kris. They may be needed yet. But while blood baths regularly attend dominator struggles, I predict they will play only a minor role in creating the world of power-with.

Egalitarian tribes are known to have used a variety of graduated strategies against the occasional human who got out of hand. If all else failed, expulsion from the tribe or assassination were the options that remained. A powerful disruptor cannot be allowed to permanently damage the life of the tribe or imperil its viability. In a tribe where power-sharing and the cultural and personal habits and customs that go along with it – in other words, the cultural traditions of egalitarian sharing going back centuries or more – are strong, when the war chief turns despot in full view of everyone and is eliminated, things can go back to normal… with the tribe wiser for the experience.

We do not live in that kind of culture, nor do we have the habits of power-sharing deeply ingrained in our being. We are the captives of another system. Hard domination dates back to late Neolithic and beginning of the Bronze Age, about 6,000 years ago in the Near East; soft domination likely existed long before that. All we know now is domination. All of us civilized have lived lives of being dominated and dominating others. And that is the main reason why eliminating a passel of especially egregious dominators almost never works. It simply substitutes one set of dominators for another.

A thousand years ago, when the robber baron on the hill took half of the villagers’ chickens and winter food for himself and raped one girl too many, a few strong young men gathered in the woods to plot a rebellion and train in combat. One dark night, they marched up the hill to the castle, spiked the baron’s goons with pitchforks and tossed him and his family over the ramparts. The villagers cheered – until they realized that the boys up on the hill raided the baron’s wine cellars, stole the rest of villagers’ chickens and not a few pigs, and were living it up in style, attended by the remaining servants. When approached, they refused to leave the castle. Dominators who out-dominate the current dominators become the new dominators.

Fast forward to the twentieth century, that recent hotbed of revolutionary movements. To explain the trap of the ages-long and tragic efforts of trying to eliminate the dominators only to install new ones, I cannot possibly do better than quoting liberally from a small book by John Holloway called Change the world without taking power. Holloway is a (post?) Marxist concerned with capitalism as well as domination, and – a rare thinker, fully having absorbed the failures of revolutionary days gone by – clearly sees the futility of taking the power road. When he speaks of power, he means power-over (aka domination). When he mentions the state, he means the modern locus of domination. In a few instances, I have substituted the word “domination” for his “capitalism.” My concern is not with a 200 hundred year old economic system but rather with the pervasive millennia old system of domination within which all human relations have become embedded. (The book’s original text can be read here. And an expanded edition is about to be published next month.)

What can we do to make the world a better, more humane place? What can we do to put an end to all the misery and exploitation? There is an answer ready at hand. Do it through the state. Join a political party, help it to win governmental power, change the country in that way. Or, if you are more impatient, more angry, more doubtful about what can be achieved through parliamentary means, join a revolutionary organisation, help it to conquer state power, by violent or non-violent means, and then use the revolutionary state to change society. Change the world through the state: this is the paradigm that has dominated revolutionary thought for more than a century.

The state paradigm, that is, the assumption that the winning of state power is central to radical change, dominated not just theory but also the revolutionary experience throughout most of the twentieth century: not only the experience of the Soviet Union and China, but also the numerous national liberation and guerrilla movements of the 1960s and the 1970s. If the state paradigm was the vehicle of hope for much of the century, it became more and more the assassin of hope as the century progressed. The apparent impossibility of revolution at the beginning of the twenty-first century reflects in reality the historical failure of a particular concept of revolution, the concept that identified revolution with control of the state.

For over a hundred years, the revolutionary enthusiasm of young people has been channelled into building the party or into learning to shoot guns, for over a hundred years the dreams of those who have wanted a world fit for humanity have been bureaucratised and militarised, all for the winning of state power by a government that could then be accused of “betraying” the movement that put it there. “Betrayal” has been a key word for the left over the last century as one government after another has been accused of “betraying” the ideals of its supporters, until now the notion of betrayal itself has become so tired that there is nothing left but a shrug of “of course”. Rather than look to so many betrayals for an explanation, perhaps we need to look at the very notion that society can be changed through the winning of state power.

‘First build the army, first build the party, that is how to get rid of the power that oppresses us’. The party-building (or army-building) comes to eclipse all else. What was initially negative (the rejection of domination) is converted into something positive (institution-building, power-building). The induction into the conquest of power inevitably becomes an induction into power itself. The initiates learn the language, logic and calculations of power; they learn to wield the categories of a social science which has been entirely shaped by its obsession with power. Differences within the organisation become struggles for power. Manipulation and manoeuvering for power become a way of life.

The struggle is lost from the beginning, long before the victorious party or army conquers state power and ‘betrays’ its promises. It is lost once power itself seeps into the struggle, once the logic of power becomes the logic of the revolutionary process, once the negative of refusal is converted into the positive of power-building. And usually those involved do not see it: the initiates in power do not even see how far they have been drawn into the reasoning and habits of power. They do not see that if we revolt against domination, it is not because we want a different system of power, it is because we want a society in which power relations are dissolved. You cannot build a society of non-power relations by conquering power. Once the logic of power is adopted, the struggle against power is already lost.

The idea of changing society through the conquest of power thus ends up achieving the opposite of what it sets out to achieve. Instead of the conquest of power being a step towards the abolition of power relations, the attempt to conquer power involves the extension of the field of power relations into the struggle against power. What starts as a scream of protest against power, against the dehumanisation of people, against the treatment of humans as means rather than ends, becomes converted into its opposite, into the assumption of the logic, habits and discourse of power into the very heart of the struggle against power. For what is at issue in the revolutionary transformation of the world is not whose power but the very existence of power. What is at issue is not who exercises power, but how to create a world based on the mutual recognition of human dignity, on the formation of social relations which are not power relations.

The only way in which the idea of revolution can be maintained is by raising the stakes. The problem of the traditional concept of revolution is perhaps not that it aimed too high, but that it aimed too low. The notion of capturing positions of power, whether it be governmental power or more dispersed positions of power in society, misses the point that the aim of the revolution is to dissolve relations of power, to create a society based on the mutual recognition of people’s dignity. What has failed is the notion that revolution means capturing power in order to abolish power. This, then, is the revolutionary challenge at the beginning of the twenty-first century: to change the world without taking power.

But how can we change the world without taking power? Merely to pose the question is to invite a snort of ridicule, a raised eyebrow, a shrug of condescension.

Reality and power are so mutually incrusted that even to raise the question of dissolving power is to step off the edge of reality. All our categories of thought, all our assumptions about what is reality, or what is politics or economics or even where we live, are so permeated by power that just to say ‘no!’ to power precipitates us into a vertiginous world in which there are no fixed reference points to hold on to other than the force of our own ‘no!’. Power and social theory exist in such symbiosis that power is the lens through which theory sees the world, the headphone through which it hears the world: to ask for a theory of anti-power is to try to see the invisible, to hear the inaudible. To try to theorise anti-power is to wander in a largely unexplored world.

I invite you to visit with me this unexplored world in the next installment.