Capital Blight: To Wrench or Not to Wrench, a Response

asante2

by Steve Ongerth / IWW

A few days ago, I read To Wrench or Not to Wrench: A Brief History of Direct Action in the Environmental Movement and its Potential Consequences, Ethical Implications, and Effectiveness, by By Jeriah Bowser, of the Hampton Institute with particular interest, because it deals with a subject with which I have a good deal of familiarity. Having worked alongside Judi Bari and her fellow Earth First! — IWW Local #1 organizers, I learned a good deal from listening to the ongoing and evolving discussions and debates over strategy and tactics within both Earth First! and the IWW, and so Bowser’s article immediately caught my attention.

To be certain, I wanted to make sure I read his piece very carefully, because the subject he covers is particularly contentious and–in my humble opinion–often misconstrued in any number of frustrating ways. I found some things to agree with in Hampton’s piece, but there are some glaring errors and oversights in his argument, not to mention some very dangerous and damaging mistakes as well.

For starters, Bowser establishes a false dichotomy between environmental (or other) groups which “engage in direct action” and those that “stick to the democratic process”. There are many that do bothand see no contradiction in doing so. There is an old debate about “working within the system” versus “tearing the (rotten) system down”. Certainly the IWW advocates the later in regards to capitalism (“capitalism cannot be reformed”) philosophically, but as a matter of day-to-day survival the IWW is not adverse to working within established systems to make small gains, knowing full well that ultimately the IWW’s intended end, the abolition of wage slavery and the establishment of a cooperative commonwealth (that lives in harmony with the Earth) cannot be achieved within the context of capitalism, no matter how much one tries to reform it. Often times, the IWW alsoadvocates working outside the system through direct action, specifically at the point of production. Most times, the IWW favors the latter, but sometimes the boundaries aren’t entirely clear. The same holds true with radical environmentalists.

On the flip side, Bowser either naively or even dangerously lumps all forms of “direct acton” together and all groups that engage in a whole range of direct action tactics into a single grouping. Specifically he conflates Earth First!, Earth Liberation Front (ELF), and Animal Liberation Front (ALF) into one category. Isuppose that’s essentially accurate on a certain level, and it’s been a good long time since I have been an “active” Earth First!er (however that is defined), but when I was active in Earth First! (1995-98), wenever engaged in or advocated some of the tactics commonly associated with either ALF or ELF, including, especially arson. Arson was not only not condoned, the Earth First! groups I worked with specifically eschewed such tactics as counterproductive and self destructive. To my knowledge, that is still the case, even if Earth First! favorably reports on the activities of ELF and ALF.

Bowser also makes few distinctions between the veritable aresnal of direct action tactics that exist, simply labeling “tree sitting, blocking logging roads, and street protests” as “passive, non-violent” civil disobedience, then mentioning “tree spiking, or driving huge nails into trees” as an escalation of Earth First!’s militancy. He then goes on to declare that the Billboard Liberation Front (BLF) escalated those tactics by “defacing” billboards (although, perhaps “culture jamming” would be a more accurate term, because simple defacement and repurposing the message into an anti-capitalist or ironic satire is substantially more meaningful) followed by “burning” (or) “cutting them down”. I know of no proven examples of the latter, but I’ll accept that I don’t know everything and take the author at their word. However, the author then goes on to state that “arson slowly emerged as the preferred method of resistance, however, and was co-opted by other emerging environmental and animal rights groups- most notably the ELF and ALF,” as if there were a logical and linear progression from one to the other, which is a dubious argument.

Bowser (much later in the essay) mentions Ecodefense, by Dave Foreman and “Bill Haywood” (obviously a pseudonym for another Earth First!er), in passing, and though that text does mention burning machinery and billboards, he neglects to point out that Foreman and “Haywood” cautioned against using those tactics in favor of less risky methods if the latter are available. Furthermore, these two examples represent less than one percent of the material in the book which advocates a wide variety of monkeywrenching methods of various sorts for various purposes.

More importantly, Ecodefense, while often associated with Earth First! and sometimes sold through theEarth First! Journal (along with a good deal of other merchandise such as T-shirts, bumperstickers, music albums, and song books), was never considered “official” Earth First! literature. Granted, since Earth First!ers had no formal oprganization and often responded to questions about that by saying, “we’re a movement, not an organization”, there was some general consensus that Ecodefense was not official and distanced themselves from it. I was not part of any of the discussions that resulted in that decision, but my sense is that Ecodefense is primarily oriented towards small groups of guerilla sabotuers, and Earth First! was more and more orienting itself towards open, collective or even mass based direct action and civil disobedience (and yes, there is a significant difference). During the time I was active, Earth First!ers developed an alternative to Ecodefense, called The Earth First Direct Action Manual which is still available from their website.

Earth First!ers have a variety of opinions on ELF and ALF and the tactics the latter two use, but for the most part, Earth First!ers–myself included–openly disassociate ourselves from the tactic of arson for many reasons, not the least of which is the risk to ourselves, both in the act of setting fires and the possibility that such destructive acts might be traced back to us and land us in jail or worse. Further, many of us recognize that while arson might succeed at destroying Earth destroying infrastructure or machinery, there is no guarantee that it will, and the risk isn’t worth the potential reward. Besides, fires have unintended consequences and can destroy wilderness areas, injure people, and cause greater ecological destruction than they prevent. Plus, the powers that be can simply rebuild or replace what was destroyed fairly easily in most cases. As an IWW member, I also note the additional risk to the workers involved in the targeted activity who, even though they may endorse their bosses’ business operations out of capitalist Stockholm Syndrome and economic survival, are not responsible for the actions of their masters.

Indeed, the source Bowser offers to “prove” the “progression” from Earth First! to ELF is a website by retired IWW member John Hanna who openly identifies himself as an ELF cofounder and declares:

arson is a dangerous and unpredictable strategy that can get out of control very easily. Even if the attack does not injure or kill an innocent person, there are no winners. Torching sport utility vehicles, ski resorts, research labs and McMansions, releases huge amounts of toxic gasses into the atmosphere — creating far more greenhouse gasses than if they were left alone. The end result: everything is rebuilt, replaced or repaired. This doubles the burden on the environment and taxpayers! An exercise in futility and self-defeat.

It is likewise a gross oversimplification to lump all direct action tactics into one basket as it is to place all groups and movements calling themselves “radical environmentalist” into the same category.

From four sources alone–the aforementioned Ecodefense and Direct Action Manual being the first two, the third being Sabotage, the Conscious Withdrawal of the Workers’ Industrial Efficiency by Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, and the fourth being this document by Gene Sharpe of the Albert Einstein Institute–one can find over five hundred different tactics. Most of them do not involve arson of major property damage at all (though many involve minor, petty property damage in some instances). No doubt there are other sources that could expand the list by hundreds more.

And these are merely tactics. By themselves they’re useless.

26_co2armyknife

This is a crucial point, and not mere hair splitting. Direct action tactics number in the many hundreds and are designed to fit a whole range of situations. Think of direct action as the largest Swiss Army Knife one can envision. Now consider how one would use each tool in that knife. One would presumably want to use a screwdriver to drive in a screw, a saw to cut wood, nail clippers to remove cuticles, etc. One wouldn’t use a blade to open a bottle of wine, nor would one use a corkscrew to pull a splinter out of their finger. Presumably, one wouldn’t favor one tool over another simply because it looks menacing, they’d pick the most appropriate tool to get the job done in the most efficient way.

The author doesn’t seem to recognize this, simply listing tactics in a perceived, (and, I should emphasize,ahistorical) escalating order of forcefulness, as if the first tactics he listed were tried and found wanting and then abandoned in favor of the later tactics he mentioned. That is also wrong.

Bowser glosses over tree spiking almost entirely, skipping the history of its evolution as a tactic, the effect it had on relations with timber workers, the subsequent effect that had on Judi Bari’s attempts to build coalitions with timber workers against the timber bosses, the renunciation of tree spiking by Earth First! — IWW Local #1 (led by Judi Bari and Gene Lawhorn), the ensuing shit-storm that created within Earth First!, and the eventual arguments compiled and presented by Bari that tree spiking was both dangerous to timber workers and ineffective as a tactic for its advertised intent, namely saving forests from the saws of the timber corporations. Bowser evidently never read these accounts, because he repeats the widely held falsehood that tree spiking works, when the evidence says the opposite!

He neglects to mention that Earth First! — IWW Local #1 found a much more effective tactic than tree spiking that actually worked the way tree spiking was supposed to do (but didn’t). That involved the use of skeins of yarn strung from tree to tree and/or wrapped around individual trees, which would stop the loggers’ chainsaws simply because the yarn’s elasticity would gum up the works. The only solution to the yarn would be for the loggers to cut each piece with scissors. Considering that hundreds of strings of yarn could just as easily be wrapped around the trunk of an old-growth redwood tree as a sixteen penny nail driven into it, it seems a much more favorable tactic even on the face of it alone. Furthermore, the yarn would actually slow down the logging (whereas spiking didn’t), and yarn represented no threat to the workers. Yet, yarning never received the glory that tree spiking did, in spite of the fact that yarning was effective and tree spiking wasn’t.

This may be primarily due to the fact that–at least as far as Bari was concerned–was that the former was a masculine, hyper macho act, whereas yarning was very feminist and anti-macho, and, outside of Earth First! — IWW Local #1 which was led primarily by women, Earth First!’s tactics were chosen for their machismo as much as anything. And many of the loudest, primarily male Earth First! spokespeople outside of northwestern California publicly denounced Local #1 for “compromising” and being “too anthropocentric” (in spite of the fact that arguably, Local #1 was the most effective group of Earth First!ers and convinced more people to come around to radical environmental ideas which were then subsequently disseminated elsewhere).

This disconnect, shared by Bowser evidently, speaks to a bigger flaw in the argument he raises, and that is the confusion over tactics and strategy. Far too often, I have noticed that there is no distinctions recognized between the two. Many, especially younger, radicals don’t recognize the difference. Think again of the Swiss Army Knife. If one’s strategy is to open a bottle of beer, one would want to pick the bottle opener to do so, because that is the most effective tool for the job. One could of course, use the mallet (assuming their knife had one) and smash open the beer bottle. That could work and look cool, I suppose, but would it be most effective? I say that it wouldn’t. The mallet wielding individual would more than likely create a mess, risk cutting themselves and others with the broken glass, and perhaps lose some or all of their beer in the process.

Strategy and tactics should be thought of this way as well, but quite often they aren’t. Far too many militants, radical environmentalists included, choose tactics because (1) they look cool; (2) they have potentially dramatic effect; and (3) there is a hope that they will spark some sort of insurrectionary wave that spreads. That is a strategy by default, but not a particularly effective one.

Part of that stems from the inability to recognize the forces being fought against, which I will address later, and part of that stems from yet another false dichotomy, repeated by the author:

The debate and actions continue as to the fate of our planet. Many people hold the traditional view that the planet is here for our enjoyment and exploitation, and needs no consideration or protection. On the other side of the pond are the “deep ecologists” who argue that earth and all of her inhabitants are sacred and have inherent value, regardless of their purpose or value to humans. For those individuals whose daily interactions with the voracious appetite of industrial society and the unprecedented plundering of the earth’s resources lead them to feel as though something needs to change, there are often few choices presented. For those individuals who sense the overall futility in buying a Prius, switching to reusable shopping bags, and voting for the Green Party; and who want to actually do something to protect the few remaining sacred, un-commodified places and creatures in the world, the democratic process seems like a carrot on a stick — a dangling distraction to buy “greener” things while the corporations continue to do whatever the hell they want and aren’t held accountable for any of the consequences.

It’s as if the author lumps everybody in the environmental movement into two camps: (1) reformist green liberals (who of course are part of the problem and not the solution in Bowser’s estimation) whom he so sneeringly dismisses as Prius driving, reusable shopping bag using Green Party voters (a gross caricature to be sure), and (2) Those who actually want to “do something”. He also betrays his own political orientation and thinly disguised sectarianism by limiting the latter camp to those who “(want to) protect the few remaining sacred, un-commodified places and creatures in the world,” as if radical environmentalism has no other goals!

This is deeply insulting to the vast majority of environmentalists who fit into neither category, including most radical environmentalists. Any idiot knows that a radical environmentalist who must drive a car would no doubt choose the greenest option available (that being a Prius in 2004) rather than a gas guzzler. I guess we’re supposed to believe that if one drives at all or shops at a grocery store instead of picking fruit off of a tree or digging food out of the dumpster they’ve sold out?!?

This, for me, is the heart of the matter. Contrary to what some might think, I am not arguing against the use of direct action, especially in any moral sense as Bowser anticipates, but apparently he is setting me and anyone else who disagrees with him up to be silenced or our arguments preemptively cut down by such a dichotomy. These doesn’t appear to be any space in Bowser’s mind for those who might condone some methods of direct action (such as tree sitting, yarning, or locking down to a logging gate), but condemn others (such as tree spiking or arson). Nor does there seem to be any room for discussion onwhat tactics are appropriate and effective for a given situation.

 

Those of us who question Bowser are not arguing against the use of extra-legal tactics; we’re arguing for the most strategic tactics given the specific situation. There seems to be a very naive and dangerous belief among some militants (Bowser included) that the most forceful tactic is the most effective, but I have already named at least one instance where this isn’t the case, and I guarantee that I could name others.

I think, perhaps, this shows that Bowser and others who feel similarly do have a strategy and that is a vulgar form of insurrectionism. Specifically they suggest that the most effective way to fight against our adversaries is to spark a massive uprising and/or bring down the system that oppresses us by sparking off small, dramatic actions which inspire others to do the same with the intent of showing the powers that be that we, the people, are ungovernable, and this will somehow magically bring the system crashing down. In this way, insurrectionism is the political equivalent of arson.

 

I would like to suggest that this is a foolhardy approach. Like fire, the course of insurrections are very difficult to predict. For both a fire and an insurrection, the conditions for their spreading have to be exactly right. It’s difficult enough with fire, far more difficult with politics. Plus, insurrections are never planned; they happen. Insurrectionists like to think that they are the force that drives them, but that is often not the case. For every insurrection that does happen, there are probably thousands that don’t. Plus, those that do happen are as much a result of organized revolutionaries doing the boring, mundane work of building movements, producing propaganda, building alliances, and the like. Case in point, Bowser’s account of the Anti-WTO demonstrations that took place in late November 1999 are yet another oversimplification and incomplete account of history:

If, however, the goal is to create public awareness and concern for issues that are below the radar, they will almost always achieve that — as the media loves a good “eco-terrorism” story. The problem lies in what type of publicity this person or group may receive. Even with the flagrantly biased and ignorant coverage given by the media, the message is ultimately presented to the public, and will probably gain much more attention than a petition or a march would have. A case in point would be the vandalism committed by the Black Bloc during the WTO protests in Seattle in 1999. In the days leading up to the conference, over 50,000 protesters from all over the world gathered in Seattle to protest further economic exploitation, or “trade negotiations.” For the first several days of massive organized protests and demonstrations, there was a total media blackout, as the media did not want to lend any credence to the demonstrators or give their concerns any legitimacy. Only when a few members of an anarchist militia known as the Black Bloc began destroying corporate store fronts for companies which had been proven guilty of international criminal behavior did the media give any attention to the protests; however, did so with reckless bias, erroneously claiming that protesters, “hurled molotov cocktails at police” and committed “random acts of vandalism and destruction.”

But things were nowhere near that simple. For starters, Bowser ignores the context in which the Black Bloc carried out their actions. There had been month and months of planning by hundreds of different organizations in opposition to the WTO meetings with various agendas and various strategies for opposing the trade negotiations. There were numerous strategies proposed and a whole range of goals and demands put forth, most notably because the various groups and organizations had diverse and often divergent goals in mind. Anti-capitalists opposed the trade pacts entirely, whereas reformist groups merely wanted “a seat at the table”, but were willing to work alongside of those in opposition (albeit reluctantly) when it occurred to them that they weren’t even going to get a seat in the lobby, much less the proverbial table.

Both the IWW and Earth First! were part of the anti-capitalist faction which sought to block the negotiations from proceeding. As early as late Spring of 1999, at an anarcho-syndicalist “summit” we had organized called I-99, the Bay Area IWW took part in planning actions as part of the anti-WTO protests. These consisted of several efforts: (1) organizing a large contingent of IWW members and like minded class struggle unionists to protest in Seattle; (2) Organizing rank and file members of the ILWU to push for a vote to shut down the west coast ports during the WTO negotiations; (3) bringing large numbers of the United Steelworkers who were still engaged in a struggle with Kaiser Aluminum (owned by Maxxam corporation) and were working alongside Earth First! against their common adversary, Charles Hurwitz; (4) supporting various Seattle public workers unions, including the bus drivers, whose contracts were up at the time and whose bosses were pushing for concessions. All of these things happened about as well as we could have planned them.

Meanwhile, a number of anti-globalization activists, many of whom had been trained by the Ruckus Society and others including many veteran Earth First!ers, organized into several hundred affinity groups planned various autonomous, but complimentary non-violent acts of civil disobedience. These groups comprised what became known as the Direct Action Movement (DAM) which has been associated with Green Party organizer Medea Benjamin and her husband, NGO director Kevin Danaher, and though those two were indeed deeply involved in it, it would be a gross oversimplification to declare that the DAM was their baby.

The Black Bloc represented a third force who had little connection to the class struggle unionist groups or the DAM. Nobody was at all sure what would happen or the results of our actions would be, and none of us realistically expected to win.

Bowser evidently believes that it was the actions of the Black Bloc that won the day, but I disagree. In fact, it was essentially a combination of dumb luck and, ironically enough, the class collaborationism of the AFL-CIO (which backfired) that ultimately brought about the final results.

The AFL-CIO leadership was among those that “wanted a seat at the table”, but didn’t get one. They also wanted to make sure that their rank and file didn’t start charting an independent course from the leadership, lest the latter democratically organize a break from capitalist collaborationism and the Democratic Party (recall that Clinton, a Democrat, was President at the time). As it became more and more evident that several thousand union members were going to join up with a bunch of “hippies” (the DAM) and “communists” (the IWW and the union militants), the AFL-CIO leadership, including then President John Sweeney, attempted to reign them in by organizing an “official” looking “protest” march which was really little more than a symbolic parade, and would deliberately steer the rank and file awayfrom the DAM actions.

The corporate media was present largely to report on the negotiations themselves and the official AFL-CIO “protests”. To the Corporate Media, anti-capitalist protests are generally ignored or treated as insignificant.

The rank and file militants and perhaps some of the black bloc insurrectionists joined in the official “march”, but immediately pushed for a breakaway march that succeeded and lead into the heart of the DAM actions, where the police were already firing off tear gas grenades and other crowd control weapons. The Corporate Media had been confused, not expecting the breakaway march, and had followed the rank and filers into the fray. Then and only then did the Black Bloc start breaking windows leading to the police riots and collapse of the talks that followed.

To argue that the Black Bloc was responsible for all of that is simply absurd. It’s even debatable that they had any significant effects on the events that unfolded at all let alone any crucial ones!

To my knowledge there has yet to be a thorough and coherent analysis of the currents that lead to the climax in Seattle, but certainly neither the Black Bloc nor the DAM conducted any. Instead they spent months sanctimoniously pointing fingers at each other and arguing that their method was the one truemethod of winning campaigns. Much hullabaloo was made about Medea Benjamin asking “why the cops weren’t arresting the anarchists” (meaning the black bloc), and spun to suggest that she was arguingagainst the latter breaking windows, but in actual fact, another DAM activist who was there has argued that Benjamin was actually wondering why the police were so intent on arresting the DAM affinity groups and seemed content to leave the Black Bloc alone, perhaps even hinting that the window breaking may have been the work of agent provocateurs!

Rather than consider that she might have actually had a point and conduct a thorough self examination of their strategy and tactics, most Black Bloc adherents instead dismissed Benjamin as a “reformist”, “liberal”, or “authoritarian”. Strictly speaking, both the tactics of the DAM and the Black Bloc fall under Bowser’s description of “extra legal” action, but the DAM and Black Block didn’t see eye to eye with each other, much less give organized labor any credit for its role in Seattle! Naturally, all future anti-trade pact demonstrations were organized as if either the Black Bloc or the DAM had all of the answers and–surprise, surprise!–none of them succeeded to accomplish what was accomplished in Seattle. Go figure.

29_wecandoit

Yet this is not the biggest flaw in Bowser’s article. Worst of all he cavalierly glosses over the implications of “Operation Backfire” which has brought about the repression of hundreds of radical activists in an ongoing campaign of government repression, stating:

Not only was Operation Backfire a gross violation of civil rights and judicial protocol, but it was largely ineffective and futile. The arrests and prosecutions of the ALF and ELF members did not stop or even slow down the movement. Both organizations, as well as many other direct-action environmental organizations, reported increasing membership, donations, and public support following the trial and subsequent media coverage. Several acts of monkeywrenching have occurred since then, albeit with more covert tactics. Many of the thirteen activists currently in prison are actively engaged in the struggle, writing newsletters and articles from their cells, giving interviews to reporters, and studying the works and writings of other activists who have been imprisoned throughout history for opposing destructive regimes — Martin Luther King Jr., Nelson Mandela, Mohandas Gandhi, Huey Newton, etc.

But earlier in his article he says:

The tactics used by the FBI to bring down the ALF and ELF cells during Operation Backfire…phones were tapped, emails were read, individuals were threatened and coerced into snitching out their friends, and undercover informants were sent to infiltrate and collect data on so-called “suspected terrorists,” all without warrants or any form of government supervision.

In fact, at least eighteen ELF and ALF activists, including Briana Waters, Chelsea Dawn Gerlach, William Cottrell, Darren Todd Thurston, Ian Jacob Wallace, Jacob (Jake the SNAKE) Ferguson, Jen Kolar, Kevin Tubbs, Lacey Phillabaum, Lauren Weiner, Stanislas Gregory Meyerhoff, Ryan Lewis, Kendall Tankersley, Frank Ambrose, Zachary Jensen, Suzanne Savoie, Aaron Ellringer and Katherine Christianson snitched on their comrades. Perhaps ELF and ALF recovered from this, but a considerable amount of damage was done by their actions that could be irreversible. It’s not at all certain that any of the actions carried out by either ELF or ALF were all that effective in any case, and its at least possible that ALF and ELF would b much bigger if they used different extra-legal methods of direct action. And just because ELF and ALF may have since recovered and grown, it doesn’t rule out the possibility that the evidence gathered from those that snitched could be used to further undermine the radical environmental movement.

Bowser himself hints that he’s not entirely certain of the effectiveness of such tactics, declaring:

Are direct-action, extra-legal activities an effective way to combat deforestation, tar-sands projects, fur-farms, or any other environmental destruction currently taking place? It entirely depends on what your goal is. In some instances, the direct threat to animals or forests has been effectively stopped, as in the burning of horse-slaughterhouses and corrals, the release of animals from fur-farms, and the tree-spiking of large tracts of forest land which are still standing today. In many others, however, burned buildings were simply rebuilt, new animals were bred and slaughtered, and new equipment was ordered with almost no substantial loss to the offending company due to insurance policies. One could argue that rampant direct action actually harms the earth — as arson releases huge amounts of carbon into the atmosphere and necessitates the production and purchasing of more materials.

As stated earlier, he is entirely wrong about tree-spiking, and his other examples do not actually represent winning the war so much as triumphing in battle. The same forces that produce fur pelts, clearcut forests, slaughter livestock, destroy whole regions by mining tar sands, or spew hydrocarbons into the atmosphere are as rampant as ever. Can we really argue that ALF’s and ELF’s methods of resistance are any more effective than those of Earth First!, or even the Green Party?

Bowser concludes his article by offering three arguments (which he oddly calls “examples”) offering moral justification for extra legal action, including the Boston Tea Party, a quote from Chief Seattle (“The Earth is our mother. Whatever befalls the Earth befalls the sons and daughters of the earth. This we know. All things are connected by the blood which unites one family. All things are connected.”), and Proudhon’s axiom, “Property is Theft!”. I agree wholeheartedly that these arguments contradict the notion that “private property” is sacred and acts of vandalism against property, especially in defense of the environment, can be and often are both justifiable and necessary.

However, there’s a marked contrast between throwing crates of tea overboard and setting the ship carrying it on fire; both would have disrupted the operations of the Dutch East India Company, but the latter method carried unnecessary risk and–assuming the Boston Tea Party was actually significant at all in bringing about the American Revolution–the former proved effective enough. And neither Seattle nor Proudhon engaged arson to my knowledge or advocated as much.

Nowhere does Bowser draw any connections to his three “examples” that prove that the acts carried out by ELF or ALF have any real effectiveness. In fact, if history is any indication, it would be a more apt comparison to place them in the same category as the Weather Underground and the German Red Army Faction (both of whom failed miserably to bring about the revolutions they sought) instead of the American Revolution.

Don’t get me wrong, I am not opposed to extra-legal action. Something does indeed need to change, and none of us here would dispute that, but who exactly are we fighting? The author, like too many inhabiting the radical environmentalist milieu identifies the problem as “industrial society” rather than the actualculprit which is capitalism. This no doubt is directly related to the very shallow ahistorical analysis of tactics offered by Bowser I mentioned above.

When one starts to recognize this distinction, it becomes a bit clearer why ALF and ELF type tactics aren’t particularly effective. In reality, they don’t significantly impact capitalism. While burning down a building or torching a piece of construction equipment may have a financial impact on one business, even to the point of shutting some businesses down, they don’t shut down business as usual. To do that something much larger and much more transformative than a small band of guerillas will be necessary.

The capitalists recognize this and effectively shield themselves against guerilla saboteurs (and other forms of organized resistance) in a number of ways. These include (1) lobbying governments for laws against property destruction which results in increased repression of dissidents; (2) insurance policies backed by government assurances that costs incurred by saboteurs are outsourced to the taxpaying public (which further drives wedges between groups like ELF and more “mainstream” organizations); (3) Use of small, contract firms to do the work for the overseeing corporations who reap the profits but incur no significant cost from saboteurs.

It’s also easy to forget that sabotage is actually quite common and widespread. Well over 99 percent of it is either random vandalism by individuals with no greater aim than to break things or individual disgruntled workers covertly taking their frustrations out on their bosses with no higher strategy than venting their anger. While most of these acts are mostly insignificant compared to deliberate acts of arson, they still collectively cost much more due to their sheer volume. So in actual fact, while dramatic acts, such as arson, might draw attention to radical environmentalists, even Bowser admits that not all of it is wanted attention, and it’s likely that over all, it has no significant effect on the capitalists’ bottom line.

It’s likewise easy to overlook the greatest potential resource in overthrowing the capitalist system (especially if you are geared towards small, covert guerilla actions as opposed to movement building), and that is those very same workers. Not only is it crucial to discuss the effectiveness of various tactics, it’s equally important to debate who should ideally engage in those tactics. For example, a small group of guerilla saboteurs destroying one earth moving machine is nowhere near as effective as tens of thousands of workers collectively refusing to operate those machines, and lest Bowser or anyone else think that it can’t be done, I can think of countless instances of where it has been done, and not a single one of those acts was in any sense “legal”.

For example, in the summer of 1989, striking coal miners in West Virgina, Virgina, and Kentucky engaged in widespread acts of civil disobedience and open warfare with their bosses, scabs, and the government resorting to tactics that Earth First!er Darryl Cherney (who witnessed some of the acts while he had journeyed there to offer solidarity to the striking miners) swore came straight out of Ecodefense, and these acts were effective–at least until the union bureaucrats caved in and accepted management’s concessions in fear that their own rank and file would revolt. Since these actions were widespread, open acts of class solidarity performed by those most likely to be impacted by the results, they were far more strategically advantageous than similar acts carried out by small bands of covert elves under the cover of darkness.

Ultimately, it will take much more than guerilla actions to bring about the transformation of society that is needed in order to ensure our survival in any case. Much of the machinery and property that ELF and ALF would destroy could be instead appropriated by the 99 percent and used for good. Much of it would be converted into something much different than it is currently. For example, fur farms could be repurposed as organic farms and vegetable gardens. Earth moving machinery used to bulldoze mountaintops and forests could instead be used to de-pave unneeded roads. Not all logging is unnecessary or detrimental to the long term survivability of the forest ecosystem. That which cannot be redeemed can and should be deconstructed and perhaps even destroyed, but at least it should be done in a carefully thoughtful manner.

So before you all start mixing molotov cocktails and picking potential targets for them, pause for a moment and ask yourself just how effective you think your actions will be. Ask yourself what will happen after you complete your mission. Will you have actually brought about the change you seek? Or is there a better way? I argue that there is and that is the organizing the working class to overthrow this rotten system at its core, the point of production. In the short run, it won’t have the dramatic effect of a black bloc insurrection, but in the long run it will be far more effective. You can argue that we don’t have much longer to run–and on that point I agree completely–but relying on arson or other forms of property destruction as the one true method is hardly likely to succeed. It puts the cart before the horse strategically and it actually limits our collective power rather than enhancing it. Think about it.

Tags: ,