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Tenacious: Art and Writing From Women in Prison

An interview with Vikki Law from New York, United States.
Grassroots Feminism Blog
February 2009

Tenacious zine started in 2003 after Vikki Law was approached as an outside publisher and co-editor by women incarcerated in Oregon; they needed a self-determined forum for female prisoners' voices after the mainstream media kept ignoring their proposals. Vikki wrote a piece called "Incarcerated Women Create Their Own Media" for the feminist magazine, Off Our Backs, detailing this background, and recently published a book entitled Resistance Behind Bars from her involvement in prisoner support and incarcerated women's struggles. An interview with Vikki on the role that zines play in movements for social change, and the importance of striving for liberation for all in freedom, not equality for some in injustice.

Off Our Back article, ""Incarcerated Women Create Their Own Media", http://findarticles.com/p/articles/mi_qa3693/is_200701/ai_n19512053

Can you introduce yourself?

I just turned 32 years old. I was born and raised in Queens, one of the 5 boroughs of NYC. I now live in the city itself, in a rapidly-changing neighborhood called the Lower East Side. I’m the proud parent of a 8-year-old daughter named Siu Loong (which is Cantonese for “little dragon” since she was born in the Year of the Dragon). [Read Vikki's interview about zines, radical parenting, and how to support parents in your activist scene here]

Can you tell our readers about Tenacious: Art and Writings from Women in Prison ?

It’s a collection of articles, essays, poetry and art by formerly and currently incarcerated women across the United States. Their works cover subjects like the health care (or lack of health care) system, being HIV-positive inside prison, trying to get an education while in prison, sexual harassment by prison staff and general prison conditions, and giving up children for adoption - in the U.S., if a child is in foster care for 15 of the past 22 months, the state automatically terminates the parent’s legal rights. Many women in prison have sentences far exceeding 15 months AND the majority of them were single parents before entering prison.

The idea for Tenacious actually came from several women incarcerated in Oregon. However, people inside prisons do not have access to printers, copy machines, massive amounts of postage and all the stuff that we zinesters on the outside may take for granted. So they approached me and asked if I would be the outside publisher. How could I say no? That was in 2003 and I’ve just finished Issue #16.

Can you tell us about the process of how the zine articles and drawings make it from the women in prison to yourself? Do they get censored by the prison authorities on the way out?

The women write (or, occasionally, type) their articles and mail them to me. Some women in federal prisons have access to e-mail and have been able to e-mail me their writings. E-mail seems to be more easily censored by the prison authorities - both women who have used this medium have reported that they have been told by staff members that they shouldn't be writing about such issues. In one case, the woman's e-mail access was taken away and she was threatened with being placed in the SHU (Special Housing Unit or solitary confinement). In the other case, the woman was threatened with having her furlough (a shortperiod of time - usually 36 to 48 hours that she can spend outside the prison with her
family) taken away. This is also true with snail mail, but I think that mailroom staff are a lot less likely to read each and every letter coming through (whereas with e-mail, a computer program can probably pull out words and phrases that might be seen as "threatening to the safety and security of the institution." (This is the actual phrasing that prisons use to justify banning reading material). In one case, in a state prison in Oregon, a woman was trying to send out a drawing that depicted a female prisoner who had obviously just been sexually assaulted. In the background of a drawing, one could see the back of a correctional officer (the euphemistic term for "prison guard" here in the United States) walking away. The mailroom confiscated the drawing and she received several visits from prison administrators about that drawing.

I have never heard of a prison administration encouraging the zine. One woman said that, when she was in the county jail, she would share the zine with one of the guards who liked it. In some cases, the prison has censored the zine. In Oregon, after I published an article about guards harassing a lesbian couple because of their sexual orientation,that particular issue was banned.

Obviously the zine has tremendous importance both for the women contributing, and in raising awareness of the issues to the readers outside. Has the zine been used in any way to challenge prison conditions,or to further advocate for the women? If it hasn't, do you think there isthe potential for this self-made media to achieve this?

In one instance, I know that an article by a woman incarcerated in Oregon inspired members of the (now-defunct) prisoner rights group Break the Chains! to organize a letter-writing campaign to the warden to stop the harassment against her. I can't recall any other instances in which something in the zine directly sparked outside activism/agitation. I think that there is definitely the potential for the zine to spark MORE advocacy/challenging of conditions.

What do you do alongside editing the zine?

I write about issues affecting incarcerated women and their acts of resistance and collective organizing to challenge these conditions. I correspond with roughly a dozen women incarcerated across the country. Often, they tell me stories of their lives, both past and present; sometimes they ask me to look up resources for them since prisoners do not have web access. I also send them news about the outside, often news of resistance (like the recent protests around the invasion of Gaza or the recent sex workers’ march in Washington, DC), or sometimes just more mainstream news that they don’t have access to because they are in solitary confinement. I’ve spent the past year working on a book about incarcerated women’s resistance and organizing, Resistance Behind Bars: The Struggles of Incarcerated Women, and now I suppose I’ll spend the next year organizing book events!

What do you hope can be accomplished through your DIY projects?

With Tenacious , I wanted to help give incarcerated women an outlet for their stories and experiences. At the time, I didn’t see any media devoted solely to their issues and experiences. I think it’s raised awareness among people who do prisoner support and prisoner rights work for men; women haven’t really been seen by many of these activists. At the same time, having it in zine format has also raised awareness among people in the zine community. I read a zine about a young woman’s choice to give her baby up for adoption; I’d printed a story of a young woman of roughly the same age who was arrested early during her pregnancy and wrestled with what would be best for her baby given that she was serving a long prison sentence. She finally decided upon adoption. I sent that copy of Tenacious to her (the woman on the outside who had given her baby up for adoption). She wrote me back and said that she’d been very moved, not only by the story of adoption but by all the stories in Tenacious. Before I’d sent her that zine, she had never really thought about prison issues, let alone the existence of women in prison.

What else do you love about zines? Are there any aspects you find challenging or limiting in the zine community?

I love the physicality of zines. I love the fact that you can hold them in your hands and that they come in all different shapes, sizes, colors, and styles. I love that you can carry them along anywhere and pass them along. A couple of years ago, a friend returned from Argentina and pretty much came straight from the airport to the NYC Anarchist Bookfair where China (who does the zine The Future Generation ) and I were tabling our zines. She swooped in, gave me a hug and handed me some punk parenting zines from Buenos Aires! And those zines built connections between me and some political punk parents in Argentina, connections that I would never have made through other media like blogs (since my ability to read and write in Spanish isn’t great, I don’t seek out Spanish-language blogs and so, if the information and network was in that format, I never would have come across it).

I do get frustrated sometimes, not so much by the overwhelming whiteness of the zine scene (perhaps because I do not frequent things like zine readings and zine events), but by the unwillingness of a lot of white zinesters to address their racial biases or stereotyping in their zines. Perhaps this is simply a reflection of those particular zinesters and I’m not advocating that all zines have an element of deconstructing whiteness and racism in it, but c’mon! I thought the zine subculture was supposed to be more open to introspection and other voices, not replicating mainstream views (like all Puerto Ricans who own pitbulls breed them to be nasty fighting dogs). I find it hard to enjoy a zine after I come across one or two racial stereotypes in what might otherwise be an interesting read. I’m not sure how much of this irritation stems from my being a woman of color in a zine scene that is probably predominantly white (although truthfully, because I try not to put myself in subculture spaces that are predominantly white these days, I’m more than a bit insulated from that reality and everything that goes with it).

Do you consider feminist zines as part of a social movement? Do you think feminist zines can effect meaningful social and political change at large - or do they have significance mainly in individual lives?

That’s a good question. I hadn’t thought about zines in that context before. I think that feminist zines are a good tool as part of social movements. For instance, even in the age of blogs and the widespread use of the Internet, there are populations of women who are cut out of the information loop. Incarcerated women are one such population. Zines and magazines can, to some limited extent, get into the prisons and raise awareness about issues and ideas that they may not have thought of otherwise. I’ve had women in their twenties ask me to send them information about feminism because they don’t know much about it or they have always seen it as a white, middle-class issue and since the majority of those in prison are not white, middle-class folks, they didn’t relate to these ideas or issues while on the outside. Women have also told me that they’ve shared the material I’ve sent them—about feminism, politics, ideas surrounding prison abolition and the question “what do we do if we don’t have prisons?”, etc.—with the other women around them. In some prisons, it’s sparked discussions among women about ideas around patriarchy, sexism, the necessity of speaking out, etc.

I’m not sure if, at this point, zines have the same potential to effect meaningful social and political change that they might have had years ago, before the explosion of on-line, instant information and a growing lack of interest in printed matter. At the same time, though, I wouldn’t discount the possibility altogether. In 1979, after the murders of several black women in Boston and indifference from both the police and black male leaders in the community, a black feminist group called the Combahee River Collective wrote and distributed a pamphlet called “Six Black Women: Why Did They Have to Die?” The pamphlet (which today we might see as more of a one-off zine, but back then the word didn’t exist and so all historical documentation refers to it as a pamphlet) analyzed the murders as a result of the racism and sexism that devalued black women’s lives. The pamphlet galvanized diverse groups, including women from the larger white feminist community and black church groups, to begin recognizing, discussing and working around the issue and continues to influence women of color-led groups and collectives working around violence against women issues today.

Do you see yourself as part of a “DIY” or “Third Wave Feminism” movement today?

At this point, not really. I definitely wouldn’t call myself an “anti-feminist,” but I think that the term “feminism” still seems pretty loaded with white, middle class values (at least here in the u.s.) that I don’t feel all that comfortable using that term for myself, esp. as a woman of color who does not aspire to anything resembling middle class. I understand that there are women like bell hooks and Gloria Anzuldua who identify as part of Third Wave feminism, but recent conflicts between feminist organizations that are primarily white and women of color (both individuals and groups), such as the recent nastiness between the editors of Seal Press (a u.s. feminist publishing house) and women of color bloggers who called them out on publishing a racist cartoon on the cover of one of their books about feminism, have made me even more reluctant to see myself as part of a movement that includes women like that who refuse to acknowledge, let alone challenge, their own ingrained racism and racist practices.

What are the most pressing issues for you in daily life?

In daily life as opposed to broader, over-arching goals? Survival, getting through the day as a parent and a woman of color and someone actively involved in social change work and organizations (and trying not to burn myself out) …Well, not just getting through the day and basic survival (as in food, working to pay the bills, etc.) but also getting through the day in ways that are also meaningful and nourishing to me…When I have time to read a book or go outside and photograph something new and interesting or work on one of my projects, that is a good day. When I spend the entire day doing mindless wage-work and don’t have any time for ME, that is a bad, soul-sucking day. Does that make sense?

Absolutely. How do you think society might be re-thought and transformed to be a safer, more equitable place for women, grrrls, transgender and queer folks?

Wow, that’s a fairly broad question. I think one of the things that is long overdue is that people have to acknowledge how society is still a patriarchy that puts down women in all different ways. Even people in so-called progressive movements refuse to see how this plays out, whether it be in body image or standards of beauty or woman-unfriendly practices like doubting women (or grrrls or trans or queer folks) when they say that they’ve been sexually assaulted or not holding known sexual assailants accountable or at least making them unwelcome in the spaces that we have created (be they temporary spaces, like one-off music shows someplace, or more permanent places like our community centers). Just because it’s the 21st century *should* mean that these forms of gender oppression have faded into obscurity, but they haven’t and I think that people need to acknowledge that and work towards abolishing these things. If I have to explain to someone how x, y and z still occur and oppress women and that person refuses to get it and argues back with me about how the “patriarchy” doesn’t exist and it’s all in my head, well, what does that say about our ability to rethink, let along transform, the world into a safer, better place for those who aren’t at the top of the power structure?

I also think that we have to avoid these equality traps that end up making things harder for us. From what I understand, in the 1970s, childcare and access to safe and affordable childcare was considered a feminist issue. Somehow, in the 1980s, this got dropped and feminism was re-interpreted to be that women could be just as cutthroat and ruthless as men in capitalist societies. How is that safer or better for women, grrrls, trans and queer people and even men who don’t fit into the dominant perception of what a man should be? We have to realize that one size doesn’t necessarily fit all. Here’s an example of an equality law that ended up with terrible repercussions for women at the lowest rung of the power ladder: In the u.s., the 1964 Civil Rights legislation mandated equal opportunity for employment, including the right for women to work in male prisons (of which there were and still are many more than women's prisons). Conversely, men were (and still are) allowed to work in women's prisons, leading, in some states, to rampant sexual abuse of women in prison by male staff members. So passing legislation that made gender irrelevant to employment benefited women who had previously been barred from working in male prisons but also opened the door for men to be placed in roles of absolute power and access in women’s prisons. And the number of instances of male staff members sexually harassing, abusing and assaulting incarcerated women is alarmingly high. Obviously, this move towards equality did not make society safer for women, grrrls, trans or queer folks.

This is not to say that we shouldn’t be looking for equality for all people. I was at the Zapatista Womyn’s Encuentro last December (2007) and spent hours listening to the Zapatista women talk about their lives before and after joining the EZLN (Ejercito Zapatista Liberacion Nacional or Zapatista National Liberation Army). Before, girls weren’t allowed to go to school and many weren’t even taught Spanish, but kept monolingual (for many indigenous in Chiapas, Mexico, Spanish is their second language) so that they were easier to control. Many had no say over whom they married or how many children they had. If they worked for a landowner, they were subject to sexual abuse. To be born female was to be born without rights. Many of the older women who spoke still cannot read or write; they were never given the opportunity to learn. But in the Zapatista communities now, both boys AND girls have the right to go to school and to learn. There were two 9-year-old girls who got up and spoke about the fact that now they have the right to play (girls often weren’t even allowed out of the house to play! They were supposed to follow their mothers and help them with chores from when they woke to when they went to sleep) and to go to school. They spoke before an auditorium of thousands of people and their words moved everyone.

I’m telling you this little side story to illustrate that I’m not against fighting for equality, but we have to be careful to look at what kind of equality we’re asking for. Are we asking for the right to be equally oppressive/oppressed or are we looking for liberation?

Thanks so much for this interview! Readers, please support this project by buying Resistance Behind Bars: The Struggles of Incarcerated Women from an independent book seller or info shop (or anywhere really).

Buy book now

Date: 
01/23/2009
Interviewee: 
Vikki Law
Interviewer: 
Red Chidgey & Elke Zobl
Contact information: 
http://resistancebehindbars.org
Affiliated organisation: 
Books Through Bars--NYC, www.abcnorio.org/affiliated/btb.html /// ABC No Rio, www.abcnorio.org



Social Responsibilities Round Table Reviews Resistance Behind Bars

By Alison M. Lewis
Drexel University, College of Information Science and Technology
Social Responsibilities Round Table Newsletter

June, 2009

For anyone on the outside who has looked at the state of our justice system or the overwhelming issues of violence, exploitation, and isolation within the prison system, it is hard not to react with despair. Victoria Law’s Resistance Behind Bars: The Struggles of Incarcerated Women manages to both convey the difficulties of life for women prisoners and provide a sense of hope based on these women's own voices and actions. She shatters some of the myths of feminine passivity by providing examples of both active and subtle resistance on the part of incarcerated women, from bringing charges against abusive guards in spite of the threat of reprisals to fighting for transportation for visits from prisoners’ family members.

According to the latest available statistics (mid-year 2008, from Bureau of Justice website), there are almost 116,000 women held in state and federal prisons in the United States, about 7.2% of the prison population. The rate of incarceration in our country, particularly of women, has risen steadily in past decades, fueled by the so-called “War on Drugs,” mandatory minimum sentencing, and other public policies that target the poor and most vulnerable in our society. The prison “industry” is one of the few growth sectors in our failing economy.

Law’s book provides chapters devoted to health care issues, mothers and children, sexual abuse, education, and prison labor. In addition to describing the oppressive and inhumane conditions that incarcerated women face, she shares examples of how women cope in this environment, empowering both themselves and others. One woman, earning sixty-four cents a day in her job as a prison GED tutor, described her work as “rewarding ” as she shares in the happiness of her students’ steps forward in their literacy and education. Mothers in prison, aided by advocacy groups on the outside, have successfully lobbied for greater access to their children. Even the smallest positive steps forward can have far-ranging affects on women’s sense of dignity and personal empowerment.

There have been a number of excellent books written in recent years regarding the United States’ prison system (Christian Parenti’s Lockdown America and Sasha Abramsky’s Hard Time Blues come to mind). Resistance Behind Bars is different because it is self-consciously written from an activist standpoint. Law is not a journalist nor an academic, but rather a “writer, photographer, and mother” who helped start the Books Through Bars—New York City organization, which sends reading materials to the incarcerated. She includes in the book a list of “Recommended Readings” from activist and prisoner perspectives, as well as a list of resources consisting mainly of organizations focused on prisoner advocacy and services. This book will fill a gap on the shelves of all libraries which strive to fulfill the Library Bill of Rights’ directive to “provide materials and information presenting all points of view on current and historical issues.”




At War With the World

CDDerrick Jensen's Now this War Has Two Sides
By William Gresham
Missouri Sierra Club
August, 2008

Among those who have read the works of Derrick Jensen (including A Language Older Than Words, The Culture Of Make Believe, and, most recently [with artist Stephanie McMillan], the graphic novel As The World Burns: 50 Simple Things You Can Do To Stay In Denial), many have had the opportunity to see and hear him in person. It is not overstating the case to call what Jensen does performance. Jensen’s newest release is a recording of the talk he’s been doing, more-or-less, since the publication of Endgame in 2006. This recording was made live in Vancouver, BC (the liner notes indicate “fills from various other shows”).

Given the gravity of the topic (track titles include “Apocalypse,” “Smashing The Death Camp,” “Civilization Can Never Be Sustainable,” “How Bad Does It Have To Get?,” “Insanity,” and “Culture Of Occupation”) and length of his talk (with Q & A, these two CDs run nearly two hours), Jensen is wildly entertaining.

Jensen’s presentation is not for the faint-of-heart. He levels both barrels at what he has called “the most destructive culture ever to exist,” and few are spared, including environmental activists. He reserves his strongest criticism for the corporations and related forces which are malignantly stripping the planet of what is necessary to support life—not just that of its human inhabitants, but all life. But few, if any of us are immune to the level of reflection for which Jensen calls. Some listeners will blanch at Jensen’s strong language, but it is not gratuitous. In fact, while that language would qualify this as PG-13 (or R) as a film, the message is one which should be heard by audiences of all ages. Perhaps the greatest trepidation on the part of listeners will be reserved for Jensen’s methodical disparagement of hope, which he calls “a longing for a future condition over which you have no agency.” In fact, Jensen is doing us a favor, arguing that we must stop hoping and start doing, whatever it takes to prevent industrial civilization from destroying the world.

In Endgame, Jensen explicitly lays out twenty premises at the beginning of the book, in order to avoid the device of hiding his presumptions, which he says is customary in other writing. In Now This War Has Two Sides, Jensen uses several of these premises as jumping-off points on which to expand on his philosophical and scientific conclusions. In language as beautiful as a Beethoven sonata (check out his reading of “Pretend You Are A River”) or as blunt as a Megadeth guitar riff in the solar plexus at 110 decibels, he displays his art, and his heart, on his sleeve.

For fans of Jensen’s earlier works, or for those who have enjoyed seeing him in person, it would be difficult to overemphasize this recommendation to get and listen to Now This War Has Two Sides. And for those who find themselves interested (and not put off by the above qualifications regarding topic and language), this audio release would be a great introduction to the work of one of this generation’s most important intellectuals and cultural critics.

Bill Gresham is an environmental scientist. You can find more of his work at www.rethinkingtheworld.net and www.myspace.com/billgresham

Buy CD now




Derrick Jensen interviewed on Flashpoints


September 15, 2008
www.flashpoints.net
94.1FM, KPFA, Berkeley, California
 

Nora Barrows-Friedman: 
T
oday on Flashpoints, we spend the entire hour with author and environmental activist Derrick Jensen, who talks about the collapse of industrial capitalism and the peak oil economy and what it will take for people to resist the destructive urges of civilization and replace it with a culture of resistance.

As deadly hurricanes, exploding cancer and asthma epidemics, endangered and decimated plant and animal species, global hunger and poverty, wars and occupations, grab the news headlines each day, many people would not thread them together.  And the question of why this is happening does not get asked by the collective populace, nor answered by those so-called few in power.  In his riveting and uncompromising two-volume book, Endgame, award-winning author and environmental philosopher Derrick Jensen carefully examines the global ecological catastrophe from the ground up, implicating not only the greedy corporations that leach off the earth and, in turn, toxify it, but our lack of resistance to the system in general, that keeps this paradigm of destruction in place and well fed.

Derrick Jensen is one of the boldest voices in our country.  Speaking out against the toxic system that is rapidly destroying the planet and changing the lives of all humans and non-humans alike, Jensen unflinchingly confronts the most urgent issues of our times:  climate change, the end of the oil economy, and the decimation of essential biodiversity with his renowned, lucid, stirring prose that has been described as both breaking and mending the reader’s heart.  He is the recipient of many awards, including the 2008 Hoffler award and the 2006 Press Action Person of the Year award.  I was privileged to be invited to spend some time with Derrick Jensen, along with Flashpoints special correspondent and independent journalist Dahr Jamail last month in Jensen’s home in Northern California.

Today on Flashpoints, we present this interview with Derrick Jensen as he describes the state of emergency that this planet is facing as corporations, capitalism, and Western culture, urged to suppress life and destroy freedom for all its beings, brings this planet to the breaking point of sustainability and viability.

I began by asking Jensen to describe and define where and who we are as a culture, what’s happening to our land basis, and how we got to this point.


Derrick Jensen:  We’re living in the endgame of civilization.  We are living in the midst of the apocalypse.  People go, “Oh, my gosh!  That sounds so extreme.”  But 90 % of the large fish in the oceans are gone.  There is six to ten times as much plastic as phytoplankton in the oceans.  That would be the equivalent in temperate forests for there being 90 feet thick of Styrofoam everywhere.  There were once runs of salmon so thick that people were afraid to put their boats in the water for fear that they would capsize.  There were, in the Eastern United States, flocks of passenger pigeons so large that they darkened the skies for days at a time.  There were six times as many passenger pigeons as all of the birds in North America combined.  There were flocks of Eskimo curlews that were so thick that if you closed your eyes, pointed a gun up in the air and shoot, you’d kill 10, 15, 20 birds.  And they were so fat, they’d explode when they hit the ground.  And they’re all gone.

Do you know why there aren’t any penguins in the Northern hemisphere?  There used to be, but they were exterminated.  They were called Great Auks.  And there were so many that one of the great French explorers said that on just one island, you could load every ship in France and it wouldn’t make a dent.  Well, they did and it did.  And the last Great Auk was killed in the 19th century.

This culture has been destroying every land base everywhere for the last several thousand years.  I mean, this culture began in what is now Iraq, and when you think of Iraq, is the first thing that you think of cedar forests so thick that sunlight never touches the ground?  That’s what Iraq was.  Or what is now Iraq.  And one of the first written myths in this culture is Gilgamesh deforesting the plains and the hillsides of Iraq to make the great cities.  The Arabian peninsula was Oaks of Anna.  The Near East was heavily forested.  You know, we’ve all heard of the cedars of Lebanon.  And they still have one on their flag, you know.

Greece was heavily forested.  There were lions in Greece.  And it was one of those dead Greek guys, I don’t remember who – Aristotle or Plato or somebody – was complaining that deforestation was harming water quality.  And I’m reasonably certain that those, whatever the Greek equivalent of the EPA at the time, told him that they needed to study it for a few years to make sure that there was a connection.  North Africa was heavily forested.  Those forests went down for the Phoenician and Egyptian navies.

This culture is killing the planet.  And we walk through our days as if it is all a big video game, and we can stop and go back to the last time that we saved.  And this time, we’ll do it right.  And that’s not a possibility.  This is real life we’re talking about.  You know, Dick Cheney says that the American way of life is non-negotiable.  Well, I have news for him.  Real life is non-negotiable.  There’s this fundamental inversion of reality that people somehow think that the real world is industrial capitalism.  Well, the real world is the real world.

I want to tell you a quick story about a terrible interview I did.  It was this guy down in Santa Barbara.  He’s a right-wing, anti-environmental, property rights uber-alles Bible thumper, who evidently wanted to yell at an environmentalist.  So he had me on his show by phone.  And it was pretty stunning, because I kept talking about the things I’m mentioning here – 90 % of the large fish in the oceans are gone, the salmon getting hammered, all this stuff.  He kept saying, “That’s all fine, Derrick, but let’s get back into the real world.”  I was really confused because I thought I was talking about the real world.  And then I realized that for him, the real world is industrial capitalism.  And that’s actually how a lot of people use it.  When you talk to college kids, a lot of them will say to each other, “So, what are you going to do when you get out into the real world?”  What they really mean, is “What are you going to do when you have to get a job?”  But that’s not the real world.  What am I going to do?  When I get out in the real world, I’m going to roll around in the dirt; that’s the real world.  So there’s this fundamental inversion of reality that so many people perceive and have been taught to perceive, that the real world is industrial capitalism, that the real world is not forests, is not soil, is not clean water.

I’ve got news for everybody.  The people who come after -- presuming that people do come after at this point -- the people who come after are not going to care about what economic system we currently have.  They’re not going to care about whether we do really great radio programs or whether we write really great books.  They’re not going to care about whether we were pacifists or not pacifists.  They’re not going to care about whether we recycled.  They’re not going to care about whether we were spiritually pure.  They’re not going to care about whether we meditated.  What they’re going to care about is whether they can breathe the air and drink the water.  That’s the bottom line.  And, as things are going, they won’t be able to.

You can’t have a linear culture, a progressive culture, on a finite planet.  I mean, I was saying earlier that the culture has been destroying its land base for several thousand years.  That’s because there was always one more river to dam.  There was always one more hill you could go over and deforest on the other side.  There was one more lake you could de-fish.  And it’s not true.  It was never a viable option, and at this point, it’s certainly not a viable option.  I don’t remember who it is that said this, but somebody said that anyone who believes that you can have infinite growth on a finite planet is either a madman or an economist.  And that’s really true.

And that’s where we are.  On one level, we’re living at the end of the world.  And on another level, it’s a really great time to be alive because the system is so monolithic and so dependent upon one source of energy, that it is very vulnerable.  And it is more vulnerable than it has ever been.  And it is our responsibility, and our duty, and our joy, to bring down this culture before it kills everything there is.  So that’s where we are.

Nora Barrows-Friedman:  You say that we’re vulnerable, but if you just take a look outside, you see the massive skyscrapers, you see the military industrial complex at its most powerful that it’s probably ever been in the history of the so-called civilized world.  You see multiple wars taking place, all to feed the system.  From all aspects, from all perspectives, it looks like it can’t possibly be vulnerable.  So, how is it vulnerable?

Derrick Jensen:  It takes ten calories of prehistoric energy, oil and natural gas, to make one calorie of food.  The food that we eat is not locally produced.  Produced - what a wonderful word!  The food that we eat is not grown or harvested locally.  It travels great distances.  And that right there is a tremendous vulnerability.  Also, why are there so many wars?  One of the reasons that there are so many wars is because of the dependence of this economic system on that oil.  And that right there creates any number of vulnerabilities.  When I look around, I see one of the reasons that those in power don’t have to worry about the vulnerabilities is because we in this country are so fully pacified and so fully metabolized into the system that we don’t resist.  And for the most part, we don’t even think about resisting.  And when we do actually resist, it’s usually in ways that are almost entirely, and probably intentionally, ineffective.

One of my heroes is Tecumseh.  There are many things I love about him.  One of them is that he was willing to fight, and kill, and die, and live, for the land where his people lived.  One of the things I really like about him, is he’d say, “Way upon the living, war upon the dead.  We should throw their bones into the ocean.”  And it’s great because after reading somebody like him, then me talking about fighting back seems a little less radical than when we compare me to people who want to do candlelight vigils and sign petitions.  But one of the advantages that he had over us is – I remember in one of his speeches, he was talking about, he was exhorting people to fight back against the dominant culture and saying, “Look at these trees that you slept under as a baby, and that you played under as a child, and you’ve sported under as a youth” – whatever sported means – “and that you rest after you hunt.  These trees will be cut down to make fences.”  And an advantage that he had was that his people lived in healthy forests.  And I was not raised under trees.  And I have not ever had a longterm relationship with a healthy forest.  And really frankly, at this point, no one living has, because there is no such thing as a healthy forest any more.  It’s much easier to fight for something that you have and is being taken from you than to fight for something you’ve never know.  And it’s much easier to get free people to fight for their freedom than it is to get slaves to fight for a freedom they’ve never know.

Whether we recognize it or not, we are slaves to this system.  Have you ever thought about the phrase, “Thank God it’s Friday!”?  What a horrible, horrible, insane phrase:  “Thank God that another week of my so-short life is gone!”  We don’t question working at jobs that we don’t love.  Based on this habit of asking people if they like their jobs, and about 90 % say, “No.”  And what does it mean when the vast majority of the people spend the vast majority of their waking hours doing things they don’t want to do?  It’s absolutely insane.  That’s not merely just a drag; that’s really very political.

A few years ago, when I was writing my book The Culture of Make Believe, I read this extraordinary book that was a collection of the arguments of pro-slavery philosophers in the 1830’s in the United States.  And a lot of them were what you’d expect, the biblical support, and the scientific support.  One of the articles was really getting to the point, which is how could we have our comforts and elegancies without slavery, which of course, is the same thing today.  But the one I really want to focus on for a second is there was this one Southern pro-slavery philosopher who’s writing to a Northern, abolitionist, capitalist buddy and saying, “You know, if we could arrange land ownership conditions like you have up North, we’d give up our slaves in a second, because it’s economically a much better idea to not own slaves.”  But it’s all dependent upon land ownership conditions.  And it’s all going to have a point, which is that what he said is that if you have a lot of land and not many people, that means that people have access to land, which means that they have access to food, clothing, and shelter.  Which means they have access to self-sufficiency, which means that the only way you can get them to work for you is at the point of a gun.  Which means that the way you get them to work for you is by making them chattel slaves. If, on the other hand, you have a lot of people and not much land, or if you can convince people that you “own” the land – little asterisk here – people like to laugh at the so-called banana republics and say that the wealth disparity is really horrible in those countries and that just a few people own all the land.  Well, I’ve got news for them, which is that the land ownership conditions in the United States are worse than in the so-called banana republics, by which I mean the land ownership is more concentrated in the United States.  And these huge landowners are not even people, for the most part, it is Sierra Pacific, it’s Weyerhauser, it’s big corporations, which don’t even exist, actually.  But anyway, back to the original point.  If you can convince people that land ownership is tied up, or if you’ve got a lot of people and not much land, what that means is they don’t have a lot of access to land, which means they don’t have access to food, clothing, and shelter, which means they don’t have access to self sufficiency, which means they are dependent upon you, which means that you can offer them whatever pittance you want and they have to go to work for you because otherwise they won’t survive.

So the listeners to this can look around and ask, “What happens if you don’t pay rent?”  We’re so metabolized into the system that we think that somehow it makes sense to pay somebody to actually exist on the planet.  So, we’re talking about it being vulnerable.  One of the things that the system can’t stand is people who think and feel for themselves, and act upon that.  There was a great line by a former head of South African security – that’s a nice euphemism, isn’t it? -- a former head of South African security during the apartheid regime.  Afterwards, he said, “You know, the thing we were most afraid of from the ANC was not the sabotage and the violence, as it was the possibility that they would convince the masses of South Africans to not have respect for law and order.  Because there is no security force in the world that can stand up to a population that does not respect law and order as such.”

And one of the reasons that I want to mention all this in terms of vulnerability is that – I just gave a talk a couple of days ago, and one of the things I asked the audience is, “How many people here believe that we live in a democracy?”  Not a single person raised their hand.  And I said, “How many people believe that the government cares more for the rights of corporations or for human beings?”  And everybody thought corporations.  I mean, admittedly, that’s a self-selected group because they were at one of my talks.  But I used to teach at a conservative school.  And I used to ask my students there, Eastern Washington University, “So do you believe in democracy?”  And they would laugh at me.  “Of course not.  Everyone knows that we don’t live in a democracy.”  And I would say, “Do you believe that the government cares more for the rights of individuals or corporations?”  And they would laugh again.  “It’s a stupid question.  Everybody knows that the government is by and for the corporations.”  So we’re one step of the way toward that recognition that the South African head of security was seeing, that we recognize that the government is not legitimate.

I mean, somebody at some point (I can’t remember who) was talking about something about taxation without representation, and I don’t remember what they were saying that you should do when you are taxed but not represented.  I think it was somebody named George.  And there was also somebody named Tom, and he was saying something about how if you have a government that is destructive of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, then it’s the right, I believe, of the people to alter or abolish it.  And when you have an entire economic system that is destroying life on the planet, I think that pretty much by definition, it is destructive of life.  And I think if it is destroying the planet, by definition once again, it is destructive of the pursuit of happiness.  Insofar as liberty, do you want to talk about the one-third of all African-American males in this country who are under so-called criminal justice supervision?

Or maybe we should cut to the chase and talk about this one guy in 1940 or so, who was this Senator or Representative (I don’t remember which) who was saying sarcastically, “Maybe we should just pass a law making it so that nobody with more than a million dollars can ever be prosecuted for a crime.”  And, of course, we all know that that’s how the whole “just us” (as my friends say), how the whole judicial system works is that there is one system for the rich and one system for the poor.  And of course, there is one system for all the whites and one for all the people of color, etc.

Let me say one more thing about that, which is (I know we’re really rambling but you asked me to be on the air) I got this note from a cop after he read my book Endgame.  He said that he really liked the book and there was a lot that he agreed with, but one thing he didn’t like is that he felt I was sort of scapegoating cops.  I mean, cops aren’t the real problem.  I didn’t really attack cops all that much in the book.  But anyway, he said that cops aren’t really the problem, that cops are just doing their job.  And, of course, we could say the same thing about lots of others, historically.  And at the Nuremburg trials, it was specifically established that doing your job is not a good enough excuse, but leave that aside.  And, also one of the things they are doing is protecting people from sociopaths.  And I agree.  Cops provide a very important role.  My mom’s house got burgled, and we called the cops.  That’s all fine, great; I’ve got no problem with that.  But I wrote back to him, and I said, “That’s great.  But if we’re going to have any dialogue, I’ve got to ask you a question, which is why is it that whenever there’s a strike, the cops always come in to force the strikers to terms?  They never come in to force the capitalists to terms.”

And that makes me think of one more thing, which is that I was doing a benefit for this community outside of Las Cruces maybe a year or two ago.  The community is trying to stop a toxic waste dump from being put in their poor community of people of color.  They were pointing out that the cops were not supporting the local community; the cops were supporting the distant corporation.  And so we all started talking about what it would be like if cops started to enforce cancer-free zones, or if they were enforcing dam-free zones, or enforcing pro-salmon zones, or what if cops were enforcing free speech?  And of course, none of that can ever happen.  So we were talking about if the official cops aren’t there, what about if we in our communities decided to take responsibility?  We’re not going to allow carcinogens to be manufactured in our community.  What would happen if we in our community said that we are going to enforce free speech, that free speech will be allowed?  And what if we’re going to enforce rape-free zones?  And what if we in our communities are going to – and just go all down the list.  And what that would look like, of course, is revolution.

Nora Barrows-Friedman:  So what is it about this culture in this country, and specifically that prevents that from happening?

Derrick Jensen:  Well, we might lose our access to ice cream 24/7.  There’s a character in a novel I have coming out next spring…  One of the best lines he has is, ‘Fear is the belief that you have something left to lose.”  We are afraid, and we have been bought off.  Lewis Mumford wrote, and a lot of other people have written this, but Lewis Mumford  -- and I’m going to totally butcher this, and he’d be spinning in his grave if he heard how badly I’m going to quote this – but basically, tyrants long ago learned that overt authoritarianism only goes so far.  It’s not a very efficient way to run a system.  A much more efficient way, to switch from Mumford to Juvenal, is through bread and circuses, to buy people off.

Right now, we’re all being bought off, which is bad enough when you simply consider oppression.  We’re being bought off on our silence about the atrocities in Iraq, our silence about the atrocities in Palestine, our silence about the atrocities in the United States.  We’re being bought off, and that’s bad enough, but at this point, we’re talking about life on the planet.  And we’re being bought off with computer games, with television, access to ice cream 24/7 like I said, and a very false sense of security.  We are standing by watching the end of the world, eating ice cream.  I like ice cream, but I don’t like it better than a living world.

Nora Barrows-Friedman:  In your book Endgame and in A Language Older Than Words, you talk about what you call the “death urge” of this culture.  Can you explain that?

Derrick Jensen:  None of the stuff we’re talking about makes any sense.  The world’s commercial fishing fleets are subsidized for a greater value than the catch itself.  That makes no sense.  We’d all be better off if all the world’s commercial fishermen were paid to stay home and sit in their underwear and watch “The Price is Right.”  We’d all be better off with that.  And the fish would certainly be better off.  Even from a purely economic perspective, none of this stuff is making sense.

Before we turned this on, we were talking a little bit about the honeybees and how people at this point know about the collapse of honeybee populations.  One of the strong suspects is a certain pesticide made by Bayer.  There is an article today in the San Francisco Chronicle, that there is a study done by the federal government, and people are having to sue to get access to the study.

Now, even if we presume that those in power don’t care about honeybees, and don’t care about life in general, which I think is a fairly safe assumption, you would presume that they would care about the industrial agriculture system.  And honeybees are central to the entire industrial agriculture system.  So you would think that they’d want to maintain them.  So that doesn’t make sense.  So what’s the use of retiring rich on a dying planet?

I have this new slogan, which is “Protect your land base.  You can’t have sex without it.”  Because if you don’t have a land base, you don’t have anything.  So once again, this isn’t even exploiting others.  This makes no sense.  None of this makes any sense.  So it’s really clear to me that – I’ll wake up and there will be just a few clear moments between waking and sleeping or sleeping and waking, that I just can’t believe that everything that I’m writing about is true, that 90 % of the large fish in the oceans are gone, that global warming is melting the Arctic and the response, the sort of mainstream response, is to get excited about who gets to drill in the Arctic.  Or, you know that the methane burps have started, and when the methane burps start, it’s all over.  This planet could turn into Venus.  And the response in the articles that I’ve read about this has been that this burping methane could be a source of energy.

Nora Barrows-Friedman:  Tell us what that is.  Maybe people don’t know what you’re talking about.  

Derrick Jensen:  There are inconceivable amounts of methane, which I believe is sixty times more potent than carbon dioxide as a greenhouse gas, both frozen in tundra and also at the bottom of the ocean.  The concern is that as the tundra melts, it will release methane.  And it is already doing that in some parts of Siberia where it’s shooting up like geysers.  The other fear is that the methane that is frozen at the bottom of the ocean, if it’s warmed up enough, that it will bubble up to the surface and enter the air.  That could, once again, turn the planet into Venus.  We’re not “just” talking about delta smelt, or not “just” talking about the spotted owls and coho salmon and Kootenay sturgeon; we’re talking about the Big One.  The response, once again, even in the very same articles where they will mention the danger of this, is to talk about, “This could be a great new source of energy.”  Show me where that makes sense.

We all recognize this culture needs to end, and it will end.  It’s in the Bible, it’s everywhere.  There’s a beginning, middle, and end.  This culture is not cyclical.  We all know that this culture will end.  And we know that this culture is really wretched.  It doesn’t matter; we can choose whatever statistics we want, whether it’s the gold standard study that 25% of all women in this culture are raped in their life and another 19% fend off rape attempts.  And all the women I know say that those figures are very low, and the figures are actually far, far higher, approaching unity.  That’s just a legal definition of rape; that’s not even including routine sexual harassment or anything like that.  It’s on that level, or the level of wage slavery, or the level of fractured communities, any of these levels.  We all know that this way of life has to end.  And no one understands that this end could have been, at one point, metaphorical and spiritual.  And so it’s enacted in physical reality.

And another part of the problem is that this culture inculcates us so much into being afraid.  Really, the central thesis of my book, A Language Older than Words, we have an entire culture that is suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder because it’s so traumatic, everything from our gender relations to going to school to the wage slavery, everything within this culture is really traumatic.  And that’s not the way we’re supposed to live.

Asterisk:  I’m going to go in a different direction for a while.  We are right now doing this interview on Tallowah land.  And the Tallowah lived here for 12,500 years, if you believe the myths of science.  And if you believe the myths of the Tallowah, since the beginning of time.  And they didn’t trash the place.  And they lived here for 12,500 years.  If we say 20 years a generation, that’s at least 600 generations.  That’s a long time.  And when the first Europeans arrived here, it was an absolute paradise with salmon in runs so thick that people were afraid to put their boats in the water.  So thick that you couldn’t see the bottom of the river.  And this culture has been here for 180 years, and the place is trashed.  Everything about this culture is really traumatic.

Judith Herman wrote this great book called Trauma and Recovery.  In that book, she talks about PTSD, about complex PTSD.  PTSD is what happens if you are traumatized once.  If you’re raped in a certain car, then whenever you see that make and model of car again, you might feel really anxious.  That’s regular PTSD.  But she said what happens if you are actually in captivity, what she calls complex PTSD, which can include domestic violence, can include political prisoners, can include regular prisoners.  One of the things that happens if you are traumatized repeatedly over time, especially in childhood, especially from the beginning, you can come to believe that mutually beneficial relationships are not possible, that all relationships are based on power and hierarchy.  That’s one of the central ones.

And what is our political economy based on?  What is the dominant scientific perspective on natural section?  Which is all crap, by the way.  I’m not saying that natural selection doesn’t occur; what I’m saying is the notion of “survival of the fittest” is crap.  And I can show it in one sentence, which is, “Those creatures who have survived in the long run; you don’t survive in the long run by hyper-exploiting your surroundings; you survive in the long run by actually improving your habitat.”  It’s like Dolores LaChappelle taught me, it’s not survival of the fittest, it’s survival of the fit, how you fit into your surroundings.

So this notion that all of life is based on this hierarchy is, I believe, based on a perception of being deeply traumatized.  My point in bringing all of this up in having to do with the death urge is that one of the things that happens if you’ve been severely traumatized, is that life is very scary.  And what’s the best way not to be scared in a scary situation?  To try to control your surroundings.  I know that’s what is true for me, that when I’m feeling traumatized, especially around issues that I do have PTSD on, I need to control things around me.  Because otherwise, it’s very, very, very scary.

That’s one of the reasons why members of this culture have had to kill every indigenous culture, because they’re not controllable.  That’s why they have to kill wild animals, because they’re not controllable.  There are other reasons, too.  One of the reasons that the Pilgrims had to kill of the Pequots is because there were so many Pilgrims who were defecting.  That was first made a crime punishable by torture and death.  That didn’t suffice; there were still people running off to join the Indians.  What’s the best way?  How are you going to get people to stay in your wretched economy?  By destroying the alternatives.

Another way to say this is that no wild food stocks can survive the logic of capitalism.  Because why would I go to the store to buy some food if I can go outside my back door and catch a meal of salmon?  So it cannot survive it.  How else am I going to get you to go to work at a job you don’t love?  Once again, it’s all the same thing that we’re talking about here.  And that’s one of the reasons for the death urge, a very practical reason.  How else are you going to get people to stay in your wretched system?  It was commonly noted that in prisoner exchanges between the whites and the Indians back in the 1770s, 1780s, that the Indians would run joyously back to their families, and the whites would have to be bound hand and foot to not run back to their Indian captors, which was very, very embarrassing.

But now, we’ve gone back to something else we were talking about earlier.  Why don’t people revolt?  Because they’ve been convinced that this is the only way to be.  This is the real world.  This is the “one” system.  I mean, this culture is really monotheistic in that it can brook no heresy in that and can allow no alternatives.  Because if the alternatives were allowed to be realized, then who would stay here?  Who would work jobs they don’t love?  And that’s, by the way, I just want to mention that’s standard anthropology, that life among the indigenous was not nasty, brutish, and short.  Life was much more full of leisure, and people lived in communities, and they were all sustainable.  They lived in place.  And who was down in the Bay Area?  The Pomo?  And how long did they live there? 12,000 years, probably?  10,000 at least?  And I’ve read about what it was like when the first whites arrived there, and the same deal.  It was an absolute paradise.  And, you know, it’s gone.

People used to drink from rivers, if you can imagine that.  Many years ago, the USGS came out and said that every stream in the United States is contaminated with carcinogens.  Which shouldn’t surprise us, since every mother’s breast milk in the world is contaminated with carcinogens.  How close does it have to get before we’ll resist, before we’ll fight back, and we’ll fight for our lives?  At what point, I mean, how bad does it have to get?

Nora Barrows-Friedman:  [a station ID and reintroduction for radio listeners]  We continue our conversation with Derrick Jensen as I ask him to explain one of the premises in his book Endgame.  Jensen writes that “Civilization is based on clearly defined, yet 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, it is regarded with shock, horror, and the fetishization of the victims.”  I asked him to talk about this premise as it pertains to a reversal of our collective thinking that he says is essential to challenge and eventually overthrow this destructive cultural system.

Derrick Jensen:  We can see this everywhere.  In my own family, my father is extremely violent.  My brother has epilepsy from repeated blows to the head.  He broke my sister’s arm, and he raped my mother, my sister, and me.  The one time my brother fought back, he was beaten far worse than any other time, because he committed blasphemy.  Just one example.

Another example is cops.  Every day in the United States, between four and six people die because they encounter police.  That’s through beatings, shootings, high speed chases, and medical neglect in prisons and jails.  Yet every time a cop dies, there’s this big state funeral, bumper stickers that say, “Some gave all; all gave some.”  You know what the most dangerous civil service profession is?  Garbage collection.  It’s way, way more dangerous because you’re hanging out with these big, big trucks.  They get run over.  But when was the last time you saw a state funeral for a garbage collector?  Or when was the last time you saw a Tom Cruise movie where he was the intrepid garbageman who was cleaning up the mean streets of LA?  That ain’t going to happen, because it’s not bowdlerized, because the violence flows down the hierarchy.

Here’s another example.  I live in bear territory.  I walk through the forest late at night, and people say, “Oh my gosh, aren’t you afraid that bears are going to attack you?”  Well, what I know is that there is one person that dies in North America every two years because of bear attacks.  On the other hand, there are 42 or 44,000 people die in the United States every year from automobile accidents.  So, the truth is we shouldn’t be afraid to walk through the forests, we should be afraid to walk through a parking lot.  All these big cars are going to get you.

What’s another one?  Jaws.  You know, I live near the ocean and I never get in the water.  The reason?  Because I saw the movie “Jaws” when I was fifteen.  I can’t go anywhere near the ocean without starting to hear that theme music.  But the ratio of human attacks on sharks to shark attacks on humans is literally 20 million to one.  Another example:  9-11.  When was the last time you heard a politician’s speech where he didn’t mention 9-11?  It was 9-10, frankly.  What was it 3,000 people died there?  Well, there’s a half million children dying each year as a direct result of so-called debt repayment from the nonindustrialized nations to the industrialized nations.  But that doesn’t count.  There’s 15,000 Americans that die every two weeks because of preventable cancers.  Or if we go with the 4-6 Americans die each day because they encounter police.  That means that 365, or let’s say 350 days in the year (we’ll take two weeks off), let’s call it four of them, 714 a year is 2800 every two years.  So about every two-and-a-quarter years, there’s a 9-11 from cops.  But we don’t hear any of those.  It’s so weird.  A couple of years ago, some cop shot a motorist, so of course, it was going to be presented on the newspaper as the standard “cop shoots motorist”, so the motorist is down on the hierarchy, so it’s got to be okay.  But then, the motorist was actually a African-American, which means that they are even lower on the hierarchy.  So it’s really okay, EXCEPT the person who got shot was an Iraqi war veteran.  So, beep!  Back up the hierarchy.  It was really sort of odd to watch the newspapers.  They didn’t know what to do, because a normal shooting like that, it’s obviously the person’s fault because they were having an epileptic seizure, for crying out loud.  But, in this case, the newspaper was falling all over itself because it didn’t follow the standard plot.

So, the point is we see this all over where it is acceptable for those in power to shoot the violence down, but if anybody even thinks about shooting the violence back up, that’s absolutely unthinkable.  It’s blasphemy, and I mean that in the most religious sense in terms of its being absolutely unthinkable.  Remember this just a few years ago, it’s probably ten years ago now, where there was some guards in the California Youth Authority, who were actually caught on tape, on videotape, beating up the prisoners.  And they were found not guilty.  Of course.  Because it was a premise for an action.  Or we can look at the prison sentences given to men who beat their wives to death versus the women who kill the men who are attempting to beat them to death.  I don’t remember the numbers on that, I think the average is like seven years for the men, and twenty years for the women.  I’m making those numbers up, but it is disproportionate like that.  Or, a great example is that a few years ago there was this guy in Oklahoma who beat his wife to death.  And for that, he was sentenced to, I think, seven years in prison.  But as he was going through the judicial process, he spat on a cop.  And for that, he was sentenced to life in prison.  That’s everything you need to know that premise for, right there.  But we can throw out another one.  Dick Cheney has killed far more people than Charles Manson ever did.  And, in fact, we don’t even need to go to a place of Charles Manson killing people directly, because he didn’t.  He didn’t actually do the killing.  I’m not saying that the guy shouldn’t be put away, I’m just saying that they both basically ordered killings.  Dick Cheney is highly rewarded, and Charles Manson is in prison for the rest of his life.  

Nora Barrows-Friedman:  Dick Cheney also shot somebody in the face.

Derrick Jensen:  That’s right.  Charles Manson didn’t even do anything like that.

Nora Barrows-Friedman:  Derrick Jensen, you talk a little bit about the threshold, like what’s it going to take.  So, fine.  We have this information.  We are outraged beyond repair.  We are watching our planet being killed.  And even those of us who are on the left or the so-called progressive wing, we feel a sense of urgency.  Yet we still organize protests that are sanctioned by the state.  We get permits to protest on a Saturday.  We tell each other not to antagonize the enemy or else we’ll become just like them.

Derrick Jensen:  Enemy?  What enemy?  You can’t talk about an enemy; that’s divisive.  That’s dualistic.  I think I need to end this interview right now.  Sorry.  Go ahead.

Nora Barrows-Friedman:  Well, what’s the threshold?

Derrick Jensen:  I think that for most people, there isn’t one.  It’s very interesting.  In Nazi Germany, when members of the middle class were being put into concentration camps, oftentimes even after they themselves were put into the prison camps, or concentration camps, they refused to acknowledge that the entire system was unjust.  And they would whine that in their particular case, that a mistake had been made.  But they remained identified with the system.  And they would grovel to the guards, and they would do anything they could.  And they were routinely snitches, which didn’t gain them any benefits, by the way.  The Gestapo and the prison guards would love the snitching and hate the snitcher.  So the point is that even when they themselves were suffering directly, they refused to question the system.

I think the first thing we need to do is to recognize that the system is not benefiting life on the planet, that the system is systematically exploitative, that it promises pie in the sky when we die.  But in the meantime the gap between rich and poor grows wider, and the planet gets murdered.  And I think we also need to recognize that ultimately, those in power are not going to give up without a fight which means that any form of “resistance” is going to be ultimately ineffective because they are not going to sanction, they will not allow any form that’s effective.  If you begin to do something really effective, as in Black Panthers delivering breakfasts – it doesn’t matter whether it’s violent or nonviolent, if it’s effective, they will shut it down.  We can talk about violence and nonviolence, but the point is not violence and nonviolence, the point’s effectiveness and in effectiveness.  And if you do something effective, they will stop you.  They will.  Because they are not going to allow any reduction in their power.

Part of the problem is that – you know the candlelight vigils and all that, that is fine if you want to feel good, but I don’t care about purity, I don’t care about feeling good.  What I care about is living in a world that has more wild salmon than the year before.  I’ll do whatever it takes to get there.  Part of the problem with our resistance is that it is ultimately very infantile in that a lot of it is based on magical thinking, that if we hold a protest, things are going to magically change.  If we light candles, things are going to change.  But it’s like Ward Churchill says, if you can write the song that is going to change everything, I’ll sing it.  If you can find the candle that is going to change something, I’ll light it and I’ll hold it.  I’ll hold two of them.  But we all know that holding a candle’s not going to do anything.  We can see this when it’s applied somewhere else.  If you’re a member of the Russian resistance in World War II, is holding a candle, is this what you’re going to do?  Or maybe, you’re not going to buy anything from I.G. Farben?  What are you going to do to stop the Nazis?

That’s the question.  What are you going to do to stop the Nazis?  And if you think my comparison is not apt, then think about from the perspective of the indigenous.  Think about it from the perspective of the hammerhead sharks.  Think about it from the perspective of the coral reefs.  There is a mass holocaust going on.  There is the greatest holocaust that has every happened, that absolutely dwarfs the capital H Holocaust.  This is the endpoint of this culture.  And I think that holding a candle or signing a petition is an absolutely pathetic response to the mass injustices that we see.  What we need to do is to stop them using whatever means are necessary, because they must be stopped.  Frederick Douglas was the one who said, “Power concedes nothing without a demand.”

And there’s another part of it, too.  A lot of our resistance is based on magical thinking, but another part of it is pretty much infantile also because it’s based on asking, petitioning, on begging those in power to act differently than we know they will.  That’s all we do, that’s the best that we do, is beg.  We never demand.  Oh, okay, we’re going to demand.  Demand means that you’re going to back it up with something, so you need to stop committing these atrocities or we’re going to write you a really sharply worded note.  We’re going to hold two candles and sing a song.  That’s not scary.  We don’t demand and we don’t do it ourselves.  If we want dams removed because we don’t want dams killing salmon, what we do is to beg those in power to take them out.  We don’t demand they take them out, and we don’t simply do it ourselves.  And that’s not good enough.  I love the word “responsibility” because it means to give in return.  And what is it we owe this planet that gave us life?  We owe it our lives back.  I don’t know why more people don’t resist.

At that same talk that I did a couple of days ago, I asked people how many had had someone they loved die of cancer, and about 80 % said yes.  It’s killing those we love.  Directly.  I have Crohn’s disease, which is an incurable, progressive disease caused by civilization.  Civilization is literally eating away at my guts.  And other people.  Diabetes, we can go down the list.  I had a friend who had a shirt that says, “My father dropped Agent Orange on Vietnam and all I got was this lousy leukemia.”  You know, it doesn’t matter how close it gets.  I can’t tell you how many times I’ve written essays for magazines where I’ll write about the apocalypse, and they’ll say, “Make sure you end on a hopeful note.”

One of the things I say at all of my talks is that hope is really harmful.  For a couple of reasons.  One is that because I think that false hopes are incredibly, incredibly harmful.  One of the smartest things the Nazis did was they made it so that every step of the way, it was in the Jew’s rational, best interest to not resist.  So do you want to get an ID card or do you want to resist and possibly get killed?  Do you want to move to the ghetto or do you want to resist and possibly get killed?  Do you want to get onto a cattle car or do you want to resist and possibly get killed?  Do you want to take a shower or do you want to resist and possibly get killed?  At every step of the way, it was in their rational, best interest to not resist because of these false hopes.  So one of the things that I think we absolutely must do is eradicate false hope absolutely ruthlessly.  The only good news about all that is that the Jews who participated in the Warsaw ghetto uprising had a higher rate of survival than those who went along.  I think we all need to keep that in mind over the next ten years.

But the problem isn’t just false hope, but it’s hope itself.  I was doing a talk several years ago in Colorado.  I’m bashing hope, and someone in the audience shouts out, “What is your definition of hope?”  I said, “I don’t know.  I’ve been bashing it and I don’t even know what I’m talking about.”  And I asked the audience what their definition is, and the people in the audience were able to come up with a really beautiful definition, which is “Hope is a longing for a future condition over which you have no agency.”  That’s how we use it in everyday language.  I don’t “hope” that I’m going to eat something tomorrow; I just go ahead and do it.  On the other hand, the next time I get in a plane, I’m certainly going to hope that it doesn’t crash, because once it’s in the air, I’ve got no agency.  Yet we all say, “I hope that the salmon survive.”  Or, “I hope that Israel stops putting in new colonies.”  Or “I hope that the US stops invading countries.”  “I hope that this culture doesn’t kill the planet.”  What you’re doing is you’re acknowledging that you have no agency.  And this is just absurd.  I mean, how old is your kid?

Nora Barrows-Friedman:  Almost eight.

Derrick Jensen:  Okay, if you asked your child to clean her room, and she said to you, “I hope it gets done,” your response is…?

Nora Barrows-Friedman:  You will clean your room now.

Derrick Jensen:  Yeah.  Exactly.  It’s a non-starter.  Yet, when it comes to these larger issues, we suddenly get really stupid and start saying, “Oh, we’ve gotta have hope, gotta have hope.”  Well, screw hope.  I’m not interested in hope.  What I’m interested in now is action.

We have a number of advantages that Tecumseh didn’t have.  One of them is that the indigenous, even though they had functioning communities, they had warrior societies, they had people with long histories of working communally.  How do we know who to trust now?  Well, they didn’t have that problem.  But we have some advantages.  One of them is that they had no way of conceptualizing how horrible this culture is.  They had no way to make context for that.  We don’t have that excuse.  We who know about the Inquisition, we who know about the Great Auks, we who know about the long history of torture, we who know about slavery, we who know about wage slavery, we who know about misogyny, we who know about, once again, that this culture is killing off the salmon, that’s killing off the oceans.  All we have to do is to pay attention to see how insatiable this culture is, that it will not stop on its own.  We have that advantage.

Another advantage we have is that had Tecumseh tried to walk into a city, he would have been recognized and killed immediately.  But we’re already in all those cities.  We’re in Memphis, Tennessee, and San Francisco, California, and in Seattle, Washington, and we’re in Mexico City and we’re in Tokyo.  We’re already there.  And, increasingly, there are people who recognize that the system will not change on its own, and who recognize that those in power will scruple at nothing to increase their power.  What are those in power going to do if we make them really mad?  They’re going to kill the world twice?  Increasingly, there are people who recognize that it is long past time that we begin to make effective resistance against this culture.  Increasingly, there are people who are utterly disillusioned.  And I mean that in the sense of having lost their illusions about the feasibility of working solely within the system.  It‘s very important, I’m not one of those people who believe in the revolution vs. reform dichotomy.  Because if we all wait for the great, glorious revolution, and nobody does anything in the meantime, there’s not going to be anything left.  But increasingly, there are people who recognize that if all we do is reform work, the system’s going to grind away until there’s nothing left, too.  So increasingly, there are people who recognize that the system cannot and will not last.  And, increasingly, there are people who are willing to fight for, and with, their lives and the lives of those they love.  And, to take us back to near the beginning, increasingly, there are people who recognize that the system is incredibly vulnerable, the blocked blood of the economic system, and who are willing to do whatever it takes to make sure that the dominant culture doesn’t destroy the world that is their only home.  

Transcribed by Kendyll Stansbur

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Bringing Down Civiliation

An Interview with Derrick Jensen
from No Compromise Issue 26
 
Derrick Jensen is a prolific writer, speaker and activist. He is the author of Listening to the Land, A Language Older Than Words, The Culture of Make Believe, Strangely Like War: The Global Assault on Forests, and Welcome to the Machine: Science, Surveillance, and the Culture of Control among others

NC: What do you hope to achieve through your writing?

DJ: I want to bring down civilization. I’m interested in living in a world that has more wild salmon every year than the year before. A world that has more migratory songbirds every year than the year before; a world that has less dioxins and flame retardants in mothers’ breast milk; a world that is not being destroyed; a world where krill populations aren’t collapsing; a world where there aren’t dead zones in the oceans; a world not being systematically dismantled. I want to live in a world that is not being killed, and I will do whatever it takes to get there. It is really clear that for the past 6000 years, civilization has been killing the planet. I’m on the planet’s side.

NC: You speak a lot about hope. Do you think there is power in hopelessness?

DJ: I think hope is really harmful for several reasons. False hopes bind us to unlivable situations, and they blind us to real possibilities. Does anybody really think that Weyerhaeuser is going to stop deforesting because we ask nicely? Does anybody really think that if a democrat would have gotten into the White House that things would be ok? Does anybody think that vivisectors will stop torturing animals just because we stand outside with a sign?

That doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t stand out there with that sign. What it means is, do we really believe that they will stop because we do that? And if you don’t believe that, what does that mean? The book I have just recently completed is really centered around this question. Do you believe that the culture will undergo a voluntary transformation to obtain a sustainable way of living? If you don’t, what does that mean for our strategy and for our tactics? We don’t know. The reason we don’t know is that we don’t ask that question. The reason we don’t ask that question is that we’re so busy pretending that we have hope.

One of the smartest things the Nazis did was to co-opt rationality and to co-opt hope. The way they did that was by making it so that at every step of the way it was in the Jews’ rational, best interest not to resist.

Would you rather get an ID card or would you rather resist and possibly get killed? Do you want to go to a ghetto or do you want to resist and possibly get killed? Do you want to get on a cattle car or do you want to resist and possibly get killed? Do you want to take a shower or do you want to resist and possibly get killed?

Every step of the way, it was in their rational best interest to not resist. But I’ll tell you something really interesting: The Jews who participated in the Warsaw ghetto uprising had a much higher rate of survival than those who went along. We need to keep that in mind over the next ten years.

NC: How can civilization be brought down?

DJ: I’ve done benefits for earth liberation prisoners and fully support the actions of the E.L.F. and the A.L.F. That said, I do have a criticism, which is that I wish they would move up the infrastructure. I think what we need to do is start looking for bottlenecks. For example, one man acting all by himself almost stopped World War II. (Before I talk about this, I need to say that I am not talking about assassinating George Bush.)

George Elser was a guy who decided to kill Hitler. Anybody who talks about the German resistance in World War II is very clear that killing Hitler was crucial to stopping the war.

It was late 1939. The war had just started and it could have been brought to a stop. Elser was able to fabricate a bomb, put it in a place where Hitler was going to give a speech and set the timer. Hitler, instead of giving his speech at the normal time, moved it up by a half hour. Instead of finishing up at 9:30 as he always did, he finished at 9:00. He was out of the building at 9:10 and the bomb went off at 9:20. So it was 10 minutes that would have stopped World War II.

The specific reasons I’m saying that I’m not applying this to George Bush is that Bush doesn’t wield the sort of power that Hitler did. If Bush were to choke on a pretzel, Cheney would take over. In that particular case assassination would not do as much good as it would have done with Hitler. But my point is that the Elser situation is an example of leveraging power. Leveraging power does not have to be violent. I’m leveraging my voice when I write a book as opposed to standing on a street corner.

When individuals liberate animals I think that what they are trying to do is to save those particular animals. It would be the same taking out a dam. The primary reason would be to liberate that stretch of river. But I think, for example, if somebody torches an SUV, that’s not a lot of leverage. That’s a huge risk for not very much return. In no way am I saying anything negative about any of the people who have had the outrageous courage to do those actions, but if you are going to get popped for 20 years for burning a couple SUVs, there are other things that I would rather do.

That’s actually my biggest criticism of the E.L.F. and A.L.F., and it’s not even a criticism, because I would like to see them continue to do what they do. In addition, however, I would like to see others move up the infrastructure. I’ve spoken with hackers who have said things that suggest to me that hacking holds great promise.

NC: How do you maintain a positive outlook and keep yourself motivated and focused on the fight at hand?

There seems to be this idea that if you understand how bad things are, you have to be miserable all the time. But the truth is that I’m both really happy and really sad. I’m full of rage, I’m full of hate, and I’m full of love. People expend all this energy fighting the despair. Well, despair is an appropriate response to a desperate situation. It takes a tremendous amount of energy to attempt to not feel those “negative feelings.” Sorrow is just sorrow, and pain is just pain. It’s not so much the sorrow and the pain that hurts as it is the resistance to it. I’m going to quote from my new book because I address this issue there:

Most of our actions are frighteningly ineffective. If that weren’t the case we would not be witnessing the dismantling of the world. Yet we keep on doing the same old symbolic actions and keep on calling the making of this or that statement a great victory.

Now don’t get me wrong, symbolic victories can provide great morale boosts, which can be crucial. But we make a fatal and frankly pathetic error when we presume that our symbolic victories, our recruiting and our morale boosting, by themselves make tangible differences on the ground, and we should never forget that what happens on the ground is the only thing that matters.

There comes a time in the lives of many long-term activists when symbolic victories, rare even as these can be sometimes, are no longer enough. There comes a time when many of these activists get burned out, discouraged and demoralized. Many fight despair. I think fighting against this despair is a mistake. I think this despair is often an unacknowledged, embodied, understanding that the tactics they’ve been using aren’t accomplishing what they want and the goals they’ve been seeking are insufficient to the crisis we face.

These activists get burned out and frustrated because they’re trying to achieve sustainability within a system that is inherently unsustainable. They can never win. No wonder they get discouraged. But instead of really listening to these feelings, they so often take a couple of weeks off and then dive back into trying to put the same old square pegs into the same old round holes. The result: more burnout, more frustration, more discouragement, and the salmon keep dying.

What would happen if we listened to these feelings of being burnt out, discouraged, demoralized, and frustrated? What would those feelings tell us? Is it possible they could tell us that what we’re doing isn’t working, and so we should try something else? Perhaps they’re telling us to switch metaphors. That we should stop trying to save scraps of soap in a concentration camp and try to bust out of the whole camp.

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Everything Must Go

Recycling won’t save you. Apocalyptic author Derrick Jensen explains why civilization needs to end—now.
By Jay Babcock
July 17, 2006

One day in 1987 Derrick Jensen was browsing the public library when he came across a book that changed everything.

“The Natural Alien by Neil Evernden exploded my worldview,” says Jensen, on the phone from his home on the Northern California coast not far from the Oregon border. “There’s a great line in there where Evernden makes an impassioned defense of some creature and somebody says, Well what good is it? And Evernden says the only response you can give is, Well what good are you? Not to make them feel bad but to show them that if you judge something solely by its utility to you, you ignore most of its being.

“It was the first book I ever read that talked about the basic stupidity of the utilitarian worldview.”

In his new book Endgame, Jensen argues that civilization—the utilitarian worldview put into practice—is not only stupid, it’s terminal. All forms of human civilization have historically worked to steadily exhaust the planet’s non-renewable resources, he says; therefore, no amount of technological ingenuity, no amount of political reform, no amount of Al Gore documentaries or carpool lanes or farmers’ markets or solar credits or biodiesel vehicles or Daryl Hannah in a tree will ever adequately replace what civilization has consumed in order to sustain itself, much less invert its fundamental imperative to use up the planet.

These are tough, hard-to-swallow ideas, the kind that we’ve heard in recent decades via controversial figures like Ted Kaczynski (aka The Unabomber), University of Colorado professor Ward Churchill and anarcho-primitivist theorist John Zerzan. But there’s a reason Jensen has gained a sizeable following through his books, talks and interviews. What he brings to the table is a passionate directness, a command of the facts, and most of all, an ability to make a personal, poignant appeal not just for action, but for a mercy killing. He’s clearly a guy who won’t just let it go because he can’t let it go; he’s stayed up all night, doing some serious heavy lifting on all the inconvenient truths—the hopeless doomsday statistics, the possibility of imminent system crash—that the rest of us try to forget as we stumble to bed.

Of course he could’ve saved himself some of the trouble; at 900-plus pages, Endgame is far too long and rambling to be the definitive anarcho-primitivist text that its title and scope suggest. Still, it’s packed with provocative ideas that can explode your worldview, and so, in late April, I talked with Derrick about the ideas in Endgame that had provoked the most discussion around the Arthur office.

ARTHUR: Why does civilization need to be brought down now?


DERRICK JENSEN: A few years ago, I began to feel pretty apocalyptic but I didn’t want to use that word because it’s so loaded. And then a friend, George Draffan, said, ‘So Derrick, what’s it gonna take for you to finally use that word? Give me a specific threshold, Derrick, a specific point at which you’ll finally use that word. Will it take global warming? The ozone hole? The reduction of krill populations off Antarctica by 90 percent? How about the end of the great coral reefs? The extirpation of 200 species per day? 400? 600? Will it take the death of the salmon?’ And I thought about that. Salmon were once so thick around here that you couldn’t see the bottom of the river. You could hear the runs coming from miles before you’d see them. People were afraid to put their boats in the water for fear they’d capsize. And now, when I go out to Mill Creek, I start crying because I see two salmon spawning.

This civilization is killing the planet. They say that one sign of intelligence is the ability to recognize patterns. I’m gonna lay out a pattern here and let’s see if we can recognize it in less than 6,000 years. When you think of the hills and plains of Iraq, do you normally think of cedar forests so thick the sunlight never touches the ground? That’s how it was before. The first written myth of this culture is that of Gilgamesh deforesting that area to make cities. Plato complained that deforestation was drying up springs and destroying the water quality in Greece. The forests of North Africa went down to make the Phoencian and Egyptian navies. We can go north and ask, Where are the lions who were in Greece? Where are the indigenous of Europe? They’ve been massacred, or assimilated—in any case, genocide was perpetrated against them by definition because they’re no longer there.

If you start asking questions, the questions just keep moving back and back and back. This is a pattern that’s been going on for a long, long time. This culture has been unsustainable from the beginning. On a finite planet, you would think that we would think about that. You can’t exploit a planet and live on it too. At this stage, since there are no new frontiers to exploit, the planet’s falling apart.

So you genuinely believe the planet is nearing death?

Well, what measure do you want to use to determine the planet’s health? The climate is changing. 90% of the large fish in the oceans are gone. Phytoplankton populations are collapsing. Each summer a dead zone covers 8000 square miles in the Gulf of Mexico. Another blankets Chesapeake Bay. Another the Baltic Sea. Altogether, there are almost 150 dead zones, places where the water contains too little oxygen to sustain life. This number has doubled each decade since the 1960s. The cause? Industrial agriculture. Seabird populations are collapsing off the UK. American chestnuts are gone. The cod are effectively gone. Passenger pigeons used to fly in flocks so large they darkened the sky for days at a time. Same with Eskimo curlews. They’re gone. And do you know why there are no penguins in the northern hemisphere? Because they were eradicated. The great auk. Prior to the arrival of this culture they were present in unimaginable numbers. One of the early French explorers commented that you could fill every ship in France with them and it wouldn’t make a dent. The last one was killed in the nineteenth century.The grizzly bears that are on the California state flag, they’re essentially gone. I mean, somebody could certainly say, There’s still a tree standing, obviously things are okay. But that’s obviously an insane position. Nonetheless people keep taking it. That’s why I keep saying, Give me a threshold. At what point will you finally say that the oceans are getting hammered. If it’s not 90% of the large fish gone, is it 93%? 95?% 100%? How acidified does it have to get? What percent of the coral reefs have to die before we admit there’s a problem, and more importantly, do something about it? Give me a threshold.

We can choose whatever measure we want, and we find that stuff is falling apart. That shouldn’t surprise us. It’s just like any other relationship. If you have a girlfriend, do you believe you can sort of mercilessly exploit her and beat the hell out of her and cut her up and then expect for her to be able to maintain a relationship? Of course, given the rates of domestic violence, there are a lot of men who believe this too.

Why is it bad that certain species go extinct? Is it because all species have an inherent value and right to existence, or is it because they are useful to the ecosystem, and it’s their utility that we’re losing?

Well, it’s all of those. First, obviously salmon and sturgeon and smelt and migratory songbirds, they all… It’s simply WRONG to exterminate them. They are beautiful and wonderful beings on their own. The purpose of salmon is to be salmon. The purpose of forests is to be forests. That’s really critical. Second, forests suffer tremendously without the existence of salmon. Salmon provide a tremendous influx of nutrients into the forest. They put on about 95 percent of their weight in the ocean, and carry this weight into the forest and die. When the salmon come in, it’s time for a feast. In the Pacific Northwest, 66 different vertebrates eat salmon. Between industrial fishing, dams, industrial forestry, and the other ways the civilized torment and destroy salmon, and rivers in the Northwest starve: they only receive about six percent of the nutrients they did a century ago. Natural communities can only undergo so much stress. After that they collapse.

And yet civilization keeps chugging along, despite the deforestation and extinctions. People seem to believe that everything will work out via new technology or the system balancing itself out, even if they don’t know exactly how.

There’s something called carrying capacity, which is the number of any given species that a certain area can support permanently. Certainly populations can overshoot carrying capacity—you can have an island that can support a thousand deer forever but if you put 10,000 deer on it they’re gonna eat too much vegetation, they’re gonna cause erosion, they’re gonna permanently reduce carrying capacity. You can temporarily exceed carrying capacity, which is clearly what’s happening here.

There’s a machine image that Paul Ehrlich or somebody was using about how you have this airplane and you have rivets popping off the airplane. You keep saying I’m not worried about it. Well, eventually enough rivets are gonna come off that the wing’s gonna fall off and the plane is going to go down.

This way of thinking, that if we just ignore the problems, things are going to be okay, is really really easy, and it’s one of the things the Nazis used to great effect. At every step of the way, it was in the Jews’ rational self-interest not to resist. Because they kept pretending that things couldn’t get worse. So, would you rather get an ID card, or resist and possibly get killed? Do you want to get on a cattle car or do you want to resist and possibly get killed? Do you want to take a shower, or resist and possibly get killed? At every step of the way they could talk themselves into not resisting. Zygmund Baumann has this great line, this is a direct quote, that “rational people will quietly meekly go into gas chambers if only you allow them to believe they’re bathrooms.” It’s the same thing. Rational people will go quietly and meekly to the end of the world if you’ll only allow them to believe that the salmon don’t matter.

So your argument is that the sooner civilization falls, the better—not just for animals and plants, but for humans.

If someone had brought down civilization, whatever that means, 200 years ago, people who live in the eastern US could still eat passenger pigeons and Eskimo curlews. People in the West, in the Northwest, could still eat salmon. I live on Tolowa land. The Tolowa Indians lived where I live now for at least 12,500 years if you believe the myths of science. If you believe the myths of the Tolowa, they’ve lived here since the beginning of time. When this culture arrived here a couple hundred years ago, the area was, as was true of so much of this continent, just ridiculously fecund. The indigenous peoples could have lived here essentially forever, so far as we know—12,500 years is long enough for me to call it ‘sustainable.’ If civilization had come down 200 years ago, the people who live here would still be able to support themselves. But if it comes down in another 30 years, 50 years, 60 years, a hundred years, 10 years, whatever, the people who live here —who live in this place right here—won’t be able to eat salmon. At some point the current system is going to crash, and there are going to be people sitting along the banks of the Columbia, which will be glowing from the radiation at Hanford, and they will be saying, “I’m starving to death because you didn’t remove the dams that were killing salmon. God damn you.”

So, even from the purely selfish human perspective, yeah, it would be good for civilization to end. The sooner this civilization goes the better, because there’ll be more left.

Can you honestly tell Joe and Jane Sixpack that they’d be better off if this civilization were suddenly gone?

My audience is generally people who recognize that the system is really messing things up, and I want to push them harder, as some people have pushed me harder. That said, I guess it depends on how “Joe Sixpack” defines himself. I used to have this habit of asking people if they liked their jobs. About 90% say no. Most people work jobs they don’t love to buy stuff they don’t want to live lives that are pretty unhappy, etc etc. This culture is killing the planet, and it isn’t even making most of us happy. Also, I often ask people at my talks, How many of you have had someone you love die of cancer? Usually about 70-80% say yes. The air in Los Angeles is so toxic that children born there inhale more carcinogenic pollutants in the first two weeks of their lives than the EPA (which routinely understates risks so as not to impede economic production) considers safe for a lifetime. In San Francisco it takes about three weeks.

Of course cancer is a disease of civilization, made far worse by the toxification of our entire environment. I have Crohn’s disease, which is a disease of civilization. I know people who have MS, which is a disease of civilization. My mom has diabetes. That’s another part of my argument against civilization: it’s toxifying our own bodies. There’s dioxin in every mother’s breast milk. It’s not just salmon. It’s all of us.

Yes, but couldn’t you say the same civilization gives us medicine and modern, miracle-working health care? Don’t civilized peoples, on balance, come out ahead of pre-industrial hunter-gatherer societies?

I have a bunch of responses. The first is that modern medicine—available to the rich, not the global poor—is horribly ironic, in that industrial health care is one of the most toxic industries on earth. It produces PVC medical devices to treat someone’s cancer, then puts them in the hospital incinerator to send back out and give someone else cancer. Or uses mercury in thermometers in the hospital, then send that up the incinerator to be deposited in fish and to eventually give more children—human and nonhuman—brain damage. Where does this make sense? Modern industrial medicine cures the cancer of some rich American who became sick because of the toxification of the total environment, and these processes lead to even more toxification, causing yet more poor people—and nonhumans—to die. The real wonder of modern medicine is that the poor buy into this at all.

There’s also some sleight-of-hand there. Part of that is there’s a really high infant mortality among wild humans, as there is among a lot of wild creatures. If you make it to 4-5 years old in the wild, you make it a long way. Read Health and the Rise of Civilization by Mark Nathan Cohen, a forensic archaeologist.

Thirdly, people who think bringing down civilization would bring mass misery are ignoring that this is what’s already happening! It’s just that most of us don’t see it. There are people dying right now, starving to death in India, now, because of the global economy. Seventy-eight percent of the countries reporting child malnutrition export food. During the much-publicized famine in Ethiopia during the 1980s, that country exported green beans to Europe. During the infamous potato famine, Ireland exported grain to England (and part of the reason the potato blight took hold in the first place was that the Irish were pushed to the poorest land). The famines come a lot of the time because a) people have been dispossessed, b) the land they were on is now used for cash crops for export and c), the water’s been stolen for semiconductor plants or aluminum smelters or whatever. The current system is already enslaving them and exploiting them. Several years ago I asked Anuradha Mittal, former executive director of Food First, if the people of India be better off if the world economy disappeared tomorrow. She laughed and said, Of course. One of the examples she gave is there are former granaries in India that now export dog food and tulips to Europe. These are people who are dying right now.

Water is a great example of the world economy killing people. People say the world’s running out of water? The thing is, 90% of the planet’s drinkable water is used for agriculture and industry. People are dying of thirst in India right now because the groundwater is being used to make Coca-Cola. This whole lifestyle is based on exploitation.

So what I’m really talking about when I’m talking about bringing down civilization is depriving the rich of their ability to steal from the poor, and depriving the powerful of their ability to destroy the planet. I don’t think there’s many people who would not be behind that. Then everything else is just tactics, you know? The question becomes one of targeting.

In Endgame, you talk about specific actions that can be taken by individuals or small groups that could bring civilization down immediately. You discuss E-bombs: devices that destroy electronics, cause no harm to humans and, according to the September 2001 issue of Popular Mechanics, can be built for $400. Are you really advocating the use of these weapons?

Before we go there, I have to say that my emphasis is not on technologies or on particular tactics or actions. My point is that we need to recognize that this way of life is killing life on the planet, and we need to stop it. After that it’s kind of like the old line by JFK about those who make nonviolent revolution impossible make violent revolution inevitable. Let’s stop this by the most peaceful means possible. But in the end let’s stop this, because there is nothing worse than planetary murder. Nothing.

We also need to recognize that those in power are not going to give up their stranglehold because we ask nicely. They won’t stop exploiting the poor and deforesting because we circulate an online petition. We need to recognize that. And we need to recognize that Harriet Tubman carried a gun. Now that she’s long dead she can be a hero, but if she were alive now she’s be wanted for theft (“stealing” slaves) and terrorism. Geronimo had a gun. Tecumseh had a gun.

I’m not saying that people should willy-nilly pick up guns or that everyone should go drop E-bombs everywhere. I’m saying we need to have our seriousness called into question. What do we want? Do we want smaller clearcuts, kinder clearcuts, fewer clearcuts? Do we want the Giants to win the World Series and oh, by the way, it would be nice if we still have a world? Do we want to keep our cars and computers and lawns and grocery stores even at the expense of life on the planet? More to the point, do we want to allow others to keep their cars and computers and lawns and grocery stores even at the expense of life on the planet, which of course includes at the expense of poor humans? Even more to the point, do we want to allow those in power to perpetuate this system at the expense of the poor and life on the planet.

Bringing down civilization is not a monolithic act. It’s a billion different acts done by a billion different people. First, it’s recognizing that this culture is killing the planet. Next it’s realizing we can do something to stop it. Next it’s finding what you love. And next, it’s determining to act to defend your beloved. Everything after that is tactics.

And every different action has a different morality. It would be outrageously immoral to set off an E-bomb at a hospital. But on the other hand I think it’s almost impossible to make a moral case against taking out cell phone towers, which kill between five and 50 million migratory songbirds every year. If one cares about migratory songbirds—or if you care about not having the jerk at the next table yammer on about his latest financial conquest while you’re trying to eat, or if you care about the EMF waves which might or might not be dangerous—then it’s impossible to make a moral case against taking out those towers.

If E-bombs are so easy to make, why hasn’t one been detonated since Popular Mechanics put them on their cover?

I have no idea. That’s a good question. Except of course they have been detonated: by the US military, which tests and produces them.

I wonder that about a lot of things. Years ago—and before I say this I have to make absolutely clear that in no way am I even in the slightest advocating this—I was talking to a genetic engineer who said it’s really a piece of cake to make genetically modified diseases—all you really needed was three graduate students and a $100,000 laboratory, which is no big deal. He was stunned that it hadn’t happened yet. Once again, both of us are opposed to this, and were surprised no one has done it yet.

Another important thing to say about taking down civilization is that even before we get to the E-bomb stage there is a lot of other work to be done. And a lot of this work is not tremendously dramatic. A guy at one of my talks said, “I wanna go to China and take out a dam but I can’t do that ‘cause it’ll kill villagers below.” Of course that comment ignores the villages destroyed by the erection of the dams. I responded, “Look before we even talk about this, of the two million dams in the United States, probably three-quarters of a million of them are tiny, illegal, not serving any economic function, and the only reason they’re standing is because of inertia. Nobody’s bothered to take them out. If you want to take out a dam, go take out one of these. Not even the cops will care.” The point is that we can get all excited about doing underground illegal stuff, but there’s a tremendous amount of entirely legal work we’re not doing.

The whole reform vs revolution question is bullshit. I used to teach creative writing at Pelican Bay, which is a Supermax security prison. I fully recognized that every time I walked in to that prison that I was participating in the biggest, most racist gulag on the planet. You can’t get much more reformist than teaching creative writing there. But at the same time many of my students said that the only thing that was keeping them sane was our classes. So in that moment any sort of belief I had in reform vs revolution question just fell apart, because once again: we need it all. That’s one of the great things about everything being so fucked up, that no matter where you look there’s great work to be done. If your call, if where your heart leads you is to work for battered woman’s shelters, wonderful. Wonderful, wonderful. If it calls you to write for Arthur and to push a perspective that is anti-authoritarian or whatever: wonderful, wonderful, wonderful. If it pushes you to do a timber sales appeal: wonderful also. We need it all.

But your book is about bringing down civilization—it’s not about filing timber sales appeals.

True, but I don’t exclude that by any means. I talk about the military strategy of hammer and anvil, a strategy used by Lee at the battle of Chancellorsville, where you keep a large part of your army back as an anvil, as a defensive force, and you send the rest of your army around to act as a hammer, an offensive force. Defensive work is incredibly important because if we all wait for the great glorious revolution, there’s not going to be anything worth saving left anyway. But at the same time if all we do is this defensive work, this culture is gonna just keep grinding away at everything, and there’ll be nothing left then either.

It’s like any revolution. The Black Panthers said this, the Zapatistas said this: 95% of any revolution is non-violent. A lot of it is education. A lot of it is this other stuff. And yes, of course the situation is desperately urgent, and yeah, dramatic stuff needs to be done. But I don’t even see, for the most part, people doing the less dramatic stuff. That’s what I find the most horrifying.

Having said this, that’s not an attack on most people because I understand… I’ve got friends who have two kids and are working jobs that they and their partner are making seven bucks an hour and they’re trying to raise two kids: “What, you actually want me to do something for the fairy shrimp in addition? Are you out of your mind?” I’m not judging my friends or other people for that but I also know that a tremendous amount of time is wasted watching television. I’m not saying anything against downtime either. I like to play online poker or whatever. I’m not saying that we need to spend every waking moment pushing and pushing. But we need to start doing the work. And we need to start doing it soon.

I kind of make fun of ‘fair trade’ but I gotta tell you, I think ‘fair trade’ is way better than ‘slave trade.’ But the problem I have is that’s not sufficient. Timber sales appeals aren’t sufficient. Working at battered women’s shelters isn’t sufficient. That’s really the whole point: what we’re doing isn’t sufficient.

You’re just talking about re-prioritizing.

Thank you! End of interview, you know? Every cell in my body wants for us to have a voluntary transformation to a sustainable way of living, where we would voluntarily have a softer landing, where we would recognize that we’ve overshot carrying capacity, that our way of living, which is based on the use of nonrenewable resources, won’t last. But I don’t think that’s going to happen.

If your concern is for the well-being of the humans who will be alive during and immediately after the crash, then what you need to do is start preparing people for the crash. Because it’s gonna come anyway. And if you don’t believe it’s gonna come, then we really honestly have nothing to say to each other. We can talk about what do you think about JD Drew for the Dodgers this year. What the hell’s wrong with the Angels? But if you do believe that a) there’s going to be a crash and b) it’s going to be messy and c) the current economic system is dismantling the ecological infrastructure of the planet, which means the longer it takes, the worse things are going to be, what that means is what you need to do is to start finding out what local plants can be used for antibiotics. What are local water purification systems you’ll be able to use. How are you going to build shelters. How will you pull up parking lots to make gardens. Learning self-defense and forming committees to deal with the additional violence that might (or might not) break out. Getting to know your neighbors, both human and nonhuman. How’s that for a start?

In the end, I think the primary measure by which we will be judged by those who come after will be the health of the landbase. Everything else builds from there. The people who come after aren’t going to give a shit as to whether we voted Democrat, Republican, Green, anarchist, or none of the above. They’re not going to give a shit about whether we were pacifists or not pacifists. They’re not going to give a shit about whether we signed or didn’t sign online petitions. They’re not going to give a shit about how hard we tried. It’s no good to live in a groovy eco-socialist utopia with free love if the planet is toxified. Those who come after are going to care about whether they can breathe the air, whether they can drink the water, whether the land can support them. Everything else comes from that. This seems so obvious I’m embarrassed to have to say it, but this culture is so insane it needs to be said. And it needs to be lived.

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Staughton Lynd tackles Wobblies and Zapatistas

By Paul Bocking
The Industrial Worker

In an opening chapter of Wobblies and Zapatistas, interviewer Andrej Grubacic refers to Staughton Lynd as "something of a guru of the new IWW." The title is apt. Within the grassroots labour movement of North America and beyond, as a labour lawyer and advocate, Lynd has popularized the concept of Solidarity Unionism–building a union through the daily efforts of rank-and-file workers on the shop floor to come together and 'act like a union'. Lynd is the radical antidote to the many prominent union leaders, intellectuals and academics who claim that to address the contemporary challenges of production moving overseas, massive multinational employers and anti-union governments, unions must become more hierarchical, open to 'partnerships' with employers, and increasingly focused on lobbying politicians.

I have twice had the privilege of hearing Lynd describe his vision for a renewed, radical grassroots labour movement, delivering key note speeches at the 2002 IWW General Assembly in Ottawa and the 2005 IWW Centenary Conference in Chicago. "Workers should look primarily to each other to accomplish their objectives, rather than depending on laws, government agencies, or distant unions," said Lynd. "Collective direct action is likely to resolve problems more rapidly than filing a grievance or bringing a complaint to the National Labor Relations Board." Yet matching the diverse experience of its main subject, a reader of Wobblies and Zapatistas will quickly discover this book seeks horizons well beyond a radical analysis of the contemporary labour movement.

The core of the conversations between Lynd and Balkan activist intellectual Andrej Grubacic that comprise this book is an articulation of Lynd's beliefs on the theory and practice of how grassroots social movements can radically transform our world.

The legacy of the IWW is briefly discussed in an early chapter. It receives pride of place in the title along with the Zapatistas (EZLN) of Mexico, because both serve as a short-hand for the mix of values that Lynd hopes will be embraced by a broader range of activists and organizers. While the IWW insists that "we are all leaders", the Zapatistas say that "we lead by obeying" the people. There is ample support for Grubacic's opening claim that "it is virtually impossible to write or read about American radicalism after the Second World War without encountering the remarkable activist life of Staughton Lynd."

What is a rich exploration through decades of Lynd's personal experiences of movement organizing and of his own sources of inspiration. Beginning as a civil rights activist and leader of the 'Freedom Schools' of the American South in the early Sixties, Lynd engaged in anti-war mobilizing, Central American solidarity, workers' rights advocacy and prisoner support work. Drawing from these experiences, Lynd argues that the next generation of radical activists and organizers need, and are increasingly discovering, a political perspective that combines the best, most liberating aspects of Marxism and Anarchism, while discarding elements that have held back or diverted popular grassroots movements.

"The IWW has been revived by a new generation of young activists. This phenomenon should no doubt be understood as part of a larger revival of libertarian socialist thinking all over the world. How those currents of thought and idealism survived or reached the United States from abroad is a story yet to be told." Identifying with Marxism, Lynd argues that it "provides the needed objective analysis" for understanding our contemporary society, but adds that it is "inadequate as a guide to practice, to personal decisions." Lynd draws inspiration from his spiritual beliefs as a Quaker for acting in solidarity and non-violence. The centrality of his own deeply held moral principles to his political outlook is evident as Lynd emphasizes the importance of 'accompaniment', a term he attributes to Archbishop Oscar Romero and Catholic liberation theology, describing working in solidarity and as equals with poor and marginalized peoples. As a whole, through his dialogue with Andrej Grubacic, Lynd presents a wide-ranging book that illuminates a lifetime of struggle to create a better world.

Wobblies and Zapatistas is full of insights on how to build 'horizontal' grassroots social movements, as exemplified by the IWW and the Zapatistas, which can overcome divisions of race, gender and life experience, to create a new society within the shell of the old.

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Book Review: Wobblies and Zapatistas

By Ernesto Aguilar
Political Affairs Magazine

From the moment Marxists and anarchists parted ways in 1872, the peculiar and occasionally rancorous tension between the divergent schools of socialism has been the subject of many a debate, study group and protest. For anarchists, as Mikhail Bakunin articulated, Marxism's ascension would virtually necessitate it would become as oppressive as the capitalist state. For Marxists, anarchism's impulse to support no one having power meant the well-connected in-crowd, mostly well-heeled and white, would exert their power in other ways and with the tacit support of the core of the people. From these early conflicts came years of characterizations – as often fair as misguided – of a host of Anarchism's motivations and political aspirations, and about organizing and the lack thereof.

Still, it would be a sin of omission to avoid saying there was not at least a hint of admiration at times on the part of Marxists for anarchism's flair for harnessing the creative energies of youth, or by anarchists, who secretly desired to have the credibility to organize broadly, with clarity and among communities of color. The admiration is spotty though. Marxism and anarchism have historically had a love-hate relationship as impassioned and tragic as anything Euripides ever penned.

Anti-globalization currents, and both tendencies' struggles to turn early protests into a massive anti-capitalist mobilization, have rekindled discussions of the kind found in Wobblies and Zapatistas: Conversations on Anarchism, Marxism and Radical History. Granted, few of these dialogues have involved luminaries of Staughton Lynd's stature, yet they represent a starting place – not only about differences, but also about commonalities, shared values, and hopes for a better world.

Wobblies and Zapatistas puts Lynd at the table with Andrej Grubacic, a Northern California anarchist by way of the Balkans, for extensive exchanges about history, political theory and practical reality. Removed from these talks are some of the stranger hues of Marxism and anarchism – extreme sectarianism and "post left" posturing among them – nor is this book intended to blast one idea or the other. Instead, Lynd and Grubacic are aiming squarely for those looking to build bridges between the two camps.

Their conversation about the Zapatistas' militancy emerges an intriguing discourse, flowing throughout the book, about how politics over the last generation has fundamentally changed. For this reason, how activists and radical partisans in the struggle see themselves and their orientations must also change, with an eye to rejecting old labels. This is not a new revelation. The New Left has postulated such ideas for some time, and the aforementioned anti-globalization clashes and demonstrations have often eschewed ideological tags. In Lynd and Grubacic's estimation, internationalism is as much of the heart as it is about politics. One could derisively call this misty idealism, although one cannot discount the earnestness of such beliefs.

Both are correct in seeing the importance of "big-picture" ideas when it comes to putting forward a political vision. For example, proclaiming that Joe Hill would have seen himself as a Palestinian conjures up effective imagery, and a fertile discussion arises from this point. Lynd seems to acknowledge the amount of work that remains to be done when he argues that the movements of today face difficulties concerning strategy. Compare this with the South's fight over African American disenfranchisement and the North's battle against the war in Vietnam in the 1960s-70s, which galvanized disparate forces. Yet, the bulk of the book suggests a bigger problem is the reliance on old ways of doing thins. What gets a little downplayed here is an assessment of the amount of work involved in moving towards these "big-picture" moments.

Lynd's remark that anarchism and Marxism are not mutually exclusive alternatives, but Hegelian moments split by personality clashes with the First International, seem simplistic, and comments in the book too often dismissively reduce significant and substantive splits to mere sleights of hand. At the same time, engaging critiques, such as seeing anti-imperialism not as a rejection of everything American but as embracing the best in American radical traditions, abound. Reexaminations of the Haymarket affair and the Industrial Workers of the World ("the Zapatistas of yesteryear," as Lynd calls them) are sure to make one look upon these memorable revolutionary surges in a new light. Chalk that up to Lynd's take on history, which is richly textured and buoyed by the weight of experience.

One cannot address the ideas presented here without appreciating Lynd's remarkable life. From his expulsion from the military to his directorship of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee's Freedom Schools, to his engagement in the Youngstown steel mill struggle in the 1970s and beyond, Lynd has been a critical figure on the left. He has also been a vibrant socialist, albeit one who has embraced socialism's diversity over dogmatism. His genuine love for humanity shines through, and it is doubtful such a that this dialogue could be so arresting without his compassion.

Noted German statesman Otto von Bismarck was famously quoted as saying after the First International split that "crowned heads, wealth and privilege may well tremble should ever again the black and red unite." In the pages of Wobblies and Zapatistas, such a possibility seems not so far away. 

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Znet interviews Andrej Grubacic and Staughton Lynd

1. Can you tell ZNet, please, what Wobblies and Zapatistas is about? What is it trying to communicate?

Staughton: The book is about the need for Marxists and anarchists to lay down their ideological weapons and create a single Left resistance to what capitalism is doing to the world. The hostility between the two traditions is a little like a feud between extended families handed down from generation to generation: Hatfields and McCoys in American history, or the families of Romeo and Juliet. In reality Marxism and anarchism should be like two hands, the one analyzing the structure of things, the other throwing up unending prefigurative initiatives. Neither tradition has been so successful that it can speak of the other with lofty dismissal or contempt. We need each other.

Andrej: Our way of distancing ourselves from this Shakespearean relationship between anarchism and Marxism is by using the notion of direct action and accompaniment. In so doing we arrive at a "Haymarket synthesis," recently revived by the Zapatistas, a synthesis that we see emerging over and over again throughout American history. We start with the Haymarket anarchists and the so called "Chicago idea"; we go on to explore histories of such movements as the Industrial Workers of the World, Zapatistas, as well as individuals, such as Simone Weil or Edward Thompson, who sought a fusion between these two traditions.

By accompaniment we mean a specific form of mutual aid and praxis where the activist and the oppressed person walk side by side, sharing bread, as the phrase goes, sharing specific knowledge and experience. We speak about a relation between direct action and theory. Both Staughton and myself are very weary of recent fashionable "high theory" that speaks in "multitudes," and that tends to be, well, incomprehensible; we advocate instead a "low theory," a theory that arises from practice, as well as what Staughton describes above as a structural analysis of things. We think that the new movement needs to be concerned with strategy and program, that it needs to develop a serious strategy and a serious program, that anarchists need to learn how to swim in the sea of the people, and that we need to do our best to re-create a truly non-sectarian community of struggle that would resemble the experience of mass working class movements such as the one of the Chicago anarchists who "invented a peculiar brand of socialism" of the sort that we advocate in the book.

2. Can you tell ZNet something about writing the book? Where does the content come from? What went into making the book what it is?

Andrej: Staughton came into my life quite unexpectedly. When I decided to move from Yugoslavia I was thinking about writing about some serious stuff that is now popular in academia, such as post-colonial theory or something of the sort. Meeting Staughton destroyed my academic career, and sent me back to a world of serious politics and intellectual engagement with the world outside of the library. Now, somewhat more seriously, my encounter with the fascinating life of Staughton Lynd came at the moment when I was trying to understand why the global movement, the so called anti-globalist movement, is in such a crisis. I thought that a conversation, or, rather, a series of conversations, between a youngish Balkan anarchist who organized for many years in zapatista-inspired direct action global movements, and a seasoned American revolutionary, influenced by Marxism, who has been part of every single major struggle in postwar American history, would be useful to younger activists. I had in mind Students for Democratic Society and the Industrial Workers of the World, both of whom were "reinvented" in recent years. Belgrade and Youngstown and much closer than they appear on the map. The bridge between the two crosses the Lacondonian jungle and bypasses respectable institutions of higher learning.

Staughton: It was basically Andrej's idea and it was continually he who posed the next question, and the next. The form of the book brings us back to the fact that communication between human beings is basically a conversation. Think of the encounter between the white pacifist and the African American (James Earl Jones) designated to kill him in Matewan, Ignazio Silone's "Dialogue with Christina" in Bread and Wine, Marechal and Rosenthal in Grand Illusion, the inquiries of Socrates, the parables of Jesus.

3. What are your hopes for Wobblies and Zapatistas? What do you hope it will contribute or achieve politically? Given the effort and aspirations you have for the book, what will you deem to be a success? What would leave you happy about the whole undertaking? What would leave you wondering if it was worth all the time and effort?

Staughton: On the internet this morning (December 20, 2008) one reads of an Iraqi journalist throwing his shoes at President Bush, of Israeli 12th graders refusing to be part of a military occupying the West Bank, of rank-and-file Greek workers occupying the offices of the trade union federation to prevent that bureaucratic organization from suppressing the spontaneous happenings in the streets and local town halls. Such courageous acts need to be understood as something broader than the conscientious refusal of individuals to become part of the pattern of things intended by last-stage capitalism and its creature, the state. That broader resistance began with the "Basta!" (enough!) of the Zapatistas and with their idea of "mandar obediciendo": those in positions of authority must govern in obedience to what Marcos calls "the below," that is, us. We are united by affirmation of the "other world" envisioned by protesters at Seattle.

There is a tradition in the United States started by Paine and carried forward by other working-class intellectuals like William Lloyd Garrison, Frederick Douglass, Albert Parsons (in his speech to the jury before being sentenced to death), and Eugene Debs, which says: We are citizens of the world. This, together with the horrors of World War II, is where the UN Declaration of Human Rights originated.

Andrej: We need to declare Marxist vanguardism dead. Enough of colonialism and colonizers, of countries and of factories. We need to discover new ways of doing politics. Accompaniment, as well as an "internationalism of the heart," this beautiful tradition according to which "my country is the world," are good guiding concepts for the yet unexplored territory of an innovative revolutionary practice that brings together the historical experience of Bartolomeo Vanzzeti and Subcommandante Marcos, of Rosa Luxemburg and indigenous Bolivia. We hope that our book might be a contribution to a serious discussion about building a movement rooted in the experience of ordinary people, and not the one of a Marxist or anarchist "professoriat," a movement that refuses to "seize" or be seized by the power of the State, a movement that is horizontal and organized from below.

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What Can We Do

By Michael McGehee
Z-Magazine

Staughton Lynd was a professor at Spelman College where he helped organize activities with SNCC's "Freedom Schools" and later went on to become a labor lawyer and peace activist.  Daniel Gross, an organizer with the Industrial Workers of the World, is the founding director of Brandworkers, a non-profit organization that works to protect and advance the rights of workers in the retail and food chain industries.  Labor Law for the Rank and Filer was first published by Lynd in the late 1970s but was republished in late 2008 with some updates and a new chapter by Lynd and Gross.

The republication of Labor Law for the Rank and Filer: Building Solidarity While Staying Clear of the Law just two days later the then US Secretary of Treasury, Henry Paulson, and some congressional leaders announced that a deal was made to "bail out" some big banks in the U.S. by Staughton Lynd and Daniel Gross on September 26, 2008 couldn't have come at a better time.

One may wonder if leaving the working class' welfare to the government will put our needs and concerns behind those of the companies and corporate executives who put us in this crisis to begin with.  As was demonstrated when the $700 billion fund that was created to bail out failing banks - while thousands of working class Americans had lost their jobs - had too little oversights.  Some in the media said the bailout plan was "partial nationalization," but as the writer Naomi Klein has written: "American taxpayers have gained no meaningful control over the banks, which is why the banks are free to spend the new money as they wish."

At the other end of the class spectrum we saw some of the most important features of the recently passed stimulus package gutted - nearly $80 billion in badly needed spending for things like state budgets, health care, school construction and food stamps were cut -  as economists like Dean Baker and Paul Krugman have pointed out.  Labor Law for the Rank and Filer is an important book for any of America's workers who want to not only protect themselves in these times but to work together in solidarity with others to protect and improve their lot.

The first chapter of the book is titled "On Being Your Own Lawyer."  In many instances it may not be necessary to hire a lawyer.  If a worker or group of workers has a good understanding of the law then they may be able to resolve their dispute and thus save time and money.  Lynd and Gross also write that "for the most part [lawyers] do not understand or sympathize with the experience of working people."

The second chapter is devoted to where workers' rights come from.  The book eloquently points out that, "The Constitution protects us only from action by the government.  It does not protect us from private employers... In the private sector, when you punch in you leave your constitutional rights in the glove compartment of your car."

But that is not to say workers don't have rights or protections in the private sector.  Between contracts with employers (even under "at will" agreements) and state and federal laws, workers do have some protection.  The book references many of such laws for the reader to become familiar with.  For example, the National Labor Relations Act.

When union workers at the Republic Windows and Doors factory in Chicago successfully occupied their factory over the company filing bankruptcy - because Bank of America (their lender who had recently accepted bailout funds from the federal government) refused to lend them money so they could stay in business - they made their case for their actions and their demands based on existing labor laws.  Also, after the employer took equipment from the factory, employees filed charges against their employer alleging violations of their collective bargaining rights under the National Labor Relations Act.  The lesson here is that it pays to know your rights, and chapter three is a good place to start with if you want to become familiar with them.

Chapter four is an overview of a Bill of Rights for workers.  It covers various "individual rights" and "communal rights."

Individual rights will always be more protected if many people exercise their individual rights together... In contrast, "communal rights" are rights that workers can only use effectively when they act together.  A one-person strike, a one-person sit-down, or a one-person boycott, is unlikely to get much accomplished.

Some of the individual rights mentioned are the right to leaflet, the right to refuse unsafe work conditions and the right to be radical while some of the communal rights mentioned are the right to organize, the right to strike, the right and duty to not work over time when fellow workers are laid off, and the right to do something about companies trying to leave town.  These can prove to be helpful for Wal-Mart or Starbucks employees who may want to organize into unions.

As for the right to strike, Lynd and Gross write that though it can be successful the tactic may not always be appropriate or productive.  The authors go on to site the PATCO strike in 1981 where over 12,000 workers from the Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization went on strike.  President Reagan fired them.  Workers should consider other tactics, Lynd and Gross suggest, like "working to rule, sitting down, and sitting in" because "you may get more accomplished... by choosing a form of strike unlikely immediately to get you fired or land you in the slammer."

Chapter five is on what Lynd and Gross call "solidarity unionism" which "stands in opposition to what has been termed ‘business' or ‘service-provider' unionism."  The former includes organizing and direction action coming from below by the workers themselves and includes continued membership representation even if jobs are changed, while the latter is controlled from above and action is only used when it can be manipulated and controlled from above and while membership is lost if the worker leaves that particular workplace.

Many economists note that our economy has largely shifted from manufacturing to service providing.  This has had an adverse impact on unionism in America.  If you work in a call center, fast food chain, coffee shop, diner or retail store you may see labor organizing as dangerous because your job can more easily be replaced since the job doesn't entail the same skill as someone who works in manufacturing, construction or assembly.  However, this is precisely why solidarity unionism could be beneficial because even if you quit or are replaced you are still represented.

Another interesting section of the chapter is titled "Working to Rule," where the authors inform us that, "The boss seems to have more power than the workers.  But the worker knows better than management how to do the job, and oftentimes the foreman, if required to do the job alone, is helpless."  Lynd and Gross go on to suggest that workers can use "the supervisor's power against him" by following the employer's instructions or safety rules to the letter so that production is slowed down. 

Other sections of the chapter highlight the use of "secondary pressure" where workers or organized consumers can put pressure on businesses to address various grievances with how a company operates; "saving fringe benefits" are issues where workers may be laid off before getting full benefits, or just retired members who see their pensions get slashed after retiring because the union "will inevitably tend to favor its due-paying active members" and Lynd and Gross suggest those affected to seek a solution by using direct action (i.e. how current retired NFL players like Mike Ditka are organizing around similar concerns); fighting against shutdowns include tactics like occupations and sit-ins like what we have seen in places like Chicago and Argentina - the latter has seen workers occupying workplaces following the nations bankruptcy in the early part of this decade; and finally, the last section is on "cross-border solidarity" where unions can organize in solidarity to resist international agreements like NAFTA and CAFTA:

[I]f General Motors workers in the United States contemplate a strike, why not approach Mexican workers for GM in Puebla, Mexico, and Canadian workers for GM in St. Catherine's, Ontario, and consider striking for goals that are continent-wide?

Picture it: Baristas standing hand-in-hand with coffee farmers growing beans for Starbucks in Africa; or retail workers at the Gap carrying out strategic actions in solidarity with workers making the clothes in Asia.  Consider this globalization of worker solidarity the grassroots counter-offensive to the proliferation of corporate trade deals like NAFTA and CAFTA.

The last chapter begins its conclusion by stating:

The most important thing I hope you learned from this book is that working people must use their collective strength in direct action to solve labor's problems.

The law can help. But the law should never be permitted to become a substitute for what working people can do, and must do, for themselves.

As was the case for the workers in Chicago and for ongoing IWW organizers like Gross and could be the case in future struggles.

In all, Labor Law for the Rank and Filer spans 110 pages and as unemployment continues to rise, which is currently at more than ten million, and if things continue to get worse it may become more and more essential for workers to know two things that will help them:

1. Our rights.
2. Working together provides, as the old saying goes, "power in numbers."   

For those readers who want to strengthen workers rights and improve our overall quality of life, or for those who may see labor organizing as also a strategy to achieve not only the vision of a participatory economy but a participatory society as well then this book should definitely be in your arsenal.  Labor Law for the Rank and Filer: Building Solidarity While Staying Clear of the Law does a lot to answer what we can do, and we can easily look around to see why we should do something but one important question remains: What will we do?

Michael McGehee is an independent writer and working class family man from Arlington, Texas. He is also a Z Sustainer and recently established the Dallas/Fort Worth Project for a Participatory Society.  He can be reached at michael.mcgehee7@gmail.com

Buy this book now | Back to Staughton Lynd's Page | Back to Daniel Gross's Page



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