They Call it Struggle For a Reason
I spent Earth Day at an event just south of the border in Bothell, Washington, having driven two hours to attend a program including the always-moving folk musician Dana Lyons and anti-civilization author Derrick Jensen. My main goal for the trip was to meet Derrick in person after having read most of his published works (which include A Language Older Than Words, Culture of Make Believe and Strangely Like War), and having many e-conversations with him via an online discussion forum over the years. I wanted to put a face to the words that have so helped my ideas about resistance to evolve, I wanted to have those discussions in person at least once. Derrick Jensen's works rest on the central theme that civilization is deeply flawed and ultimately irredeemable, and that our principle goal must be to dismantle this killing system by any means at our disposal. Strong stuff indeed, but a line of argument I have realized and worked through in action at all levels during my past 17 years of resistance.
As a socially conscious being, I often find myself frustrated, not only by the brutal march forward our species seems determined on, but by the lack of action to injustice that hallmarks our society. When I first encountered Derrick's work a few years ago, I felt at once as though I had met a fellow traveller, in thought as well as his advocacy for action. Meeting him face to face did not disappoint, and particularly interesting was a group discussion we both participated in that caused me to reflect on my own feelings about personal resistance during the late drive home Saturday night.
Early Saturday afternoon, before the evening event where Derrick was to speak, a more informal discussion was organized for those interested in exploring more widely the themes and subjects on which Derrick writes. I had thought possibly I would meet some more veteran warriors living close by at this open discussion event, but it appeared from the outset the circle of people who showed up were mainly interested in learning how to be more active (still worthwhile, but different than what I expected). The two hours were mostly spent traversing over the basic questions of how to meet other activists (volunteer with something!), and how to learn the most effective tactics for resistance... and then right near the end, a couple of the less-activism-prone folks at the end of the table raised for discussion one of the arguments that makes my hackles raise the most. This being the whole question of whether or not the thesis of active resistance is really just centrally flawed, that really isn't it true - if we play by the master's rules we are in danger of becoming the master?
Those championing this branch of the discussion posited that while it was okay some of us were engaged in fighting back (*some* who included myself and two friends who attended and spoke openly about the need to further activism), there should be equal value put on creating a new paradigm of communication and positive existence. As is often the case, concrete examples of the 'new paradigm' were not put forward, but I got the vague sense this "shift" would involve a lot of workshops and discussion circles completely removed from active struggle. Implied, though later denied, was the opinion that of the two modes of creating change, "creating alternatives" was seen as more noble - and the conversation was pervasive with a sense of mutual exclusivity; either one was engaged in active resistance *or* was engaged in the whole paradigm-shifting business.
After the talk, my friends and I discussed what this argument represented to us, and agreed that as activists, there is just a sinking exhaustion that comes when hearing these words from people not ostensibly engaged in anything at all. You see, I really don't agree some vague concept of 'creating alternatives' should be valued on par with actively participating in resistance to the system in which we live. I honestly believe there is an urgency in turning things around for ourselves and the planet, and that those who are aware have a responsibility to act. What became clear to me as I thought it through later is how, almost without exception, each time I have heard this argument it has been no more than one big excuse for inaction.
To clarify, I do believe there are people involved concretely in creating alternatives which might be found in communal living arrangements, eco-villages, and other community-building exercises. I do value projects like this greatly, and I wish there were more viable examples of them out there. It is unfortunate that most often, those calling for the shift away from activism and towards other gauzy concepts are not engaged in any meaningful way in either creating alternatives or active resistance. I find it continually surprising that some people believe their own individualistic shift of thinking (minus action) holds the same weight in bringing our system down as actually taking what tools we have at our disposal in the spectrum of resistance (from advocacy to direct action) and physically doing it.
My own engagement in movement organizing has taken up many years of my life, and although I am profoundly grateful this proclivity appeared at a young age, it has often been a tiring and heart-breaking pursuit. It is exhausting to stand with so few people against a monolithic system so hell-bent on destroying every living thing. It is offensive to have the life-work of resistance waved away as being stuck in some old way of thinking that needs to give way to passivity. It is sickening on a soul-level to witness how many people sit idly while species go extinct, while welfare rates are cut, while sovereign peoples are subjugated, while police brutality goes unchallenged, while the logging trucks pull load after load out of our fragile coastal forests.
And although this work can feel at times like a burden, what keeps me going during the low moments is that I know, given enough spirit, enough people, and the right tactics: resistance works! I have seen people housed, logging halted, workplace safety improved, and the police challenged - through people taking *action*, not sitting in a small group of conscious people discussing ways we can spread passive messages.
Where the paradigm shifting comes in and is important is in the context of resistance. When we meet as an affinity group do we make decisions by consensus? Do we practice non-violent communication with our comrades? Do we explore alternatives that can be built alongside resistance in a way that is complementary and fosters greater struggle? These are the questions every active resister needs to take into small circles, organizations and frontline actions, which will assist in changing our individual selves as well as pervading the movements in which we work.
While we are challenging the way we are born into and act on our world, at the core it is our privilege that must be examined, and this gets to the heart of why I rankle so easily at the "creating alternatives" crowd. To reject active resistance in favour of .paradigm shifting. discussion is at the core of that privilege, and must be challenged for what it is. In oppressed communities there is not the luxury of expanding consciousness in the face of the very real need to fight back - whether in a sovereigntist camp in Coast Salish territory, a Zapatista community in Mexico, or a farming village in India (where villagers have torched fields of Monsanto crop). It is simply not good enough to act as though it is okay for "those" people, but not for us. We need to pitch in on every level to create a culture that does not passively accept ecological and social brutality, and to create struggle as an everyday concept. To fail in this is to refuse responsibility for ourselves, the people/animals/plants we love, and the world we live in. That is just not good enough.
During the course of the discussion, I surprised myself by how strongly I reacted to one of the women who engaged on this tack. Like anyone involved in active resistance, I have wrestled at times with my own questions about personal involvement in movement organizing, have pondered the effectiveness of protest and propaganda tactics, and have taken time out to shift my own thinking and thus strengthen my ability to organize into the future. What spoke loudly from me Saturday afternoon, is that I *do* believe in not only the need but the efficacy of resistance, and those who argue with the rest of us their right to focus solely on "paradigm-shifting" are more movement-destroying than anything else. An active resistance is essential if we are to free ourselves, the critters, and our planet - and each one of us needs to be involved.