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Green Syndicalism vs. Anti-Civ: Social Revolution or Primitivist Reaction? A Polemic

By Javier Sethness Castro - A talk given at the Boston Anarchist Bookfair, November 11, 2013

Disclaimer: The views expressed here are not the official position of the IWW (or even the IWW’s EUC) and do not necessarily represent the views of anyone but the author’s.

I will begin concretely by acknowledging the undoubtedly dire environmental situation of (post)modernity—to consider the most devastating facet of the crisis, let us consider catastrophic climate change. In May of this year, the global atmospheric carbon concentration was found to be 400 parts per million, or about 1.5 times that which prevailed in preindustrial human history. This is a level that has not been seen since the Pliocene geological epoch some 3 to 5 million years ago, when average global temperatures were 2 to 3°C higher than they are today, and no sea ice existed in the Arctic. Climatologists have determined that, since the onset of industrial capitalism, the Earth has warmed 0.8°C, and they estimate conservatively that the planet will experience an average warming of 4 to 6°C by the end of the twenty-first century. This is likely an underestimate, given that scientists find it difficult to integrate the observed and projected contributions of the various positive feedback loops which global warming gives rise to within their models.

If we contemplate contemporary history, we can very clearly see the profound effects catastrophic climate change has wrought on the world: consider Super Typhoon Haiyan (Yolanda) in the Philippines, which is said to have killed more than 10,000 people last weekend—the strongest tropical cyclone to ever make landfall, Haiyan was an intensification and repetition of sorts of Typhoon Bopha, which struck the archipelago nation last year. Similarly, we can think of Cyclone Nargis (2008) in Burma, Cyclone Phailin in South Asia just a few weeks ago, Superstorm Sandy last year, Hurricane Katrina (2005), the Horn of Africa drought and famine of 2011, the two major droughts which have struck the Amazon in recent years (2005 and 2010), the 2010 fires in Russia, the unprecedented flooding events seen in Pakistan in 2010 and India in 2011, the record-shattering Arctic summer-sea ice extent in the years 2007 and 2012...

To examine these admittedly disconcerting realities, I will disclose my own political bias, that of an anarchism influenced greatly by Marxist political economy. I take catastrophic climate change to result from the second contradiction of capitalism, whereby the move from M to C and M' (money → commodity → money prime [original M plus profit])—or what is the same, the ceaseless imperative for economic growth—leads the capitalist class to undermine the very material basis on which its exploitation of nature and humanity depends. Given such a disclosure, you can already see that I do not accept this outcome as the inevitable result of “civilization”—indeed, as I will explain, I find such a claim to be intellectually lazy, disingenuous, and rather dangerous.

Anti-Civ Reaction

First, I will consider the “anti-civ” tendency, as represented principally in the writings of Derrick Jensen, Aric McBay, and Lierre Keith, all of whom advocate an approach known as “Deep Green Resistance” (DGR)—with the exception of McBay, who recently abandoned the group. I will not consider John Zerzan or the Green Anarchy magazine which came out of Eugene, Oregon starting in 2000. Though I claim the anti-civ line to be most authoritarian, I will not here discuss the scandalous transphobia of Jensen and Keith, which has recently come to light in the wake of the controversies which surfaced at the Law & Disorder Conference in Portland this May.

So, then, what are the basic philosophical positions of the anti-civ tendency? As Jensen explains in his Endgame volumes 1 and 2, today's ecological crisis is taken to be the inexorable result of the establishment millennia ago of cities, as follows from the onset of domestication and the rise of agriculture. For Jensen, “civilization” is a “culture […] that both leads to and emerges from the growth of cities.” Clearly, this is not a very materialist sort of analysis. Jensen asserts that civilization is “irredeemable,” as it can never be sustainable, for, on his account, cities require the ceaseless expansion of inputs (or imports) from land bases that are not their own—with the result that the “civilized” engage in conquest and imperialism, using force to robs others for their own benefit. Jensen's thought is also inspired by a veritable animism, as in his posing of the question of what trees and stones say, or his recommendation that those interested in sustainability ask the land how it views different social arrangements... Given these assumptions, Jensen concludes that the only truly sustainable level of technology is that of the Stone Age, or Neolithic Era, which predated the first cities of Mesopotamia: in practical terms, humanity today must elect—or be forced to “elect”—to abolish agriculture, abandon all technologies developed since the Neolithic, and undergo a massive population decline (a “corrective”) in accordance with Jensen's conception of a “sustainable carrying capacity” of the Earth, which he claims grossly to have been overshot under conditions of civilization. In Endgame, Jensen defensively asserts that he is no Pol Pot or genocidal madman—but his positions should speak for themselves.

In his view, all environmental strains of thought other than his are hopelessly deluded, for, as he argues, they do not question the “death culture” of civilization, nor do they frame the question in a way that would prepare action aimed at overturning this death-society—that is, through the destruction of civilization. Another major premise of Jensen's is that, the longer civilization is allowed to live on, the greater the damage will be to the world's ecosystems and peoples.

In the abstract for this talk, I claimed Jensen's environmental philosophy to be “undialectical, highly inegalitarian, and even reactionary in its assumptions and recommendations.” Why might this be the case? If it is not already glaringly obvious, allow me to elucidate my point.

Let's take Jensen's discussion of “industrial medicine” as an illustration of my argument. He makes a fair point in asserting that, on the one hand, medical doctors and the medical system in general can treat certain debilitating conditions which arise well, but they then contribute to these very maladies through the production of mass quantities of medical waste which are then incinerated. While this is a legitimate criticism, there is no sense in Jensen's argumentation that anything meaningful could be done to vastly reduce the production of medical waste—say, through the practice of sterilization of implements rather than the mass-employment of disposable ones. Moreover, in responding to the charge that his position is “heartless” in its call for the abolition of civilization together with life-saving medicines (pharmacology), he retorts by blaming victims in an undialectical fashion: the drugs which are prescribed to treat diseases such as diabetes, hypertension, cardiovascular disease, and cancer, for example, are “integral to an economic system that exploits workers, degrades the environment, and increases the suffering of indigenous peoples,” he says. This sort of assertion is standard fare for Jensen—it is not capitalism or class society but civilization that is the problem. This dubious line of reasoning is seen also in his claim that modern medicine only or overwhelmingly benefits the rich—with this, he effectively naturalizes capitalist U.S. society and completely obscures reasonable alternatives to such, as in the socialized medicine of Europe.

In essence, my claim is that Jensen's philosophy is monolectical—he dogmatically conflates capitalism with civilization, when the two are far from the same. It is for me entirely unclear that the mere fact of agriculture leads inevitably to the “radiant calamity” we see in post modernity. Rather obviously, it is not the campesin@s of Mexico who are destroying the world. In this sense, I agree with Takis Fotopoulos of the Inclusive Democracy Project when he speculatively implies that, had the Industrial Revolution and capitalism not been imposed on the peoples of the world, they conceivably would have developed their technologies in a less destructive fashion than what we have seen in fact. I accuse Jensen of being ahistorical in the extreme, as well as highly disingenuous: his entire thought is permeated by false dichotomies, as in the claim that we either have computers, pharmacology, catastrophic climate change, and genocidal imperialism or we live in egalitarian and harmonious social relations like those arguably instituted in prehistorical times. For Jensen, there is little sense that the development of civilization could have been different than what it has been. He is no revolutionary thinker inspired by the Enlightenment's desire to overthrow oppression—instead, his philosophy serves extremely obfuscatory ends.

It should come as little surprise that Jensen has nothing to say about the revolutionary history of humanity—yes, under conditions of “civilization”—from the helots of Sparta to Spartacus, the French and Haitian Revolutions, the Spanish anarchists, the Hungarian Revolution, May 1968—or 1968 throughout much of the globe, as in Mexico, the U.S., and Japan, in addition to France—and he in no way engages with such emancipatory social philosophies as anarchism or autonomous Marxism. For him, resistance is limited to the struggles of the Lakota, Geronimo, Tecumseh, and other militant indigenous individuals and groupings. While such forms of resistance are obviously important, they are far from comprehensive.

In sum, I view Jensen as a reactionary: his claim is that the peoples of the world must accept—or be forced to accept—their own mass-death in order to serve the mad schemes he conjures up by means of poor theorizing. For him, as the First of May Anarchist Alliance notes critically, the overwhelming majority of “civilized” peoples—including the working classes, though they make little explicit appearance in his writings—are “insane” and therefore to be written off entirely. With this assertion is seen Jensen's effective Leninism, as I personally saw most clearly at the “Earth at Risk” conference at UC Berkeley in November 2011: according to the conversation he had with McBay on DGR strategy, the idea is that small groups of anti-civ militants will work to take down civilization themselves, given that we “can't wait” for the people to intervene radically themselves. This is a rotten philosophy of authoritarianism.

Social Revolution through Green Syndicalism

As an alternative, let's examine green syndicalism, which I take to be a combination of proletarian self-management—as in anarcho-syndicalism—with ecological concern, as is reflected in the philosophies of eco-socialism, social ecology, and ecological anarcho-communism. All these modes of thought aim at overcoming class society, social domination, and the domination of nature by breaking radically from the grow-or-die imperative of capitalism. These viewpoints do not take the extreme anti-technological position of Jensen and company but rather dialectically see promise in certain types of technology—for example, in labor-saving technologies, which at minimum seek to reduce the unpleasurable burden of toil and at maximum (as in communism or post-scarcity anarchism) intend to effectively abolish labor altogether by means of automation; in life-enhancing technologies, such as antibiotics and other helpful means of extending the human lifespan; as well as nature-protecting technologies, such as renewable energy sources that do not emit carbon. It should be said here, as against the fatalism inspired by undialectical primitivism, that a transition to solar and wind energy would not necessarily demand a massive expansion of the obviously problematic practice of mining, given that the rare earths needed for such a transformation are already contained within existing infrastructures, such that they can be recycled without need to resort to further extraction. Such a socio-political course is one to be adopted by a conscious, empowered humanity that has taken control of the means of production, thus shattering capitalist domination and disproving primitivist defeatism.

Having overthrown capitalism and the State, a future eco-syndicalist humanity would be able to observe various ecological practices which have been developed from within the context of capitalist modernity yet never within that context observed due to the hegemony of mindless growth economics. I am thinking here of the precautionary principle, whereby a given action (say, in production) is not to be allowed if there is reason to believe such a move would cause harm to humans and/or nature, in addition to systemic recycling, the overturning of planned obsolescence, generalized vegetarianism, economic contraction, and the re-orientation of production toward need and use rather than luxury and exchange.

Though it is to be imagined that the realization of such critical socio-economic transformations would greatly reduce the burden humanity has imposed upon the environment within the history of capitalism, it is also true that such an overhaul would not absolutely do away with the exploitation and domination of nature altogether. In this sense, Herbert Marcuse is arguably right to assert that the idea of a total reconciliation between humanity and nature “belongs to the Orphic myth, not to any conceivable historical reality.”[1] Taking an analogy from Marcuse, one he develops in his revolutionary interpretation of Freud in Eros and Civilization, I should here like to distinguish between the “basic domination” and “surplus domination” of nature. On Marcuse's account, basic repression is required for the continuation of everyday life within civilization, but surplus repression is not: the latter corresponds to a socially unnecessary level of unhappiness which accords with the interests of dominant groups, such as capitalists. (Marcuse takes his account of basic and surplus repression from the distinction Marx made between necessary and surplus labor.) By overthrowing capitalism and the surplus-repression which it demands, humanity can come to experience a far more liberated existence, claims Marcuse. In my argument, the case is similar with the domination of nature: a significant proportion of the domination humanity exercises with regards to nature under conditions of capitalism can certainly be overturned by means of the exercise of mind and the embodiment of a political praxis which accords with such—as in social revolution—but a basic level of domination will likely live on even in a global post-capitalist civilization, particularly in light of the considerable size of the total human population, the vast majority of whom must be allowed to live in more materially favorable contexts than currently prevails.

I argue that this dynamic is far preferable to the alternative advanced by Jensen and company: that is, for billions to be murdered in conformity with the genocidal fantasies of primitivism. I here accept that any defensible notion of politics will provide for the health and well-being of the world's human population, present and future; I certainly agree with Theodor Adorno when he claims the “notion of redemption” to be inextricably linked to the “happiness of unborn generations.”[2] To demand a mass die-off of humanity as a precondition of sustainability should self-evidently be ethically unacceptable to all. Beyond this, however, in practical terms it is far from evident that mass-death is necessary at all, given the reasonable alternatives in terms of socio-ecological practice open to a conscious humanity that has transcended the horrid capitalist system. Once again, to naturalize “civilized” humanity as being inevitably capitalist is an untenable position.

Strategically, green syndicalism seeks to integrate class struggle into environmentalism: to overthrow the capitalist class and do away with productivism, both materially—as in production—as well as ideologically—in culture and social relations. Granted, this struggle would likely entail the abandonment of many capitalist technologies and, as Richard Smith has argued cogently in his “Six Theses” on “Capitalism and the Destruction of Life on Earth,” entire sectors of the capitalist economy—as examples, he mentions “not just fossil-fuel producers, but all the industries that consume them and produce GHG emissions - autos, trucking, aircraft, airlines, shipping and cruise lines, construction, chemicals, plastics, synthetic fabrics, cosmetics, synthetic fiber and fabrics, synthetic fertilizer and agribusiness CAFO operations, and many more.” Arguably, the overwhelming majority of consumption engaged in by the overdeveloped societies should also be jettisoned—besides having terrible effects on nature and workers, such consumer goods truly contribute little to human happiness, after all. It should be obvious that, though perspectives on industry and development such as these remain highly critical, they have exceedingly little to do with the primitivist rejection of all technologies other than those which were on hand in the Neolithic.

Concretely, we can point to several tactics with which to move toward a green syndicalist future for humanity: workplace militancy, social antagonism, agitation, indignation, direct action, occupation (or decolonization), blockades of capital, general strikes, and particularly ecological general strikes. I see a militant transitional period as including two critical moments: one which would work to interrupt the drive of the death-economy that is capitalism, and another which would seek to construct a participatory and inclusive counter-power as an alternative to regnant barbarism.

Differently from orthodox Marxism—and, indeed, Jensen himself, who claims delusionally that he is entirely convinced that his dream of abolishing civilization will come to pass—I subscribe to no blind sense of optimism here. I believe we must think again of Super Typhoon Haiyan, and what horrors such as this portend for the future, whether it continues to be capitalist or rather somehow becomes democratic, syndicalist, and ecological. As Murray Bookchin argued famously, anarchism provides humanity with the ethical option of choosing to intervene and overcome capitalism and domination. This end is far from assured, yet little alternative exists other than radical struggle.


[1] Herbert Marcuse, Counterrevolution and Revolt (Boston: Beacon Press, 1972), 68.

[2] Theodor W. Adorno, “Progress,” in Benjamin: Philosophy, Aesthetics, History, ed. Gary Smith (1962; repr., Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1989), 85

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