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John Hanna

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

By x344543 - October 29, 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.

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

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

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

On the flip side, Bowser either naively or even dangerously lumps all forms of "direct acton" together and all groups that engage in a whole range of direct action tactics into a single grouping. Specifically he conflates Earth First!, Earth Liberation Front (ELF), and Animal Liberation Front (ALF) into one category. I suppose that's essentially accurate on a certain level, and it's been a good long time since I have been an "active" Earth First!er (however that is defined), but when I was active in Earth First! (1995-98), we never engaged in or advocated some of the tactics commonly associated with either ALF or ELF, including, especially arson. Arson was not only not condoned, the Earth First! groups I worked with specifically eschewed such tactics as counterproductive and self destructive. To my knowledge, that is still the case, even if Earth First! favorably reports on the activities of ELF and ALF.

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

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