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How would a resistance movement expand from hampering to decisively dismantling industrial civilization's systems of power? What can we learn from history?


There’s one nagging thought that always returns to me when I’m studying WWII resistance strategy: resisters in Occupied Europe were brave, even heroic, but their actions alone did not bring down the Nazis. Resisters weakened the Nazis, hampered their actions, disrupted their logistics, and destroyed materiel. But they lacked the resources and organization to decisively engage and defeat Hitler’s forces. It took a conventional military assault by the Allies to finish the job. And the overwhelming majority of this was done by the Russians, with their large army relying heavily on infantry tactics. We can speculate about whether guerrilla uprisings in occupied countries would have eventually developed and ended Nazi rule, but that’s not what happened during the actual years of occupation.

For those of us who want to stop this culture from killing the planet, there are no capital “A” Allies with vast resources and armies. That’s the nature of our predicament. We may be able to ally ourselves with powers of lesser evil, the way that Spanish Anarchists allied themselves with Spanish Republicans and Soviets in Spain, or the way antebellum abolitionists allied themselves with Union Republicans against the Confederate South. But that will only get us so far, and joining the lesser evil can be dangerous.

How, then, would a successful resistance movement expand its actions beyond resistance that merely hampers to that which decisively dismantles civilization’s centralized systems of power, those that are allowing it to steal from the poor and destroy the planet? We’ll return to this in the Core Strategy chapter, but there are three main answers in terms of any theoretical deep green resistance movement’s “allies.” One is that the depletion of finite resources, along with the dead-ending of that pyramid scheme called industrial capitalism, will provoke a cascading industrial and economic collapse. Indeed, just during the time we’ve been writing this book, we’ve seen a banking crisis turn into a major credit crisis, which has cascaded into a recession and simmering global economic crisis. That disruption will undermine the ability of those in power to exercise their influence and concentrate wealth, and generally throw industrial civilization into a state of disarray.

A second answer is ecological and climate collapse. Cheap oil has so far insulated urban industrial people from most effects of increasing and catastrophic damage to the biosphere. But industrial collapse will mean the end of that insulation, and will mean that thousands of years of civilization’s “ecological debt” will come due. Furthermore, the earth is not just a passive battlefield—it’s alive, and it’s fighting on the side of the living.

A third, more tentative answer is that as all of this transpires, less overtly militant aboveground forces may fight against those in power out of self-interest. Once those in power no longer have the “energy slaves” offered by cheap oil and industry, they will (once again) increasingly try to extract that labor from human beings, from literal slaves. Hopefully people in the minority world, where the rich and powerful minority live, will have the good sense to see that and fight back against this enslavement, as so many people in the majority world, where the impoverished minority live, have already been doing for so long. But this is a more tenuous proposition. Popular resentment may be quick to build against a particular head of state or particular political party. Developing a mass culture of resistance against an entire economic or political system, however, can take decades. People who are privileged and entitled take a long time to change, if they change at all. More likely they will side with someone who makes big but ultimately empty promises.

Good strategy is part planning and part opportunity, and success depends on the effective use of both. In his book Guerrilla Strategies: An Historical Anthology, Gérard Chaliand suggests that the lessons of revolutionary warfare in the mid-twentieth century boil down to two key points. First, he writes, “The conditions for the insurrection must be as ripe as possible, the most favorable situation being one in which foreign domination or aggression makes it possible to mobilize broad support for a goal that is both social and national. Failing this, the ruling stratum should be in the middle of an acute political crisis and popular discontent should be both intense and wide ranging.” Second, he suggests, “The most important element in a guerrilla campaign is the underground political infrastructure, rooted in the population itself and coordinated by middle-ranking cadres. Such a structure is a prerequisite for growth and will provide the necessary recruits, information, and local logistics.”15

We’re clearly heading into a period of prolonged emergency, although the crisis will vary between chronic and acute over time. That increases the prospects for revolutionary—or rather, devolutionary—struggle, especially if radical organizations are able to anticipate and effectively seize opportunities offered by particular crises. It’s unlikely that mass support will be rallied for anticivilizational causes in the foreseeable future, because most people are happy to get the material benefits of this culture and ignore the consequences. However, an increase in political discontent can be beneficial even if it doesn’t create a majority.

Chaliand’s second conclusion is key, and even I find it a bit surprising that he would rank underground development so highly. But it makes sense; aboveground organizational infrastructure, though it may be hard work, is comparatively easy to expand. Underground infrastructure seems troublesome or irrelevant in times where resistance movements are too marginal or inactive to pose a threat. But as soon as they become successful enough to provoke significant repression, the underground becomes indispensible, and creating it at that point is extremely difficult.

The use of a crisis as an opportunity isn’t a new idea, but it has played a key role in strategic theory. Napoleon Bonaparte said that “the whole art of war consists of a well-reasoned and extremely circumspect defensive followed by rapid and audacious attack.” A similar opinion was shared by British strategist Basil Liddell Hart. As a foot soldier in World War I, Liddell Hart was injured in a gas attack and became horrified by the needless bloodshed. After the war he tried to develop strategy that would avoid the kind of carnage he’d been part of. In his book Strategy: The Indirect Approach (first published in 1941), he argued for a military strategy that has a lot in common with asymmetric strategy. Rather than attempting to carry out a direct assault on enemy military forces, he recommended making an indirect and unexpected attack on the adversary’s support systems, to decisively end the war and avoid prolonged and bloody battles.

Resisters can learn from this kind of approach. Often, because of the disorganized nature of many resistance movements, initial offensive actions are tentative and poorly coordinated. Sometimes these are celebrated because, well, at least they’re something. But they are rarely effective in and of themselves, and they may tip the hand of the resistance and allow those in power to seize the initiative.

When I’m looking for an analogy for civilization, I often think of the Borg from Star Trek. Relentlessly expansionist and essentially colonial, they insist that every indigenous culture they encounter “adapt to service” them—that every individual either assimilate to their basic imperative or die. Like any coercive hegemony, they insist that resistance is futile. They’re fundamentally industrial. They have overwhelming military force, and they’re very good at adapting to resistance. The good guys only get a few shots with their phasers before the Borg adapt, making the weapons virtually useless. Then the good guys have to rejig their tactics or run away until they have a better chance.

That’s basically what happens when a resistance group makes a token attack at the wrong time. If, instead of being “rapid and audacious,” an operation is slow and timid, the effect may be to point out the enemy’s weakness and allow them to shore it up. It removes the element of surprise. And that applies whether the resistance movement is using armed tactics, sabotage, or nonviolence.