Endgame Premises Archives: Blog » 11: Civilisation is a culture of occupation

From the beginning, this culture—civilization—has been
a culture of occupation.

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Lessons From the Luddites: Strategically Smash the Machine

luddites-resist
“if we don’t break’em, our lives they will take’em.
Our croft, our cottage, our village as wello.
No freedom or laughter for those who come after,
But a servant and master in a factory hell.”

Seize the Day: General Ludd

Essay by Ben Ludd

Resistance is fertile. It strengthens. It works. It never dies. We are taught to accept progress as if it were inevitable and always desirable. The relentless growth of cities is neither: a quick look at history shows why.

While the dominant culture uses the word “Luddite” negatively to describe people who are against progress, I use it as a compliment to describe those who fight back using the tactics they deem most effective. We are told that Luddite means “One who is opposed to technical change.” However, the Luddites were not opposed to all forms of progress. They did not destroy labour saving devices indiscriminately. On the contrary, they chose their targets carefully, smashing only those machines harmful to the common good, while leaving others in the same workshops untouched. Today we face larger machines harmful not only to the common good of humanity and the natural world, but to the very possibility of future life on earth.

Two hundred years ago the Luddites saw the threat to their livelihoods and lives more clearly than most. Skilled workers being replaced by steam-powered machines, they were early casualties of capitalism’s shift of rewards from workers to the owners of capital. The merchants who owned the new mills broke the law by employing non-apprenticed unskilled workers in their factories. For ten years the weavers responded with non-violent tactics, appealing to the government to enforce the law. They were ignored and, under pressure from the merchants, the Government changed the law.

With no further legal recourse available to them, the weavers, guided by their mythical leader General Ludd, warned factory owners to remove their machinery. When these final warnings were ignored, the ‘machine breaking’ began. The Luddites used sledgehammers made by Enoch, the same legendary blacksmith who had helped to create the machines they wished to destroy. A Luddite slogan was “Enoch made them, Enoch shall break them.” Thus the Luddites proved you can use the master’s tools to destroy the master’s house.

Despite the Luddites’ actions already being illegal, the government introduced new laws making it a capital offence to destroy the particular machinery which had been targeted. Even with machine breaking now being punishable by death, attacks on cotton mills continued throughout 1812. Many Luddites were captured and executed or sent to Australia. They died protecting their livelihoods and the work their communities relied upon. The Luddites were ordinary people acting with the support of ordinary people. Those who were captured were caught in the act of sabotage; there were no informants. The law enforcers struggled to find anyone who would even admit to knowing a Luddite. With the identity of their leader shrouded in myth, even when some were caught and hung, others were able to continue the resistance. Valuable lessons about the importance of maintaining good security culture and strong relationships with your local community can be found in this example.

Unfortunately, their actions did not stop the industrial revolution. In the years that followed, carbon parts per million rose from 285 to 400, and continue to rise exponentially towards irreversible climate change. However, some people, perhaps inspired by the Luddites, are fighting back. A growing list of examples of modern-day actions similar to those carried out by the Luddites includes:

  • The March 2013 group sabotage of critical equipment, machinery and vehicles belonging to Scottish Coal at Powharnal open cast coal mine in East Ayrshire, Scotland.
  • The November 2008 incident at Kingsnorth coal power station in Kent, when someone climbed two three-metre (10ft) razor-wired, electrified security fences, walked into the station and crashed a giant 500MW turbine before leaving a calling card reading “no new coal”. This person walked out the same way and hopped back over the fence.

These actions alone did not significantly slow climate change, but they show the vulnerability of industrial infrastructure and serve as blueprints for the types of actions that will stop the destruction of our home. Civilisation is a fragile monster. All that is required to stop it devouring our planet are a few motivated people capable of identifying its weaknesses.

Are you ready to act? The Luddites never lost. Their battle is and always was ours too.

In Solidarity with the Balcombe Community Protection Camp

DGR UK members have just come back from a weekend at the Balcombe Community Protection Camp. The camp has been there since July 25th. We have massive respect for all those there now or who have been there at any time. It is a front line camp on both sides of the verge of a busy B road, with a train line close by and the noisy fracking rig 50 metres from the camp. People at the camp are attempting to blockade each truck that comes in with a police line in between them and the trucks, moving them along.

Cuadrilla’s exploratary drilling licence expires at the end of the Saturday 28th September. Cuadrilla have stated that they will apply for planning permission to measure flow rates so clearly plan to continue at the site.

There is huge local support for the camp. A survey done before the drilling started interviewed about 600 of the approximate 770 households and found that 85% did not want shale gas exploration in the village. Balcombe residents regularly visit the camp and donate supplies to support it.

There is a heavy police presence by the entrance to the fracking rig site. Police patrol along the whole stretch of the B road where the camp is located. The large numbers of police and their vehicles give the camp a militarised feel. The kitchen tent is one side of the entrance to the fracking site, with the camps outside communal seating area on the other side. People at the camp are noting all the vehicles that enter and leave the site. Being sat next to between eight and ten police officers at any time is not a relaxing experience.

For more info see the Frack Free Balcombe website or the Great Gas Gala website for daily updates from the camp. If you want to see how the police are behaving see the truthferretfilms youtube page.

A DGR UK member was part of the group that set up Reclaim the Power camp on farmland near the Balcombe Community Protection Camp that ran from August 16th-21st. From Sunday 18th August there was 48 hours of direct action against the energy firm Cuadrilla, targeting its exploratory drill site in the village of Balcombe, West Sussex, its headquarters in Lichfield, and the offices of its PR company Bell Pottinger in London. The same DGR UK member also took part in the action at Cuadrilla’s headquarters in Liltchfield, north of Birmingham.

For more information about Fracking techniques see the DGR UK post on it.

The next UK fracking site will Barton Moss near Salford by IGas Energy Plc from mid October. For more information see the local campaign facebook group, article in the local paper and information about the site on the IGas website.

Responses to Oppression: Legal Remedies

This is the first follow on blog post from the previous Oppression post that looks at legal remedies as a response to oppression.

Most activists groups are centred around legal remedies to address specific harm. This is for a very good reason. As Catharine MacKinnon points out, “Law organises power.” To be clear, when we talk about legal tactics, we’re not referring to tactics that simply obey the law, rather we’re talking about tactics that intend to use the law as a means towards achieving a goal. Legal tactics can look like anything from passing new legislation, bringing lawsuits against corrupt industry, voting, or lobbying those in power. Historically, they have run the gamut from being extremely effective to necessarily restricting and piecemeal. Most in the contemporary environmental movement have sanctioned legal tactics as the only legitimate way to engage in activism, many radicals have written off legal means altogether. Well, it’s important to note that legal tactics aren’t just for liberals.

Through the course of history, there have been legislative victories and court rulings that have substantially changed people’s lives and redirected the flow of power. If we’re going to try to reorganise power, we are going to have to grapple with the law in one way or another. The trick is to learn how to utilise the law as radicals, or in such a way that employs the law as a tool for creating material change. So let’s take a look at some of the legal tactics that have been used in the contemporary environmental movement.

The law has commonly been used to regulate, or to check unjust activities on the part of individuals or corporate entities. The most common subject of regulation is egregious industrial waste, in the form of toxic chemicals released into the air and water, as well as solid waste disposed on land. In the UK we have the Clean Air Act 1993, Water Resources Act 1991, and the various pesticide and herbicide regulations which all set standards for “acceptable” amounts of toxins released into the environment. This legislation has been considered radical by some, and have indeed been extremely effective in at least reducing the amount of toxins released, especially in comparison to the state of things before these acts were in existence. However, these kinds of regulatory acts are only effective insofar as those who are in charge of doing the regulating actually do their job. This doesn’t exactly work when those who are in charge of regulation are most always the same entities who profit from the very destruction that should be regulated—the government or the corporations themselves! The result of this is a plethora of loopholes made to accommodate profitable industry that doesn’t quite attend to the toxic limits.

The latest figures indicate that 29,000 people die prematurely from air pollution every year in Britain, twice as many as from road traffic, obesity and alcohol combined, and that air pollution is now second only to smoking as a cause of death. I don’t think anyone reading this would truly argue that this is “acceptable.”

So while most liberal activists are left wondering how to tighten regulation around industrial pollution, logging and sexual violence, as radicals, our job is to be asking the deeper questions. When did it become acceptable to drink and breathe in any level of synthetic poisons? How is clear cutting any percentage of living, breathing ecosystems justifiable? As radicals, we should recognise that no level of destruction and oppression is acceptable and we should be working to stop it, not merely lessen its blows.

Aside from creating new legislation, legal tactics are often concerned with putting pressure on people in power through methods such as lobbying, petitioning, calling or writing. One big problem with this is that, as many of us know, you can’t convince insane people.

To get more to the point though, you can’t convince people to stop destroying the natural world if they are directly responsible for upholding a system which necessitates that destruction. The current political structure is predicated on the material condition of infinite growth, meaning a necessity for continued resource consumption and imperialistic expansion. So we’re never going to simply convince them to stop burning fossil fuels or tearing apart forests because they simply cannot undermine the economic and political system they are responsible for running. It goes against their job description.

The Coalition Government looks to have little interest in meeting the legal obligations necessary to ensure the Climate Act (2008) targets are met. Read more here and here. In July the UK Government announced large tax incentives for fracking companies and it just so happens that senior energy sector bosses sit at the heart of Government.

In the same vein, voting new people into the same corrupt positions of power is not really going to get us anywhere. Hopefully we all know that the current environmental crisis won’t be solved by electing a new Prime Minister. Last year leaked documents indicated that the Coalition Government was trying to water down new EU targets on renewable energy and energy efficiency. So rather than expending so much energy trying to convince those in power to change or vying to put someone new in their place, radical legal tactics are concerned with giving people more control over their own lives, or redistributing power back to the people.

Whether it be giving marginalised classes more political leverage, The Representation of the People Act 1928 gave all women over 30 the vote or giving individuals more control over their own bodies and lives, the Slave Abolition Act in 1833, radical legislation seeks to empower oppressed classes, individuals and communities.

Of course, there are many circumstances where those in power have the control over legislation and we do have to convince them to wield that power in less destructive ways. It’s important to say though, that this pressure doesn’t always have to come in the form of supplicant pleading.

For instance, the suffragettes had to convince those in power to give them the vote. For generations they tried asking nicely, and when that didn’t work, they turned to tactics such as civil disobedience, hunger strikes and finally arson before finally winning the vote.

The moral of the story is, if you have no political leverage, then your best bet at winning is to engage in disruption, or moving the terrain of conflict outside of electoral politics or bureaucratic process. We will get more into these kinds of disruptive tactics in a later post, but for now we can simply note that legislative battles don’t always have to be won through legal means.

The final way that we can measure the effectiveness of legal tactics is by looking at the grander picture and considering whether the tactic supports a larger campaign or resistance movement. So this would be one of the circumstances in which our categories of tactics overlap in crucial ways. If a legal tactic can’t be a decisive action on its own, it can aim to support other tactics or the larger resistance movement.

The work that Green and Black Cross does is a great example of this kind of support. They provide legal observers on the ground, a 24/7 arrestee support line and follow-up advice for defendants and claimants. We need people who know how to navigate the legal system because whether we like it or not, the legal system is what many of us end up wrapped up in when we necessarily break the law to achieve justice. If we don’t have organisations like Green and Black Cross to support activists, then we won’t have anyone doing the work that needs to be done.

One of the key questions DGR aims to ask environmentalists is to consider approaches beyond the usual legal response. But if we would like to organise power in a egalitarian distribution, we need to grapple with the laws. The trick is to do this as radicals, which means asking the questions:

  • Does this initiative redistribute power, not just change who is at the top of the pyramid?
  • Does it take away the rights of the oppressors and reestablish the rights of the dispossessed?
  • Does it let people control more of the material conditions of their lives?
  • Does it name and redress a specific harm?
  • Does this legal effort support a larger resistance movement?

We can stand on the sidelines with a more-radical-than-thou attitude, but this attitude will not help a single gasping salmon or starving child. A transition toward direct democracy built on a foundation of both human rights and human participation in the life of the planet is not conceptually difficult. Law is not just for liberals. The question is, what actions will get us from here to there? Neither sneering nor despairing has ever proven to be effective. It’s easy for nothing to be radical enough, but an interior state of rage is also not enough. Structural change needs to happen. A radical analysis starts from that fact. How best to force that change is a strategic question.

This is not a call to behave and ask nicely. The UK State upholds a corrupt arrangement of power. It was written by white men who owned white women as chattel and black men and women as slaves. It was written by white men who feel entitled to plunder the planet for their own profit and and whose primary interest is to protect that disgusting arrangement of power. We have no moral obligation to respect it, quite the opposite: we need to bring it down.

The next post in this series looking at responses to oppression will focus on direct action.