Other Writings, Elsewhere

December 27, 2016

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To say the times are tumultuous is as useless and empty as proclaiming one of Dante’s imagined circles of hell to be unpleasant, and my own life has been largely consumed by adventures this past year which reflect the worldly tumult, leaving few opportunities to publish here. Those few textual artifacts from most of 2016 that do exist are on other corners of the internet.

Breaking the Will to Evil: On Various Conceptualizations of Climate Direct Action” was written for the Climate Disobedience Center blog. Acknowledging the uniqueness of the climate crisis and the heterogeneous political orientations that are converging into a mass movement against it, this paper discusses frequent points of contention or confusion in climate DA organizing. (Some of these points  are familiar from any number of other political contexts, but again, let us acknowledge the uniqueness of the climate crisis). Topics include the ostensible symbolic vs. disruptive binary; the need to eschew simple thinking wherein past movement trajectories can be replicated in the current context; and the use of moral force against a physically overpowering adversary.

On Direct Action with Trump Around” was written a few days after the election and represents a few thoughts on exercising counter-power to that wielded by this uniquely dangerous moron. With the overarching theme of the radical opportunities presented by the complete alienation of so many people and so much of the institutional power structure from the demagogue-elect, this paper discusses implications for climate action, the need to integrate work explicitly opposing the criminal justice system into climate work, and some general thoughts on leveraging smaller-scale structures of power against the federal government.

Sometime not that recently—2015?—I wrote this piece called “The Logic of Failed Climate Policies vs. the Logic of Direct Action: Oregon As a Case Study.” Along with this article in the Earth First! Journal, it forms a very modest theoretical core for a much more ambitious program of articulating explicit greenhouse gas emissions reduction trajectories which can be coupled with direct action. Doing this research and writing, in a way that is useful to groups doing climate action, is a big part of what I imagine myself to be doing with my life right now. Originally I put this up on the Portland Rising Tide website, then on a blog I thought I was starting this summer, before fighting the fossil fuel industry got so exciting for awhile I didn’t have time to be on the internet. Now I’m abandoning the notion of that nascent blog and relocating all the writing I’m certain I don’t want to lose onto a server outside the United States, under the assumption that it won’t be well received in dystopia.

Finally, here is a PDF of a zine I made in 2013 which was never released online and received almost no print distribution whatsoever. It was a sprawling endeavor with a lot of varied content. There’s texts on maintaining sanity in a dying world, and on maintaining an experiential connection with said world, which runs onto the literary end of things. And some more academic work on the connection between the developmental environment associated with technologically-intensive civilization and our collective behavior; as well as a piece on the changes in African elephant behavior and social structure wrought by chronic hunting. Not ever doing anything with this zine seems highly probable, and it was enough work it certainly warrants a link at the end of a list of links to things I’ve written.

It’s worth mentioning I was publishing here at a brisk pace for awhile, but that was back during the months-long odyssey wherein I never slept and spent the vast majority of my time remembering awful things I’d forgotten about my childhood. However unpleasant, that phase produced an almost uncontrollable desire to write. Everything I’ve experienced since spring of 2016 has, in contrast, produced mostly weariness. Perhaps more academic endeavors await, perhaps not. In recent months I’ve watched Aztec dancers blockade pipeline construction and witnessed the ascent of fascism through a reality television star; the cumulative effect has been to inculcate a radical aversion to predicting the future.

[This was originally published in Earth First! Journal Vol. 35 No. 1, Eostar/Spring 2015, under a pseudonym. The Journal is a heroic effort and print publications lend a sense of coherence to movements the internet absolutely does not. Perhaps you should consider purchasing a copy of their current issue, pictured below, or simply subscribing?]

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As the climate crisis worsens, and industrial capitalism appears to be in the final stages of guaranteeing a hostile earth for millennia to come—for our species and many others—clear distinctions have emerged between decentralized, grassroots, “radical” efforts to address this crisis and those of the more politically mainstream and better-funded nonprofits. To some extent these distinctions reflect how broad ideological divergences translate into specific tactical divergences, and have thus been mirrored in social and ecological struggles of the past. However, certain aspects of the current situation are unique. It is worth noting these unique differences and assessing their implications—and any unstated assumptions that may underlie them—in an effort to ensure we’re all making the very best use of our time during the earth’s Sixth Great Extinction.

Succinctly: environmental nonprofits pressure policymakers, while radical organizers more typically focus on directly confronting fossil fuel extraction and infrastructure projects.

There is no particular reason these efforts can’t be complementary, nor do the respective sectors truly adhere to any rigid binary: the grassroots also pressure public officials, and nonprofits do fight individual projects. For that matter, the distinction between “radical” and “mainstream” climate organizing is not always perfectly clear. But this broad characterization is true in a great number of cases.

A recent example of this was the People’s Climate March in New York City, where hundreds of thousands of people were mobilized by 350.org and others to demand action from world leaders gathered for UN climate talks—thinking that said leaders would act if they understood the magnitude of our current crisis, or at least how angry people are about it. The march was criticized by many grassroots organizers as a performance for an empty room, an expenditure of resources that would have been better spent in direct confrontations with the forces that are destroying our world—the assumption being that policymakers are already well apprised of the magnitude of our current crisis, and don’t particularly care.

At the root of this debate are fundamental and sometimes unspoken differences in values. Direct action is often seen as a form of struggle in which our right to a livable world is asserted, rather than requested of the existing political system, and thus is ultimately a venue for dismantling the prevailing institutions engaged in ecocide. The “professional” environmental sector, on the other hand, sees the acute physical and temporal parameters involved in the climate crisis and scrambles to find a mechanism as hastily as possible to address it, not fighting for broader, systematic change.

In a sense, everyone’s right. By appealing to the powers that be, the Big Greens have sold their souls to a system anyone possessing a shred of sense can see is inherently destructive. Likewise, with even fewer tangible achievements than the Big Greens, the more radical elements of this fight are poorly positioned to deflect the critique that they are dreamers.

This writing is not about these broad ideological, and subsequent tactical, differences per se. Rather it is about what is missing—what could occupy the spaces where these disjunctions currently exist.

Fierce resistance to fossil fuels is occurring throughout North America. Long-term blockades of pipelines and extraction projects by indigenous land defenders, such as the Unist’ot’en and Elsipogtog, have simultaneously thwarted violations of native sovereignty while keeping carbon in the ground. Utah Tar Sands Resistance is impeding the progress of tar sands and shale extraction on the Colorado Plateau. Rising Tide collectives in Oregon and Washington are blockading oil trains. The Michigan Coalition Against Tar Sands is obstructing pipeline construction. Tar Sands Blockade and Great Plains Tar Sands Resistance fought a pitched battle against the southern portion of the Keystone XL pipeline, and Lakota land defenders have vowed death or prison before letting the northern section be constructed. The list goes on.

Not only does this work matter for its immediate effects, for any delay in the production of fossil fuels it causes, and for any financial or logistical difficulties it creates for climate killers, but also because it always contains the possibility, no matter how hopeless it might seem on any given day, of planting the seeds of some larger uprising—a resistance capable of shutting down the fossil fuel economy on its own. Furthermore, although not largely discussed, direct action also matters because it provides a context in which to articulate far more clear and effective policy demands than exist at present.

At the beginning of Obama’s presidency, some measure of unity and clarity on broad climate policy existed within the professional environmental sector, but essentially vanished somewhere around 2009 or 2010, with the defeat of federal cap and trade legislation and the deterioration of the UN talks in Copenhagen into an appalling display of small-minded, amoral pettiness. Since then, the Big Greens’ messaging has shifted from advocating specific actions on climate to advocating “action” in general.

However, even when they do articulate something specific enough to be reasonably described as a “plan,” the strategies “professional” environmentalists tend to favor are highly problematic on any number of levels. For instance, there are ways in which ostensible solutions reinforce systematic injustice and ecocide, such as cap and trade’s creation of a whole new commodity market to further enrich those who are already profiting from climate chaos. But their most fundamental drawback is their sheer ineffectiveness.

Where the political will exists for carbon taxes, cap and trade, renewable energy subsidies, and other darlings of the mainstream climate solutions paradigm, their capacity to actually reduce emissions appears speculative at best. Since Norway instituted its carbon tax in 1991, per capita emissions have risen by 15%. For all its agonizing economic minutia, California’s much-vaunted climate plan is terribly vague on how it will actually achieve its targets. Europe’s carbon trading scheme has been an overt disaster.

The direct action sector, however, has known all along that addressing climate change isn’t nearly as complicated as policymakers—generating page after page of unreadable documents describing “emissions limits per megawatt hour of electricity generated by new coal-fired EGUs,” or “flexible performance standards designed to accelerate the availability and diversity of low-carbon fuels”—have convinced themselves it is. It’s actually terribly simple.

The trick, you see, is to stop extracting, transporting, refining, and burning fossil fuels.

Really. There’s nothing more to it than that. What happens after that is of tremendous importance. There would be the potential, in the massive restructuring of society, to address many of our culture’s other insidious aspects. Let’s not forget that climate change is simply delivering, in a cohesive package and at a slightly accelerated timescale, the systemic ecological collapse, mass extinction, and unspeakable human suffering that industrial civilization has always been achieving through other means. But as far as fighting climate change itself, cutting it out with burning fossil fuels is all it would really take.

Policymakers systematically fail—or pretend to fail—to discern this simple fact. When they talk about fighting climate change they actually don’t; they talk instead about various ways in which society could adapt to a world without fossil fuels. The only climate policies with any reasonable certainty of effectiveness are not ones that attempt complicated and speculative manipulations of the economy, nor are they predicated upon technological and social adaptations to a post-carbon world. Effective policies are ones that directly keep fossil fuels in the ground. Anything else has a tremendous risk of not reducing emissions.

But “anything else” is all the current dialogue consists of: the promotion of new technologies, new energy sources, changes in the building code. And, by and large, professional environmentalists—the ones who, unlike the direct action sector, routinely discuss things like state, federal, and international policy—speak this same meaningless language. Because it occupies precisely the nexus where policy would actually matter—the sites of fossil fuel extraction and the infrastructure of transport and refinement—the direct action sector is uniquely poised to offer a powerful, clear framework for addressing the climate crisis.

This requires going beyond opposition to a particular mine, or pipeline, or export terminal, and beyond generalities about phasing out fossil fuels. It would involve articulating a vision that is broad enough to be comprehensive, but detailed enough to be actionable. It would be quantitative and would name names, identifying the rates at which fossil fuel extraction would be phased out in specific regions, specifying dates by which various power plants and other industrial infrastructure would be decommissioned. There would be charts. Maps, even.

Let’s say it together: Powder River Basin coal mining is to decline by 10% of its initial value per month for ten months; offshore drilling in the Gulf Coast will cease immediately; Chevron’s oil refinery in Richmond, California will be allowed to operate for eighteen months, with all profits being allocated to San Francisco Bay wetlands restoration to buffer the effects of rising seas, and distributed among Richmond’s low-income residents… If you’re thinking to yourself right now that it’s ludicrous to let Chevron keep poisoning Richmond eight months after Arch Coal ceases to despoil the grasslands of Wyoming, that’s great. Time to start working on your own framework. Try it—it’s fun!

And every time someone responds with a question about what will come next, we get to reinforce the central tenet that everyone from the UN to the Sierra Club pretends to miss—what comes next isn’t the point. The point is that the fossil fuel economy is inimical to life on earth and must be immediately decommissioned. It’s a simple, singular truth, whereas the paths our species can take after the age of carbon are infinite and complex.

In the past 50,000 years, humans have spread from Africa into the far reaches of the globe, navigating open oceans in canoes to populate remote islands, living in Siberia at the height of the last Ice Age, traversing the edges of glaciers to venture into the Americas, and innovating an incredible array of adaptations to changing landscapes along the way. We can certainly adapt to life without something we didn’t have—fossil fuels—until the last few centuries. But we can’t adapt to life with them. And refusing to acknowledge this truth until the details of our adaptations are worked out is like refusing to run form a burning house until you’ve rented a new one.

If one were to seek out a precedent for something of this nature—a formal, comprehensive policy far outside the bounds of politically acceptable discourse—one could do far worse than to examine the Earth First! wilderness proposals of the 1980s. Like ourselves, the Earth First! of yore had visions of a world fundamentally and truly free, a world where the dominating force of civilization had been abolished, a world consisting exclusively of wilderness. Unlike ourselves, however, the Earth First! of yore was also willing to advocate broad, but detailed, policies that were intermediate points between this wild and boundless vision and the nightmare we currently occupy. Through the 90s and into the 2000s, ecological direct action collectives, while fundamentally framing our struggle as one against the entire political and economic system which values profit over life, also advocated for actual pieces of legislation, like the Northern Rockies Ecosystem Protection Act and the National Forest Protection and Restoration Act, the latter of which would have ended all commercial timber sales on National Forests.

Our anarchistically-inclined movement has increasingly come to avoid talking about anything broad enough to be construed as “policy.” We prefer instead to talk exclusively about local efforts to fight specific mines, pipelines, and rail terminals—efforts which we can overtly frame as assertions of people power against the dominant political and economic system.

Even if we regard policy as a potentially useful tool, admitting to ourselves that total revolution may not be directly around the corner, we avoid talking about it, considering it someone else’s job. But if it’s someone else’s job, they’re not doing it. The groups that center their efforts on policy changes are not actually advocating for meaningful ones. They don’t even seem to know the terms in which they could describe a meaningful policy. They’ve bought into the dialogue about solar panels and carbon taxes.

We don’t have to appeal to policymakers to affect them. Our broad, detailed vision doesn’t have to be a piece of legislation we’re trying to get introduced into Congress. It can simply be our plan, and we can announce that we’re going to fight like hell with people power to put it into place. By having something more comprehensive to voice than opposition to a specific project, or to fossil fuels in general, we have the opportunity to not just shift the dialogue, but to replace it altogether.

Think again of the Earth First! wilderness visions from back in the day. These were models of audacity, maps of giant reserved that outraged industry and embarrassed the “voices of reason” within the environmental movement. But they were also biological necessities. The reasonable debate over public lands management involved extinction for numerous species. Over the course of the years, increasingly “politically unrealistic” tracts of land received protections. By the end of Clinton’s presidency, when he signed his Executive Order prohibiting roads in the vast majority of the remaining National Forest roadless areas, the open season on old-growth and wildlands that was deemed a political inevitability in the 1980s was largely over.

These victories would have been far more difficult or impossible without the direct action movement. But we didn’t help win them by asking for them. We helped win them by declaring the laws that allowed for the destruction of living systems invalid, by declaring the destruction of public old-growth and wildlands to be over.

The fossil fuel resistance is doing a good job of framing our struggle as one in which we simply assert our right, and the right of all life, to continue to exist, rather than asking for this right from those who are robbing us of it. But we could be doing a lot better at the part where we actually have a clearly articulated, actionable alternative to the status quo.

This fight clearly will not be won by appealing to the existing political system on its own terms, by lobbying or convincing policymakers the crisis is dire. It will not be won by these “mass movements” everyone keeps talking about needing to build, if they don’t have anything to do other than march in New York every once in awhile. That mass movement already exists. Nor will it be won by isolated direct action collectives occasionally striking blows to the fossil fuel economy.

This fight looks dire from anywhere you look, no doubt, but the place it looks most hopeful is precisely the unoccupied territory between the Big Greens and ourselves. If we can cultivate a mass movement that is no longer asking for an end to global catastrophe, but forcing one—a mass movement engaged not in marches but in constant economic disruption—and if that economic disruption occurs in a framework that is clear, detailed, and broad—a framework that could translate into policy—we may possess a shred of hope yet.

If we loathe speaking in terms that sound similar to those of federal laws and international treaties, this approach might make some of us a little uncomfortable. But with shellfish crumbling, coral reefs dying, wolverine dens melting, and forests burning—with all of life at stake—we should be willing to feel more than a little uncomfortable.

This is a holy war if there ever was one. We should be willing to do virtually anything to win it.

 

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I am going to attempt to as concisely as possible address, if not the substance of the text, at least the very existence of a piece of writing called “A Field Guide to Straw Men: Sadie and Exile, Esoteric Fascism, and Olympia’s Little White Lies,” which addresses an ongoing controversy within Pacific Northwest subculture, which in part is devoted to an explicit critique of my own text “I Say Potato, You Say Dangerous Resurgence of Fascist Ideology.” This post comes at an extremely busy time for me and is being written in a single sitting with every effort at haste—anyone looking for a devastatingly literary assessment of the true meaning of Julius Evola or some such thing will be disappointed. This is solely an effort to suggest strategies for proceeding with future dialogue and interaction, within subculture generally and within sub-echelons of it.

For all my profound and experientially-justified cynicism about humans’ collective capacities, I remain deeply devoted to the notion that we must, in an age where existing strategies for resistance and indeed survival are so clearly outmoded, find new ways to fight. This inevitably implies developing better tools for interacting and organizing ourselves, and a subset of these tools should be methods for solving inter-clique hostilities such as this one. I want to constructively engage this dispute to do my part if at all possible to rescue it from a seemingly inevitable morass of pointless, interminable bickering. I think “Straw Men” exhibits poor judgment in favorably referencing violent intervention at underground music shows, and I don’t necessarily share all of its author’s conclusions, but I do think it makes a far more coherent argument about the situation, with vastly more sensitivity both to the idiosyncratic subcultural forces at play and the meaningful moral ramifications of the situation (e.g. describing the putative cultural and political impacts of a scene being vaguely allied with fascist tendencies, rather than speculating that said underground is going to morph into a politically mobilized fascist force, a speculation which strikes me as wildly implausible), than I had seen thus far from “the other side.”

For these reasons, I feel it is my responsibility to respond to this text. The central thesis of my writing on this subject in “I Say Potato” was that radical politics fails when it can no longer accommodate legitimately complex dialogue. I feel like the “Straw Men” piece constitutes precisely that—complex dialogue—and therefore provides some tentative foundation for me to hope that this whole affair could produce something other than incredibly painful nonsense.

I want to very briefly clarify one thing that is not actually directly related to the “Field Guide” text but which emerged in other writings and comments directed at me subsequent to my foray into the very murky waters of this dispute. It has been suggested that I personally adhere to European indigeneity as a basic aspect of my identity, and it seems worth stating that isn’t the case at all. I am emphatically disinterested in my ancestry because I personally consider all specimens of H. sapiens to have undergone the same cognitive revolution in evolutionary history, to all represent the same behavioral and psychological tendencies, and to all be fairly superficial (literally skin-deep) variants on the same essentially African species.

This disclaimer about my convictions complete, let me say that I am interested in finding ways in which the amorphous but definitely existent black metal/neofolk/experimental underground—or at least that echelon of it I know on the west coast of North America—can do something that feels more coherent and decisive to distance ourselves from neo-Nazism. I can justify this on any number of grounds, but the one that might appeal most to my friends and collaborators within this community is that it feels essential for this work to actually achieve its intended effect.

I’m one of those “art is a hammer” people, one of those people who has a fairly ardent desire to affect the world with symbols. For me the performance modes I engage are intended to explore the emerging mythology of the Anthropocene. This is serious work for me. It is work that is attempting to address the profound emotional challenges we encounter trying to meaningfully struggle in a world that provides overwhelming incentive to become paralyzed by despair. The cultural context and the lenses through which the work is viewed are meaningful, and it is absolutely not helpful to my project, nor to any of the cultural projects the vast majority of us are engaged in, to have them ambiguously contextualized within neo-fascism.

That said, it is also not helpful to any of our cultural projects if we allow them to be curtailed out of mere acquiescence to the assessments of others. I am not offering an assessment of the merit or lack thereof of the anarchist perspective set forth in “Straw Men,” and therefore want to be clear that I’m not stating this explicitly in relation to any particular individuals or projects within our loose-knit scene. I am however saying that I am sick of explaining that I’m not a Nazi every six months. I don’t have a truly specific formula for what this looks like—it would inevitably be an emergent, collective affair—but I think those of us who feel like their work would benefit from it should consider doing something to more decisively distance themselves from neo-fascism.

Thus far, we have essentially contented ourselves with disavowals of accusations. But while much of the attack on neofolk/black metal/whatever has been a paramount expression of precisely everything everyone finds alienating about anarchists, there does remain the ineluctable truth that an aura of obscure occult-fascist intrigue continues to pervade our underground. Both black metal and neofolk have origin stories involving overt racists like Varg Vikernes and Tony Wakeford (the latter having since disavowed racism, but the point being that he was simultaneously making seminal neofolk music and a far-right white nationalist). Here on the west coast, the trajectory into this subculture is very often through punk rock, with its attendant egalitarianism, and the political spectrum essentially goes from progressive to eco-anarchist. It is easy enough for those of us on the inside of this subculture to dismiss the accusation that the vague associations are anything greater than that because we happen to know it’s true. We can see it with our own eyes. We understand who we are and who we aren’t. It’s easy to feel a native contempt for this kind of scrutiny because it can seem horribly naive, and easier still when in many cases the critiques are, in fact, horribly naive.

But here’s what I will argue, that speaks directly to the heart of whether our art, good or bad, is just an aesthetic indulgence or a legitimate attempt to make an assertion about a mode of existence in the real world. If we want to continue to evolve this work, if we want to continue to explore reality through it, we must be able to maturely and sincerely grapple with complex topics that confront us. This may very well require a dialogue about how we—by “we” I mean myself and the vast majority of my friends within this underground, who have limits on the proximity we feel comfortable having to crazy nationalists and the like—collectively want to respond to situations in which ethical conflicts arise for us.

There has been at least one case in which I desperately wanted some mechanism for collective disavowal or negotiation to exist within our scene. This was the Stella Natura festival in 2013, at which Counter Currents Press—a distributor of wingnut racist ramblings—was allowed to table. This event honestly broke my heart, made me feel foolish for being publicly involved in this community, and made me feel frustrated with my friends for not reacting more strongly. There is nothing obscure or aesthetically beguiling in many of the titles this publisher produces. It is unambiguous dumb-white-guy-angry-about-the-economy racism (take this book called Truth, Justice, and a Nice White Country, for instance, which discusses the vexing problems of white extinction and white genocide). If you are the sort of person who gains emotional release from laughing at this sort of thing, you might find the Counter Currents website tremendously entertaining—they sell a novel by “the Tom Clancy of the alternative Right.” The argument of “free expression” made by the event’s organizer is absurd in the context of a music festival—would such an argument have justified the presence of a pop punk or light jazz artist on stage? How can allowing this publisher to table not be interpreted as an endorsement of some form or another?

But we had no real process to talk about rejecting this development in some meaningful way. We could register our opinions on social media and choose to go or not to go. I registered my opinion on social media and didn’t go. But that isn’t enough for the work I personally am doing to exist in the proper context, to have the right meaning, and I’d argue this is true for many of us. This event touches me still, and everyone else. The recent association with an overtly racist publisher remains with our scene. It would be nice to articulate some framework which says, in effect: “We are not only willing to say that we are not Nazis, but to discuss what responsibilities we have to make the cultural space we are creating and operating in have less fuzzy borders with Nazism, and perhaps to specifically explore mechanisms for collectively addressing ethical objections that might arise for us in this scene.”

As I said before, I would argue that these responsibilities we have to make our cultural space have less fuzzy borders could be thought of, if you’re the kind of person who is staunch apolitical, in purely artistic and cultural terms. If our aesthetic has any substance, if it is actually saying something about the world and suggesting a way of living in it, then we cannot resort to the kind of nonchalant arguments that were used to defend Stella Natura, the argument that politics is incidental, and music and friendship are central. If our collective endeavor can truly be reduced to playing music and hanging out, we really have no need for the mythopoetic liner notes about how our music stands in opposition to the modern world or speaks from an eternal well or anything like that.

We either have to admit that our aesthetic extravagances—music projects devoted to the end of civilization, performance art in which we claim to be going on spirit journeys—are merely aesthetic extravagances, or we have to be willing to engage in complex discussions and cultural processes beyond the level of internet forum and music festival. Are we a cultural force that is exploring ways of maintaining contact with nature in the age of annihilating machines, exploring some primordial impulse or another, really? If so, we are certainly capable of the adult act of navigating a complex discussion about how we want to deal with things we object to or want to distance ourselves from. A meaningful cultural force doesn’t have to be explicitly political—we don’t have to all share a political position and quite clearly don’t—but it can’t be so avowedly apolitical that it doesn’t even register an opposition to something so elementally relevant as white supremacy. If we do this, whatever the ethical implications, from a cultural and artistic perspective we’re consigning ourselves to total irrelevance. We’re admitting that our cultural project doesn’t have much tangible relationship with the real world.

I thus state what I would like to see from “my” side of this debate, in the spirit of precisely the complex dialogue I lamented the lack of in “I Say Potato”; I’ll turn now to what I’d like to see of the “other” side of this debate. My hope is that in a few more permutations of dialogue, these sides will be less clearly delineated.

To the author of “Straw Men” and to Olympia anarchists in general who make statements to the effect that imminent violence against an ambiguously broad swath of undesirables is justified, I still find this kind of behavior antithetical to your stated values. I fail to see how a legitimate anarchist praxis could possibly place such a premium on violence at the expense of less coercive forms of cultural change. Fun as it is for all of us to posture—I’m no more immune to the thrills of a street fight and the emotional appeal of stating my psychological preparedness for such affairs than anyone else—these sort of statements make it infinitely, infinitely less likely that anyone would be receptive to suggestions you might have about how, specifically, people should consider changing their behavior, if you were to make them.

Which is precisely what is lacking from “Straw Men,” and what makes the threat of violence so unwarranted. The singular focus on making the case that Exile and Sadie are fascists, as the author carefully specifies the term to avoid confusion with more overtly political fascists, excludes any clear statement about what responsibilities the author feels lie with what individuals. If it were the case that one concluded the author was entirely correct, for instance, what obligations does that present one with? One individual is not the “scene”; one individual arguably cannot control who attends shows they attend—what actions must the individual take when they find themselves in a room with a fascist lest they brave the fists of an anti-fascist?

This is the central question that has not been addressed. “I Say Potato” has repeatedly been characterized as a defense of Exile’s blog Loyalty Is Mightier Than Fire specifically or the swastika generally. It is in fact neither of these things, but centrally focused on our obligation to engage in complex conversations in ways that are not completely idiotic. I would argue that “Straw Men”—and again this isn’t the same as a concession that the arguments of the piece are entirely valid—did a reasonable job of dealing with the central contention that Sadie and Exile are neo-fascists. It at least clearly designated what was meant and the piece tried to evaluate what the implications were in reasonable and sincere terms. But the apathetic, i-Phone gazing black metal scenesters the piece derides are left to their own devices in trying to figure out how to avoid the bizarre prospect of inter-subcultural gang wars, in which the kids in all black with the tree tattoos fight the kids in all black with the tree tattoos, should they happen to agree with every word of “Straw Men.”

But this is truly crucial. If your writing is intended at all to persuade people to change their behavior, shouldn’t one have the vaguest clue what it is you individually expect of people before you start threatening them with violence for not doing it? At least one person had their automobile windows broken for working at a bar frequented by Sadie and Exile. What isn’t clear to me, beyond this question of what it means to say they are fascists, is what exactly that individual was supposed to do to sufficiently distance herself from the situation from the perspective of the anarchists involved, and how she was supposed to know. I speculate that I’ll be physically assaulted in Olympia as a fascist sympathizer sometimes but I don’t know what—exactly—is expected of one to prove one isn’t. If one talks to but disagrees with a fascist is one a fascist sympathizer? If one says hello to but otherwise doesn’t talk to a fascist is one a fascist sympathizer? If one goes to a show where there is a possibility a fascist might be—think about the answer to this question carefully and remember how all the Nazi skinheads used to inexplicably love MDC, of all bands—is one a fascist sympathizer?

I’m guessing—and despite that I sometimes think I’ll be attacked, I truly am just guessing, because no one’s ever explicitly told me—that the thing being demanded by anarchists as a minimum ethical obligation of people like me in this situation is total social exclusion. I’m further guessing that there’s a perceived obligation to collectively enforce this exclusion by excluding anyone who does not exclude the initially guilty party, and so on, in a great eternal chain.

There are a thousand complex facets of this approach to regulating behavior via the threat of social exclusion that simply can’t be gone into in the time that I have. I want to very briefly address two. The first is that we essentially lack any coherent framework for evaluating what insidious behavior, or compromises with insidious forces, we consider it productive to antagonize within our immediate social worlds.

In this case, the claim is made that two people adhere to Third Position fascism, or some variant thereof. There’s a reasonably clear claim made about some of the reasons this might matter, and they don’t require fantastical indulgences in scenarios of experimental music becoming a politically ascendant force. Even if one is convinced all these arguments are perfectly valid, what is lacking at the moment is the clearly stated criteria by which people decided this particular issue was the one they get to beat up people who might otherwise be their friends over. At the moment, it has this really uncannily empty feeling to be told that some element of my life is an acquiescence to evil, because I would argue that most of my life is an acquiescence to evil.

This isn’t a rhetorical device. It’s not me being clever. It’s me being really sincere when I tell you that literally everywhere I look I see appalling cruelties and I have no idea how to grapple with any of them—despite spending a huge amount of my time trying—and so it’s not at all clear to me what ethical implications it has to be told that the music scene I’m in is impure. I routinely see injustices I do nothing about. The civilization I live in is entirely made out of them.

I am not making the claim that we are absolved of any obligation to consider our actions because we all allow evil to unfold before our very eyes every day. I’m making the claim that we need some kind of coherent framework to evaluate which kinds of evil it makes sense to pressure one another to confront. Maybe the analysis of some is as simple as claiming we should pick fights solely based on whether we think that we can win them.  Maybe others have more elaborate theories.

If you tell people who participate in the destruction of peoples and species every time they flip a light switch or go grocery shopping, and who in many cases grew weary with the grief of not feeling like they could do anything about it long ago, that they have an ethical obligation to change some aspect of their lives—the ideological implications of their participation in a music scene, for instance—you really should have some clear way of conveying why this matter uniquely warrants their attention over every other evil they could address.

I can honestly think of some—one could argue we have both more liability and more agency—but I have to say the actual boundaries of where obligation starts and ends are incredibly fuzzy to me. I participate in political struggles which feel desperately vital to me but I am not able to feel like people who don’t are eschewing an obligation. I somehow managed to stumble through a couple decades of veganism without ever ostracizing anyone for their diet, but it wasn’t because I don’t have strong feelings about industrial animal agriculture. If someone told me I should be doing more to make eating factory farmed animal products socially taboo I might feel like they have a point. If someone told me I should be doing more to make it clear that the world of west coast neofolk and black metal and whatever else is not subtly aligned with Nazism, I might also feel like they have a point. But inevitably the question arises of how the fuck I’m supposed to simultaneously hold all the disparate actions I could potentially be taking to combat evil in my hands, to evaluate them all and identify the ones that are somehow the most pressing.

David Graeber claims that anarchism excels precisely at being a practice rather than a grand theory, at producing thoughtful dialogue around fairly immediate matters of life and struggle, e.g. “How do we deal with the deflation that comes after a surge of political activity?” or “What unique challenges are presented by coming into a rural community from the city to organize?” In theory, then, the people who are presenting this critique should be inclined to evaluate this scenario, as it has unfolded thus far, as a means of scrutinizing their praxis. I think that if they do they will find that, whatever the merits of their points, they have thus far failed to really convey to the actual individuals who comprise the broad scene that is so relentlessly mocked in “Straw Man” any constructive suggestions for engaging with the situation.

For people notoriously prone to elaborate processes of self-examination, complete with a fairly specialized language and set of cultural conventions, anarchists in this situation have thus far offered no concrete models that I am aware of for collective or individual action other than total social exclusion. This seems remarkably one-dimensional and wooden coming from a scene that knows how to embed virtually anything in multiple layers of formal process.

My other really substantial issue with the total social exclusion model—and the layers of exclusions it must enforce to work—derives largely from my experiences growing up in a religious cult. The insight is essentially this: if it sounds good to you on paper for us all to collectively enforce moral standards through intense forms of social pressure, if this sounds like a more free world than the one we currently live in, my experience tells me that the real world version of this gets extremely dark extremely fast.

There’s no inherent, logical reason that we shouldn’t be able to collectively establish standards of behavior that we absolutely insist on, and scrutinize one another’s adherence to those standards, without becoming completely evil. But the empirical reality of such situations suggests that something profoundly vile often emerges in human psyches engaged in precisely this kind of work. I have been spooked to shit in my life by accountability processes and efforts and collective self-examination within activist settings because they have honestly reminded me of the crazed group processes which occurred with anguishing regularity through the interminable hours of my childhood, complete with the same high-stakes games of group punishment and social control of individuals. What I think when I think of the people who participated in these processes is not that they were particularly evil, but that these processes make people a little crazy.

To me, these are truly essential things lacking from the current dialogue which would be expected of “your side” to produce. A framework for evaluating how we prioritize claims about moral responsibilities in a world like this one, and process suggestions for addressing the claims that are publicly accessible (you are indicting an entire subculture, after all) so that you could at least claim you offered people a path to not becoming the target of your aggressions. That, with an explanation of why this isn’t going to get incredibly out of hand incredibly fast, or at least some kind of evaluation of the possibility. It’s extremely difficult to me to understand how doing otherwise would be anything but blindly and pointlessly coercive. In what anarchist framework is one operating if one chooses to threaten people before having even articulated to them what they think they ought to be doing differently?

It will forever dismay me that the writing I have thus far done about this subcultural dispute has garnered more actual attention, in terms of internet statistics, than I could ever hope to gain by familiarizing myself with fossil fuel industry minutia in order to write an assessment of strategies against ecological collapse. But it is also crucial to me to use these situations as a means of developing better protocols for communicating and interacting in the future. It would be my hope that this dispute, which seems so inexorably bound to continue unproductively and always across a single neat chasm, could miraculously, if not be resolved, break out of its predictable schematics, out of its petty tribalism, and help develop capacities for self-examination on both “sides.”

I continue to be somewhat confused by claims about neo-fascism within my subculture, and to have experiences which don’t feel like they correspond very well with characterizations made by others. For instance, in the last couple of years I’ve had a number of email exchanges with Exile that have traversed an astonishing breadth of intellectual territory, and these exchanges haven’t led me to identical conclusions as the author of “Straw Man.” I’d say he is someone who pushes my political buttons fairly often but who also I find myself curious about for precisely this reason, because I am not totally certain why this is so or what fundamental or superficial difference between us it reveals.

The copious swastikas on Loyalty Is Mightier than Fire exhibit a judgment I myself certainly wouldn’t make, but I also would be lying if I said I hadn’t been exposed to new perspectives on Bach and  mystical interpretations of nonviolence through my (remote and infrequent) acquaintance with Exile. I continue having difficulty mapping the terms others speak of this situation in onto the terms I experience it in, and I remain resolved to form my own thoughts from my own experience. Mostly, I haven’t wanted to address this immediate debate—does fascism or does fascism not lurk in the rainy heart of the Cascadian music underground?—because it felt inevitably repetitive. It seems like suggesting processes by which people who care about the situation, whatever their perspective, might constructively interact with it is more useful.

I’m far too cynical and wounded to seriously suggest we all try to have some great moment of reconciliation, but it’s worth asking ourselves what it would actually feel like if other people weren’t so frustrating. It is easy to feel like everyone but you and a few friends are assiduously working day and night to be as frustrating and idiotic as possible, and that makes it easy to approach situations with a sort of innate, a priori hostility. The consequence of this is that sometimes we may simply not bother to think about what other parties in a dialogue could do that we would not consider ridiculous. Dialogue can be a formality that justifies our hostilities, or it can be an honest exploration of what differences exist, what there is to learn from these differences, and what possible directions of travel the future presents.

Tar Pit #3

Read as PDF.

The notion of creating fundamental social change through sabotage—on scales ranging from the collapse of civilization to the comparatively modest abolition of government—is central to some anarchist and radical environmental discourse. This has been the case since radical environmentalism first articulated itself as a political phenomenon, but as climate change has emerged as an overarching agent of ecological havoc, the dialogue has necessarily shifted towards sabotage of the fossil fuel system. Because the global economic order is currently based on fossil fuels, this becomes a conversation not just about thwarting climate chaos, but about, in essence, destroying civilization in its current form.

However, there has been a relative lack of detailed, logistically-oriented analysis of the viability of this approach. Dialogue around sabotage is often vastly general, focusing on its ethical dimensions or on its alleged inherent, universal effectiveness or ineffectiveness.  The remaining discussion tends to be merely tactical, comprising instructions for making incendiary devices or disabling security cameras.

There appears to be a need for analysis which occupies the vast middle-ground between these two levels of detail. Having a theory that validates the use of sabotage as a general form of political action and knowing how to attach a battery cap to an igniter is an incomplete framework.

What is also required is a coherent, systemic analysis of the machinery which the eco-saboteur wishes to dismantle, and a sober calculation of whether these wishes are within her means. Let us assume for a moment that we have all gained the courage to strike the match: the night obscures our shapes and our hearts long for victory or death. Very well. What should we do? Who breaks what, where, and in what order? What are the anticipated effects?

This text is an attempt to introduce greater detail and methodological rigor into the dialogue around sabotage. It is written with the same ethical preoccupations—like defending nature and minimizing hierarchical relationships—as many other such texts, but it is based on literature on infrastructure vulnerability, terrorist threat modeling, and energy economics which is typically absent from the eco-anarchist oeuvre.

This professional literature is certainly not without its problematic aspects. The Western security analyst is a curious creature, after all: he has never known hunger but professionally claims to predict the behavior of those plagued by it. Energy security analysts and their ilk have a worldview to maintain, and some conclusions, whether or not they are founded, are inevitable in that worldview. Nonetheless, it is difficult to imagine that this large body of literature can tell us nothing.

More solidly than on the simulations of Defense Department mathematicians, this analysis rests on the three cases in recent history of political movements engaging in sustained sabotage of fossil fuel industry infrastructure: MEND in Nigeria, the post-US invasion insurgency in Iraq, and the combined efforts of FARC and the ELN in Columbia. These three campaigns of sabotage tell us a great deal about the scope of the impacts such efforts could have elsewhere.

The intention is not to advocate sabotage nor to dissuade anyone from it. Sabotage is an incredibly broad category of action which is arguably neither inherently good or bad, useful or useless. Its relevance and meaning is determined by its context and by the details of its application. That is precisely the point.

Finally, if the language sometimes seems sarcastic, please note this text is very much a product of self-critique and self-examination. The intention truly is constructive dialogue and not to cause offense. For some, fatalistic laughter is a means of preserving the ability to fight when there is every reason in the world to conclude their fight is hopeless.

First, We’ll Sneak into Saudi Arabia…

A starry-eyed eco-saboteur, dreaming of taking the single decisive action that triggers catastrophic industrial failures and culminates in  wolves howling from the tops of overturned cop cars, might find themselves eying Saudi Arabia’s Abqaiq oil-processing center with particular interest. Somewhere in the seemingly endless pages of Phraeger Security International’s  Energy Security Challenges for the 21st Century,  we read that a crippling attack on this one decisive industrial node would “easily double” the global price of oil. It is also here that the Earth First!-to-al-Qaeda pipeline first becomes conceivable, for we also read:

“al-Qaeda indeed launched an unsuccessful suicide car bomb attack against Abqaiq in February 2006. That attack against the world’s largest oil-processing plant immediately sent oil prices up by $2 per barrel and highlighted the sector’s vulnerability.” (1)

If we imagine a scenario in which sabotage has indeed doubled the price of oil, it could safely be said the broad strategic paradigm of the saboteur—of changing large-scale social behavior by making said behavior logistically or economically untenable—is in a position to be tested. If the general notion that sabotage can cripple industrial civilization is true, once the price of oil has been doubled, shouldn’t it start limping?

While it’s absurd to imagine that sabotage has no effect on economic activity, examining a graph of average oil prices over the years—or even the months—can be revealing. Geopolitical power contests and naked human greed seem perfectly capable, all on their own, of wreaking precisely the kind of large-scale economic tumult the saboteur is supposed to engender. In a sixth-month period of time in 1972, the price of oil quadrupled as OPEC punished the West for the Yom Kippur War with an embargo. A rapid quadrupling of price is very extreme, but a rapid doubling is merely unusual. It happened again when Iraq invaded Iran. After 9/11, it tripled, from around $30 to nearly $100 a barrel, then during the economic crisis a few years later it plummeted to around $50 and then rose to over $100.

There has also been a long-term higher price trend with oil. In 2010 dollars, the average U.S. price of a barrel of oil has been $20.53 since the mid-20th century. However, it has been much higher than that for the last decade. An economist from the Swiss National Bank tells us:

“The very long-term data and the post World War II data suggest a “normal” price far below the current price. However, the rise of OPEC, which replaced the Texas Railroad Commission as the monitor of spare production capacity, together with increased interest in oil futures as an asset class introduced changes that support prices far higher than the historical ‘norm.'” (2)

The fact that oil prices have fluctuated with such wild abandon (indeed, markets are one of the common datasets in chaos theory) over the years reveals to us that the intuitively-appealing strategy of forcing industries to collapse by making them unprofitable may actually be a very complex proposition. It seems clear there is no known magic number one must cost an industry in dollars to put it out of business forever.

The model of costing a business so much money it collapses, when carefully evaluated, makes far more sense if one is trying to destroy a single business among competitors than if one is trying to cripple an entire industry. This is particularly true if the industry happens to be one many other industries depend on, and if it happens to wield tremendous political power.

Nonviolent direct action campaigns have often found that industry and police respond to even solitary protests with enhanced security. In 2013, Pacific Northwest activists who attempted to halt a shipment of tar sands infrastructure to Alberta found that after a single blockade their moving target was accompanied by a vast convoy of law enforcement. As arrests, bitter cold, and Christmas drove the campaign to extinction, those who remained watched the surreal convoy of bright lights, massive equipment, and armed escorts make its way through the empty sagebrush of the high desert. The scene underscored the reality that government reflexively provides the fossil fuel industry the tremendous subsidy of police and military protection whenever it encounters opposition, thus making economic calculations extremely nebulous.

Interestingly, the massive expansion of the North American fossil fuel system currently underway is largely dependent on the price of oil remaining far above its historical average (i.e. staying where the saboteur is pushing). The industry has devised methods of extracting hydrocarbons from devastated earth beyond enumeration in recent years, but they tend to be financially and logistically intensive and to occur in places which are far from refineries and subject to significant transportation constraints. Many Canadian tar sands projects are experiencing declining investment as pipeline projects languish and profitability remains contingent on the uncertainty of high oil prices. (3) In North Dakota’s Bakken Shale, landlocked and far from refineries, extraction is only profitable for as long as oil sells at over $80 perbarrel. (4)

Thus, sabotage—indeed, activism in general—has highly unpredictable effects when it influences the complex economics and logistics of the fossil fuel empire. In some scenarios, a general increase in oil prices can translate into projects like the tar sands—arguably even more devastating than other forms of oil extraction—remaining viable when otherwise they would have failed.

If North America has an equivalent of Saudi Arabia’s Abqaiq, it is Cushing, Oklahoma. Buying and selling of oil at this massive distribution hub, where multiple pipelines converge and tank farms belonging to an all-star cast of corporate evildoers have an 85 million barrel capacity, effectively sets the price for a type of oil called West Texas Intermediate, which in turn influences all domestic oil prices. Before the age of OPEC, when the Texas Railroad Commission still exercised production limits, Cushing was a crucial global determinant of oil prices.

Since one doesn’t have to evade the entire apparatus of repression available to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia or compete with al-Qaeda for the job of sending Western civilization into havoc, Cushing would perhaps attract the attention of a saboteur before Abqaiq. Here we can set aside for the time being the uncertain economics of sending a price shock through fossil fuel markets, and ask how, exactly, one would attack massive, economically important infrastructure like that to be found in Saudi Arabia and Oklahoma.

As far as oil terminals are concerned, it is doubtful the ecological saboteur’s ideal method of attack would be to simply blow them up. The fleeting emotional gratification of seeing industrial infrastructure laid to waste would rapidly surrender to the horror of the resultant oil spill. If not explosives, what?

A vague but persistent sentiment pervades sabotage discussions that there are a few truly critical, vulnerable, irreparable links in the chain, the breaking of which requires only courage. Once decommissioned, the loss of these targets cascades throughout the industrial economy and sends it into havoc. If we are to take this vague sentiment and try to flesh it out in corporeal reality, Abqaiq and Cushing seem like logical places to look. But nothing about them has the appearance of ephemerality, nor that they contain crucial components which would be particularly difficult to replace. On the contrary, tank farms are exactly that: giant swaths of hulking concrete edifices filled with poison, just kind of sitting there.

There are some moving parts to oil distribution terminals: pumps, of course; quite often train tracks; sometimes massive arrays of heating coils to keep certain types of crude from solidifying; fleets of vehicles; monitoring equipment; lots of valves everywhere. If one wants to navigate the risk of post-9/11 criminal laws around trespassing at energy facilities, it’s very conceivable one could sneak into a distribution hub and break something—but not something that doesn’t already get replaced occasionally anyway; not something that would mysteriously cause a facility to grind to a halt.

Abqaiq was discussed because it is the place in the world sometimes described as most crucial to global “energy security,” and this in turn led us to Cushing, which competes in the literature for the title of the world’s biggest oil distribution hub. Essentially, the model we were operating in—without explicitly stating it—was one of identifying infrastructure of greatest economic importance and assessing its vulnerability. If we are to adopt a different approach—one perhaps less greedy for decisive victory by a single blow—we could begin assessing infrastructure simultaneously in terms of how important and how vulnerable it is.

This would land us very squarely within the rather bewildering and very frequently stupid terrain of energy terrorism threat modeling.

…and then We’ll Brush up on our Vector Calculus

Terrorist threat modeling is no less prone to specialized terminology than any other discipline. The first and most apparent fact about the literature, rather than that it contains the decisive key to destroying civilization, is that it is predictably in love with sounding technical. One must endure things like being told an author’s conclusions “should be obvious to anyone who has taken a course in discrete optimization.”

But the second fact—and this is absolutely crucial to understanding the literature as a whole—is that terrorism modelers seem to have an emotional need to portray their adversaries as profoundly capable, relentless geniuses with globe-spanning networks of technically sophisticated infrastructure at their disposal. Thus, the magnitude of economic vulnerabilities they posit is dependent on attacks of greater coordination and expertise than have arguably been undertaken by any resistance movement ever.

There’s a sense that they long for an enemy as sophisticated as they had in the Cold War, and are indulging a badly-needed fantasy that American military might is currently needed for something more than anonymously bombing Pakistani grandmothers and suppressing spontaneous and relatively ephemeral popular uprisings at home. And they  certainly aren’t above playing games to do it. They even call it “red teaming” when they pretend to be al-Qaeda or some other nefarious entity and try to figure out how to bring America crashing down. With the profound unconscious homoeroticism inherent in all organized male violence, a Defense Department training manual on infrastructure protection speaks favorably of the results of a “good red teaming session.”

Still, it is hard to imagine this literature can tell us nothing. The paradigm of collapsing civilization through underground action typically rests on the very general model of cascading systems failure, i.e. the notion that the industrial economy is so massively interdependent that attacks on fragile nodes (which are too common to be effectively secured) will cascade through the system, crashing it. For instance, Aric McBay’s “Decisive Ecological Warfare” expresses the idea that cleverly applied sabotage could completely disable the whole economy, describing a scenario in which “attacks would be as persistent as militants could manage. Fossil fuel availability would decline by 90%. Greenhouse gas emissions would plummet.” (5)

Numerous conceptual tools to model exactly this scenario have been developed by world governments and academics. It’s immaterial to discuss in any detail fault trees and embedded systems-of-systems here, but it can be useful to understand in a general sense how threat is modeled.

For the most part, whatever the mathematical paradigm, threat is assessed at a fairly local scale and with simplifications that no one can possibly pretend are immaterial. The kind of systems-level collapse that revolutionaries discuss is precisely the kind of hyper-complex phenomenon that is incredibly difficult to realistically model. The difficulty is one of integrating all the local and particular information with all the global and systems-level information. Calculations of the ease of making fertilizer bombs must be fed into calculations of the vulnerability of electric power substations to attack. These results must be fed into calculations of how the electrical grid responds to the loss of a power substation. This in turn must be fed into calculations of how every interdependent infrastructural system is affected and how they affect all others. In the end, there is simply too much information.

The European Commission’s Joint Research Center tells us that this compartmentalization, along with a failure to model resilience under attack (rather than just susceptibility to it), are the two key deficiencies in current infrastructure vulnerability analysis. Moreover, the authors acknowledge that the embedded systems-of-systems which comprise critical infrastructure have fuzzy boundaries and such complex interactions that they defy the existing frameworks known as systems theory. (6) This is a mathematical way of the masters acknowledging they have no idea how their own tools really work, and that while they may have largely cornered the market on using violence, that’s not at all the same thing as “being in charge.”

Assessing the terrorist threat literature for the perfect model for destroying civilization sounds incredibly fun, but also incredibly quixotic. Maybe the best place to start would be the military’s Network-Centric Effects-based operations MOdel (NEMO), which assesses systems from the perspective of an attacker looking to attack with maximum interdependent effects (it is the military, after all). (7) But it’s probably far more useful to simply note that even among the most outrageously paranoid fantasies of terrorism experts, ones in which saboteurs simply end civilization are lacking.

There is no lack of paranoid fantasies. The Heritage Foundation’s 2010 Energy Game, a truly ridiculous exercise in conservative politics-infused game theory, is emblematic. The modelers simulated simultaneous, coordinated attacks which completely cripple an enormous array of globally valuable oil infrastructure. In the scenario, attackers disable US refineries where they are concentrated in Texas and Louisiana. They also render the Abqaiq oil facility inoperable. They completely shut down all marine traffic through the economically vital Strait of Malacca by attacking multiple tankers and then mining the Strait with detection-resistant polymer-coated mines. Just to be clear about their commitments, they send Cushing, Oklahoma up in flames, too. (8)

If you’ve ever had trouble getting a room full of people to agree on a banner hang, you should be very intimidated by this list of attacks. It is arguably far beyond the scope of anything even attempted by anyone. A paper summarizing the international Energy Infrastructure Attack Database describes no instances of anything remotely like this ever happening. (9) Nonetheless, while the Heritage Foundation’s modeled effects for this massive attack are considerable—oil selling at $250 a barrel and $325 billion in lost gross domestic product!—it’s a very far cry from a complete disabling of the industrial system. The analysis hits a particularly deflating note when it concludes the biggest political outcome of the attacks would be a strengthening of Iran’s geopolitical position. While this conclusion is of course entirely speculative, it illustrates how remote the prospect of total collapse is to most who study infrastructure vulnerability.

There are many forms of critical infrastructure other than fossil fuel infrastructure, of course. According to the US Army’s Critical Infrastructure Threats and Terrorism, there are eleven, although some sound distinctly like things ecological revolutionaries would have no interest in attacking: agriculture and food; water; public health; emergency services; government; private defense contractors; information and telelcommunications; transportation; banking and finance; chemicals and hazardous materials; and the postal service. (10)

It is not clear that any of these systems truly has an Achilles heel. Modeling of attacks on other types of infrastructure also fails to yield scenarios in which civilization collapses. For instance, powerline sabotage—a tactic quintessentially associated with ecological resistance—is mathematically optimized under a Naval Postgraduate School model called the Vulnerability of Electrical Grids Analyzer (VEGA). VEGA simulates power flow, then disruptions to that flow (attacks), and coupled with information about how long electrical system components take to replace, calculates the overall disruption to the grid.

In one permutation of VEGA, modelers attack a portion of the US power grid with approximately 5,000 buses, 500 generators, 3,000 loads, 5,000 lines, 1000 transformers, 500 substations, a total demand of 60 gigawatts (GW) and a total capacity of 70 GW. A hypothetical cadre of ten saboteurs carries out the most damaging attack the model can find, which happens to be on three particular substations and one particular line. Nonetheless, even this mathematically-optimized ten-person attack yields only an unmet demand of 2.8 GW system-wide—the affected grid continues to operate at 95% capacity. (11)

The modelers are big on math and overestimating their opponents, but not huge on creativity. Thus the literature is of little value to militants looking to think up creative new tactics. When the experts cease all modeling or formal analysis and simply write lists of conceivable attacks, they tend to be based on real incidents (only in some cases massively upscaled), resulting in a predictable litany of refinery bombings, assassinations, kidnappings, and pipeline attacks. (12)

This tour of infrastructure threat modeling is not by any means intended to be comprehensive, or even particularly thorough. Hopefully, however, it suffices to provoke critical thought among social movement participants—to help us evaluate what assumptions we’re operating under and consider how explicitly we should try to develop our political strategies.

Ultimately, models are precisely that, and real-world instances of concerted efforts to cripple industrial systems through sabotage are worth taking far more seriously.

Or We Could Just Start Taking Hostages 

For decades, Marxist guerrillas have waged a fairly concerted war of sabotage against the Columbian energy system. In Iraq and Nigeria in the 2000’s, militants engaged in chronic, large-scale attacks against oil infrastructure. There have been other regions that saw relatively high concentrations of energy sabotage in recent years, but none on the scale of these three cases, and none with more pronounced effects. They thus serve as a dataset to examine the effects of asymmetrical warfare targeting energy systems, and specifically energy systems dependent on highly dispersed networks of infrastructure with relatively little redundancy (namely, oil pipelines).

Iraq certainly stands out as the most violent, the largest-scale, and often the most dramatic of these campaigns. From 2003-2007, frequently with the very explicit intention of disabling the ability of the country to export oil, militants attacked oil infrastructure more than 500 times. (13) 2006 alone saw almost 160 attacks. The scope of this assault on the fossil fuel industry is difficult to overstate. The Institute for Global Security Analysis provides an index of every incident, each one described in a few terse sentences. For instance, the entry for August 19, 2004, describes what they simply designate as “Attack #96”:

“attackers infiltrated the Basra headquarters of the Iraqi Southern Oil Company setting a fire that obliterated warehouses containing drilling equipment, among other items, spread to the firm’s offices, and cut electricity. “They came in droves, surrounded the building and looted it before setting it on fire,” said a company official. Firefighters arriving at the compound were shot at and fled.” (14)

After reading a few hundred of these, most people would find it hard to say that Iraqi insurgents didn’t make a very sincere effort to cripple the regional fossil fuel economy with sabotage. The vast majority of the attacks were pipeline bombings which did in fact shut down oil transport for a period of time—just not for nearly long enough, and the shutdowns didn’t cascade through the Iraqi system and crash it.

Iraqi oil production virtually ceased after the US invasion, but returned to the pre-invasion level of roughly 2.5 million barrels per day (bpd) by 2004. That year, as pipeline bombings proliferated, oil production never fell below 2 million bpd. For all of 2006, the year of greatest attack intensity, oil production in the country was at or above 1.6 million bpd. (15) This is a very significant reduction, especially because at the time of the invasion US planners stated their intention to double exports. It is not, however, crippling the whole system.

It is extremely difficult to imagine a more concerted and dedicated campaign of underground actions against fossil fuel infrastructure than what has already occurred in Iraq. It is crucially important to note that it was undertaken by people whose commitments to their cause very frequently superseded their desire to live. Imagining anti-fossil fuel activists from developed and privileged nations committing to this level of self-sacrifice, on this scale, is so truly absurd as to not be worth quipping about. Moreover, the insurgency took place in the context of a population sympathetic to acts of sabotage totally lacking from the landscape of the Global North.

Despite this, nothing that got broken couldn’t simply be replaced, and most of it rather expeditiously. The case of the Iraqi insurgency provides a great deal of evidence about the vulnerabilities of highly dispersed networks of infrastructure with relatively little redundancy. Namely, the intuitively appealing notion that they are easy to crash—because they can be attacked anywhere, and these attacks will cascade through the system—appears false.

In fact, the lesson would appear to be that such networks of highly dispersed infrastructure with fairly little redundancy are virtually impossible to secure, but also incredibly resilient to attack. If you break something, they will fix it. If you start breaking things over and over again, they will employ a cadre of specialists whose primary function is to fix what you break rapidly, as a calculated aspect of their operations.

Militants waged war on the oil industry in Nigeria at the same time Iraqi infrastructure was so frequently in flames. This campaign was very different from the Iraqi one in terms of its origins, social dimensions, and to some extent its modes of conflict. Oil industry attacks were primarily carried out by the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (MEND), a movement mostly comprised of people of Ijaw ethnicity who have suffered directly and brutally under the oil industry. MEND’s campaign came roughly a decade after nonviolent oil industry resistance among the Ogoni was suppressed by the Nigerian government. Thus, the Nigerian campaign operated with a conception of the oil industry as inherently poisonous and destructive (but also with a desire for the wealth of oil corporations—politics is nothing if not complicated). (16)

If the Iraqi attack on oil was characterized by large explosions and unrestrained violence, MEND’s was more reserved in it terms of carnage but also more prone to improbable feats of heroism. Over 200 foreign petroleum workers were kidnapped, but most were released for ransom. MEND mastered the art of attacking offshore oil drilling platforms from the same high-speed boats they used to navigate rivers, providing for a few truly spectacular David and Goliath moments in which dirt-poor resistance fighters with few resources dealt significant blows to the hulking ocean fortresses of multinational corporations and made off with their personnel. (17) As in Iraq, pipeline bombings were the most common form of assault.

The Nigerian resistance, despite never reaching the same fever-pitch of raw attack frequency as occurred in Iraq, had a tremendous effect on the oil industry. Between 2006 and 2009, MEND reduced Nigerian oil output by roughly 30%. (18) Because multinational corporations had only the protection of the Nigerian government, their stated goal of driving said corporations out of the country seemed reasonably plausible. This point is illustrated by the writings of a breathless Western security analyst in 2008:

“Indeed, as I write attacks continue on almost a weekly basis as the price of oil climbs … What is the next step in this violent trend, and what will the next phase of violence look like? … as state and non-state actors cascade into this unfamiliar territory in a quest for rich mineral resources … they should examine the escalation of violence in Nigeria.” (19)

Such words are encouraging, but ultimately the oil industry was able to continue operations during the intensive phase of resistance. While MEND continues to exist and to actively plan for the end of multinational oil in Nigeria, offers of amnesty to MEND fighters, the jailing of a leader, and greater representation of Ijaw people in electoral politics has deprived the movement of momentum.

The campaigns in Iraq and Nigeria were both fairly ephemeral. The Revolutionary Armed Forces of Columbia (FARC) and the National Liberation Army (ELN) have waged a far more sustained war on the Columbian oil industry. Pipeline bombings began in 1986 and continue to the present. Patterns of activity have varied over the years. The early-2000’s witnessed a tremendous surge, with 177 attacks on the Cano-Limon-Covenas pipeline in 2001 alone, shutting it down for all but 99 days that year. (20) 2013 also saw a peak in activity, with a bombing campaign of renewed intensity and attacks on the camps of oilfield workers. (21)

Despite bombing the Cano-Limon-Covenas pipeline so many times it is colloquially known as “The Flute” (the Columbian government estimates more oil has spilled from it as a result of bombings than spilled in the Exxon-Valdez disaster), FARC and the ELN have not destroyed the Columbian oil industry. Curiously, in fact, while oil production declined as a result of sabotage in Iraq and Nigeria, it has risen in Columbia in precisely the window of time militants renewed the frequency of their actions. In 2010, there were 31 pipeline bombings and national oil output was 700,000 bpd. In 2013, there were 259 attacks and national oil output was over one million bpd. (22)

If it was inoperative for 264 days in 2001, then each of the 177 attacks on the Cano-Limon-Covenas pipeline that year resulted in an average shutdown of 1.5 days. This is one case in which it might be vaguely worth noting that model and reality appear to agree: the mathematically sophisticated paranoia of the Defense Department also fails to develop a pipeline attack scenario which disables a system for very long. (23) Pipelines appear easy to blow up but also relatively easy to fix.

Other campaigns against fossil fuel infrastructure have likewise relied heavily on bombing pipelines. Of 8602 worldwide energy infrastructure attacks occurring between 1981 and 2011, over 80% are bombings. (24) Pipeline bombing, on account of the consequent oil spill, is a tactic ecological militants would be unlikely to adopt. Nonetheless, tactics by which civilization could hypothetically be sabotaged out of existence have simply never been articulated. It is certainly worth examining the real-world efforts of militants to destroy energy systems, both for the detail they provide about those types of campaigns specifically but also for their general lessons about industrial infrastructure.

Obviously, the failure of any of these movements to achieve decisive victory does not imply that decisive victory through similar means is impossible. This may or may not be the case. These failures merely illustrate that a war against industrial infrastructure is an extremely complicated proposition. To meaningfully consider such a thing is to examine the details of actual industrial systems, and to ask questions which have no obvious answer at the outset.

Fortunately, Our Enemies Are As Stupid As They Are Big

It is difficult to acknowledge that a favored aspect of one’s strategy for saving the world needs evaluation of any kind. It often progresses into an anxiety that all political action is essentially futile. If we are honest with ourselves, however, many of the strategic frameworks we favor seem largely to reflect emotional bias rather than to be remotely based on sober calculation of their efficacy.

People with an emotional attachment to industrial capitalism believe, in order to validate this attachment, that industrial capitalism will be responsive to their marches and their moral high ground. As if to make clear that effectiveness is a secondary concern, they are perfectly capable of citing a nonviolent movement like the one against the Vietnam war as an ideal model of political action, despite that this movement was an utter failure (while the decidedly violent campaign of the North Vietnamese Army and the Viet Cong was a stunning success). Likewise, however, those of us more inclined to outright confrontations with power have an emotional bias to believe such confrontations will be fruitful, and a seemingly equal ability to disregard contrary evidence.

The claim that industrial civilization can be crippled with sabotage, in an age when the acidifying ocean rises up to devour the burning earth, is morally significant. It is impossible to imagine that such a claim is not worth evaluating carefully, but also impossible to imagine that it can simply be considered valid without scrutiny. When we discover our previous notions were inaccurate or uncertain, it allows us to engage in a far more meaningful and informed analysis of what options are available to us.

If one thing makes itself clear from the security literature, it’s not that Western military power is weak, or that the industrial system it guards is fatally vulnerable—rather, it’s the unmitigated stupidity of power. While the prevailing political-economic order appears awfully hard to beat in a physical contest, it continues to blunder through the world with what can only be described as utter haplessness. Security paranoiacs consistently overestimate the ability of tiny cadres of technically sophisticated saboteurs, but they consistently underestimate, in almost unimaginably idiotic ways, the anger and power of masses who have decided there is nothing left to lose. Iraq is a rather obvious example.

Because collective action is utterly failing to halt ecological death, it is tempting to veer into a realm of thinking in which a dedicated elite initiates a decisive series of events. There is no reason not to consider under what conditions such a scenario could occur. However, there’s a real danger in essentially indulging a mutual fantasy with our oppressors, they needing to justify their apparatus of repression and us needing to feel like a far more powerful threat than we actually are.

The stupidity of power is worth thinking about very seriously. If being stronger than our enemies is not a viable praxis, it makes sense to consider being emphatically, programmatically smarter. Recall the admission by the European Joint Commission that nobody really understands the interrelationships of infrastructure. It begs the question of what advantages can be gained simply by understanding the global political-economic system better than those foolish enough to believe themselves in control.

The insights aren’t necessarily going to involve crippling everything with sabotage alone, but maybe they’ll tell us in what social movement contexts sabotage is most likely to be effective, or maybe they’ll help us understand how to push back against the criminal justice system enough so that someone burning a bulldozer doesn’t risk  decades in prison.

Just as likely, though, better insight into how the systems we are trying to affect work might simply compel us to do something new. As the ecological crisis progresses along an almost unbelievably dire trajectory, and existing frameworks for political action fail spectacularly to do anything about it, the incentive to try to dream up new ways to fight, new ways to achieve our ends, is considerable.

Meaningfully assessing our abilities and imagining legitimately new prospects for political action would be aided by more rigorous processes for evaluating our ideas. As is hopefully apparent, beyond a specific assessment of sabotage, this writing is intended to advocate for more methodical inquiry of movement strategy in general.

A few recent assessments of resistance efforts have attempted to quantify their effects, with decently illuminating results. A report on efforts against the tar sands and its associated infrastructure describes declining investments in new projects and estimates the lost fossil fuel revenues and averted carbon dioxide emissions. It helps us assess in clearer terms precisely what is to be gained by mobilizing massive public effort around a single fight which is supposed to be emblematic of a larger issue—and precisely what is to be lost. (25)

Likewise, the general resource conflict literature attempts to measure the effects of various forms of opposition to industrial activity in various contexts. For instance, an analysis of 50 worldwide resource extraction projects that met with significant opposition, primarily in the Global South, found significant correlations between certain conditions—like opposition beginning in the planning stages—and victory. (26)

More methodical inquiry of this sort could allow us to discuss strategies on a far more solid foundation than we currently do, where everyone essentially operates with their own idiosyncratic headful of vague intuitions about social change. We will not have  a perfectly scientific approach to resistance, but many of our assumptions could be far more intensively investigated.

Trying to understand the world better than the people breaking it is an important part of fighting them. Let’s remember that police departments have upper intelligence thresholds as a hiring criterion, and that those who tell the cops what to do take orders from an invisible man in the sky.

These do not sound like invincible enemies.

Citations:

  1. Ali Koknar. 2009. “The Epidemic of Energy Terrorism.” In Gal Luft and Anne Korin, eds. Energy Security Challenges for the 21st Century. Praeger Security International.
  2. James Williams. 2013. “A History of Oil Supply Side and the Oil Price.” Swiss National Bank. SNBF.com
  3. Oil Change International and Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis. 2014. Material Risks: How Public Accountability Is Slowing Down the Tar Sands. priceofoil.com
  4. Phil Davies. 2013. “Busting Bottlenecks in the Bakken.” FedGazette. Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis. minneapolisfed.org
  5. Aric McBay. 2011. “Decisive Ecological Warfare.” In Lierre Kieth, Aric McBay, and Derrick Jensen, eds. Deep Green Resistance. Seven Stories Press.
  6. Georgios Giannopoulos et al. 2012. Risk assessment methodologies for Critical Infrastructure Protection. Part I: State of the Art. European Commission Joint Research Committee Technical Research Notes.
  7.  Georgios Giannopoulos et al. ibid.
  8. Ariel Cohen et al. 2011. Coordinated Terrorist Attacks on Global Energy Infrastructure: Modeling the Risks. Heritage Foundation Special Report. reports.heritage.org
  9. Jennifer Giroux et al. 2013. “Research Note on the Energy Infrastructure Attack Database (EIAD).” Perspectives on Terrorism vol. 7 no. 6. terrorismanalysts.com
  10. US Army Training and Doctrine Command. 2006. Critical Infrastructure Threats and Terrorism. us.army.mil
  11. Gerald Brown et al. 2005. “Analyzing the Vulnerability of Critical Infrastructure to Attack and Planning Defenses.” Tutorials in Operations Research.  pubsonline.informs.org
  12. Freidrich Steinhäusler et al. 2008. “Security Risks to the Oil and Gas Industry: Terrorist Threats.” Strategic Insights vol. 7 no. 1. Center for Contemporary Conflict.
  13. Radha Iyengar and Jonathan Monten. 2008. Is There an Emboldenment Effect? Evidence from the Insurgency in Iraq. http://people.rwj.harvard.edu/~riyengar/insurgency.pdf
  14. Institute for the Analysis of Global Security. 2008. “Attacks on Iraqi oil pipelines, oil installations, and oil personnel.” Iraq Pipeline Watch. iags.org
  15. Michael O’Hanlon and Ian Livingston. 2013. “Iraq Index: Tracking Variables of Reconstruction and in Iraq.” Brookings Institute. brookings.edu
  16. Fidelis A.E. and Kimiebi Imomotimi. 2011. “Militant Oil Agitations in Nigeria’s Niger Delta and the Economy.” International Journal of Humanities and Social Sciences vol. 1 no. 5. ijhssnet.com
  17. Austin Ekeinde. September 16, 2008. “Nigerian militants sabotage oil facilities.” Reuters UK. uk.reuters.com
  18. Fidelis A.E. and Kimiebi Imomotimi. ibid.
  19. Jennifer Giroux. 2008. “Turmoil in the Delta: Trends and Implications.” Perspectives on Terrorism vol. 2 no. 8. terrorismanalysts.com
  20. Ali Koknar. ibid.
  21. Andrew Wight. November 05, 2013. “ELN declares war on oil companies.” Columbia Reports. columbiareports.com
  22. US Energy Information Administration. 2015. 2015 Short-Term Energy Outlook in Brief.
    eia.gov
  23. Gerald Brown. ibid.
  24. Jennifer Giroux et al. “Research Note…”
  25. Oil Change International. ibid.
  26. Daniel Franks et al. 2014. “Conflict translates environmental and social risks into business costs.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences vol. 111 no. 21. pnas.org

 

 

Faunation (Science:ecology): The total animal life of a zone or area, the animal equivalent of vegetation. — Biology Online

Long ago, Charles Darwin proposed the theory of evolution, and stressed that it occurred gradually. Since that time, a number of approaches have de-emphasized graduality and focused on rapid speciation. Punctuated equilibrium, developed by Stephen Jay Gould and Niles Eldredge, is a theory which states that relatively brief periods of rapid evolutionary change occur periodically, interrupting longer periods of relative stasis. Evolutionary developmental biology studies how relatively small evolutionary changes in developmental genes can produce wholesale changes in a species (allowing, for instance, an appendage to be suddenly duplicated—a process seen in the serially repeated legs of animals like crayfish and spiders). Evolutionary changes involving developmental genes are thought to underlie many of the animal body plans which emerged with the Cambrian explosion ~540 million years ago and constitute most of the fundamental structural variation to be found within kingdom Animalia.

Periods of evolutionary innovation follow catastrophic extinctions. The diversification of mammals occurred in the ecological niches emptied by ill-starred dinosaurs. The advent of photosynthesis and the oxygenation of the earth’s atmosphere ~2.4 billion years ago was catastrophic for a massive proportion of the single-celled species that occupied the planet at the time. Change that is “catastrophic” from one perspective (e.g. the dinosaurs’, anaerobic life’s) is simply change, from a broader perspective, of a great enough magnitude to allow a new regime to be established.

evolution-gradualism-3

Punctuated equilibrium, as told by butterflies.

There is no particular shortage of extinction at the moment. A number of scientific papers have assessed current estimates of species death and concluded that the rate equals or exceeds that of the five previous events we call “mass extinctions” (events in which 75% or more of species die off). (1) But the planetary systems changes currently underway cannot be characterized solely in terms of diminished biodiversity.

In 2000, atmospheric chemist Paul Crutzen proposed that the geological epoch of the Holocene, in vogue since the last time glaciers retreated back to the poles, was over, and that in fact the human species had overtaken in significance all the other forces that shape the earth, inaugurating the Anthropocene (anthro=man). The geological committee which officially defines the geological stages took the matter under consideration. Subsequent debate (an article in Smithsonian magazine rather absurdly tells us that “Efforts to label the human age have ignited a debate between environmentalists and geologists”) was perhaps confused by scientists’ inability to come to terms with the fact that they had no existing conceptual tools to study the Anthropocene because nothing like it has ever happened. To simply describe it as an extinction (perhaps followed in some time by a period of evolutionary innovation), to describe it solely in terms of geological strata and shifts in climate and ecosystems, is to miss a great deal of the point. It is analogous to characterizing the evolution of dinosaurs solely in terms of changing distributions of biomass.

In order to develop some conceptual tools for studying the bewildering present moment, an interdisciplinary journal called The Anthropocene Review was founded in 2014, the pages of which evince a scope and profundity of hallucinatory vision which would shame Hieronymous Bosch or Arthur Rimbaud. Debates about dating the Anthropocene discuss humanity’s “techno-fossil record” and claim the best stratiagraphic evidence for the new epoch might be the global signal of radioactive fallout from detonation of the first atomic bomb. Serious discussion occurs of whether the rapidly-emerging “technosphere” is a system best understood as being embedded in, and fundamentally responsive to the dynamics of, social-biological systems, or if it is best conceptualized as an autonomous entity with its own logic. A paper called “The Anthropocene Biosphere” tells us life has experienced three truly fundamental stages: first, the long microbial stage; second, a stage where most everything intuitively associated with “life” (like fish and trees) happened; and third, whatever is happening now. “Whatever is happening now” is best characterized, they claim, by four things:

“1) global homogenisation of flora and fauna; (2) a single species (Homo sapiens) commandeering 25–40% of net primary production and also mining fossil net primary production (fossil fuels) to break through the photosynthetic energy barrier; (3) human-directed evolution of other species; and (4) increasing interaction of the biosphere with the technosphere (the global emergent system that includes humans, technological artefacts, and associated social and technological networks).” (2)

86fad446-c7a9-442e-9347-0c2d06f8060c_o

Anthropocene Lite.

 

Number three, the human-directed evolution of other species certainly refers to phenomena like domestication and genetic engineering, which, for all their inadvertent consequences are changes (often brought about at least somewhat intentionally) in species being directly exploited and interacted with by humans. Presumably, however, it also refers to the ways in which human modifications of ecosystems will, utterly inadvertently, drive future evolution of wild populations—and therefore begin to add complex dynamics to the very meaning of the term “wild.”

At the moment the most conspicuous evolutionary effect humans are having on wild animal populations are those associated with reduced genetic diversity. While large-bodied vertebrates have increased in abundance an order of magnitude in recent history, primarily in the form of humans and our domesticated species, wild vertebrate populations have globally declined by 30%. Roughly, this is 30% less genetic material to provide the raw material for evolutionary change.

In addition to threatening them with extinction, however, human activity is influencing wild populations in complex ways. Some of these effects are just as horribly dark as one would imagine. “The Wounds of Elephants and the Path to Liberation” documents the extreme deterioration of social structure in African elephants that has resulted from human hunting. The behavioral dynamics of young male elephants who have evaded bullets but been deprived essential aspects of their development are very reminiscent of those found in highly traumatized and perpetually fearful human populations, such as in prisons and ghettos. Aggression has significantly increased in overall magnitude and also lost its complex social context. New forms of aggression are being innovated. One national park in South Africa is experiencing an epidemic of young adult elephants raping rhinoceroses.

il_fullxfull.352628718_ag0c

0.00050253739% of the world’s threatened vertebrates.

It is tempting to think of the ecological crisis purely in terms of existence vs. nonexistence, extinction vs. persistence, but the ineluctable truth is that should elephants survive for an evolutionarily significant period of time, but continue to experience a new socio-ecology in which older females are not present to help raise young males, it will change what elephants are. The species with the complex cognitive abilities and rich emotional life necessary to pay visits to the bones of long-departed ancestors could, in some future Africa, be known for other rites, rites which depict the elephant’s departure from a web of relations in which it was previously embedded.

Other examples of the ways civilization has not simply driven populations to extinction but also changed life for them in complex ways are less heart-wrenching, and provide considerably less speculative foundations for discussing completely inadvertent human-influenced evolution. The coyote-wolf hybrids known as coywolves or Eastern coyotes are arguably the preeminent example. The very existence of coyote-wolf hybrids is thought to be a thoroughly unanticipated result of efforts to exterminate both species from large portions of North America. The war against wolves was effective while the war against coyotes turned out to be impossible; thus coyotes expanded their range into areas wolves had previously excluded them from and increased their numbers where wolves had suppressed them. Wolves found themselves members of a scattered and dying tribe while coyotes proliferated—mating occurred.

The hybrid animals have established themselves throughout eastern North America, developing remarkable evolutionary innovations in the less than 90 years of their existence. Most of these innovations are behavioral, and have allowed eastern coyotes to thrive, almost invisibly to the human occupants, in dense settlements. Radio telemetry studies which track the movements of these animals should look familiar to many people who have lived in a city without a house: they move long distances on railroad tracks and sleep, among other little pockets of anonymity, in the untouched center of the clover leaf structures created by freeway interchanges. (3) These are extremely non-trivial behavioral developments, which occurred in an evolutionarily brief window of time, the cognitive underpinnings of which are not known. These new behaviors conceivably resulted from some biological change which could have significant implications for future evolutionary events within the species.

Here is a familiar (and very true) narrative: civilization is advancing, wilderness retreating. As the wild dies, so too its inhabitants, until the earth becomes an entirely human-dominated place which, however hellish for us, simply does not allow for the existence of most other species. Here is the very strange dimension this narrative is taking on: as civilization advances, most species perish, but a small number with fortuitous pre-adaptations simply treat civilization as a new habitat, and their subsequent evolutionary pathways are forever influenced by this fact. Certainly, urban environments have long had their resident racoons and ravens, but these have been examples of resilience in the face of human activity, not evolution driven by it.

16.Cherry-Beach-coywolves-w-city-skyline

Earth First! and crust punk aesthetics involving wolves conquering the city were prescient.

Before the Cambrian, most animals were soft-bodied and lacked many anatomical and behavioral attributes familiar today. It was not just an explosion of new species but of entirely new forms and modes of existence: the ocean became a place of predation. As new species emerged, new predator-prey dynamics emerged. Armored bodies, bigger teeth, new sensory abilities, and adaptations for speed self-catalyzed more armor, teeth, sensory organs, and speediness—the so-called evolutionary arms race.

It is difficult not to conclude a similar process must be taking place now. Civilization is destroying habitat, but for some proportion of species it may also be creating incredibly complex new ones. Human activity may destroy most populations but also create tremendous evolutionary pressures for some which are successfully responded to. As with other mass extinctions, large ecological niches may be abandoned, which allow fundamentally new biological dynamics to emerge as they are filled by emerging species. A rapid speciation event might occur in an instance of punctuated equilibrium.

We are no doubt looking at a future with fewer life forms, but even in zones currently empty of most native organisms, some human works may be come to be largely dominated by non-humans. The eastern coyote tells us that cities may be far more lively places in the future than we assume.

If one species can develop evolutionarily significant behavioral adaptations to occupy the very heart of human civilization in <90 years, it’s inevitable to imagine that in a few hundred more, there might be an owl which is dependent on the noise from industrial operations to disorient its prey, and that prey might nest exclusively in some human-manufactured material that is commonly discarded. Migratory birds might start riding freight trains to avoid the exertion of the Pacific Flyway, and the decommissioning of the Roseville train yard might threaten these new species with extinction. An emerging rodent may at this very moment be taking the first behavioral steps towards burrowing exclusively in a particular type of scar in the earth created by a particular type of fossil fuel exploration. There’s already plenty of cases where animals exploit roadkill and other carnage created by humans—how long before one of them learns to interact with some lethal human activity so that it creates more scavenging opportunities? How long before this becomes a characteristic mode of foraging?

Clearly, the world is equally reach in strangeness as it is in horror.

CITATIONS:

  1. Take, for instance: Gerardo Ceballos et al. 2015. “Accelerated modern human-induced species loss: Entering the sixth mass extinction.” Science Advances (1)5. http://advances.sciencemag.org/content/1/5/e1400253.full
  2. Mark Williams, et al. 2014. “The Anthropocene Biosphere.” The Anthropocene Review. http://ib.berkeley.edu/labs/barnosky/The%20Anthropocene%20Biosphere.pdf
  3. Public Broadcasting Corporation. 2014. Meet the Coywolf. http://www.pbs.org/video/2365159966/

 

On November 4, 2014, Oregon voters passed Measure 91, which simultaneously legalized the use of marijuana by persons 21 years of age and older and provided breathtaking aesthetic insights into a future of hyper-technological social control on a dead planet. Legal marijuana dispensaries lend themselves to some of the more overtly fetishistic and connoisseur-oriented consumer displays to be found in the world’s zones of privilege, just as developments like the tar sands and China’s unbreathable air intensify the overt misery and hopelessness associated with the world’s zones of sacrifice, helping signal even to viewers utterly bereft of a minimal sense of aesthetic subtlety that the particular movie we are living in is dystopian science fiction.

Bathed in fluorescent white light and the watchful gaze of countless surveillance cameras; consisting of minimally furnished rooms of polished wood floors, glass counters, chrome light fixtures, and black-trimmed white walls; offering, after checking your identity card and ushering you past lobbies into windowless interiors, arrays of hyper-specialized strains of marijuana engineered to produce highly specific alterations of the user’s subjective state (focused or euphoric, inspired or calm): Legal marijuana offers an enrichment of consumer privilege which seems badly needed in an era of ecological decline and hierarchical intensification.

There are, after all, tailings ponds around some bitumen mines in Canada which are so toxic that birds will die if they land in them, which must be surrounded by specially-engineered guns that emit frequencies inaudible to the human ear, which the birds find horribly painful, deterring them from landing. It is only natural, aesthetically, that a world whose sacrifice zones feature guns that shoot painful audio frequencies at birds from sludge mines also has zones of consumption in which the privileged get through their days by smoking euphoria-enhancing Death Star, a 25% THC cross between Sensi Star and Sour Diesel, before calming down with a CBD-rich strain like Cannatonic at night.

sst-farma-home-32

When the individual is calm, rested, and focused, all of society benefits.

At some point on our path to a nightmarish future in which no stretch of land or ocean is wilderness, no species exists which is not domesticated, and no human exists whose entire being is not incorporated into an identity-negating apparatus of control and injustice, we passed a few crucial aesthetic benchmarks which can tell us with considerable certainty precisely which totalitarian future we are careening so haplessly towards.

Clearly, we are not entering George Orwell’s 1984, nor Yevgeny Zamyatin’s We. The world is not becoming more like North Korea or the Soviet Union. Only in Islamic and Christian fundamentalism are there globally politically powerful forces which centralize obedience through intense personal discipline and restraint (e.g. by placing restrictions on personal pleasures like sex and intoxication). These ideologies are clearly the quixotic opponents of a dominant trend, toward a global empire consisting of an intense material hierarchy, with massively suffering underclasses and a preponderance of prisons, borders, and ghettos, which is nonetheless less severe in the social control it exercises on its privileged citizens, allowing a wide range of personal expressions, consumer indulgences, and identities. In short, our particular dystopia looks a lot like The Hunger Games, with cities like Portland, Oregon and Brooklyn, New York the wealthy districts where the disaffected-looking rich people with the idiosyncratic fashion and the weird hair watch poor people kill each other for amusement.

It is the dystopia in which a black man can be United States president while black men continue to be incarcerated at rising rates, the dystopia in which corporate executives go to Burning Man and health food is produced with prison labor. The austere socialism of China and the USSR didn’t simply acquiesce in a global power struggle to the economic and military might of capitalism: It also morally acquiesced to the naked human desire for the iPhone 6s with 3-D Touch and 14.65% THC Cantaloupe Haze. The stable form of empire, the one which is essentially becoming the global form of empire, is the one in which the apparatus of social control is used almost solely on the oppressed, while diversity and individuality are tolerated among the privileged.

Drug laws increasingly allow for the military repression of entire neighborhoods while politely deferring from passing judgement on the use of intoxicants by people with more money. A host of such laws and policies took effect in the 80s and 90s, such as the notoriously disproportionate penalties for possession of crack and powdered cocaine, and cannabis legalization continues the trend.

Race, sexuality, and gender are in and of themselves decreasing barriers to acceptance within the power structure, but the power structure is intensifying as capitalism achieves global ascendance and societies feel the reverberations of ecological change, requiring this demographically more fluid hierarchy to utilize increasingly violent forms of exclusion and control. Culture is becoming more tolerant and egalitarian while material society is becoming more restrictive and unequal. The black president presides over deployments of military force into neighborhoods whose black citizens are tired of being randomly killed by the police. City streets are renamed after Cesar Chavez in a country constructing a vast militarized wall on its border with Mexico. In the zones of privilege, it is increasingly acceptable to not believe in god, to fuck people of the same gender, and to smoke weed. In the zones of sacrifice, it is increasingly plausible the liberated-but-still-privileged of the world will drown you with their rising seas.

sst-the-hunger-games-captiol-tour

Rich people will look no more or less stupid in the future than they do today.

The search for a model of this globally ascendant new order outside the realm of young adult fiction could plausibly end up in the classical world. Empires like the Persian, Greek, and Roman embraced extraordinary cruelty and avarice while disavowing the obsession with demographic homogeneity and adherence to a universal creed which characterized Nazi Germany or medieval Christendom. The current tendencies of global capitalism are not without precedent.

In searching for an explanation for why contemporary global capitalism resembles classical civilization (at least in this one curious regard), two complementary explanatory approaches might be valuable. One is a primarily material and economic, focused on historically-specific developments, and one is more broadly cultural and biological.

Some of the most compelling material concerning the historically-specific is found in Christian Parenti’s book on the prison state Lockdown AmericaLockdown America documents two crucial stages of the current military build-up of American police and prisons. One stage emerges as a direct response to the social unrest of the 60s and 70s, and is part of a broader strategy of social control in which the poor/invisible are kept in inner cities while the affluent flee to the suburbs. The second stage emerges in the 80s and 90s when the American economy is no longer riding the post-WWII surge in manufacturing durable goods (like refrigerators and televisions) and is shifting to an emphasis on entertainment, finance, technology, and real estate. This shift is accompanied by a reawakened interest in urban cores, complete with massive investments in convention centers, arts and shopping districts, and other “revitalization” efforts.

Central to the ideology of urban revitalization has always been the removal of urban decay, a term which vaguely suggests that concrete might sometimes rot away from infectious agents, but which in fact refers to the unsightliness and lost economic opportunities which stem from human suffering. Perhaps, for some reason owing to the logic of cities no one bothered to consider at the outset, it was easier to keep people from the margins than from the center. The age in which American cities have restructured to facilitate more arts, culture, entertainment, and shopping—the age in which the interior of American cities have become theme parks for the privileged, playgrounds for sophisticated consumers altered by carbon-intensive indoor super-weed and fortified by smoothies featuring obscure rainforest superfoods—has also been an age of massively overfunded cops and proliferating cages. The cohort of technology professionals, consultants, and financial experts crucial to the economic success of the new inner city require endless stimulation, consumption, and recreational opportunity, ideally with minimal restrictions (born from archaic social conventions, after all) on the pursuit of personal pleasure. Police militarization, and the out-of-control prison state it has engendered, are necessary to keep the Apple Stores and arts districts of the American urban interior shining.

Inmates walk around an exercise yard at the California Institution for Men state prison in Chino

The deals at Bed, Bath, and Beyond are, quite simply, too good for society to give everyone equal access to those deals.

This, however, might give the impression that the entire tangle of cultural, political, and economic forces which are shaping this reality—a restructured economy and a relaxation of cultural and legal prohibitions on individuality and pleasure—were engineered by some diabolical cabal capable of determining world events. It’s unlikely, and in fact, the people who advocate for borderless, unregulated capitalism historically have not have been the people who advocate for getting high, exploring polytheism, taking it up the ass, or any of the other behaviors which have fairly recently escaped their taboos. One cannot simply look at modern history as the ascendance of one ideology over another.

On the contrary, there have been consistent domains of victory and defeat. Examining the entangled cultural and political forces that shape complex societies, it would appear ideologies which emphasize equality and the acknowledgment of ecological limits have done far more to change the cultural landscape than the physical one, consistently losing battles that relate to actual corporeal realities, like the deregulation of global trade or the invasion of countries. Ideologies which emphasize hierarchy and ecosystems as human resources have consistently been associated with losing cultural battles, against everything from Satanic heavy metal to homosexuality to drug use in film, while succeeding in precisely those domains where egalitarian/ecological ideologies lose. After a certain number of battles concerning free expression and cultural standards are won while the same number of battles concerning carbon dioxide emissions and bombings are lost, it begins to appear a pattern is present which is worth scrutinizing intensely. It begins to appear both like people with egalitarian values are better at winning arguments about gratification than about restraint, and that they’re better at influencing cultural and symbolic realities than material ones.

Whatever the underlying explanatory framework, the ability of legal marijuana dispensaries to presage crucial aspects of the future compels an inevitable search for analogues. The only institution which illustrates our trajectory as clearly, in many crucial aesthetic, ecological, and economic respects, is Burning Man. The absurd cost of attending the festival, the outrageous expenditure of resources necessary for it to occur, and the fortuitous presence of gas masks and dust storms make it an obvious predictor of future manifestations of capitalism. But the two features that make Burning Man truly exemplary in this regard, the two features which most closely ally it with the emerging trajectory of global power, are its ephemerality and its indulgence.

The ephemerality simply stems from the fact that the world is growing so ecologically unpredictable that zones of privilege are increasingly likely to be physically temporary. Rich people will increasingly jetset to those portions of the globe not currently being devoured by apocalyptic flooding or hellish conflagrations, presumably with a vast physical infrastructure of portable Yoga studios and juice bars and an entire sub-society of service industry workers in tow.

Equally so, however, Burning Man exemplifies the future because privileged people stumbling from spectacle to spectacle on drugs, free to express every facet of their unique identity while the world burns, exemplify the future. This is particularly true as corporate executives become prominent figures at the event and $10,000 packages are offered with direct flights and private kitchens.

sst-burning man

We have depleted all living systems of the landscape we are currently occupying and will soon move on.

Somewhere in the lurid pages of Patterns of Culture, Ruth Benedict tells us about the aristocracy of native tribes of the Pacific Northwest coast sacrificing human slaves as a show of wealth and status during potlatch ceremonies. In a world where the powerful lock the powerless in cages and allow them to die of thirst on rooftops after floods, and in a world where the powerful are increasingly attracted to two-story tall pyrotechnic sculptures, it isn’t difficult at all to imagine particularly grisly future permutations of such rites, albeit this time carried out by people whose moods will be considerably enhanced by the liberal use of 18.81% THC Jedi Kush.

 

 

 

 

 

Anguish symmetry is a conceivable science. Here are its theoretical foundations.

First, let us examine this article from The Nation, “What I Discovered from Interviewing Imprisoned ISIS Fighters,” by Lydia Wilson. What Wilson discovered—in the sense that facts already plainly apparent to some can be still be “discovered” by others—is that the motivation for Jihad is predominantly the trauma of subjugation to Western power. She describes how the demographics of captured ISIS fighters in Iraq are extremely homogeneous: men in their late 20s,  who came of age under the American occupation, and were old enough to comprehend but too young to have any agency within the chaos that ensued. Wilson writes:

They are children of the occupation, many with missing fathers at crucial periods (through jail, death from execution, or fighting in the insurgency), filled with rage against America and their own government. They are not fueled by the idea of an Islamic caliphate without borders; rather, ISIS is the first group since the crushed Al Qaeda to offer these humiliated and enraged young men a way to defend their dignity, family, and tribe.”

Second, the documentary ISIS in Afghanistan, made by PBS. Perhaps because ISIS isn’t on as spectacularly bloody a rampage in Afghanistan as in Iraq and Syria, this documentary, in lieu of execution footage, delivers its requisite atrocities in the form of footage of ISIS’s schools. In addition to avenging their anguished childhoods, the men of ISIS also appear to be reproducing them in the minds and bodies of the next generation.

This tendency for trauma to propagate from one person to another, and to continue inexorably down through the generations, is a familiar one. It is the same tedious trudging journey misery, in one form or another, has been making down a series of bodies for millennia. Nothing in this constitutes a new science, certainly not one with so colorful a name as anguish symmetry.

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In which the men who grew up under the American occupation of Iraq recreate essential aspects of the experience for the boys who did not

But third, let us consider this scientific paper, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, “Childhood maltreatment is associated with altered fear circuitry and increased internalizing symptoms by late adolescence.” The details are fascinating, but all that is really important is that the authors found a linear correlation between the magnitude of childhood trauma a person experienced and a pattern of brain activity. To restate this in slightly more abstract terms: an experience of trauma was correlated to a spatial configuration with complex dynamics.

Fourth, it must be acknowledged that the extent to which trauma influences the coarse structure of global events is unknown. In practice it is immeasurable, but in principle it is quantifiable. Imagine a world which reproduces ours in most respects but differs in an essential few: People exist in the same numbers but somehow are not afflicted by their wounds. People possess the same general level of technology, but without overtly conflict-oriented tools like prisons and nuclear weapons. Don’t think about how it works—the implausibility of this scenario is immaterial.

In this world, the men of Iraq did not lose their fathers to the American invasion, the boys of Iraq are not losing their childhoods to despotic training camps, and so on. There are no existing hostilities between people. How long does it take for everything to turn back to normal? How long does it take for us to begin cutting each other’s heads off, beating up our children, and setting the rainforest on fire? Do we ever?

Man stands in front of a forest fire in Pelalawan, in the Indonesian province of Riau

Indonesia finally gets hip to the 21st century’s prevailing aesthetic themes, vanishing in a hellish conflagration.

Many would be tempted to read this as largely a rhetorical exercise, as a thought experiment clearly designed to lead one to the conclusion that were it not for all the existing hurt in the world, no more would be created. This is not at all the intention. Clearly, profound trauma is ubiquitous; clearly, it shapes behavior; clearly its effects are often unconscious. Thus it has properties that could allow it to be thought of and modeled like a virus or other propagating entity: something that is foreign to the system. If eradicated, it would not be relied upon to simply re-emerge.

Nonetheless, the actual state of the world indicates something deeper within human architecture must be at work—otherwise how would anguish come to occupy its monumental share of the human experience in the first place? Ultimately it seems that the ways trauma is transmitted between people is both highly contingent and highly fundamental.

It’s interesting to ask what happens if we run our implausible experiment, in which the world is reset without existing traumas, over and over again. And if each time, we could perhaps introduce some few different initial injuries—a reform school or a military invasion here, a few lashes of a whip there—and see how they form different patterns of subsequent propagation and reiteration, ultimately producing different patterns of global violence and destruction.

Fifth and finally, from these formative elements, we are ready to synthesize our new science by referencing an Ising model. Ising models were developed to model lattices of solid substances (e.g. crystals). The details are terribly interesting again, and again, mostly superfluous. Their essential aspect as far as anguish symmetry is concerned is that they consist of cells whose state influences the states of surrounding cells. Model parameters can be such that all cells end up the same, or cells occupy states at random. At some parameter values, there are remarkable developments, like the spontaneous emergence of fractal objects. Despite its simplicity, the Ising model can describe some facets of reality with great accuracy. To quote from Solé and Goodwin’s Signs of Life: How Complexity Pervades Biology:

“…disparate systems sharing some fundamental microscopic properties…will behave in the same way close to their respective critical points. This idea is called universality. Simple rules can generate very complex patterns of behavior, and the interactions among the different parts of a complex system—and not the detailed properties of their component parts—are the relevant part of the story.”

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An Ising model. Cells switch from black or white based on rules of interaction with adjacent cells. Black and white states could represent different orientations of a particle in a lattice, or equally plausibly represent the spread of an epidemic (infected/uninfected) or human settlements (occupied/unoccupied).

Ising models themselves probably don’t play any actual role in this putative new field, but they are invoked as theoretical justification for the very general conclusion that the activity patterns of (at least some) systems can be measured with adequate abstraction to allow comparison with (at least some) other systems, even when the components of said systems are neither similar nor necessarily even understood in great detail.

The brains of humans display patterns of activity measurable with technologies like electroencephalograms (EEGs), which are amenable to a whole suite of analytical techniques. The activity of human societies is likewise rigorously quantified by cadres of scientists in diverse fields, and  ecology generates tremendous amounts of data which is synthesized and analyzed by many means. Somewhere within the range of analytical techniques that exist for these disparate sources of information, a common ground could conceivably sought: a means of characterizing changes in one of these systems in terms of corresponding changes in another of these systems.

Here, then, is the essential insight of anguish symmetry: somewhere, a person is using violence despicably, and their experience of this violence is generating a pattern of brain activity. Somewhere, an international mining company is deciding to do something deplorable. Somewhere, many thousands of hectares of rainforest are burning. From this burning forest, many people are fleeing, and some of them, displaced and wounded, can perhaps be counted on in their struggle to someday use violence despicably. All these patterns of activity at different scales reciprocally inform and influence one another, and somewhere there might be an appropriate mathematical descriptor that allows us to see the essential structural universality of anguish, the essential configurations of pain that these different levels of reality transmit back and forth so freely.

As we enter a stage of truly catastrophic, truly systemic ecological breakdown, every sign indicates there will be great waves of traumatic change that reverberate through societies and individuals and be transmitted back into ecosystems, in an intensifying and cyclical fashion. It is tempting to imagine that the hidden structure universally underlying anguish is beautiful, and the revealing of it will bring a small measure of joy to the world.

 

 

 

 

 

[AN ABSURDLY CIRCUITOUS AUTHOR’S NOTE: I once thought this story was particularly good. It formed the core for a performance and was going to be made into some kind of recording with an accompanying booklet. At this point these things could very reasonably be expected to never happen. Now I am presenting it for two related but ultimately distinct reasons. The first requires you to suspend all notions about the reasonable scope of an author’s note and allow me to say that I divide my adult life very generally into five distinct phases. Whatever else is true of them, they all represent fundamental changes in my relationship to suffering I experienced in childhood. This most recent phase I consider to have begun rather abruptly on the night of September 21st, 2015, when I experienced a surge of memories I hadn’t consciously engaged with since I was young.

This process has continued over the subsequent months. I will indulge in gratuitous understatement and say that it has been tumultuous. Projects are exceptionally difficult to complete. There are the actual mind-bending crises, but many calmer times when I am less mentally organized than necessary to engage a logical sequence. Things are initiated and forgotten. Posting this is a step I am taking toward changing my relationship with the work I do, towards something more stable and task-oriented.

Secondly, time has revealed an inadvertent dual level of meaning embedded in this story. The focus on a single identity being adopted by a lineage of different people was the initial theme from which “In Many Bodies” rather obsessively grew. Looking back I would say that this idea probably came to the fore of my consciousness as a precursor to the process of recollection and cognitive reorganization I was about to undergo. In the story, one’s own elaborate and horrible past is revealed in a number of unknown past identities: A month later my own horrible past was revealed through an unknown past identity. I even had to revert to my birth name of Arnold, acknowledging that Scott (snatched out of thin air at the age of 10) was an invention which largely functioned in the service of forgetting. I like very much that this text occupies these twin stories,  particularly because one of them takes place in flesh-and-blood reality. Writing is a strange task to which I am bound by my nature rather than out of any clear conviction it’s useful. One likes to think occasionally the words wander off the page and do something interesting.]

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In the fifteenth year of his reign and thus seven years into the great drying of the land, when the rain ceased to fall and the sun swelled red in the sky and burned crop land and wild land alike, sparing neither the haunts of men nor the haunts of beasts, in the month of the apple harvests, the month of fat bears crawling into the earth in search of slumber and of dull yellow, faceless moons, emperor Melanus’s army, strengthened by reinforcements from recent victories in the south, crushed the rebellion which had begun in the northern mountain districts and spread inexorably over the course of half a decade into the surrounding lowlands.

A certain fatalism, it must be acknowledged, often surrounds the making of revolutions—it is difficult to determine with any real certainty a date at which the rebellion’s defeat seemed inevitable because many of its participants knew it to be inevitable at the very outset. Anyone who has not chosen to give up their life for a cause they know to be hopeless likely has no ability to comprehend the experience of those who do, just as the tongues of the seeing falter attempting to describe color to the blind, and therefore speculation about the rebels’ last moments can be dismissed as futile. This is particularly true because none of them survived to provide us with any testimony, choosing ritual suicide over capture almost to a person, with one exception.

A relatively unknown soldier-poet, whose work otherwise consists of lyrical erotica addressed to a lover he left in a rural farming district juxtaposed with graphic descriptions of the horrors of war, a poet of little account even to scholars of the most painful obscurities, has left us the most thorough description of that day. His work can be corroborated from far briefer accounts provided by military records and imperial historians who had access to primary sources which have subsequently been lost to time, and these other sources correspond generally to the poet’s description of events.

The rebellion was nothing if not pluralistic, and thus the collective suicide was really a number of simultaneous collective suicides occurring in the same place, each one carried out in the manner required by the various deities of the various peoples. The mountain folk, the wildest of those people who had fought alongside each other, who consider the forest sacred, being disinclined to grow crops or live in cities, who worship the bear and whose priestesses are said to lie with bears, were each marked by a priestess with bear’s blood and told they would roam the sky that night with the Great Mother Bear before she cut their throats. Some of the valley people were wildly drunk from wine mixed with a slow-acting poison, believing drunkeness to be a form of divine madness and thus a means of knowing the mind of the Grain Giver who they were returning beneath the earth to reside with until the reunification of earth and sky, the event they believe will mark the end of time.

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When the soldiers made their way through the enemy encampment they encountered only corpses and earth stained redder, if we are to believe the poet’s floridly tragic account, than the red of battlefields—only corpses and a single man, who made no attempt to flee but who simply sat amidst his countless dead comrades staring down at a perfectly white daisy which he had plucked from the ground and which he now spun back and forth between his fingers, apparently absorbed by thoughts distant from the tragedy and peril that surrounded him. His birth name is a matter of considerable uncertainty, and perhaps of little consequence—he had come to be known by his compatriots in the course of their years fighting together as the Cynic, owing to his caustic humor concerning the hardships of war, and Cynic was the only name to which he would answer.

Upon initially encountering him, the soldiers took him for a magician of the mountain folk, as both his cheeks were scarred by bear’s claws as is the custom among magicians of those people. In reality, it would be revealed he was a religious exile. He had been chosen to be a magician when he was still in infancy, and the initiate who had claimed to see great power in him had taken him from his mother and left him alone in the forest for a night, claiming that the mountain’s bears and wolves would have to give him permission to live and practice his magic, so powerful would it be, or deny him permission by eating him, and absorbing his great powers for themselves.

He survived the ordeal, but never saw a member of his family again. He grew up being instructed in magic and preparing for initiation, and it can be presumed that in some manner or another his instructor inflicted great cruelties on the boy—if there is one fact that can be ascertained about Cynic’s nature with absolute confidence, it is that at an early age he developed a scathing contempt for authority, even the fairly minimal and disorganized authority that exists among the mountain folk, which would last his entire life and in many respects define it.

At the time of his initiation, when he was sixteen years old, he took his revenge on his instructor. With a ceremonial dagger he was to spill his blood on a bear skull, which would be secreted away in the canopy of a forest tree, a cedar or a fir, allowing him to ride the animal’s spirit into the sky when he went into trances and worked magic. Instead, he spat on the bear skull and cut his instructor’s throat with the ceremonial dagger, before killing the three priests who had come to bear witness to his passage into manhood.

In the society of the mountain folk, the killing of a magician, especially a magician with which one has a legitimate grievance, is a complex and morally ambiguous affair, but the killing of a priest is not—the sentence is death no matter what the circumstances, and every man and woman over the age of fifteen is required to avenge the murder if the opportunity presents itself. The boy fled, and his name, whatever it was before it was Cynic, became synonymous among the mountain folk with the betrayal of their most sacred codes.

He evaded numerous attempts on his life as he made his way out of the mountains. It is not clear how it was he was able, years later, to fight alongside the people from whom he had exiled himself—he would make vague statements after his capture to the effect that they no longer considered him of the mountains and thus were no longer duty-bound to kill him—nor is it any more clear where he went or what he did between that time and the rebellion many years later. He left the mountains a boy with the scars of a magician on his face but no bear’s skull erected skyward with which to perform magic, a boy without home or family, and whatever subsequently transpired, when he was taken captive he had acquired an extraordinary education encompassing a great breadth of topics, both common and obscure.

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Three soldiers encountered him initially, and as one raised his spear to thrust it into Cynic’s breast, he held up his hand and said simply, “Wait.”

When asked for what the soldier was to wait, he replied, “I have something about which I must speak with the emperor. It is not for me to explain to you as it is beyond your comprehension. I can thus only offer you the assurance that the emperor would find the subject which I must discuss with him of great significance, and he would be enraged to learn this opportunity had been denied him by a bloodthirsty soldier who had just won an effortless victory.”

The soldier again raised his spear to strike him, and Cynic turned and looked at the other two men for the first time.

You have two comrades with you. Do you trust these men so infinitely that you can strike me down without any risk that one or the other of them will inform your superior that you killed the sole survivor of the rebellion, who claimed to have an important matter to discuss with the emperor? Even if you all agree among yourselves here and now to be done with me and never say a word of it to anyone, are you all such sober and fastidious men that you trust one another to never betray your secret to anyone else, not to ever whisper in a lover’s ear or drunkenly brag to friends that you were there for the killing of the last rebel, in the month of fattening bears of the seventh year of the great drying? And finally, considering those risks I’ve just described, it must be asked: what do you risk in taking me to your superior?”

The soldiers acquiesced, and Cynic had a few exchanges with increasingly high-ranking soldiers, all variations on the same basic theme he’d presented to the three who had initially found him, before it began to seem natural to the military leadership that they should bring to their emperor the sole survivor of the rebellion, for him to do with what he pleased.

As the military made its way back to the capitol, they stopped in the coastal city of Nefar, and the imperial authorities of that city, which had lost many ships to the rebellion, condemned him to death.

Remarkably, he contrived to be sentenced at a formal tribunal, reminding the authorities of appropriate legal procedure, since it could not be claimed that they were any longer at war, and that tribunal acquiesced to forego his execution because of a lengthy and elaborate argument in which he managed to convince these coast-dwellers that the ocean, which he had perhaps never seen, could plausibly have many gods residing beneath its tumultuous gray waters in addition to the one they knew and worshipped, and that these gods may in fact war with one another, and this warring may account for the ocean’s notorious fury. The argument, insofar as it can be discerned, was apparently intended to illustrate some principle about multiple authorities presiding over the same domain, some principle which convinced the tribunal they did not want to risk incurring the emperor’s wrath. In any case, he came, in time, to the capitol, in chains but otherwise unharmed.

When he finally received his audience with the emperor, he had already become something of a legendthe one man who did not, among all his thousands of comrades, take his life on that fateful day the rebellion lost, who had managed to survive months in captivity by insisting he had something of great consequence to speak with the emperor about. Though it was winter, it was warm and rainless—the sea by the capitol had taken on a listless dull gray color, a color resembling stone more than water, and was moved by no breeze—and thus the emperor gave Cynic an audience outside, in the great pavilion in the imperial gardens, with a great retinue, curious to see what this last living rebel would say, in attendance.

When Cynic was brought before him in chains, the emperor said, “Certainly you have not come all this way, and troubled so many of my soldiers and magistrates, because you fear death? Certainly you have not come to implore me for mercy?”

It is as you say,” Cynic replied. “Certainly not. On the contrary, I have come to implore you not for mercy, but for exceptional cruelty.”

Explain,” Melanus demanded.

Very well, but if I am truly to furnish you with an explanation, it can only begin with the frank and unequivocal admission that I despise you and your empire—indeed, with my comrades all dead and thus with no one to argue with me for the honor, it could reasonably be conjectured that no one on this earth hates you with such fervor as I do.”

The people who had assembled in the garden collectively gasped, never having heard the emperor insulted before. The soldiers who stood on either side of Cynic moved their spears as if to strike, but the emperor gave them no order.

But it is for this very reason, owing to our profound mutual antagonism, that we have a tremendous task to undertake together, one which will not reconcile us but rather make our enmity all the more bitter, a task of the greatest possible significance.”

You speak cryptically and overly long,” the emperor said.

The essence of the matter is this,” Cynic replied. “I could not drink poison on that fateful day when my comrades chose to. I certainly could not have my throat cut by the bear priestess. I could not be beheaded with an implement of harvest. I could not do these things because I have no people, no god with whom any other man has had converse, no code other than my own. So I resolved that I would simply die by my own knife, alone among comrades, as I watched them end their lives in the ways they found most suiting. While the others performed their rituals, I thought perhaps to read a few pages from the one book I had in my possession at the time, which I had stolen from one of your imperial libraries some months before while we were looting the city of Crebus and redistributing its grain stores among the starving.”

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The fires of Crebus still anguish me greatly,” Melanus said.

Yes,” Cynic replied, “but that is of little consequence to the matter we are presently discussing.”

Again, the soldiers raised their spears, although this time somewhat more noncommittally, and again, the emperor gave no order to strike.

I could not take my life. I sat amidst this scene of what should have been, if the universe possesses sense or purpose whatsoever, great tragedy, a scene that would clarify what is truly essential within the human spirit and what is superfluous, a moment lacking contingencies, not haunted by uncertainties.

But everywhere I looked, little imperfections crept in. I did not see clarity in the eyes of my dying comrades. I did not see truth. I saw ugly little fragments of fear and indecision pollute their beings even as they put poison to their lips or bowed their heads before scythes.

The deaths of my friends began to repulse me. Not sadden me, mind you, repulse me. I began to hate these men for dying so imperfectly, for still having not quite, despite that their entire lives clearly and unequivocally had culminated in this one moment of revelation, comprehended the reality of the moment. They could not bear the tragedy of their deaths in their bodies. Their minds and their souls were not vast enough to encompass what they were in fact enduring. I saw their eyes glaze over and take on looks of stupidity. I saw the trivialities with which they’d obsessed their entire lives, their little lusts and petty fears and unthinking greeds, still consuming them despite that life had presented them with a tragedy so great as to purify them of these inconsequential concerns. In the end, they did not die greatly, or heroically, but feebly. I can not help but hate them for how they died, although I do love them as well.

And thus, my knife faltered. I came to believe my death would be ugly and ignominious as well, and began to realize it was my duty to seek you out.”

So you have come to implore me for a particularly cruel death?” the emperor demanded. “So that you will be forced to come to terms with the limits of your being, or overcome them?”

Indeed,” Cynic replied. “Not just a particularly cruel death, but the most unbearably tragic death that has ever transpired. I want to know that I am unmatched in this world for suffering. I want to perfect suffering. But I do not expect that you would grant me this solely for the sake of my own personal vindication, as my own personal vindication is naturally not a matter with which I expect you concern yourself terribly.”

Naturally,” the emperor said dryly.

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It was inevitable that at this moment I should have begun to wonder if ever men had met their deaths truly comprehending the moment, truly gazing on the wonder and the horror of it without flinching, without succumbing to mind-numbing terror or allowing the clutter of trivial thoughts with which life had preoccupied them to creep in and rob them of the naked totality of the experience.

And from this speculation, it was inevitable that I should further begin to wonder if anyone had ever done anything purely, in a manner that acknowledged the vastness and greatness and beauty and cruelty of the universe, or if every action, every gesture, every word, had always been undertaken imperfectly.

Retrospecting on my life, I confess I have never seen it. I have seen a mother shielding the body of her dead infant from a starving mob who wanted to eat it. I have been the guest of a sect of mystics who commit dangerous crimes as a means of knowing their god, a god whose only impulse so far as I can discern is the transgression of taboos, mystics who habitually eat copious doses of plants that bring visions for days on end. I have known kings in the eastern jungles who sit on living thrones of serpents.

And in all the faces of all these people I have seen imperfections, the blemishes of stupidity, vile tinges of small-mindedness.

Who is not disturbed by the subtle but all-pervasive sense that the world has grown weary somehow, that our faces and gestures and words have not grown somehow corrupted? Who does not long for a lost mythical age, whether of the distant past or in some imagined future? Is this not why so many religious doctrines teach of worlds other than this one, because we innately suspect that this world of blemishes and weaknesses is not as the world should be?

I ask you to deny these religious doctrines their stranglehold on pure, illuminated order, on action commensurate with the nobility and virtue of the principles that drive it. Because I am, inevitably—on this point I can’t imagine there is any possibility of debate—condemned to death, I can only ask for it in death. But I implore you, let us make a moment together that warrants the line it will take up in the page of a history book. Let us make a moment without trivialities or weakness. Let us make a pure moment together.

No one can claim that being executed by you would cause them greater anguish than me, because no one despises you more, no one wishes more desperately and fervently that they could instead be killing you. No one who will go on living is capable of creating this moment of unbridled anguish I ask of you, because none of them can truly invest everything in a moment—they will reserve some part of themselves for the future. No one is strong enough to endure the suffering I ask of you but me.

So you see, emperor, that although we despise one another, although it sickens me to stand here in front of you and waste my breath in speaking to you, although each word has the taste of poison in my mouth, these feelings of enmity are inconsequential when compared to the scope of the work you and I must accomplish, in our hatred, together.”

There was silence of a considerable duration. The emperor was an educated man, not only insofar as all nobility receive an education in childhood but to the extent that it would be plausible to imagine that were he not emperor he would have chosen instead to be a scholar. He had certainly read any number of doctrines which suggested the world had progressed into a state of deterioration, that the sun no longer burned the same lion-gold color as it had in days when the world was young and beasts spoke and deeds of great heroism were performed. Other explanations have been advanced for Melanus’s acquiescence to his captive’s proposal—that he was trying to demonstrate his sophistication to the imperial nobility, from whom he’d always been slightly alienated, having not been born in the capitol, being chief among them—but there is little evidence to suggest that he ever did anything to endear himself to the nobles, and any other explanation fails to account for the emperor’s legitimate philosophical inclinations. It is possible, in fact, that Cynic chose the narrative he did precisely because he knew of some system of thought which the emperor favored to which his story would appeal.

In any case, Melanus consented to find a particularly cruel way to kill Cynic. Before dismissing him, he asked him only two questions.

The first was, “You are marked by a bear claw on your face. Do you ride a bear into the sky?”

Bears are bears,” Cynic replied. “Men cannot ride them into the sky. But I will ascend into the sky on the pain you inflict in me.”

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And what is your name? I have heard it told you earned the soldier’s nickname of Cynic, a most curious appellation, but I have not yet heard what you were called before this.”

I do not have another name. Those who gave me a name at birth have unnamed me. I could tell you one of the other names I have used over the years, and while some are less overt, it is equally true of them all that they are criminal aliases and nothing besides.”

The month of the knife-moon, the month of bare frozen soil and bonelike branches bereft of leaves reaching up into the long night skies, transpired with Cynic in a cell and the emperor occupied with other matters. Finally, he paid the rebel a visit and told him that the next day he would begin dying.

I have decided on the manner of your killing,” he said. “From each of the districts where the rebellion raided and redistributed imperial grain stores, I will bring young women, poor women, girls from farms and cities alike, and I will bring them to the amphitheater, where you will be kept in chains, starving and thirsting. They will be brought before you, beaten, raped, humiliated. And then they will be given a choice. That either some piece of you will be cut off or some part of them. And do you know what they will choose, down to a girl?”

Yes,” said Cynic. “That I should be the one dismembered.”

Precisely,” said the emperor. “All those precious poor people you fought on behalf of, who you bled and killed to protect, will day after day choose your pain over their own, though with each passing day it will become clearer and clearer, as you become increasingly disfigured, that you have suffered far more than they. I will break your revolutionary spirit. Before you die, I will see in your eyes the realization that your cause was not just hopeless but also useless and ill-conceived, even had you any hope of victory. I will see in your eyes the realization that these poor filthy dung-covered masses you love so dearly are indeed loathsome and vile.”

Cynic listened to the emperor soberly and chose his words with great consideration. “I have been well aware that the masses, poor or otherwise, are loathsome my entire life. While the spirit of what you suggest is compelling, the dismantling of a soldier’s dearest-held convictions about the virtue of his cause, in my case I never had any convictions about my cause to begin with. You must understand I joined the rebellion out of a blind compulsion to attack the existing order, unencumbered by any preconceptions that it could ever be replaced with a better one.”

We will see if you feel such indifference with a few less fingers and ears,” the emperor hissed, and began to withdraw from his captive’s cell.

I will feel such indifference mutilated beyond all recognition,” Cynic replied, and the force of his voice stopped Melanus in his footsteps. “And you will lose all credibility.”

How is it you imagine I will lose credibility?”

People will cease to fear you if I do not die in legitimate anguish. Imagine it. I have just come before you, the only living representative of a rebellion which plagued your reign for years, and implored you for a death of such cruelty that I become absolutely and completely consumed by pain, so absolutely that no part of me remains that does not suffer. Your empire is based on fear. Your subjects obey you because you have the capacity to inflict harm on them. Imagine if it becomes known that this rebel, who openly insulted you in your own capitol city, to your very face, died indifferent to the suffering you tried in vain to inflict on him. From your most trusted generals to the starving masses, people will begin to wonder if what it is they fear you will do to them is really as terrible as they’ve imagined. You will quickly lose hold on this empire you’ve cobbled together out of a collective aversion to experiencing your cruelty.”

I will find a death so horrible that you will wish a thousand times over you had sunk your knife into your stomach when you had a chance. I will make you beg to forget the words you said to me in the imperial garden.”

That would be a beginning, emperor, but a mere beginning.”

Pages will be written about my cruelty in history books.”

No, emperor, pages will be written about my suffering. You will be a mere footnote.”

It is said that the esteemed natural philosopher Zahadek once attempted to trace the course of the great Milk River from its wide mouth where it empties into the sea, its water having wended its way through many distant lands, to its point of origin, and that he returned having concluded that the river had no origin to speak of, that the boundary between the river and the braided streams that converge to become the river is not clear—a hundred men, he said, would claim a hundred different places where the river begins.

Something similar could be said of the relationship between Melanus and his captive; at some point which can perhaps not be known, their discourse shifted. Locked in a lightless cell day after day, Cynic developed a perpetually weary affect, seeming less and less intimidated by the lurid cruelties the emperor described to him, and becoming increasingly preoccupied not with physical torture but with doctrines about the nature of the universe which would, if subscribed to, maximally incline one to suffering. Gradually, it became clear to the emperor that the work before them was not to devise the most painful death imaginable per se but rather the most painful perspective one could have on death, which Cynic would then adopt. This is not to say that the emperor might not have considerable work to do in carrying out a particularly cruel execution, but a crucial element would always remain of his victim having decided on a means of conceptualizing his torture which caused him more pain than anyone had ever yet experienced.

Once, Melanus was overheard to ask what would prevent the rebel from simply discarding the chosen belief system if it became unbearable in the course of death.

It is my purpose to endure this,” he was heard to reply. “I am a fanatic, and this is my cause.”

The first time he was released from his cell it was to consult with religious initiates who resided on top of a mountain outside of the capitol, whose doctrine maintained that it would permanently sever their relationship with the sky god if they chose to leave the heights and return to the lowlands for even a day. He was escorted by guards to their small sanctuary, where they live off of alms provided by the pious who farm the surrounding valleys, gazing from sunrise to sunset upwards in contemplation of the sky. He wanted to know if the sky god himself would be dismayed by their departure, apparently thinking to incorporate the pain of deities into his own death.

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Eventually, the emperor, preferring not to travel to the stinking prison, began having him brought from his cell when they met, and they would walk the imperial gardens together, the guards nervously watching the captive for any indication of flight or attack, discussing doctrinal obscurities. The animosity between them, if not diminishing, took on fewer overt expressions, and eventually their relationship developed the quality of a collaboration, of a great work for which they both increasingly felt they were born.

The rebel’s trips to centers of religious devotion and to imperial libraries grew so frequent as to warrant him being permanently released from his cell, and he was given quarters, funds were put at his disposal, and a guard detail was assigned to him. Thus, he became a distinct personage in the capitol, perhaps vaguely akin in social position to a diplomat visiting from a hostile territory, and he passed the years in contemplation of the horrors which men conceive of to enhance life’s already considerable measure of suffering.

His inquiries were eclectic in the extreme. He grew intimately familiar with various doctrines concerning the relationship between this world and the afterlife, such as mutilations of the body persisting in the world beyond, or the provisioning of graves with horses, gold, and even human slaves in order for the deceased to exploit these riches in death, thinking these conceptions might reveal some suffering he could anticipate even after death. He practiced techniques of illumination that involved rigorous, painful self-discipline, imagining he could very slowly and painfully kill himself over the course of many years.

Nothing availed. He became despondent, and began making statements to Melanus to the effect that he was unable to conceive of the most terrible death that had ever been endured, and that he moreover no longer felt with any certainty that he could indeed endure it should he conceive of it. It was more than two years since the emperor had first granted Cynic an audience in the imperial gardens, and he had become deeply invested in their project—indeed, although he would never have confessed it to anyone, he had come to see this killing as his most important legacy, the thing which he would be remembered for when all the logistical trivialities of imperial administration were long since forgotten. He implored Cynic to find his resolve.

Look out over this empire I rule,” he said to his prisoner, gesturing vaguely over the walls of the city.

What does it consist of? It consists of farting cows thoughtlessly chewing on grass, of old men making crude jokes from their toothless mouths as they drunkenly idle their days away, of imperial administrators lazily dispensing cruelties to the populace in order to grow fatter. Look at the guards who are standing right here behind us. They stand straight and tall, their shields emblazoned with eagles, their cloaks bright red, their swords at their sides, but look in their eyes and what do you see?

Not the great principle from which their duties derive—no, rather one sees equivocation, a poorly disguised boredom, stupid fear from hearing me say these words that some harm will come to them, and lurking beneath all their other thoughts and gestures, a vague but ever-present desire to be done with their duties so they can forget themselves in drink and find something warm to put their cocks into.

Nothing in my empire is worthy of the grandeur and nobility that is attributed to the notion of the empire. Nothing but this great work we have undertaken together, this death of such extreme cruelty and tragedy that nothing exists save the suffering of this death. We will transfigure the very world with this suffering. We will make the world pure and golden with anguish. We will free existence from its chains, set the planets on their true orbits from which they have strayed, make the hearts of warriors beat with the red blood of lions, make the swords of warriors so fearsome as to slay the very sun.

We must carry on. We must endure whatever the costs, whatever the hardships. No more important work has ever been undertaken. You must find your fortitude.”

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And Cynic only nodded, silently and pensively, looking west out at the formless sea which no sailor had ever found the limit of as it burned a deep crimson beneath the sinking sun.

It was the month of apple harvests, the month of fattening bears and faceless moons, of the tenth year of the great dryness. As starvation spread, small uprisings had occurred in several remote districts. Trees in the great forests of the mountains to the east of the capitol had begun to die of thirst. The emperor was preoccupied and thus had not come to discuss the execution with his captive for weeks, and finally Cynic requested an audience with him. Two nights later, they walked their familiar route together through the garden, the late hour scented with the night-blooming jasmine which clung to the garden’s stone walls and columns, no sound penetrating their vigil save those of their footsteps and voices.

The work is done,” Cynic said. “It is accomplished. I have conceived of it. I have finally conceived of it. Our hopes for the nobility and the grandeur of this effort will all be vindicated. Though the time it required was great, our endeavor will prove to be well worth it.”

What is the manner of the death you have conceived of?”

It is a simple death. I must be the one to bear the knife. It is made more painful than any other death only by the manner in which it is conceptualized.”

And how is that?”

Beyond the borders of your empire, far to the east and north of here, in the great cold desert, there are men who live on horseback and hunt with eagles, men who consider cruelty and valor in battle to be the only virtues, whose religious observances are severe in the extreme. Their blood feuds are constant—virtually no boy is ever born among them who is not already duty-bound at the moment of his birth to kill someone when he comes of age in retaliation for the death of a relative—and thus a great cycle of perpetual revenge killings defines the lives of these men. On occasion, when a truly great transgression has occurred, a transgression as great as the one I committed against the people I was born to when I came of age, killing is deemed insufficient.

In such cases they possess an elaborate and exceptionally cruel practice which is overseen by a priest, or rather, by generations of priests, for you see, the condemned is made to understand that his sons will all be killed, and their sons, for the next century. They believe that the souls of men migrate from body to body down the generations of a given lineage and thus they are in effect killing the man repeatedly, in the many permutations of his being, encompassing different bodies, through the years. So his progeny is made to watch the man’s ritual execution by the priest, and to understand that they will suffer this same death in time. They live as captives, but a unique class of captive, allowed to marry and to beget children—indeed, required to do so—in order to carry on the condemned man’s lineage, so that these children may in turn watch their fathers die, and so on, for one hundred years. By the third generation, the victims have never even met the man who committed the crime for which they are suffering. Then, at the termination of the sentence, all his living descendants are executed, and his lineage dies.

I know my soul will not migrate into another body when I die. My soul will wander this earth aimlessly, deformed by pain and contempt. I have no progeny to witness my execution. Nonetheless, these horse warriors have revealed to me the path to the ultimate death. It is in the lifetime of suffering inflicted on the innocent. It is true I spit on all icons, true I bow to no man, true I hold noble and common folk alike in distinct but equal contempt, but for as much as I may despise humanity I have no greater aversion than to inflict harm on it.

Thus we must achieve a death that reverberates down through the generations. A death which continues in other bodies, innocent bodies chosen for the express purpose of suffering for my crimes. But it is notand this distinction is crucial—enough to simply know that you will elect some other poor fool to suffer in my place when I am dead. I have every confidence that you will continue to brutalize your subjects according to whatever whim strikes you. That knowledge is not a unique anguish, not a world-forming suffering, it is the baseline misery with which all who you rule must all live out our days.

No, the critical distinction is this: I must choose. This is where the anguish unmatched in scale by any preceding anguish is produced. At the very foundations of my being, in my very core, there is horror at the cruelty with which people treat one another, a profound love of justice and a profound desire to attack injustice wherever it is encountered. Therefore I wish to stand in your imperial gardens and choose to die, to cut my own throat as I could have done years previous, but before I do to apologize for fighting your empire and implore you to find someone else who hates injustice as I do, find them young, as I was young when I first tasted cruelty, and to raise them in the knowledge that they will be broken, made to apologize for my crimes and to take their own lives while imploring first you, and then future emperors, to find subsequent victims in whose bodies I may continue to die.

But do not coerce them. The suffering resides in the choosing to abandon one’s dearest principles, in the choosing the path of the oppressor rather than the liberator. The suffering resides in self-negation: the most precious things a man possesses can be taken by no other man. Make those who love justice choose to negate themselves by denying this love. Select my victims carefully. Find that one rare soul treading this earth at any given moment who will see the appalling senselessness of this absurd sequence of suicides, which grow more cruel and unreasonable each time they occur, but who understands that this cruelty is greater than any that has preceded it and who will come to see in time that it is a precious flame which they can allow no wind to extinguish, a flame that must dwell within them, an act of the greatest self-overcoming imaginable progressing down the generations, growing ever more heroic and severe as the suicides continue and their original context grows ever more irrelevant and obscure, until this sequence of self-negations becomes an entity unto itself, freed from its original impetus altogether. Make of me the founder of a great lineage of exalted desperation.

But always let them choose. They must always choose. Only then can it be a perfect death, a perfect and unending death.”

The emperor was motionless for a long while, his hands gripping a vine-covered railing in the garden, looking out at the moon’s dead face shimmering dully in the black ocean. Tears silently streamed down his unmoving face.

Finally, he said, “It is as you say. It is the perfect death. It is the greatest thing any man has ever accomplished.”

Then I suppose this is the last night I will know the fragrance of your imperial garden’s jasmine.”

It is,” the emperor replied.

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The next day Cynic was brought to the amphitheater, where a massive crowd—the largest the capitol could recall—had gathered. Religious specialists of every variety had arrived to observe his death, curious as to whether the manner in which Cynic conceptualized his killing would confirm or contradict their own doctrines. The nobility was all present, having been scandalized for years by the rebel’s presence in the city and eager to see a harsh sentence carried out to suppress the nascent uprisings occurring throughout the empire.

To the assembled crown Melanus said only this. “The rebellion has been crushed. Here is its last living representative. You are about to witness a death more painful than any preceding death has ever been. You are about to witness a man discard, in the most extreme and irrevocable manner, everything which is at the essence of that man’s being—not to have it taken from him, but to discard it, and that is what will cause him the greatest pain, the voluntary nature of this divestiture. Guards, furnish the captive with a knife.”

Cynic took the knife from the guard. “It is as you say, emperor, exactly as you say. On this day, with this knife, these people will witness a death which is chosen, and in that choosing, more terrible than any death which has ever preceded it, a death which negates the core values on which the life it ends was premised, and that death will be yours.”

There were indignant murmurs in the crowd, and hands tightening around spears among the guards, but the emperor sat silent, as if stricken by a blow.

For certainly, the death I described to you last night cannot be carried out by me. I said there must be a choice, that the element of choice, of electing to abandon one’s identity, is crucial. And did you not agree? Did you not agree that there was indeed no more important work any man could undertake than this death of unprecedented tragedy? Did you not say to me that your empire consisted of nothing worthy of the grandeur and nobility attributed to the notion of empire, that it consisted only of drunken idiots and stinking cows? Certainly, then, no business of ruling this empire could be so worthy an undertaking as the dying you must do today.

Who here among us today has any more freedom to do whatever he wishes, despite what anyone else wishes of him, than you? Certainly not me. I am a prisoner of war, condemned to death. What matter if I choose to cut my own throat or you do it for me? What matter if I ask you to choose a victim to carry on my legacy or you simply elect to do this of your own accord?

But you there, safe on your throne, you have every choice in the world. If you commanded it, everyone assembled here today would jump up and down on one leg until you told them to stop—or in any case, everyone but me; I bow to no one. Who on this earth possesses more power? Who on this earth has less reason to listen to the command of a nameless soldier who was years ago captured in a hopeless war? Who on this earth sacrifices more, discards more, negates more of his identity, which is based solely on power over others, on the capacity to force others to do as you wish, than you when you obey my command—for it is a command; I am commanding you—and stand up from your chair, at this very moment, walk down those ugly stone stairs, down to the level of the ground where the rest of humanity dwells, take this knife from this rebel’s hand, this rebel who has openly held you in contempt all these years you foolishly fed and housed him, this rebel who freely confesses to the killing of your soldiers and the raiding of your stores, and cut your own throat?

You must act now, emperor. Even a moment’s hesitation will destroy the absolute perfection of suffering you are about to experience. Walk down those stairs to me. The perfect death lives in you. In your blood the world will be reborn.”

Wordlessly, the emperor stood up and began making his way down the stairs to where Cynic stood. The crowd watched in silent horror. The guards looked at one another but did nothing—it is sacrilege to lay a hand on the emperor, who is thought to be descended from the gods. A great silent resolve had come over Melanus as he approached his captive. In his eyes one could witness a thousand thoughts of recoiling, a thousand desperate questions, expressions of betrayal, but he suppressed them all, believing they would pollute the pure moment fate had afforded him.

When he took the knife from the prisoner’s hands, Cynic said, “Pardon me for my crimes.”

With the gravest face, heavy as if the terror rippling underneath it could not find expression in the features because they had been carved from stone, in a voice laden with grief of a depth he imagined no other man had previously experienced, he said, “The prisoner is pardoned and not to be harmed.”

Then, he cut his own throat.

The emperor’s heir was far to the north, gaining experience in leading troops which would be essential when imperial duties fell on him, and thus no one present in the capitol had the authority to contravene the emperor’s final command, and no one dared to violate it. Cynic departed the amphitheater, and when darkness fell went to the imperial gardens to smell the night-blooming jasmine a final time, where it was noted that he had never, in all his years in the capitol before that moment, been seen to smile.

The ensuing shock and controversy surrounding the emperor’s suicide was adequate to undermine the ever-tenuous network of political alliances and subjugations that comprised the empire, and thus in subsequent conflicts it began to splinter into progressively smaller territories. While their overlords quarreled, the masses, long accustomed to a feeling of impotence and hopelessness so deep and absolute it seemed an innate feature of the universe, suddenly developed an invincible courage, and fierce uprisings began throughout the lands Melanus had ruled over.

Some of those who revolted sought after Cynic, thinking to enlist him in their fight, but he was not to be found. He traveled north and east alone, in the direction of vast mountains which comprised the northeastern boundary of the world he had seen thus far, thinking that despite that he had invented the story of the men who live on horseback and hunt with eagles for the sake of deceiving the emperor, he would now journey beyond the mountains to see if such people might, in fact, exist.

 

[AUTHOR’S NOTE: I am occasionally asked what I am doing in school, to which I sometimes reply that I am studying biology with an interest in behavior generally and social conflict in humans particularly. This comes out of a twin lifelong obsession with behavior (my initial adult interest in wild nature came from my observations of raven behavior) and a sense of terminal futility with social struggles. Most of the core theoretical frameworks on which resistance movements are based I think are terribly flawed, and one of the essential ways in which I think they are flawed is that they avoid any discussion of the innate variation that exists among people and the role it has in shaping patterns of social division and conflict. I wrote this purely as a means of organizing and setting a framework for some of my own research–the vague idea being that I might as well start doing literature reviews and thinking about experimental procedures now, thus assuring a decent project to work on by the time of graduate school. I decided about halfway through writing it to publish it here, and subsequently made some minor edits and tacked on a few hasty notes. As a result, it has at times an extremely informal tone, and is a far cry from literature throughout, but I think it might prove of some interest to some people.]

I guess it could be called a developmental genes and cognitive plasticity theory of human hierarchies. It is not nearly as biologically explicit as it ought to be yet, but it’s a framework to start working in. An essential tenet of this theory is that some political differences within complex societies (like the United States) are owing to variation in individuals’ fundamental orientations towards basic social attributes like hierarchy, and the extent to which people tend to prioritize moral claims about harm/threats to their own group (e.g. nation, race, demographic) perpetuated by other groups (nations, races, demographics) vs. prioritizing moral claims about harm/threats to others perpetuated by one’s own group.

Perhaps the most thorough framework I am aware of that examines the relationship between truly basic dispositions and political values is cultural cognition. Cultural cognition is a variant of cultural theory which explores the politically polarized perceptions of risk around issues like climate change and nuclear power. In essence, it places individuals somewhere on a Cartesian plane with four quadrants, created by intersecting axes like the x and y axes of the graph of a function. The axes have at their poles opposing orientations (hierarchy vs. egalitarianism is one axis, individualism vs. group the other), and placement on each axis is determined by an individual’s answer to a series of questions. Notably, while these questions have no overt, logical relationship with the political orientations they predict, one’s unique position on this Cartesian plane, as a result of one’s unique combination of scores on the two axes, does very reliably predict perceptions of a number of politically polarized risks. (1)

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Cultural cognition purports to explain political attitudes with something that looks a lot like this Cartesian plane. I’m skeptical, but not nearly as skeptical as you might think.

I don’t think I unequivocally embrace every aspect of cultural cognition. When I try to fill out the questionnaire they use to predict political attitudes, I have no trouble answering any of the questions about egalitarianism vs. hierarchy, but am thoroughly baffled by almost every question relating to group vs. individual, and feel I have no suitable answer—perhaps a predictable dilemma for someone whose politics very roughly fall into the category of anarchist, an ideology notoriously conflicted on the respective roles and obligations of the individual and the group. But I do think cultural cognition is extremely interesting. There’s no particular reason that one’s thoughts on income inequality and racism should so reliably predict one’s thoughts on climate change, unless people tend to form perceptions of risk not solely on evaluations of the risk itself, but also on the basis of how a given risk perception does or does not reinforce their fundamental cultural outlook (climate change, for instance, is a difficult risk for a “hierarchical individualist” to accept, because of an aversion to regulation of profit-seeking behavior).

Cultural cognition doesn’t seem to be overtly biological, but acknowledging I’m not explicitly using it so much as citing it as a validation of the more general tenet that variation in political outlook corresponds to variation in fundamental outlooks (and accepting that in particular hierarchy vs. egalitarianism seems a fundamental orientation I am comfortable saying predicts political attitudes), we must acknowledge some political outlook variation is inherited, just like some of the variation in intelligence and criminal behavior. If we ask in what genes variation in politically-predictive orientations is found, and what other behaviors or cognitive tasks said genes might be involved in, a variety of interesting relationships present themselves for further investigation.

First it is useful to briefly state a few of the observations which provided an initial foundation for these inquiries. One such observation, summarized, perhaps horribly, in The Marginal and the Magical, (2) is that from shamans in societies living with Paleolithic technology to modern civilization, one can find figures who tend to violate similar social taboos in similar ways (e.g. cross-dressing, violations of sexual customs, general tendency to come into conflict with the social order) and who tend to have similar preoccupations (e.g. intimate relationship with death, sexuality, transformation, self-transgression and transgression of form). In this case the correspondences between a cross-cultural phenomenon found in very traditional societies and the behavior of modern artists was documented, but engendered the broader question of what semi-stable or universal forms of social division or conflict might be discerned throughout human history and across the technological spectrum.

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Iron Maiden, for instance, could reasonably be described as a band whose combined thematic obsessions with supernatural forces, sex, and death are mirrored in diverse cross-cultural expressions which might ultimately have a common origin in the Paleolithic. Seriously.

Another key foundation is that there does seem to be some inherent variation in socially complex animals with respect to their interest in the dominance hierarchy and their tendencies toward intergroup aggression. This is certainly true of closely-related primates like chimpanzees, and somewhat less closely-related primates like baboons. There’s a famous study in which a bunch of male baboons within a troop were into going to a garbage dump and fighting the resident males for access to the garbage, while a different bunch of male baboons exhibited no interest in this behavior. All the garbage-raiding baboons got sick from a bad batch of garbage and died (along with everyone in the troop that resided at the garbage dump), leaving only the less aggressive male baboons. As new juvenile males entered this peaceful troop, they acclimated to the less hierarchical behavior. The behavioral flexibility is interesting, and this baboon troop retained its novel culture intergenerationally, although it’s also worth noting it’s still a demographically unique troop (1:2 male-to-female ratio). Still, there must be something underlying the initial pattern of variation, the baboons less interested in fighting, who also tend to spend more time in social and sexual activities, and the baboons who are more violent and less inclined to interpersonal affiliation.

Finally, there was the noteworthy similarities between certain resistance movements throughout a very broad swath of history, from the mystical Christian sects like the Cathars to the peasant revolts to modern revolutionaries. These groups tended to object to very similar institutions (property, or at least the accumulation of it; hierarchy, or at least intense forms of it) and to emphasize certain other attributes (sexual permissiveness, for instance). (3)

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Dying brutally at the hands of ruthless despots: a cross-culturally common preoccupation of people involved in egalitarian resistance movements. Pictured here are Cathars.

All this inevitably leads to the very general question of whether variation in certain genes associated with behavior and cognition in the human population correlate roughly to cross-culturally common and temporally fairly stable (or recurrent) modes of social division/conflict. This of course doesn’t negate any of the myriad other, experiential factors which might dispose an individual to any given orientation. In the United States, for instance, there are a number of demographics who experience far more negative repercussions of the dominance hierarchies of the state and the capitalist economy than others, people for whom violence at the hands of the state’s agents and dire poverty are far more common, and they are of course likely based on this experience to have a different outlook on hierarchy in general than someone else. Nonetheless, some—perhaps a good deal—of the observed variation must be biological. If we examine two kids who grew up at the same time in a middle class neighborhood in New Jersey, both of whom had roughly similar experiences of alienation and injustice, and one becomes an underground Animal Liberation Front operative and the other goes to work for the Peabody Mining Corporation, we must assume that these two people do in fact simply have their innate differences.

An interesting procedure for searching for genes responsible for the variation in crucial cognitive and behavioral domains which shape political and economic outlooks (egalitarian vs. hierarchical frameworks) would be to search for areas in which people with a politically-predictive tendency excel or underperform cognitively. If genes associated with these behaviors were known, it might be reasonable to investigate further the possibility that they are also responsible for variation in outlooks on hierarchy. If such genes were then determined likely to be responsible for both these traits—performance within a cognitive domain and perception of hierarchy—this would then of course further compel question of why. This question could essentially be expanded to: what, fundamentally—biologically—is variation in human perception of hierarchy? Does it correspond to variation in any broader and more fundamental set of traits or behavioral dispositions?

Here is one theory which could potentially be used to explore this question, of what the essence of variation in hierarchy perception is: The theory states that changes in developmental genes which are involved in transitioning the brain from a juvenile learning phase (i.e. a more plastic state, where behaviors are still being learned) to an adult phase (a less plastic state, brain less adaptive) have been a significant part of the evolution of the human brain from the smaller and lower cerebral cortex proportioned brains of our distant hominid ancestors. The retention of juvenile brain plasticity further into life has facilitated the development of characteristically flexible human brain function.This has been part of a broader overall tendency toward neoteny (the retention of juvenile features into adulthood) throughout H. sapiens evolution, which is also reflected in our anatomy with respect to the anatomy of closely-related primates at different ages (human hairlessness, facial features, etc. corresponding to infant or even fetal developmental stages in chimpanzees and other close relatives). (4)

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It is either the case that these men failed to understand, in choosing their aesthetics, who the villains were in Star Wars, or there is some truly essential difference between them and me.

While changes in these brain plasticity-related developmental genes have played a significant role in human evolution overall, there also exists significant variation in these genes within the human species. Said genetic variation produces variation in any number of behavioral and cognitive domains, perceptions of hierarchy being one of them. As yet, I suppose I really don’t have a truly explicit idea of why variation in developmental genes concerning the timing of brain plasticity phases is also involved in the perception of hierarchy—but there are some tentative directions. I mostly like the theory because I think it helps explain an interesting set of covarying human attributes.

To present a few items from the truly enormous list of interesting things which might also be reasonably expected to vary with varying genes governing brain plasticity: 1) tendency towards behavioral neoteny in general (i.e. general “youthfulness” of behavior with respect to age, however this would be best measured within a given human society); 2) capacity for abstract, symbolic thought (greater brain flexibility presumably being associated with a greater ability to reconfigure existing patterns of conceptualization, language, or behavior to achieve novel effects, and thus respond to novel circumstances); and perhaps, if we extend the theory a little bit, 3) relationship with novel stimuli; 4) tendencies toward aggression; 5) relationship to property and residence pattern; 6) tendencies towards sexual promiscuity and experimentation.

It’s noteworthy that these six potentially covarying cognitive/behavioral aspects would be reasonably suspected to be related to developmental genes involved in brain plasticity for a few different reasons.

1) Assumes some genes governing brain plasticity are essentially determining the timing of juvenile vs. adult brain phase, and so could be expected to be involved in the development of any number of characteristically adult behaviors. (5)

2) Assumes that increased capacity for abstract, symbolic thought is also partially under the control of genes involved in brain phase timing.

3-6 are all extensions of the basic premise of 1; they all assume specific forms of behavioral neoteny, positing different behavioral dispositions as characteristically juvenile.

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Love them or hate them, it can hardly be denied that anti-authoritarians have a knack for symbolic expression.

 

3) Assumes that behavioral experimentation, exploration, and play are behaviors associated with juvenile brain stages, and thus juvenile brain stages are associated with a greater congeniality to novel stimuli. I think I have read somewhere that one’s openness to novel stimuli predicts how egalitarian one’s perspectives are, so suggesting this is perhaps cheating. If we go off this relationship, it would also bias us to expect a relationship in the direction of greater tendency toward juvenile behavior=greater tendency toward egalitarian thinking. This would further tell us that for instance with 2 we could expect increased capacity for symbolic thought to be associated with increasingly egalitarian tendencies. It likewise has implications for 4-6.

4) Assumes that a certain level of aggression—perhaps lethal aggression against members of our own species, perhaps aggression resulting in severe injury of a member of our own species—is uncharacteristic of juvenile developmental stages. Going off our insidiously creeping assumption that juvenile brain stage=egalitarian thinking, this would imply that people with more egalitarian inclinations are less likely to use violence.

Greece Financial Crisis

What does it tell us that conflicts between opposing ideologies are so often conflicts of people armed with stones against people armed with guns?

5) Assumes that somewhere in the universal pattern of human development across societies, there is some tendency for young people to own less than older people, and perhaps a tendency for young people to be more transient than older people (accumulation of property usually being synonymous with sedentism and the acquisition of some territory in which to be sedentary and keep possessions). Keeping to our pattern, we would then predict people with more egalitarian attitudes would tend to be more transient and to have more ambiguous or hostile attitudes towards ownership of property (although it’s worth noting that hostility towards ownership might be more or less synonymous with the very definition of an egalitarian outlook, at least an economically egalitarian one—but the other aspect, of transience vs. sedentism, has no such inherent logical relationship to egalitarianism). I suppose 5 assumes that, in keeping with a pattern observed in a number of animals, at some point in human evolution there was a tendency for young individuals to disperse to new territories, before settling into an adult pattern of territorial defense.

6) Likewise assumes sexual experimentation and promiscuity to be statistically more common among people in developmentally earlier phases, a pattern observed in at least some animals, and thus by extension assumes that people with more egalitarian attitudes will be more sexually permissive.

 

Because it is a subculture with which I am familiar, and in which I (somewhat marginally) participate, contemporary anarchist subculture is a convenient unit of analysis for examining some of these putative realms of covariation. This may or may not be an anthropological cheap trick. I am, for the moment, unconcerned. I think I was somewhat inspired by David Graeber to decide that anarchists per se were an anthropologically valid subject, (6) but I’ve always found subcultural analysis to be worthwhile. Anarchism is the most egalitarian of political ideologies, so in this evolutionary schema it should be expected to correspond to the most juvenile-phase brain stage behaviors and cognitive dispositions. This sounds pejorative, but neoteny in this evolutionary scheme, with its putative relationship to cognitive flexibility, is an essential trait of the human species—if one wanted to make anarchists sound charismatic rather than like people prone to throwing tantrums, one could perhaps argue that those with more plastic (juvenile) cognition are more characteristically human.

With all six of these suggested realms of covariation, there are indeed corroborations within anarchist subculture, some of which I might go so far as to describe as striking. It is important to note that “anarchist subculture” here denotes a holism of two parts: one, a specific political ideology and ethical framework; and two, a subculture (or subcultures) which are anarchist in the sense of adhering to said political ideology/ethical framework, but which also have a number of other idiosyncratic features which have no logically explicit relationship with anarchism. Punk rock subculture is a convenient and familiar example: a subculture in which anarchism is arguably the dominant political ideology, but which has a number of other distinct behavioral tendencies (transience, poverty, sexual promiscuity, tendency to violate social taboos, etc.) which have no clear, logical relationship to this particular egalitarian philosophy, and thus may be seen as reasonable candidates for covarying behavioral tendencies in the biological framework we have established.

sst-anarchists

Anarchists.

If we examine anarchism as this holism, as an ideology and as the other, seemingly unrelated cultural tendencies associated with the ideology, there are a number of clear corroborations for this biological interpretation of (some of) the observed variation in the human perception of hierarchy. Here I present some of them with merciless concision, offering no documentation whatsoever, but only the assumption that someone familiar with anarchist subculture will readily acknowledge each attribute of it I identify is valid (and why offer proof of something I already know?—this is after all just an outline to organize my own thinking which I am only just at this moment deciding I might publish online; why start troubling myself over citations at this late stage?).

1) In anarchist subculture, reference is fairly often made to adulthood or “growing up” with contempt. A number of anarchists refer to themselves as “kids” well into adulthood. It’s also noteworthy that arguably the most common pattern for participation in anarchist organizing and struggles is beginning involvement somewhere in teens or twenties and ceasing involvement later on in adulthood.

2) I note that Graeber says anarchists tend to come from a spectrum of socioeconomic backgrounds but tend to have more experience with higher education than the general population, a circumstance that would correspond to a greater capacity for abstract thought. Also, there is the interesting tendency for anarchist subculture to converge with a number of underground art movements, many of them quite experimental. This is a pattern that can be generally discerned throughout complex modern societies in history; radically egalitarian politics and art, including some very experimental art, have been intimately wedded throughout the 20th and 21st centuries, in Dada, Surrealism, Situationism, punk rock, etc.

There is absolutely no such tendency within conservative political ideologies, to consistently be infused by and entwined with art movements. There are of course fleeting moments of convergence between the artistic avant-garde and conservative politics—the poetic totalitarianism of the Futurists, an Ezra Pound or two—but overall, these moments essentially stand out as anomalies, sort of like Spain in 1936. (7) People with fiercely egalitarian ideologies tend not to excel at claiming physical territory, but they seem to almost completely dominate the terrain of artistic experimentation.

sst-dada performance

Dada performance aesthetics: why the fuck is this anyone’s means of expressing their outrage at the senseless carnage of World War One? A biological relationship between egalitarian attitudes (which predict an aversion to war) and abstract/symbolic thought, that’s why.

Here I must also deviate from the focus on anarchist subculture to make a few expanded observations about the relationship between egalitarian values in general and symbolic proficiency. One is the noted dominance of egalitarian political outlooks in universities, a phenomenon that would be expected in this framework.

Another more complicated additional note concerns the relative successes and failures of egalitarian movements, such as movements against identity-based oppression. If we take for instance the various movements for black liberation and equality in the United States, it is difficult not to conclude that these movements have had a far greater impact on culture and language, on how race is discussed and conceptualized, than they have on physical reality, in which perpetual incarceration and dire poverty consume black communities.

A number of analogous patterns could be found in the victories and defeats of modern egalitarian movements. Even the existence of phenomena like greenwashing indicates that egalitarian movements tend to succeed in claiming cultural space–in getting people to shift customs or change language–while failing to win the same contests in physical reality.

Graeber says something to the effect that anarchists tend to excel in the realm of small, difficult to regulate, easy to conceal objects (like books) and falter in the realm of large, easy to regulate, hard to conceal objects (like factories). Thus one finds far more anarchist bookstores than anarchist automobile manufacturers. One plausible interpretation of this state of affairs would be that anarchists excel in the realm of ideas, but perhaps aren’t the sort of people who are as interested in manipulating large blocks of concrete as they are in maneuvering new ideas and relationships. (Note that this has wonderful consequences for the prospects of anarchist art and tragic consequences for the prospects of anarchist revolution).

3) Alongside books on sexual assault accountability and animal liberation, anarchist book distributors and bookstores very often sell tracts detailing exploits of vagabondage, trainhopping, dumpsterdiving, and other forms of adventure. Such exploits are not merely a common narrative obsession but are also directly experienced by many anarchists. This interesting convergence supports not only the notion that novel stimuli seeking and egalitarianism are related, but also has implications for 5, the notion that transience and an aversion to ownership would be correlated with egalitarianism.

4) It seems a case could readily be made that anarchists do not excel at actual violence. Acts of defiance and property destruction far outnumber acts of actual interpersonal violence, especially lethal violence. This would lend support to the notion that a pre-lethal violence cognitive-behavioral stage is associated with egalitarian outlooks. However, it should be hastily noted that physical violence might also be logically somewhat incompatible with egalitarianism, or at least inherently less preferable under an egalitarian framework than in a hierarchical one, and thus this could also explain the relatively tepid relationship of anarchism to interpersonal violence.

5) As already noted, anarchism is indeed intimately associated, today and throughout its brief but rich history, with poverty and transience. A number of social animals (e.g. at least some species of baboons, some wolves I think, girl chimps but I don’t think boy chimps, there’s lots of others) have juvenile stages in which they leave their birth territory and wander, not belonging to any territorial social group (and thus playing no role in any hierarchy). Some of these juvenile animals, notably common ravens, form complex social groupings whose purpose is to provide collective self-defense against the adults whose territories they travel through, taking resources the territorial mated adult pairs “own.” (8) A number of friends who I have described this juvenile raven life stage to have said something to the effect of, “Oh, they’re like us.” A potentially very salient observation.

6) I think even the most casual ethnographer of anarchist subcultures would agree that they are more prone to promiscuity and sexual experimentation than the general population.

sst-sluts

Sluts.

So how to further investigate such a thing? Of course, there’s filling in all the blanks on genes and actual biologically explicit mechanisms as possible. And the vast literature review all this entails, mercilessly investigating all these heterogenous threads. Some of it will doubtlessly be abolished by a moment’s research and some of it may slowly be allowed to agonizingly convolute and re-form into something else that becomes a workable theory. Or perhaps it will all be perfectly validated and no one else will have done any of this work before. But extremely unlikely.

I could readily imagine trying to extend this ostensible terrain of behavioral covariation into other complex species, like ravens. Would be decent graduate work if I could keep my focus for long enough to remember any of this by the time I get to graduate school (unlikely for a perpetually novel stimulus-seeking anarchist like myself). One could imagine asking: is there a relationship between the time a common ravens spends in juvenile confederations and their competency at some cognitive task? Is there some behavioral test at which ravens have varying competencies which could be seen to vary with varying time in juvenile confederations? (Perhaps not at all—perhaps time spent in this stage doesn’t have a strong developmental/genetic component; perhaps all the variation is ecological, and ravens just settle down and get territories whenever they find one. I don’t remember anymore.)

But ultimately, and that truly is the point, this crazy, elaborate theoretical framework provides a number of interesting avenues of inquiry and relationships to examine, and some of it could possibly go somewhere.

NOTES:

  1. See Dan. M Kahan’s paper “Cultural Cognition as a Conception of the Cultural Theory of Risk.” In press. S. Roeser, ed. Handbook of Risk Theory. Springer Publishing. http://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=1123807
  2. I’m not being as small-spirited as it might seem here. The Marginal and the Magical” is my own writing, which I published on the internet in 2007 and which was reprinted in Amarantos zine #3. http://amarantoszine.blogspot.com/ In this piece, I developed a truly elaborate set of comparisons between similar institutions in a number of very disparate societies. I don’t remember them all (it was after all years ago and I was just kicking drugs), but the general implication I recall seems to be an inclination toward artistic abstraction and conceptual exploration commonly corresponds to an antagonistic relationship with prevailing social standards and institutions of power.
  3. I am uncertain of what work to cite here. I suppose one could read Silvia Federicci’s Caliban and the Witch, which discusses some resistance movements, or Engels’s historical work on the peasant wars and whatnot on which Federicci draws. Radicals seem consistently obsessed with this book, but I admit I find it incoherent. If the witch hunts are primarily to be explained by some reconceptualization of the body in the transition to capitalism, what are we to make of the very similar persecutions of lepers, Muslims, and Jews which immediately preceded the witch hunts and were virtually identical to them? I could, let me assure you, continue to rant like this for awhile. Elaine Pagels also wrote some pretty decent books about some of the mystical Christian sects who have been involved in armed conflict with more authoritarian Christians. I don’t remember what any of them are called and apparently these are the kind of notes I’m writing right now.
  4. It seems improper to cite because it’s so old, but my source for this is somewhere in the labyrinthine corridors of Konrad Lorenz’s two-volume work Studies in Animal and Human Behavior.
  5. Somewhere out there there’s a paper describing how chimpanzee brain development is similar to humans’ for a time until their brains take on more rigid patterns of activity while human brains remain flexible. If I’m ever feeling studious I’ll track down the paper and post a link here.
  6. I am referring here to Graeber’s books Direct Action: An Ethnography and Fragments of an Anarchist Anthropology.
  7. For those not already heavily steeped in anarcho-mythology, in 1936 anarchists claimed a good deal of Spain.
  8. Ravens in Winter by Bernd Heinrich changed my life when I was 16 years old.

“We only become what we are by radically negating deep down what others have done to us.”

–Jean-Paul Sartre, Introduction to Frantz Fanon’s The Wretched of the Earth

More than three years subsequent to the last print edition of Spring Speaks Truth, I am extremely pleased to say that Ogo and I have created what is in my opinion the most substantial and well-executed — both textually and graphically — edition of the zine thus far.

SST_3_coverEpigrammatic pieces intersperse three longer and more rigorous ones. Two of these, “Mass Extinctions and Dying Dreams: On the Wilderness of the Human Mind” and “The Wounds of Elephants and the Path to Liberation” have been published on the internet previously. The former discusses the mental constructs which decline or go extinct in civilized minds, just as certain biological species are more vulnerable to decline and extinction when civilization encroaches on their habitat. The latter describes elephant social structure and the aberrant behavior that African elephants increasingly engage in as they lose crucial relationships to habitat loss and bullets.

The third piece, “Civilization as Trauma: On the Denial of Human Developmental Needs and the Behavior of Mass Society,” is a discussion of the psychosocial deviations from hunter-gatherer conditions complex civilization represents for infants and children. While a fair amount of literature has been produced, in anthropology and other fields, concluding that modern, evolutionarily novel developmental settings likely have significant and lifelong behavioral consequences, this work poses the question of what bearing this fact may have on the incredible destructiveness and brutality of modern civilization, i.e. what the relationship is between our inherently traumatic developmental settings and our willingness to engage in acts of mass murder, mass extinction and, ultimately, collective suicide.

While much literature, particularly within the milieu of anarcho-primitivism, has been devoted generally to this theme, none that I am aware of involves a reasonably thorough survey of the actual data and theory available from anthropology and behavioral ecology. Contrarily, most of the scientific literature is very timid about making fundamental indictments of the collective behavior of the civilized. I hope, therefore, that this writing, while ultimately a preliminary effort, could begin to lay some more rigorous foundations for examining the behavioral and psychological effects of civilization, and the particular permutation of it that is the modern world.

SST_3_22-23Because prison represents, in many respects, an amplification of civilized conditions which appear antithetical to evolved human needs, I feel it is particularly important to make an effort to put this issue of Spring Speaks Truth into the hands of the incarcerated. “Profits” from this project will likely be virtually nonexistent, but to whatever extent they find their way to me, I will be using them to fund sending copies to Earth/animal (including human) liberation prisoners.

I of course understand that a publishing endeavor of this nature is inherently something of a fringe effort, but I also feel that our labors in this particular case have borne particularly worthwhile fruit, and so do have a sincere belief that this publication is worth disseminating as far and wide as possible. If you find yourself desiring a copy but lacking funds, send an email to terra.enigmae@gmail.com letting me know.

With love,

Scott

Copies may be purchased from Autonomy Press.