In our last bulletin, Time is Short presented an overview of the need for strategic target selection. With the industrial economy barreling ever onwards, dragging the world towards biotic collapse, the importance of targeting our efforts cannot be overstated. Identifying and striking at key targets is necessary for any social change movement to be successful, and this is all the more true for radical movements that seek to fundamentally change systems of oppressive power.
Yet for all our earnestness and urgency, our movements have (for the most part) failed to target the key nodes of capitalist and industrial systems.
With so many terrible things happening, we slide into a mode of reflexive defensiveness, shifting haphazardly from one manifestation of civilization’s destructiveness to another, without any coherent plan to stop the machine responsible for all the carnage.
Devoid of a way to make tangible progress towards that goal, we are doomed to ineffectiveness: we become fixated by symbolism and direct our efforts towards symbols of that which we oppose, rather than material structures of power.
Take for instance, this communique from Indonesia, published at 325.nostate.net:
Covered by the night, we burned a private car in Tomohon (small city in North Sulawesi), owned by an unknown person. It was a car located near the local TV station in that town. A car as a symbol of slavery, eco-disaster and the meaninglessness of life.
Yes, cars are terrible. Countless people and animals are killed every day by vehicles. And car culture has become emblematic of industrial society and the lack of meaning and connection available in modern capitalist society.
But how does this advance the cause of revolution? How does this change the structures (industrial society and capitalism) that are to blame for “slavery, eco-disaster and the meaninglessness of life”?
Or this communique from Greece, published on the same site:
We claim the responsibility for the incendiary attack at the house of ex-minister of Economy and National Defence, Giannos Papandoniou. We arrived outside the door of his mansion on Olympias street in Kifissia and torched the two cars used by him and his “wife” Roula Kourakou for their meaningless movements….Far from a populist rhetoric we identify in the face of Giannos Papandoniou an officer of authority. We are not interested in listing the dodgy things he has done, although he surely has done many. Either way, corrupted or not corrupted, state officers, irrelevantly if they hold their positions in the state mechanism, are a permanent target for the insurrectionist dignities.
None of us like politicians, nor the riches and rewards they receive for presiding over oppressive and destructive systems of power. In exchange for their proactive allegiance to and proliferation of the status quo, they’re afforded power and privilege, which lasts long after their terms in office end.
But again, how does burning the car of an ex-politician move us tangibly closer to achieving our goals, towards dismantling the system of which politicians are a single component? How does such an attack effect change on the systems which preserve and enable injustice and oppression?
This isn’t meant to be a hostile attack on the courage or conviction of those who take action like this; neither their commitment nor their readiness to take action is at question. This is simply to pose the question “is this really the most effective way to accomplish our goals?”
And needless to say, this cuts both ways. Most of the more mainstream groups and initiatives fall just as flat. Currently, one of the most prominent progressive campaigns is 350.org’s ‘Fossil Free’ campaign, which seeks to target universities and religious institutions to divest their endowments from fossil fuel companies. This strategy is definitely an improvement on past efforts, which consisted of pleading to politicians; this new initiative identifies a structural problem and aims to address it. Yet there are some obvious and immediate problems with the strategic viability of this plan, and whether university investments in fossil fuels present a worthwhile target.
The foremost issue is that industrial society is entirely dependent upon fossil fuels in order to function and without an abundant & available supply would quickly collapse (which would be a very good thing!). Fossil fuel companies already receive tens of billions of dollars in federal subsidies; if their viability was in serious jeopardy, we can safely assume that governments the world over would rush to their aid. Indeed it would be dangerous to assume otherwise. The extraction and use of fossil fuels can’t be effectively challenged or stopped working through the industrial capitalist system, because fossil fuels are an integral structural support of industrial capitalism and it could not exist without them.
And beyond this, it’s entirely un-established whether divestments by universities would even have a meaningful impact of the economic viability of fossil fuel companies. How much such investments constitute is unknown.
This isn’t to say that such a campaign is a waste of efforts or that it’s a bad thing. Anything that brings people together around structural problems inherent to this way of life is a good thing. And economic pressure, as we saw in South Africa, can contribute to a larger campaign that includes other tactics, such as forceful nonviolence, international political pressure, and strategic sabotage. This is just to say that if the goal is to shut down fossil fuel production or corporations, universities investments in the industry don’t present a very important target.
A quick evaluation of these actions through the lenses of the CARVER Matrix gives us a more critical analysis of the value of these targets.
In the last bulletin on target selection, we presented an overview of the CARVER Matrix, a tool used asses the strategic value of attacking a target. Obviously, this is not an end-all-be-all; how a target appears through CARVER is not the final and absolute determination as to whether it presents a worthwhile target. But it is undeniably a strong analytical tool from whose use we can benefit and learn much.
Criticality: will the destruction, damage or disruption of the target have significant impact on the operation of an entity?
The personal cars of one or two individuals are irrelevant to the functioning of industrialism or capitalism—consider all the thousands of cars wrecked every year in collisions. This goes for the cars of political figures, such as Giannos Papandoniou, as well.
As for university investment portfolios, they aren’t critical to the function of industrialism or the fossil fuel industry either. Such corporations don’t have much trouble finding capital (as the vitality of the entire economy rests upon an available supply of fossil fuels), and they already receive massive subsidies from governments.
Accessibility: how feasible it is to reach the target with sufficient people and resources to accomplish the goal?
Cars are very accessible; people park them all over the place and they are almost never guarded or protected, as was the case in both of the actions mentioned above.
Investments are not very accessible at all as targets, with decision making power resting within the complex structures of university administrations. Additionally, people with access to these systems (e.g. students or faculty) are necessary for each distinct university, requiring engagement on a massive scale. Furthermore, it is entirely unknown how much such investments even amount to.
Recuperability: how quickly will the damage done to a target be repaired, replaced or bypassed?
Personal cars are widely available and can easily be replaced, provided one can afford them. For powerful institutions and individuals, vehicles are easily replaced, but for the average person randomly targeted by insurrectionary arson, not so much. And a political figure who can afford two luxury cars and bodyguards is unlikely to declare bankruptcy for the loss of one (or two, or a dozen) of their personal cars.
Again, fossil fuel corporations are not starved for funds, and continue to post record profits. And being that the ‘goods’ they produce are fundamental to industrial society, they can pass on any losses they sustain to consumers at the pump, who have little choice but to pay the price. Fossil fuel companies are incredibly profitable (because our way of life is dependent upon the products they supply), and that makes them desirable investments—that will continue to be true whether or not universities and churches hold stock in them. Thus these investments can be considered very recuperable.
Vulnerability: Are there sufficient means to successfully damage, disable, or destroy the target?
Destroying a car doesn’t require many people, many resources, or hardly any technical knowledge, so they are definitely vulnerable targets.
To change the investment behaviors of educational institutions requires a massive number of people working from within their universities to lobby their administrations to change. Because many universities are private institutions, there are few ways to agitate and force change (private institutions can kick out students and aren’t obligated to listen to them), and the only option left is to lobby the administration to enact policy change. Due to these factors, it’s doubtful whether such university investments can be considered vulnerable.
Effect: What are the secondary and tertiary impacts of successfully attacking the target?
The destruction of a single random car (or even the car of a former government official) is unlikely to have significant political or social effects—except for the person the car belonged to. If cars were repeatedly attacked, it’s possible there would be a response by local police. But it won’t have much of any impact on any major effects other than creating one more pedestrian.
Similarly, there are unlikely to be any serious second-hand ramifications of university divestment campaigns, simply because it is a relatively minor facet of the fossil fuel industry. However, the success of this campaign would certainly be a way to broaden the conversation about climate change and fossil fuels, as well as broaching on a conversation about the structural determinants of capitalism itself.
Recognizability: will the attack be recognized as such, or might it be attributed to other factors?
I can’t imagine anyone attributing the burning of a random car to revolutionary groups, and if so, I doubt they would do so in a positive light. The attack of a specific political figure’s car may be different, but again, it’s unclear without further explanation that such an attack was carried out with revolutionary intent, as opposed to pyrotechnic hedonism.
In regards to 350.org’s campaign, if activists were to successfully move scholastic endowment funds out of fossil fuel stocks and investments, they would undoubtedly be recognized for doing so, primarily because there’s simply no way it would happen otherwise.
Clearly, none of these present especially desirable targets—neither individual cars nor university endowment investments in fossil fuels are particularly critical to the function of the systems of power we seek to dismantle, and that must be our foremost criteria.
One could argue that these targets are primarily symbolic, that they were chosen in hopes of raising awareness about the problems of capitalism and industrial society. This however, is precisely the problem. For decades we’ve been crusading against symbolic targets, attacking microcosm-manifestations of the larger structures which are actually dismembering the planet, instead of focusing our efforts on those structures themselves. Earth is not being strip-mined, clear-cut and plowed to death by symbols or metaphors; physical infrastructure is required to do that. Our work needs to reflect that materialism; like the machines doing the damage to the biosphere, our targets need to be material, critical components of industrial infrastructure.
This is a strategic rut of disastrous proportions into which we’ve collectively gotten ourselves stuck, and we’re in desperate need of a strong push if we’re to get out of it, and move onto successfully dismantling the destruction perpetrated by industrial society.
As so many have so rightly said, political change requires the application of force. But that force needs to be precise, aimed at the correct targets—vital nodes within the dominant structures of power. Unless we select and strike at the right targets—the ones that are critical to system function, accessible, minimally recuperable, and are vulnerable given our resources—we’ll be ineffectually burning random objects and pleading hopelessly with the powerful until the cows come home, or until they too pass from Earth.
Time is Short: Reports, Reflections & Analysis on Underground Resistance is a biweekly bulletin dedicated to promoting and normalizing underground resistance, as well as dissecting and studying its forms and implementation, including essays and articles about underground resistance, surveys of current and historical resistance movements, militant theory and praxis, strategic analysis, and more. We welcome you to contact us with comments, questions, or other ideas at firstname.lastname@example.org.