Strategic Analysis: “Spiral Theory”

Editor’s note: this article is republished from an internal DGR community discussion. 

by a DGR member

Definition: “Spiral theory” is a strategic approach adopted by some revolutionary movements in which violent acts are undertaken against state targets with the intention of provoking an indiscriminate repressive response against an associated social group that is relatively uninvolved with the action itself. This repressive response is sought for its ability to radicalize a population that is currently apolitical or unsupportive of violent revolution.

History: Spiral theory has been used to varying levels of success over the 20th century.

Irish Republicanism – The Irish Republican Army realized early on in the campaign against British imperialism that attacks on military installations and against British settlers would lead to indiscriminate retaliation against ethnic Irish communities by occupying forces. IRA strategists soon learned that intentionally provoking this response radicalized previously unsupportive Irish civilians against British rule more than it alienated them from the Republicans. Many of the tactics adopted by the IRA, both before and after the creation of the Irish Republic, had the unintuitive goal of increasing British violence against Irish civilians for this purpose. This strategy was originally effective, but public support for militant resistance to British occupation waned in the latter half of the 20th century as IRA actions became increasingly erratic. By the 1980s, the spiral of government and Republican violence was more exhausting and demoralizing than radicalizing for large portions of the population.

Basque Separatism – Spiral theory is perhaps most associated with the Euskadi Ta Askatasuna, or ETA, a revolutionary nationalist organization with the goal of establishing a homeland for the Basque people in northern Spain. According to Cyrus Zirakzadeh, the ETA’s strategy centered around “elective attacks [that] would provoke the government into excessive and nondiscriminatory retaliation against all Basque residents.” This strategy was extremely successful during the regime of Francisco Franco, growing the ETA from a relatively small core of marginalized activists to a movement that was supported by the majority of Basque residents in Spain. The ETA was ultimately unsuccessful in establishing a Basque homeland, but their failure cannot be easily traced to their effective use of spiral theory. It is likely that spiral theory was merely insufficient, rather than ineffective, for Basque separatists.

Zionism – Early Zionist militants intentionally provoked repression against Jewish settlers in the hopes of radicalizing moderate Zionists who saw the British state as a potential ally. Menachem Begin, leader of the Irgun, adopted a policy of bombings, assassinations, and sabotage against British soldiers as well as Palestinian civilians for this purpose. However, the British occupation forces were generally unwilling to respond with indiscriminate violence against Jewish settlers, and no “spiral” formed.

Palestinian Liberation – Spiral theory is a central strategic approach of groups like Hamas, the Palestinian Liberation Organization, and the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine. All of these organizations are well-known for their strategy of relatively harmless rocket attacks against Israeli settlements and cities, undertaken with the intention of provoking a disproportionate Israeli military response. These military responses further radicalize Palestinian civilians, as well as damage the international reputation of the Israeli state. Although many factors are responsible for the rise of Hamas and the marginalization of the PLO and PFLP, analysts generally see this strategy as having been incredibly effective. Hamas was relatively unpopular before adopting the policy of intermittent rocket attacks, but now holds an absolute majority of seats on the Palestinian Legislative Council. Further, public opinion among Palestinians has shifted towards militancy and away from compromise in recent years, while international criticism towards the Israeli response has intensified.

Considerations: Spiral theory requires complex practical and ethical considerations before it can be applied to Deep Green Resistance and our strategic model.

Practical – Spiral theory is traditionally utilized when an identifiable social group exists to be retaliated against. This is most commonly an ethic group, but it can be any relatively inflexible and publicly recognizable social category. Race, sex, and economic class are all at least potentially capable of being integrated into a strategy based on spiral theory, and Deep Green Resistance does some work revolving around all three. However, it is unclear what social group would be targeted by retaliation were spiral theory to be applied in the arena of environmentalism. A crucial element of spiral theory is the inability of the targeted social group to fracture, dissolve, or disassociate itself; in the face of Spanish repression, for example, Basque people cannot choose to stop being Basque. This contrasts with environmentalism, which is a political and social movement where membership is optional. Therefore, it is at least likely that intentionally provoking retaliation against environmentalists would result in people renouncing environmentalism rather than radicalizing against the corporate state. For this reason, traditional spiral theory is at the very least an uncertain strategy with the potential for severe failure.

Environmentalism is also a unique arena in which strategically effective militancy is often no more difficult than symbolic militancy. In many cases, it is much easier. Blowing up a dam, for example, is more pragmatically beneficial than violence directed at individuals, and it may also be safer and more straightforwardly accomplished. This is not the case for national liberation struggles, where striking decisive blows at the infrastructure of an occupying force is often much more difficult than violence towards “soft targets” like police, politicians, and settler populations. Spiral theory originally developed as a way to leverage relatively powerlessness by striking low-value targets and capitalizing on the response of the more powerful agent. Although environmentalists are similarly powerless, our focus on material extractive infrastructure as opposed to complex political and social organization means our ideal targets are often “softer” than those that would carry (purely) symbolic value. For this reason, spiral theory may be strictly unnecessary; it is likely that effective militancy as outlined in our DEW strategy would bring with it many of the same results that spiral theory intentionally produces.

Ethical – Spiral theory involves intentionally bringing harm to innocent people, including those who we consider allies and community members. Although we cannot legislate any individual’s moral response to strategies like these, it is likely that they conflict with Deep Green Resistance’s dedication to respecting human rights and avoiding oppressive actions. Combined with the previously mentioned practical issues, a straightforward application of spiral theory seems to be ethically unjustifiable.

Applications: Spiral theory, while effective in some revolutionary contexts, contains many liabilities and structural constraints that make it a poor fit for environmentalism. Nonetheless, environmentalists can and should analyze spiral theory to look for ways in which its underlying philosophy can be harnessed in the fight against industrialism.

Utilizing Repression for Propaganda Purposes – While it may not be justifiable to intentionally provoke retaliation against environmentalists, retaliation is nonetheless expected as the ecological catastrophe worsens and environmental activism becomes more militant. With this in mind, spiral theory can help us understand the ways in which we can utilize this retaliation and make the most of it. Already, the Trump administration’s increasingly hostile relationship to both state environmental agencies and non-state activists has altered public perception, and further crackdowns can be leveraged to increase this antagonism. Anti-environmental actions that specifically impact indigenous and non-white communities may be especially open to the dynamics described by spiral theory; although intentionally provoking these actions is likely to be unsuccessful and unethical, the strategies of revolutionary movements like the ETA and Hamas can help us understand how best to leverage these actions once they do occur as a natural byproduct of the worsening ecological crisis.

Utilizing Repression Strategically – As adherents to DEW, we recognize that legal aboveground action will not be enough to reach our goal of dismantling industrial civilization. It is likely that continued reliance on and belief in these sorts of actions is a major impediment to revolutionary success. For this reason, it may be advantageous to intentionally provoke increased legal sanction against common aboveground actions with the hope of creating conditions where underground action becomes the safer alternative, all things considered. This could be considered a form of legal spiral theory. At the very least, it is valuable to identify what aboveground actions would most likely 1) publicly fail in a way that encourages dissatisfaction and radicalization, or 2) succeed in ways that provoke increased legal sanctions and therefore create corresponding incentive for underground action. In contrast, actions that fall in the middle of this spectrum – being effective enough to maintain individual personal satisfaction but not effective enough to compel a strong state reaction – may be the most deleterious form of resistance.

Applying Spiral Theory to Bright Green Environmentalism – The proliferation of liberal reformists in the environmental movement is another serious impediment to revolutionary success. Although violence against these “bright green” activists would be unjustified, the dynamics of spiral theory can also be applied to the social relations between environmentalists. Provoking mainstream environmental organizations to adopt radical positions is, of course, the most desirable goal. However, if this is judged to be unlikely or impossible, it may be beneficial to pursue the opposite response and encourage increasingly ineffective and futile actions. This could have the effect of alienating their potential supporters. As stated above, mainstream environmental organizations that are effective enough to provide contributors with emotional gratification but not effective enough to achieve real goals may be the most harmful form of activism. If this is the case, and radicalization is unlikely, increased irrelevance and ineptitude may be preferable

Takeaways: It is likely that spiral theory as conventionally practiced by revolutionary movements would be unhelpful or harmful to the environmental movement. This is due to three primary reasons: First, there is no cohesive social group to experience and respond to state repression in the case of environmentalists. Second, effective actions against infrastructure would compel state repression to the same degree that symbolic violence would. Third, there are serious ethical concerns that would be both categorically problematic and practically harmful to the image of environmentalists.

Nonetheless, some elements of spiral theory can be applied to the struggle against industrialism in ways that are very helpful. Spiral theory can help us understand how to best leverage the inevitable state repression that will occur as the ecological crisis worsens. Spiral theory can also be applied more directly to our dialectical relationship with the legal system. Closing off unhelpful avenues of aboveground activism by provoking legal sanction may be a helpful way of steering activists towards more decisive action. Similarly, if mainstream environmental organizations reach the point of being unsalvageable, it may be beneficial to encourage their incompetence with the goal of alienating those who previously supported them.

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