Time is Short: Nonviolence Can Work, But Not for Us

By now we should all be familiar with what’s at stake. The horrific statistics—200 species driven extinct daily, every child born with hundreds of toxic chemicals already in their bodies, every living system on the planet in decline—haunt us as we go about our work in a world that refuses to hear, listen, or act on them. After decades of traditional organizing and activist work, we’re beginning to come to terms with the need for a dramatic shift in strategy and tactics, and indeed in how we conceptualize the task before us.

It is not enough any longer (if it ever was) to build a reformist social movement, one more faction among many attempting to fix the failings within our society. With industrial civilization literally tearing apart the biosphere and skinning the planet alive, we can afford no other goal than to build a resistance movement capable of—and determined to succeed in—bringing down industrial civilization, by any means necessary.

We know this will require decisive underground action to be successful, and starting all but from scratch, this begins with promoting the need for militant resistance; trying to garner acceptance and normalization of the fact that without militant resistance—including sabotage and direct attacks on key nodes of industrial infrastructure—there is little, if any, hope that earth will survive much longer.

However, the pervasive ideology of the dominant culture leaves most of its members unwilling to even consider dialogue on the topic of militant resistance, much less adopting it as a strategy. One manifestation of this is the all-too-widely held belief that nonviolent resistance is more always more effective than violent resistance.

The most common explanation provided to justify this idea is that violent movements alienate potential supporters, while nonviolent movements are more likely to mobilize “the masses” around a cause, and that without mass participation and support, there can be no social or political change.

For example, several years ago two university professors conducted a statistical comparison of violent and nonviolent social movements in the 20th century, with the goal of determining the relative effectiveness of violent and nonviolent strategies. The survey was limited to anti-occupation & anti-colonial movements, as well as those that sought regime change or the end of an oppressive government. In 2011, the findings were published in a book called Why Civil Resistance Works. The authors concluded that, based on their data, nonviolent movements are statistically twice as effective as violent ones, and they explained this as being due to the propensity of nonviolent movements to elicit greater participation from the general population.

An underlying premise—unstated by those who espouse this line of reasoning—is that without popular support and engagement, movements cannot achieve their aims. While it is certainly the case that mass movements can be effective in creating social change, that is by no means always the case. The simple (and perhaps unfortunate) truth is that some causes will never enjoy popular support, regardless of what strategies or tactics they use. In a deeply, fundamentally misogynistic and racist culture, a culture that has as its foundation the slow dismemberment of the living world, the support and enthusiasm of the majority is by no means a signifier that a cause is a worthwhile one. And a lack of that popular support doesn’t mean a cause or movement isn’t righteous.

We would do well to remember that the majority of Germans didn’t support any resistance against the Nazis, and even a decade after the war ended and the atrocities of the Nazi genocide were well known, most Germans still opposed even the idea of a theoretical resistance to Nazi rule.

Similarly, a movement to dismantle civilization will never enjoy the support or participation of a mass movement. Far too many people are completely dependent upon it, or too attached to the material privilege and prosperity it affords them for their allegiance, or simply unable to question the only way of life they ever known, or all of the above. The truth is that any effort to stop civilization will always be a minority, not only without popular support, but likely directly opposed by the majority of the dominant culture. This is a sobering fact that, while perhaps difficult to come to terms with, we need to accept and build our strategy around. Rather than starting from the abstract position of “nonviolence works” and building a strategy for our movement from there, we should start with the material realities of our situation—the time, resources, and numbers of participants available to us.

This is why framing the whole discussion within a ‘violent/nonviolent’ dichotomy is problematic. When we reduce the complexities of entire movements and strategies down to the simple categories of ‘violent’ and ‘nonviolent,’ we relegate all discussion about strategy to theoretical and conceptual realms, glossing almost entirely over the nuances and dynamics of particular struggles. And it’s these details that determine what strategies will be effective. If we want to decide on an effective strategy, we need to first examine closely and critically our situation, and determine from there what will be most effective.

If we’re honest with ourselves, we know that we won’t ever have the numbers of participants required for strategies of popular nonviolence. It doesn’t matter how effective nonviolent strategies and movements may be in other situations; we’re not in those situations and without the necessary numbers, nonviolent strategies hold no promise for us. We need to halt industrial civilization in its tracks, and that position isn’t one that can muster a mass movement.

Which brings us back to the need for decisive underground action. Unlike nonviolent strategy, which is dependent upon mobilize huge numbers of participants, a strategy of militant attacks on key nodes of industrial infrastructures—a strategy of decisive ecological warfare—doesn’t require mass participation or support. Coordinated and repeated attacks against systemic weak points or bottle necks can cause systems disruption and cascading systems failure, resulting in the collapse of industrial activity and civilization—which must be our goal if we profess any love for life on this planet.

Given that industrial infrastructure is the foundational pillar of support for the function and existence of industrial civilization, and that these infrastructure networks are sprawling, fragile, and poorly protected; coordinated sabotage presents the best strategy and hope for a movement to bring down civilization.

Recognizing the need for underground action and the key role it must play if we’re to be successful as a movement doesn’t mean disavowing all nonviolent action. We need bio-diverse movements and cultures of resistance, and for some objectives nonviolent strategies are appropriate and smart and should be pursued. But we also need to recognize the limitations of various strategies, and especially the limitations of our own situation.

To reiterate, we will only ever be a small movement; we’ll never enjoy the support and participation required by mass nonviolent campaigns. The unfortunate truth is that most folks won’t ever willingly challenge the basis of their own way of life, much less organize to confront power and dismantle that way of life.

We also don’t have much time: according to conservative estimates, we have five years to stop the development and construction of fossil fuel infrastructure before being locked into catastrophic runaway climate change.

Those limitations—the lack of numbers and the short time available, combined with the fragility and vulnerability of the physical infrastructures of planetary murder—are what should point us away from mass nonviolence and towards a strategy of strategic sabotage. Coming to terms with and acting upon that reality isn’t always easy, but the sooner we’re able to let go of our misinformed and misguided dreams of a mass movement, the sooner we can start the real work of building a serious resistance movement.

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 undergroundpromotion@deepgreenresistance.org

31 thoughts on “Time is Short: Nonviolence Can Work, But Not for Us”

    1. First things first. The time for timid debate and reason have passed. Look around. Reasonable men have brought us to this sorry state. Let’s give madness a try.

    2. Mario, the aboveground strategy of DGR calls for providing leadership in our own communities to develop local economies, sustainable means of procuring food [such as permaculture – or, even better — as I personally am fond of saying – learn to hunt, learn to fish, learn to forage], as well as town meetings, direct democracy and neighborhood self-defense, etc. for whoever is willing to learn to be self-sufficient. The dominant culture wants us all domesticated, docile, tame and utterly dependent on the system for our survival – and unfortunately they have succeeded; most of us are. That is not true human nature, and that is not who I want to be. But all that aside, mijo, civilization has not only put our entire species on suicide track, but they are bent on bringing every other life form down with us. If we do not stop civilization – and soon – there won’t be any reason to worry about whoever is left because there won’t be anybody left.

      1. Is there a possible economic solution to the problem? I mean, if corporations are the reason we are in this mess, could we fight fire with fire, create our own corporation that rivals that of the ones that damage our planet? That way, we could garner the public support. However, that does leave on open to sabotage by the government and other conspirators who would stand to lose money.

    3. A number of things might (and most probably) will happen. What they might be the future will tell. I hope that groups of people with love in their hearts will be able to hold back the “mad max” groups of people if such groups even will occur.

      1. S> I hope that groups of people with love in their hearts will be able to hold back the “mad max” groups of people if such groups even will occur.

        People with love in their hearts don’t fare too well against people with guns in their hands. Such people include (but are not limited to) Mad Max types, the police, and the armed forces of any given country.

        The French Resistance did not oppose the Germans with love, because they found guns, bombs, and industrial sabotage were much more effective… I applaud your good heart, but fear your optimism blinds you to the necessities of the coming struggle…

  1. One of the serious problems with the “non-violent” is that they even reject monkey wrenching, taking “violence against machines” off the table. The idea that marches along government sanctioned parade routes, on government sanctioned days and hours with the proper parade permit and in “Free Speech Zones” away from any real contact with anyone as a tool for change is laughable. 350.org is now comparing itself to the civil rights marches, apparently forgetting that giving everyone the same access to the voting booth wasn’t going to cost anyone any money. Marching against an oil based economy and oil ruled government is not going to be the same. The “non-violent” are obsessed with public opinion as if high public relations is the ultimate goal to any movement — not actual change, mind you, but a solid positive image. A revolution based upon Facebook likes is no revolution at all. In the face of near term human extinction, it is time to put down the protest signs and pick up the monkey wrenches.

    1. As someone who’s just been introduced to this blog–by an environmentalist supporter of a progressive political movement I’ve spent the last month launching–I wanted to respond to this comment, which gives me plenty of food for thought. Why? Because I find so much to AGREE with here, although many supporters of this blog would doubtless find what I’m attempting too UN-radical and compromised. But as my own goal is real effectiveness, I’m always willing to discuss strategies with people willing to think “outside the box”–which is clearly essential where inside-the-box strategies are obviously NOT working.

      What I agree with in the comment–as opposed to the article–is the idiocy of avoiding monkey wrenching against MERE property (I particularly have in mind the XL pipeline), although I generally shun violence against PEOPLE, not being an absolute pacifist but generally finding it counterproductive and therefore immoral, since I accept the premise of traditional just-war theory that the likely good to be produced must clearly outweigh the obvious harm of killing or maiming people. Property itself is overrated–and it’s good to make people see that, at least where the property in question (the XL pipeline) does SO much harm. What I also agree with is that we should have utter contempt for “free speech zones”–an Orwellian term if ever there was one, and totally against the spirit of our First Amendment rights to free speech and assembly and redress of grievances against our government. I myself had had real problems with 350.org on these issues (despite a real respect for Bill McKibben)–and I have an ENORMOUS problem with their unwillingness to offend Obama, who is morally reprehensible and should be publicly shamed, NOT approached hat-in-hand.

      Anyway, I’m trying to organize my own progressive blackmailing revolt movement inside the Democratic Party, which may strike many of you as wussy–but I feel is a sound, well-thought-out strategy. Noam Chomsky has given it a qualified endorsement and leftist journalist Ron Ridenour (a self-described radical) is about to publish an article about it in “This Can’t Be Happening,” and possibly “Counterpunch” and “Dissident Voice.” Check us out at http://www.facebook.com/TrueBlueDemocratsAProgressiveRevolt. I like to test the validity of my ideas by exposing them to people of various perspectives; it should certainly be a wild ride here!

  2. Watch the Australian movie “Tomorrow When the War Began”. The characters struggled with the challenge of starting to resist. But, in face of the overwhelmingly reality of “do or die”, they took up arms and began guerrilla tactics. Much the same as “Red Dawn”. Ironically, Australia and the US, where these films respectively take place, are indigenous regions with foreign invaders from Europe etc. Despite this, the point is this: if the land and people who are dear to you are under attack, working politely within the System hardly seems like a wise response. The only solution is revolution, as System of a Down once sang.

  3. Thanks, Alex. Let’s be careful. Investigators are probably reading this, so anything concrete cannot because of safety culture be addressed. So, our articles here run the risk of sounding theoretical, abstract, despite the fact that we so clearly understand time for theory is over.
    I also feel that some not radical aboveground supporters might feel estranged by the concept of “ending civilization”. I think we could frame that differently for the folks who are still undecided and grew up in “nonviolent” protest cultures. Civilization is going down anyway, I like the idea of a) speeding up the process and b) rendering it less destructive. That we frame it in a positive sounding way, as we have applied the kind of psychological trick the enemy uses all the time. All master’s tools are available.
    I’d personally prefer to think in tactical terms about pockets of resistance. French resistance wasn’t for everybody a masterplan to rid Europe of the nazis but a way to clean their own landbase of the scum (if I’m not mistaken). What I like to see is a consistent progress of happy, healthy independent communities (doing permaculture, banning corporations, living sustainably and all) that thrive in times people in cities suffer. More and more will choose to live in these communities and – als human psychology goes – will accept the nonuse of fossil fuels and the undershooting of the landbase.
    Of course you are right: there will not be enough numbers soon enough. But we’ll be able to win important battles. It might for example tilt the scales in Vermont and leadto a radically different government there.

    1. Non-use of fossil fuels would be wonderful, but far too few see how ingrained extractive technology is to our culture. We can’t just keep mining stuff indefinitely, we should put an end to mining pretty much overall. That means no solar panels, no wind turbines, no dead machines. Finis. All of it. Everything earth and biologically based, and not just based.

      The culture could contract into a landfill-mining technology for some transition time. But that won’t happen unless and until the consumption machine is stopped.

  4. dear jhecht410, I hear you and read you and agree. My point being, that might not have been so obvious is that love is not the same as you can’t be militant. My point is that if your actions are driven by love towards your surronding your tactics will be totally different than if you are drive by hate.
    I don’t like violence at all and wish that everything could be solved without even having to apply that as a tactic but the enemy is driven by hate and have no problem in using violence. Hate usually make humans go completley insane in terms of violence used (rape, torture, genocide the list goes on).
    And sure these cultures might be able to try and persuade others into saying “we do what we do out of love for ” but that is not love at all. Love does never justify that kind of violence in my book.
    Another perception one can use is the whole masculinity issue, masculinity is not revolutionary and masculinity (as described from a radical feminist point of view) is for me bult upon hate and to me the dominant cultures toxic masuclinty might very well be the rise of “mad max” humans and so on and have to be dealt with just as you wrote back to me.

    Does it make any sense to you what I mean or does it just sound like jibberish ? 🙂

    1. I distrust human nature enough to rule out the need for violence in SOME cases, but we need to remember that violence almost always begets violence–AND that they technologies of violence have been so perfected in modern times that we shouldn’t be in any hurry to see them put into use. Chris Hedges’ brilliantly insightful book “War Is a Force That Gives Us Meaning” makes these points in a visceral way the reader can feel; as a longtime war correspondent, Hedges has been there.

      Part of what Hedges brilliantly conveys is that we’re all–the best and the worst of us–strange mixtures of love and hate, and that there’s definitely something aggressive in most of us. I definitely think we’re better off if we can sublimate that aggression usefullly, say in a fighting political movement–part of the adrenaline rush is fighting against steeply uphill odds–that is quite willing to be aggressive in denouncing the status quo among people who aren’t used to hearing it denounced. This is why I launched a grassroots progressive revolt movement INSIDE the Democratic Party; though I’m happy to descibe myself as a radical, I think we radicals too often live in an echo chamber where we only talk to each other and fail to seriously attempt raising consciousness among people we clearly need to pull off an effective revolt. That’s why I’m starting with betrayed Democratic progressives, in many ways mainstreamers, but with lots of pent-up outrage that could be effectively used if someone offered them a viable political outlet.

      Anyway, that’s what I’m trying to build with True Blue Democrats (the name meant to imply most of today’s Dems are TRAITORS to progressive values). Check us out at http://www.facebook.com/TrueBlueDemocratsAProgressiveRevolt.

    2. SD> dear jhecht410, I hear you and read you and agree. My point being, that might not SD> have been so obvious is that love is not the same as you can’t be militant. My point is SD> that if your actions are driven by love towards your surronding your tactics will be
      SD> totally different than if you are drive by hate.

      Oh dear, your kind reply requires a lengthy response to be adequate on my part. I will try to balance length and nuance in my own writing. For me, love and hate are two sides of one coin. They flow together, and often flip states, so (for example) a person you love can do a hateful thing. Your feelings for the person are then mixed, and rightly so. The opposite of both love and hate, is for me detachment, in a certain (Zen) sense, indifference to the outcome of your actions.

      For me, the question is, can you detach from your actions, and fight as a Kshatriya, a holy warrior? More here – http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kshatriya.

      Going beyond love and hate, can you fight, and kill, and die if needed, without anger, without malice? Without regret, or hesitation? I will give you a fictional example that will tear your heart out – but it is needful to do so…

      You have a beautiful, loving dog, an Irish setter. She sleeps on the foot of your bed, She walks with you, licks your hands and face. She is your joyful companion animal, and you love each other very much. Her name is Red. She was bitten by a rabid squirrel, and now Red is herself infected,

      Worse, the children of your town also loved Red, and played with her constantly.. After she was infected, she bit several of them, and they are now in danger of contracting rabies themselves. Only time will tell…

      At great risk, Red has been captured and chained to a tree. Foam drips from her mouth, and her eyes are wild with pain and confusion, as her brain is eaten away. The father of one of the bitten children and you have been chosen to draw lots for who will kill her. The lot falls to you – and perhaps rightfully so.

      The father of the bitten child would kill from hate.
      You will kill from love.

      The action is the same. The motives are polar opposites.

      Slowly, carefully, you raise your rifle, and center the crosshairs on Red’s head for a quick kill. With anguish in your heart, you brush aside tears for a clean shot. It rings out and Red’s pain is over, but your grieving has only just begun…

      SD> I don’t like violence at all and wish that everything could be solved without even
      SD> having to apply that as a tactic but the enemy is driven by hate and have no problem
      SD> in using violence. Hate usually make humans go completley insane in terms of
      SD> violence used (rape, torture, genocide the list goes on).

      Stokely Carmichael was once asked how Black people should defend themselves? He replied, “By any mans necessary.” Just so, we must defend the Earth, Mother Gaia. By any means necessary…

      Most people are carefully conditioned to be hateful and violent. They accept it as normal. Very few take the red pill, and see beyond the Matrix…

      SD> And sure these cultures might be able to try and persuade others into saying “we do
      SD> what we do out of love for ” but that is not love at all. Love does never justify that kind
      SD> of violence in my book.

      R.D. Laing explains this beautifully in “The Politics Of Experience” – it is available online at: http://thehealingproject.net.au/wp-content/uploads/2009/11/R.D.-Laing.-The-Politics-of-Experience.pdf

      SD> Another perception one can use is the whole masculinity issue, masculinity is not
      SD> revolutionary and masculinity (as described from a radical feminist point of view) is for
      SD> me bult upon hate and to me the dominant cultures toxic masuclinty might very well be
      SD> the rise of “mad max” humans and so on and have to be dealt with just as you wrote
      SD> back to me.

      Another great book is “The Descent Of Woman” by Elaine Morgan

      SD> Does it make any sense to you what I mean or does it just sound like jibberish ?

      Falling asleep. More later.

  5. Well, nonviolence in the buddhist and hindu sense is VERY different than pacifism. Nonviolence can work our hearts are full of compassion while proceed with action aligned with natural law and respect, such as self-defense, and defense of the defenseless. For people who meditate & contemplate right action, this booklet may be helpful: “The Buddha Taught Nonviolence, Not Pacifism” by Paul R. Fleischman MD.

    A lot of people think of India’s independence being solely about Gandhian nonresistance, but actually, the Gandhian movement was the culmination of a greater movement of militant leaders such as Bhagat Singh, who helped organize the strikes and sabotage of factories that helped national spirit strengthen so that more people felt brave enough to just peacefully march. It was the greater risks of these militants and the networks that formed to support them, that educated the masses that freedom & choice was even possible. Militancy with smart strategy, full heart, and strict community code of conduct is very different than the routine & random masculinized violence that plagues many a rebellion and pseudo-revolution.

  6. Typo alert: Nonviolence can work IF our hearts are full of compassion while proceeding with action aligned with natural law and respect, such as self-defense, and defense of the defenseless.

    And, in terms of Rbt’s comment on suffering – suffering is nothing new in human civilization, and even if we are locked in to extinction, which we probably are, pain is a reality but suffering is optional. That’s a basic experience that many buddhas have had. Suffering is more a mental state. Human beings can navigate towards internal peak states of feeling peace & compassion & humor even in earthly hells. Human beings can be in earthly paradise environments and be stuck in joyless mental landscapes & emotional hells.

    If we are locked into extinction, we can go rising up and singing at least. The little ones and all beings need us to do that, like Roberto Beningni’s dad did, while hiding him at the concentration camp which he survived (though his dad did not) and later went on to make the astounding film “Life is Beautiful.” Have you seen that film, Robert? Most of it focuses on Roberto’s father, and mother, before Hitler – the essence of them that made their child survive. Nobody may be surviving a few generations out or sooner – but that’s no excuse for living like a zombie…

    1. But I don’t buy into “rising up and singing” while the earth is locked into extinction. My spirit will live and die with this earth. I am not rising up the fuck to anywhere, living or dead.

      1. That’s fine – I was thinking of a refrain from negro spiritual that is about being with the earth, acknowledging pain, and rebelling.

  7. Thanks for a great, incisive, inspiring article.

    One question I have is the source of: “according to conservative estimates, we have five years to stop the development and construction of fossil fuel infrastructure before being locked into catastrophic runaway climate change”

    How can I learn more about this prediction?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *