Written and photographed by Max Wilbert
In 1941, as World War II thundered across half the planet, my grandfather was drafted into the United States military.
Faced with the prospect of being sent overseas to kill other young men in World War II, his morality rebelled. He refused to join the military and applied for conscientious objector status, which he was eventually granted.
This was not a popular stand to take. Among 10 million draftees, about 43,000, or less than half of one percent, became COs. He and other COs were widely criticized, attacked, and ostracized. Their beliefs were tested by draft boards, families, and communities who rejected their moral convictions and labeled them cowards, deserters, and traitors.
Nearly fifty years later, I was born into a family that looked up to my grandfather’s example. He was a warm, kind grandfather to me. When I was a child, discussions of war, imperialism, racism, exploitation of women, oppression, and the destruction of the planet were not unusual among my family. I was taught that these things must be ended. Social change was a necessity, and non-violent resistance was the method.
Faced with the prospect of World War II, what choices would I have made in my grandfather’s place? On the one hand, the Nazi regime was one of unspeakable evil, and imperial Japan’s actions were equally horrific. On the other hand, the actions of US empire—before, during, and after the war—were not exactly benevolent. As Howard Zinn writes, before the war broke out the United States:
“had opposed the Haitian revolution for independence from France at the start of the nineteenth century. It had instigated a war with Mexico and taken half of that country. It had pretended to help Cuba win freedom from Spain, and then planted itself in Cuba with a military base, investments, and rights of intervention. It had seized Hawaii, Puerto Rico, Guam, and fought a brutal war to subjugate the Filipinos. It had “opened” Japan to its trade with gunboats and threats. It had declared an Open Door Policy in China as a means of assuring that the United States would have opportunities equal to other imperial powers in exploiting China. It had sent troops to Peking with other nations, to assert Western supremacy in China, and kept them there for over thirty years.”
And of course, this is just a partial list. In 1942, the U.S. was still a rigorously segregated society (which it remains today) committed to extracting value from people of color using any means necessary. Slavery built the wealth of the United States, and literally built the White House. And of course, the entire country was built on a settler-colonial genocide—a genocide that Hitler took as inspiration for his “final solution.”
Many prominent Americans, like Henry Ford, were supporters of the Nazi regime. The U.S. government not only failed to speak out against persecution of German Jews before the war, despite clear evidence, but actively rejected those seeking refuge and thereby condemned them to death.
The United States did not fight because of fascism, although individual soldiers may have. Critical history tells us that the U.S. fought Germany, Italy, and Japan primarily for geopolitical reasons: to control a competitor in Germany, to contain communist Russia, and to expand control of the Pacific.
For example, historian Gabriel Kolko says “the American economic war aim was to save capitalism at home and abroad.” This was achieved by consolidating American control over oil in the Middle East, gaining access to new markets formerly dominated by the British, and by a concentrated injection of public funds into private corporations: Boeing, Lockheed, and the other war profiteers.
And at the conclusion of the war, the United States killed 150,000 Japanese civilians in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, in the militarily unnecessary atomic bombing that P.M.S. Blackett calls “the first major operation of the cold diplomatic war with Russia.” In other words, 150,000 people were murdered not out of military necessity, but for the sake of geopolitical posturing.
The fascists needed to be stopped, yes. But the United States’ war was not a particularly just one.
I respect my grandfather’s choice. Most especially, I am impressed by the ethical toughness required to endure serious personal and professional consequences while maintaining his principled stance. There are not many people with that dignity and conviction.
Eighty years after the rise of Nazi Party, we’re faced with rising fascism around the world.
Trump, Bolsonaro, Duterte, Erdogan, Putin. Countless fascist political parties and grassroots movements are on the march. Their main systemic opposition comes from neoliberal capitalism, a soft fascism of it’s own and the primary force which has decimated the planet over the past 40 years. By dismantling public institutions, embracing corporate power and unbridled militarism, corrupting the language of justice, and doubling down on exploitation of the poor and the third world, neoliberals like Barack Obama and the Clintons have helped pave the way for the rise of outright fascism today.
Capitalism itself is a war against the planet and the poor. The global economy is built on exploited farmworkers, sweatshop labor, and a toxic electronics industry that drives workers to mass suicide. All this takes place on top of stolen indigenous lands and a legacy of ongoing genocide.
The material goods that drive economic growth are made from the dead bodies of the land. Mountains are mined and blown to pieces. Rivers are dammed and enslaved. Prairies are plowed under. Forests are scalped. The oceans are strained of all life. Biodiversity is collapsing, the oceans are collapsing, and global warming is advancing faster than the worst-case scenarios. Greenhouse gas emissions are higher year after year, despite slick marketing campaigns about green industry.
The mindset of exploitation and greed is mirrored in the dominant culture. Sexual assault is endemic. Black and brown people are disenfranchised and exploited for slave labor in the prison system, then regularly executed on the streets in a form of modern public lynching. The poor, the homeless, addicts and countless other people are treated as disposable in this society, and they die by the millions as people like Jeff Bezos enjoys a cruise in his latest $100 million yacht.
Now we must grapple with the same question our grandparents did.
What is the moral course of action in this world?
Before we can know the right course of action, we have to understand the root of the problems we face. This step of diagnosis is essential to proper cure. And in fact, the origin of the term radical comes from the Latin word meaning “root.”
Too many people in society today look only at surface-level causes. We must go deeper.
First, we must understand that the problems we face are not an accident or the result of a glitch in the system. This is the normal functioning of industrial civilization. This is business as usual. The economy is booming, and the wealthy are doing very well. Things are working perfectly.
For those in power, times are good
I’ve heard it said that capitalism is a war against the planet and the poor. This is not a metaphor. The dominant economic system is killing, maiming, and destroying the lives of countless billions of humans and trillions of non-humans.
As the world’s third-richest man, Warren Buffett, once said, “there’s class warfare alright, but it’s my class, the rich class, that’s making war, and we’re winning.”
This is a war, and it is a one-sided one.
Working people, the poor, and especially environmentalists often don’t see this system as a form of warfare against us. Relentless propaganda, fed to us through mass media and education, teaches us that we live in a beautiful, just society. All the problems we face—migration, climate disasters, terrorism, sexual abuse—are externalized. Instead of being factors integral to the American experience, these are regarded as someone else’s problem, or ignored completely.
Propaganda, besides inculcating American exceptionalism and the capitalist ethic, also enforces a rigid box of acceptable ways to change the world. Social struggles, we’re told, should take place via policy changes, at the ballot box, and in non-profit offices.
But these models aren’t working
Legislative change, for example, is rarely permanent. Long-standing policies like the Voting Rights Act can easily be struck down or undermined. This is happening right now. The Voting Rights Act, the Clean Water Act, the Endangered Species Act—all of these laws, which are very limited in the first place, are being gutted.
The business of running empire is firmly bipartisan. The Democratic and Republican parties in the United States play out a society-wide “good cop/bad cop” routine. They deceive us into believing that we live in a democracy. They allow robust debate within an extremely narrow range of acceptable politics, and therefore keep people distracted from the theft and violence of the ruling class.
The truth is we have little to no say in how our own communities operate, let alone in how the country is governed.
Constrained by felon disenfranchisement, gerrymandering, the electoral college, constant propaganda, and a representative system with zero accountability, our votes are largely meaningless.
We are so alienated from the concept of self-governance that we have a hard time even imagining it. When was the last time you made a meaningful decision about the political, economic, and social future of the neighborhood, the city, the state, or the country you live in?
For most of us, the answer is “never.”
To call the United States a democracy is laughable. Scholars have proven that our society is an oligarchy. Professor Martin Gilens and Professor Benjamin Page concluded, in their 2014 research paper, that “economic elites and organized groups representing business interests have substantial independent impacts on US government policy, while average citizens and mass-based interest groups have little or no independent influence.”
This is reflected in the nation’s capital. It has been decades since Congress passed a major bill that didn’t benefit the ultra-rich and corporations. Every major national policy decision is designed to steal more from the poor, to destroy the planet even faster, and in the process to make the owning class even more decadently wealthy.
The Non-profit Industrial Complex (NPIC)
Faced with a bankrupt political system, where do people go? Many turn to non-profits, expecting to find a world of small, fiery, organized groups fighting for social change. Instead, they find a new nightmare of bureaucracy, 60-hour work weeks, and starvation wages.
The non-profit system emerges from a liberal ideology that sees American-style capitalism as righteous. In this worldview, small gradual reforms are all that is needed to keep the system humming along happily.
Many of today’s largest foundations we’re created by tax-dodging ultra-wealthy elites in the early 20th century. These have been lucrative investments. Liberal foundations have long served to pacify social movements and prevent radical change.
One of the biggest examples of this is the professionalization of black resistance in the 1970’s and 1980’s. In the wake of revolutionary social upheavals of the 1960’s, foundations invested billions of dollars to create countless new non-profits and social service organizations. Vietnam War hawk McGeorge Bundy, head of the Ford Foundation, led a nationwide push to address racism. But behind the rhetoric was a desire not to address the roots of racism, but to pacify and assimilate oppositional black power movements into the dominant power structure.
Today’s non-profit movement politics reflect the same values: elitist liberalism, individual empowerment, and the optics of diversity. And they produce the same results: endless campaigning for progressive candidates, countless fundraising campaigns, and burnout.
What is absent is a revolutionary agenda for collective liberation from systems of oppression.
The Indian dissident Arundhati Roy, one of the most brilliant writers of our time, has a blistering critique of the non-profit system. She writes:
“Corporate-endowed foundations administer, trade and channelize their power and place their chessmen on the chessboard, through a system of elite clubs and think-tanks, whose members overlap and move in and out through the revolving doors.
Contrary to the various conspiracy theories in circulation, particularly among left-wing groups, there is nothing secret, satanic, or Freemason-like about this arrangement. It is not very different from the way corporations use shell companies and offshore accounts to transfer and administer their money—except that the currency is power, not money.
There are now millions of non-profit organizations, many of them connected through a byzantine financial maze to the larger foundations… The Privatization of Everything has also meant the NGO-isation of Everything. As jobs and livelihoods disappeared, NGOs have become an important source of employment, even for those who see them for what they are. And they are certainly not all bad. Of the millions of NGOs, some do remarkable, radical work and it would be a travesty to tar all NGOs with the same brush.
However, the corporate or Foundation-endowed NGOs are global finance’s way of buying into resistance movements, literally like shareholders buy shares in companies, and then try to control them from within. They sit like nodes on the central nervous system, the pathways along which global finance flows. They work like transmitters, receivers, shock absorbers, alert to every impulse, careful never to annoy the governments of their host countries.”
Greenwashing the environmental movement
One of the most damning examples of the bankruptcy of the non-profit system comes from the large environmental organizations. From The Sierra Club taking $25 million from the fracking industry to Greenpeace cooperating with the Canadian Lumber Industry to the Nature Conservancy’s collaboration with the world’s most polluting corporations, environmental non-profits have a track record of atrocities, compromises, and failures.
On their watch, everything is getting worse. And their solutions? Vote for a democrat, change your lightbulbs, and ride your bike. It’s pathetic.
Today, the global non-profit industrial complex serves as a “pressure relief valve” for budding revolutionary sentiments. By redirecting the energy that should demand fundamental change into piecemeal reformism, organizations like this are worse than distractions. They are in some ways complicit in the system that is killing the planet. Instead of radical change, these groups campaign for relatively minor reforms, such as a shift away from fossil fuels and towards green energy. These efforts are applauded by international conglomerates like General Electric, which stand to make billions in guaranteed government contracts in this so-called “green transition.”
Meanwhile, the forests continue to fall, mountains continue to be mined, and greenhouse gas emissions trend upwards.
Even in places like Germany, home to the supposed “green miracle” of wind and solar energy, emissions continue to rise and corporations grow ever more bloated on government handouts and electricity rebates, while the poor pay for big business to expand the electric grid. To be clear: big business is exempted from the taxes to pay for grid expansions and wind energy projects, then turns around and profits from the contracts to build these industrial megaprojects. Meanwhile, working people foot the bill.
This is a massive wealth transfer from poor to rich.
From one capitalist agenda to another, major environmental non-profits are shaped by what can get funded, and what gets funded is a de facto pro-corporate, pro-capitalist agenda of industrial energy production and “green products.” Driven by a results-oriented framework designed to please large donors, this system inherently deprioritizes radical critiques and revolutionary ideas in favor of what makes money and political sense in the short term.
In short, large non-profits are the social wing of the capitalist system.
Individuals within these non-profits may mean well, but intentions are not as important as outcomes when the fate of our world is at stake.
Cory Morningstar calls liberal climate activism “the hope industry,” writing that “350.org and friends serve a vital purpose . . . [by making] the public feel good about themselves. Simultaneously, they ensure obedience and passiveness to the state in order to secure current system/power structures and keep them intact… We have now reached the critical juncture where corporations will begin the slow process of ridding themselves of their toxic holdings while preparing for a new wave of unprecedented, unsurpassed ‘climate wealth.’ We are about to witness the global transition to profitable false solutions under the guise of ‘green economy’ . . . all while they simultaneously greenwash themselves as noble stewards of the Earth.”
This is how the ruling class rules
In his book Brave New World, Aldous Huxley wrote that an effective totalitarianism doesn’t look like pointing a gun at every person, all the time. “A really efficient totalitarian state,” he writes, “would be one in which the all-powerful executive of political bosses and their army of managers control a population of slaves who do not have to be coerced, because they love their servitude.”
Today’s elites have worked hard to create such a world. They ride the dynamic tension between reform and reaction. When political and economic conditions make it possible to do so, they mercilessly expand their exploitation of the planet and the poor. When groundswells of social discontent force concessions, they offer limited reforms. With the illusion of democracy provided by elections, legislative changes, and the non-profit industrial complex, the ruling class manipulate global society. In this way, they defuse revolutionary potential, expand their power, and consolidate their gains.
These elites, the owning class in global society, are waging an offensive struggle. Meanwhile, progressives and radicals are stuck in a reactionary position, defending ourselves against the latest assault and falling ever further behind. Our work is almost entirely defensive.
But as any experienced warrior knows, wars are not won defensively. These defensive measures can only end one way: in steady erosion of victories, slow slides into fascism, and eventual defeat. This is what we are experiencing right now.
Systems for social change have been co-opted by the corporate elite. But agents of oppression are never satisfied with dismantling organizations and institutions alone. They must murder revolutionary leaders, too.
When Che Guevara was on the firing line, his last words were: “Shoot, coward. You’re only going to kill a man.” Fred Hampton, murdered by the police as he lay drugged in his bed at the age of 21 years, once said “You can kill a revolutionary, but you can’t kill a revolution.” Thomas Sankara, the Burkinabé revolutionary sometimes called “Africa’s Che,” had the same message before he was killed: “While revolutionaries as individuals can be murdered, you can’t kill an idea.”
This hasn’t stopped those in power from murdering dangerous individuals and trying to smash dangerous ideas. Psychological and information warfare is constant in modern society. Popular music, television, movies, and other media, as well as institutions like the school system and non-profits, all promote vicious counter-revolutionary propaganda.
According to the psychologist John F. Schumaker we “are by far the most propagandized people in history.” Corporations are expected to spend $2.1 trillion on media in 2019.
Developing an effective offense requires that we discard the mythologies and misconceptions taught by these systems. In other words: as long as our minds are still colonized, we will not be able to fight and win.
One of the most pervasive misconceptions we must dismantle is the mythology of pacifism. This mythology is carefully constructed. School lessons around social movements—if the topic is covered at all—paint a picture of civil non-violent struggle. This is no accident. A whitewashed version of Martin Luther King, Jr. is emphasized, while the Black Panthers are never discussed. The bourgeois American Revolution is celebrated, while the Haitian Revolution is ignored. Women’s suffrage is mentioned, but the radical direct action of suffragists around the world is bypassed. In this way, the imaginations of entire societies are shaped and molded.
The reality, of course, is that social change is won through struggle. The history of our society is the history of class warfare. And revolution is the solution to the problems we face. But revolutionaries are ignored in our education system, slandered in the mass media, and actively opposed in US policy. We must reject these toxic lessons to have a chance.
Non-violence is a profoundly moral way of changing society. In the right conditions, it can be highly effective. But deepening inequality, global ecological collapse, and the utter failure of established institutions to address these crises have led me to question non-violence—not as a moral guiding light, but as a practical strategy.
This morning, I am following the latest news from the Unist’ot’en Camp. In western Canada, the Unist’ot’en have stopped proposed tar sands and fracked gas pipelines for nearly a decade.
They have never ceded their land to the Canadian Government or signed a treaty. Under Canadian law, their land has been recognized as sovereign. But in December, the pipeline company applied for an injunction from Canadian courts. This injunction gives the police (the RCMP) authority to removing any blockades from the roads.
Now, as a result of the injunction, armed men are in Wet’suwet’en Territory to remove the land defenders and facilitate the fracking, logging, water poisoning, road building, and other destruction the pipeline will bring.
The late Secwepemc organizer and international leader on indigenous rights Arthur Manuel called injunctions the “ace in the sleeve of the Canadian government.” He said, “every time there is a dispute between indigenous people’s territories and industry, the court pulls out their court injunctions and sides with industry.”
This fight is still in progress. We don’t know how it will end. It might end in a victory, as did anti-fracking fights on Mi’kmaq territory in 2013. Or it might end in a defeat like at Standing Rock.
But we do know that, as this fight continues, industry is going about their business unimpeded elsewhere. We are not able to fight them everywhere at once. Around the world, coal oil and gas extraction is booming. Tar sands in South America, offshore drilling in the Arctic Ocean, fracking in the Marcellus Shale, coal mining in Mongolia. Major industrial projects are booming worldwide, and greenhouse gas emissions are rising to unprecedented levels as forests, wetlands, grasslands, and oceanic preserves are destroyed for industry. Carbon emissions in 2018 surged by 3.4 percent over the previous year—the largest increase in eight years. Time is short.
To have a chance of stopping the forces that are squeezing the life from the planet, defensive stands like Unist’ot’en Camp are crucial. But defense alone is not enough, and governments continue to side with industry. If we want to survive, we need legitimate offensive strategies.
What does offensive struggle look like?
Legislative change, voting, and the non-profit industrial complex are all controlled by the ruling class. Offensive struggle is, by design, essentially impossible in these arenas.
Real offensive struggle is inherently revolutionary. A revolution is “a forcible overthrow of a government, class, or social order, in favor of a new system.” While that force does not necessarily mean open violence, violence is a part of every revolutionary struggle.
Most people who want social and environmental justice have been taught that violent revolution is morally indefensible. Through fear and lies, elites have shamed us out of organizing and carrying out a revolution. Thus, they limit us to defensive action.
Breaking our allegiance to the dominant system is the first step to effective resistance. This requires we decolonize our minds and remember the true source of life. We all need to choose sides: life or the machine.
Which side do you choose?
Even the preeminent strategist on non-violence, Gene Sharp, talks about non-violent resistance as a form of war. Perceiving our struggle in this way is important. Defensive struggles are possible to undertake while denying that you are engaged in a war. But once you acknowledge that we are in a war, offensive struggle becomes a legitimate possibility.
Once our imaginations have expanded, we can attempt to answer the question: what does offensive struggle look like?
In military strategy, the purpose of offensive action is to destroy your opponents ability to wage war. After effective offensive action, they cannot continue to fight you, no matter how badly they want to.
In my analysis, the primary weapon of war being used against the planet and the poor is the global industrial economy. Therefore, offensive struggle today means breaking the supply lines of industrial capitalism by targeting and destroying key bottlenecks in the the global economic system, and dismantling the institutions of the dominant culture.
If this were carried out, it would change the balance of power globally. Those in power would no longer be physically able to destroy the world, and the way would be clear for alternative cultures, land restoration, and the Earth itself to begin the process of healing.
Ending the war
The war against the planet and the poor is raging right now. To end this war as quickly as possible and with the smallest possible loss of life, our only feasible path is to stop the aggressor’s ability to harm the poor and destroy the planet.
Capitalism has made this a life-or-death struggle. Voting isn’t working. Signing petitions isn’t working. Liberal institutions are in shambles. Those of us who reject this system cannot survive by trying to coexist with the system. At the current rate, it appears that either industrial civilization will survive, or the biosphere will.
War is terrible, and business as usual is a war. The faster the global industrial economy is ended, the less suffering there will be. Ending this war must be our overriding objective. This means destroying capitalism’s ability to wage war. Anything less is merely whistling on the way to our collective grave.
Fighting a war is dangerous, difficult, and demanding. Sometimes I imagine sitting this war out, becoming a modern conscientious objector, and living simply. But that path isn’t a moral one. Given our current political situation, we must make adult choices. The crisis we face is calling all of us to become revolutionaries.
I wish that my grandfather was still alive so I could sit down with him to discuss all of this. Alzheimer’s disease claimed him before I was fully grown. But I still know that, unlike so many, he would not flinch away from these realities. He would face the truth, think, and decide on the right course of action.
My political stances are extremely unpopular at every level. I have received death threats from racist far-right ideologues. I have been shouted down by the left and the environmental community. And I have been harassed by federal agents. When she heard about the FBI harassment, one of my aunties told me that my grandfather would have been proud of me. She told me that he would have said, “you must be doing something right.”
That is what we must do: what is right.
Max Wilbert is an organizer, writer, and wilderness guide who grew up in Seattle’s post-WTO anti-globalization and undoing racism movement. He is a longtime member of Deep Green Resistance. Max is the author of two books: the forthcoming Bright Green Lies, and We Choose to Speak, a collection of essays released in 2018.