Talk about a billing for fight night.
This weekend I went to the “Peace Jam,” a gathering that bills itself with the tag-line “Change Starts Here.” Listening to the Dalai Lama, Desmond Tutu, Sharin Ebadi, Rigoberta Manchu Tu, and five other Nobel Peace Price winners speak about how to solve the world’s problems was the perfect frame for reading Derrick Jensen’s latest tome, “Endgame, Vol. II: Resistance.” Their approaches could not be more different, each providing a counter-argument to the other. On top of that, It’s currently 4:30 in the morning and I’ve been sitting in a fluorescent-illuminated tile hallway all night (long story) listening to Rise Against’s latest album. Perhaps a bit of sensory overload.
Jensen’s “Endgame” is surprisingly direct. After indicting civilization in Volume I, he proceeds to outline his dream of a violent resistance to civilization. It is literally a declaration of war. I found it particularly fascinating because it focuses on a detailed prescription for an all-out campaign to destroy dams, including targeting strategies, how to effectively use explosives, creating cascading failure, identification of critical nodes, etc. Since this is the exact reason why the government sees fit to keep me in their employ, I am not at liberty to comment on this aspect of Jensen’s work. But my aim here is to address Jensen’s broader proposal to address the problems of civilization through direct and violent confrontation. His first chapter, “We Shall Destroy Them All,” begins with this quote from Thomas Jefferson (providing prospective on the then-current conflicts with Native Americans): “In war, they shall kill some of us; we shall destroy them all.” As Jensen points out, this is the approach that our growth-based civilization takes towards its opponents, and by default towards the Earth in general. Jensen recommends adopting that same strategy in defense of the Earth, summarizing the demand of one faction within anarcho-primitivism—the complete destruction of industrialized civilization. Jensen wraps up his introduction by expressing his displeasure with the pacifist approach to solving the problem of civilization, specifically leveling criticism at the Buddhist practitioner who said “what I do for peace is split wood.” It is the failure of this kind of withdrawal approach that Jensen claims validates his “fight back” alternative.
The Dalai Lama, on the other hand, thinks that the problem of civilization can be solved through compassion and a reduction in negative emotions, specifically advocating the personal change path and advising that we follow Ghandi’s advice to “be the change we wish to see in the world.” While I think that this approach is much more sophisticated than Jensen’s simple characterization of “withdrawal,” I don’t find it necessarily superior to “fight back.”
I think that both Jensen’s “fight back” and the Dalai Lama’s “personal compassion” are selectively valuable tools. In truth I think that “personal compassion” is universally valuable, just not universally effective. Ultimately, both strategies only work to the degree that they address the fundamental causes of the problem of civilization. I think that “fight back,” at least as articulated by Jensen, fails to clearly identify these causes, and therefore only has effect to the degree that such action chances upon sources of causation. Differently, “personal compassion” intends to address causation directly but, to use terminology (probably inaccurately) from Buddhism, succeeds only in affecting a makyo of ultimate causation—that is, compassion directly addresses only an ephemeral symptom of the ultimate causes of the problem of civilization. Ultimately, I think that the failures of these very different approaches highlight the actual solution—which is firmly grounded in the need to properly define the problem.
This ultimate source of causation is, in my opinion, the structural underpinnings of civilization. I’ve written at length about this (see A Theory of Power), but in essence hierarchy is structurally unstable, and the symptoms of “Civilization” are in fact symptoms of this underlying, hierarchal structure. A solution that does not specifically and directly address hierarchy as the source of these problems will fail. Jensen’s “fight back” will fail because, for all its military overtones, it does not leverage the fundamental military principle of economy of force—the large portion of its energy wasted in misdirected action takes away from its ability to actually impact our fundamental hierarchy. It would be difficult enough to defeat hierarchy with 100% of the effort that Jensen hopes to muster. With the 20% that may, by chance, actually impact hierarchy-in-itself, it will surely fail to have the desired effect. Likewise, the “personal compassion” advocated by the Dalai Lama will fail because it does not actually address hierarchy. While I think that personal compassion is a valuable tool in affecting change, it must be combined with more before it can actually form a viable alternative to our present, hierarchal system.
One of the Nobel Laureates at “Peace Jam” came very close to articulating this exact problem. Rigoberta Manchu Tu, an indigenous Mayan activist, commented that the
A solution to hierarchy must, ultimately, be an alternative to hierarchy. Even if Jensen’s dreams succeed, the resulting anarchy would lack the communication structure to maintain an awareness of the problems of civilization that is necessary to prevent its rebirth (even if only in some patchwork of dystopian micro-agrarian despotisms). It is precisely because a solution must also be an alternative that I think, ultimately, the Dalai Lama’s second message—that of non-violence—is not only a possible attribute of a solution, but a necessity. As Daniel Quinn noted, organized violence is the sine qua non of civilization, and it is uniquely adapted to defeat a challenge that is itself predicated on violence. While, as John Robb has pointed out (and I have often advocated), Fourth Generation Warfare is able to effectively confront the weaknesses of civilization, it remains incapable of providing an alternative to civilization. Ultimately, a fifth-generation conflict moves beyond the current spectrum of insurgencies to provide a fundamental alternative to the hierarchal mode of organization. In a way this comes full circle and embodies both the Dalai Lama and Jensen while rejecting their superficialities: fifth generation “conceptual” warfare will defeat civilization by “fighting back” with “personal compassion,” not acts of violence, to propagate an alternative system of coordinating complexity from hierarchy. As I have written about extensively elsewhere (see Rhizome Theory Directory), this fifth generation “warfare” is the establishment of a rhizome structure to coordinate complexity in human society without the hierarchal symptoms of diminishing marginal returns or the demand for growth. Ultimately, in any world that I can imagine to be worth saving, destruction of civilization is ultimately only temporary. Depending on various theories of collapse, overshoot, resource depletion, and environmental destruction, it is likely that hierarchal civilization will never again rise to its present level. But that does not mean that a still-hierarchal, still-destructive patchwork dystopia cannot soon emerge from the ashes. For this reason, even if Jensen succeeds, his efforts to end domination and the abuses of hierarchy will ultimately fail. Only the maintenance of a sufficient level of organized complexity can perpetuate a sufficiently uniform anthropological self-awareness to prevent the recurrence of hierarchy—an anthropological self-awareness that can be effectively maintained within a rhizome structure.
By “anthropological self-awareness,” I mean an understanding within the general populace of the forces that operate within human society, of the dangers of hierarchy, and of the specific theories that permit rhizome complexity without creating the dependencies that degrade eventually into hierarchal structures. For lack of a better analogy, it is much like the self-awareness of the rules of a horror movie by the characters in the movie “Scream.” This anthropological self-awareness must, itself, become our new mythology. Within such an environment—and I think only within such an environment—a network of rhizome nodes can be established that co-exists with hierarchy, while at the same time out of phase with hierarchy, gradually replacing hierarchy as the latter becomes increasingly irrelevant. It’s a complicated vision—and that is certainly one of its weaknesses—but if the Catholic church can get away with the Trinity for two millennia, it seems like rhizome is worth a shot…