The Uses and Abuses of Movements and Subcultures

Causes Versus Movements

Since the idea of rewilding as a radical politic is growing, it has come time to make a distinction between a movement and a cause. The cause of rewilding is simple: release nature from technological and human control, and restore it to the wild. The radical wing of rewilding recognizes, too, that this necessarily involves the decline and collapse of industrial society. That is the cause of rewilding. But rewilding may make its way into any number of movements: music subcultures, the wilderness movement, various forms of environmentalism, brief but rambunctious cultural moments like Occupy Wall Street… Because of the global, disjointed nature of civilization today, there is unlikely to be any single rewilding movement. Rather, movements are a means to an end. Movements will come and go, rise and fall, and, as we have seen, are susceptible to government oppression. This is fine, so long as we interpret each rise of a movement as a wave that takes us further toward our goals. Viewed this way, the decline of a movement is not the end of a cause. Rather, each movement provides an opportunity to learn new strategies, to build new connections, and to accumulate more social power. In organizational terms, this means movements are a source of peripheral or secondary power; primary power rests in the dedicated cores of activists and radicals who have no public-facing movement.

If, on the other hand, we tie our cause to a single movement, which will invariably rise and fall as movements do, we threaten ourselves with the sickness of despair. When a radical cause becomes so tied to a movement that people equate the two, the death of the movement plants the idea in people’s mind that the enemy has won, that nothing can be done after all. But by viewing each movement as a means to an end, the decline of a movement instead becomes an opportunity for reflection: What have we learned? What did we gain? What can we do now? What should we do next time?

See, especially, “After the Crest: The Life-Cycle of Movements.”

Uses of Movements

Movements provide a few major benefits to any cause:

  • Specific movements provide material support to a cause. Academics, for example, spread ideas among students, potential recruits, and among the upper classes, who provide monetary resources and social capital. Travelling subcultures spread ideas among the middle and lower classes, provide minimally-surveilled communications networks, and provide protests with a consistent base of people who have time and energy to attend them.
  • Movements also provide a “concealing mass” for more important operations. For example, when the abolitionist movement spread through the upper and middle classes, it became more difficult to differentiate who was and wasn’t aiding operations like the Underground Railroad.
  • Shortly lived movements provide a means of connecting groups with similar goals, but who otherwise would have never come into contact with each other. In addition, it strengthens the non-organizational networks between individuals, and provides a means for people who are already connected to strengthen their relationships.
  • Movements provide a “first base” for potential recruits. It is often difficult to find the right kind of people to keep a cause alive. They have to agree with a certain number of basic ideas, and they have to have the resources, energy, and, above all, dedication to keep at it even when the going gets tough. Movements provide a breeding ground for these kinds of individuals, and help attract the right kind of people to places where they’ll be easier to find.
  • Finally, movements provide a public face to a cause. This can sometimes backfire, however, since movements, especially in their moments of decay, often attract people with purposes tangential to the principal goal.

For more on the strategic benefits of movements, see A New Conservation Politics by David Johns, The Organizational Weapon by Philip Selznick, and other books in the Wild Reaction Reading List.

Important Movements and Subcultures for Rewilding

There are several movements or subcultures that will be extremely important for rewilding: an academic movement, a student movement, hippie subculture, the wilderness movement, traveler subculture, the radical environmentalist subculture, the hacker subculture, and the anti-surveillance movement. In addition, it may be important to introduce new movements in the future that are exclusively dedicated to opposing aspects of technological development, e.g., biotechnology or artificial intelligence.

The radical environmentalist movement has become firmly convinced of the more extreme versions of rewilding. In my earlier years, when I was first introduced to Ted Kaczynski’s manifesto, I put my faith almost exclusively in the radical environmentalist movement to bring the ideas of rewilding to fruition. Unfortunately, radical movements have their pitfalls: splits over minute doctrinal disagreements, problems with attracting psychologically unbalanced people, etc. They are a necessary element, but they are not the end-all, be-all. In fact, it is precisely because of these pitfalls that it will become absolutely necessary to link radical environmentalists to more mainstream environmentalists so that the two can find a program they can work together on. The Rewilding Program is a step in this direction. Without a uniting, linking force, however, the radical environmentalist movement, like all radical movements, threatens to radicalize itself out of existence; that is, they threaten to get so extreme that they lose any social power at all. This was, for instance, what happened with the Earth Liberation Front.

Academic and student movements are especially important, because, as one paper put it, “Since the 1970s, research universities have been widely recognized as the core of this nation’s science and technology system.” Students, for instance, often have access to important technological systems that keep destructive corporations and government projects going, and university computer networks are notoriously insecure. And academics, with their access to international journals and the international academic community, are absolutely essential for spreading and refining ideas. For example, the idea of human rewilding can only come to full fruition with a discussion between psychologists, therapists, ecologists, sociologists, anthropologists, etc. This is only tenable under a university climate. Finally, academics and student movements help to produce recruits whose future direction is not quite certain, and therefore recruits who are much more likely to achieve prestigious and strategically important positions in society. I’ve written before that Earth First! succeeded largely because of how well it did at producing a new generation of ecologists, biologists, and conservationists; a student movement helps rewilders achieve this goal.

Traveler subculture is important because, as already mentioned, it provides communications networks that largely circumvent the usual methods of surveillance. Travelers have long glorified mythologies of the Messenger and the Trickster, and for both these reasons they are foundational to any healthy movement ecosystems. People are quick to dismiss travelers as bums or miscreants, but even the most lowly-looking travelers have an enormous amount of social capital. Once you get them on your side, they network everywhere, putting your literature in front of eyes that never would have seen it otherwise, and introducing unlikely people to the ideas. In addition, travelers are crucial to maintaining “occupations,” or events where people camp out at a place to disrupt its normal operations. This was and is an important Earth First! tactic for stopping forest development. (See my guide to hitchhiking in the U.S. for tips on traveling.)

Hippie subculture is important for obvious reasons. Apart from the radical environmentalist and wilderness movements, the hippie subculture is most closely related to the idea of rewilding. And since it has been operating for almost half a century now, it has a well-maintained, functional infrastructure. In fact, the network of land projects and festivals that hippies have built over the past 40 or so years is crucial for traveler survival, so the two subcultures overlap. It’s not uncommon to hear of a traveler, just starting out and alone, finding himself becoming part of a hippie “family” and getting plugged into jobs on farms and land conservation projects. Wild Roots is an excellent example of this in my personal life.

The anti-surveillance movement is the most difficult to relate to the idea of rewilding, at least in the eyes of the public. But social control is ones of the primary reasons to reject industrial society, preserve wilderness, and live closer to nature. If another movement focused on social control existed, like one opposing social media, then that, too, would be important. Unfortunately the anti-surveillance movement seems to be the only one of its type to have taken hold in the popular mind, and has the advantage of containing a fair number of radicals (e.g., Moxie Marlinspike, Jacob Appelbaum). Furthermore, because the anti-surveillance movement attracts more technologically-inclined folk, it offers similar advantages as the hacker subculture.

The hacking subculture is most obviously related to the radical versions of rewilding, because it offers a clear offensive means of doing something about our technological condition. Much of the work to restore wildlands and human nature is thwarted by corporations dedicated to development and behavior control. If we are actually going to get these corporations to stop, or at least slow down, we will have to have more power than the simple request, “Please stop.” Hacking provides a powerful means of deterring these organizations from continuing their activity. And, more than any other movement, the hacking subculture attracts the younger members of society, and members who understand the problems inherent to technological development. When I was at university and majoring in information science, the most fruitful discussions I had about the negative impacts of technology were people from my and the computer science departments.

Finally, there is the wilderness movement. This movement is most relevant in the U.S., where it originated, but has managed to attain global importance, especially in the era of climate change. The original idea of rewilding came from the wilderness movement, so, like the radical environmentalist movement, there is not much work to do here. In fact, I would suggest that the wilderness movement is the most important movement for rewilders. As I argue in The Rewilding Program, while human rewilding and stopping the technological juggernaut are important, the focus, even for radicals, should consistently be on preserving and restoring land. Not only does it provide a clear means to mitigate and sometimes even solve the problems rewilding addresses, it is a reform that will likely be retained even if society does not undergo a massive transformation. (I’ve always said that even if I ever abandon my radical ideas, I will forever and always remain a conservationist.)

The Problems with Movements and Subcultures

Movements and subcultures offer a few disadvantages:

  • Subcultures or short-lived movements often attract people who are simply not dedicated to the cause, and, in great enough numbers, they can wash out dedicated people. In addition, subcultures have a tendency to aestheticize at the expense of real political action. None of this is a total disadvantage — see the note above regarding the advantages of a “concealing mass” — so these problems are to be balanced in each particular case.
  • Short-lived movements, like Occupy Wall Street, can often attract a lot of media attention and then peter out with a terrible reputation. This is not usually a huge problem, but if the hit is bad enough it can greatly affect recruitment.
  • Short-lived movements can often over-extend their reach in the moment, and end up materially hurting the cause rather than benefiting it. For example, after the successful 1999 Seattle Riots, many green anarchists took to a “summit hopping” strategy, traveling to various major economic meetings in hopes of reproducing the riots from the WTO meeting. This strategy ultimately failed, and probably damaged the anti-globalization movement overall. Because the strategy took radical energy away from, for example, building a presence inside the international activist organizations that were forming at the time, Marxists mostly took control of those organizations, “red-washing” ecological concerns.
  • When movements find a successful tactic, they tend to overuse it, becoming predictable and therefore prone to successful government repression. Summit hopping also works as an example here, but the strategy of leaking information on major companies may threaten the anti-surveillance movement in the same way. This is an extremely important point. One of the major means by which governments stamp out resistance is giving enormous prison sentences to the few radicals they catch. Not only can this lead to the decline of a movement, it can weaken morale around the cause overall.
  • Finally, movements often become inundated with “cause junkies,” or people who are not interested in any particular cause so much as feeling important by being a part of a movement. When this occurs, movements often suffer fatal splits over differing goals and ideals, and it is likely that the government has used this to its advantage more than once.

Most of these problems are going to pop up sooner or later in any political effort. It is unclear, for example, how cause junkies can be avoided completely. But, again, it becomes easier for a cause to survive when it views movements as a means of advancing to their goals: when a movement becomes ineffective by being overwhelmed with uncommitted members, those who are truly dedicated can always retreat and use the next movement to advance their cause. This is the very heart of effective political thinking.

For more on radical strategy, see the Wild Reaction Reading List.

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