The Tactical Spectrum

This article was translated to Spanish by Animus Delendi.

Every healthy movement has a functioning tactical spectrum, connections between the most moderate to the most radical elements. For example, Earth First! provided a radical wing to the conservation movement, allowing the Sierra Club to make more impressive demands and resulting in gains for both organizations. Malcolm X and various black nationalists filled the same function for Martin Luther King and the NAACP. Radical political efforts are successful when they can pull many elements of the movement to the more radical end of the spectrum in a sustainable way. This is called “radicalization.”

Those who start a successful movement, then, must before anything else buildlink, and radicalize the tactical spectrum. Building the movement means creating factions that espouse ideas, or variations on ideas, that had no identity before. For example, when Glenn Greenwald founded The Intercept he gave a public face to a much larger anti-surveillance movement, which before then was represented by the mostly-radical faction, Wikileaks. Linking the movement means opening up social connections and communication pathways between already-existing factions. For example, the techno-utopian Steward Brand used Whole Earth Catalog to connect post-WWII research scientists with the counterculture. Radicalizing the movement means creating tolerance for radical ideas in more moderate factions and instigating a sense of urgency and purpose in the rest, which has the effect of removing their inhibitions for more extreme forms of action.

Creating a tactical spectrum is often unexciting work. While it makes a good story after the fact, in actual practice it is about social prowess, attending meetings and conferences, or arguing in backrooms and coffeeshops. It is not unlike the work of CEOs and business board-members who, over a period of years, establish connections that will sustain their businesses in the long-term.

Methods and Frames

We don’t know what the hell we’re doing. We’re trying our best. I don’t know what to do. I’m trying to find other people that are, kind of have a piece of the puzzle, so to speak.

Last Born in the Wilderness, ep. 199

The work of creating a tactical spectrum is on the one hand psychological and on the other hand organizational. The psychological components are most important for overall effect; the organizational components are most important for long-term sustainability.

Organizational work includes mostly establishing connections between various groups. This is the material backbone to the tactical spectrum, so must be done carefully and thoughtfully. Because it veers into the territory of political mechanics, which requires a level of detail outside the scope of this essay, I will not explore the organizational component here. But three examples of successful networking stand out for further study. The Bolsheviks, whose methods are explored in “Contemporary Applications of The Organizational Weapon,” spearheaded a number of tactics to infiltrate and unite factions of a potential movement spectrum. Their methods, such as establishing front groups, creating a united front, making publications for various elements of the movement, and so on, repeatedly appear in investigations of any successful example of movement building. Radical environmentalists of the 80s and 90s successfully gained global importance by building a network among scientists, eventually gaining positions in the UN and founding the science of conservation biology, a process described in Takacs’ The Idea of Biodiversity. And through Whole Earth Catalog and a series of meetings across several years, Steward Brand and related individuals built a network linking the counterculture to elites. They mostly used journalistic tactics: most of the people who established the network created careers for themselves in journalism, and they spread their ideas through publications like Whole Earth and WIRED. The mechanics and history are outlined in From Counterculture to Cyberculture.

The psychology of the tactical spectrum depends on creating certain “frames” for understanding and acting on problems. Each component of a potential tactical spectrum contains its own “frame,” that is, its own way of conceptualizing a given problem. Those who hope to unite the elements into one, overarching tactical spectrum must demonstrate how different frames overlap. This is called “frame alignment.” Often this involves creating a sort of “meta-frame” that gives the whole movement a sense of identity, although this need not be the case. For example, the anti-globalization movement hosted what are normally considered completely contradictory frames: advocates of socialism, anarchism, fascism, environmentalism, third-world government leaders, labor organizers, etc. Its “meta-frame” — anti-globalization — provided a loose sense of identity and purpose for each of the subsidiary factions, but not nearly one as extensive as, say, the Marxist ideology of the 20th century.

Importantly, frames can have political potential without identifying with a “meta-frame.” This is especially true for the rank-and-file of a movement. Looked at this way, frames are an abstract tool for thinking about psychological limits between various elements of a movement. Recognizing these limits gives leaders more power for political tactics and maneuvers. For example, an individual in the anti-surveillance movement may oppose surveillance simply on emotional grounds, but at the same time oppose Russia’s interventionism in U.S. affairs. To the leaders of the anti-surveillance movement, however, who recognize that Russia’s conflict with the U.S. has greatly aided the harder activity of anti-surveillance activists, this would be absurd. Or consider the anti-fascist movement. The bulk of them do not closely study political theory, and their opposition to fascism is, in their minds, legitimized by the widespread moral climate and historical guilt associated with Nazi Germany. As a result, their actions, such as street-fighting, are motivated primarily by emotional satisfaction rather than any grander political consciousness. It would be naive, however, to think that leaders in this movement do not see political potential in the psychological motivations; that these leaders are not exploiting this tension for larger political purposes.

This “double-consciousness” must be recognized by any would-be movement builders, because it creates a distinction between the more and less valuable members of a movement. Obviously more work is justified to keep the valuable members, that is, those with political consciousness. Those without political consciousness are, in political terms (however heinous), mostly instrumental. As Hoffer points out, “When people are ripe for a mass movement, they are usually ripe for any effective movement, and not solely for one with a particular doctrine or program. In pre-Hitlerian Germany it was often a toss up whether a restless youth would join the Communists or the Nazis.”

There already exist many different frames that can be aligned in opposition to industrial technological infrastructure. In “The Uses and Abuses of Movements and Subcultures,” I covered some that exist in an American context. In a more global context, potential frames include religious fundamentalism, anti-colonial movements, certain racial ideologies, and elements of the anti-modern right wing. It also includes the various left-wing networks between third world governments, although these mostly overlap with the previous tendencies.

The difficulty now is coming up with a proper “meta-frame.” The Wild Will Project’s Reflections series has been dedicated to devising one. Consideration has been granted to anti-globalization and world society, the nihilist impulse, certain strains of anarchism, and primitivism; and there has been debate over whether the meta-frame should tend toward looseness, as in the anti-globalization movement, or more extensive theory and identity, as in the 20th century communist movement. In the end, the project has settled on a handful of ideas.

First, the overall global frame is probably best described as a kind of political nihilism, that is, a rejection of civilization as such; a belief that the current order must completely dissolve before new orders are possible. This is the convergence point for nearly all radical ideologies. For example, the socialists of the latter-half of the 20th century made a striking turn toward a pure rejection of civilization, industrialism, and technological civilization. The focus no longer seems to be on the proletariat and class war; instead, theorists like Camatte believe that the conflict is largely between humanity and an out-of-control technological/economic apparatus. Jacques Ellul and various theorists of the Frankfurt School have espoused similar ideas. On the right, there is an increasing interest in traditionalism, whose main thinkers have an apocalyptic vision of modern industrial society. Meanwhile, religious fundamentalists of all stripes are beginning to perceive themselves as in a struggle for survival, resulting in a willingness to engage in near any kind of political action in order to preserve themselves against globalizing forces.

Second, while all these elements are united in their opposition to our current order — what we can call “world society” — their strategies for combating it vary widely, and the actual name of their enemy differs (capitalism, globalization, globalism, Western society, industrialism). Here the frame has potential for producing actual unity by pointing out that the only way to effectively eliminate the current order is by dissolving its mode of production, its economic and technological base.

Third, the most universally appealing way of reasoning out this strategic turn is through primitivism. The findings of human ecology form the theoretical basis: humans are essentially Paleolithic creatures; civilization depends on repressing natural human instincts; technological development produces artificial environments that stratify humans into a technical, controlling elite and everyone else; reliance on wild nature tends to grant individuals and small communities more power over their own affairs; civilization develops because of a material, technological backbone; etc.

On a strictly scientific level these ideas are widespread. Where human ecology becomes primitivist is when individuals place value on the primitive condition that is being lost. The tradition includes a variety of individuals from Enlightenment thinkers like Rousseau, Romantics like Whitman and Thoreau, Nietzscheans and anarchists, wilderness conservationists, and figures from the 60s counterculture. What is most important, however, is its overall psychological frame: the tension between wild nature and civilization. If each of the aforementioned movement frames are converging on political nihilism, then the only economic alternative available is greater reliance on wild nature. Primitivism helps define the meta-frame by inhabiting the most extreme end of this spectrum, advocating, in a philosophical sense, the most primitive form of human society as the condition to which humans are most suited. Insodoing it brings to light what many thinkers have pointed out before: that the question of our current, global society is really a question about civilization in general; that the tension is increasingly between the impulse to modify man to suit our now extremely technological environments, or to preserve man against this onslaught and return to less technological conditions.

When frames involve more religious, ethnic, and political modes of reasoning, the role of primitivism is not quite clear. It would not be difficult to demonstrate to certain anti-colonial movements that the way to oppose global Western society is to target its technological and economic base; it would be harder to convince them that this has to do with freeing up human instincts from technical control. The hurdle is not, of course, insurmountable. Radical ends of the spectrum rarely enjoy widespread acceptance across the tactical spectrum, and function only to anchor it. Nevertheless, the open question is whether or not primitivism is to become an overarching identity for a spectrum of movements or only an identity for a very important faction. What is clear is that primitivism is the best way to frame the problem to educated industrial citizens, whose main motivations for opposing industrial society have to do with ecological concerns and individual or small-group autonomy. And in any case, these are the individuals in the best positions to build a global network anyway.

Violence and Radicalization

The Sierra Club made the Nature Conservancy look reasonable. I founded Friends of the Earth to make the Sierra Club look reasonable. Then I founded Earth Island Institute to make Friends of the Earth look reasonable. Earth First! now makes us look reasonable. We’re still waiting for someone else to come along and make Earth First! look reasonable.

— David Brower

The question of violence is central to creating a tactical spectrum for any kind of political movement. Police put “community policing” as their public face while the most sophisticated among them recognize their violent duties; the military musters up support for wars through a variety of methods while creating psychologies tolerant of violence in the background; and intelligence agencies conduct campaigns to delegitimize target governments before doing the actual work of dismantling them. But the question of violence is especially difficult for radical political movements, because its bases of power are more grassroots, involving individuals who do not have to face the question of violence so frankly in their normal affairs.

It is usually necessary, then, to create a sense of separation between violent and non-violent factions of the spectrum, such as the split between Sinn Fein and the IRA. Importantly, however, a healthy tactical spectrum must eventually develop at least a tolerance for violence in its moderate factions. What is most important is not that moderate factions condone violence, only that they do not condemn it solely on account of its violence (condemning it for other reasons is a grayer territory). For example, when early Earth First! engaged in “monkeywrenching,” or ecological sabotage, other organizations like The Wilderness Society and the Sierra Club used these acts as opportunities to spread the conservation message. But by the time the ELF arose, when the tactical spectrum broke down because of a schism within Earth First!, representatives from the Sierra Club outright condemned the acts.

Creating a tolerance for violence is the bulk of the work of “radicalization,” and it is the most difficult aspect of creating a healthy tactical spectrum. Often it must be spearheaded by the most radical factions for years before a crisis creates a real opportunity at large-scale radicalization. Still, by analyzing the level of radicalization in the overall tactical spectrum, radical elements are able to calibrate what, exactly, they can get away with without putting themselves in a silo. All radical factions have a tendency to radicalize themselves out of existence, to prematurely instigate a crisis mentality in their members that forces them to break off from the rest of the movement. By understanding radicalization as a process, radicals in opposition to world society can avoid this tendency.

Radicalization can occur in a number of ways. The right wing of Europe and the U.S. has used a media strategy, desensitizing the public to what are normally considered outlandish claims or breaks from polite society. As a result, factions of the public most exposed to this kind of media are riper for radicalization. The left, on the other hand, has mostly employed historical methods: by pulling on the historical flair of “revolution,” they can easily point out that no revolution occurs without violence. Then, of course, there are the frankly logical arguments: that actually autonomous communities cannot export their violence to institutions like the police and military, and therefore need to engage in this violence, and regulate it, themselves.

It helps to view the problem of violence in a psychological way: the whole tactical spectrum actually resides in each individual committed to these ideas. If they do fall within the ideological bounds, the meta-frame, then they have the capacity to inhabit any real part of the spectrum. In psychoanalytic terms the most moderate might be understood as the movement superego, the most extreme an expression of the darkest aspects of a repressed id. A movement should more or less reflect this individual’s psychological spectrum. The moderate engaging in moderate activity may only do so because this is what he believes is possible, or because he has other concerns, like a family; but certainly he often wishes that he could lash out violently in the name of his cause. Nearly every conservationist has felt like Ted Kaczynski; nearly every American has some kind of admiration for folk heroes who have successfully attacked the banks, the government, or other elite institutions; and nearly every black activist has felt kinship with Macolm X’s “The Ballot or the Bullet.” A healthy, truly radical movement gives space for the full spectrum of human emotion, allowing for a sort of revolt of the social unconscious. Only then can there be enough instability for the political order to actually be rearranged.

It is important to emphasize that radicalization rarely occurs systematically. For the most part its groundwork is prepared through movement building and linking, and huge factions of the movement are radicalized, all at once, during punctuated moments of crisis. For example, Occupy Wall Street built on a network of left-wing activism that had been developing for quite a while before 2011; but the movement itself radicalized a number of young people by opening up opportunities for rioting, street tactics, and communication with more radical elements. The Trump election provided a similar opportunity for the right wing (as did the political campaigns of Trump’s European corollaries). In my own development, it wasn’t until I first experienced a riot that I realized just how far radical action could potentially go. The riot itself was, in the grand scheme of things, uneventful. But its psychological effect was profound because it brought opportunities into view that I did not truly understand until I experienced them. Still, had I not read the books and spoken to the people I did beforehand, the riot could have had an opposite effect.

Radicalization is a recursive process. That is, the same process that occurs to movement members eventually occurs to the movement overall, also because of some crisis. Traditional leftist theory calls the overall crisis the “revolution,” but the name is unimportant. What is important is that it produces a certain kind of psychology: one that removes inhibitions in the general populace and directs repressed anger and resentment toward a specific set of targets. Such a crisis, like a riot, opens up opportunities for action and communication on a large political scale, and provides an opportunity for mass radicalization — but only if the infrastructure for radicalization was built up in the previous years.


See also “Wild Reaction Reading List.”

  • The Organizational Weapon, Philip Selznick
  • Networks and Netwar, Arquilla and Rondfeldt
  • The Idea of Biodiversity, David Takacs
  • From Counterculture to Cyberculture, Fred Turner
  • The True Believer, Eric Hoffer
  • Frame Analysis: An Essay on the Organization of Experience, Erving Goffman
  • Anti-Tech Revolution: Why and How, Ted Kaczynski

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