Fighting like an Animal: A Wildist Self-Critique of "Elements of Resistance"

Jeriah Bowser I Ecology & Sustainability I Book Review I January 11th, 2016

A few years ago I wrote a book, entitled, "Elements of Resistance: Violence, Nonviolence, and the State" (EoR). In it, I presented a spectrum of resistance which explored the impacts of colonization on individuals and on social movements. The more colonized, I argued, the more prone to engage in either ineffective pacifism or reactive violence. As we slowly decolonize ourselves through engaging in a variety of practices, our resistance becomes more effective until we reach the final stage of Total Liberation. I offered many critiques of pacifism as well as violence, and closely analyzed the struggles of Gandhi, Mandela, and King Jr. while noting the role that violent resistance played in the nonviolent struggle. I offered resistance as an effective antidote to apathy and nihilism, and discussed various methods of decolonization which we can engage in that will serve our resistance. While it was a fun project and I think a lot of what I wrote might be relevant and helpful to many, there are also some major weaknesses in the book which I now see and would like to critique.

For those who have been following my philosophical evolution, I have recently positioned myself as a Wildist, meaning that I attempt to categorically reject the philosophical assumptions of civilization which are present in almost all ideologies I have thus far experienced. From this standpoint, I can look back over much of my previous work, including EoR, and see that my arguments and experiences were mired in Leftism and the logic of civilization. While it is frustrating to have such strongly negative feelings about my previous work, I feel that subjecting my own work to the Wildist critique is only fair. My criticisms of EoR are threefold: 1) I failed to account for the phenomenon of pacifism being a byproduct of domestication 2) I based my arguments for resistance on a platform of objective Morality, as opposed to subjective (primal) experience, and 3) I relied heavily on the assumptions of Progress throughout the book.

Have you ever killed an animal or witnessed its execution? If you haven't, then I encourage you to spend an afternoon watching scenes from factory farming videos to familiarize yourself with how our culture treats other forms of life to give you some context for how animals respond when they are being attacked. You will not see pacifism or nonviolence of any sort, but animals desperately fighting for their lives until they cannot fight any longer. Even after their throats have been slashed or their heads decapitated, their body thrashes violently long after the execution. For those who have participated in the killing of another animal, you don't need anyone to explain to you what primal resistance looks like. Pacifism, understood as the ability to not defend oneself when attacked, is only present in domesticated humans. We are the only animals who have the mental ability to override our primal body impulses to defend ourselves. I am not referring here to pacifism as strategic resistance, waiting for the best moment to defend oneself. Rather, I am describing humans who willingly submit themselves to bodily harm and even death in the name of objective Morality. No other domesticated animals display this behavior, and I believe it is because of the potent combination of the human capacity for self-consciousness, the specter of Cartesian Dualism, the mythological evolution of Morality within civilized human consciousness, and the phenomenon of trauma-bonding (Stockholm syndrome).

Not only do civilized humans have the capacity to inflict harm on our own bodies (a manifestation of Dualism, as our 'mind' is attacking our 'body') but we have combined this ability with an objective Moral concept which states that allowing others to harm us without resisting them makes us morally/spiritually superior to them. For pacifists, this belief is ultimately more meaningful and powerful than their immediate experience of being attacked, or else they wouldn't allow it to happen. Of course, this Morality, no matter what philosophical or spiritual tradition it stems from, is always heavily conditioned with Power and Progress. Pacifists have completely internalized the logic of civilization by choosing to welcome the domesticating power of violence rather than resist it (Nietzsche's concept of "slave morality" ties in nicely here). This is also a manifestation of asceticism, as pacifism denies the body-experience in favor of a Moral or spiritual experience. The connections between pacifism and ascetic spiritual traditions are well established, I won't elaborate on them here. While pacifism is a fascinating manifestation of human domestication, it is also quite disturbing. I now reject pacifism not out of any abstract notions of colonization or privilege, but because I understand it to be a symptom of my domestication. As an animal attempting to rewild myself, pacifism does not serve me or my journey at all. When I am attacked, I will defend myself. When those I love are attacked, I will defend them, no matter the consequences.

My second critique of EoR is its heavy reliance on objective Morality to make claims that I believed would convince people to resist oppression. Most of these claims were the standard anarcho-leftist appeals to "a world built on the principles of love, community, connection, respect, mutual aid, egalitarianism, voluntary participation, and freedom where all living beings on the earth are free from oppressive violence. [1]" Apart from the fact that I described a world which only exists in utopian novels, I believe that resistance born from abstract, objective ideas about the way the world should be is ultimately less meaningful, effective, and sustainable than subjective/primal resistance to an immediate experience of oppression. To use the Woodburn's metaphor, I am describing the difference between immediate return resistance and delayed return resistance.[2] When we resist out of dedication to some abstract ideal or belief, we are engaging in objective or delayed-return resistance, which is what every social justice campaign, equality movement, and leftist crusade ever has based built on. Subjective, immediate-return, or primal resistance, is simply holding boundaries for your Self whenever it is attacked. Of course, the boundaries for Self are wherever we set them, so defending a person or bioregion you love is also defending your Self. For an example of these two distinct ways of resisting, consider a young person who intuitively feels her connection to the Earth, acknowledges that her culture is destroying the planet, and wants to act on these feelings. The instant she acknowledges this, she is immediately presented with many different movements to join and follow. She then follows the directions and examples of professional activists and organizers: signing petitions, posting status updates on social media, participating in marches, and even engaging in some act of symbolic dissent where she gets arrested for "the cause." When she gets arrested and is coached to accept the State-imposed consequences of her resistance in order to appeal to the consciences of those in power, she will eventually begin wondering why she ever thought this was a good idea.

Foregoing the obvious critiques of the effectiveness of this type of action, I would posit that her resistance is probably lacking in giving meaning to her life and will ultimately fizzle out, leaving her disenchanted and more disempowered than before. Her very valid anger and sense of injustice has been co-opted into a movement that she has no connection with, her primal urge to resist domestication has been turned into symbolic ritualized dissent, and her intuitive wisdom has been suppressed even further. Contrast this scenario with a young person who, out of a strong and long-standing relationship with a particular bioregion, feels personally threatened when civilization begins colonizing her land. While she may draw inspiration from others who have effectively resisted similar situations, she does not wait to be told what to do, which senator to call, or what petition she needs to sign. She defends the land because she loves it, because she realizes that she is protecting herself. She does whatever needs to be done to defend what she loves, she is not burdened by moral boundaries, historical precedents, or rules of engagement, and is not limited to what others have done or are doing.

Not only will her resistance be much more relevant and effective, but in the event that she does get caught and has to suffer the consequences, her suffering will have so much more meaning to her and will actually enrich her connections to the land and to herself. Not only have I experienced this personally, but in reading prison letters and talking to various resistors who have paid heavy penalties for their actions, I continually see a stark difference between objective vs. subjective resistors. There is a huge difference between spending years in jail for an abstract political ideal vs. for defending somebody you love. This principle applies to every act of resistance. When I walk down the street and witness a cop harassing or beating somebody, I can choose to act based on an abstract notion of equality, privilege, and injustice, or I can react out of primal anger over the situation, because I immediately choose to care about the person being assaulted. When femininity is insulted or attacked, I can choose respond out of loyalty to my political dedication to feminism, or I can honor my own primal femininity that instinctively reacts to violent masculinity. When someone attacks an animal I love, I don't justify my inaction with my purchasing habits and online petitions, I stop them by whatever means necessary. Objective resistance focuses on ideas and symbols, subjective resistance focuses on what is immediately in front of us. Can I ever stop industrial logging? Of course not, but I can save a few trees that I love. Will my antifascist actions ever put a dent in racism? No, but I can teach a few skinheads a lesson they'll never forget. Challenging systemic oppression is incredibly disempowering, which is why is so many activists retire after a few years to take cushy jobs at NGO's or environmental organizations. Challenging oppression when it's happening right in front of you, to someone that you love, is a very empowering experience. Of course, there is no firm boundary between these two ways of resisting; primal resistance can heavily influence and contribute to a larger movement, and many who join movements eventually find themselves subjectively resisting in the process. As I discuss elsewhere, primal resistance is a deeply healing, decolonizing, and undomesticating process, as the primal resistor is asserting their autonomy and reclaiming their primal birthright. [3]

Another way I relied on Morality is my use of the concept of "privilege." When I resist oppression, I do so out of love for something immediately real to me, not out of abstract Morality or guilt-induced obligation to those "less privileged than me." This depiction of privilege, which I relied on heavily throughout my book, is very Christian. It is essentially creating a scenario in which one is "fallen" through their privileged birthright, and must "redeem" themselves through acts of solidarity and resistance. I believe this is manipulative and unnecessary. While I realize that these privileges exist, I do not resist out atonement for my privileges. Rather, I simply fight for what I love and for what gives me meaning. Confronting racism, sexism, homophobia, etc. are not duties that I must perform to acquit myself of being born a straight white male, they are actions that I engage in because I hate ignorance, because I realize that what happens to the Other is what happens to me, and because doing so gives me immediate satisfaction and meaning.

My final critique of EoR is the language and assumptions of Progress I use throughout the book. The most obvious example of this is in chapter five where I articulate the origins of oppression in our world and in chapter seven, where I lay out a progression of decolonization that I assert will result in Total Liberation. The deep impressions of my fundamentalist Christian upbringing show up strongly here, as I very clearly borrowed Judeo-Christian mythology for my anarcho-leftist project. I present an origin story, the fall into the darkness of oppressive violence, a main antagonist (the State), various heroes and villains along the way, a method of salvation for the colonized to achieve decolonization, a Morality to guide our actions, and an eventual Paradise of peace and equality... a linear path to salvation, if you just follow these simple steps. As a wildist, I now reject these assumptions of Progress, which include linear Historical Time, Origins, and Paradise. I fight not for a better tomorrow, but for a better now. My actions are not predicated on a linear progression into Paradise, but on a cyclical return to wildness. My energy is not spent on some distant utopia, but on the present struggle. While I realize that rewilding is a process and a journey, I do not presume to know the one correct path for others to take, and I do not assume to know what the future holds. I am rewilding and resisting now because it is immediately meaningful and relevant to me.

My inspiration for resistance no longer comes from the legacy of famous domesticated male humans (History), but rather from the many animals, plants, indigenous human cultures, and bioregions that have shared their fight for survival with me: the rattlesnake that outran the firefighter who was trying to kill it, the sheep that fought its way out of the slaughterhouse and into the Desert, the huge trout which escaped my line three times in a high alpine evening, the group of wild horses that fled the roundup and found their way back into the canyon, the squirrel who stole the peanut butter out of my traps for a week straight, the Deserts' continual reclaiming of itself, the grasses that break up the asphalt and the sidewalk, the wind and rain which erode the roof of my apartment, and the Earth's gradual warming in order to kill the cancer which has attacked it. Bill "Avalon" Rogers' (ELF land defender, participant in the 1998 Vail arson) final words to the world are a great source of inspiration to me, " Certain human cultures have been waging war against the Earth for millennia. I chose to fight on the side of the bears, mountain lions, skunks, bats, saguaros, cliff rose and all things wild. But tonight I have made a jail break - I am returning home, to the Earth, to the place of my origins."


[1] EoR, page 106

[2] James Woodburn's "Egalitarian Societies" is a great introduction to this anthropological concept:

[3] "Into the Wild, Part Two: Rewilding Self"