MCFly writer Philip James ponders the ethics of non-violent direct action, and seeks readers’ opinions…
Take the Flour Back is a non-violent direct action event against a crop trial of GM wheat taking place at the Rothamsted Institute in Hertfordshire on May 27th. The action aims to destroy the crops, or conduct a ‘decontamination’ as the campaign puts it. Many Manchester campaigners are in support and planning to attend (see http://www.underthepavement.org/listen-again/ for an interview with two such campaigners).
However, there are concerns that direct action of the kind planned by Take the Flour Back sets a dangerous precedent: if you don’t agree with something, break it. If every time somebody disagrees with something they break it, where does that leave us? Is it acceptable to destroy the power lines to a wind farm because you hold the sincere opinion that it spoils the environment and harms birds? We are entering highly charged times and the environmental movement might just need the rule of law and much as it needs to circumvent it. To quote A Man for All Seasons:
William Roper: So, now you give the Devil the benefit of law!
Sir Thomas More: Yes! What would you do? Cut a great road through the law to get after the Devil?
William Roper: Yes, I’d cut down every law in England to do that!
Sir Thomas More: Oh? And when the last law was down, and the Devil turned ’round on you, where would you hide, Roper, the laws all being flat? This country is planted thick with laws, from coast to coast, Man’s laws, not God’s! And if you cut them down, and you’re just the man to do it, do you really think you could stand upright in the winds that would blow then? Yes, I’d give the Devil benefit of law, for my own safety’s sake!
Then again, if you always took the Thomas More line where would we be?
Do you sometimes have to break the law to change it? Are all forms of
direct action equally valid? Is passive resistance more powerful than an act of destruction?
Any thoughts Dear Readers on direct action of this kind and where it leads for the environmental movement. Go on, post a comment!
I’m in favour of direct action as a tactic and specifically with regard to ‘Take the Flour Back’.
Firstly we need to understand that direct action is part and parcel of our legal/political system and always has been. The history of corporations, from their beginnings in the seventeenth century to the expansion of the East India Company, has been around systematic and co-ordinated direct action, repeatedly breaking company law in order to progress their agenda and ultimately change the law in their favour (a quick history on corporate activism is here: http://www.corporatewatch.org.uk/?lid=2704). Today corporations and governments repeatedly push all kinds of legislation and break the law in order to further their interests.
The law shouldn’t be seen as a static, unchanging set of rules that we’ve all agreed to, society somehow signing a social contract with itself. Instead it is a dynamic system, influenced predominantly by powerful elite interests.
In an interesting mirror to some of the climate change behaviour change debate, often ‘awareness raising’ and rhetoric are not enough to battle these huge and powerful interest groups. Sometimes, to counter the unlawful or unethical actions of corporations we need to take action ourselves, to cross the line and break the law, in particular if that law can be reasoned to be unjust.
Secondly should be considered unlawful action when there are laws that allow for legitimate use of direct action? Committing a crime to prevent a greater crime is a common defence. Recently climate activists have argued (some have even been allowed to make the argument in court!) that their actions are entirely legitimate in the face of the greater threat of climate change. I would highlight here the fact that the peace activists who damaged fighter jets and anti-GM activists were repeatedly found not guilty by juries of their peers – in effect they were innocent, they did not break the law, their actions were legitimate.
Finally, I would make a distinction between direct action and mob rule. If direct action is to be successful it needs to be routed in a wider social struggle. Ultimately it is a tactic rather than an end in itself. People who take direct action do not do so on the spur of the moment, they are thoughtful, passionate people who take action for deeply ethical reasons. For them to be successful they need much greater numbers of letter writers, fundraisers, supporters and helpers. The success of the anti-GM movement was that it included farmers, parents, grandparents, MPs, children, students (shock!), scientists, organic food enthusiasts etc etc. Direct action was an important part of the struggle but not the whole struggle.
The GM industry is deeply flawed, it seeks to create a technical solution to a problem that does not exist. We can feed the world today, the problem is the unequal distribution of food, it is, and always has been, about power and money and the elites that control those.
We should challenge a technology that is unwanted, unneeded and seeks to further commodify and place control of our food system, the lifeblood of our civilisation, in the hands of a few corporations. If that means breaking the law, so be it.
For a long time now, I have seen ‘direct action’ having the reverse affect those carrying out direct action had hoped for. I first witnessed it during the period of the planning and building of the Winchester By-pass in the 80’s. My self and many others believed it would solve nothing, but move the problem else where and only lead to increased traffic. A lot of motorists believed they it should of been re-routed away from the areas of concern, the ecologically significant sites. Then when the the direct action ‘eco-vandals’ started to dig in and build their camps. Public opinion soon shifted, saying these people were causing as much harm to the ecology as the road builders. If anything, this action put back the environmental movement, with the general public viewing environmentalist with disdain.
When ever I brought up environmental issues up, such examples of ‘eco-vandalism’ were raised, as a way of ridiculing the message I was trying to get across. And this was at times, to an audience that had some affinity to nature, as most matelots have. We had seen the damage man was doing to the planet, as we sailed the Oceans of the World. It is amazing what you see in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean, dead giant turtles wrapped up in plastic garbage. Or the oil slicks on the ice of the Antarctic Ocean.
And I have continued to notice public support swing against these direct actions, such as Manchester Airport third runway. The public did not want the Cheshire country-side concreted over. But, as soon as the protesters started digging in, the mood changed. The environmentalist lost the public support, hence the reason such people are classed still as ‘tree-huggers’. The only people who think they have been affective, is the same closed community, who only listen to themselves. Most of these people do not socialise outside their own small communities and do not see the damage they are doing to the cause they are trying to promote.
To get any where, you need the Public’s support, not a few thousand but the 99%. Just look at the SWP, they are always present at all sorts of public protests. But how much public support do they garner? Even the Greenham Common Peace Camp did not achieve it’s aim. Neither has the Faslane Peace Camp which was set-up in 1983, most locals were anti the protester than the Polaris missiles, now replaced by Trident. The only people who benefited from the protest camps were the police who earned plenty of over-time.
Isn’t this about how appropriate direct action is to use as a tactic? At times, when all other avenues have been explored or people feel a moral responsibility, direct action can be an effective tactic at others lobbying, marching or letter writing might be more relevant. Direct action is most successful when it’s inclusive, involving as many elements of the community as possible, and part of a wider campaign, when it’s a self selecting clique operating to it’s own ends it’s likely to fail.
I would disagree about the 1990s roads protests, many of the roads were built but no government has dared implement a similar national road building programme since, in major part due to the desire to avoid such protests, saving millions of tonnes of CO2 and 1,000s of hectares of green space.
As for anti-nuclear campaigns, these are campaigns of national or international significance, local support is important but shouldn’t be over emphasised and as with nuclear power stations surrounding areas are always more likely to be pro due to many workers living there.
What are your thoughts on the GM campaign and the role of direct action?
sorry, your reply about no Government pushing through new road building programs is incorrect, what about the , M25 and then it’s widening, the M6 Toll motorway and few others since the Winchester by-pass. In fact Manchester City Council, is pushing through it’s plans for a by-pass for the airport.
As for GM crops, I am against, as are most of the public. But, taking any action which involves violence, that includes violence to the GM crop, will cause a back-lash in public opinion. They will still not want GM but they will not support the activists, which will also have a negative impact on other environmental groups. There should be a stronger push, to get the message across, these crops are not grown over here, and therefore they should be tested in the USA, where they are grown and GM is more accepted. They do not need to do their experiments in the UK, especially as our climate is different from the USA.
Interesting thoughts on the importance of gauging whether you will have a general public support for you actions or not. Both for the effectiveness of the campaign and, as Jonathan points out, as a defence in court, convincing the jury that you were committing a crime to prevent a greater crime. As you note this has been a successful defence on some occasions but presumably not on others (did the Manchester Airport expansion protesters attempt to use this defence)? I do worry for those taking part in the Take the Flour Back action that they may be less successful with that defence now than they were in the late 90s, particular if GM is pitched to the jury as good for jobs and lower food prices. I still think the public is generally anti- but is there the same strength of feeling?