An Interview with Peter Gelderloos, Part I: Anarchism and Environmental Struggle
This is the first of two parts of an interview with Peter Gelderloos. Part I contextualizes Gelderloos’s work, before discussing the politics of anarchism and direct action in present ecological struggles. It includes commentary on the recent upsurge of climate protests.
The Catalunya coastline with restrooms painted: “Anarchy-Squat-Equality.” Photo: Alexander Dunlap
Many of you are likely familiar with the works of Peter Gelderloos. If you are not, Peter might be among the most important Anglophone ‘movement’ or ‘protest’ scholars in recent times. They have dedicated their non-fiction work to supporting and strengthening social struggle in general, meanwhile placing a special emphasis on anarchist politics and struggles.
What has gained Peter significant notoriety has been his debunking of the myths and inaccurate historical portrayals of non-violence. Revealing the flaws, ideological prejudices and stakes that have created a powerful social-cultural ethos, obscuring the politics of resistance in mainstream social movements around the globe. How Non-Violence Protects the State (2005) and The Failure of Nonviolence: From the Arab Spring to Occupy (2013) have been remarkable works in this regard. Peter has also offered useful guides for horizontal organizing in Consensus: A New Handbook for Grassroots Social Movements (2006), while later expounding on the viability of anarchism with Anarchy Works (2010). His latest work, Worshiping Power: An Anarchist View of Early State formation (2017), examines the strategies and tactics employed by colonial and statist forces to manage insurgency and control territories to allow the flourishing of techno-capitalist progress.
Inspiring this interview, besides Peter’s extensive background, is a book in preparation with Pluto Press offering an anarchist exploration and critique of climate change and environmental politics. I caught up with Peter in Catalonia , where the interview below is the product of our haphazard walk on the beach that concluded coincidentally at an enormous anarchist graffiti on the beach (see photo). The interview was minimally edited and cut into two parts.
Part I, below, begins with Peter’s background, anarchist connections with environmental struggles and commentary on the recent upsurge of climate protests.
Part II discusses Extinction Rebellion, decolonization and the reproduction of colonial control and trauma, before briefly hearing about Peter’s forthcoming book and some groups in socio-ecological resistance.
It is my hope the reader can, in some way, find the following interview parts (I & II) enjoyable, if not useful in their struggles.
Alexander Dunlap: – The state of the world ain’t looking so good, yet for the last couple of years people started realizing that the world is burning and all of the sudden they woke up [with the global climate protests]. But at the same time a lot of this is related to elite interest… How long have you been paying attention to social struggle and been involved in them?
Peter Gelderloos: – It’s been 20 years and a bit.
– Tell me a bit about you, you’ve been active in the anarchist movement for about 20 years?
– Yes, because of where I grew up it took a little bit longer to find the anarchist movement but going back further, I was aware of some environmental struggle. I grew up in Virginia [USA], in soulless suburbs. It was pretty easy to see that the society we were being sold was crap. Also, I happen to grow up in a part where it was a bit more rural—and transitioning from having some worthwhile places (forest, farms, orchards) that would be destroyed progressively. It was a place where property values started ballooning and exploding and went from not huge houses to fucking million-dollar mansions. When I was a kid, there was a definite connection between wealthy people and a total lack of regards for a healthier relationship with nature spaces and food production.
– So your concerns come directly from feeling and sitting with those changes when you were a kid and teenager?
– Yeah, yeah totally. It definitely motivated me to look at things that were happening. There was also a time, I can’t remember what year it was in… I was a young teen and somehow I found out about Ken Saro-Wiwa, a Nigerian activist who basically got executed for going up against Shell Oil Company, and it wasn’t too hard to connect that to the car and parking lot culture that’s at the heart of suburbia. Which I also connected with questions of mental health, social hypocrisy, domestic violence and messed up family structure… The facade of the American Dream.
– And is it this intersection of many issues that led you towards anarchism and anarchist ideas?
– The first time I encountered anarchists, or an anarchist movement that was alive and present, it all immediately made sense to me. At least as one lens or idea that brought together all these different questions and made sense of all of them rather than splitting them up into different issues as with the bullshit hypocritical lens of charity in the Global North with problem happening elsewhere, when clearly it was different facets of the same problem.
– Yeah with all that charity, with all these NGOs these problems somehow manage to proceed…
– Somehow, somehow, but you know it's a good thing that NGO executives make such a solid income, otherwise it’s hard to hold it down in this world…
– Do you remember, I think it was in 2013, Greenpeace lost 3.8 million euros in the London stock exchange…. And this led you more towards an anarchist analysis, which at the center of that framework is the State as a key source perpetuating these issues?
– Yeah, somehow a lot of people look to the State as a national ally or the structure that will solve these environmental problems. But in my experience, shortly after I was taking part in the anarchist movement, it was at a time when the movement in North America was giving a lot of support to ecological struggle and direct actions: saving forests through tree sits, stopping developments by burning them down…. 1
– Then I started learning about all the amazing and powerful struggles that had happened (and were happening), which my folks or school never taught me about. And one of the strongest ones in the North American context from the previous generation being the American Indian movement. What the State did to knock them down, all the murders, the imprisonments, the surveillance… And then connecting it with my own time frame to the Green Scare which broke out a few years after I connected with anarchist movements. There was just no question what role the State was playing with regards to movements that struggle against the machine that destroys people, the planet…
– I’m a little bit perplexed as to how people get to the idea that it’s the State that’s going to save the people and save the planet…. Certainly, we can delve into our cheap psychological theories, which will have at least a little bit of validity. Yet, it is an odd phenomenon to say the least.
– And what are the struggles that first spoke to you as a young activist in anarchist and ecological struggles?
– It was during the time of the anti-globalization movement. So, people who were criticizing how capitalism functioned globally, with an internationalist perspective that connected problems at all levels in the supposedly successful countries with problems at all levels in countries that supposedly needed more “First World” charity. Connecting that to an anti-capitalist and anti-colonialist analysis that showed, for example in the words of Walter Rodney “How Europe underdeveloped Africa” or how the solution that was passed off was actually the problem. You know that pattern crops up again and again and that can be applied to environmental struggle today. So, you know there’s that, like the “Battle of Seattle,” connecting the destruction of worker organization to the hollowing out of environmental protection to resources extractivism, extinction, sweatshops and all the rest. And shortly after that, the anti-war movement being reborn again in a fairly spectacular and hollow form when the US started planning the next invasion of Iraq.
– I guess when I first heard of you it was in Powell’s or Laughing Horse bookstore in Portland, Oregon, with How Non-Violence Protects The State. I was like “All right! Somebody finally said it.” And it kind of put you on the map in terms of having deep conversations about reflecting on social struggle and what are effective tactics, how people can build and move these things… I’m pretty sure you are sick of these things, as you have been talking about this for years, but the conversation comes back up again, with this new climate concerns. We have Greta Thunberg, Friday for Future and all these other organizations, which include a 15 year old teen taking front row at the United Nations talking about the need to address climate change, which has sparked Extinction Rebellion and this new revival of environmental concerns. What has been your experience or your observation on this new push?
– On the one hand, if you're a kid in high school and you’re starting to go on strike because you see that the society we’re living in is destroying the planet and your future. I mean honestly, more power to you — that is a good start. It is great to see young folks withholding their training to become the next generation of cogs in the machine, so going on strike is a really good start. If you’re a kid who’s growing up in North America or Europe — with these kinds of Global North privileges, as the case might be also “white privilege” — it’s incumbent of you, it’s your responsibility to check in about that, with how that fits in the rest of the world. If you’re already checking in about the fact that you’re growing up in a place that’s based around cars and petroleum, excess consumption and all the rest... and the disruptive effects it has in the world, it does not make sense why you would stop there and not question other aspects of that same oppression and exploitation, where colonialism and racial capitalism enter the picture.
– And for me it’s kind of odd to propose environmental struggle as though there weren’t already very real struggles taking place against a lot of these same things, these same problems that are connected to a very powerful history and struggle with a deeper analysis. Histories of struggle provide collective intelligence, a reservoir of experience — in terms of conversations where you can find out what has been done before and where you get to decide how you are going to adapt that to your personal situation. But if you’re just completely ignoring this history, you’re setting yourself up for failure and it’s absolutely arrogant to all the people that have made your struggle possible — because there are people out there who have stopped airport constructions, or people who have shut down environmentally destructive mines, people who have stopped pipelines and so on.
– There are also people who have tried and failed, they learned a whole lot more — and risked a whole lot more — than simply not showing up at school or marching through a city and pouring fake blood over yourself. So, this refusal to engage with struggles that are already there, it smacks of arrogance and of racism, and if you look historically at the movements that followed that exact model, they are all movements with a certain amount of authoritarianism at their center, which are basically trying to take over and monopolize issues. And they almost never accomplish anything except sometimes the formation of a new political party or getting some of their leaders elevated to positions of power.
– The Indignados movement or M15 movement in Spain did the same thing, it was designed to go viral. It was launched at a time when anticapitalistic struggles were on the rise and were getting stronger (Arab Spring, Greek square occupation, etc.) and connected to this international wave of struggle, so it had more potential for internationalist analysis, and it made zero reference to all of that. The purpose was to reset so that it could be taken over by this intellectual middle-class reformist line and some people were able to radicalize it for a while but then it just failed and eventually turned into a new political party that is now in government and is not accomplishing much of anything.
– Many other people and groups talked about how Greta was just setting up the demand for green capitalist solutions, setting up the dominoes for a green capitalists to access a huge amount of public funds, for setting up a green economy where again nature is bought and sold as a commodity. The outcome would be a new liberal class that would become millionaires. A lot of this discourse was to open up and revive a green and financial economy.
– Yeah of course. I am sure Greta is intelligent enough to see that and I hope she does more reading and talks with more people with different perspectives instead of just being seduced by the fame and by the adults. There is still time for her to develop anti-capitalist and anti-colonialist analysis and if she does not she is basically going to be cashing in cynically, like the cynicism she criticizes.
- The documentary, If a Tree Falls: The Story of the Earth Liberation Front (2011, available here:), looks at one high-profile action group during these times: https://duckduckgo.com/?q=If+a+Tree+Falls+documentary&t=newext&atb=v245-1&iax=videos&ia=videos&iai=https%3A%2F%2Fwww.youtube.com%2Fwatch%3Fv%3DUmZkNNJqr1I&pn=1