Workers and Wilderness

By Franklin Rosemont - Industrial Worker, May 1988

There is no other guiding light than that which is to be found in nature.


Bourgeois ideology inherited from its Judeo-Christian forerunners a deep hatred of wilderness and, by extension, hatred and fear of all wild beings and things. Everyone knows that capitalism entered the world dripping with blood and gore, and that its few hundred years of domination have been the bloodiest and goriest in all human history. Its champions, however have always liked to present themselves as an eminently civilizing force, bringing Law'n'Order and Industry not only to societies variously described as savage, primitive, backward and underdeveloped, but also to remote regions previously held to be uninhabitable by humankind.

For those who are addicted to it, civilization is regarded as a universally good thing, a blessed condition of peace, prosperity and social harmony (it is generally conceded, however, that the reality falls somewhat short of this ideal). Above all, capitalist civilization has viewed itself as the deadly enemy of wilderness, which is portrayed as an essentially evil condition of absolute violence: the total war of all against each and each against all. As it happens, the exact opposite is closer to the truth, but civilization is founded on lies and more lies, and especially Big Lies.

The drama of bloody repression disguised as progress is the history of the New World. The puritans, whose devotion to Capital equaled if not exceeded their devotion to Christ (for most of them there was probably very little difference between the two, saw their "errand in the wilderness" as a mandate to civilize a continent that was, in their eyes, uninhabited--or at best, inhabited only by unimportant, dispensable heathen, if not by outright minions of Satan. massacre and genocide were the methods by which these typically Christian capitalists introduced the amenities of civilized life to the original human inhabitants of North and South America.

The non-human inhabitants fared no better over the years. The last passenger pigeon, whose immense flocks numbering billions once darkened the skies for days at a time, died in a zoo in 1914. The bison herds had been decimated long before that. No more does the piercing cry of the ivory-billed woodpecker ring through the boundless forests, for the forests have been so cut to pieces that ivory-bills can no longer live in them. A hundred and fifty years ago the great midwestern prairies were majestic oceans of wild grasses and flowers stretching as far as the eye could see. Where are they now? Gone, one and all: annihilated by the juggernaut of Progress and Profits.

It was a hell of a price to pay for indoor plumbing, plastic slipcovers and a medicine cabinet full of Valium.


At the latest expression of the ancient affliction of patriarchy, the authoritarian and exploitative structures of capitalist civilization exacerbate and synthesize all earlier forms of social control, while uncontrolled and seemingly uncontrollable technological development constantly creates new ones undreamed of in the relatively tranquil times of Genghis Kahn or Attila the Hun.

Underlying the workers' day-today struggle against Capital in our time is a complex of social, sexual, and psychological repression evolved over many thousands of years of domination and domestication. the worker who will not join a union; the worker who scabs; the Mr. Block who loves the boss and hates radicals; the scissorbill who loves the flag and hates foreigners; the wage-slave who channels his discontent against his fellow wage-slaves rather than against the system that creates the discontent: This is a worker who is, more than anything else, repressed. So submissive is he to his own slavery that he has no consciousness of it. He is the worker exactly as the boss wants him to be: oblivious to his own real interests, opposed to his own happiness, hostile to those he should befriend; afraid of his class, afraid of himself, above all afraid of freedom and real life. Such workers, and they are hardly an inconsiderable portion of the working class, appear to be thoroughly domesticated--human sheep fighting their way to the slaughter. The question is: What are we going to do about it?

To help us find the answer, we should first ask ourselves: How did this domestication occur, historically? To what extent is it irreversible? And finally, are there any new developments that might alter the existing balance of force in the direction of freedom?


The origins of human domestication are buried deep in the quagmires of prehistory, but appear to be traceable to the beginnings of agriculture, with stages of its consolidation marked by the development of the family, private property, religion, the State and other institutions of social control.

Ancient as it is, however, the process of domestication is never really complete; it must be taken up anew with each generation and indeed with every individual. Children get called "savages," "wild Indians," and "animals" because they have not yet sunk to the level of adult domestication. Women, racial and ethnic minorities and above all working people are also subject to such revealing epithets from the self-appointed watchdogs of what Wobbly philosopher T-Bone Slim called "civilinsanity."

Church, school, law, the police and military: All these fetters exist to uphold the existing inequality--to safeguard the privileges of an exploiting minority while seeing to it that the enslaved majority adjusts to their slavery. Of course, implicitly or explicitly, the "adjustment" takes place at gun point: All slavery is maintained by coercion.

Ideologically, however, such adjustment is always insecure, at best. The producing class, the workers--and especially the most exploited, lowest paid workers--are never as contaminated by the agencies of accommodation as the bosses and bureaucrats would like them to be. Of all sectors of society the working class is notoriously the least afflicted with official miseducated or religious or political illusions. Workers may have a lot to learn, but they have much less to unlearn than most, and in matters of radical social change, that's a real advantage.

Moreover, the workers' obvious exploitation by the capitalists, who return to them in wages only a minute fraction of the wealth that they produce, naturally places them in opposition to the dominant, parasitical class that produces nothing but waste and devastation.

Historically, the working class was born wild, and everything it has accomplished for its own good and for the good of the Earth has been thanks to the fact that, at various times, it has renewed this wildness. Working-class history is the history of riots, tumults, strikes, street-fights, insurrections and revolutions that consciously or unconsciously presage a sweeping worldwide social transformation that would eliminate exploitation, establish new social relations based on mutual aid and production for use instead of profit, and therefore make life livable for all.

All the great moments in the still-unfolding saga of the struggle for working-class emancipation--from the glorious machine-smashing Luddites in the early days of the "Industrial Revolution," through the Paris Commune of 1871, the rise of the Haymarket Anarchists in [the] 1880s [in] Chicago, the countless battles of the IWW, the Mexican Revolution of 1910, the Russian Revolution of 1917, the sitdown-strike wave all over the US in the 1930s, the Spanish Revolution of 1936, the 1956 Hungarian Revolution against the state-capitalist bureaucracy, the Detroit Insurrection of 1967 and the May '68 General Strike in France, up to the titanic class wars of our own time, from Gdansk to Johannesburg, from West Virginia to Grenada, from Lordstown to Managua--reflect this fundamental global aspiration for a cooperative, free society, without competition, profiteering, war discrimination, bureaucracy, pollution and all the other vile by-products of declining capitalism's industrial depravity.

These outbreaks of revolt are not the work of timid or docile. And it is not without significance that the most characteristic expressions of rank-and-file workers' insurgency in the US in recent years have been the unofficial and illegal strikes known as wildcats.

What becomes of the Blocks and scissorbills in these rebellious manifestations? The evidence suggests that only an insignificant minority of actually go to the side of counter-revolution. Some will remain more or less passive throughout the turmoil, but many more will experience a real change in themselves and will take an active part in the revolt--further proof that their domestication consists primarily of ideological veneer, that it is not all "instinctive," and that revolutionary activity is an excellent cure. Truly it has been said that workers learn more in a week of revolution than in a decade of ordinary life.


Obituaries for the revolutionary potentiality of the American working class are as plentiful these days as politicians' promises, and the substance of them all is the same old hot air. Most laws exist to protect private property--not your handful of personal belongings or mine, and not even the property of the corner grocer's, but rather the big profit-producing property of bloodthirsty, land-raping corporations. And just who, one might ask, is all this property being protected against?

If the working class is not still a revolutionary class, retaining not only its material interest in overturning the existing state of affairs but also the ability, as a class, to do so--then what could possibly be the purpose of the US Labor Department, the National Labor Relations Board, all those multimillion-dollar union-busting consulting firms, "red-squads," and "right-to-work" [for less] outfits? Why would all those senators and congresspersons keep so busy devising still more laws to make it still more difficult for working people to exercise their democratic rights on the job and the picketline? And why would hoodlums such as the KKK and neo-nazis spend so much of their time and energies on anti-labor terrorism?

The real purposes of these repressive agencies is as obvious as the President's lies: They are there to keep working men and women deceived, divided and domesticated.

Since the enactment of the Taft-Hartly "slave labor law" in 1947 the corporations and their obedient governmental agencies have had the upper hand in American class struggles. Of course there have been mighty upheavals all along, but with a few notable exceptions--some major coal strikes, the 1970 postal workers' strike and PATCO, for examples--most of these tended to be local or regional, and unable to turn the tide.

The high point of post-World-War-II radical labor resurgence came between 1968 and 1970, when increasing numbers of rank-and-file workers, inspired by civil rights, antiwar, student, women's and environmental agitation, began not only to support these other struggles but also to add New Left demands to their own demands for change in the workplace. The specter of widespread labor revolt linked to other protest movements of the dispossessed terrified the powers-that-be, and unfortunately neither labor's rank and file nor the New Left were sufficiently prepared, organizationally or otherwise, to withstand the repression that followed. The severest government crackdown on dissidents since the notorious Palmer Raids of 1919 left this promising new movement a shambles.


Many new signs on the horizon today point to the possibility of a vastly larger and more enduring resurgence of radical labor that could dramatically transform the perspectives for revolutionary social change in the near future.

For one thing, the official "Labor" movement--the corrupt bureaucratic sham that someone once called the AFL-CIA--is at the lowest ebb of its 102-year history. Never has it been so weak, so morally and intellectually bankrupt, and so despised by its own members. Future P-9-type breakaways are inevitable, and sooner or later some of the breakaways will join together and think about building a new labor movement worthy of the name.

Moreover, the radical movements of the 1960s may have been crushed by the State, but their ideas--most of them new expressions of age-old notions of freedom, equality and solidarity--have continued to find their way to the hearts and minds of millions, including millions of young working men and women.

The American workers' longstanding boycott of elections (the percentage of working people who vote has declined with each election for over forty years) suggests that, as the new radicalism gains ground, direct action will be its preferred way of doing things. Don't forget that the most effective direct-action tactics--sitdowns, sit-ins, slowdowns, blockades, seizures of buildings, etc.--were developed by workers in the factories fields, mines and mills.

But the truly new and decisive factor in the coming labor revolt returns us to our point of departure and is, in fact, the oldest thing in the world: wilderness. Steadily over the past couple of decades a new consciousness of wilderness, of the urgency of wilderness, has inspired millions and become a real force for social transformation. the fusion of this new, radical consciousness with the emerging rebellion of workers at the point of production should mark the grandest epoch in the history of labor, and the real beginning of the cooperative commonwealth at last.

This process will play havoc with many existing habits and prejudices, and will bring forth changes infinitely more far-reaching than, for example, the turn from craft unionism to industrial unionism. But it should also promote the definitive resolution of old, paralyzing contradictions--between "ultimate goal," for example, and "immediate demands."

As long as the working class participates in the bourgeois exploitation of the natural world, its own consciousness must remain fragmented and at war with itself. As working men and women increasingly come to experience wilderness and to identify themselves with it, they will be much better able not only to defend themselves, but also to actualize their deepest aspirations for their actions will be in harmony with their real interests and the interests of the Earth. In this sense, revolutionary activity and direct wilderness experience go hand in hand, and together are the perfect antidote for all the poisons of domestication.

This much is certain: Working-class emancipation--the lever of all human emancipation--is no longer thinkable without the emancipation of Nature. Environmental/ecological demands are no longer secondary but central to workers' struggle in our time.

As wilderness is the indispensable key to an ecologically balanced planet, wilderness restoration must become a major demand of the working-class movement.

The struggle for wilderness is also a struggle against Capital, and the renewal of wilderness contributes to the struggle for the abolition of wage-slavery.

Workers still have nothing to lose but their chains. Without wilderness, we would have no world to win.

Workers of the world, be wild!