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Apocalypse activism; a review of the film END:CIV

END:CIV is a film doing the rounds of radical spaces and a distillation of certain currents of thought. It’s a propaganda film, and quite a well made one. But it’s primarily a film that wants to convince activists just to be more hardcore activists: and therefore I don’t think it’s going to get us anywhere much good at all.

The film is based on the writings of Derek Jensen, in particular the two-volume Endgame. It’s made up of talking-head interviews with Jensen and other activists/writers from the North American anti-civ/radical environmental/anti-colonial/anarchist milieus. Interspersed with these are case studies of a sort: particular key examples of environmental devastation and systemic violence and, sometimes, resistance. It’s well put together in a Rage Against the Machine video clip kind of way: pictures of western decadence and war intercut with images of clearcut forests and the hard working/starving brown bodies of the global south (more on that problematic later.)

The film names the system responsible for its footage of devastation as civilisation. Now, the general response to the idea of opposing or bringing down civilisation tends to be something like ‘fuck that, I don’t want to live in the forest and eat berries.’ For the moment, however, I want to step around the idea of being for or against technology (which isn’t really what the film is about) in order to look at what else the film says about how we live and how this could be changed. That is, I want to talk about people (and the organisation between us), rather than talking about things.

END:CIV defines ‘civilisation’ as a form of social organisation: life based in cities, such that groups of people need resources from outside the area they live in. However the film primarily talks about ‘industrial civilisation’, which isn’t defined but which I take to mean the oil-based economy: our present capitalist order. I don’t want to ignore the very real differences in analysis between those of us who name the problem as ‘capitalism’ and those who name it ‘civilisation’, but I do think that generally we are responding to the same set of structures and problems.

Environmentally-friendly cluster bombs and other wonders of the world.

It’s a film about the devastating effects of the current system and the failure of partial responses to the ecological crisis this system has created. The film is strongest in its critiques of the illusion of ‘green capitalism’. There are certain things that bring the horrid absurdity of the whole system unto sharp focus, and footage of Obama launching an ‘environmentally friendly’ fighter jet (it’s called the Green Hornet, it runs on biofuels) is one such key image. Similarly, the list of heads of major environmental lobbying organisations who have moved to head logging/mining/petroleum companies is also revealing of certain key truths.

The problem, as the film points out, is that all of this corporate environmentalism – and the argument that change can come through individual consumer choices of ‘green’ versions of products – takes the industrial economy as something that must continue, while life on this planet is more optional.

It’s easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism.

It seems to be easier for us today to imagine the thoroughgoing deterioration of the earth and of nature than the breakdown of late capitalism; perhaps that is due to some weakness in our imaginations.

– Frederic Jameson, The Seeds of Time (1994)

The film looks to and dreads apocalypse. Hanging over us is the threat and promise of a future event: peak oil and collapse and the tipping point of global warming all combining in one imminent moment. This creates a sense of urgency. We’re out of time. We have to act now. There isn’t enough time to convince the majority of people to change so we just have to do what it takes.

Now, I have sympathy for some iterations of urgency: for the idea that we don’t wait for the perfect (future) historical moment but strike now, in and for our own lives. But this is different from an urgency that says that we have no time to make choices. There’s also a difference in starting from our own lives because that is where we are, because we recognise that we’re fighting for our own lives, and making an assumption that we will forever be a minority: the only people able to work out that action is needed.

Give up activism

We have to accept and internalise that the majority of institutions, the majority of people, are never going to be on our side. So we have to sit down as individuals, as activists, as communities of resistance, cultures of resistance and say, ok, what will it take to stop this culture from destroying the planet.


This is the core problem of END:CIV. It ignores social organisation and just divides the world into three types of people. There are the bad people who have too many interests in the state of things and won’t be convinced by anything but force. There are activists, who care and do things but aren’t doing enough. And then there’s everyone else, the masses, who are kind of bought off, kind of miserable, but neutral.

The aim of the film is to convince activists to accept and use more militant tactics. However, rather than doing the same thing but more, maybe we need to question more deeply how we see the world and how we imagine changing it.

Although there are useful critiques of aspects of it, ‘Give Up Activism’ remains an important commentary on the activist mentality, especially of the continuity from single-issue campaigns (say, environmentalism) to a revolutionary movement (anti-capitalism, or an attempt to ‘bring down civilisation’.)

By ‘an activist mentality’ what I mean is that people think of themselves primarily as activists and as belonging to some wider community of activists. The activist identifies with what they do and thinks of it as their role in life, like a job or career. In the same way some people will identify with their job as a doctor or a teacher, and instead of it being something they just happen to be doing, it becomes an essential part of their self-image.

The activist is a specialist or an expert in social change. To think of yourself as being an activist means to think of yourself as being somehow privileged or more advanced than others in your appreciation of the need for social change, in the knowledge of how to achieve it and as leading or being in the forefront of the practical struggle to create this change.

[…] The activist, being an expert in social change, assumes that other people aren’t doing anything to change their lives and so feels a duty or a responsibility to do it on their behalf. Activists think they are compensating for the lack of activity by others. Defining ourselves as activists means defining our actions as the ones which will bring about social change, thus disregarding the activity of thousands upon thousands of other non-activists. Activism is based on this misconception that it is only activists who do social change – whereas of course class struggle is happening all the time.

There really isn’t that much difference between blockading infrastructure with a mass of bodies and destroying it through sabotage if both interventions are isolated acts carried out by a group of specialists. People will be moved on, things will be rebuilt. Either act only has meaning as part of a broader web of activity, as something that spreads. It is not easy to be certain how an action will resonate and echo – but this is no excuse to give up any consideration of what an act means and to whom.

Violence isn’t the issue

END:CIV’s critique of an ideological commitment to non-violence is one of its strengths.* It makes the point that the maintenance of the current system relies on (often hidden) violence. It also places the historical figures often (re)cited as proof of the success of non-violent activism – Martin Luther King and Gandhi – within a historical context, and shows that they were actually part of much broader movements which included other tactics and other figureheads – Malcom X and Bhagat Singh.

Jensen relates a conversation he had with a friend in which he explains the violence hidden in our everyday life. He says: ‘why do you pay rent? Because otherwise you’d be evicted by force. Where was your shirt made? Bangladesh.’ But what does it mean to equate ‘Bangladesh’ with violence while clearly addressing an audience that he assumes is far away from such violence? Or rather, whose violence is he referring to here? The violence used against Bangladeshi workers? Or the violence of the workers who burn down their factories? People are not simply recipients of the violence of capital, nor passive beneficiaries of its violence. Capitalism is only violent because it has to be: because of resistance. But where do factory-burning workers fit in an analysis that says that ‘we’ won’t have time to convince most people that things need to change?

In making the point that petitions and demands will not be enough to effect real change the film makes the argument that change will not come through moral persuasion. And it’s true that the wealthy and the powerful will never be talked out of their wealth and power, no matter how nicely formatted the letter. However, the analysis that change doesn’t come from persuasion alone is then extended to an understanding that there isn’t time to convince most people of what needs to be done. The activist idea that it’s all about us, the people with the right ideas, putting these ideas in people’s heads is mixed with a pessimism that suggests that most people will never grasp ‘our’ ideas. When you add to this an analysis that sees force as separate too – and more important than – ideas, and throw in the urgency of the end of the world, you get a confusing and dangerous mix.

We have not been invaded by aliens – the apocalypse is already here

There is no coming apocalypse to be caused by climate change. We are living in the midst of the apocalypse today. […] Yet every moment in history yearns to be insurrectionary. However, making the insurrection generalise and succeed is a question not only of our subjective desire to overthrow capital and the state, but also of objective conditions in which such an overthrow of the existing order makes sense to people in terms of their survival and the survival of their children. With catastrophic climate change, the objective conditions have never been better.

Introduction to the Apocalypse

The film’s tagline is: “If your homeland was invaded by aliens who cut down the forests, poisoned the water and air, and contaminated the food supply, would you resist?” But the problem is, while all of these things are happening, they are not being done by aliens. Similarly, speakers in the film use metaphors of fascist occupation and colonisation: but capitalism isn’t an external invading force. We all keep capitalism going every day.

We can see the same thing in two ways. One way of looking at it is to see the system as a giant machine in which people are fixed and powerless. Or, we can see that people are more powerful than the machines of civilisation because without us they would simply be things. It’s our work (in all its forms) that keeps the system moving. As someone wrote on a wall: ‘The boss needs us. We don’t need the boss.’

Capitalism isn’t its things. It’s an anarchist truism to say that you can’t blow up a social relationship. However, there’s certainly destruction involved in the process of restructuring social relationships. But what is created (new relationships, new spaces, new senses of possibility) is as important as what is destroyed.

‘Realism’ and ‘success’

Organised resistance means facing power head on


…it shows all the symptoms of sickness of a not-so-anarchist conception of struggle and revolution, which believes in being able to pose an illusionary anarchist mastodon before the mastodon of power in a symmetrical way

Letter to the anarchist galaxy

The film suggests that if we’re going to be realistic about making the changes that are needed then we need to adopt a certain structure for the movement. Now, I am always sceptical of calls to be realistic, because they always involve accepting certain elements of the current state of things. The things I want are impossible.

END:CIV suggests that we need to look at ‘successful movements’ from the past and follow their model of specialisation into an above-ground and a below-ground wing.** But what do they mean by a successful movement?

The key example given of a movement that followed this structure is the ANC, the African National Congress in South Africa.*** However, is the ANC really a success? Yes, the apartheid system was ended and that’s a victory that deserves to be celebrated. But when the ANC took power, they instituted neo-liberal policies that mean that the majority of Black South Africans are actually worse off than they were under apartheid, and that inequality has increased. (See, for example, ‘Amandala! Ngawethu!’, Jeremy, Mutiny 64, March/April 2012, .pdf)  So holding the ANC up as a success is very historically ignorant for a film that is very good, elsewhere, and analysing movements of the past. Either that, or it’s revealing: perhaps the film is suggesting that the movement to be created can abolish civilisation on behalf of everyone else, and if they then put something even worse in place, that’s just too bad.

* I have to step away from the film for just a minute, as we can’t really ignore Jensen’s participation in the recent debates around violence and the Occupy movement. Jensen was interviewed by Chris Hedges for the notorious article in which Hedges calls the Black Bloc a ‘cancer’ in Occupy. Jensen’s participation in this article is quite a contrast to the critique he makes in the film of the ideology of nonviolence. Hedges’ article performs the same ahistorical glorification of Martin Luther King that the film criticises. Jensen says that it’s ok for people in Nigeria to struggle violently, because they’ve tried to work within the system and that hasn’t worked out for them. But people in the US, he says, have to try working within the system first. This doesn’t just go against the arguments he himself has made in his books and writing, it’s also a fairly standard neo-colonial double standard: brown people far away can’t be expected to hold to the same moral standards as ‘us.’Jensen’s about-turn seems to be because he got pissed off at some anarchists who criticised him for going to the FBI after receiving death threats: so he now wants to criticise all anarchists (which he, like Hedges, equates with the Black Block Organisation).

** Other critics have noted that of course the talking-heads and theorists of this model (ie those featured in this film) assume that their place is to be an above-ground leader, rather than one of the people taking the risk of putting the ideas into practice. I do think that saying all of this publicly does involve a certain amount of risk.

*** I can’t remember if this example was given in the film or by the film’s director after the Sydney screening.