It took me a long time to realise that what I thought was my own free will was actually a mercilessly manipulated and largely predetermined way of living my life: “free will” was whatever this civilization told me was the “right” way to live. It took me even longer to accept that I didn’t have to live this way – that there was a multitude of other paths that my life could take, if only I could shake off the devil that seemed to cling to my back, always urging me to follow the “right” way; the way of the machine, the way of economic growth and the way of the cosy disconnected existence.
Then I got angry.
A few years ago, anger wasn’t something I considered to be helpful. My five years as a Greenpeace activist contributed to perhaps one slight change: a number of timber merchants would no longer stock illegally harvested tropical hardwood. More significantly I learnt about Non Violent Direct Action, or NVDA, a concept first introduced by the religious Quaker group, and adopted by a number of protest organisations around the world during the 20th century. The essence of NVDA is to ensure that whatever you are doing does not result in violence of any sort. Of course definitions of violence vary widely, with many environmentalists and environmental groups claiming that violence can be committed against not only people and other animals, but also inanimate objects. This is the view that most Western governments also hold. On the other hand, destroying a piece of machinery in order to prevent the discharge of a toxic substance – is that violence? Agreement won’t be coming along any time soon; but my experience in carrying out NVDA was that neither violence (against both animate and inanimate targets) nor anger would be tolerated: the two seemed to be tied up together to such an extent that on numerous occasions, activists were implored to “calm down” by others carrying out the same action, lest they do something they might regret later. This mantra of non-violence and non-anger burrowed into my head and stuck there; it took something startling to shift it.
A Corporation is a company that has the same rights as a human being – more so, in fact. In most Western legal systems, corporations are given preferential legal treatment compared to individual members of the public, especially when it comes to the enforcement of environmental and human rights legislation. The key to this is something called “limited liability”, which all corporations are now subject to: it means that the shareholders of a corporation are only liable for the proportion of the corporation that they own; in effect, the responsibility for the actions of the corporation as a whole is split amongst, potentially, millions of individuals. On the other hand a corporation, as a whole, can act as an individual. Noam Chomsky explains that up to the 19th century:
Corporations, which previously had been considered artificial entities with no rights, were accorded all the rights of persons, and far more, since they are “immortal persons” and “persons” of extraordinary wealth and power. Furthermore, they were no longer bound to the specific purposes designated by State charter, but could act as they chose, with few constraints.
(Noam Chomsky, “Market Democracy in a Neoliberal Order: Doctrines and Reality”)
The upshot of this is clear to anyone who follows the activities of corporations around the world: environmental negligence, corruption, labour abuses and scant regard for the rights of individuals. It was while watching The Corporation, an astonishingly thought-provoking documentary that I came across some of the very worst examples of corporate excess: those activities that take absolutely no account of the rights of individuals. I was particularly struck by the way that the people of the city of Cochabamba in Bolivia had fought back against both the corrupt actions of the city authorities and the profit-hungry motives of the services multinational Bechtel. In 1999 the World Bank provided a loan to the Bolivian government in return for which the government had to privatise all municipal water supplies – the contract for Cochabamba went to a Bechtel-owned consortium called Aguas de Tunari, which immediately put into effect strict control measures. When a private company is granted such control over one of the most basic human needs that it becomes illegal even to store the water which collects on the roof of your house, and you have to spend 20-30 percent of your income just on water bills, something is bound to give. What did give was the patience of the residents who – by enacting two general strikes and complete stoppages of the transportation network, as well as countless minor acts of sabotage and refusal to cooperate with the authorities – reclaimed their rightful authority over the city’s water supply. In answer, “The government responded with police, tear gas, and bullets as well as the repeated detention of civil society leaders.”
Despite the predictable and heavy-handed response of the authorities, the people won out, and Bechtel were banished, leaving a city authority very much with its tail between its legs. The reason the people of Cochabamba were so successful in their concerted efforts, both in scale and execution, was because they got angry – something snapped inside a great many people and that anger was realised through the power of their actions. Had the people not got angry then Bechtel would still control the water supply, and the outcome in terms of public health could have been horrendous.
This pattern is repeated throughout the world, throughout history: the participants of the 1381 English Peasants Revolt were angry; the working class French revolutionaries of 1789 were angry; the Tree Huggers of Northern India were angry. Success is not guaranteed, but unless the people themselves realise the problem, and understand that they can fix it, then the problem will never go away. Conversely, if the people understand the problem, know there is a fix, and have enough of their own drive and spirit to counter the cynical and barbaric Tools of Disconnection applied on behalf of Industrial Civilization, then they can fix the problem.
What Is Anger?
Strip away any of the connotations freely and often ludicrously associated with anger, and what it left is something surprisingly sober: anger is a protective instinct.
When answering perhaps the most important question of all: “What matters to us?” there are few responses that could be considered truly universal. Our most fundamental biological urges lead us to value family, and particularly our immediate descendents above all else; and despite the Industrial Machine insisting that divisive material gain is a virtue, we still deeply value friends, and those other people we depend upon, and who depend upon us. We also value ourselves: a fist to the face is guaranteed to be parried by the object of that assault, and a lethal attack will be met with a similarly lethal response – all other things being equal. And we value our natural ecosystem: the beautifully complex set of interactions between its multifarious elements that keep us alive. Yes, we really do – even though we often act as though we don’t.
What makes us angry is when the things we value are threatened. This is human nature: it is survival, and without this response we are little more than machines.
* * *
There are two types of anger, Constructive and Destructive. By Constructive Anger, I don’t mean the kind that makes you build a sandcastle with a billowing flag on it saying, “Save Our Crumbling World!” On the other hand, by Destructive Anger I don’t mean going around with steam coming out of your ears breaking and hitting everything that gets in your way – although it could mean that; it depends on the context.
Destructive Anger doesn’t achieve anything useful, and can sometimes make things worse than they already are. Interestingly, this means that the vast majority of protest marches, rallies and other symbolic events, if fuelled by anger, are destructive. Constructive Anger, on the other hand, does achieve something useful – even if it may not be exactly what was originally intended. For instance, if all the evidence you have to hand suggests that removing a sea wall or a dam will have a net beneficial effect on the natural environment then, however you go about it – explosives, technical sabotage or manual destruction – the removal would be a constructive action. If this action was fuelled by anger then your use of explosives involved Constructive Anger.
Much is written about anger being a negative emotion. I was moved to publish this essay by the appearance ofa short piece equating reactionary rage and destructive violence with the deep-seated emotional anger response:
If you didn’t realize it after Nopenhagen and the tea party protests, and the incessant rage on AM radio, we’re definitely in the anger phase folks, and it’s only going to get worse. The battle lines of ideology have been drawn. Even people we used to think were on “our” side may turn out to have irreconcilable differences once they realize the only choices they have are to double-down on BAU or to powerdown.
And I’m sorry to say that the environmentalists are going to be in trouble if they just lower themselves to this sorry level of vitriol.
I’m afraid that this sort of crisis of confidence may indeed lead to violence. If the country practically tore itself to pieces over something as simple as healthcare, how can we stay unified and bring all hands on deck in the face of peak oil and ecological collapse?
Such confusion over what anger really is has been spattered over the pages of self-help books for many years, the “anger is bad” mantra more recently becoming a mainstay of the environmental blogosphere. When quotes like Senaca’s “The best cure for anger is delay” and Ben Franklin’s “Whatever is done in anger ends in shame” are seen as a way of reasoning against one of our most powerful instinctive urges, then we clearly have lost sense of what it means to be human.
These negative connotations of anger, in particular their relationship with violence, are predominantly cultural. At the beginning of the 20th century, many American psychologists decided that all human emotions – rather than being a complex mix of internal and external, subjective and objective, conscious and unconscious – were only relevant if they could be observed objectively. Although Behaviourism, as it was called, came under increasing attack in the late 20th century for neglecting not just consciousness, but feelings, it shaped much subsequent psychology, and thus shaped the way society observes and understands itself. The simplification of emotion suited the development of “advanced” Western society perfectly: intense emotions, rather than being a poorly understood, often very personal manifestation of the human condition, could now be palmed off as “reptilian” or “primitive”. Rather than treating uncontrollable emotions in a holistic way, they were “treated” using barbaric, physical techniques including enforced isolation, lobotomy and electro convulsive therapy. This fear of the primitive and the need to defeat it is reflected in the views of earlier Enlightenment thinkers, such as Francis Bacon and René Descartes, who held the kind of ideas that Industrial Civilization embraced and increasingly used against nature:
The Enlightenment period saw nature as a dead and mechanical world, a view that permits people to think of ecosystems and their inhabitants as mere resources for human use. The ultimate purpose of this mode of thinking is absolute control over both living beings and material nature.
Francis Bacon, for example, hoped to conquer and subdue nature and “to shake her to her foundations.” For Descartes, animals were “soulless automata” and their screams in death the mere clatter of gears and mechanisms. Indeed, in this view, nature is nothing but a machine.
(Franz J. Broswimmer, “Ecocide”)
These views would seem astonishing if they were not intrinsic components of our cultural way of thinking. The understanding that emotions, such as anger, are not simply rabid, “primitive” urges, but are in fact complex things that require a deeper sense of awareness to fully appreciate, brings us full circle. The notions of Descartes and other Enlightenment thinkers, such as Isaac Newton, are indeed enlightening, but not in the intended sense: they reveal a deep distrust and fear of being part of nature, as though somehow being connected to it was a real temptation that they were scared of succumbing to. Industrial Civilization, as promoted by the views of the Enlightenment thinkers and enforced by countless players all becoming gradually addicted to the trappings of a certain way of life, demands that we remain separated and terminally disconnected from the very thing which we need to survive. Anger is a burning fuse that can either be extinguished or allowed to trigger something bigger.
When I watch a protest march on the news, and the organisers talk up the success of the protest, the word that immediately comes to mind is “sublimation”.
One will find hundreds, sometimes thousands, assembled in an orderly fashion, listening to selected speakers calling for an end to this or that aspect of lethal state activity, carrying signs “demanding” the same thing…and – typically – the whole thing is quietly disbanded with exhortations to the assembled to “keep working” on the matter and to please sign a petition.
Throughout the whole charade it will be noticed that the state is represented by a uniformed police presence keeping a discreet distance and not interfering with the activities. And why should they? The organizers will have gone through “proper channels” to obtain permits. Surrounding the larger mass of demonstrators can be seen others…their function is to ensure the demonstrators remain “responsible,” not deviating from the state-sanctioned plan of protest.
(Ward Churchill, “Pacifism as Pathology”)
Ward Churchill’s brilliant portrayal of legal protest - particular the gaseous dissipation of the protestors at the end - demonstrates how symbolic actions (as opposed to those which achieve something) are merely a way of making people feel better; helping them bypass any useful emotions and instead, harmlessly drifting away. When you take part in a protest that does not directly threaten the thing you are protesting against, you are simply sublimating any anger you might have into whatever symbolic acts you have been led to believe will lead to change.
This process of sublimation is repeated in all facets of Industrial Civilization, from the Government Consultation and the Parliamentary Process through to apparently useful tools as Judicial Review and industrial Whistleblowing; all chances of real change are prevented by an array of gaping holes, channelling our anger into “constructive” activities. Because we followed the recommended course of action – the peaceful alternative - we feel sated and content that right has been done, even when nothing has been achieved.
* * *
The First World War, or Great War, was terrible in more ways than it is possible for a sane person to imagine. Emotional expression was a necessary outlet, and many poets emerged from this futile and politically motivated war; among them Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen. Both were talented and, significantly, both experienced the horrors of war on the front line, profoundly affecting them. Of the two, it was Wilfred Owen, the less financially privileged, though eventually a great friend of Sassoon, who made the greatest impression on the public. Undoubtedly charged with anger, his poems are an attempt to expose war for what it is and allow others to understand it. Generally recognised as his finest poem, Dulce Et Decorum Est reflected his “shift in tone from personal questioning to righteous anger”; an inflammatory “How dare you subject others to this!” that changed peoples’ perception of war forever:
If in some smothering dreams you too could pace
Behind the wagon that we flung him in,
And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,
His hanging face, like a devil’s sick of sin;
If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,
Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie; Dulce et Decorum est
Pro patria mori.
The words, “Dulce et Decorum est pro patria mori” mean “it is sweet and right to die for your country.” Owen realised that no war was worth the kind of suffering that his colleagues had to endure. In the three short verses that comprise that poem, Wilfred Owen used his anger to change the future: no longer would people willingly and blindly accept bloody battle – war would no longer be the easy option.
There are hints that suggest the power of anger as a motivation for positive action, throughout the visual arts, films, theatre and literature – artistic outpourings that often short-circuit the cultural limitations in which we live the majority of our lives. You find them everywhere. Contained in John Steinbeck’s “The Grapes of Wrath” - a monumental story of lost ideals and corporate power – is the following passage:
Some of the owner men were kind because they hated what they had to do, and some of them were angry because they hated to be cruel, and some of them were cold because they had long ago found that one could not be an owner unless one were cold. And all of them were caught in something larger than themselves.
Who are the majority? They are the cold people; those that have accepted the way it has to be and got on with their lives, doing what the culture tells them to do. The kind people understand that there is a better way to act, and they treat others with respect; but they are not angry – they will not change anything. The kind people are like those who march, and petition, and hope that things will get better. The angry people understand that there is a better way to live. The angry people are different: they have the potential to change things because they do not meekly accept the circumstances that civilization has forced upon them.
The predefinition of anger I am proposing – returning the word to its rightful meaning – is as marked as the negative idea of civilization that many people reading this have already adopted, and which runs counter to the way we are taught to think from birth. Maybe we do need to find other words that can legitimately describe anger-type behaviour that is not constructive; but outside the realm of psychosis I believe there are situations where even the most profound forms of rage have a constructive application. We must not be afraid of anger: use it wisely by all means, but use it nonetheless.
A different version of this essay formed the chapter “Getting Angry” in the online version of Time’s Up! (called “A Matter of Scale”). It acts as a preface to the final section of the book.
Keith Farnish is the author of “Time’s Up! An Uncivilized Solution to a Global Crisis”, which is published by Chelsea Green in the USA, and Green Books in the UK. He is also the founder of The Earth Blog and The Unsuitablog. He lives in Scotland with his wife, two children and a much-loved garden.