The fossil fuel industry and the distortions of language and justice
When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said in rather a scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less.”
“The question is,” said Alice, “whether you can make words mean so many different things.”
“The question is,” said Humpty Dumpty, “which is to be master—that’s all.”
(Lewis Carroll: Through the Looking Glass)
The duplicities of capital
If Alice from Through the Looking Glass could see Sean Spicer’s daily verbal contortions, she probably would think of him as Humpty Dumpty’s re-incarnation, equally scornful, but in a less talented presentation. The White House press briefings conducted by Sean Spicer constitute the distressing quotidian proof of how those in power try to control the communicative process in American society by distorting facts and meaning. As Press Secretary, Spicer’s main role is not to disseminate the truth, but to construct narratives that fit the political interests of this administration and its wealthy allies.
At the same time, Spicer is an example of how capitalism isn’t limited simply to the reproduction of exploitative relations of production in a given society (i.e. the economic apparatuses, located in the places where we work, which are owned primarily by a minority of capitalists who are also the main beneficiaries). Capitalism is also interested in reproducing the conditions that make possible the continuous renewal of the economic domination capitalists enjoy. In other words, capitalism is interested in putting into place a series of mechanisms that justify and perpetuate its interests and conditions of privilege. We call these the functions the Ideological and Repressive State Apparatuses (ISA and RSA)
Within the ISA, we find those institutions whose function is to manufacture the hegemonic discourse of the system. They encompass the government at all levels, from politicians to public servants; the judiciary systems; the educational institutions from kindergarten to universities; political parties; religious organizations; and the media in all its forms, etc. In the second group, the RSA, we inevitably find those who operate by the use of violence, such as the police, the army, the courts, prisons, and the large variety of national security agencies. There is a simultaneous acting and organic intersectionality of all these three state apparatuses (the economic, the ideological, and the repressive) which make possible the functioning of the state under capitalism both by consent and repression. To paraphrase John Lanchester from the New Yorker, for capitalism “the desire to make money is sincere, not everything else is.”
March 30, 2017 Pembina County Courthouse
State of North Dakota vs. Sam Jessup
Judge: “The original complaints have been amended. The purpose of this hearing is to review the amended complaints and to hear the prosecutor’s case for these charges…”
Prosecutor: “what happened?”
Sheriff: “we got a call about a potential terrorist threat against the pipeline…”
Defense attorney: “When the technician from TransCanada called you to report that a call had come in about shutting the valve on the pipeline, did you and he have any discussions of danger?”
Defense attorney: “Did he indicate any risk of rupture?”
Defense attorney: “Did you have any conversation about what to do when you got to the site?”
Defense attorney: “You used a digital camera and a digital phone at the wellhead scene?”
Defense attorney: “No one told you to be careful about using your cell phone at the site?”
Prosecutor: “But is it possible that a pipeline with safety measures in place could become a dangerous weapon? Does it mean there are no risks just because TransCanada’s system worked? Isn’t it the case that an emergency shutdown can create unintended risks? Doesn’t this demonstrate extreme indifference to human life?”
Pepsi-Cola and eco-terrorism
Language is not neutral. The use of language is part of the greater battle of class and social struggle conducted in the field of linguistics, semiotics, communication and the production of knowledge. The ideological apparatuses of the state, when facing an oppositional critical discourse, strategically react by assimilating and neutering the dissonant message in order to subsume it into the mainstream narrative of the time. For example, in terms of popular culture, we recently witnessed the attempt by Pepsi to increase their sales by appropriating the symbolism of acts of protest and resistance around the world, including reminiscences of the occupy movement and the Black Lives Matter imaginary in a video-commercial. In this example, political action is represented back to us, formatted like advertising; rebellion and resistance cease to be revolutionary acts, transformed instead into an act of collective libation of a carbonated soft drink, absorbed and assimilated into consumerism. (The commercial was quickly criticized by viewers and pulled out by Pepsi.)
Conversely, a parallel perverse distortion of language is currently taking place within the Repressive Apparatuses of the State. Many courts, judges, prosecutors, and police departments, acting in coordination with the fossil fuel industry across the nation, have initiated a synchronized campaign of vilifying civil disobedience directed to stop the negative impact on the environment by the fossil fuel industry. For example, members of the shutitdown.org campaign, a direct action, civil disobedience group that turned off the valves on four tar sands pipelines last October, are facing felony charges with potential sentences of decades in prison and ten of thousands of dollars in fines. Courts and state prosecutors are actively trying to frame the shutitdown.org valve-turning actions as eco-terrorism.
Pembina County Courthouse
A call went into the TransCanada operations center at 9:02 am on October 11, 2016, to warn that someone intended to shut the pipeline down in ten minutes. The op person at TC called their local rep Lonnie Johnson, to report this call. The op center person described the caller as an “eco-terrorist.” When TC’s local rep Lonnie Johnson called the Pembina County sheriff office, he described the person as a “terrorist.” Under questioning, the sheriff admitted that after he arrived at the site of the valve turning, he arrested Sam Jessup even though Jessup was not committing a crime.
Defense attorney: “What facts did you have? (Jessup) was videoing you and the defendant Mr. Foster. He picked up the camera equipment. He was walking on a gravel road.”
Sheriff: “I deemed it to be trespassing.”
Defense attorney: “He was walking on non-fenced, non-posted road, taking pictures. Neither of those is a crime, right? You arrested him anyway, right?”
Who really are the eco-terrorists among us? Those who profit from its destruction or those who, given the critical conditions of the planet, try to protect it in order to avoid a catastrophic end for humanity and other species? Labeling people who engage in nonviolent civil disobedience as terrorists is not fortuitous, particularly in the current political-ideological conditions created by the security state and the U.S. Patriot Act of 2001, which among its numerous provisions seeks to “deter and punish terrorist acts in the United States and around the world, to enhance law enforcement investigatory tools, and for other purposes.”
Needless to say, these conditions have been exacerbated by the current Trump administration. Using the language of terrorism is a calculated political move aimed at eliminating any form of dissent against the fossil fuel industry and its nefarious relationship with nature. It intends to suppress criticism against those who simultaneously appropriate the products of society and nature, subjugate the labor of others, and endanger the planet and society by means of that appropriation.
Contrary to the symbolism usurped by the Pepsi commercial, the videos posted by shutitdown.org clearly show older, middle aged and younger civil activists shutting down the emergency valves on pipelines in Washington, Montana, Minnesota, and North Dakota. According to The Nation (Feb.13-2017), through this action, the valve turners “successfully shut down the flow of tar-sands oil into the United States from Canada”. The shutitdown.org videos create images and symbolic acts difficult—although not impossible—to be directly assimilated and absorbed by the cultural illusions of the media. Consequently, for the time being, these actions are being are dealt with directly via the Repressive Apparatuses of the State, its laws, its courts, its police departments, and its prisons.
“The remaining charges for Michael are felony criminal mischief, misdemeanor reckless endangerment, and misdemeanor trespass, with maximum penalties of 24 years. Sam is charged with felony conspiracy to criminal mischief, misdemeanor conspiracy to reckless endangerment, and misdemeanor trespass, with a maximum sentence of 12 years.” Jay O’Hara, http://world.350.org/eugene/valve-turners-update/
The future may not last as long as we expect
A brief overview of the forms of economic development since the second half of the 20th Century—a period known as The Great Acceleration— shows the perverse impact of capitalism on the planet. The great majority of scientists agree that we no longer live in a geological time period determined by the earth’s natural processes. Rather, this moment in geological time is one that has ultimately been conditioned not by nature but by human agency. We live in the Anthropocene.
The critical situation posed by the Anthropocene has created a sense of historical immediacy related to the survival of the human species. Nonetheless, our scenario is complicated by two factors: first, the business-as-usual mentality of capitalism in general and the fossil fuel industry in particular, which persist in —let’s call them what they are—terrorizing and irresponsible practices against the planet and life on earth. Second, new conditions of interdependency between nature and culture, are taking place within a never-before experienced dis-alignment between nature’s time scale, and human time; between geological and political time. This misalignment creates for many people the false impression that we have plenty of time ahead to solve the current ecological crisis. Yet, evidence suggests that the future may not last as long as we expect.
Consequently, it’s time to act, time to address the current historic-geological conditions of emergency with a sense of urgency, fueled by a sense of the morality in our actions. This is precisely what the ‘valve turners’ of Shutitdown.org are doing. The State, on the other hand, uses language to deliberately distort reality, misrepresenting nonviolent activists as eco-terrorists and absolving the real culprits. Justice is distorted as the prosecutors for the state protect those who actions endanger all of us, and persecute those whose actions threaten private profit.
As Sam Jessup’s parents, and as people who appreciate the high-risk, well-organized, and much needed direct action aimed at keeping fossil fuels in the ground, Emily Lardner and Enrique Quintero plan to be present at the trial of Sam and Michael Foster, currently scheduled for October 2-6 at the Pembina County Courthouse.