Resistance, in Latin, means to ‘stand firm against’. The same word, in another cosmos, is resistor, an electronic component that absorbs energy across a potential difference.
With such a voltage difference, the electrical energy passing through the resistor is transformed into heat. If there is too much potential difference, the resistor can burn out. It’s an inefficiency in a circuit. You know how your laptop gets hot? That kind of inefficiency. The more efficient a system becomes, the less resistance there is, the less wasted heat energy. At least in theory. And in yet another cosmos, the State would like its politics to run with this kind of efficiency, without resistance. Power surging through the system untrammelled. But this kind of absolute system is impossible, for all systems have in-built inefficiencies for power to work against: ‘It would not be possible,’ Michel Foucault said, ‘for power relations to exist without points of insubordination which, by definition, are means of escape’.1
In modern political history, resistance derives its current meaning from around the second world war, as ‘organised covert opposition to a ruling or oppressive power’, as in the French resistance movement. They ‘stood firm’ against the German invaders. Or did they? Not really, they were doing all sorts of creative things in this first phase of French resistance prior to 1943, before the movement got gathered up into the State by Charles de Gaulle. Developing the capacity to resist, says Howard Caygill, meant that ‘the life of resistance [w]as the most intense, full and even real life … Their descriptions of the life of resistance are [about] the resistance of networks, movements, invisible committees, actions and clandestine publications.’2
Today, political activists operating from a minor position often talk about resisting dominant or oppressive forces. I suggest that this term needs to be teased out and renovated. (This is the writing activist’s task, renewing stale rhetoric). Simply resisting by standing firm, in language or in action, can lead to loss of energy and burnout.
Hypothesis: The most effective forms of resistance are not resistance at all, but are better described by other words.
Here are some words and actions I gleaned from my involvement with the Goolarabooloo campaign to stop the further invasion of the Country they are looking after by the extraction colonialism and capitalism led by Woodside Energy and the State of WA from 2009 to 2013. They wanted to build a huge natural gas plant on the beach at Walmadany (James Price Point). After a protracted struggle, the Woodside consortium pulled out of the West Kimberley in April 2013. It was, I claim, ‘the most significant and successful, Indigenous-Green alliance in Australia’s history’.3
a) Deflection: using the energy of the opponent against them (as in martial arts) so they get themselves into trouble.
This mainly took the form of getting Woodside and the government to spend more and more money. Their alliances had to be bought, while the resisting opposition could rely on good will and a creative spirit. Confined to understanding everything in terms of its money value, the Woodside consortium and the WA government bought into the Kimberley land Council. Eventually the money ran out. They also promised $1.5 billion as a compensation package to get the necessary ‘social licence’ from the Broome Aboriginal community. This never got beyond the stage of a promise. Lots of other money was sloshing around. But did it really correspond in any way to the future life people really wanted in the Country they love?
b) Interruption: revealing the workings of the system.
When a given institution is going well, its operations become less conscious, more automatic. It’s like someone driving a car, smoothly changing gears, turning corners without thinking about it. Suddenly the engine cuts out and you pull over. Perturbed, you get out, open the bonnet. Now you have to start thinking about the car’s networks and systems. Fuel or electrics? First, you see if the battery has a spark…These systems, that you totally depended upon to get around, were below the surface of the real, but now through interruption, they become more real, more relevant, as their persistence is threatened. And the longer the system is ‘down’ the more your broader network gets involved: you had said you would pick your daughter up from school at 3.30; now she’s going to be standing there getting worried. Interruptions reveal systems and their conditions of existence. Interruption is, by the way, a performative method much exploited by the famous German playwright Bertolt Brecht, and theorised by Walter Benjamin.4 Interruption, like many of these resistance tactics, slows things down. The enemy wants to escalate the situation to get things done, but the war of resistance has all the time in the world.
c) Creation: creating or performing an action that confounds the opposition and makes them think about how to respond.
Think: Climate Angels. Or in the Goolarabooloo campaign: the Thriller action. This was artful politics, good ideas that had to be well-performed to work, and once one idea was set in motion, the action had to be carried out, like the Thriller performance at the Manari road blockade on Halloween, 30th October, 2011. In the Youtube video (‘Mission Walmadany’) we see the ‘hostiles’ [Hostile Environment Services] coming up to the dancers, filming them, tonelessly muttering, ‘Morning guys, just letting you know you are blocking a public access…’. These ‘hostiles’ are stranded in a single reality world that can’t deal with the multiplicities of the performers’ monster masks, Michael Jackson music, and their dance moves that artfully and successfully block the road. The news fans out on social media and through town: another successful ‘action’.
d) Destruction: traditional Luddite actions.
Some say ‘sabotage’ comes from the French for clog, sabot, a wooden peasant shoe thrown into a machine. Did anyone tip sugar into the fuel tanks of Woodside bulldozers? I don’t think so.
A well-known guerrilla tactic of depriving power of the very resistance it needs in order to act as power. The State, says Caygill after Clausewitz, ‘is intrinsically prone to speculative excess and to start the movement towards absolute violence.’ Thinking they could master the situation by provoking something that looked more like war, the WA government sent 200 Tactical Response police up from Perth and then mobilised them down the red dirt road north of Broome in a spear formation, only to meet … nothing. The protesters had melted into the bush leaving the oppressive force with nothing to act on. ‘What a waste of taxpayers’ money,’ people grumbled afterwards, ‘ridiculous!’
f) ‘Cut it off somehow’
Long after the campaign, in 2018, one of the Goolarabooloo family was heard formulating a kind of hunting or tracking idea: ‘We learnt to not fight against it – the issues – or rebel, it’s more to move in line with it and try and cut it off somehow’.
Not being able to ‘stand firm’ in one place against oppressive forces, or forces that seek to co-opt your ideas, activists find that they are not, and perhaps have never been, simply resistant. To lead a resistant life is necessarily to lead a creative one. Creativity ‘flashes up in moments of danger’ to borrow Walter Benjamin’s famous phrase, and resistance, warming itself against the flows of power, rewards activists with shared feelings of lives lived more fully, more intensely.
- Michel Foucault, ‘The Subject and Power,’ in Dreyfus, Hubert L. and Paul Rabinow, Michel Foucault: Beyond Structuralism and Hermeneutics, 2nd ed. (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1983). p. 225.
- Howard Caygill, ‘Also Sprach Zapata: Philosophy and resistance’, Radical Philosophy 171 (January/February 2012) p. 24.
- Stephen Muecke, ‘Indigenous-Green Knowledge Collaborations and the James Price Point Dispute,’ in Eve Vincent and Timothy Neale, eds. Unstable Relations: Indigenous people and environmentalism in contemporary Australia, (Perth: UWA Publishing, 2016), p. 252.
- Walter Benjamin, ‘What is Epic Theatre?’ in Illuminations, London: Jonathan Cape, 1970), pp.18–19.
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