an interview transcript with Keith Farnish, about how to undermine the system that is destroying America
R.K.: Well you know there are, in the states, I don't know if you have them in England, but there are a number of survivalist reality TV channels. It's all about surviving after the apocalypse and of course there are so many books and movies out about the apocalypse, where do you think that fits in to your vision of things?
K.F.: It doesn't. I do subscribe to something called Bushcraft which is not survival. Bushcraft is a way of living that sustains the environment in which it exists. Survival seems to be an idea, it seems to have grown out of this self centered independent mentality, this itemized idea that you depend upon only yourself and that really is not sustainable in any form.
You've got this idea, oh you're going to lock your family into a bunker and you're going to have all your stores and you're going to protect yourself against everything. Apart from the fact that you're likely to commit suicide out of sheer boredom and desperation, you can only live for a short period of time like that. There's no future for a sheer survival. You need to create these communities. You need to have ways of genuine living so I don't see any relationship between survival and long-term living.
I don't want to survive. I don't want to be on the edge. I actually want to live and this is what indigenous people have been doing ever since humanity came about. There's a wonderful article, Marshall Sahlins studied various indigenous people over a long period of time and he suddenly realized that these people, well they actually don't work constantly.
They've got a huge amount of leisure time and they sit around and talk and they just relax and he couldn't work out how this was possible until he saw the sheer efficiency in which they worked and they didn't need stuff. They didn't need anything that we consider to be essential now within civilization. It really, that's not survival, that is living and living is something that you really crave as humans.
As I say, I don't want to live on the edge. I don't want to be in constant fear that something is going to get me. I want a community that I can trust and I can enjoy and I can be part of.
R.K.: So are you in a community like that now?
K.F.: It's getting there. It's certainly much more of a community than I lived in five years ago before I moved. We do have, you can have communities within communities. There are people who I regularly, I'm in contact with on a regular basis that I work with, that we have, we try and create a community as best we can within civilization.
Really this is where we need to keep trying, we need to keep connecting people, as communities are being constantly broken apart by the day to day demands of modern life, going to work constantly having a job and that's what life is about, and then going out and buying stuff and then when you want entertainment you go somewhere else for entertainment or you watch TV and that's not community. People aren't connected to each other.
The idea of community is you are connected to other people and you depend on them and they depend on you and that is certainly something that I recognize here where I live, and it's something that's coming back. I think people are starting to realize that they do need communities. If only it could happen a bit quicker and the way it can happen is by undermining the things that stop us gathering as small bands of people.
R.K.: Well, we're running past an hour now and I wanted to make sure that we cover all of the basics that are important.
One thing I want to say is your book on undermining goes into a lot of detail on many many different ways and different approaches on how to undermine, starting with just a black magic marker and changing the message on a poster to blocking the entrances to shopping malls. They can get very risky or they can get minimally risky but a lot of them involve in some ways breaking the law.
K.F.: Yeah. The law, I think we've got to distinguish between what's legal and what's lawful here. Laws in, certainly laws in Western countries are, they are statutes, they are things that have been put there by politicians to control you to make sure that you do whatever the system wants you to do.
There are certain things like murder, taking someone's property although you do question where the property came from in the first place, obviously harming someone directly in some way, taking away their liberty, that kind of thing, these common features of human morality, and that's what I would consider to be a law and they're the laws by which humans should live.
Yes breaking the law, if we can use that phrase is something that underminers will inevitably do, and it's incredibly liberating. It's a wonderful thing. In the vast majority of cases you're not going to get in any trouble for it if you're careful and I do provide some instructions on how to be careful but we are going to have to break the law because the laws are about controlling people.
Laws are about benefiting the corporate world and if we're going to change things then those legal instruments that are being put in place to control people have to be broken apart. They have to be challenged constantly otherwise nothing will change and that is why we have to distinguish between what is lawful? What is something that is naturally right and moral for humans to do and where that overrides what politicians and corporations have put in place to make themselves rich or make themselves powerful.
If you stop a factory polluting the river you could be breaking the law but morally you're doing the right thing.
R.K.: You know I have to say that I've interviewed Daniel Ellsberg of the Pentagon Papers a few times and one thing that's become very clear to me is he is engaged in at least seventy maybe eighty cases of civil disobedience where he has been arrested, and he and others, because I've interviewed a lot of people who have engaged in civil disobedience and they tell me that there's a joy to it as you have just described.
K.F.: Yes. I would use the word challenging the power structures rather than civil disobedience, something that I don't call myself is a civilian or citizen when people talk about all citizens must do this, it makes me feel a bit sick really because if you identify yourself as a citizen then you're falling into the trap that civilization has set for you.
You're a human being, and that's it. Human beings need to do what human beings should do and what's right for human beings and the rest of nature. Civil disobedience, I would call it just disrupting, resisting, undermining, yes they're all very powerful things. Do the right thing though, don't just do things that are symbolic. Nothing will change by signing a petition.
Nothing will change by waving a placard. Nothing will change by marching unless you absolutely challenge the systems of power. So we have to get away from this idea of symbolic action which is something I have, a whole chapter on symbolic action and the mainstream environmental movement in Underminers.
The mainstream environmental movement have made it almost impossible for people to recognize where actual change is going to come from, so civil disobedience, yes they can do that but it's not going to change anything but undermining, resisting, challenging, sabotaging, whatever you want to call it, you need to be going in the right direction. You need to be taking away the things that keep people disconnected and that really is, that's not just stimulating, I mean it's not just exciting but it feels good. It feels right.
That's that strong feeling of moral justification in what you're doing. And if you get that feeling, I can almost be certain that you've done the right thing.
R.K.: So Keith, we should probably wrap this up and we're going to have to have another conversation. I could proceed in a lot of conversations with you, I think we think along the same lines and-
K.F.: That's great
R.K.: What is your vision, if undermining works and the future goes the way you'd like it to, what would the world look like, what would humanity look like?
K.F.: I don't know and the reason I don't know is because I don't want to create this sort of Letraset, this die-cast idea of different ways to live and how they should be. Humans will organize themselves. Humans will band into communities and tribes. Humans will do what they've always done in the past.
In the absence of authority, in the absence of control and the absence of power, and being disconnected, A connected humanity will create it's own existence and as long as we are ready to keep fighting back, as long as we are ready to keep our own backyard in order as it were, then we can continue that as long as humanity exists which could be for who knows, hundreds of thousands of years, millions of years.
The future, it's what you make it. And I really don't want to put anymore detail on that, I mean who am I to say what's right or what's wrong?
R.K.: Do you feel that the future will include some kind of civilization?
K.F.: No. No I don't see how it can. They may come up from time to time just as they have for the last ten thousand years and there will be people, at least until the next few generations have been born, who feel that tug, that need to return to something they felt sort of, we say comfortable yet it was civilization that makes us feel comfortable, civilization makes us want to continue the way we're living.
In the absence of that power I don't think civilization is something that we should, we'll ever want again. Yeah people will want power, I mean I am currently writing an article to try and explain why civilizations happened, how did this, how did we get in this state in the first place? And I suspect it was some kind of mental illness, some kind of psychotic tendency and as long as we know what to look out for then I think we can avoid it.
R.K.: Well I don't know if you have read, I've done a whole bunch of series on psychopaths and the like, I interviewed Daniel Quinn last year and he speculated that one of the elements in the onset of civilization was having a surplus and then having police to defend and protect it.
K.F.: Yeah it's certainly one of the main attributes of civilization. Surplus or storage of surplus is one of the five key attributes of civilization. It's very difficult to surmise exactly what order it came in. The surplus may have come later when people decided that they wanted to store, when that surplus may have been necessary when people stopped moving so I'm not one hundred percent sure about it, there is, funnily enough I've written about this in the last couple of days, it's not efficient to be moving and have a surplus, it's not efficient to be moving and taking all your stuff with you, it uses energy so surplus only existed when people stopped moving.
Yeah we don't necessarily want to keep moving around and I don't think we can with anything like the number of people we've got on this planet or where would we go? But it's a careful balancing act but I don't think civilization came about because of surplus, I think surplus happened very soon afterwards because we just stopped and said what do we need if we want to stay where we are and grow.
Something else happened in certain people's brains before that.
R.K.: Well I think that we, what Quinn was getting at was part of it was staying in the same place, taking possession of land, and then protecting the land and the surplus. And creation of a police force or an army to protect both of those things.
R.K.: I think there is craziness involved. I really do. When I look at billionaires, which I have said we should get rid of, I don't think billionaires should exist on this planet, and it's not that hard to stop them from existing, you just have to take away what they have which puts libertarians into apoplectic state, I consider that a form of Munchausen by Proxy.
K.F.: I don't have much time for libertarians really. This is an awful one attitude again, yeah get rid of government, great, but don't try and attain as much wealth or land as you possibly can because you're just again falling into the trap of civilization. You're just repeating the same errors. That's not a sustainable way of living in any way. All the times you take, you gain something and someone else loses. This is what people need to understand.
All the time we've got consumer goods, then some poor bugger at the other side of the world has had to make that and suffer for that so that's a mindset that we have got to get rid of straight away.
R.K.: Yes. So I had notes from the book and I wanted to kind of just throw some concepts at you for you to just, discuss briefly, okay? Subvertising as a replacement for advertising. What is it?
K.F.: Subvertising, it is simply a play on words. It's giving the message that the advertisers don't want you to get. So it's potentially very powerful thing and if you look up subvertising gallery, I used to be quite prolific at producing these subverts, you'll find them online, they're a lot of fun to make, and they're a lot of fun to do.
R.K.: What's an example?
K.F.: One example is something I took, the Ford logo, this elegant italic logo and I turned it into the word "Fooled" as in you've been fooled. Surprisingly easy to do actually. It's getting that subvert out there. That's the tricky bit. If you can get people to believe that's what, that's the real thing, then suddenly the advertisers are on the back foot and they are worried.
R.K.: Okay, dominant culture. You talk about dominant culture. What's that?
K.F.: The dominant culture is essentially the culture that controls the most people. So we have our dominant culture on Earth is industrial civilization. Before industrial civilization there wasn't really a dominant culture. It didn't control the majority of people on Earth so it is about control essentially.
R.K.: Okay, you talk about barter and capitalism and consumer goods and profit. Discuss that a bit?
K.F.: Okay. This idea of different levels of goodness within the way that you use goods, the way that you use services, capitalism, this trading of cash and surplus is at the far end, it's well away from goodness. Right at the beginning it's something called, well it's essentially just doing what's right. So if someone needs something you give it to them.
You don't even think whether you're going to get something back. And then you get this idea of the reciprocal economy whereby you do something for someone or you give something to someone and at some point in the future you'll get something back but there's no contract. Barter is a bit more formal, a bit more arranged. So for instance I will do something for someone and they'll do something back for me and we'll agree on that.
So you've got these different levels of goodness in the way goods and services are used and it, there's a continuum there but yeah, as soon as you get into the capital economy, as soon as you get into cash, money, then things have gone wrong. You have got distrust. People don't trust each other in the moment enough to barter, to be reciprocal, to just do things for each other.
R.K.: So in your future vision there is no money, there is no capitalism.
K.F.: There is definitely no money. Why would you need money if you trust people?
R.K.: Okay. And you talk about encouraging local stores to accept and publicize non-capitalist ways. What are you thinking there?
K.F.: Okay well this is an experiment really. I have had some success with, you'd never get a supermarket to do this, you'd never be able to walk into a shopping mall and say to your chain store, I want that particular item, I've got something in exchange for it or I can go and do something, I can fix something for you.
That's never going to work. But at a local level you start to know people, there starts to be an element of trust and also this idea of formal and informal economy, at a local level informality starts to happen. You might not be bothered about getting the exact right change, you might not be bothered about getting the exact right amount for your money and there is the opportunity to barter here and if you have got a local shop then don't say to them necessarily oh well I'll give you the money later because we've got the cash here, but if they've got a product and you want it, then you say well I've got something in return, would you like that? Or I can do something for you later, it's worth experimenting.
R.K.: I know locally we have some communities that have time banking where people offer services and Jared Diamond in his book, The World Until Yesterday, describes indigenous cultures and how different tribes on different islands for example will make different things and they'll know that they don't need to make one thing because they can trade for what they have to another tribe for something that the other tribe makes and it's not a perfect trade, they just remember and the next time they work it out in the next deal.
K.F.: Well I'd rather not be associated with Jared Diamond, Survival International has a lot of bad things to say about him and Survival International is an organization I have a lot of respect for, Jared Diamond has said for instance that all societies can benefit from being more civilized which is appalling. That the idea that you can have-
R.K.: It's not appalling, it may be wrong, but it's respectable.
K.F.: We'll have to agree to disagree but yeah, there are certain things that shouldn't be said and one of them is saying that an indigenous culture should be more civilized.
R.K.: I will agree with that entirely. It's not surprising that somebody would say it though.
K.F.: No, not surprising at all and I think there are a lot of things that Jared Diamond has said that have been worthwhile and worth listening to and yeah the idea that you have different things which you can trade, I think what it comes down to is things like skills. We have become a society of specialists.
This is what jobs do to you, you can only do one thing whereas if you go back, even fifty years, then most people could fix things, most people could mend things around the house, they knew how to grow food, they knew how to do all sorts of things, they could fix engines, they could fix bikes, that kind of thing. We've forgotten how to do all of these things. People made their own clothes and that was normal.
So yeah this idea of having this bank of skills and this bank of things you can offer, yeah, that sounds to me to be perfectly normal. And that's something we should definitely be headed towards.
R.K.: Okay, well you just brought up clothing. You write about the purpose of fashion, fashion beyond clothing, nature and fashion, what are some of your thoughts there?
K.F.: Fashion is a, the nature of fashion is that it constantly changes. It makes you desire replacement. It makes you look forward to change. It's something that is, a disease effectively. It's a cultural disease, this idea that things become obsolete. The idea that things become out of date and unfashionable, it's about creating demand for consumer products and that's all there is to it. The fashion industry is an industry because it creates demand for new things and I can't see anything good about that.
R.K.: What about fashion beyond clothing?
K.F.: Again, I would say exactly the same. Things are fashionable-
R.K.: Like having the latest iPhone would be the latest example.
K.F.: Again, I can't see anything to recommend that whatsoever. If you have got something that is perfectly serviceable, and believe me, I've got some real old things knocking around that I still use. I have got a phone that, my kids think is embarrassing and they're relatively, they're relatively non-inculcated into the civilized way of life but they see things as being fashionable and not fashionable.
And technology, goodness me, I mean it was bad enough in itself to not need replacing constantly and so the idea that an iPhone becomes, well, I made this analogy, I talked about the founder of Apple who died while I was actually writing a chapter and section on fashion and I said, well wouldn't it be ironic, wouldn't it be justifiable almost if in a few weeks times no one would remember him because he was out of fashion? Because he created this demand, he created this desire to keep changing. It's not clever, it's just destructive.
R.K.: Okay. So, you have some ideas about what are the most important beliefs to undermine.
K.F.: Yeah. Okay. This is something, I mean I haven't quite put it in these exact terms.
R.K.: Yeah you have, it's in your book.
K.F.: Okay, as I said, I have given away all copies of the book, this is the thing. I actually have this fund to allow me to post them to everyone so I got a lot of copies and I just gave them away so I am getting on a bit, I forget things as well. I even forget what I've written which is terrible, really. I mean if you wanted to get rid of something, if we had to get rid of certain ideas, the idea that we have to keep progressing as civilized people, we have to keep, the fundamental idea we need to get rid of is this idea that economic growth is a good thing.
Economic growth can never be a good thing but every single item on the news that mentions the economy, that mentions finance in any way has been framed within the idea that economic growth is good, not having economic growth is bad. You need to turn that on it's head. Economic growth is destruction. Economic growth means people are being exploited. Means forests are being cut down. Means water is being polluted. It means all of the things, all of the terrible things that civilization does.
There is nothing good about economic growth except it perpetuates the system, and wonderfully at that. If you don't have an economic growth of around 3%, then the economy starts to collapse. And this is what we saw, it was teetering on the edge in 2008, there's been this recovery, largely based on things like fracking, largely based on making people get rid of their savings and buy consumer goods, largely based on lending as much as possible creating new money, but it's really on the edge.
And if you don't get this 3% growth constantly then things start to break down again. It's actually really easy to cause an economic catastrophe.
R.K.: Okay. Next. Callousness. You mention callousness. Tell me a little bit about that.
K.F.: I'll need a little bit of context on here.
R.K.: Oh I just wrote down the word.
K.F.: I think I might have to skip that one. It's missing a bit of context. There's an awful lot of callousness within civilization but it's a bit difficult to talk about just one word.
R.K.: Okay, I guess I resonated with it because there is a collection of people doing research on sociopaths.
K.F.: Right. I see where you're getting at. Okay.
R.K.: Callousness is a characteristic that is coming up more and more in the research on sociopaths.
K.F.: Well callousness, a callous is something that is a hardening of the skin, it's a protection against damage. It is, it's a very good word because it describes a mental state that you need to be in, so that you can ignore the harm you're doing. So yes, sociopaths, psychopaths, they are callous. They have that hardening. They're hardened against other people's emotions. They're hardened against the damage that they do.
It is impossible to cause destruction unless you are immune to that pain that you cause and I don't believe that anyone who consciously causes great pain, that consciously has great power over, for instance, a mechanism by which a forest can be reduced to scraps of timber and then replanted with a cash crop. I can't believe that they are human. I can't believe that they are the type of person that you would ever want to be associated with. They are a product of industrial civilization.
This mentality of complete, it's a complete ignorance. It's a complete washing away of any emotion and that is a state which no human should wish to be in.
R.K.: Well I will say that for probably a hundred fifty, two hundred years people who called themselves anthropologists or who studied ancient humans characterized them as brutish savages. Living in brutish survival mode and the fact is that now we know with research with the San Bushmen and other indigenous people like you said, they only work two or three hours a day. They are the truly wealthy people.
R.K.: They have very little, but that's the kind of wealth that is a very different definition. And what you just described, the kind of person who perpetuates the kind of things that you describe, those people are the brutes. They are the brutes of civilization.
K.F.: And wasn't this idea, this brutal savage, this dark-skinned alien creature that was less than human, wasn't that an incredibly powerful form of public relations on behalf of the industrial machine? It allowed people to feel okay about exploiting, about slavery, about taking away everything these people had because they weren't human anymore. They were de-humanized by the popular idea of this brutish savage.
They wouldn't feel if you took, they were just animals and that kind of thing is going on constantly with these foreigners, these people who are less than human. Oh it's okay, we can exploit them, they can make our things for us. They don't feel as much as we do. This is another product of civilization and it's right at the beginning. It's one of those ideas that if you want to exploit you have to de-humanize first and we all have to remember that. We really have to remember what we've done.
R.K.: Yes. So I've got a couple more things to just throw out. Undermining online. What are some ideas on how people can undermine online?
K.F.: Okay. It's a funny one this because undermining obviously, the ultimate aim of it is to remove this online existence but you can do a lot of things online to undermine. There are a few ideas, what they need to do is target the things that people have become dependent on online, so for instance, Wikipedia, it's seen as the, it's now pretty much seen as a statement of fact.
What appears in Wikipedia, that's the way things are. Of course that's framed in civilized terms but I don't have a problem with the information necessarily that's on there, what I do have a problem with is the way it's used and if you can, for instance make it so that people see the real information, the truth behind what a company does, what a politician does, what a media organization does, carefully change that information so that people are regularly seeing it and the messages are coming through.
There are lots of things you can do online but I don't want people to get the idea that somehow the interconnected sort of internet world has created a great change. It's done more damage than it's done good. But if we have to use it while it's still there for good, it's better than using it for harm.
Let's use it to try and damage the messages that are being put out by corporations. Let's pretend we're corporations. Let's make people believe that corporations are starting to tell the truth. Let's put information out that just makes people aware. It's being done constantly, those groups like the Yes Men who are doing this, WikiLeaks has done a lot of it as well.
There's so many organizations that are out there that are using the internet in some way in the best way they can. But ultimately the internet needs to go as well.
R.K.: Whoa. So okay. We're going to have to have some conversations about this.
K.F.: These are longer conversations.
R.K.: One more story that you tell is in the book. It's about a guy from Spain who borrowed hundreds of thousands of dollars and donated it to activist groups.
K.F.: Completely honest about it. It's a wonderful story. It really, it doesn't set a precedent. It's been done before. There's the myth of Robin Hood of course but Robin Hood was actually pretty middle class by all accounts, but we do have people that are trying to use the, I think we see a moral conundrum from civilization's point of view here because you're taking things from corporations and you're giving them to ordinary people.
You are putting things back where they should be. You're reversing exploitation. The fact that someone can be so audacious as to take out huge loans and then give the money to people in need, I think that's wonderful. And the more it can be exposed as
a good thing, the more it's made clear that actually these loans are just there to make people want more, to make people consume, to make people just keep being victims of the consumer culture, well I am just turning on it's head. You're offering these loans out? Yeah I'll have them. And then you know what I am going to do with them? I'm going to make things better for other people and I'm never going to pay them back.
So up yours. I think-
R.K.: What's the latest about it? From what I read he was in jail for about two months and-
K.F.: I haven't got an update about him. I haven't, it's not, I really should have pursued it, it's, yeah it's something I'm going to have to do more research on. I know it'll be nice to see what other people have done.
I mean, there are people that are doing things, I mention the underground before, there are people that are doing things far more dangerous than that but we don't know about them and we shouldn't know about them but sometimes if you do something then it should be, you should make it as public as possible. That is the decision you make and it's something I do address in Underminers.
You have to make a decision about how much exposure you're going to give to this. Are you going to keep it completely secret? Are you going to just leak as much information as can cause damage to your target, or are you completely open about this and it is a form of protection, being completely open because if you can expose real wrong then there is a chance as has been shown in the case only yesterday, as I am speaking of the guys who went to stop the train going into Drax Power Station in England and they were originally arrested but the fact that they exposed the policemen who was infiltrating their group, also exposed what they were doing as a really worthwhile thing.
I mean, it's not the stopping the train, it's we're stopping the train because we believe that that power station shouldn't be polluting. There is so much publicity over that,
that right has got to out at some point and strangely enough, the judiciary seemed to be on their side which does seem to be increasingly happening.
The police, the politicians, well they don't like this because they are essentially culprit but there are a lot of very humane judges around and maybe they're starting to see the light before these other people are.
R.K.: So we need to wrap up here now. I have to say you have written two extraordinary books. You're giving them both away but you also have publishers. Why should people spend money on the books rather than going to your websites and downloading them?
K.F.: Well I don't think they should necessarily. I certainly wouldn't favor one way or another. The only reason to buy a book is if you like reading books. I like reading books. I've always got books next to my bed and it's a very tactile thing. I can't read books online, I find it very very difficult. You can never get me to have a Kindle, it's really not my kind of thing, the physical book that I can just close, I can take, I can take into the bath, I can just read and if it gets wet it doesn't matter, if it gets damaged it doesn't matter, you can still read it. I like that but it's just an option and I suppose the other thing about books is you can pass them on as well. It's a gift.
So buy the book, give it to someone else, and then get them to give it to someone else. I'm really not in it for the money.
R.K.: Well I will say that both of your publishers are really good publishers and the kind of books that they publish. I know one is Chelsea Green and what's the other one?
K.F.: It's New Society.
R.K.: New Society. They're both really good, they both put out the kind of message that I know my listeners and readers want to hear. Keith, it's been a great conversation. I hope it's the first of many-
K.F.: Thanks, Rob.
To watch Rob having a lively conversation with John Conyers, then Chair of the House Judiciary committee, click here. Watch Rob speaking on Bottom up economics at the Occupy G8 Economic Summit, here.