May 19, 2012

The CELDF Strategy, and Similar Actions


We’re trying to build a new society, and rebuild a natural one, based on Food Sovereignty and true democracy. The negative aspect of this is to abolish corporations and dissolve centralized hierarchies in general.
Finding focus on these simple goals is hard enough. But even among those of us who agree on the basic goals, there’s great strategic and tactical uncertainty. We can agree that in the end on bottom-up action, especially direct action, movement-building, and mutual assistance, will work. We can agree that the officially allowed modes of “action”, electoral voting and other passive, process “politics” and consumerism, cannot work.
But there’s an array of possible actions while lies somewhere between direct action and kettled process reformism which may, depending on the circumstance, the operational goal, and the execution, lie on the vector toward the great democratic goal.
The Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund (CELDF) strategy for local-level constitutionalism and anti-corporate ordinances is a good example of this. The CELDF was formed to fight back against several kinds of corporate assaults which are especially tyrannical at the immediate local level – CAFOs, fracking, dumping sewage sludge on fields, water privatization and plunder; and also against the overarching legalistic/constitutional framework for these assaults, such as federal pre-emption (anti-federal, by any non-Orwellian definition of the term), the captivity of the electoral system to money (but they want to focus on local ordinances banning corporate money in local elections) as enshrined by Citizens United, and the general regime of corporate personhood and “rights”.
The basic plan is for communities to enact ordinances asserting local sovereignty and proclaim local constitutions, really bills of rights, enshrining this. The people should take back their local governments and force these to serve the community against assaults from alien governments and corporations. Better yet, we can form our own democratic councils to parallel the “official”-track action shifting the initiative from the derivative government to the direct democracy of the people. These dual-track actions would bring power and authority much closer to the true sovereign level of the people. It would reverse the pre-emption doctrine enshrined in 1788, turning it right side up. These councils/municipalities would then confederate for mutual support, and to organize broader-scale constitutional assemblies.
The CELDF recognizes that central and state level process action, including electoralism, is largely “dead”, as co-founder Thomas Linzey puts it. It recognizes the real nature of regulatory bureaucracy is to assist top-down assaults on communities rather than restrain them. It rejects the notions of corporate property and rights in principle. It would exalt the rights of citizens, communities, and nature above these. It has assisted over 120 communities and larger towns in Pennsylvania, New England, and California in passing ordinances and/or drawing up constitutional charters asserting local democracy against corporate invasions. The largest action has been Pittsburgh’s law banning fracking within city limits. As I write Vermont is on the verge of banning fracking in the state. The Local Food Sovereignty ordinances passed in several Maine towns comprise a similar campaign. Meanwhile the movement of counties and towns banning GMOs goes back decades to Marin county in California, which was followed by Mendocino and Santa Cruz counties.
GMO labeling initiatives, such as those pending in California and Oregon, are another crucial form of this movement. Meanwhile state-level legislative attempts don’t work for this, as we’ve recently seen in Vermont and Connecticut. I’ll add that Label It Yourself is the direct action which should accompany all labeling initiatives. The California initiative, assuming the election isn’t rigged, will pass but won’t necessarily be enforced in the absence of unrelenting pressure from below, such as where this direct action alternative is not only mentioned but enacted.
(If it sounds inconsistent to be optimistic about Vermont’s anti-fracking law even as it just gutted its GMO labeling law, remember that most tactical precepts aren’t carved in stone. They need to be applied to specific circumstances. The Monsanto contingent is much stronger in Vermont than the pro-fracking forces, since it’s far from clear that there’s any fracking to even be done there.)
In Europe the Network of GMO-Free Regions has deployed a full range of tactics, from passing laws to directly destroying test plots. It’s developed into a Europe-wide confederation which now coordinates and mutually assists, achieving a great multiplier at every local point. This is just like the CELDF confederation goal, which I’ll describe shortly.
Other possible ordinances could deny bank or corporate ownership of land. In North Dakota corporations are legally prevented from owning farms. That’s a great model right there.
The General Public License for Plant Germplasm (GPLPG) is an attempt to bring the Creative Commons/general public license movement to the seed front, to contest corporate seed enclosure on its own battlefield. This kind of thing is at best a supplement to decentralized, confederated heirloom seed banking and direct action against proprietary seeds. Meanwhile Creative Commons, Copyleft, etc. comprise a good alternative to the intellectual property regime and self-defense against it, but are not a substitute for complete abolition of it.
Then there’s public interest lawsuits (which also have self-interest goals; as always, the right action is an inextricable mix of altruism and self-interest) like the anti-patent enforcement Monsanto lawsuit, the Farm-to-Consumer Legal Defense Fund’s (FTCLDF) suit against the FDA’s persecution of raw milk, and the recent Save Our Crops Coalition (SOCC) action against the USDA on Agent Orange corn. Predictably, even though they’re obviously right by common sense and according to the evidence, these suits are losing so far. Unlike in the case of the CELDF, the groups bringing these suits and coordinating the efforts seem to really hope to win in court, and that’s their main goal. They’re failing to use the lawsuits as participation/organization/education toward an alternative to the legal system as such. But as the CELDF shows, any such lawsuit could serve as a democratic vehicle.
The CELDF strategy isn’t meant to succeed according to the system’s own rules, but rather to provide a political and organizational framework for resisting the system’s depredations and for building a democratic relocalization movement. It’s not so much to level the playing field as to set up a new one.
Food sovereignty and positive democracy are, first of all, a set of principles. We must internalize it like the air we breathe, feel it assimilated to our very bodies, and experience any contradiction of it as an outrage. Every part of it is common-sensical and self-evidently moral and just. So we need to build the mindset, this is right. Then, wherever we see the system reject, resist, and repress it, we have a stark lesson in the illegitimacy of the system.
The CELDF isn’t naive about how well these ordinances and bills of rights are likely to fare in the system courts. The strategy doesn’t depend on “winning in court”. The plan is for communities to organize around their ordinances and constitutions, then confederate toward larger-scale constitutional conventions which would turn pre-emptive “federalism” right side up. So each community draws up its own bill of rights, and then this constitutional network is used toward building an amend-the-constitution movement. (Let me stress again, I don’t consider this sufficient, but it’s a piece of the overall movement strategy.) None of this is to say that the ordinances are “only” symbolic, or that we concede being ignored in court. This is just, this is the real law, this is the constitution, this is the right thing to do. Any legitimate court will uphold it.
Here’s the plan in their own words.

This idea that people have rights and that the state has no authority to license violation of those rights,
is the core principle, the underlying premise, for mounting a new civil rights movement for the legal recognition and protection of community rights…

The larger strategy behind organizing locally to assert rights has zero to do with relying on the courts. Adopting community rights ordinances and banning corporate activities that violate rights is an organizing strategy, not merely a legal strategy. The courts likely will not vindicate our rights; they may, on behalf of the corporations, strip them, as they have done for many years. But community rights ordinances force them to do so publicly, clearly, and not in a quiet blizzard of legal mumbo-jumbo hidden away from public attention or interest.

Exposing the oppressive conniving of state and corporate power publicly, in sharp contrast to the people’s
aspirations and sense of public justice – this is the legal goal.

Why take this route? If we are to have our rights stripped, let it not be because we failed to exercise them; let it not be because we surrendered them and settled for regulating the rate of destruction; let it not be because we zoned where our community rights could be denied, or because we adopted conditional use
regulations that amount to little more than terms of surrender. If we are to have our rights stripped by the state on behalf of wealthy and powerful corporations, let us expose it to the world as the tyranny that it is…

As it turns out, we don’t have to reinvent the wheel. There have been successful movements in the United States that have achieved constitutional change – including abolishing slavery and winning the right to vote
for women. Those movements didn’t focus on building a regulatory agency dedicated to regulating the number of lashes for slaves or new rules for how husbands should treat their wives – they focused instead on driving constitutional change by illustrating how the existing system was unjust and immoral. To do that, they broke existing law, forcing the system to punish them, as a clear, explicit, and public illustration of how the system functioned.

Northern juries violated the law by refusing to send slaves back to their owners, blacks sat at lunch counters
in violation of the law, women illegally cast ballots at voting places, and American revolutionaries illegally
declared their independence from England. Each of those actions served to illustrate how the existing system operated and what a new structure might look like. In the process, those actions galvanized people to join together to build movements that eventually undid the existing system permanently – not through the courts, but through changing the very structure of the existing system.

Eventually, there will be a thousand lawsuits just like the one in Blaine Township. And then a thousand more. As Frederick Douglass once noted, “power concedes nothing without demand.” We’ve become so obedient that we’ve forgotten how to refuse to submit to a structure of law that is harming us.

Some of those lawsuits may be appealed and, in others, elected officials will sacrifice their communities to
maintain the municipal treasury. Some cases may win, many will lose – but together, they will give birth to a
peoples’ movement that this country hasn’t seen since the late 1800s – a movement aimed at throwing off the authority that enables a small number of people to override community decisions dealing with energy, food, waste, and resource sustainability…

What’s the long-term goal of adopting ordinances?

Constitutional change. Since many of the doctrines – like corporate “rights,” for example, or corporate
commerce rights – are wrapped up in the constitution, State legislatures are powerless to change them (even if they wanted to). Thus, long-term, the ordinances aren’t really ordinances at all – they’re mini-constitutions which embody what constitutional change must eventually look like. To achieve that constitutional change, enough communities in enough places must begin to push-back against the structure of law, and then knit themselves together to drive changes to the state constitution, and eventually, to the federal constitution….

The inevitable result of these local refusals to follow illegitimate State law is the binding together of hundreds of municipalities to force constitutional change that overrides the authority of the State to gut community self-government. That means driving a right to local self-government into the Pennsylvania Constitution which enables our communities to begin to actually protect our health, safety, and welfare, rather than continuing to be at the mercy of gas and other corporations who solely seek to use our communities for resource extraction…

If your community hasn’t already adopted a local “bill of rights” that bans gas drilling, do it tomorrow. Without a critical mass of communities in Pennsylvania joining together, constitutional change that liberates our communities to determine their own futures will remain beyond our reach. And we will saddle our children with cleaning up the mess – and whatever is left of our communities and environment – that happened on our watch…

Here is no hypothetical calling of the corporate state to account. The question posed is this: What will lead to the exercise and protection of our unalienable rights, including the right to local, community self government? And the answer is: Nothing but the exercise and protection of unalienable rights through the exercise of our right to local, community self-government!

The activism of organizing and passing such laws, which are obviously more legitimate than the alien “laws” of the central government, and then having to fight against these alien forces for the simple right to rule ourselves, is intended to expose the truly tyrannical nature of the central corporate-government system and bring more people into the true federalist movement. That in turn will bring us to the point where we can change the Constitution, or achieve victory through bottom-up political attrition as the tyrants are unable to function once stripped of local support.
A goal here is to codify Food Sovereignty, positive democracy, and relocalization as explicit legal/constitutional principles. The more we go on record as wanting to redeem our democratic sovereignty, and the more the kleptocracy has to resort to brute lawlessness to assert its prerogatives, the more its true barbaric thug essence will be clear.
On a general level, all pro-democracy grassroots action is a tonic. Citizens are taking action, however small to begin with, directly against corporate and central government power. We’re answering “federal” arrogation and usurpation with our own version of pre-emption. We’re declaring that our people’s law supersedes, overrides, overthrows their illegitimate might-makes-right. We’re declaring the principles of true federalism, which is a vector opposed to all centralization and concentration. This is a value in itself.
If hierarchy and centralization ever made sense, it was only because the vast energy unleashed by the fossil fuel binge required them. By the same logic we must then recognize that post-oil, where the energy vector is toward far less consumption, and the economic vector is to relocalize, we must harmoniously refederalize political and economic power to the local/regional level. This is to obey the laws of history, as formulated here by the physical imperatives of energy and therefore of economics.
Constitutionalism means to govern according to the natural economic vector. Today that means Food Sovereignty, positive democracy, and relocalization. We don’t even have to dispute the motives of 1788. All we need to say is that its vector was the opposite of today’s. For that reason alone we have to turn it right side up.
As predicted, the system has so far been hostile to this effort. The earliest ordinance, an anti-mining ordinance in Blaine, PA, was forced to be repealed by corporate pressure. In response to the growing Pennsylvania insurgency the state legislature passed a pre-emption law which would turn the state into a veritable petrostate and fracking free-fire zone, with all democratic sovereignty legally abolished. In Maine prosecutors are carefully selecting a test case toward a more thorough assault on the local food sovereignty laws.
Where we fight this way, we force a more “de jure” demonstration of tyranny. Trampling a law is more easily understood by the masses than suppressing activism in general. In this sense, the movement’s use of laws and constitutionalism is a device to achieve better middle-class understandability. In this sense it’s educational, “symbolic”, movement-building. It states a “demand” which describes why citizens engage in direct action. In this way it supplements direct action. In the end it can only supplement direct action, not substitute for it.
The CELDF strategy and related actions are, in the end, trying to use these actions as exercises in direct democratic participation, as organizational campaigns, and to educate the public about corporate/government assaults on the people’s sovereignty and rights. (I call this POE: Participate-Organize-Educate.) The more we learn, the better organized we become, the more experience of democratic participation we get, the more of a taste for this participation we develop, the more we’ll build a movement which will actually fight for our food sovereignty, true democracy, and self-rule. Using the ordinance/bill of rights strategy as the vehicle toward attaining local power, within the official government as well as parallel sovereign councils, will be a self-perpetuating organizing process, and will also help build these quasi-governmental forms into real fighting structures which will render the assaults from outside and above less and less effective against us.
This stuff is important for anyone looking toward full transformation. The time isn’t yet ripe for a full-scale transformational movement. Occupy, for example, seems to be in a sophomore slump. We’re gradually, inexorably, but so far slowly building toward it. In the meantime, we need outlets for action, and we need our characteristic actions in the eyes of the public. Plus, most people will still need to try many sorts of “reform” before they finally realize that reformism does not and cannot work. While we do as much personal prepping, food-growing, reskilling and relocalization action as possible, and while we do all we can to propagate transformational ideas and evidence, we also need a suite of political action, right here right now.
We need actions which meet these criteria:
1. As bottom-up and relocalizing as possible.
2. On a vector toward abolishing the system.
3. Providing philosophical refutation of system sacred cows, and always explicitly refuting the system as such.
4. Affording real POE opportunities and execution.
This has to mean everyone’s on a vector and never stagnant. It means that every time a bottom-up reform action is smacked down, we must raise our aspirations and escalate our proclaimed goals. Above all, we must not keep doing the same thing that’s already proven to fail (the proverbial measure of insanity), and we must never regress. These comprise appeasement, which we know cannot work.


  1. Wow – nobody has left a comment yet.
    I see the drill: the idea is to FORCE the system and the elites who control their government puppets to come out into the open to show themselves for the predators they are.

    And then hope that the people, now that they realize their condition, will rebel or resist.
    My main and real fear is that the people will passively accept their slavery and impoverishment and dehumanization. Thus far, they have. Perhaps as they can afford fewer and fewer trashy and glitzy consumer goods, they will develop a spine, but I am somewhat doubtful.
    For myself and my community, I hope that my pessimism is not warranted.
    I can barely convince people that they should grow a tomato plant or two – but most of them are still far too comfortable.

    Comment by publiusmaximus — May 21, 2012 @ 11:29 am

    • You’re right about the mass inertia. The idea’s to get enough people to resist and start rebuilding, and provide a framework for doing so, that we can start affecting the inertial trajectory. This can actively weaken the system, take advantage of where it’s weakening on its own, increase the chances of a spontaneous mass breakthrough.

      There’s no need to be pessimistic. Rather than looking at how many haven’t yet heeded the call (most of them, we should always remember, are inertial rather than actively system-supportive), we can look at the growing numbers who are heeding it.

      Comment by Russ — May 22, 2012 @ 6:59 am

      • Question — Who is Russ? Searched the website, checked the staff page and came up empty. I ask because I’m curious to know the full name of the person who is responsible for this excellent product.

        One comment on the post, I’m in the process of reading Van Jones new book Rebuild the Dream, in which he sets out a multifaceted counterpower strategy. And he claims to have a grassroots movement of 800,000 followers. And 350.org has almost one million followers globally signed on to its new campaign. That’s a lot of people power. Any chance that CELDF could merge with their coalitions? The goals are not dissimilar.


        Comment by fjwhite — June 3, 2012 @ 4:16 pm

      • Hi, Fjwhite. Thanks for your enthusiasm about this stuff. I’m not with the CELDF, just interested in their project. You could try contacting them at their website. But I think they, like me, have zero interest in Democratic Party front groups. The Democratic Party is a corporate-fascist organization. Van Jones has an atrocious record as a shill for the Democrats in general and Obama in particular. The Occupy movement is rightly rejecting his come-ons.

        I want to see initiatives like the CELDF project to work in unison with the building of a truly democratic relocalization movement, at whose core would be the principles and practices of Food Sovereignty. I wrote up a basic strategy in these posts.


        Physical occupations and similar direct action are also key elements. But we generally reject system reformism as proven to fail, a waste of time and energy, and a psychological trap.

        Comment by Russ — June 4, 2012 @ 5:23 am

  2. […] The CELDF Strategy and Similar Actions by Russ, May 19, 2012 […]

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  6. […] whatever obstruction and wedge actions are possible during this time, the whole panorama of grassroots action Naomi Klein calls “Blockadia”, and building the new within the old. We must force into […]

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