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A Parody of Populism


The Sagebrush Rebellion began in Moab, Utah, and created an upheaval in land management policy that is still felt today. Perhaps its most significant outcome can be seen just three hours away in PR Springs, yet hardly anybody knows the place even exists.

It’s an easy, hour-long drive from Moab, up the 191 and then east down Old US Highway 50—75 miles past Arches National Park and curving around the Uintah and Ouray Indian Reservation. A sharp left will send your car on a two-hour drive of just 35 miles; BLM 198, a path into the Uintah Basin and to PR Spring. A fine source of clean ground water, PR Spring lies nearly two miles away from a tar sands test site that would have been impossible without the Sagebrush Rebellion, the Wise Use Movement, and the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) that helped forward the agenda of those two movements in the government.

In 1979, public officials were drawing up a proposal to transform a canyon just outside of Moab and next to Arches National Park, into a protected wilderness area. A massive outcry from the Far Right ensued, astroturfed and supported by the nascent libertarian movement generated by foundations, institutes, and entrepreneurial frontrunners like the Koch Brothers’ Silicon Valley Cato Institute, the Rand Institute, and the early tech industry. It was the dawning of the New Republican Party in the American West, brought into fruition by the rise of the ALEC and Ronald Reagan.

As he was hoisted to power, Reagan declared support for the Sagebrush Rebels, declared their intention to sabotage federal equipment, shoot BLM officials, and run amok over public lands until the “land grab” had ceased. Jean Baudrillard noted the hysterical situation in his book America: “While frequenting the rich ranchers or manufacturers of the West, Reagan has never had the faintest inkling of the poor and their existence, nor the slightest contact with them.” Yet he was able to suture the rising elite of California concentrating itself in the Silicon Valley to what Dave Foreman referred to as “the Bumpkin Proletariat,” forging an alliance between the ranchers, antigovernment libertarians, and social conservatives on one hand, and nanotechnologists, Silicon Valley elites, and venture capitalists on the other.

As the 1980s passed, ALEC made numerous inroads into public lands deregulation throughout the US. Passing model legislation for local and federal politicians, ALEC was able to further the corporatist agenda through Congress under the guise of a polluted Right Wing Populism. The supporters of ALEC were all too thrilled to line up behind Cliven Bundy, a veteran of the Bumpkin Proletariat, and express their dismay about the “heavy handed” response of the BLM. As the Right Wing press hyped the “land grab” in Bunkerville into a Second Sagebrush Rebellion, another important point was lost in the spin. Indeed, it is difficult to even locate PR Springs on the map; after being scraped of its grasslands and brush, it is perhaps not a place anymore, but an end point.

Where Is the Outrage?

The reason you probably haven’t heard of PR Springs is because the mainstream media does not like to talk about it. A huge swath of land in Southern Utah is set to be turned inside out in search of bitumen to process into crude oil. Modeled after the Alberta Tar Sands, the Utah tar sands mine will likely become the most environmentally polluted site in the US, and among the most polluted areas in the entire world.

On Monday morning, a gathering of 80 people walked into the site. Nearly two dozen chained themselves to the fence. The Uintah County Sherriff declared he had all his deputies on site, as the protest shut down work on the first processing plant to be built in this arid land. Thirteen demonstrators were arrested and thrown into police vans. More climbed up to the road where they halted the vans from leaving the site, demanding “Set them free!”
The police used force to separate the protestors, and a canine unit was set loose. Two people sustained injuries, with one being sent immediately to the hospital. Another six were arrested by the police, and then at the jail, two more were arrested for attempting to lend support. Ten sheriffs deputies lined the outside of the jail with bulletproof vests and attack dogs on alert in order to “deter” further demonstrations.

No outrage emerged from the Right Wing media about “heavy handed responses.” Nobody batted an eyelash. If the apocalyptic tar sands are built in Utah, it will not be the end of resistance to the corporate elite; it will be a transformation of resistance, a sharpening.

One thing we can predict—extracted by US Tar Sands, an Alberta-based company, the Utah tar sands oil would almost certainly flow into the Koch Brothers-owned refineries on the Gulf Coast, and be shipped out for export. Meanwhile, the Koch Brothers are on the fundraising circuit to raise money for various think tanks, institutes, and organizations bringing the climate denial message to ordinary voters around the world.

New Republican Revolution

While activists were gearing up for their Monday action, the Koch Brothers’ most were entertaining Silicon Valley’s elite at Reboot 2014, a libertarian conference in San Francisco’s super-gentrified tech district, SOMA. The keynote speakers included heartland populist, Rand Paul, and Nick Gillespie, the editor of long-running libertarian periodical, Reason, which helped to lay the foundations of Silicon Valley libertarianism during the rise of the New Republican Party in the 1970s.

It was Reason’s erstwhile editor, Robert Poole, who worked at General Research Corp, a spinoff of DARPA, and helped cement the intersections of “libertarians, Silicon Valley entrepreneurs and venture capitalists, software gurus, nanotechnologists, life-extensionists, and civil libertarians.” The diverse assemblage of subject positions calls to mind Baudrillard’s notion of the “world centre of the simulacrum and the inauthentic, as the absolute synthesis of ‘cool’ Stalinism” that lies amidst the “electronic tribalism of Silicon Valley.” It is a group of “insiders” who pretend that there is no “outside;” that they comprise the entire world, and bend it to their will.

An addition to the conference that has perplexed many onlookers was Representative Cathy McMorris Rodgers of Washington State. Journalist Mark Ames with Pando.com remarks on Rodgers’s pedigree from Pensacola Christian College, an unaccredited school that publishes under the imprimatur of A Beka books, a veritable Random House of Right Wing reaction, teaching K-12 kids “that Islam is a ‘false religion,’ Hindus are ‘incapable of writing history,’ Catholicism is ‘a monstrous distortion of Christianity,’ African religions preach ‘false religious beliefs,’ liberals and Democrats are crypto-Marxists, and the United Nations is a ‘collectivist juggernaut that would crush individual freedom and force the will of an elite few on all of humanity.’” It is hard to imagine a Populism such as this—with enemies on all sides, who needs friends?

The addition of Rodgers’s hard-right Republican ideology forms the crux of the “conservitarianism” forwarded by Reboot—a kind of new Republican Revolution, which would galvanize not only the insurgent Bumpkin Proletariat and Silicon Valley elite, but also the rural libertarians of the Pacific Northwest. Already a center for the software industry, Seattle emerges as a kind of “hip” and “cool” new Silicon Valley, while Portland, Oregon, long seen as the up-and-coming capital of US hipsterdom, has only just invited Google to set up shop.

Here we have a kind of broken and deranged Right Wing Populism—part-billionaire industrialist, part-Bumpkin Proletariat, part-tech gentrifier. It is a tripartite parody that the Right hopes will usher the bloated Republican Party into the Presidency in two years. Lucky for them, Hillary Clinton poses no threat whatsoever to the corporatist agenda in 2016.

Alexander Reid Ross is co-moderator of the Earth First! Newswire and editor of Grabbing Back: Essays Against the Global Land Grab (AK Press 2014). He can be reached at areidross(at)gmail.com

Alexander Reid Ross is a contributing moderator of the Earth First! Newswire. He is the editor of Grabbing Back: Essays Against the Global Land Grab (AK Press 2014) and a contributor to Life During Wartime (AK Press 2013). His most recent book Against the Fascist Creep is forthcoming through AK Press.

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