by Edward Abbey. New York: Perennial Classics, 2000 (1975). 448pp. Trade paperback. $14.95. ISBN: 9780060956448.
Reviewed by Darren Botello-Samson, Department of Social Sciences, Pittsburg State University. Email: dbsamson [at] pittstate.edu.
On the twenty-fifth anniversary of the publication of Edward Abbey’s THE MONKEY WRENCH GANG, Douglas Brinkley predicted that, “like Rachel Carson’s SILENT SPRING, Abbey’s notorious novel will be savored because of its proactive defense of nature in an era of dangerous hyperindustrialism” (p.xxiv). Given the novel’s constant association with and inspiration for the eco-anarchist movement, whose disillusionment with the perceived pandering of the governmental environmental regulatory regime to developmental interests inspire the direct protection of threatened natural areas and interests, such predictions are valid. THE MONKEY WRENCH GANG is, undoubtedly, a novel that leaves the reader with a heightened attention toward the extent of industrialism’s reach into the realm of nature and is highly likely to spark fervor in those passionate about protecting the natural environment. While prominent, environmentalist themes in the novel are not exhaustive. One could even argue that environmentalism provides the subtext of a novel primarily concerned with the social and psychological dimensions of law. In this context, THE MONKEY WRENCH GANG is an effective pedagogical tool in courses dealing with social and political aspects of law, especially courses focusing on analytical concepts of jurisprudence.
Written in 1975, THE MONKEY WRENCH GANG follows the fictional exploits of four self-appointed eco-saboteurs as they work, tirelessly, to dismantle and retard the encroachment of industry and development into the Four Corners region of the American Southwest. The four members of the gang; an Albuquerque doctor, his artistic New Left nurse/girlfriend, a Jack Mormon river guide, and a Vietnam vet; develop a strategy of sabotage to protect the natural environment of the American Southwest during a rafting trip through the Grand Canyon. While Glen Canyon Dam remains simultaneously the epitome of industrialism and the ultimate target of their plans, the gang hones their skills on targets of increasing significance and risk. By uprooting surveying stakes, destroying bulldozers, and derailing coal trains, the gang attracts unwanted attention from Bishop Love, a local developer and head of the San Juan County Search and Rescue Team. As the novel progresses, the gang goes after bigger targets, comes increasingly closer to getting caught, and must run further and faster to evade capture. While a prologue foreshadows the survival of the movement, despite the ongoing success of industrialization and development, the story culminates in an extended chase through the desert canyons of Southern Utah, which is described by the author in a detail that captures the beauty, openness, and harshness of that environment in such a [*291] manner that the reader cannot help but be drawn in to believing that the end of this pursuit will determine the survival of the gang’s ideals.
While a more general and law-focused theme is present, the topic-specificity of the novel should not be ignored. The novel could be particularly pertinent for courses in environmental law and policy, illuminating radical critiques of environmental regulatory policy and confronting the effectiveness and appropriateness of the use of illegal strategies for achieving environmental ends. Even in non-topic-specific courses focusing on law, this story of radical environmental activism supplies ripe and plentiful material for classroom discussions on civil disobedience and other forms of righteous and goal-oriented law breaking.
A frequent symbolic devise utilized throughout the novel is the varying degrees of symbiosis with nature possessed by the protagonist saboteurs and the antagonist protectors of economic interests. Even the general public, present in the midst of a conflict about which they are seemingly unaware or ambivalent, are frequently portrayed as zipping by in “indifferent traffic…unseeing, uncaring, (and) untouched” by their surroundings (p.48). This symbolism signifies the presence of an underlying law of nature, of which the main characters are aware, and of which the remainder of society is ignorant or in blatant violation. The topography and biodiversity of the American Southwest is portrayed as if observed by a fervent naturalist, and the mere presence of human civilization in this environment appears to violate a rational order: while humanity suffers amidst the vinyl interiors of automobiles in the desert heat, “all sensible creatures are shaded up or waiting out the day in cool burrows under the surface” (p.4).
The law of nature provides the set of principles guiding the main characters; even as their actions take on an increasingly lawless character, the guiding principle of doing no physical harm to others, to aim one’s attacks on things and property, not people, remains in play. If read as a polemic, the novel provides students with ample fodder for debates on the appropriateness and effectiveness of the strategy of violating the law to achieve positive ends.
To read Abbey simply polemically, however, fails to engage the text fully. While the antics of right-minded lawbreakers are the salient moments of the plot, Abbey engages the reader in a discussion about the law itself as he delves into questions of analytic jurisprudence and responds with answers indebted to Marxian and critical legal theories. While the text is clear that laws may be unjust and, therefore, deserve to be broken, the text is not overt as to the origins of such unjust laws. When read alongside additional readings or lectures, however, the novel becomes an excellent tool to develop discussions on Marxian explanations of the formation of law. Beginning from the premise that “the state authority introduces clarity and stability into the structure of law, but does not create the premises for it, which are rooted [*292] in the material relations of production” (Pashukanis 1924), the student can engage the text searching for examples of laws which outwardly claim to be designed to protect the environment, but reflect objective power relations rooted in economic production. The concept of the ideological dimension of law is further developed by the spirit of the text. Abbey wrote his characters with a healthy dose of confidence and commitment, but even they are characterized by doubt and trepidation about their actions (p.189). By engaging in the novel, the reader experiences the reified power of law, whereby a transgression of the law becomes more than a transgression of “the natural prerequisites for the act of exchange;” it becomes a transgression of “the natural premises, or natural forms, of all social interaction” (Pashukanis 1924). As such, the student is forced to evaluate the objectivity of the law, as Abbey argues for an understanding of law based on power, not truth.
It is this concern, the ideological dimension of law, that forms the general theme of THE MONKEY WRENCH GANG, and the novel can be well utilized in the classroom when directed at this topic. The main characters of the novel are all characterized by a strong devotion to the protection of the natural world, but this concern is more for the freedom that wilderness provides. Their fear is a world of “perfect sphericity” (p.80) created by industrial forces which, as manifest in a dream of one of the saboteurs, is governed by the forces of conformity and control (pp.255-57). Their violation of the law does more than resist development; it makes them more human in a world being unraveled by desperate interdependence (p.42). The first act of sabotage performed by the main protagonist of the story is performed against a police car, a symbol of the institution of law itself (p.24). Such examples of the humanizing effect of the characters’ lawlessness provide segues into nihilistic traditions of jurisprudence, in which law is characterized by “the profound instinct that only automatism makes possible perfection in life and creation” (Nietzsche 1906).
Lessons in critical legal theory would also benefit from the novel, as the general theme parallels critical legal theory’s criticism of the liberal assumption of “the separation of law from other varieties of social control” (Hunt 1993). While Abbey’s characters must work to free their minds from the ideological constraints of the law, Abbey is silent about how such constraints develop in the first place, how the power base of law gains acceptance in the minds of those it controls, even to their detriment. In this regard, THE MONKEY WRENCH GANG functions less as an explanation of the principles of critical legal theory, and more as a resource to which such tools can be applied to hypothesize about a “process of mediation between professional consciousness and the formation of popular consciousness” (Hunt 1993).
A few issues should be considered before this novel is adopted for use in the classroom. At 421 pages, THE MONKEY WRENCH GANG is lengthy. The prose is simple and the reading is quick, but sufficient time must be available in the class schedule if students are to complete the novel. Furthermore, the colorfulness of Abbey’s language is not limited to imagery and metaphor. The novel is full of profanity, violence, sex, drug use and trivialization of differences of gender and race. College-aged students should be more than prepared to handle such material maturely, or at least in a manner [*293] that does not prevent learning the intended lesson. Professors uncomfortable with the use of risqué material in the classroom would be uncomfortable using this text.
My own experience in using THE MONKEY WRENCH GANG in the classroom has demonstrated that these negatives have a positive counterpart. The novel’s glut of sex and profanity, combined with Abbey’s engaging and humorous prose and several chapters dedicated to suspenseful exploits, pursuits, and escapes, provide a reading experience vastly different from the majority of the students’ academic reading experience. The result is that classroom participation is enhanced by the simple fact that more students will read the assignment. Another potential negative that can also improve the quality and quantity of classroom participation is the inconsistency of the novel. THE MONKEY WRENCH GANG is not a consistent explanation of legal theory. General acts of lawlessness are constantly qualified with “anarchy is not the answer” (p.74). The characters’ disdain for lawful civilization fades as they face the threat to their own survival in a harsh wilderness (p.366) and much of their avoidance of attacks on persons is more a product of luck than design. While the characters may defend such inconsistencies as rooted in their practice forming their doctrine, “thus insuring precise theoretical coherence” (p.69), the educator will find that such contradictions make for a text that invites discussion and debate as students choose sides and defend positions.
Hunt, Alan. 1993. EXPLORATIONS IN LAW AND SOCIETY: TOWARD A CONSTITUTIVE THEORY OF LAW. New York: Routledge.
Nietzsche, Freidrich. 1968 (1906). THE WILL TO POWER. Walter Kaufmann & R.J. Hollingdale, trans. New York: Vintage Books.
Pashukanis, Evgeny B. 2003 (1924). THE GENERAL THEORY OF LAW AND MARXISM. Barbara Einhorn, trans. New Brunswick: Transaction Publishers.
© Copyright 2008 by the author, Darren Botello-Samson.