John Twelve Hawks: “New surveillance states have placed us in an invisible prison”
The continuing revelations by Edward Snowden have convinced many of us that we are living in a modern surveillance state. And the problem isn’t just the activities of the National Security Agency and Great Britain’s GCHQ. “Trickle Down Surveillance” has provided spy technology to small town police officers and developing world dictators. In addition, our activities are monitored for commercial reasons by a wide variety of international corporations (Amazon isn’t the “Everything Store,” it’s the “Find Out Everything About You” store).
Anyone who steps back for a minute and observes our modern digital world might conclude that we have destroyed our privacy in exchange for convenience and false security. That private world within our thoughts has been monitored, tabulated and quantified. Our tastes, our opinions, our needs and our desires have been packaged and sold as commodities. Those in power have pushed their need for control one step too far. They turned unique individuals into data files, and our most intimate actions have become algorithmic probabilities.
The destruction of personal privacy is not an ideological issue. Thoughtful women and men on every point of the political spectrum are beginning to realize that surveillance technology has shifted the balance of power between institutions and individuals. Without private thoughts and actions we can never truly be free.
Ten years ago, I believed that individuals could live off the grid, but because of “trickle-down surveillance,” it’s becoming impossible to escape surveillance in a rural area or in a developing country. Most of the people reading this essay have jobs that involve computers. We have cellphones, and we use the Internet. Like it or not, we’re living in a digital infrastructure.
Although I write dystopian fiction, I don’t believe in dystopian fantasies. Unless some future hacker genius creates a virus that wipes every database clean, it’s clear that destroying one small part of this Virtual Panopticon is not going to bring the walls down.
So what are we supposed to do? How can we avoid becoming just another bar-coded object tracked within a World of Things?
A place of refuge
A good first step is to find or create an occasional place of refuge where you can escape the electronic grid that surrounds us. It’s a place without phones or computers — without monitoring of any kind. Stepping back from the grid is especially important if you have small children. They need to discover the possibilities created by their own imaginations.
I realize that switching off one’s Twitter feed is highly difficult for some people. But walking alone down a forest path, smelling the wet earth, and watching branches sway in the wind is actually the first step in your act of resistance.
You can’t truly hear your own voice until the shouting around you disappears. New ideas and possibilities — our own ideas, our own possibilities — will occur only when we step away from the Virtual Panopticon.
At various times of my life I have turned away from our high-tech society. When I was younger I simply camped or explored the wilderness on my own. During the last few years, I’ve experienced more extreme periods of isolation in Nepal and Tibet (in both of these countries, people are more accepting of these kinds of actions).
The last time I stepped off the grid, I took photographs of myself before and after the experience. On the first day, my face showed the conventional “mask” we all create to protect our private Self. Thirty-one days later, I had grown a beard, but that was an insignificant change. I was smiling. My eyes were wide open and ready to see the beauty of our world.
One consequence of living — even for a short time — in a place of refuge is that when you return to your daily routine, you’ll be more aware of the ways that the Panopticon is watching you and predicting your behavior. This awareness gives you the motivation to gradually create a parallel life.
My Public Self uses a credit card to buy an airline ticket, walks through an airport and boards a plane. This Self pays income taxes, uses a smartphone, and doesn’t hide his face from the CCTV cameras that have appeared throughout New York and London.
Then there is my Private Self that gives a fake phone number to an inquisitive clerk, doesn’t post a photograph on Facebook, and uses a search engine that won’t remember searches. I’ve used a gift card (paid for with cash) to purchase Apple apps and my identity is not on the Apple Corp.’s database.
Finally there is a Secret Self that owns a throwaway cellphone purchased with cash and uses Internet software like Tor that enables online anonymity.
In the beginning, these actions to defend your privacy feel like a game. But deliberately concealing yourself from the Panopticon makes you feel less passive and more aware. There’s nothing flashy going on here, just small daily actions that continually undercut the constant attempt by governments and corporations to know who you are and what you’re doing.
The Shark Cage
The Internet is not a cyber-utopia offering freedom to anyone with a blog. It’s part of the world economy (other than Wikipedia, the vast majority of the top 100 websites are owned by large corporations).
We exist in a marketplace where our personal information is collected and sold. But the marketplace can protect our privacy if we make conscious choices. Companies selling computers and phones design their product first, then add firewalls and security software later. The growing awareness of the attack on privacy has prompted a small group of cryptographers to design communications devices that assume that both the Internet and the cellular network have been compromised.
Recently, a company has introduced the Blackphone — an Android-based smartphone that provides easy-to-use encryption for phone calls and text messaging (the same company is developing “a private and secure” email system called Dark Mail). By the time you read this, there may be better-designed phones and more secure email systems. The real news is that the market is beginning to respond to the public’s growing realization of how the surveillance state destroys freedom. More pro-privacy computers and communications devices will be created, and they will gradually become less expensive and easier to use.
Wealthy people and celebrities routinely hire specialists to create an electronic “shark cage” that protects their phone and online privacy. But privacy is no longer a rich man’s luxury. In the last few years, small companies like the Boston-based Abine Corp. are selling software that can control the personal information that companies and other people can see about consumers online.
In democratic countries with a digital infrastructure, the market will eventually offer us cheap and easy-to-use ways to step away from certain aspects of the Panopticon. All you need is enough cash to buy a prepaid debit card — and the desire to live an unmonitored life.
I own two smartphones (one purchased with cash), an iPad, two regular computers, and a “clean” notebook computer that’s unattached to any identity. There’s nothing wrong with technology itself. A license plate scanner attached to a computer has no ideology. The real issue is control. Who gives instructions to these new machines, and what are they used for? Who makes the rules for our society and our lives?
One positive aspect of the new technology is that it gives us the means to create parallel systems that exist alongside the dominant social and economic system. Examples can be found everywhere: organic farming, home solar power, and the do-it-yourself movement (DIY), which encourages people to “life hack” common problems and use open-source designs to make machines.
Using a parallel system allows us to makes a distinction between the surveillance state and those transactions that are not instantly part of a database. When we buy a locally grown tomato at the farmer’s market, use a peer-to-peer payment system that involves cryptocurrency, or rent a room in someone’s apartment while traveling, we’re engaged in a transaction that will not be tracked or quantified.
Participating in these parallel systems and creating a parallel life are both choices. And most people living in democratic countries still have these choices. But what should we do if the new surveillance states extend their power into every aspect of our lives?
When do you decide that you have had enough?
For several years I worked for an organization that sent its employees out to work in war zones all over the world. On a number of occasions, I walked through villages where everyone had been killed and the bodies were left to swell up and rot in the sun. Time disappeared during these moments, and I was conscious only of the stench and the buzzing sound that came from swarms of flies. Eventually, my Sikh driver would honk the horn of the truck filled with relief supplies. I would get back into the truck cab and continue up the road. But these experiences stayed in my memory. I wanted to know why humans acted with such deliberate cruelty. When should we turn away from evil? And when should we resist?
When I returned to America, I began to read books about the Holocaust that described how ordinary people were transformed into executioners while a smaller group risked their lives trying to save others. There’s a long shelf of books about individual rescuers like Oskar Schindler, but it was difficult to come up with a general theory as to why they stepped forward.
A friend recommended that I read about Stanley Milgram’s famous “obedience studies” in the early 1960s. The Yale University psychologist was trying to understand how authority could push individuals into performing cruel or unethical actions, so he conducted a series of experiments on the Yale campus.
Imagine that you were one of the people who answered a newspaper ad looking for paid participants in a “scientific experiment.” When you arrive at the basement laboratory, a man wearing a white lab coat tells you that you’re going to participate in a study of how memory is influenced by punishment. You fill out a questionnaire, then pick a piece of paper that gives you the role of “teacher” while the other participant is “the learner” (actually an actor hired by Milgram). The learner is taken to another room and an electrode is strapped to his wrist. Then the experimenter asks you to give the learner a set of word pairings to memorize.
If the learner in the next room answers correctly over an intercom, you’re supposed to praise him. But if the learner gives the wrong answer, you’re told to press a switch that gives a shock to the other person. At first, the learner answers correctly, and then he begins to make mistakes. Each time that happens, you’re told to press a switch with a higher voltage indicated on the control panel. You’re ordered to keep going even when the learner begins to scream.
After 19 different experiments with more than a thousand participants, Milgram described the obedience study to a group of 40 psychiatrists and asked them to estimate what percentage of teachers would reach the 450-volt level marked with an ominous XXX on the control panel. The psychiatrists decided that only 1 percent of the test group would go all the way. They were astonished to learn that two out of three “ordinary” men and women gave the maximum shock even when the learner in the other room had stopped responding.
Humans can be manipulated to obey. As information and communications technology creates a surveillance state, I’m worried that fear of terrorism will create a system where police officers and soldiers will obey the computer-generated decisions that appear on their optical head-mounted displays.
So what can stop this from happening? In 2006, a professor at Santa Clara University named Jerry Burger duplicated Milgram’s experiment using an experimental procedure where the “teachers” were pushed only toward a maximum 150-volt level. When he interviewed the participants afterward, Burger discovered that those who had stopped participating felt that they were responsible for giving the shocks, while those participants who obeyed had decided that the experimenter was responsible.
Milgram’s research shows us that anyone who identifies with authority can be manipulated to defend institutional goals. This sort of mindless obedience can be defeated only by one’s sense of identity.
Identity is not taste or fashion; it has nothing to do with what we’ve purchased in the past or want to buy in the future. Identity comes from making real choices that force you to decide what is true, fair and just.
One Man Standing in the Middle of a Street
The key image of our era is not an astronaut on the moon or a smirking billionaire holding a new smartphone. I’m continually inspired by the 1989 video of a man standing in front of a column of tanks one day after the Chinese military massacred the pro-democracy protesters who had gathered in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square.
When the lead tank tries to drive around this protester, he repeatedly steps into its path. The driver of the lead tank shouts at him. The column starts to move, but the lone protester stops them once again. I don’t know this hero’s name and I don’t know what happened to him, but I’m still inspired by his bravery. The Tank Man was acting like a free human being — making a conscious choice to resist authority.
Even if you spent most of your day using some kind of electronic device, you’re not a light-emitting diode or a computer chip. We should never consider ourselves a functional component of any new technological system. We are physical beings that have been given the privilege and the power to say no.
When your own moment arrives, it probably won’t involve a column of tanks, but you’ll know that there is no other alternative. You must confront authority or your true Self would no longer exist.
The new surveillance states have placed us in an invisible prison. If we wish to break free, we need only to step forward and open the door.
John Twelve Hawks’ new book is “Against Authority: Freedom and the Rise of the Surveillance States.” Follow him on Twitter ar @john12hawks.
The theme of Ayn Rand’sAtlas Shrugged, according to Ms. Rand herself, is “what happens to the world when the Prime Movers go on strike.” The prime movers are corporate executives – “the motor of the world” – and Rand imagines what would happen if they all just went away. To Rand this is nothing less than “a picture of the world with its motor cut off.”
Ouch. Paging Dr. Freud.
In Rand’s novel the great, throbbing “motor of the world” (it’s made of executives, remember?) retreats to an Atlantis-like idyll known as “Galt’s Gulch.” Without their ingenuity and drive the nation descends into chaos, leading many long pages later to their triumphant return and anointment as leaders of a new libertarian order.
Which gets us to the fraud charges now swirling around a venture called “Galt’s Gulch of Chile.” Its website is currently down, but it’s still being promoted as a real-world retreat for the world’s movers and shakers. “Yes, you read that right,” the organizer chirps cheerily. “Those who become one of GGC’s Founders will be paid back … within three years of the consummation of their Founders Club participation (please contact GGC for the fine print and T&Cs).”
In what should be an unsurprising outcome, it didn’t turn out very well. That news comes (via Metafilter and Gawker) from a blogger named Wendy McElroy, who writes that she bought some property in Galt’s Gulch with her husband and then learned that it never had legal rights to the property in the first place. A visit to Chile revealed that many of the area’s local vendors had also been defrauded by the Galtians.
As Gawker’s headline puts it, “Ayn Rand’s Capitalist Paradise Is Now a Greedy Land-Grabbing Shitstorm.”
It’s possible to feel genuinely sympathetic to the McElroys’ plight – and I do – and yet wonder why this outcome was the least bit surprising to any reader of Rand’s work. Atlas Shrugged actually celebrates fraud – at least against those whom Rand despises. These charges aren’t an aberration. They’re the inevitable outcome of Rand’s own philosophy.
Atlas Shrugged opens with a question – “Who is John Galt?” – and then takes forever to answer it, clocking in at a weighty and tendentious 1168 pages. One glance at its author’s pinned eyes, immortalized in the photo on the back cover of the hardbound Dutton edition, and the book’s interminable length becomes easier to understand. Ms. Rand is gazing slightly heavenward, as if locking eyes with some adored Übermensch. She sits poised as if preparing for flight, one hand nervously clenched in a half-fist, like Mighty Mouse on methedrine.
How misguided, how downright strange, is Atlas Shrugged? Rand insists that the most sexually desirable human beings on the planet are wealthy male CEOs, a conceit which conjures up images of Charles Koch as Austin Powers, performing a mating dance to the sounds of “Let’s Get It On” as a comely stranger reclines on a rotating sofa.
Do I make you Randian, baby? Do I?
But the auto-executive eroticism becomes considerably less amusing when one realizes that one of Rand’s heroes is a rapist:
He held her, pressing the length of his body against hers with a tense, purposeful insistence, his hand moving over her breasts as if he were learning a proprietor’s intimacy with her body, a shocking intimacy that needed no consent from her, no permission.
…She knew that fear was useless, that he would do what he wished, that the decision was his, that he left nothing possible to her except the thing she wanted most – to submit.
She wanted it, so it’s okay, right? Except she never said she wants it, and the rapist (“Francisco”) had already roughed her up in an earlier scene: “When she came home, she told her mother that she had cut her lip by falling against a rock.”
Then there’s Hank Rearden, the married man whose sex with the heroine leaves her bloodied and bruised the next morning. To wit: “She saw a bruise above her elbow, with dark beads that had been blood.” The morning-after sweet nothings rom Hank include “I wanted you as one wants a whore – for the same reason and purpose,” and “What I feel for you is contempt…”
Vile talk. But then, women are an inferior species in Rand’s world, a place where little girls need not dream of growing up to be President. “By the nature of her duties and daily activities,” writes Rand, “she would become the most unfeminine, sexless, metaphysically inappropriate, and rationally revolting figure of all: a matriarch.”
Rand’s creepy mise-en-scène is as ridden with criminality as it is with misogyny and sexual brutality. One of its cartoonish heroes is a pirate named Ragnar Danneskjöld, who’s celebrated for stealing from humanitarian relief ships bound for poverty-stricken lands and giving the money – I’m not making this up – to the rich.
“I’m after a man whom I want to destroy,” says Ragnar. “… Robin Hood …”
Danneskjöld is described as follows:
… the face had no expression; it had not changed once while speaking; it looked as if the man had lost the capacity to feel long ago, and what remained of him were only features that seemed implacable and dead. With a shudder of astonishment, Rearden found himself thinking that it was not the face of a man, but of an avenging angel.
It sounds more like the face of a psychopath.
Rand’s heroes aren’t just rapists, woman-beaters, and thieves. They’re also terrorists who freely blow up or burn properties for ideological reasons, or simply because things didn’t turn out as they might have liked. (Fun exercise: Imagine how conservatives would react to Rand’s storylines if all the protagonists were black. Or Muslim.)
Then there’s the fraud. It’s praiseworthy in Rand’s eyes – if it’s practiced by the right sort of people. Francisco, the rapist/hero, even boasts about defrauding investors from the “looters’” parasitical economy. In an ironic foreshadowing of Galt’s Gulch in Chile, he brags about building defective housing for Mexican workers as part of a government contract:
Well, those steel-frame houses are mainly cardboard, with a coating of good imitation shellac. They won’t stand another year. The plumbing pipes – as well as most of our mining equipment – were purchased from dealers whose main source of supply are the city dumps of Buenos Aires and Rio de Janeiro. I’d give those pipes another five months, and the electric system about six. The wonderful roads we graded up four thousand feet of rock for the People’s State of Mexico, will not last beyond a couple of winters: they’re cheap cement without foundation, and the bracing at the bad turns is just painted clapboard. Wait for one good mountain slide …
“Wait for one good mountain slide” – with those workers’ families inside, of course. Comedy gold, amirite?
Is it any wonder that a venture inspired by this book eventually defrauded its customers? And yet, despite the allegations against them, Gawker’s Adam Weinstein tells us that, “GGC developers will still sell you a 1,200-acre “Master Estate” for a mere $500,000. As long as you’re also willing to extend GGC developers a $2 million ‘Founders Club’ loan along with that $500,000, which they’ll totally pay back, they swear.”
Weinstein snarks, “That silence you hear? That’s the sound of Atlas shrugging.”
But hold the schadenfreude for a second. Every victim of criminal fraud deserves compassion, even when they admire a writer who idealizes greed. McElroy appears to be the kind of libertarian who, however misguided one may consider her economic views, can be found on the frontlines of many a good fight – for civil liberties and individual freedom, and against militarism.
McElroy says she still has faith in the project’s founder – Mr. “Yes, you read that right!” – and believes that other partners were responsible for the malfeasance. But one of the reasons the “Galt’s Gulch” crowd chose Chile is because of that country’s lax regulatory environment. Regulations exist for a reason. The Randians’ blind hatred of them, and of the democratic governments which establish them, flies in the face of reason. Would they object to the recent regulatory actions which resulted in Graco, the baby products corporation, recalling more than six million infant car seats? Would it change their minds if they knew that Graco’s improperly designed strollers resulted to the strangulation deaths of four babies in 2010?
But then, a hatred of regulation is part of Rand’s profound contempt for democracy itself, which can be seen in her description of “the woman in Roomette 9, Car No. 12 … a housewife who believed that she had the right to elect politicians, of whom she knew nothing, to control giant industries, of which she had no knowledge.”
Rand and her followers don’t think that a “housewife” has the right to elect politicians who regulate giant industries. The parents of those four strangled infants would probably disagree.
Hopefully the criminal justice system will bring justice to the McElroy household and to other fraud victims. These government agencies can be very effective at such tasks, although perhaps less so now that tax cuts for the wealthy have eaten into their operating budgets.
The truth is that we need government, in the form of police, legislatures – and yes, regulators- to protect us from the psychopathic lack of empathy which, along with the sadomasochistic sexuality, is such an integral part of the Randian ideal.
What sort of society would voluntarily surrender itself people like the sociopath Ragnar, the rapist Francisco, or the rough-trade cruiser Rearden? That would be an act of collective masochism.
And let’s get one thing straight: Ayn Rand isn’t a deep thinker. She’s a gelatinous mass of chaotic and violent drives, loosely wrapped in pseudo-Nietzschian babble. Her writings are intellectually shallow econo-porn, part Kraft-Ebbing and part Horatio Alger, possessing neither coherence nor philosophical depth. Rand writes that Galt’s Gulch represents “the mind on strike,” but it’s more like a work slowdown.
Atlas Shrugged’s long-awaited last line reads as follows:
“He raised his hand and over the desolate earth he traced in space the sign of the dollar.”
Some of those now-invisible air dollars belong to fraud victims like the McElroys, victims who went looking for “the motor of the world” and got the shaft instead.
Our libertarian friends seem to think that government produces an over-regimented, insect-like society comprised only of rulers and drones. But the only governments which have turned out that way are either corporation-run or practice a Communist model of “state capitalism.” Democracy has never produced the kind of regimentation which the average corporation now demands of its employees and customers.
It’s greed, not government, which subjugates us today. Nobody wants to be an insect, but Rand and her followers want to turn society into a hive filled with sociopathic bees. When that happens, as the investors in Chile learned, somebody’s bound to get stung.
By Sean Patrick Casey and Giulia Zapata Foresti
XM24 is a self-managed social center and public space in Bologna, Italy. It was first occupied in 2002, but its origins go back to the 1990s, to the social centers and the anti-globalization movement of that decade. It is heterogeneous and non-hegemonic, but it holds anti-fascism, anti-sexism and anti-racism to be the three common points that hold the space, its collectives and its individuals together in a revolutionary and pluralistic identification with the broader anti-capitalist movement.
The object of this article, written by two militants of the space, is to give a sense of our story and daily practice that, we hope, will be useful to comrades outside of the Italian context.
Birth of a global space: 1999-2002
The story of the XM24 social space begins with the protest movement that exploded in 1999 after the Seattle riots. That movement took shape in Bologna the next year, with the creation of the Contropiani network. This network played a central role in the mobilization against the OECD summit. The summit, held in Bologna itself, represented yet another moment in which globalization and development were being discussed behind closed doors, with countless issues not even on the agenda, like worker’s rights, oppression of indigenous peoples and the devastation of the environment under neoliberalism.
The network needed a physical space to organize meetings and prepare the mobilization, so in July 2000 an abandoned warehouse on via Ranzani was occupied, filling an abandoned space with people and their desires. Starting from here many different paths began to intersect, creating a common space around concepts like the need for free circulation of people and of knowledge, a global minimum and living wage, the globalization of rights rather than that of capital.
All these points were at the center of building opposition to neoliberal globalization. The same words and slogans were yelled at the G8 summit in Genoa, in 2001. It was in everyone’s hearts that the cultural and generational multiplicity that made those massive demonstrations possible, the independent information media activism project represented by Indymedia, the Social Forums, legal aid volunteers, joy, determination and militant solidarity, be the only characteristics of that summit. Instead there was harsh repression from the state, culminating in the death of 23-year old Carlo Giuliani; the brutal beatings at the Diaz school; and the legalized torture of detained protesters at the Bolzaneto barracks.
In December 2001 the spaces of via Ranzani were evicted by the police. The city administration then assigned the spaces of the former city fruit and vegetable market, in via Fioravanti 24 to the various collectives which had been based in via Ranzani. The agreement was public, but informal, and as a consequence the initial entry into the 3.000 square meter space represented an occupation. The occupants were not a homogeneous collective with a common political line, but multiple intersecting subjectivities that since Ranzani had been carrying on various political projects.
The occupants were aware that they were giving a space back to the neighborhood – a working class area which was very important in the resistance to fascist occupation. The space had been abandoned for years and was falling apart, ugly, and had become a hotspot for drug dealers and addicts alike.
Now it was revived by people with different life stories and projects, but with a common objective: to short-circuit neoliberal mechanisms, producing social justice and horizontal social spaces. The weekly assembly took on a strong political weight in the self-management of the space in furtherance of these objectives, becoming the space in which to collectively discuss how to keep alive a project that was full of political and social potential.
Repression, reflection, innovation: the first decade of XM24
Brutal police violence, the assassination of Carlo Giuliani and the subsequent media cover up and legal repression did not succeed in neutralizing the social center movement in Italy that XM24 had emerged from, but the long-term effect was both weakening and traumatic. The end of the movement against the war in Iraq (2002-’04) can be taken as the beginning of the “fase di riflusso”, the ebb phase, when the accumulated strength of years of struggle subsided and the movement began to lose traction, street presence and social relevance.
The flip-side of this decrease in collective strength was a sharp increase in the legal repression of activists, and a country-wide attempt to make the occupation of social centers, and the occupation tactic in general, impossible. Historic social centers, including legalized ones, came under increasing pressure from city administrations which attempted to exploit the situation to wipe out decades of political work and struggle.
In Bologna this situation was particularly felt, due to the center-left mayor’s decision to launch a law and order campaign whose main target was the city’s social and housing occupations. Between 2004 and 2007 the police carried out numerous evictions, and activists received hundreds of citations, frequently finding themselves charged with subversion of the democratic order – a law of fascist origin – for actions as simple as the interruption of a city council meeting or the self-reduction of a meal at the university’s cafeteria (the most expensive in Italy).
This period also saw, on a national level, a sharp increase in neo-fascist violence against social centers, activists, migrants and members of the LGBTQ community. This period of relative isolation and repression, which coincided with the first years of XM24’s existence, contributed to the definition of the space’s political priorities, discourses and campaigns.
The political interventions practiced by the space and by the collectives and networks active in it in this period were largely, but not exclusively, along three broad lines: a collective attempt to re-imagine the theory and practice of anti-fascism; the collective and participatory theorizing of self-management; and the support of migrant activism against institutional and cultural racism and labor exploitation.
The desire to re-imagine anti-fascism was a direct result of the heterogeneous and non-hegemonic composition of the assembly of the space. A particular contribution to this debate came from the queer collectives active in the space, which encouraged an analysis of fascism and anti-fascism that took into consideration the patriarchal and hetero-sexist nature of fascist and neo-fascist discourse and culture.
The urban laboratory
The increasing pressure that social spaces were coming under provoked an intense debate regarding the nature of occupation, self-organization and self-management in the context of broader political struggle. Within XM24 itself the debate centered on the relationship of the space to the city administration and more importantly to the Bolognina neighborhood in which it was situated and on whether it was possible to interact with local institutions while at the same time practicing politics in an autonomous way, that is, without falling into a trap and being “recovered” by the mechanisms of capital and its governance.
This approach was tested when the space decided to collectively participate in the Laboratorio di Urbanistica Partecipata (‘Laboratory of Urban Participation’), initiated by the local administration to involve different social realities of the Bolognina neighborhood in the process of deciding the course of a large construction project to be realized in the area. While the end results revealed the bad faith of both the administration and construction companies, the experience proved valuable in terms of relating to local situations outside of the radical left scene, which in the future would prove very valuable.
In order to defend itself, but more importantly to counter-attack the institutional attempt at removing the social center experience from the map, XM24 began the process of developing a collective discourse of self-management. This process centered on common points that permitted the development of a broad and pluralistic political debate: the inseparability of self-management from a political culture and praxis that is anti-fascist, anti-sexist, anti-racist and anti-authoritarian; the political incompatibility of self-management with the legalistic framework of institutional urban policy; and the central role of self-management of spaces and life in the broader anti-capitalist and social justice movement.
In 2008 the On the Move Project was born from the Migrants Coordination, a youth-oriented community organizing project that has become an important voice for working class migrant and Italian youth, many from the Bolognina neighborhood, which has campaigned for citizenship rights for migrant youth born or raised in Italy. XM24 has had a central role in these mobilizations and projects, both as host and more generally as an openly multi-ethnic and anti-racist space, which during a period of increasing institutional and cultural racism never stopped openly opposing racism and supporting (politically, humanly and economically) migrant and anti-racist struggles.
These struggles made Bologna a center for the migrant struggle in the Italian context. Some important examples of this were the first of Migrant Strikes and support for migrant workers of the logistics sector who have carried out dozens of strikes and pickets over the past few years.
Over the years many major events have contributed to the construction of XM24′s political identity and presence. For ten years XM24 was the home of the Anti-MTVday. The event celebrated independence from major labels, accessibility and diversification of underground music, and the self-management of the creation and distribution process. United by the slogan “Stop music business and television lobotomy”, thousands of people from all over Italy and other European countries would come to XM24 for the autumn festival, which in ten years hosted hundreds of bands and independent record labels.
The Bologna Festival Burn of 2013 supported, through concerts, art performances and street art, various other spaces in the city that produce culture from below and develop political, cultural and social alternatives to mainstream models. In 2005 the social center entered into the Critical Wine – Terra e Libertà network, a project that foments the creation of new global sensibilities relating to food and the environment, aiming at liberation from the consumerist model of production and alimentation.
This is the same objective behind CampiAperti, the self-managed cooperative network of farmers who belong to the social center and hold a farmers market of biological produce every Thursday, an event that draws dozens of people, young and old, to the space every week. The social center also has a collective garden, in the shadows of the massive construction works happening behind the space, a little bit of green in a sea of cement and speculation.
Under attack: “The Battle for XM24”
The city administration had promised during its participation in the Laboratory of Urban Participation the massive development project known as Trilogia Navile in the abandoned area behind XM24 would only remove a small part of the social center’s courtyard necessary to construct a roundabout. However, when the final project was made public it was revealed that the actual project called for the demolition of a significant portion of the structure itself; the kitchen, gym and one of two concert spaces.
It became clear that with the pretext of the roundabout the city administration was attempting to weaken, if not eventually evict XM24. The mobilization in defense of the space was a challenging moment in the history of the space, in that it required an enormous amount of discussion, research and organizing, attempting to maintain consensus, transparency and horizontalism in every moment of the campaign.
The parting shot of the campaign was the painting of an enormous mural on the wall intended for demolition, by world-famous street artist Blu, whose murals have adorned XM24′s walls since its birth. The mural depicts the city of Bologna as a Lord of the Rings-style clash between good and evil, center and periphery, social movements and city rulers. The mural drew massive attention to the campaign, on a political and artistic level, and became a symbol of the struggle to save the space.
The campaign organized several very successful events in which artists, writers and musicians performed in support of the campaign, drawing thousands of people to XM24 and reminding city administrators what would happen if the space were evicted.
The campaign culminated in the blocking of the first day of works to construct the roundabout, in which activists conducted a press conference and presented city administrators with an alternative set of plans, drawn up by comradely architects, for the construction of the roundabout. This proved to be a winning strategy. Within hours a new round table was called by the city and within a few weeks the project for the demolition of part of XM24 was abandoned, and a roundabout similar to that initially projected by the Urban Laboratory was built.
Autogestione and the City: a committee for self-management
One of the main points in the discussions between XM24 and the city administration was the absence of any formal legal agreement between the space and the city. The city initially demanded that XM24 sign a traditional agreement, in which the space would constitute itself as a cultural association and sign a strict contract for the management of the space.
This proposal was rejected, on both political and practical grounds. In the face of this resolute rejection the City relented on its demands and an agreement was reached in which the space was “assigned” to a third party committee. This committee was established to permit the assignment process, without reducing the horizontal, non-hierarchical assembly of XM to a legally recognizable form.
The committee is a third party subject that vouches for the activities of XM24 without representing it. This agreement allowed the multifaceted experience of XM24 to go forward, reducing, but not eliminating, the gentrification-induced political pressure that the social center and its collectives face every day.
The creation of the committee in December 2013 coincided with the signing of an agreement with the city that for the moment legalizes the occupation of XM24. But it has a broader goal, which is the promotion and support of self-managed social experiences in Bologna with the objective of encouraging the spread of occupation tactics and self-management in the city.
These tactics are also seen as a fundamental part of the construction of radical direct democracy and social and political protagonism and participation from below to respond to the needs of communities. The political wager of the committee is that it will be a tool to defend self-managed spaces and practice social conflict. Various social centers and spaces from Bologna have decided to participate in it.
The situation today
On a day-to day basis, XM24 is a center for the self-management of everyday life in the Bolognina neighborhood. The Ampioraggio People’s Bike Shop, organizers of Bologna Critical Mass, the annual Human Motor mobilization against the Bologna Motor Show, and convergence space for many neighborhood residents, young and less young, migrant and Italian. The People’s Kitchen, a vegetarian, cruelty-free space has been a vital resource for political and social groups to organize benefit dinners for projects, legal aid and political prisoners for many years now. The People’s Free Gym is an open space for neighborhood residents to do yoga, aerial circus and many other arts without spending money.
The only central decision-making space is the assembly, every Tuesday night, frequently beginning late, always ending after midnight. It is a space of collective responsibility, where decisions affecting the whole space are made and where new people can come to propose projects or events. It is public and usually made up of thirty to forty people.
As in many spaces, finding a consensus is not always easy or automatic, but through horizontal decision-making and free participation the space is still functioning, twelve years on. The space is completely volunteer-run and self-financed, and is continuously hosting new projects in which those proposing are welcomed, but expected to take responsibility of the fact that they too are now participating in the management of the space, and not merely using it.
Giulia Zapata Foresti is a political activist who conducts research with a political and legal framework on minority rights and on the criminalization of social protest at an international level. She collaborates with different universities, has had experience in cooperation projects in Latin America and she is an independent publicist.
Sean Patrick Casey is an activist in the Migrants Coordination of Bologna, he writes for and belongs to the editorial collectives of Connessioni Precarie and Bolognina Basement.
The atheist libertarian lie: Ayn Rand, income inequality and the fantasy of the “free market”
Why atheists are disproportionately drawn to libertarianism is a question that many liberal atheists have trouble grasping. To believe that markets operate and exist in a state of nature is, in itself, to believe in the supernatural. The very thing atheists have spent their lives fleeing from.
According to the American Values Survey, a mere 7 percent of Americans identify as “consistently libertarian.” Compared to the general population, libertarians are significantly more likely to be white (94 percent), young (62 percent under 50) and male (68 percent). You know, almost identical to the demographic makeup of atheists – white (95 percent), young (65 percent under 50) and male (67 percent). So there’s your first clue.
Your second clue is that atheist libertarians are skeptical of government authority in the same way they’re skeptical of religion. In their mind, the state and the pope are interchangeable, which partly explains the libertarian atheist’s guttural gag reflex to what they perceive as government interference with the natural order of things, especially “free markets.”
Robert Reich says that one of the most deceptive ideas embraced by the Ayn Rand-inspired libertarian movement is that the free market is natural, and exists outside and beyond government. In other words, the “free market” is a constructed supernatural myth.
There is much to cover here, but a jumping-off point is the fact that corporations are a government construct, and that fact alone refutes any case for economic libertarianism. Corporations, which are designed to protect shareholders insofar as mitigating risk beyond the amount of their investment, are created and maintained only via government action. “Statutes, passed by the government, allow for the creation of corporations, and anyone wishing to form one must fill out the necessary government paperwork and utilize the apparatus of the state in numerous ways. Thus, the corporate entity is by definition a government-created obstruction to the free marketplace, so the entire concept should be appalling to libertarians,” says David Niose, an atheist and legal director of the American Humanist Association.
In the 18th century, Adam Smith, the granddaddy of American free-market capitalism, wrote his economic tome “The Wealth of Nations.” But his book has as much relevance to modern mega-corporation hyper-capitalism today as the Old Testament has to morality in the 21st century.
Reich says rules that define the playing field of today’s capitalism don’t exist in nature; they are human creations. Governments don’t “intrude” on free markets; governments organize and maintain them. Markets aren’t “free” of rules; the rules define them. “In reality, the ‘free market’ is a bunch of rules about 1) what can be owned and traded (the genome? slaves? nuclear materials? babies? votes?); 2) on what terms (equal access to the Internet? the right to organize unions? corporate monopolies? the length of patent protections?); 3) under what conditions (poisonous drugs? unsafe foods? deceptive Ponzi schemes? uninsured derivatives? dangerous workplaces?); 4) what’s private and what’s public (police? roads? clean air and clean water? healthcare? good schools? parks and playgrounds?); 5) how to pay for what (taxes, user fees, individual pricing?). And so on.”
Atheists are skeptics, but atheist libertarians evidently check their skepticism at the door when it comes to corporate power and the self-regulatory willingness of corporations to act in the interests of the common good. In the mind of an atheist libertarian, both religion and government is bad, but corporations are saintly. On what planet, where? Corporations exist for one purpose only: to derive maximum profit for their shareholders. “The corporation’s legally defined mandate is to pursue, relentlessly and without exception, its own self-interest, regardless of the often harmful consequences it might cause others,” writes Joel Bakan, author of “The Corporation: The Pathological Pursuit of Profit and Power.”
Corporations pollute, lie, steal, oppress, manipulate and deceive, all in the name of maximizing profit. Corporations have no interest for the common good. You really believe Big Tobacco wouldn’t sell cigarettes to 10-year-olds if government didn’t prohibit it? Do you really think Big Oil wouldn’t discharge more poisons and environmentally harmful waste into the atmosphere if government regulations didn’t restrict it? Do you really believe Wal-Mart wouldn’t pay its workers less than the current minimum wage if the federal government didn’t prohibit it? If you answered yes to any of the above, you may be an atheist libertarian in desperate need of Jesus.
That awkward pause that inevitably follows asking a libertarian how it is that unrestricted corporate power, particularly for Big Oil, helps solve our existential crisis, climate change, is always enjoyable. “Corporations will harm you, or even kill you, if it is profitable to do so and they can get away with it … recall the infamous case of the Ford Pinto, where in the 1970s the automaker did a cost-benefit analysis and decided not to remedy a defective gas tank design because doing so would be more expensive than simply allowing the inevitable deaths and injuries to occur and then paying the anticipated settlements,” warns Niose.
In the 1970s, consumer protection advocate Ralph Nader became famous for helping protect car owners from the unsafe practices of the auto industry. Corporate America, in turn, went out of its way in a coordinated effort, led by U.S. Supreme Court Justice Lewis Powell, to destroy Nader. The documentary “Unreasonable Man” demonstrates how corporate CEOs of America’s biggest corporations had Nader followed in an attempt to discredit and blackmail him. General Motors went so far as to send an attractive lady to his local supermarket in an effort to meet him, and seduce him. That’s how much corporate America was fearful of having to implement pesky and costly measures designed to protect the well-being of their customers.
Today America is facing its greatest moral crisis since the civil rights movement, and its greatest economic crisis since the Great Depression: income inequality. Now, income inequality doesn’t happen by accident. It happens by the political choices a country makes. Today America is the most income unequal among all developed nations, and we find ourselves here today not because of government regulation or interference, but a lack thereof. The past three decades have seen our political class become totally beholden to the armies of corporate lobbyists who fund the political campaigns of our elected officials. Today the bottom 99 percent of income earners has no influence on domestic policy whatsoever.
The unilateral control that Wall Street and mega-corporations have over economic policy is now extreme, and our corporate overlords have seen to the greatest transfer of wealth from the middle class to the rich in U.S. history, while corporations contribute their lowest share of total federal tax revenue ever. The destruction of labor; serf-level minimum wage; and the deregulation, monopolization and privatization of public assets have pushed us deeper into becoming a winner-takes-all society.
In effect, America virtually exists as a libertarian state, certainly when compared to liberal democracies found in Western Europe, Canada and Australia. In these countries, there’s a sense of “we are all in this together,” but here the romantic idealism of the rugged individual allows corporate influence of the political class to gut public safety nets, eradicate collective bargaining, strip regulatory control of our banks, water, skies and our food.
By every measure, Australians, Scandinavians, Canadians, Germans and the Dutch are happier and more economically secure. The U.N. World Development Fund, the U.N. World Happiness Index and the Social Progress Index contain the empirical evidence atheist libertarians should seek, and the results are conclusive: People are happier, healthier and more socially mobile where the size of the state is bigger, and taxes and regulations on corporations are greater. You know, the opposite of the libertarian dream that would turn America into a deeper nightmare.
CJ Werleman is the author of “Crucifying America” and “God Hates You. Hate Him Back.” You can follow him on Twitter: @cjwerleman
by Maria Popova
“Friendship … has no survival value; rather it is one of those things which gave value to survival.”
“What is so delicious as a just and firm encounter of two, in a thought, in a feeling?” Emerson marveled in his exquisite meditation on friendship. But what, exactly, is at the heart of this “just and firm encounter”?
In his insightful 1960 book The Four Loves (public library), C.S. Lewis picks up where Aristotle left off and examines the differences between the four main categories of intimate human bonds — affection, the most basic and expressive; Eros, the passionate and sometimes destructive desire of lovers; charity, the highest and most unselfish spiritual connection; and friendship, the rarest, least jealous, and most profound relation.
In one of the most beautiful passages, he considers how friendship differs from the other three types of love by focusing on its central question: “Do you see the same truth.”
Lovers seek for privacy. Friends find this solitude about them, this barrier between them and the herd, whether they want it or not.
In a circle of true Friends each man is simply what he is: stands for nothing but himself. No one cares twopence about anyone else’s family, profession, class, income, race, or previous history. Of course you will get to know about most of these in the end. But casually. They will come out bit by bit, to furnish an illustration or an analogy, to serve as pegs for an anecdote; never for their own sake. That is the kingliness of Friendship. We meet like sovereign princes of independent states, abroad, on neutral ground, freed from our contexts. This love (essentially) ignores not only our physical bodies but that whole embodiment which consists of our family, job, past and connections. At home, besides being Peter or Jane, we also bear a general character; husband or wife, brother or sister, chief, colleague, or subordinate. Not among our Friends. It is an affair of disentangled, or stripped, minds. Eros will have naked bodies; Friendship naked personalities.
Hence (if you will not misunderstand me) the exquisite arbitrariness and irresponsibility of this love. I have no duty to be anyone’s Friend and no man in the world has a duty to be mine. No claims, no shadow of necessity. Friendship is unnecessary, like philosophy, like art, like the universe itself… It has no survival value; rather it is one of those things which gave value to survival.
The Four Loves is a superb read in its entirety, provocative at times but invariably thoughtful throughout. Complement it with Andrew Sullivan on why friendship is a greater gift than romantic love and a curious history of the convergence of the two in “romantic friendship,” then revisit Lewis on suffering and what free will really means, the secret of happiness, the key to authenticity in writing, and his ideal daily routine.
By Laurence Cox and Alf Gunvald Nilsen.
Neoliberalism is in crisis. Some of the elements of this are fairly obvious: the financial crisis of recent years and elites’ inability to chart an effective strategy for long-term profitability; the decline of US geopolitical hegemony, most visibly in its one-time backyard of Latin America and the strategically central Middle East and North African region; a legitimacy crisis around surveillance and military intervention more broadly; severe problems with making the WTO, FTAA and other such arrangements actually produce the intended results; the EU’s increasing inability to secure mandates for austerity in referenda or elections; not to mention the medium-term threats to fixed assets (and supporters) caused by climate change.
To say that neoliberalism is in crisis is not to say that it is powerless, or that it is not causing immense suffering across the world in many different ways. It is to say that — like all previous forms of capitalism before it — it is running out of time: it is ceasing to work for many of the groups which were once central for the alliance that constructed neoliberal hegemony; it is failing to chart a survival course for capitalist elites; and it is struggling to manage everyday problems. Coercion, however terrifying we may find it, is not a viable long-term strategy.
It is important to say this in the face of arguments which — rightly horrified or terrified by the realities of neoliberalism — ascribe omnipotence or inevitability to its continuation. Watching the screen (increasingly of smartphones or tablets rather than TV or newspapers), transfixed by the daily dose of violence and a sense of powerlessness, such arguments remain caught within their own local realities — taking the last couple of decades as defining of human existence, but also taking what is available to an increasingly narrow mediasphere as defining What Is Happening. Put another way, they constitute elaborate rationalizations of personal experience without being able to stand outside the structures that constitute that experience, either historically or in terms of reading the world from below, in terms of popular struggles.
In our new book We Make Our Own History: Marxism and Social Movements in the Twilight of Neoliberalism we write:
Premature Obituaries and Zombie Neoliberalism
Almost as soon as any new movement from below appears on the radar screen of the North’s elites, writers proclaim it dead, irrelevant, or past its prime. This has been so for the Zapatistas (now celebrating the twentieth anniversary of their uprising), for the global ‘movement of movements’ against neoliberalism (despite events in Latin America), for the movement against the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq (despite everything) and increasingly for anti-austerity movements. In part, of course, these are deliberate attempts to write off movements by apologists for our current regimes: to misquote Howard Zinn (1999), we might wonder why it is necessary to proclaim movements dead again and again.
Another reason for this obituary-writing lies in how journalists, academics, literary writers and so on are trained. There is a natural tendency to defend one’s own hard-won intellectual capital: where this consists of a particular way of writing about how things are at present, and of ‘business as usual’ tendencies into the future, anything which suggests that there may be more to the present than meets an eye focused on routines, and that the future may not yet be written in stone, will be unwelcome. There is also a need to have something to say about everything, and to appear to know something about any possible subject of conversation (‘relevance’, for a very media-oriented value of the word). Given the complexity of reality and how little of it anyone can know (not to mention how pressures for intellectual productivity squeeze the time available for exploring new areas of knowledge), what is most needed is a stock of ready-made dismissals for whatever falls outside one’s own sphere of interest and actual knowledge (see Sotiris 2013).
For us, the most interesting part of the obituary-writing process is that engaged in by movement activists themselves. This too has multiple roots: frustration and despair, a sense of having lost particular internal or external battles, a desire to argue for different strategies (a return to trade union struggles, a return to communities, the construction of utopias), and the belief that today’s movement is the strongest available argument for one’s own flavor of theory. Perhaps the most significant, though, is the experience this chapter addresses, of stalemate: of having made huge efforts, having moved further in recent years than most of us would have thought possible in the 1990s, and yet of having in some terms achieved so little.
The first chapter of We Make Our Own History discusses how theory can grow out of activist experience and what this means for “movement-relevant theory”, identifying Marxism as one such form of movement theorizing which activists can “repair, reuse and recycle”. We then ask how a Marxism oriented to the praxis of movements and communities can help activists change the rules of the socially constructed game which academic social movements research often wants to confine them to.
The central chapter rethinks Marxism as a theory of social movements, including both movements from below and the agency of the powerful and wealthy — the social movements from above whose weight we daily feel on our backs. We go on to use this framework to explore how movements from above and below have structured the historical development of capitalism, in its many changing forms. Finally, we discuss movements from below against neoliberalism and ask how they can win: what it means, in practice, to make another world possible.
Laurence Cox directs the MA in Community Education, Equality and Social Activism at the National University of Ireland Maynooth and co-edits the social movements journal Interface. He is active in a wide range of movements and has published Marxism and Social Movements (2013) and Understanding European Movements (2013).
Alf Gunvald Nilsen is Associate Professor at the Department of Sociology, University of Bergen. His research focuses on social movements in the Global South. He is the author of Dispossession and Resistance in India (2012) and co-editor of Social Movements in the Global South (2011) and Marxism and Social Movements (2013).