Chomsky: The System We Have Now Is Radically Anti-Democratic


A fascinating, wide-ranging interview on major issues facing the public.

Noam Chomsky
Photo Credit: The Real News Network

CHRIS HEDGES, INVESTIGATIVE JOURNALIST: Let’s begin with a classic paradigm which is throughout the Industrial Revolution, which has been cited by theorists from Marx to Kropotkin to Proudhon and to yourself, that you build a consciousness among workers within the manufacturing class, and eventually you lead to a kind of autonomous position where workers can control their own production.We now live in a system, a globalized system, where most of the working class in industrial countries like the United States are service workers. We have reverted to a Dickensian system where those who actually produced live in conditions that begin to replicate almost slave labor–and, I think, as you have written, in places like southern China in fact are slave [labor]. What’s the new paradigm for resistance? You know, how do we learn from the old and confront the new?

NOAM CHOMSKY, LINGUIST AND POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: Well, I think we can draw many very good lessons from the early period of the Industrial Revolution. It was, of course, earlier in England, but let’s take here in the United States. The Industrial Revolution took off right around here, eastern Massachusetts, mid 19th century. This was a period when independent farmers were being driven into the industrial system–men and women, incidentally, women from the farms, so-called factory girls–and they bitterly resented it. It was a period of a very free press, the most in the history of the country. There was a wide variety of journals, ethnic, labor, or others. And when you read them, they’re pretty fascinating.

The people driven into the industrial system regarded it as an attack on their personal dignity, on their rights as human beings. They were free human beings who were being forced into what they called wage slavery, which they regarded as not very different from chattel slavery. In fact, this was such a popular view that it was actually a slogan of the Republican Party, that the only difference between working for a wage and being a slave is that working for a wage is supposedly temporary–pretty soon you’ll be free. Other than that, they’re not different.

And they bitterly resented the fact that the industrial system was even taking away their rich cultural life. And the cultural life was rich. You know, there are by now studies of the British working class and the American working class, and they were part of high culture of the day. Actually, I remembered this as late as the 1930s with my own family, you know, sort of unemployed working-class, and they said, this is being taken away from us, we’re being forced to be something like slaves. They argued that if you’re, say, a journeyman, a craftsman, and you sell your product, you’re selling what you produced. If you’re a wage earner, you’re selling yourself, which is deeply offensive. They condemned what they called the new spirit of the age: gain wealth, forgetting all but self. Sounds familiar.

And it was extremely radical. It was combined with the most radical democratic movement in American history, the early populist movement–radical farmers. It began in Texas, spread into the Midwest–enormous movement of farmers who wanted to free themselves from the domination by the Northeastern bankers and capitalists, guys that ran the markets, you know, sort of forced them to sell what they produced on credit and squeeze them with credit and so on. They went on to develop their own banks, their own cooperatives. They started to link up with the Knights of Labor–major labor movement which held that, as they put it, those who work in the mills ought to own them, that it should be a free, democratic society.

These were very powerful movements. By the 1890s, you know, workers were taking over towns and running them in Western Pennsylvania. Homestead was a famous case. Well, they were crushed by force. It took some time. Sort of the final blow was Woodrow Wilson’s red scare right after the First World War, which virtually crushed the labor movement.

At the same time, in the early 19th century, the business world recognized, both in England and the United States, that sufficient freedom had been won so that they could no longer control people just by violence. They had to turn to new means of control. The obvious ones were control of opinions and attitudes. That’s the origins of the massive public relations industry, which is explicitly dedicated to controlling minds and attitudes.

The first–it partly was government. The first government commission was the British Ministry of Information. This is long before Orwell–he didn’t have to invent it. So the Ministry of Information had as its goal to control the minds of the people of the world, but particularly the minds of American intellectuals, for a very good reason: they knew that if they can delude American intellectuals into supporting British policy, they could be very effective in imposing that on the population of the United States. The British, of course, were desperate to get the Americans into the war with a pacifist population. Woodrow Wilson won the 1916 election with the slogan “Peace without Victory”. And they had to drive a pacifist population into a population that bitterly hated all things German, wanted to tear the Germans apart. The Boston Symphony Orchestra couldn’t play Beethoven. You know. And they succeeded.

Wilson set up a counterpart to the Ministry of Information called the Committee on Public Information. You know, again, you can guess what it was. And they’ve at least felt, probably correctly, that they had succeeded in carrying out this massive change of opinion on the part of the population and driving the pacifist population into, you know, warmongering fanatics.

And the people on the commission learned a lesson. One of them was Edward Bernays, who went on to found–the main guru of the public relations industry. Another one was Walter Lippman, who was the leading progressive intellectual of the 20th century. And they both drew the same lessons, and said so.

The lessons were that we have what Lippmann called a “new art” in democracy, “manufacturing consent”. That’s where Ed Herman and I took the phrase from. For Bernays it was “engineering of consent”. The conception was that the intelligent minority, who of course is us, have to make sure that we can run the affairs of public affairs, affairs of state, the economy, and so on. We’re the only ones capable of doing it, of course. And we have to be–I’m quoting–”free of the trampling and the roar of the bewildered herd”, the “ignorant and meddlesome outsiders”–the general public. They have a role. Their role is to be “spectators”, not participants. And every couple of years they’re permitted to choose among one of the “responsible men”, us.

And the John Dewey circle took the same view. Dewey changed his mind a couple of years later, to his credit, but at that time, Dewey and his circle were writing that–speaking of the First World War, that this was the first war in history that was not organized and manipulated by the military and the political figures and so on, but rather it was carefully planned by rational calculation of “the intelligent men of the community”, namely us, and we thought it through carefully and decided that this is the reasonable thing to do, for all kind of benevolent reasons.

And they were very proud of themselves.

There were people who disagreed. Like, Randolph Bourne disagreed. He was kicked out. He couldn’t write in the Deweyite journals. He wasn’t killed, you know, but he was just excluded.

And if you take a look around the world, it was pretty much the same. The intellectuals on all sides were passionately dedicated to the national cause–all sides, Germans, British, everywhere.

There were a few, a fringe of dissenters, like Bertrand Russell, who was in jail; Karl Liebknecht and Rosa Luxemburg, in jail; Randolph Bourne, marginalized; Eugene Debs, in jail for daring to question the magnificence of the war. In fact, Wilson hated him with such passion that when he finally declared an amnesty, Debs was left out, you know, had to wait for Warren Harding to release him. And he was the leading labor figure in the country. He was a candidate for president, Socialist Party, and so on.

But the lesson that came out is we believe you can and of course ought to control the public, and if we can’t do it by force, we’ll do it by manufacturing consent, by engineering of consent. Out of that comes the huge public relations industry, massive industry dedicated to this.

Incidentally, it’s also dedicated to undermining markets, a fact that’s rarely noticed but is quite obvious. Business hates markets. They don’t want to–and you can see it very clearly. Markets, if you take an economics course, are based on rational, informed consumers making rational choices. Turn on the television set and look at the first ad you see. It’s trying to create uninformed consumers making irrational choices. That’s the whole point of the huge advertising industry. But also to try to control and manipulate thought. And it takes various forms in different institutions. The media do it one way, the academic institutions do it another way, and the educational system is a crucial part of it.

This is not a new observation. There’s actually an interesting essay by–Orwell’s, which is not very well known because it wasn’t published. It’s the introduction to Animal Farm. In the introduction, he addresses himself to the people of England and he says, you shouldn’t feel too self-righteous reading this satire of the totalitarian enemy, because in free England, ideas can be suppressed without the use of force. And he doesn’t say much about it. He actually has two sentences. He says one reason is the press “is owned by wealthy men” who have every reason not to want certain ideas to be expressed.

But the second reason, and the more important one in my view, is a good education, so that if you’ve gone to all the good schools, you know, Oxford, Cambridge, and so on, you have instilled into you the understanding that there are certain things it wouldn’t do to say–and I don’t think he went far enough: wouldn’t do to think. And that’s very broad among the educated classes. That’s why overwhelmingly they tend to support state power and state violence, and maybe with some qualifications, like, say, Obama is regarded as a critic of the invasion of Iraq. Why? Because he thought it was a strategic blunder. That puts him on the same moral level as some Nazi general who thought that the second front was a strategic blunder–you should knock off England first. That’s called criticism.

And sometimes it’s kind of outlandish. For example, there was just a review in The New York Times Book Review of Glenn Greenwald’s new book by Michael Kinsley, and which bitterly condemned him as–mostly character assassination. Didn’t say anything substantive. But Kinsley did say that it’s ridiculous to think that there’s any repression in the media in the United States, ’cause we can write quite clearly and criticize anything. And he can, but then you have to look at what he says, and it’s quite interesting.

In the 1980s, when the major local news story was the massive U.S. atrocities in Central America–they were horrendous; I mean, it wasn’t presented that way, but that’s what was happening–Kinsley was the voice of the left on television. And there were interesting incidents. At one point, the U.S. Southern Command, which ran–you know, it was the overseer of these actions–gave instructions to the terrorist force that they were running in Nicaragua, called the Contras–and they were a terrorist force–they gave them orders to–they said “not to (…) duke it out with the Sandinistas”, meaning avoid the Nicaraguan army, and attack undefended targets like agricultural cooperatives and, you know, health clinics and so on. And they could do it, because they were the first guerrillas in history to have high-level communications equipment, you know, computers and so on. The U.S., the CIA, just controlled the air totally, so they could send instructions to the terrorist forces telling them how to avoid the Nicaraguan army detachments and attack undefended civilian targets.

Well, this was mentioned; you know, it wasn’t publicized, but it was mentioned. And Americas Watch, which later became part of Human Rights Watch, made some protests. And Michael Kinsley responded. He condemned Americas Watch for their emotionalism. He said, we have to recognize that we have to accept a pragmatic criterion. We have to ask–something like this–he said, we have to compare the amount of blood and misery poured in with the success of the outcome in producing democracy–what we’ll call democracy. And if it meets the pragmatic criterion, then terrorist attacks against civilian targets are perfectly legitimate–which is not a surprising view in his case. He’s the editor of The New Republic. The New Republic, supposedly a liberal journal, was arguing that we should support Latin American fascists because there are more important things than human rights in El Salvador, where they were murdering tens of thousands of people.

That’s the liberals. And, yeah, they can get in the media no problem. And they’re praised for it, regarded with praise. All of this is part of the massive system of–you know, it’s not that anybody sits at the top and plans at all; it’s just exactly as Orwell said: it’s instilled into you. It’s part of a deep indoctrination system which leads to a certain way of looking at the world and looking at authority, which says, yes, we have to be subordinate to authority, we have to believe we’re very independent and free and proud of it. As long as we keep within the limits, we are. Try to go beyond those limits, you’re out.

HEDGES: But that system, of course, is constant. But what’s changed is that we don’t produce anything anymore. So what we define as our working class is a service sector class working in places like Walmart. And the effective forms of resistance–the sitdown strikes, you know, going back even further in the middle of the 19th century with the women in Lowell–I think that was–the Wobblies were behind those textile strikes. What are the mechanisms now? And I know you have written, as many anarchists have done, about the importance of the working class controlling the means of production, taking control, and you have a great quote about how, you know, Lenin and the Bolsheviks are right-wing deviants, I think, was the–which is, of course, exactly right, because it was centralized control, destroying the Soviets. Given the fact that production has moved to places like Bangladesh or southern China, what is going to be the paradigm now? And given, as you point out, the powerful forces of propaganda–and you touched upon now the security and surveillance state. We are the most monitored, watched, photographed, eavesdropped population in human history. And you cannot even use the world liberty when you eviscerate privacy. That’s what totalitarian is. What is the road we take now, given the paradigm that we have, which is somewhat different from, you know, what this country was, certainly, in the first half of the 20th century?

NOAM CHOMSKY, LINGUIST AND POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: I think it’s pretty much the same, frankly. The idea still should be that of the Knights of Labor: those who work in the mills should own them. And there’s plenty of manufacturing going on in the country, and probably there will be more, for unpleasant reasons. One thing that’s happening right now which is quite interesting is that energy prices are going down in the United States because of the massive exploitation of fossil fuels, which is going to destroy our grandchildren, but under the, you know, capitalist morality, the calculus is that profits tomorrow outweigh the existence of your grandchildren. It’s institutionally-based, so, yes, we’re getting lower energy prices. And if you look at the business press, they’re, you know, very enthusiastic about the fact that we can undercut manufacturing in Europe because we’ll have lower energy prices, and therefore manufacturing will come back here, and we can even undermine European efforts at developing sustainable energy because we’ll have this advantage.

Britain is saying the same thing. I was just in England recently. As I left the airport, I read The Daily Telegraph, you know, I mean, newspaper. Big headline: England is going to begin fracking all of the country, even fracking under people’s homes without their permission. And that’ll allow us to destroy the environment even more quickly and will bring manufacturing back here.

The same is true with Asia. Manufacturing is moving back, to an extent, to Mexico, and even here, as wages increase in China, partly because of labor struggles. There’s massive labor struggles in China, huge, all over the place, and since we’re integrated with them, we can be supportive of them.

But manufacturing is coming back here. And both manufacturing and the service industries can move towards having those who do the work take over the management and ownership and control. In fact, it’s happening. In the old Rust Belt–you know, Indiana, Ohio, and so on–there’s a significant–not huge, but significant growth of worker-owned enterprises. They’re not huge, but they’re substantial around Cleveland and other places.

The background is interesting. In 1977, U.S. Steel, the, you know, multinational, decided to close down their mills in Youngstown, Ohio. Youngstown is a steel town, sort of built by the steelworkers, one of the main steel-producing areas. Well, the union tried to buy the plants from U.S. Steel. They objected–in my view, mostly on class lines. They might have even profited from it. But the idea of worker-owned industry doesn’t have much appeal to corporate leaders, which means bankers and so on. It went to the courts. Finally, the union lost in the courts. But with enough popular support, they could have won.

Well, the working class and the community did not give up. They couldn’t get the steel mills, but they began to develop small worker-owned enterprises. They’ve now spread throughout the region. They’re substantial. And it can happen more and more.

And the same thing happened in Walmarts. I mean, there’s massive efforts right now, significant ones, to organize the service workers–what they call associates–in the service industries. And these industries, remember, depend very heavily on taxpayer largess in all kinds of ways. I mean, for example, let’s take, say, Walmarts. They import goods produced in China, which are brought here on container ships which were designed and developed by the U.S. Navy. And point after point where you look, you find that the way the system–the system that we now have is one which is radically anticapitalist, radically so.

I mean, I mentioned one thing, the powerful effort to try to undermine markets for consumers, but there’s something much more striking. I mean, in a capitalist system, the basic principle is that, say, if you invest in something and, say, it’s a risky investment, so you put money into it for a long time, maybe decades, and finally after a long time something comes out that’s marketable for a profit, it’s supposed to go back to you. That’s not the way it works here. Take, say, computers, internet, lasers, microelectronics, containers, GPS, in fact the whole IT revolution. There was taxpayer investment in that for decades, literally decades, doing all the hard, creative, risky work. Does the taxpayer get any of the profit? None, because that’s not the way our system works. It’s radically anti-capitalist, just as it’s radically anti-democratic, opposed to markets, in favor of concentrating wealth and power.

But that doesn’t have to be accepted by the population. These are–all kinds of forms of resistance to this can be developed if people become aware of it.

HEDGES: Well, you could argue that in the election of 2008, Obama wasn’t accepted by the population. But what we see repeatedly is that once elected officials achieve power through, of course, corporate financing, the consent of the governed is a kind of cruel joke. It doesn’t, poll after poll. I mean, I sued Obama over the National Defense Authorization Act, in which you were coplaintiff, and the polling was 97 percent against this section of the NDAA. And yet the courts, which have become wholly owned subsidiaries of the corporate state, the elected officials, the executive branch, and the press, which largely ignored it–the only organ that responsibly covered the case was, ironically, The New York Times. We don’t have–it doesn’t matter what we want. It doesn’t–I mean, and I think, you know, that’s the question: how do we effect change when we have reached a point where we can no longer appeal to the traditional liberal institutions that, as Karl Popper said once, made incremental or piecemeal reform possible, to adjust the system–of course, to save capitalism? But now it can’t even adjust the system. You know, we see cutting welfare.

CHOMSKY: Yeah. I mean, it’s perfectly true that the population is mostly disenfranchised. In fact, that’s a leading theme even of academic political science. You take a look at the mainstream political science, so, for example, a recent paper that was just published out of Princeton by Martin Gilens and Benjamin Page, two of the leading analysts of these topics, what they point out is they went through a couple of thousand policy decisions and found what has long been known, that there was almost no–that the public attitudes had almost no effect. Public organizations that are–nonprofit organizations that are publicly based, no effect. The outcomes were determined by concentrated private power.

There’s a long record of that going way back. Thomas Ferguson, a political scientist near here, has shown very convincingly that something as simple as campaign spending is a very good predictor of policy. That goes back into the late 19th century, right through the New Deal, you know, right up till the present. And that’s only one element of it. And you take a look at the literature, about 70 percent of the population, what they believe has no effect on policy at all. You get a little more influence as you go up. When you get to the top, which is probably, like, a tenth of one percent, they basically write the legislation.

I mean, you see this all over. I mean, take these huge so-called trade agreements that are being negotiated, Trans-Pacific and Transatlantic–enormous agreements, kind of NAFTA-style agreements. They’re secret–almost. They’re not secret from the hundreds of corporate lawyers and lobbyists who are writing them. They know about it, which means that their bosses know about it. And the Obama administration and the press says, look, this has to be secret, otherwise we can’t defend our interests. Yeah, our interests means the interests of the corporate lawyers and lobbyists who are writing the legislation. Take the few pieces that have been leaked and you see that’s exactly what it is. Same with the others.

But it doesn’t mean you have to accept it. And there have been changes. So take, say–in the 1920s, the labor movement had been practically destroyed. There’s a famous book. One of the leading labor historians, David Montgomery, has a major book called something like The Fall of the House of Labor. He’s talking about the 1920s. It was done. There had been a very militant labor movement, very effective, farmers movement as well. Crushed in the 1920s. Almost nothing left. Well, in the 1930s it changed, and it changed because of popular activism.

HEDGES: But it also changed because of the breakdown of capitalism.

CHOMSKY: There was a circumstance that led to the opportunity to do something, but we’re living with that constantly. I mean, take the last 30 years. For the majority of the population it’s been stagnation or worse. That’s–it’s not exactly the deep Depression, but it’s kind of a permanent semi-depression for most of the population. That’s–there’s plenty of kindling out there which can be lighted.

And what happened in the ’30s is primarily CIO organizing, the militant actions like sit-down strikes. A sit-down strike’s very frightening. It’s a step before taking over the institution and saying, we don’t need the bosses. And that–there was a cooperative administration, Roosevelt administration, so there was some interaction. And significant legislation was passed–not radical, but significant, underestimated. And it happened again in the ’60s. It can happen again today. So I don’t think that one should abandon hope in chipping away at the more oppressive aspects of the society within the electoral system. But it’s only going to happen if there’s massive popular organization, which doesn’t have to stop at that. It can also be building the institutions of the future within the present society.

HEDGES: Would you say that the–you spoke about propaganda earlier and the Creel Commission and the rise of the public relations industry. The capacity to disseminate propaganda is something that now you virtually can’t escape it. I mean, it’s there in some electronic form, even in a hand-held device. Does that make that propaganda more effective?

CHOMSKY: Well, and it’s kind of an interesting question. Like a lot of people, I’ve written a lot about media and intellectual propaganda, but there’s another question which isn’t studied much: how effective is it? And that’s–when you brought up the polls, it’s a striking illustration. The propaganda is–you can see from the poll results that the propaganda has only limited effectiveness. I mean, it can drive a population into terror and fear and war hysteria, like before the Iraq invasion or 1917 and so on, but over time, public attitudes remain quite different. In fact, studies even of what’s called the right-wing, you know, people who say, get the government off my back, that kind of sector, they turn out to be kind of social democratic. They want more spending on health, more spending on education, more spending on, say, women with dependent children, but not welfare, no spending on welfare, because Reagan, who was an extreme racist, succeeded in demonizing the notion of welfare. So in people’s minds welfare means a rich black woman driving in her limousine to the welfare office to steal your money. Well, nobody wants that. But they want what welfare does.

Foreign aid is an interesting case. There’s an enormous propaganda against foreign aid, ’cause we’re giving everything to the undeserving people out there. You take a look at public attitudes. A lot of opposition to foreign aid. Very high. On the other hand, when you ask people, how much do we give in foreign aid? Way beyond what we give. When you ask what we should give in foreign aid, far above what we give.

And this runs across the board. Take, say taxes. There’ve been studies of attitudes towards taxes for 40 years. Overwhelmingly the population says taxes are much too low for the rich and the corporate sector. You’ve got to raise it. What happens? Well, the opposite.

It’s just exactly as Orwell said: it’s instilled into you. It’s part of a deep indoctrination system which leads to a certain way of looking at the world and looking at authority, which says, yes, we have to be subordinate to authority, we have to believe we’re very independent and free and proud of it. As long as we keep within the limits, we are. Try to go beyond those limits, you’re out.

HEDGES: Well, what was fascinating about–I mean, the point, just to buttress this point: when you took the major issues of the Occupy movement, they were a majoritarian movement. When you look back on the Occupy movement, what do you think its failings were, its importance were?

CHOMSKY: Well, I think it’s a little misleading to call it a movement. Occupy was a tactic, in fact a brilliant tactic. I mean, if I’d been asked a couple of months earlier whether they should take over public places, I would have said it’s crazy. But it worked extremely well, and it lit a spark which went all over the place. Hundreds and hundreds of places in the country, there were Occupy events. It was all over the world. I mean, I gave talks in Sydney, Australia, to the Occupy movement there. But it was a tactic, a very effective tactic. Changed public discourse, not policy. It brought issues to the forefront.

I think my own feeling is its most important contribution was just to break through the atomization of the society. I mean, it’s a very atomized society. There’s all sorts of efforts to separate people from one another, as if the ideal social unit is, you know, you and your TV set.

HEDGES: You know, Hannah Arendt raises atomization as one of the key components of totalitarianism.

CHOMSKY: Exactly. And the Occupy actions broke that down for a large part of the population. People could recognize that we can get together and do things for ourselves, we can have a common kitchen, we can have a place for public discourse, we can form our ideas and do something. Now, that’s an important attack on the core of the means by which the public is controlled. So you’re not just an individual trying to maximize your consumption, but there are other concerns in life, and you can do something about them. If those attitudes and associations and bonds can be sustained and move in other directions, that’ll be important.

But going back to Occupy, it’s a tactic. Tactics have a kind of a half-life. You can’t keep doing them, and certainly you can’t keep occupying public places for very long. And was very successful, but it was not in itself a movement. The question is: what happens to the people who were involved in it? Do they go on and develop, do they move into communities, pick up community issues? Do they organize?

Take, say, this business of, say, worker-owned industry. Right here in Massachusetts, not far from here, there was something similar. One of the multinationals decided to close down a fairly profitable small plant, which was producing aerospace equipment. High-skilled workers and so on, but it wasn’t profitable enough, so they were going to close it down. The union wanted to buy it. Company refused–usual class reasons, I think. If the Occupy efforts had been available at the time, they could have provided the public support for it.

This happened when Obama virtually nationalized the auto industry. There were choices. One choice was what he took, of course, was to rescue it, return it to essentially the same owners–different faces, but the same class basis–and send them back to doing what they had been doing in the past–producing automobiles. There were other choices, and if something like the Occupy movement had been around and sufficient, it could have driven the government into other choices, like, for example, turning the auto plants over to the working class and have them produce what the country needs.

I mean, we don’t need more cars. We need mass public transportation. The United States is an absolute scandal in this regard. I just came back from Europe–so you can see it dramatically. You get on a European train, you can go where you want to go in no time. Well, the train from Boston to New York, it may be, I don’t know, 20 minutes faster than when I took it 60 years ago. You go along the Connecticut Turnpike and the trucks are going faster than the train. Recently Japan offered the United States a low-interest loan to build high-speed rail from Washington to New York. It was turned down, of course. But what they were offering was to build the kind of train that I took in Japan 50 years ago. And this was a scandal all over the country.

Well, you know, a reconstituted auto industry could have turned in that direction under worker and community control. I don’t think these things are out of sight. And, incidentally, they even have so-called conservative support, because they’re within a broader what’s called capitalist framework (it’s not really capitalist). And those are directions that should be pressed.

Right now, for example, the Steelworkers union is trying to establish some kind of relations with Mondragon, the huge worker-owned conglomerate in the Basque country in Spain, which is very successful, in fact, and includes industry, manufacturing, banks, hospitals, living quarters. It’s very broad. It’s not impossible that that can be brought here, and it’s potentially radical. It’s creating the basis for quite a different society.

And I think with things like, say, Occupy, the timing wasn’t quite right. But if the timing had been a little better (and this goes on all the time, so it’s always possible), it could have provided a kind of an impetus to move significant parts of the socioeconomic system in a different direction. And once those things begin to take off and people can see the advantages of them, it can become quite significant.

There are kind of islands like that around the country. So take Chattanooga, Tennessee. It happens to have a publicly organized internet system. It’s by far the best in the country. Rapid internet access for broad parts of the population. I suspect the roots of it probably go back to the TVA and the New Deal initiatives. Well, if that can spread throughout the country (why not? it’s very efficient, very cheap, works very well), it could undermine the telecommunications industry and its oligopoly, which would be a very good thing. There are lots of possibilities like this.

HEDGES: I want to ask just two last questions. First, the fact that we have become a militarized society, something all of the predictions of the Anti-Imperialist League at the end of the 19th century, including Carnegie and Jane Addams–hard to think of them both in the same room. But you go back and read what they wrote, and they were right how militarized society has deformed us economically–Seymour Melman wrote about this quite well–and politically. And that is a hurdle that as we attempt to reform or reconfigure our society we have to cope with. And I wondered if you could address this military monstrosity that you have written about quite a bit.

CHOMSKY: Well, for one thing, the public doesn’t like it. What’s called isolationism or one or another bad word, as, you know, pacifism was, is just the public recognition that there’s something deeply wrong with our dedication to military force all over the world.

Now, of course, at the same time, the public is frightened into believing that we have to defend ourselves. And it’s not entirely false. Part of the military system is generating forces which will be harmful to us, say, Obama’s terrorist campaign, drone campaign, the biggest terrorist campaign in history. It’s generating potential terrorists faster than it’s killing suspects.

You can see it. It’s very striking what’s happening right now in Iraq. And the truth of the matter is very evident. Go back to the Nuremberg judgments. I’m not telling you anything you don’t know, but in Nuremberg aggression was defined as “the supreme international crime,” differing from other war crimes in that it includes, it encompasses all of the evil that follows. Well, the U.S.-British invasion of Iraq is a textbook case of aggression. By the standards of Nuremberg, they’d all be hanged. And one of the things it did, one of the crimes was to ignite a Sunni-Shiite conflict which hadn’t been going on. I mean, there was, you know, various kinds of tensions, but Iraqis didn’t believe there could ever be a conflict. They were intermarried, they lived in the same places, and so on. But the invasion set it off. Took off on its own. By now it’s inflaming the whole region. Now we’re at the point where Sunni jihadi forces are actually marching on Baghdad.

HEDGES: And the Iraqi army is collapsing.

CHOMSKY: The Iraqi army’s just giving away their arms. There obviously is a lot of collaboration going on.

And all of this is a U.S. crime if we believe in the validity of the judgments against the Nazis.

And it’s kind of interesting. Robert Jackson, the chief prosecutor, a U.S. justice, at the tribunal, addressed the tribunal, and he pointed out, as he put it, that we’re giving these defendants a “poisoned chalice”, and if we ever sip from it, we have to be treated the same way, or else the whole thing is a farce and we should recognize this as just victor’s justice.

HEDGES: But it’s not accidental that our security and surveillance apparatus is militarized. And you’re right, of course, that there is no broad popular support for this expanding military adventurism. And yet the question is if there is a serious effort to curtail their power and their budgets. They have mechanisms. And we even heard Nancy Pelosi echo this in terms of how they play dirty. I mean, they are monitoring all the elected officials as well.

CHOMSKY: Monitoring. But despite everything, it’s still a pretty free society, and the recognition by U.S. and British business back 100 years ago that they can no longer control the population by violence is correct. And control of attitude and opinion is pretty fragile, as is surveillance. It’s very different than sending in the storm troopers. You know, so there’s a lot of latitude, for people of relative privilege, at least, to do all sorts of things. I mean, it’s different if you’re a black kid in the ghetto. Yeah, then you’re subjected to state violence. But for a large part of the population, there’s plenty of opportunities which have not been available in the past.

HEDGES: But those people are essentially passive, virtually.

CHOMSKY: But they don’t have to be.

HEDGES: They don’t have to be, but Hannah Arendt, when she writes about the omnipotent policing were directed against the stateless, including ourself and France, said the problem of building omnipotent policing, which we have done in our marginal neighborhoods in targeting people of color–we can have their doors kicked in and stopped at random and thrown in jail for decades for crimes they didn’t commit–is that when you have a societal upheaval, you already have both a legal and a physical mechanism by which that omnipotent policing can be quickly inflicted.

CHOMSKY: I don’t think that’s true here. I think the time has passed when that can be done for increasing parts of the population, those who have almost any degree of privilege. The state may want to do it, but they don’t have the power to do it. They can carry out extensive surveillance, monitoring, they can be violent against parts of the population that can’t defend themselves–undocumented immigrants, black kids in the ghetto, and so on–but even that can be undercut. For example, one of the major scandals in the United States since Reagan is the huge incarceration program, which is a weapon against–it’s a race war. But it’s based on drugs. And there is finally cutting away at the source of this and the criminalization and the radical distortion of the way criminalization of drug use has worked. That can have an effect.

I mean, I think–look, there’s no doubt that the population is passive. There are lots of ways of keeping them passive. There’s lots of ways of marginalizing and atomizing them. But that’s different from storm troopers. It’s quite different. And it can be overcome, has been overcome in the past. And I think there are lots of initiatives, some of them being undertaken, others developing, which can be used to break down this system. I think it’s a very fragile system, including the militarism.

HEDGES: Let’s just close with climate change. Like, I read climate change reports, which–.

CHOMSKY: Well, unfortunately, that’s–may doom us all, and not in the long-distance future. That just overwhelms everything. It is the first time in human history when we not only–we have the capacity to destroy the conditions for a decent survival. And it’s already happening. I mean, just take a look at species destruction. Species destruction now is estimated to be at about the level of 65 million years ago when an asteroid hit the earth and ended the period of the dinosaurs, wiped out huge numbers of species. Same level today, and we’re the asteroid. And you take a look at what’s happening in the world, I mean, anybody looking at this from outer space would be astonished.

I mean, there are sectors of the global population that are trying to impede the catastrophe. There are other sectors that are trying to accelerate it. And you take a look at who they are. Those who are trying to impede it are the ones we call backward: indigenous populations, the First Nations in Canada, you know, aboriginals from Australia, the tribal people in India, you know, all over the world, are trying to impede it. Who’s accelerating it? The most privileged, advanced–so-called advanced–educated populations in the world, U.S. and Canada right in the lead. And we know why.

There are also–. Here’s an interesting case of manufacture of consent and does it work? You take a look at international polls on global warming, Americans, who are the most propagandized on this–I mean, there’s huge propaganda efforts to make it believe it’s not happening–they’re a little below the norm, so there’s some effect of the propaganda. It’s stratified. If you take a look at Republicans, they’re way below the norm. But what’s happening in the Republican Party all across the spectrum is a very striking. So, for example, about two-thirds of Republicans believe that there were weapons of mass destruction in Iraq and all sorts of other things. You know. So it’s stratified. But there’s some impact of the propaganda, but not overwhelming. Most of the population still regards it as a serious problem.

There’s actually an interesting article about this in the Columbia Journalism Review which just appeared, current issue, the lead critical review of journalism. They attribute this to what they call the doctrine of fairness in the media. Doctrine of fairness says that if you have an opinion piece by 95, 97 percent of the scientists, you have to pair it with an opinion piece by the energy corporations, ’cause that’d be fair and balanced. There isn’t any such doctrine. Like, if you have an opinion piece denouncing Putin as the new Hitler for annexing Crimea, you don’t have to balance it with an opinion piece saying that 100 years ago the United States took over southeastern Cuba at the point of a gun and is still holding it, though it has absolutely no justification other than to try to undermine Cuban development, whereas in contrast, whatever you think of Putin, there’s reasons. You don’t have to have that. And you have to have fair and balanced when it affects the concerns of private power, period. But try to get an article in the Columbia Journalism Review pointing that out, although it’s transparent.

So all those things are there, but they can be overcome, and they’d better be. This isn’t–you know, unless there’s a sharp reversal in policy, unless we here in the so-called advanced societies can gain the consciousness of the indigenous people of the world, we’re in deep trouble. Our grandchildren are going to suffer from it.

HEDGES: And I think you would agree that’s not going to come from the power elite.

CHOMSKY: It’s certainly not.

HEDGES: It’s up to us.

CHOMSKY: Absolutely. And it’s urgent.

HEDGES: It is. Thank you very much.

Chris Hedges, a Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter, writes a regular column for Truthdig every Monday. Hedges’ most recent book is “Empire of Illusion: The End of Literacy and the Triumph of Spectacle.”

http://www.alternet.org/media/noam-chomsky-tells-chris-hedges-how-our-ruling-elite-leading-america-catastrophe?akid=12034.265072.WHH2Dd&rd=1&src=newsletter1011911&t=13&paging=off&current_page=1#bookmark

 

Marinaleda: the village where people come before profit

by Jen Wilton on July 15, 2014

Post image for Marinaleda: the village where people come before profit

The thriving Spanish town of Marinaleda runs on the principles of mutual aid and direct action. In a country paralyzed by debt, is this an alternative?

By Liam Barrington-Bush and Jen Wilton

In the south of Spain, the street is the collective living room. Vibrant sidewalk cafes are interspersed between configurations of two to five lawn chairs where neighbors come together to chat over the day’s events late into the night. In mid-June the weather peaks well over 40 degrees Celsius and the smells of fresh seafood waft from kitchens and restaurants as the seasonably-late dining hour begins to approach. The scene is archetypally Spanish, particularly for the Andalusian region to the country’s south, where life is lived more in public than in private, when given half a chance.

Specifically, this imagery above describes Marinaleda. Initially indistinguishable from several of its local counterparts in the Sierra Sur southern mountain range, were it not for a few tell-tale signs. Maybe it’s the street names (Ernesto Che Guevara, Solidarity and Salvador Allende Plaza, to name a few); maybe it’s the graffiti (hand drawn hammers-and-sickles sit happily alongside encircled A’s, oblivious to the differences the two ideologies have shared, even in the country’s recent past); maybe it’s the two-story Che head which emblazons the outer wall of the local sports stadium.

Marinaleda has been called Spain’s ‘communist utopia,’ though the local variation bears little resemblance to the Soviet model most associate with the phrase. Classifications aside, this is a town whose social fabric has been woven from very different economic threads to the rest of the country since the fall of the Franco dictatorship in the mid 1970s. A cooperatively-owned olive oil factory, houses built by and for the community, and a famous looting of a large-scale supermarket, led by the town’s charismatic mayor, in which proceeds were donated to food banks, are amongst the steps that have helped position Marinaleda as a beacon of hope.

The currency of direct action

As the Spanish economy continues its post-2008 nosedive, unemployment sits at 26 percent nationally, while over half of young people can’t find work. Meanwhile, Marinaleda boasts a modest but steady local employment picture in which most people have at least some work and those that don’t have a strong safety net to fall back on.

But more than its cash economy, Marinaleda has a currency rarely found beyond small-scale activist groups or indigenous communities fighting destructive development projects: the currency of direct action. Rather than rely exclusively on cash to get things done, Marinaleños have put their collective blood, sweat and tears into creating a range of alternative systems in their corner of the world.

When money hasn’t been readily available — probably the only consistent feature since the community set out on this path — Marinaleños have turned to one another to do what needs doing. At times that has meant collectively occupying land owned by the Andalusian aristocracy and putting it to work for the town, at others it has simply meant sharing the burden of litter collection.

While still operating with some degree of central authority, the local council has devolved power into the hands of those it serves. General assemblies are convened on a regular basis so that townspeople can be involved in decisions that affect their lives. The assemblies also create spaces where people can come together to organize what the community needs through collective action.

“The best thing they have here in Marinaleda, and you can’t find this in other places, is the [general] assembly,” says long-term civil servant for the Marinaleda council, Manuel Gutierrez Daneri. He continues: “Assembly is a place for people to discuss problems and to find the solutions,” pointing out that even minor crimes are collectively addressed via the assembly, as the town has no police or judicial system since the last local cop retired.

In his time as mayor, Juan Manuel Sánchez Gordillo has managed to leverage considerable financial support from the state government, a feat which Gutierrez Daneri attributes to the town’s collective track record for direct action. “If you go ahead with all of the people behind you, that is very powerful,” he says.

As a result, the small town boasts extensive sports facilities and a beautifully-maintained botanical garden, as well as a range of more basic necessities. “For a little village like this, with no more than 2,700 people, we have a lot of facilities,” says Gutierrez Daneri.

British ex-pat Chris Burke has lived in Marinaleda for several years, and he explains that access to the public swimming pool only costs €3 for the entire summer. Burke recounts Mayor Sánchez Gordillo saying to him, “The whole idea of the place being somewhere good to live is that anyone can afford to enjoy themselves.” Burke adds pragmatically, “You can’t have a utopia without some loss-making facilities.”

From occupation to cooperation

In 1979, Sánchez Gordillo was first elected as the town’s mayor. He led an extensive campaign to change Marinaleda’s course, which began with hunger strikes and occupying underutilized land.

Manuel Martin Fernandez has been involved in la lucha (the fight) since the beginning. He explains how through the general assembly process the community decided something had to be done to stem the flow of migration from the town. They began a weeks-long occupation of a nearby reservoir to convince the regional government to allocate them enough water to irrigate a tract of land.

After this proved successful, they then went on to occupy 1,200 hectares of the newly irrigated land, which at that time was owned by an aristocratic family. In 1991, the plot of land was officially expropriated and turned over for local use. “It took 12 years to obtain the land,” Martin Fernandez explains, calling their victory “a conquest.”

Today, extensive fields of olives, artichokes, beans and peppers form the backbone of the local cash economy. The land is collectively managed by the cooperative El Humoso and a canning facility has been set up on the edge of town. “Our aim was not to create profits, but jobs,” Sánchez Gordillo told British author Dan Hancox, explaining why the town chose to prioritize labor-intensive crops to create more employment for local people.

Like most agricultural employment, whether in the fields or the factory, work in Marinaleda is both seasonal and varied from year to year. But unlike many small agricultural towns, Marinaleda shares the work amongst those who need it.

Dolores Valderrama Martin has lived in Marinaleda her entire life and she has worked at the Humoso canning factory for the past 14 years. From the upstairs office she explains that if 200 people are looking for work, but they only need 40 workers, they will bring everyone together. “We gather all of these people who are directly affected,” she says. “We make groups of 30 to 40 people and each group works for two days.”

While the cooperative is formed of nine separate entities, Valderrama Martin says they collectively decide on important issues like the allocation of work. They may even take the issue to a general assembly for wider input from the town. But she cautions, “When there is no work they are unemployed, like anywhere else.”

Most of the town decries the relative lack of work, but the wider social security net built on the principles of direct action and mutual aid have meant that unlike other parts of the country, two months’ wages can go a long way to keep you afloat for the year. At the core of this is the town’s approach to housing, which offers one of the clearest examples of how collective effort can fill the void left by a stagnant cash economy.

The houses that community built

When many young people think about making their first foray into the housing market, money is inevitably the biggest obstacle. State of the economy aside, a down payment is always a sizable sum, even in relatively tame markets, and is increasingly unattainable for what has been described as ‘the jilted generation.’

But high on the list of maverick decisions spearheaded by Mayor Sánchez Gordillo, using a combination of state housing subsidy for building materials, free labor for construction and land given by the town, housing has been partly removed from the free market in Marinaleda. Instead, community members come together with architectural plans provided by the council to build a block of houses, with no sense in advance which home will belong to which family.

The houses — some 350 units in total, with twenty new builds underway at the time of our visit — become part of a housing cooperative. Needless to say, when citizens are only left paying €15 per month for mortgages, this has a massive knock-on impact on work requirements.

The direct action economy

While capitalism frames our relationships as a series of self-interested economic transactions, Marinaleda relies on a model of mutual aid, as locals work together to meet shared needs, with far less money circulating. While it can be easy to forget, money is simply a way of facilitating action, which creates an incentive for people to do tasks that they otherwise may not have any interest in doing.

Direct action, on the other hand, is rooted in common interests and explores the practicalities of what needs doing, based on who is there to do it. Direct action eliminates the consumer-provider divide, making cash an unnecessary intermediary in getting things done, as those who want something done, and those doing it become one-in-the-same.

While Marinaleda has its flaws, it reminds us that alternative economic models are not only possible, they already exist. A striking piece of graffiti on Marinaleda’s main road depicts a dream-catcher, super-imposed with a hammer and sickle. The accompanying message implores us, “Catch your dreams — utopia is possible.”

This article was originally published at Contributoria.

Liam Barrington-Bush is an activist, facilitator, and author of Anarchists in the Boardroom. He tweets as @hackofalltrades, blogs at morelikepeople.org and posts stuff on the more like people Facebook page.

Jen Wilton is a freelance journalist, researcher and photographer based in London, UK. Her interests include social movements, sustainable energy, alternative economies and Latin America. She tweets as @guerillagrrl and blogs at Revolution Is Eternal

Equality and the Fourth of July

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4 July 2014

The Fourth of July celebrates the adoption of the Declaration of Independence, signed by representatives of the 13 colonies to proclaim their separation from the King of Great Britain on this day, 238 years ago.

The Declaration of Independence marked a major turning point in history, not only for the people of what would become the United States of America, but for the entire world. In announcing their irrevocable break from the British monarchy, the founders sought to realize in practice the great progressive conceptions of the Enlightenment.

Equality was central to the principles proclaimed in the summer of 1776. “We hold these truths to be self-evident,” the document sets out in its second paragraph, “that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”

Commenting on the radicalism of the American Revolution, historian Gordon Wood has noted, “Equality was in fact the most radical and most powerful ideological force let loose in the Revolution,” which had an appeal “far more potent than any of the revolutionaries realized” and “tore through American society and culture with awesome power.” The notion of equality became deeply embedded in the consciousness of the people, with reverberations that continue to the present day.

That the Revolution in the New World posed a danger to aristocratic privilege and arbitrary power everywhere was understood very clearly by those who led it and by those who opposed it. The War of Independence, Marx would later note, sounded the tocsin for the French Revolution and all the great democratic revolutions of that era.

The American Revolution was a bourgeois democratic revolution. Neither it nor those who led it could transcend the social conditions of the day. As such, the historical event could not live up to the ideals that its greatest proponents laid out. Nevertheless, the American Revolution—and, in particular, the Declaration of Independence—resonated in every subsequent progressive episode in American history. Indeed, it was to “the proposition that all men are created equal” that Abraham Lincoln would refer four score and seven years later when he delivered his famous address on the battlefield at Gettysburg, in the midst of the Civil War to abolish the barbaric institution of slavery—the Second American Revolution.

The social, political and cultural state of present-day America makes a mockery of the principles that are recalled and celebrated on July 4.

Inequality is the defining feature of American life. The aristocratic principle has been reborn. If the current rulers could, they would reestablish titles and ranks of nobility, the official proclamations of privilege—and no doubt there are some who are already conspiring to do so.

The cancer of inequality infects every ruling national institution—the White House, led by a president who has become, solely on the basis of his political career, a multi-millionaire; the Congress, which is populated by scores of multi-millionaires; and the Supreme Court, in which eight of the nine justices are multi-millionaires. In short, all three branches of the federal government are controlled by individuals who are themselves part of the richest 1 percent of American society.

And then there is the media, in which those who dish out the propaganda that serves the interests of the state and the corporate-financial elite are paid millions of dollars annually for their faithful service.

The American aristocracy has grown rich largely through financial fraud. Six years ago, it sparked a global economic crisis through its manic speculation. Yesterday, the Dow Jones Industrial Average surpassed 17,000 for the first time in its 118-year history. The financial traders celebrated the comments of Fed Chairman Janet Yellen, who proclaimed on Wednesday that the spigots funneling cash into the markets would remain open. The orgy of excess comes on top of social devastation and decline for the vast majority of the population. The words used by the great Tom Paine to describe the aristocracy on the eve of the French Revolution of 1789 (which was inspired by the American example) come to mind: “They pity the plumage and forget the dying bird.”

The aristocratic principle is present in every aspect of American policy. Globally, it finds expression in unrelenting militarism, a criminal foreign policy based on plunder and conquest. With increasingly reckless abandon, the American ruling class has launched a series of wars, leaving disaster and chaos in its wake. More than ten years after the invasion of Iraq laid waste to one of the most advanced societies in the Middle East, US troops, drones and military aircraft are once again heading back—even as the Obama administration stokes war with Russia over Ukraine and China over energy-rich regions in the South Pacific.

High levels of social inequality are incompatible with democracy. This is demonstrated in the unprecedented assault on the democratic principles that flowed from the Declaration of Independence and were embodied in the Bill of Rights, such as due process, freedom of speech and the press, the prohibition against unreasonable searches and seizures, the separation of church and state.

Whatever remains of democratic institutions are threatened by a colossal military-intelligence-police apparatus. Within the ruling establishment, the most basic democratic conceptions no longer exist. The president proclaims the right to assassinate American citizens without due process, and this does not produce any serious objection from within the state apparatus. Nearly 2 million Americans languish in prisons.

Today, the massive growth of social inequality is the focus of increasing public attention. There are vague, insubstantial and insincere calls for “something” to be done, while some among the wealthy speak nervously of “pitchforks” on the horizon. But these “somethings” amount to nothing. In all the official discussions of social inequality, there is virtually no mention of the fundamental cause of inequality: capitalism.

The fact is that nothing can be or will be done within the framework of the existing political and economic system to reverse the ever-more extreme concentration of wealth in the United States.

 

Joseph Kishore

Journalist Glenn Greenwald speaks in California

http://www.democracynow.org/images/story/65/23065/splash/Glenn_Greenwald.png

By Tom Carter
24 June 2014

Glenn Greenwald’s recent speeches on the West Coast exhibited many of the strengths—and some of the same limitations—as his recent book No Place to Hide (reviewed here). Greenwald is currently touring the United States to promote his book.

Last Thursday, he spoke at the Japanese American Cultural and Community Center in Los Angeles. He was greeted by a standing ovation in the sold-out auditorium, with one organizer estimating attendance as high as 850. Many people stood in the aisles and crammed the balconies.

When Greenwald speaks in the first person about the struggle that he conducted alongside National Security Agency whistleblower Edward Snowden and a small group of other journalists to expose the NSA’s illegal activities, it is easy to see why he has attracted a substantial following. In Los Angeles, the mere mention of Snowden’s name evoked spontaneous applause from the audience, which consisted mostly of young people.

As a journalist and critic, Greenwald is at his best when defending Snowden against the deceitful attacks by the Obama administration and various media personalities.

In his speech in Los Angeles, Greenwald pointed out that NSA director James R. Clapper, who was caught lying to Congress about the NSA’s spying, is guilty of perjury—no less a felony crime than anything that Snowden is accused of doing. Those who are invoking the “rule of law” in relation to Snowden have nothing to say about the Obama administration’s refusal to prosecute Clapper.

Greenwald repeatedly mocked President Obama for the official lies about the NSA and his promises to “rein in” surveillance. He contrasted the “marketing and branding” of Obama with “who he really is,” i.e., the most ferocious persecutor of whistleblowers in American history.

Greenwald devoted special attention to the US media’s presentation of Snowden, including the baseless accusations that Snowden was a “Russian spy” (or, at one point, a “Chinese spy”), reports that Snowden was a “fame-seeking narcissist,” and the argument that NSA surveillance on the American population has anything to do with the so-called “war on terror.” The vast majority of what is published by the mainstream media is factually untrue, Greenwald said, attacking the official lineup of talking heads as “actors who play journalists on TV.”

He defended Snowden’s decision to disclose NSA surveillance as a “pure act of conscience.” Snowden, Greenwald said, “did not want to live the rest of his life knowing that he was confronted with this great injustice, and he had the opportunity to do something about it, and he did nothing.”

Greenwald denounced the media campaign to portray Snowden, Julian Assange, Chelsea (Bradley) Manning and other dissenters as somehow psychologically sick or pursuing subjective personal motives. “What is more psychologically healthy,” Greenwald asked, “going along with the government’s crimes or exposing them?”

Greenwald spoke passionately about the harmful effects of surveillance on the individual. He pointed out that the harm of surveillance is not merely that private communications are intercepted by the government, but that many people, if they believe they are being monitored, simply will not express their private thoughts in the first place.

Some of the most thoughtful passages in Greenwald’s book address these issues. In one passage, Greenwald quotes from an artist who was targeted during the period of blacklists in Hollywood, describing “the dynamic of oppressive self-censorship that comes from the sense of being watched.” Greenwald denounces “the pernicious controlling power of ubiquitous surveillance and the self-censorship that results…”

“Mass surveillance,” Greenwald writes in his book, is “inherently repressive, even in the unlikely case that it is not abused by vindictive officials to do things like gain private information about political opponents. Regardless of how surveillance is used or abused, the limits it imposes on freedom are intrinsic to its existence.”

Privacy, Greenwald argues, is essential for creativity, expression, exploration, contemplation, identity, freedom—and dissent. Referring to the NSA, he said, “Any structure built by human hands can be torn down and replaced by other human hands.”

Notwithstanding these welcome sentiments present in his writings and speeches, Greenwald is at his weakest when he attempts to draw broader political conclusions from the exposures he has helped to make.

At one point during his speech in Los Angeles, Greenwald posed the question, “Why hasn’t anything changed?” He acknowledged that the NSA was continuing to engage in all of the practices that he had exposed, with no significant section of the American political establishment demanding an end to them. If anything, mass surveillance is becoming more and more entrenched.

Greenwald appeared unable to answer his own question. As possible “avenues for change,” he listed a vague “coalition of other countries” that would in the future pressure the US government to discontinue its mass surveillance. Another option, according to Greenwald, was that “tech companies” and “pressure on the US government” from “tech company billionaires” would lead to reforms.

(Perhaps included on Greenwald’s list of progressive tech company billionaires is eBay founder Pierre Omidyar, who recently financed Greenwald’s new media company First Look Media to the tune of $250 million.)

Sadly, the mobilization of the great mass of the population—in the US and internationally—was not listed anywhere among Greenwald’s possible “avenues for change.” Indeed, Greenwald’s focus on the individual psychological consequences of surveillance tends to suggest that he considers the majority of the population to be hopelessly brainwashed by the media and the NSA surveillance programs he describes.

In the place of mass struggles, Greenwald sees the electrifying “acts of conscience” of heroic individuals such as Snowden, Manning, Assange and others as the main path to progress. The working class does not appear to have any progressive role to play.

In this light, it is no coincidence that Greenwald’s speaking tour was organized in coordination with Haymarket Books, which is affiliated with the International Socialist Organization (ISO). Greenwald has spoken several times at ISO conferences, and his praise for these conferences has been featured prominently in the organization’s promotional material.

Greenwald’s analysis of the roots of what he describes as the “surveillance state” was limited in his speeches to denunciations of the “warped minds” of NSA leaders. He did not attempt to make any connection between the growth of the police-state apparatus and attacks on democratic rights, social inequality, historical context, militarism or war. (In his book, at least, Greenwald takes up some of these issues briefly.)

Glenn Greenwald has performed an invaluable service to working people all around the world by helping Snowden to expose the global surveillance complex that has been built up behind their backs. Personal courage was certainly involved in these exposures. In the face of calls for his prosecution, the seizure and detention of his partner, and a police raid on the newspaper he was working for, Greenwald has earned his popularity as a critic of the propaganda that passes for journalism in the 21st century.

 

The story of the unsung heroes: Black Bloc Brazil

by Esther Solano Gallego on June 23, 2014

Post image for The story of the unsung heroes: Black Bloc Brazil

Despised by many, hailed by some: the Black Bloc in Brazil uses its “performative violence” to draw attention to the everyday struggles of millions.

Article by Esther Solano Gallego and Paulo Rogério Lugoboni Filho. Illustration by Luciano Cunha, creator of O Doutrinador.

It was in the first weeks of the massive anti-government protests that started in June 2013 and shook Brazilian society to its very foundations that the Black Bloc made its first appearance on the protest scene. Demonstrations took place in dozens of cities across the country, but the black-clad youngsters who covered their faces and linked arms at the front-line of the marches, ready for any confrontation with the security forces, made their appearance mainly on the streets of São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro.

While being denounced by some for their violent tactics, actively looking for confrontations with the police and smashing banks and other symbols of global capitalism, those joining the Black Bloc in a protest could also count on some support from fellow protesters. During last year’s education crisis in October, which drew thousands of indignant teachers to the streets, the Black Bloc was present to protect them from the police violence.

In response, the SEPE Teacher’s Union declared its unconditional support for the Black Bloc, claiming that many have been protected by the masked youngsters from the excessive use of force by the police. Even though the SEPE has now retracted its support for the Black Bloc, and popular opinion has turned against it due to its negative depiction in the mainstream media, this strategy of radical anti-authoritarianism is still alive and kicking on the streets of Brazil today.

Despite the disproportional attention paid to the Black Bloc’s violence in the mainstream media, it is in fact still a largely marginal phenomenon. Even in a metropolis like São Paulo, where protest marches tend to draw in thousands of supporters, the Black Bloc usually does not consist of more than fifty to a hundred people.

Another flaw in the mainstream media’s reporting on the Black Bloc is its false presentation as an organization with a command structure, internal hierarchy and a clear agenda, whereas in fact it is nothing more than a tactic in which a group of like-minded people naturally flock together to resist the violence of the state, bound by the unconditional solidarity that lasts only as long as the protest itself, after which every individual goes their own way. In the words of some black bloc participants, the tactic has been described as a performance, a form of direct action that uses symbolic violence as a way to call for public debate.

Why so violent?

Ever since the Black Bloc entered the protest scene in Brazil, three crucial questions have intrigued observers and government officials alike: what motivates these people to take their anger to the streets; how do they justify the use of violence; and why do they not engage in peaceful protests?

Due to the explicit distrust that the majority of Black Bloc supporters have towards the media, especially the mainstream channels, it is really hard for society at large to obtain access to the ideologies and reasoning that guide their actions on the streets. The key, and most provocative, element that causes a big fuss in public opinion is the use of violence as a legitimate tool of protest. The arguments given by Black Bloc participants to justify their sometimes violent direct actions are essential to understanding all the dimensions of that phenomenon. Still, the ideological motivations and reasoning behind these actions is not well understood by the great majority of the population, whose only contact with the Black Bloc is through the mainstream media.

After talking with a number of Black Bloc participants, we can affirm that there exists a huge convergence between the beliefs of the protesters and the specific tactics generally used by the Black Bloc. Behind the heterogeneous profiles of these youths one can notice a common denominator; a collective idea that defines their shared points-of-view. First, there is the conviction that purely peaceful protests are not bringing any tangible results, and, as such, are inefficient.

In the words of one protester: “If we want peace, we have to fight for it. Peaceful protests are meaningless. The government doesn’t care! They only listen to violence.” This argument is closely related to the general discontent with the political institutions of the country. On top of this, there exists an intense anger towards the police and towards the military task forces in particular. “The military are murderers,” one protester told us. “They kill all the time and we can’t react. Military pigs!”

“Indignation” is the term that most frequently comes up when talking with the youths that are trying to explain the meaning of the Black Bloc to them. The feeling of indignation is instigated by the general discontent of the people with the political powers that are perceived as corrupt and absent in those sections of society where their presence is most urgently required.

The lack of high quality basic services, the difficult urban life, the disinterested stance of the political establishment, the uncertainties of the future, and the dismantlement of the public sector in contrast with the rise of the private sector are some of the examples continuously cited throughout the conversations we had with protesters. In this sense, the perception that today’s youth has of government and, in a broader sense, their perception of the current socio-economic system, closely mirrors public opinion.

Direct action

The Black Bloc is defined by its participants as a form of direct action. But what does this mean? In this particular case, the direct action of the Black Bloc can be seen as a form of both symbolic and performative violence against the symbols of corporate and state power. It is intended not to injure people but to still draw attention to the protests and provoke a social and institutional reaction. McDonald’s restaurants are vandalized, banks are left with broken windows, and government buildings are defaced: it all forms part of a collective tactic based on a theatrical display of confrontation with the powers-that-be.

Violence, in this way, can be considered a form of expression. It communicates to power a message that purely peaceful protests cannot, challenging the government and forcing it to bring about meaningful change. The bourgeois protests, or coxinhas, which are often entirely peaceful, have in the eyes of many failed to achieve any positive results for the population at large. For some, then, the use of performative violence — not oriented towards people but to property and, only in defensive battles, against the police — becomes necessary. One protester framed the violent protests as a warning signal to the government, which still refuses to address the protesters’ claims: “If violence isn’t used, you don’t get attention. They do not see our revolt.”

In this way, the use of performative violence is justified as a political instrument. According to these youths, the historical protests of June have not brought about any positive results or structural changes. Therefore, in order to advance to the next stage of the struggle, the form and content of the struggle needs to be radicalized by putting direct action at the heart of the movement’s tactics. This radicalization of the protests is a natural consequence of the refusal of public officials to engage with the popular will. Having reached the point at which the government clearly felt comfortable to simply ignore the peaceful marches of millions, performative violence is now perceived to be the only way for legitimate popular demands to be heard.

That said, the spectacular dimension of the protesters’ violence is a double-edged sword. On the one hand, the theatrical appeal of the violent protests for the mainstream media provides the protesters with a stage on which to display their message to a wider audience. On the other hand, it reinforces the media’s craving for the spectacle and thereby risks further marginalizing purely peaceful protests.

It is not uncommon for a protest where the Black Bloc makes its appearance to have an equal number of journalists, both from the mainstream channels and independent outlets, present on the scene. “We only gave attention to violent protests. That’s what matters,” admits Bruno Paes de Manso, a blogger for Estadão, one of the country’s largest newspapers. “The media creates a monster and then it doesn’t know what to do with it. We legitimize that violence. The peaceful protests don’t matter, they don’t sell and they can’t be turned into the front page of a newspaper.”

Now, with the FIFA World Cup-circus descending upon Brazil, the country’s resistance movement has the opportunity to showcase its grievances on a truly global stage. Different social forces are emerging in the face of this opportunity, and the tactics of the Black Bloc are becoming more and more popular. Even while being depicted in the media as a criminal organization, the Black Bloc gains strength inside the movement, mainly among those mobilizing against the tournament.

The battle at the doorstep

In the wake of the first birthday of the Marches of June, diversity of tactics now appears to have become a significant part of the political process in Brazil, capable of drawing attention to demonstrations that haven’t reached as wide an audience as last year’s mobilizations. This, in a sense, symbolizes a break-through with respect to the lethargic political reaction to last year’s protests — one that may yet prove to be a turning-point for Brazilian politics insofar as the development of a truly democratic society is concerned.

Perhaps most importantly, the rise of the Black Bloc forces us to confront the question of violence in a broader, more structural sense. Why do we pay such tremendous attention to some broken windows, while no one is talking about the 50.000 annual homicides, or the equal amount of women who are raped every year in Brazil? Does the theatrical violence of the Black Bloc truly deserve more attention than the tragedies of everyday life in the favelas? One explanation is that the performative violence of the Black Bloc has brought the battle to the doorstep of those who are pulling the strings, whereas the very real violence against the poor and marginalized occurs at the fringes of society, safely hidden away from the public gaze in areas where the cameras of the mainstream media rarely venture.

Whether one agrees with Black Bloc tactics or not, we have to admit that they successfully draw attention to the very real indignation that slumbers below the surface of Brazilian society. We can debate how successful the use of performative violence can be in achieving one’s long-term goals of radical social transformation, but we cannot deny a person’s right to resist in whatever way they see fit. When violence is the only face of the state that people experience, no wonder it’s through violence that they resist.

Esther Solano Gallego is Professor of International Relations at the Federal University of São Paulo.

Paulo Rogério Lugoboni Filho is a student in International Relations at the Federal University of São Paulo

Luciano Cunha is a Brazilian author, cartoonist and graphic designer. His latest creation is the anti-hero O Doutrinador (‘The Indoctrinator’), who — dressed in black, sporting a Sepultura t-shirt, carrying a machine gun and with his face covered by a gas mask to avoid identification — has set out on a mission to rid the country of its corrupt politicians. In less than a year the comic has drawn a lot of attention from infuriated Brazilians who in some way feel connected to the anti-hero’s mission. The popularity of O Doutrinador has sky-rocketed in the past year, drawing attention not only from those who support Cunha’s work, but also from government figures who attempt to muzzle him via lawsuits, violating his freedom of expression and trying to kill his creative liberty. We at ROAR are therefore very excited to feature a series of unique drawings by Cunha to illustrate our Brazil coverage in the coming weeks. O Doutrinador can be found on Facebook, YouTube, and his personal website.

Economy slumps, Wall Street booms

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20 June 2014

The Federal Reserve on Wednesday cut its projection for US economic growth in 2014 and scaled back its annual growth estimate in the longer term to about 2 percent—far below the post-World War II average of 3.3 percent. It is an outlook that promises no relief for the vast majority of the population from six years of unemployment, falling wages, and cuts in education, health care and other vital social programs.

The Fed’s assessment amounted to an admission that slump and falling living standards for the masses of people are here to stay.

The bleak assessment was in line with two other economic reports released in recent days. Last week, the World Bank cut its projection for global growth this year to 2.8 percent from its earlier estimate of 3.2 percent, and downgraded its prediction for the US from 2.8 percent to 2.1 percent. On Monday, the International Monetary Fund revised downward its projection for US growth from 2.8 percent to 2.0 percent.

The IMF said unemployment in the US would not return to normal levels until the end of 2017 at the earliest.

Wall Street responded to the Fed’s assessment and policy statement Wednesday with a celebratory rally, pushing the Standard & Poor’s 500 stock index to a new record high and boosting the Dow by 98 points. The reason is not hard to fathom.

In keeping with the policy of central banks and governments around the world, the Fed made clear that it intends to continue pumping virtually free and unlimited credit into the financial system for at least another year. Fed Chair Janet Yellen went out of her way at a press conference following the close of the central bank’s two-day meeting to reassure the bankers and speculators that she would keep the benchmark federal funds interest rate at its present zero-0.25 percent level for months to come, and that extraordinarily low interest rates would continue indefinitely.

This is precisely the policy—a vast public subsidy to the financial aristocracy—that over the past five years, since the low point of the crisis that erupted in September 2008, has enabled the stock market to nearly triple in value, boosting the fortunes of bankers and CEOs to record levels, even as the real economy remained mired in slump and the living standards of the overwhelming majority of the population declined. The income of a typical US household fell 8.2 percent between 2007 and 2012.

The Fed, as expected, pared back its monthly bond purchases (its so-called “quantitative easing” program) by another $10 billion. In her remarks to the press, Yellen stressed that even after QE had ended, interest rates would remain near zero.

She went further, stating that the stock market—whose astronomical rise is entirely detached from the dismal state of the real economy—was “not overvalued.” In other words, as far was Wall Street was concerned, the fix was in.

Two days before, IMF Managing Director Christine Lagarde had urged the Fed to keep rates at their current level beyond mid-2015, when the financial markets believe small rate hikes are likely to begin. Warning of the fragility of the financial system, she implied that the central banks had to keep the flood of virtually free money flowing to the banks and hedge funds.

The justification given by Yellen, Lagarde and their like for what is essentially a systematic policy of redistributing wealth from the bottom to the very top is the need to create jobs and reduce unemployment. This is a fraud.

They know full well that pumping cash into the financial system does not lead to an expansion of productive investment and decent-paying jobs. There is no requirement that the bankers and big investors who benefit from this diversion of public funds use their windfalls to build factories or schools. For the past six years, government bailouts and central bank subsidies have gone to fatten the bank accounts and stock portfolios of the super-rich and finance ever more reckless and criminal forms of financial manipulation.

To cover the resulting debts incurred by governments, brutal austerity programs are imposed, destroying social services, jobs, wages, pensions and the living standards of the working class. Between 2007 and 2012, US government spending and public investment fell by almost 8 percent, the largest decline in more than half a century. Corporate investment has been minimal.

Alongside the massive diversion of social wealth to the financial elite, the IMF, World Bank and Fed continue to demand the gutting of past social reforms and protections for workers, in the name of “job creation” and “competitiveness.” Calling for cuts in government subsidies that hold down food and energy costs and privatization of state-owned industries, the World Bank in its June 10 Global Economic Prospects report stated: “In a world where external financial conditions are expected to tighten and remain challenging, future growth must increasingly be driven by domestic efforts to boost productivity and competitiveness.”

The same quasi-criminal and socially destructive methods that characterize the financial operations of the ruling elite find expression in the warmongering foreign policies of imperialist governments. Lagarde warned this week that the collapse of Iraq—the product of US war and subversion in that country, Libya, Syria and throughout the Middle East—could drive up oil prices and further derail the US economy.

Workers in the US are already being hammered by rising food and energy prices fueled by the inflation of stock prices and other financial assets and the crises precipitated by US policy in places such as Ukraine and Iraq. The national average price of gasoline is the highest for this time of year since 2008. More than half of all US states have reported rising gas prices. Retail beef, pork, poultry, egg and milk prices are all up sharply from last year.

Last week, the IMF warned that the inflation of real estate prices in a number of major countries was increasing the risk of another financial crash. But the very policies the IMF promotes—starting with the infusion of cash into the banking system—produces asset bubbles that must inevitably implode.

This contradiction reflects the dead end of the system which all of these institutions of the ruling class defend—capitalism. It is a system that has produced a vast sea of human misery and oppression, along with the stagnation and decay of man’s productive forces, exacerbated by the plundering of social resources to finance soaring stock markets, record corporate profits and the personal fortunes of a numerically minuscule financial aristocracy.

One statistic, often cited but nonetheless extraordinarily revealing and damning, encapsulates the irrationality and bankruptcy, moral and historical, of the capitalist system: 85 billionaires today have as much wealth ($1.68 trillion) as the bottom half of the world’s population—3.5 billion people.

This situation is not sustainable, either economically or politically. More and more workers, in the US as well as internationally, are coming to the realization that there is no way out within the framework of the existing system—one that barely conceals its single-minded focus on the further enrichment of the few at the expense of the many.

Barry Grey

Rio de Janeiro: a story of occupations and evictions

by Vik Birkbeck on June 17, 2014

Post image for Rio de Janeiro: a story of occupations and evictions

The Homeless Worker Movement occupied a building in Rio, helping to shelter thousands — but in the run-up to the World Cup they were violently evicted.

 

Illustration by Luciano Cunha, creator of O Doutrinador.

It’s been five years since Brazil celebrated its selection by FIFA to host the ongoing 2014 World Cup. The announcement was made in great style on Copacabana Beach, packed with thousands jumping, dancing and in many cases partying all night — in what many would consider to be true Brazilian style. FIFA clearly thought that this was the safe choice in its gradual march around the globe, bringing recalcitrant nations and continents into its orbit. Brazil, after all, is the prototype football-crazy nation, where the whole country grinds to a halt to watch its squad in action. So who could possibly imagine that four years later millions of people would be marching through the streets not only of Rio and São Paulo but also Brasília, Belo Horizonte, Recife, Salvador, Goiania, shouting Não Vai ter Copa! (‘There won’t be a World Cup!).

The original impetus for the massive demonstrations of 2013 was a nationwide rise in bus fares, but with the upcoming Confederations Cup, FIFA’s dress rehearsal for the World Cup, public attention quickly focused on the vast sums being invested in stadiums and the infrastructure for the tournament. The “FIFA standard” of the new stadiums was contrasted with the recurrent problems of public transport, health and education. The double whammy of also being selected to host the 2016 Olympics engendered a wildly ambitious restructuring and development plan in Rio de Janeiro.

On December 5, 2009, the Strategic Plan of the City Government announced by Mayor Eduardo Paes presented as one of its core aims the reduction of the total surface area occupied by favelas (shanty towns) by 3.5%, purportedly because they were located “in areas at risk of landslides or flooding, conservation areas, or areas of public utility.” But as a banner carried by a protesting victim of this eviction policy read: “When rich people live in the South zone, it’s called a noble area, when poor people live there it’s called an area at risk.”

Graffiti on the walls of Metro Mangueira by the Moroccan-French artist Pleks Kustom (photo by author).

Even the beloved Maracana stadium, an international icon of Rio’s identity, had to be entirely reconstructed in line with FIFA directives. In the process the geral — the cheap standing area occupied by Rio’s most ardent football fans — has been abolished, effectively excluding the poorer part of the population from attending games. Watching live football is now the privilege of the “whites”, the upper and middle-class spectators who are able to pay more for the right to watch the game sitting down. In the process of reconstructing Maracana, the developers hit on a perfect scheme for earning more money by knocking down the surroundings as well to make space for a massive parking lot and shopping mall.

The destroyed surroundings of the stadium included Friedenreich School, one of Rio’s best municipal schools (in a country which ranks 78th for quality of education); Lanagro, Rio’s only laboratory for analyzing foodstuffs (while Brazil has the highest consumption of pesticides in the world and all corn and soy plantations are genetically modified); the Olympic-standard Celio de Barros athletics complex and Julio de Lamare water-sports complex (both newly reconstructed at vast expense for the 2007 Pan-American Games and used for training Rio’s Olympic athletes); Metro Mangueira, a poor community built 34 years ago by the construction workers of the Rio underground, hence its name; and finally Aldeia Maracanã, a multi-ethnic indigenous community created in 2006 around the abandoned 19th century building, which had long been associated with indigenous culture and which housed the Indian museum for over twenty years.

Metro Mangueira is emblematic of the many evictions carried out or planned in the lead-up to the World Cup and the Olympics. It was once an orderly, close-knit community and, although poor, the houses were solidly built by construction-workers. In October 2010, employees of the City Council started informing the inhabitants that their community was “at risk”, marking their houses with crosses and numbers, reminiscent of the Nazi practices in Jewish ghettos. The 107 families who accepted were moved to Cosmos, some 45 miles away, causing enormous hardship for those with jobs or schools nearby. The City Council tractors then moved in to demolish the newly abandoned homes, leaving huge holes and piles of broken masonry, opening the community to drug dealers, prostitution and a plague of rats and mosquitoes.

As a result, the official explanation used to justify the eviction became a self-fulfilling prophecy. With families and individuals occupying the ruins and rubble of the demolished homes, the area was soon transformed into a risk zone. Finally, at the beginning of 2014, with the World Cup in sight, the demolition trucks moved back into the community. Instead of a real option for those about to be evicted, the city council proposed to register them in the federal programme Minha Casa, Minha Vida (My House, My Life) which subsidizes low income families to acquire houses. Although federal, this program is administered by city councils in each state. There have been no new public housing developments in the central area of Rio, so the register is just a piece of paper. Popular resistance to the demolition of Metro Mangueira lasted several days and led to a large contingent of military police attacking young and old alike with pepper spray, bombs and rubber bullets.

Resistance during the final eviction of Metro Mangueira (photo by Paula Kossatz).

Before the advent of Google Maps, maps of Rio de Janeiro depicted the older, more traditional areas of the city and the newer expansions towards Barra and Recreio while the rest of the area was apparently uninhabited space. Google maps dealt a serious blow to this bucolic image of the Cidade Maravilhosa (‘Wonderful City’) by revealing that all available space in the urban area — hills, valleys, rough ground — was occupied by favelas. The reaction of much of the elite was a sense of betrayal, but it’s impossible to sweep these satellite images under the carpet. Suddenly everyone was forced to admit the favelas‘ existence.

After the draconian austerity measures and structural reforms imposed by the IMF during the debt crisis of the 1980s, the favelas had spread rapidly as more and more people were driven to the cities by the expansion of industrial agriculture. In their new urban dwellings, the inhabitants lingered in a sort of limbo-state, as an auxiliary labor force at wages insufficient to adequately feed their families, let alone pay for housing. Signs of the acute housing crisis in Rio are reflected in the number of people — even entire families — sleeping in the streets in the city center, while new favelas continuously spring up in every available space.

So when at the beginning of April 2014 some of the leaders of the Movement of Homeless Workers identified a large building and surrounding yard and out-houses which used to belong to the former telephone company Telerj, and which had been abandoned for nearly twenty years, they quickly set about occupying the area. Thousands of families invested their minimal resources into buying planks to construct huts in the area which in the space of a week was occupied by ten thousand people. Although the occupants of the Telerj building included pregnant women, elderly people and thousands of children from babies to adolescents, no real attempt was made to identify the occupants or investigate their necessities.

TV Globo, Brazil’s biggest television network, was quick to denounce the “invaders” as criminals, flying over the area for aerial shots of the “invasion.” The telephone company that took over from Telerj — Oi — had never occupied the building, which was going to be sold to the city government and which was destined for the ‘My House, My Life’ program. However, with the impasse of the occupation, the “owners” soon appeared and a suit for reintegration of the property was rushed through the courts. On Wednesday, April 9, Mayor Eduardo Paes announced that the occupation had been carried out by organized professionals, implying criminal intent, and declared that the area should be “disoccupied” and returned to its owners. The mayor went as far as stating that “really poor people who need houses don’t stake out their plots with planks and construction materials.”

Rubble is all that remains of the Metro Mangueira community (photo by author).

So what was the solution for all this “criminal activity”? At dawn on April 11, 1.600 heavily armed military police invaded the area. Sleeping women were kicked awake, huts were knocked down, everyone was sprayed with chemical spray — not from the usual hand-held canisters but from massive cylinders the size of fire extinguishers, which the police carried in backpacks. All members of the press, whether corporate or independent, were expelled from the area and even one of the Globo reporters was arrested by police on the spurious charge that he was “throwing stones.” Occupants allege that four infants succumbed to the chemical spray and rumors circulated that one of the reasons for keeping reporters out was to prevent them from witnessing the fatalities.

The sheer number of people involved, the fact that noone had time to create a real register of the occupants of the building, and the pandemonium that ensued makes it impossible to corroborate the facts. Nonetheless, the photographs and videos of independent reporters on the scene bear witness to the terror of the “disoccupation.” Testimonies of many of those involved reveal that these are people who have already been evicted from other areas in recent demolitions and evictions, while others are victims of the rising prices engendered by the militarization of the favelas.

The occupation and subsequent eviction of the Telerj building, just as the destruction of the Metro Mangueira community, is exemplary of the complete disregard for right to housing of Brazil’s poorest people. On the one hand, entire neighborhoods are demolished to make space for parking lots and shopping malls, and on the other many favelas have been occupied by militarized police forces (UPPs). This means that communities lacking any form of public services are basically placed under permanent curfew, which goes under the dubious title of “Public Security,” and any kind of protest is treated as a criminal uprising.

The contagious spirit of the mass protests that have been rocking Brazil over the past year has also found fertile soil in the favelas, where the death of every young person murdered by police is another rallying cry for popular resistance. As the current wave of anti-World Cup protests shows, the genie is out of the bottle — and it will take a lot more than violent evictions and police repression to silence the awakened and indignant multitude.

Vik Birkbeck is British by birth but is a long-time resident of Brazil. As a media activist she has been filming and photographing popular culture and street movements since the eighties. All the photos in the article are by the author.

Luciano Cunha is a Brazilian author, cartoonist and graphic designer. His latest creation is the anti-hero O Doutrinador (‘The Indoctrinator’), who — dressed in black, sporting a Sepultura t-shirt, carrying a machine gun and with his face covered by a gas mask to avoid identification — has set out on a mission to rid the country of its corrupt politicians. In less than a year the comic has drawn a lot of attention from infuriated Brazilians who in some way feel connected to the anti-hero’s mission. The popularity of O Doutrinador has sky-rocketed in the past year, drawing attention not only from those who support Cunha’s work, but also from government figures who attempt to muzzle him via lawsuits, violating his freedom of expression and trying to kill his creative liberty. We at ROAR are therefore very excited to feature a series of unique drawings by Cunha to illustrate our Brazil coverage in the coming weeks. O Doutrinador can be found on Facebook, YouTube, and his personal website.

They Can’t Represent Us: a riveting defense of democracy

by Jerome Roos on June 16, 2014

Post image for They Can’t Represent Us: a riveting defense of democracy

They Can’t Represent Us by Marina Sitrin and Dario Azzellini is a fiery indictment of electoral politics and a riveting defense of real democracy.

 

Marina Sitrin and Dario Azzellini (2014), They Can’t Represent Us: Reinventing Democracy from Greece to Occupy (with a foreword by David Harvey). London and New York: Verso.

A lot of ink has already been spilled on last month’s European elections. Most commentators lament the rise of the far-right; some celebrate the rise of the radical left — but almost everyone has focused their attention on the rearrangement of the deck chairs, missing the grumbling sounds of discontent emanating from below, deep down in the bowels of the ship. As it turns out, only 43% of eligible Europeans actually showed up to vote; the rest couldn’t even be bothered to make the short trip to the polling station. Grand hypotheses are already being staked upon the numbers pulled out of the ballot box, but if numbers still mean anything in this world we should be looking not at the marginal success of leftist parties but at the hundreds of millions who have long since given up their faith in the sham of a democracy we are currently presented with.

The representative institutions of capitalist democracy are facing a profound legitimation crisis. According to the European Commission, 68% of Europeans do not believe that their voice counts in Europe, while a recent Eurobarometer survey revealed that public confidence in the EU has fallen to historic lows. Meanwhile, a major study by the Pew Research Global Attitudes Project finds that the mistrust is far from limited to EU institutions: “compounding their doubts about the Brussels-based European Union, Europeans are losing faith in the capacity of their own national leaders to cope with the economy’s woes.” José Ignacio Torreblanca of the European Council of Foreign Relations remarks that “both debtor and creditor countries basically feel that they lost control of what they are doing,” and concludes that most European citizens “now think that their national democracy is being subverted by the way the euro crisis is conducted.”

The story is the same in the United States, where Gallup’s most recent annual trust poll found that only 19% of Americans trust the government to do what is right “just about always” or “most of the time”, while an overwhelming 81% trust the government only “some of the time” or “never” — a marked deterioration even from the darkest days of George W. Bush’s anti-democratic reign. Just by means of comparison: back in 1960, 73% of Americans still trusted their government to do the right thing always or most of the time. As two leading pollsters for former Presidents Clinton and Carter remark, “this harrowing lack of trust in confidence in politicians and institutions today has been a long time coming … As it stands, our system only serves the elite, not the mass public. And the American people know it.”

This is the crisis of representation facing the so-called capitalist democracies today — and this is the context in which a wave of protest has spread across the globe in recent years. As one Brazilian activist put it during last year’s mass demonstrations, “the mask of democracy is falling.” Now, a timely new book by Marina Sitrin and Dario Azzellini recounts the stories of ordinary citizens around the world as they decided to take matters into their own hands. In They Can’t Represent Us: Reinventing Democracy from Greece to Occupy, the international scholar-activist duo provide us with a unique insight into the bowels of the ship, where a massive democratic mutiny is brewing — occasionally spilling over onto the deck to rearrange some of the chairs, but most of the time simply stirring below the surface, preparing the ground for a radical redistribution of power from below.

In a hard-hitting denunciation of representative democracy, and through a colorful depiction of the countless grassroots alternatives that are already being constructed in communities and workplaces around the world, Sitrin and Azzellini recount the story of the movement of the squares in Greece, Spain and the US, and seek to ground these mass mobilizations in the desire of ordinary people to control their everyday lives and to actively participate in the decision-making processes that affect them. This book, then, is both a fiery indictment of electoral politics and a riveting defense of real democracy — which must by its definition be built on the basis of radical egalitarianism and the direct participation of ordinary citizens in social, political and economic life. Above all, the book is about a radically different approach to running the ship and finding ways to change course before it slams into the dislodged icebergs that loom ominously ahead.

From this vantage point, the year 2011 constituted a rupture. The mass mobilizations and occupations of public spaces from Tahrir to Zuccotti Park cracked open history and allowed a renewed critique of capitalism and representation to finally come to the fore. For a brief moment, at least, the radical imagination ran free. For many, participating in these events was a profoundly transformative experience that was carried over into their everyday lives, where it shot root and began to branch out into new social relations and new forms of political engagement. Today, Sitrin and Azzellini show, hundreds of “laboratories for democracy” are emerging around the world, creating space for ordinary citizens to experiment with alternative forms of social organization, democratic decision-making processes and non-hierarchical ways of relating. In Southern Europe and Latin America, in particular, this project of autonomy has come to pervade the social fabric.

Unlike the occupations themselves, however, the more recent self-managed initiatives that emerged out of them are much less visible and tend to be greatly under-reported by the mainstream media and largely under-appreciated by the institutional left. As a result, the public debate in the United States and Europe today lacks a proper grassroots perspective. Luckily, Sitrin and Azzellini are in an excellent position to provide just that. Having actively participated in the movements themselves, having conducted dozens of follow-up interviews with other participants, and having spent a number of years embedded in previous movements in Argentina and Venezuela, respectively, Sitrin and Azzellini are able to reflect both on their internal functioning and on the global context in which they all arose.

Moreover, Sitrin and Azzellini take the title of their book seriously. Rather than trying to “represent” the voices of the movements, a large part of the book is devoted to the voices of activists and organizers themselves. Through a set of well-selected and carefully curated interview transcripts, they provide the reader with a wonderful insight into the political visions of movement organizers, as well as the many social struggles, political projects and community initiatives that emerged in the wake of the recent ruptures — ranging from efforts to recuperate factories and stop the privatization of water in Greece, to resisting evictions in Spain and “striking debt” in the United States.

Some of these efforts have brought inspiring (partial) victories. At the same time, it is clear that, on the whole, the movements have so far been unable to create a real dent in the top-down distribution of power between the decks. Apart from a number of promising spin-off campaigns, Occupy largely fizzled out, while the movement of the squares in Greece and Spain (despite continued mass mobilizations) has not yet succeeded in halting the austerity drive of their respective governments. In a recent article, the New York-based collective Not An Alternative ultimately blamed the failure of Occupy on the movement’s fetishization of process at the expense of the effort of constructing an alternative political form that could credibly challenge dominant power structures. The California-based Research & Destroy collective similarly lambasts the movement for its inability to match means with ends. These critiques raise an important question: can autonomous movements that emphasize horizontality and self-organization ever really mount a genuine challenge to the capitalist system as such?

Sitrin and Azzellini never really address this question explicitly, but they do touch upon it in what are perhaps the most fascinating and most instructive chapters of their book: the ones on Argentina and Venezuela. Like the US and Europe today, these two Latin American countries experienced a major rupture following a period of rapid neoliberal restructuring. In 1989, a brutal state crackdown on an IMF riot in Carácas — the so-called Caracazo – left thousands dead and set the stage for the proliferation of grassroots movements and the emergence of the Bolivarian process. In Argentina, a spontaneous uprising on December 19 and 20, 2001 ousted President De la Rúa and led to the greatest sovereign debt default in world history, as well as a massive surge in social mobilization, horizontal self-organization and workplace recuperation. These examples show that grassroots movements have a critical role to play in social transformation.

Still, the Latin American chapters leave many burning questions unanswered. Most importantly, there appears to be a tension between the Argentine and Venezuelan cases that is never fully resolved; a tension that arises from the movements’ relation to the state. While the role of the state in Argentina is described in mostly negative terms, with the Kirchners seeking to demobilize the movements through a dual strategy of repression and co-optation, the relationship between state and movements in Venezuela is depicted in a more contradictory light, as one containing both conflictive and cooperative elements. Argentina seems to leave little hope for strategic alliances between autonomous social forces and national-popular parties, while Venezuela’s experience highlights various ways in which progressive forces occupying the state can create space for autonomous movements to construct their own grassroots alternatives from below. What are we to make of these somewhat divergent experiences? What do they tell us in terms of strategy; in terms of matching means with ends?

At this stage in the struggle, such questions are no longer just academic. The rise of the radical left in Greece — and to a lesser extent in Spain — forces activists in autonomous movements to take a stance: either they support left parties wholeheartedly, or they oppose them and insist on radical autonomy and “abstraction” from the state, or they find some kind of intermediate ground, where one may vote for the left and even ally with it on strategic occasions to defend any advances made, while continuing to push against and beyond the state for a post-capitalist world that is to be held in common. It would, perhaps, have fitted the ambitious scope of Sitrin and Azzellini’s book to take up these strategic implications in a proper conclusion (right now, the book ends in the middle of an interview without any concluding remarks from the authors). None of this, however, can detract from the book’s practical importance at this historical juncture. Now, more than ever, we need to keep shining our light on the deepening crisis of representation and the real-world alternatives that are already being constructed from below. Sitrin and Azzellini have easily provided the best account of these grassroots struggles so far.

As for the deeper question — often raised by the communist left — of whether or not the notion of democracy provides a useful starting point and organizing ground for the anti-capitalist struggle, perhaps we should invoke a quote by C. Douglas Lummis, cited by Sitrin and Azzellini in a passage that now rings truer than ever: “‘Democracy’ was once a word of the people, a critical word, a revolutionary word. It has been stolen by those who would rule over the people, to add legitimacy to their rule. It is time to take it back.”

Jerome Roos is a PhD researcher in International Political Economy at the European University Institute, and founding editor of ROAR Magazine.

The wreck of the plaza: after the squares

by Research and Destroy on June 16, 2014

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We must find ways of meeting our needs and desires that depend on neither wages nor money, while defending ourselves against all who stand in our way.

In an epoch characterized by disequilibria political and economic, none has been more perplexing than the inability to match means with ends. Everywhere, violent eruptions find no demand or objective around which to cohere, while struggles for the most minor of reforms burn with revolutionary intensity. Either the means overrrun their ends, or they find no end at all. In Turkey and Brazil, demonstrations over a change in the price of transit, or the development of a city park, provoke violent conflicts of an almost insurrectionary intensity. In France, teenagers barricade their schools against the withdrawal of a pension that is as yet fifty years off. Any pretext, any provocation can become the adventitious occasion for mobilization of antagonism that finds no outlet, no name or program. Do we suppose that French kids are really concerned about what will happen to them once they are ready to retire? Does any young person expect the current social order to last that long? What can it mean when a .20 real increase in transit fares becomes the occasion for petrol bomb attacks on the National Assembly, when a conflict over a half acre of green space sets in motion a national uprising involving millions? What can be glimpsed through this gap between tactics and strategy, discourse and praxis, between the slogans and signage of a social movement and what one is willing to do with friends and strangers on a given evening after the future has come to an end?

Five years ago we wrote from an absent future we had encountered on the grounds of the American university. Today, the absence of that future is everywhere present. Neither capital nor its would-be antagonists can provide a compelling portrait of the next decade, let alone the next century. All the sci-fi utopias of flying cars and robot servants, of full automation and zero work, seem truly ridiculous. No one can imagine capitalism providing a series of progressive social reforms, any more than they can imagine seizing the state and the economy to provide a more egalitarian distribution of resources. No, the future presents only as ruin, apocalypse, burning metal in the desert. There is no possibility of an instrumental linking of means to ends, a linking of people to party, party to program. Everywhere, means exceed their ends; everywhere, the registration of social catastrophe must find its occasion lacking any remedies carried forward from the past. In such a conjucture, the masses are opportunists; they find in immediate and often trivial demands an opportunity to mobilize grand antagonisms which otherwise find no clear expression.

Spring

The “Arab Spring” seems at first glance to defy this accounting, to offer a natural equilibration of means and ends. The people want the fall of the regime. The unmaking of the associated figurehead, metonym for the regime, becomes the natural “end,” the seemingly self-evident demand of a heterogeneous mix of social antagonists. The hatred of a singular figure unites the antagonists, and provides, in countries where such figures exist, a contagious model for rebellion, leaping across a dozen nations in a mere matter of months. Mass movement, regime change, repeat.

But the repeat will prove decisive in turning this understanding on its head, in ways that will become clear; means and ends are not so neatly equilibrated. The dramatic sequence begins, after all, when a street vendor in Sidi Bouzid burns himself to death over the seizure of his merchandise, and over humiliation at the hands of a petty bureaucrat. The chain of events that follows can be understood as, among other things, an attempt to equalize that decisive violence with its occasion, to match means and ends, to understand the excessiveness of this act and the excessiveness of the people’s response to it: the proper circumstance for self-immolation is mass unemployment, is unrelenting corruption, is violations of human rights, is the incontrovertible rule of a strongman still in power 25 years after a coup d’etat. The equilibration now seems complete. It takes only 27 days; Ben Ali flees to Saudi Arabia.

The wheel will turn even more swiftly in Egypt. No one misses that things have been amiss for some time; strikes of textile workers in Mahalla three years earlier are alternately recalled and forgotten as the drama hastens along. Given a form by the Tunisian sequence, the presidential palace now given as the focus of antagonism, it takes Egypt only 18 days from the protesting masses’ entrance into Tahrir Square to Mubarak’s exit. The “Pearl Revolution” in Bahrain meets a different fate, as does the massive gathering in Sana’a, Yemen. But the structure, the logic of the struggles across the Arab Spring, is solidified. Massive gathering in a public square; a willingness to resist, to defend the ground from which the singular demand is made: the president must go. Territory and regime, plaza and palace, are the two unifying factors.

But this antagonism is in fact endless, circular. The decapitation of this or that boss cannot satisfy it, and so it repeats eternally, deposing leader after leader — presaged, in our conjuncture, by the fourfold collapse of Argentina’s government in a matter of two years, without achieving much of anything. Nothing can make this circularity more plain than the departure of Mohamed Morsi, 30 months after Hosni Mubarak’s fall, one year and a week after his own election. It turns out that it was not the fall of the regime the people wanted, was not democracy in some abstract sense. What is discovered in this repetition is that the ends have not yet been discovered.

Plaza

When the European “movement of the squares” attempts to adapt the Tahrir moment — and its accompanying tactics and strategies — to the fight against austerity in Spain, in Italy and Greece, it finds quite quickly that there is no Mubarak, no Quadaffi, no natural end which can harmonize and coordinate its motley antagonisms. This is itself an odd catastrophe of Europe; its vaunted “modernity” cannot summon even the metaphor of storming the palace. There is only the square itself, the territory, which now becomes the site of a self-referential, inward-directed process, the enactment of democracy and the self-organization of the constituent assembly.  The turn toward internal process is the logical consequence of the absence of any unifying antagonist. Only endless processes of deliberation, discussion and consensus formation can unite the crowds. As anyone familiar with the process will attest, this is a means that cannot end.

The plaza is the material embodiment of the movement’s ideals — a blank place for a blank form. Through the plaza, radical democracy hearkens back to its origin myth, the agora, the assembly-place of ancient Greece that served also as marketplace. These plazas are not, however, the buzzing bazaars filled with economic and social transaction, but vast pours of concrete and nothingness, marked by a few fountains or trees here or there. These are spaces set aside precisely by the separation of the “political” from the economy, the market. Nowhere was this more clear than in the leading U.S. iteration, which endeavored, meekly and rather insincerely, to occupy the real agora, the real space of exchange — the stock exchange — but ended up pushed into a small, decorative park on the outskirts of Wall Street, its barricades turned on itself, penned by police. It was this separation which would prove decisive.

In reality, the unity of these gatherings was not internally defined, nor constructed through deliberation; it was vouchsafed by its difference from the surrounding and hostile world.  This obtained even in places like Spain where the movement presumed to be the movement of everyone, of the 100%, of their unity beyond the false differentiations introduced by ideology. There, the antagonist was anyone who dared to represent others, or to differ from them through the adoption of some particularistic identity. No Nos Representan: a phrase which nonetheless contains an us and a them.

Despite their will to include everyone, these movements succeeded at the precise moment when they were given an explicit antagonist — as with the Syntagma Square occupation in Athens, which in the face of the parliamentary vote on a new round of austerity measures in June 2011, passed from intransitive occupation of the square to intransigent assault on the parliament and associated buildings. In the present age of austerity even the most meager of demands will require the social democrats to pick up bricks. As a question of tactics, there is no longer a meaningful opposition between revolution and reform; both now require exertion of maximal force. Even a slight modification of the system would require collective violence of a near revolutionary intensity, a fact whose simultaneous unspeakability and self-evidence within the left lends anti-austerity struggles a strange desperation.

East Coast/West Coast

The unfolding of the “Occupy movement” in the United States finds itself polarized by this incommensurablilty. For all the underlying similarities of New York and Oakland, the popular narratives of each register a dramatic opposition — at least temporarily.

At the eastern pole, after an initial bid to agree on a singular demand dead-ends, the rhetoric shifts dramatically. “The camp is its own demand.” Forwarded by celebrity anarchists, the politics of prefiguration collapses means and ends altogether, insisting that the encampment’s forms of life are a version of the desired future; all that remains is for the whole world to become an Occupy camp. For a few dreamlike moments in the autumn of 2011 this seems imaginable.

At the western pole, while labor over the daily life of the camp holds sway in Oakland, this is grasped as a rather desperate bid for survival, for the preservation of a space from which sallies against the present might be staged. The figure for these sallies will be the black bloc, the rebel march, the smashed window and the ceaseless mourning it inspires. It becomes — both in the opportunistic travesties of the media, and to some degree in truth — a hyperbolization of means approaching their own desolate autonomy.

The official origin story of Occupy begins as an attempt to bring the logic of the Arab Spring and the movement of the squares to the US. The journal Adbusters, its politics revolving around a vision of alternative consumerism, proposes the convergence on Wall Street as a “Tahrir moment” while borrowing its rhetoric of occupation from the university struggles of 2009 through which circulated the proposition of demandlessness. The scheme is to gather as both manifestation and deliberative body, to determine thence the one demand of the movement-in-the-making: to discover, as it were, a Mubarak for Main Street.

But one is not to be found. No demand can coalesce in the curiously ambiguous park, a privately owned space set aside for public use — a sort of allegory for the underlying entanglement of the economic and political even as they are cordoned from each other in practice. The inability to discover a demand is by now overdetermined. In part it must be understood as a hesitation before the complexity of crisis, and the many forms of suffering it carried in train. What one demand — besides an end to capitalism — could possibly answer the crisis? Add to this the strange problem of the movement’s unexpected force and breadth: having gathered considerably more bodies and credibility than expected, there is a great unwillingness to split the crowd with the adoption of inevitably divisive programs that would invariably promote the demands of some groups over others. And finally, against such tentative divisions and the murkiness of the movement’s enemies, there is the lived situation; a new power has been constituted, a form of life based on free access to food and other necessaries, communal life, voluntary participation in the various groups and committees. Of course, this power is paltry before its immediate opponents, hemmed on all sides by the facticity of state power and the absent stare of world capital circulating somehow nearby but with imperial indifference. These two things share the same source; the more impotent Occupy is, the more it withdraws inward, becoming an end unto itself, a post-capitalist future purportedly lived in the now. This is what building the new world in the shell of the old means today: an assembly ringed by cops.

Stripped of the rhetoric of prefiguration — and the pretence that one could produce a future society today, amidst all the misery of the present — the camps are a success, not as miniature utopias, but as vehicles for some of the most destitute people to organize for their own survival: food, supplies and basic shelter, all of it given and received freely. Here, the camps are means toward an obvious end: not social modeling, but survival, life. They provide the means of subsistence, even production. And importantly, these things are no longer forms of charity as with the soup kitchen or shelter, but collective activities open to participation on all sides. The structures of free giving create a practical unity against the failure of the assemblies’ bid for discursive unity. And though everyone eventually comes to hate the assemblies, to see them as an essential waste of time, this is only because the conversations are continually forced into the straitjacket of a decision-making process. It is easy to forget the simple optimism of the exuberant crowd, the happy experience of listening to people who had never done anything but listen tell the assembled hundreds or thousands what they thought and what they wanted to do. In America, a country based on a practiced ignorance of the lives of others, this is something of a miracle.

This might seem a contradiction, and it is — a productive one. What we learn is that the more these spaces withdraw from confrontation with the antagonistic forces surrounding them, the less they are able to open up spaces of difference with them, and the uglier and more terrible become the new forms of community they create. Conversely, the more the camps fight the surrounding police-world, the more they become actually liberated zones, rather than simulacra of liberation.

In Oakland, this process is taken to it limits. In the plaza in front of city hall, thousands gather and together create an autonomous zone off-limits to the police, intractable to the entreaties of the city government. On one occasion, city managers distribute a warning notice throughout the camp with the most negligible proffers: the promise, for example, that amplified sound will be allowed, as long as a request is made. Talk to us. Say anything. An hour later, the general assembly puts the pages to the fire. As an old Belgian once said, everything is of a muchness.

The attachment people feel toward this space is directly proportional with its avowed antagonism to the surrounding world. The principles of mutual aid and care, freedom and autonomy from compulsion, the practical communism of its kitchens and childcare centers, libraries and meeting groups, have as their necessary complement a willingness to burn and smash and riot in defense of these things. This is what it means to refer to the camp in Oakland as the Oakland Commune, and as a result, the state’s eventual attack on the camp is resisted forcefully, first by thousands and then by tens of thousands during the “general strike” of November 2, 2011.

That day’s blockade of the sprawling Port of Oakland, its attempted occupation of a social center and the night of rioting that followed, put on display both the heights and limits of the commune. These moments of expansion emerge primarily as a defensive response to the state’s attacks on the camp. The territorialization of the struggle, the movement’s reliance upon the shared space of the camp as the guarantor of its coherence in the absence of any explicit demand or target, is both the source of its strength and its chief weakness. Though it is clear to most that the obvious horizon of expansion for the Oakland Commune is the occupation of buildings and houses rather than public parks, as well as the expansion and diffusion of the general assemblies into neighborhood assemblies, such attempts fail, in part because they are undertaken too late, and in part because of the movement’s literalistic attachment to the plot of grass in front of City Hall, for which people fight in a series of losing battles.

New York and Oakland differ in their choice of means. Oakland’s means run wild in the streets. New York, on the other hand — run aground on the tautologies of nonviolence — worries the question of means, afraid to antagonize, lest it polarize. But in Zucotti Park and Oscar Grant Plaza, there is the same sense of the camp as end in and of itself, and both movements are ultimately buried within the enclosure of the square. After the evictions, they never regain their lost force.

Idealism and the Party

Thus arrives the moment of greatest uncertainty in the unfolding sequence. It is clear enough that the wave of unrest will not subside; equally apparent that the movement of the squares has reached its limits. It is here that two traditions from the past, immeasurably contrary to each other, rise to test the contours of the moment. One is the riot, to which we will return. It is not, to say the least, a convivial apparition for those married still to the mechanics of the party, to the rose-tinted memories of the social wage at it existed half a century back.

This belated dream of a social democratic contract gotten via reinvigorated parliamentarism seems to many the only course: a demand which seems makeable precisely in its cautious desire to impose only the most modest limits on capital. But this is not some autonomous character of the demand; it does not float independent of given conditions. The overdeveloped nations of today cannot reverse course and paddle upstream to the headwaters of Keynesianism. There is no possibility of an expanded productivity that can internalize rather than expel labor, generating the profit with which capital can purchase the social peace. Nothing in the swells and lulls of capital’s crisis suggests such a reflux. Indeed, the dream of an impossible Keynesian refoundation bears with it the nostalgia for a moment of limited social struggle, the synchrony of means and ends. In the breach of the here and now, it cannot be conjured.

Into this rift enters the theoretical stopgap of The Party, arising from its historical sleep. It has slumbered long in the salons of the penseurs; suddenly it is roused as the only possible guarantor of the right end for political uprising. Everywhere, the same refrain. In the wake of the Arab Spring and its frequently pyrrhic victories; in the failure of any of the European occupations to block the successive austerity measures; in the inability of Occupy to deflect the US from its race to the bottom — in all of this we are told that what we see is a failure of organization. In the great political hierarchy of being, spontaneous movements are valuable only inasmuch as they incidentally recruit potentials for the formation of durable organizations that can leverage the powers of the multitude, disciplining it in the name of the achievable and the possible.

In one regard, the point here is an obvious one. Each of these movements failed to find a way forward, and we can certainly agree that whatever ways forward existed would have involved new forms of organization, since there is no collective struggle that does not involve, at some moment, people agreeing to proceed together, to do this rather than that, to multiply and coordinate and organize their powers. But those who call for a party, sometimes openly, sometimes behind a veneer of philosophical deniability, presume that the contradictions and vagaries of these movements can be resolved through the imposition of a principled objective from outside, be it communist hypothesis or social democratic pragmatism. Or perhaps it will simply be organization for organization’s sake, because it is good, because it worked before. Sort of. In either case, the question of ends and means will be answered with a program delivered to the waiting crowd. This after all is the role that the program served, once upon a time, in its grandest sweep. Seizure of the state, dictatorship of the proletariat, a purported withering away: this mediation between bourgeois parliamentarism and communist plenitude is the historical function of the transitional program. Indeed, the program is nothing less than the violent adhesion of means and ends. It is this history, by now reduced to flotsam and jetsam, that washes up the open stone of the plaza.

What the belated prophets of such programs don’t realize is that the absence of a shared objective, at the level of ideals, is constitutive, and that only the most diminished or abstract objectives can unify the various groups set already in motion. The very fact that no credible attempt to create such a party has emerged from any of these struggles — in stark opposition to the mobilizations of the 20th century — seems to indicate the dubious character of this proposed path forward. Rather than laying the failures in Egypt or Spain at the feet of the masses unable to reason their way forward according to the syllogisms of our philosophes, we might look for explanations in the changed conditions of 21st century capitalism: a capitalism which no longer offers a fantasy of mastery to any but those still adrift in the dream of 1917, no longer creates a class that imagines itself master-to-be of the technological powers capital has conjured into being.

This matters little to the theorists for whom the clash in the streets is largely a matter of competing idealizations: the individualism of the neoliberal era against altruistic fidelity to the collective, as one dean of the communist idea has it. Communism, we are told, is primarily important as an idea, a principle, a watchword to which the mobilized remain faithful after the square has been cleared, after the arrested have been tried and sentenced, after yet another conference on communism has emptied into the dreary evening of the status quo.

But communism is not an idea; it is a process, and the only things capable of mobilizing fidelity to it are the concrete activities of which it is composed. If we want to locate the ways forward for the blocked movements of the present, we should look to the activities of the participants, the practices of struggle that might be extended, elaborated and transformed. Organization is not a thing, in this sense, but an action. We would do well to distinguish between organization as such — organization as static form — and what the admirable left communist Anton Pannekoek once called the “spirit of organization” — that is, the ability of proletarian antagonists to ceaselessly elaborate new forms as the occasion requires, out of the felt need for collective forms that emerges from occasions of struggles and the experiences of proletarians. Such ideas were marginal among militants, and for the most part, the ideas of the idea-communists of Pannekoek’s time carried the day, despite the fact that nearly every significant tactical development — the mass strike, the councils — emerged from behind the backs of militants. Then as now the idea-communists see the party as the only force capable of piloting the benighted working-class through the treacherous waters of capitalism, providing for it the theoretical vision which it does not possess.

Riot

As the idea of the party returns from its slumber, it encounters an old havoc. The great chaos of the riot — self-destructive, pointless, we are told — demonstrates for the organisateurs the need for the disciplining force of the party. It is certainly fitting, therefore, that one of the most significant riots of recent years emerged less than 10 kilometers from Birkbeck College. Nothing could make the situation clearer. The riot presents the conference communists with their order’s other. But this misses the inner character of the riot, its dialectical motion, in which a “violent order is a disorder; and … a great disorder is an order.”

The riot is not a new fact upon the earth. It is a sort of primeval tactic, as old perhaps as civilization itself. In the centuries before capitalism proper the riot was central to the tactical repertoire of the dominated classes. This persists within the generalization of the marketplace that presages industrialization and the formation of a working class. Riots, while sometimes concerning themselves with taxes, land rights, and other traditional privileges, find their modern coherence as struggles in the marketplace over the price or the destiny of foodstuffs, subsistence goods. These struggles often passed over into open insurrection, into the great “risings of the people” of the 18th century. They meet modernity with machine breaking, led by General Ludd and Captain Swing, phantoms from beyond the wage.

But with proletarianization, the site of class struggle moves from marketplace to workplace, from circulation to production. Over the course of the 19th century, the strike emerges as the tactic of choice. It contains an inherent discipline and even asceticism. Even when it takes up the violence and confrontation of riot, transforming sometimes into general insurrection, the strike nonetheless begins from the standpoint of labor and its product. At its center: a refusal, a withdrawal, a form of powerful, Bartleby-like inaction toward which response proves difficult, as any violent counterattack by employers risks seeming excessive, allowing the workers to defend themselves and even go on the offensive with impunity. This moral logic of intransigent refusal, provocation by reactionary forces, the opening onto riotous insurrection, is rendered explicit in the theories of the mass strike — Sorel’s especially. The mass strike provides a blueprint for the revolutionary sequences of that period, which so flummoxed and surprised the social democratic and, later, Bolshevik leadership bearing other ideas about how class struggle should proceed.

Eventually, in the waning of the revolutionary period and the integration of a certain diluted class struggle within the developmental logic of capitalism, the strike is formalized. The pacific and moralized element is emphasized. It is legitimated precisely insofar as it is purged of violence; with this, the latent opposition comes to the fore, and the riot becomes the strike’s other. It is transformed, as it were, behind the back of the strike. It thence appears as the métier of the lumpen, the urban poor, the colonized peoples of the third world, of women and homosexuals and that strange new social category, the “youth.”

The party of the party has always loved this disciplinary aspect of the strike, its emphasis on control, restraint. The strike, in this sense, becomes an allegory of moderation: the self-denying asceticism of sad militants lost in the night of capitalism in which all conditions are forever immature, all actions adventurist. Self-knowledge as self-limit. Postwar trade unions have been exemplary in this regard, turning the strike into a machine for deferral, temporizing and compromise. But with onset of crisis in the seventies requiring firms to drive wages below the cost of reproduction itself, even these docile creatures became too much a hindrance for capitalism.

And so began a process of corporate restructuring, fragmenting the labor force such that the opportunities for effective workplace action are now few and far between. This restructuring has meant the weakening of the strike weapon and with it the revolutionary compact that joined class, union and party for an assault on state power. All this is dead, and in its wake reemerges a weapon older than the worker’s movement: the riot testifies to that movement’s eclipse, and presents itself as one of the few weapons on offer.

Here we approach something like the core of the puzzle. To say that ends and means have come apart is to affirm again the changed character of our present moment: the very measure of ends and means learned by revolutions of the 20th century no longer holds. No wonder so many contemporary struggles fail its test. The riot goes out of the square post festum. There is a sense in which it is the purest case of incommensuration — that riot is the very name for the inability of means to find their ends in our moment. It searches for them in the glow of intersection fire, in the glass of shop displays, in the prised rocks tossed at riot cops. This urgent quest underlies the confusion by which riots are thought to be entirely distant from strategy and tactics, lacking in politics — concentrations of chaos set loose for one or three desperate nights.

Inevitably then, the riot unites the left organisateurs with the party of order: each dismisses the riot’s irrationality and opportunism, its ideological character, its unreason. They differ only in the amount of hand-wringing, the varied tones of  tedious and paternalistic “understanding.” What could it mean to suggest that the great disorder of the riot is an order, albeit one not contemplated by our moment’s Kautskys and Lenins? We have seen already that the limit of the riot is not its failure to get with the program, as it is precisely the eclipse of the program that the new riot registers. We might argue, obliquely, that riot is cradle to a different order altogether. In every riot that earns its name there is the moment when all things come loose, when the physics of social existence seems to undergo a qualitative change. In this moment the participants realize that they can engage in no small number of forbidden activities and get away with it — they realize, that is to say, that the implicit threat which has bound them to good behavior no longer holds sway. You will recognize this moment — sound of shattering glass, pregnant pause, no response — as the euphoria of the drift, the long and frictionless slide of crisis now come down, minute by minute, to daily life.

It is in this sensation that one discovers a secret kept most carefully by the enemy: that we are not bound to the law, to public order, to society by some immanent power that traverses our consciousness and our days. We are bound by specific applications of force. This force is real and being real it is calculable. Like everything calculable it can be overcome. It is entirely possible for there to be too many antagonists to be managed, moving too quickly and wildly. This is the beginning of counterorganization as we understand it: the real knowledge that the struggle is concrete, a matter of bodies, maneuver, speed. One must know this in one’s nerve to make revolutions.

At the same time, the riots of the present are as transitory as they are intense. This is part of their very essence. Habitually called into being by police violence and then harried further by the same police, the riot orients itself rather fatally toward the state. As our friends have written about England in 2011

The riot itself already carried this content; the verbalised justifications in its midst merely clarified something already evident. This riot demanded the presence of the police, as the immediate interlocutor for whom it was performed, whose recognition it insisted upon, whose presence and participation it invited, and through whose efforts it was constituted.

The revelation of the state’s concrete character, the deadly but finite rule of the police, becomes an enticement. The compulsions of capital remain for the moment abstract, removed; the capacity of the riot is expended on the state because the state presents itself as the practical enemy. One might say that the state was once strong but attenuated over distance, from king’s keep to countryside, while the economy was weak but intensely local, baker and bootmaker just down the way. Now the situation is reversed. There is no state but the police, always near to hand; it is the economy that is now attenuated along global supply chains and abstract financial networks.

This is why we understand the beginning of looting not as a divagation from struggle but as a moment of truth. It points backward to the price-setting of the 18th century; it points forward to the meeting of needs, a preliminary turn to reproduction. Of course it is opportunism, as is no small part of struggle. At the same time, it engages the abstract enemy on concrete terms. It asks a question that capital cannot answer: that of social reproduction beyond the wage. This is not a question the riot itself can answer; if the market seemed three centuries ago to be the place where the matter of self-reproduction could be addressed, this is no longer the case. The market can no longer express the productivity of the crowd, made objective and merely alienated by a single degree. Now endlessly familiar, it is nonetheless a perfectly alien place. The foray into the market can be only momentary. Still it marks the riot as a turn from production to circulation, betraying its secret relation to the range of circulation struggles which have taken on such a crooked charisma in our moment: the blockade (echoing the old export riot), the occupation — and finally, the commune.

Between the plaza and the riot, between the most saccharine affirmation and the blackest negation — this is where we find ourselves. Two paths open for us: each one, in its way, a deflection from the burning heart of matter. On the one hand, the endless process of deliberation that must finally, in its narrowing down to a common denominator, arrive at the only single demand possible: a demand for what already is, a demand for the status quo. On the other hand, the desire that has no object, that finds nothing in the world which answers its cry of annihilation.

One fire dies out because it extinguishes its own fuel source. The other because it can find no fuel, no oxygen. In both cases, what is missing is a concrete movement toward the satisfaction of needs outside of wage and market, money and compulsion. The assembly becomes real, loses its merely theatrical character, once its discourse turns to the satisfaction of needs, once it moves to taking over homes and buildings, expropriating goods and equipment. In the same way, the riot finds that truly destroying the commodity and the state means creating a ground entirely inhospitable to such things, entirely inhospitable to work and domination.

We do this by facilitating a situation in which there is, quite simply, enough of what we need, in which there is no call for “rationing” or “measure,” no requirement to commensurate what one person takes and what another contributes. This is the only way that an insurrection can survive, and ward off the reimposition of market, capital and state (or some other economic mode based upon class society and domination). The moment we prove ourselves incapable of meeting the needs of everyone — the young and the old, the healthy and infirm, the committed and the uncertain we create a situation where it is only a matter of time before people will accept the return of the old dominations. The task is quite simple, and it is monstrously difficult: in a moment of crisis and breakdown, we must institute ways of meeting our needs and desires that depend neither on wages nor money, neither compulsory labor nor administrative decision, and we must do this while defending ourselves against all who stand in our way.

[Addendum: We finished a draft of this essay, a revision of an earlier piece, “Plaza-Riot-Commune,” more than a year ago, but work for pay and other misfortunes have delayed its release. In the meantime, it's become clear that the essay failed to pay adequate attention to the question of nationalism and populism. Following are supplementary remarks on that topic:

That the passage beyond the limits of riot and plaza rarely occurred we already know. The exceptions are instructive, however. Wherever the passage to revolution occurred, it did so in ways that left capital largely unharmed; the distribution of the things of this world according to the rule of value and wage, money and price, was never challenged except in the most transitory manner. These were revolutions superintended by armies whose integrity remained inviolable, revolutions that devolved quickly into civil wars in which almost any sense of an objective beyond the capture of power for the sake of power’s capture would be lost. This has only become clearer as the sequence continues to unfold, in 2014, with the hopeful efflorescence of Turkey, Brazil, Bosnia, and the ugly fascism of the Ukraine, where the symbols and tactics of the political sequence have been directed toward explicitly reactionary ends.

The dilemma we confront is this: where the uprisings were strongest they were weakest; where strongest in terms of material force, where armed insurgency appeared, it was vouchsafed by the sign of nation or people. The ambiguities of populism and nationalism were visible from the beginning, of course, visible in the hesitance of the Egyptian masses in the face of the army, audible in the horrifying and unintentionally revealing phrase, the army and the people are one. One hears it too, in the way that the concept of the 99 percent halfway disavows class struggle, a populism minus one. The insistence on formal togetherness, on formal unity, in the absence of a unity based upon shared objective must be a placeholder for the unity of people or nation. The openness to the populist and nationalist turn emerges directly, in this regard, from the failure to link means to any kind of end, to find any meaningful objective beyond the overturning of all that is. In the present, it’s either all or nothing. Communism or the nation. The proletariat or the people. The fixation on the state and state power -- and we include here the conjuncture of rioters and police that so easily becomes a pas de deux -- enables the populist turn, by providing a convenient target that all manner of unsavory groups might agree to hate. This is the unity of one’s enemies enemies, arrayed as far as the eye can see: an impressive massing no doubt but inevitably bearing objectives that outstrip our worst imaginings. Rather than attempting to draw everyone together into a formal unity, the movements that succeed where the present sequence failed will likely need to find tactics and strategies that polarize as much as they unify.]

Research & Destroyis known for its widely circulated pamphlet, Communiqué from an Absent Future, written during the 2009 student struggle and occupation movement in California. This essay was originally published on their blog.

Organizing social space as if social relations mattered

by Cindy Milstein on June 13, 2014

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If a society beyond capitalism is to stand any chance, we will have to forge different social relations and create new forms of social organization.

 

What if we continually organized our social spaces as if social relations mattered? What if we dedicated ourselves to being enthusiastic lifelong learners and thus better schooled for revolutionary openings, to better be the kind of people who just might be able to supply the staying power for a better society—one where we and our communities are always, also, becoming better?

You may protest here, countering that it sounds self-evident to do so—as in, “Of course we are deeply concerned about the social relations underpinning our social spaces!” Yet I urge you to really think back on your own experiences for a second. Too many of us have had the displeasure of walking into a space for the first time, and getting blank or hostile glances as our welcome—and it usually goes downhill from there. We tear each other apart in so many varied ways in our social spaces, along so many lines of hurt already inscribed into our bodies by white supremacy, heteronormativity, patriarchy, ableism, settler colonialism, classism, overdetermined identity politics, and a long lineage of other violences. It’s frequently assumed that the tag “social space” (or radical bookstore, collective café, bike co-op, and so on) has already done the work for us, as if we are already those perfect actors in our perfectly alternative places.

The conundrum of remaking ourselves as we attempt to remake society appears to stymie us here so much faster than in places with greater vestiges of communal lifeways. It also erects an extra-high hurdle for US social struggles and movements: can we rise above the learned behaviors inculcated by the mythical origin story and its related American dream of the lone individual making it against all odds, pulling themselves up by their own bootstraps, as entrepreneurial pioneer? Can we surmount the way we tend to instrumentalize each other, “valuing” other people as mere things in relation to our cost-benefit analysis and accountability ledger sheet of strategic organizing and movement needs—relations that have been naturalized in us, made subtle and almost invisible, by capitalism? It’s too easy to blame the police or state repression alone for why our projects, much less movements, fail. They fail us, and we fail them.

We’ll always fail in ways, of course. But if we don’t allow others—and ourselves—to make mistakes; if we see mishaps as aberrations or, worse, a condemnation of the whole of someone’s being; if we believe that failure and success are separate, stable moments; and if we think that being human, being imperfect, is in itself wrong, then we’ve already lost. We’re already lost.

This is all the more reason that it’s imperative to rediscover each other, yet in the fullness and complexity of our imperfections, and recognize that such imperfection will be inherent in the revolutionary transformation of present-day society—made up not merely of hierarchical institutions and systemic exploitation but also damaged social relations. It is, then, our perspective on failure that matters.

A teacher-artist friend, Carla, observed that her goal is, in fact, to have projects fail. That is, she remains open to the likelihood of failure and hence how we might do that well. Her clear-eyed notion grasps the generative attributes of missing the intended mark. Carla’s failures-in-action are amazing to behold, drawing out the best in people, for themselves and toward others. She creates spaces of collaborative empowerment with others, without knowing what will emerge, and strives to curate various contexts in which people can discover the potential of those spaces and themselves together.

Sitting with Comfortable Discomfort

Such experiments-in-failure mean that we continually take risks, seeking a palpable sense of security by not always playing it safe. Such uncomfortableness nudges us to explore the edges of one’s knowledge and worldview, experience and habits. This entails trying out practices that reach toward the ethics we value, even if we trip and fall a lot. It looks like the transparent trial and error of constituting the types of projects and communities that we think we wish to be embedded within, with intentionality, alongside people who are continually eager to self-reflect, and with similar intentionality, and be just as open to constantly tinkering with and even ending such experiments well.

If we’re failing well, we will stretch ourselves past all those numerous, subtle socialized behaviors that seem to thwart the best of our intentions and rhetoric, perhaps allowing for inklings of how to better shape better worlds. We’ll have plenty of light bulb moments as well, illuminating ways forward that also nourish us now. And if we’re lucky, the connectivity we’re so longing for—self-love and social love coupled with love’s intimacies—will make its presence deeply, solidly felt. Everyone won’t be equally enamored with each other; but maybe we’ll be able to be neighborly toward all. We’ll remember what it means to be human again, in relation to others who are human too.

This is all well and good in words. But what does it look like in the hardscrabble of practice? What is it that allows this to begin to happen? What creates the ground for bonding and building? For knowing, with far less doubt than at present, that there are others in this world who will have your back, especially through the longest, darkest of days?

My friend Carla who is open to failing, or intentionally passionate about what I’d call “sharing vulnerability” (something that increasingly seems a pivotal political act and indeed direct action), was one of the co-organizers of the Social Spaces Summit, held in the Unceded Salish Coast Territories (known also as Vancouver) in November 2013, along with the wonderful crew of Dani, Anthony, Kelsey, LeyAnn, and Nick. The summit was a three-day gathering of about fifty people, all part of various collectively run spaces, mostly in Canada, but with a sprinkling from the US Pacific Northwest and beyond. The organizing collective borrowed a few local political spaces, used for other ongoing purposes, for this convergence, with no intention of hosting the event again. The idea was to experiment with this summit for a second time—they’d organized the first one the previous year—and hand it over to another collective in another city, then to be envisioned as this new organizing body saw fit. (In fact, folks from Calgary gladly agreed to flesh out and host the next one.)

As I would come to realize over the three days, the whole point of the Social Spaces Summit was about organizing as if we matter as people for our own sake and toward each other. Surprisingly, delightfully as I would discover, it had almost nothing to do with organizing or talking about physical social spaces.

Undoing and Remaking Ourselves

The welcome circle set the tone from the get-go. Or more to the point, it modeled how we might practice vulnerability as a way to undo ourselves. Even the eating setup forced a connective discomfort. The small tables served as silent facilitators for informal, randomly selected “breakout groups”; the warmth of the welcome and food functioned as icebreakers; and lively chatter arose, as if people had been friends for a while. Two of these new friends at my small table spoke with me about their newfound idea of the revolutionary potential of “slowness,” and what that might mean for crafting new relations in a new society, in contrast to the high-speed, high-tech sensibility that feels like it increasingly produces isolation.

As our plates emptied, the three of us felt increasingly knit. We also realized that we were all being hosted at the same collective house, so decided to test out slowness by meandering there together. A fifteen-minute walk took us at least thirty minutes, with us pausing to appreciate a community garden at one point and some amazing bushes outside some homes at another point. Curiously, we rarely exchanged information about our respective spaces in any of the workshops. Conversely, we unexpectedly shared more and more about ourselves, which meant grappling together with all the goodness and damage within us.

We avoided the pragmatics and mechanisms of setting up and sustaining our spaces back home—a softer version of the hard instrumental logic of present-day society, and one that doesn’t concentrate on who we are as people but only what we have to offer to help someone else’s project later, say, or the cache of how cool our space might seem from the outside. We dived deep into the new forms of sociality that should be the raison d’être for them—the messy, complex, poignantly beautiful social ecology that just might underpin self-organized projects and places.

That, in turn, brought us into intimate contact with all the systems of domination, exploitation, and oppression that we, too, embody, but in the most mutually of understanding ways, allowing each of us to make mistakes and grow. Or better yet, it permitted us to collectively wrestle with, spill a few tears over, and laugh together through all types of difficult situations on a face-to-face level as we increasingly got to know and trust each other.

The linchpin here was that the “failings” of each and every session were foregrounded. The sessions were all experiments in how struggling toward new relations is coequal with struggling humanely through the ways that patriarchy, ableism, and colonialism, to name three, dredge up all sorts of bad behaviors, hurt, power imbalances, and friend-enemy dichotomies within our social spaces and political projects. These then serve to replicate or exacerbate the -isms we dream of destroying. Instead of jumping down each others’ throats when mistakes were made—calling out, shaming, or banishing—we used these alleged slipups as constant gifts, presenting us with the social glue and found materials for collaboratively bringing new social relations into being in the here and now.

This wasn’t accidental, as I indicated above in discussing the curation put into the welcome circle. It seemed, in fact, to percolate through most of the organizing details. Many of us out-of-towners, for example, were strategically housed in specific homes for the summit. The organizing collective tried hard to place us not only in overnight housing that would meet our individual physical needs/desires; it also strived to find hosts that we would “click” or resonate with, politically as well as personally. Moreover, when any of us first arrived for the summit, an organizer (or two, or several) made sure to greet us warmly and introduce us to others. Such small acts of friendliness breed other acts in return, establishing a culture in which it starts to seem second nature to be sociable, even over the course of a few days. Again, this isn’t revolution per se, nor sufficient to end hierarchy. But it definitely is the needed healthy soil for both.

Likewise, it appeared far from accidental that all the workshop facilitators were provided the necessary healthy ground on which to boldly test out their notions of other ways of being and behaving. This established a culture of shared vulnerability, a willingness to undo ourselves in front of each other, and a corresponding empathy toward each other. Or if someone was rusty at empathy, the summit created a climate for practicing it, unlike in present-day society, which doesn’t support us in thinking or acting empathetically—which is, at heart, a way of truly seeing and acting on our shared humanness, and thus a threat to divide-and-conquer forms of social control.

The summit organizers did this by urging people to try things they hadn’t done before, without knowing what would happen. Workshops facilitators were afforded the freedom to share and be themselves. This freed us all to want to compassionately and forgivingly work through all the many (many!) awkward moments that arose over the three days—moments of unintentional hurt and at times what might be dubbed political incorrectness. In turn, this set free new social relations, or what could be seen as embryonic elements of a new society. And it generously handed us all take-home inspiration for how to intentionally strengthen social relations in our social spaces.

Hands-On Openness

In writing and rewriting this, I’ve realized how difficult it is to capture the qualities of kindness that people are capable of in person. And even the act of attempting to portray it already does those nuanced relations of care a grave injustice. In the information age, we’ve almost forgotten that human communication—our very psyche—is retooled along with various technologies, including what we now consider the “social” to consist of. That people increasingly long for authentic connection and caring communities, and increasingly have almost forgotten how to practice that in person, with tender patience and slowness, only further underlines the critical role of nurturing spaces of collective vulnerability and compassionate experimentation.

Besides letting various workshop presenters experiment with new ideas—and thereby wander into honest failures that they felt comfortable sharing transparently with all the participants, especially once they inadvertently noticed it themselves—the second way that I and others began to practice more human social relations was through workshops that stressed hands-on exercises.

For many people, such hands-on exercises can feel embarrassing, eliciting “performance anxiety” or “one-upsmanship.” Usually, icebreakers are mechanical, compulsory activities. They are a game to help us remember names, without any of the actual qualities of the person, or they unintentionally serve as triggers, bringing up -isms and hurts, but the “fun” and “laughter” of the icebreaker makes it feel inappropriate to raise what feels like not-so-fun, serious stuff. And because facilitators typically conceive of icebreakers as fun, there is little care or curatorial thought put into them in terms of how they build on each other, how they build trust, and how they could be exactly the spots where we start crafting substantively new, different forms of sociality. Icebreakers can be cold places indeed, frequently shutting us down.

I thus almost always avoid any hint of icebreaker or hands-on games, suddenly finding as gracious an excuse as possible to make a temporary exit. But in the spirit of experimentation, and especially pushing my own comfortable discomfort, I participated in such workshops at the Social Spaces Summit. When carefully curated, with aspirations of conjuring new social relations in social spaces, I discovered that such exercises can work magic toward those always-in-process ends. (In fact, I surprised myself by how much I, too, was opened up through hands-on activities, despite bracing myself to hate them—so much so, that a couple weeks later, I even used one of them as a relevant piece of a short workshop intro I was giving at a new social center, where the exercise worked to further “socialize” the space and us strangers there.)

The Beginning of the End

Carla and the Social Spaces Summit collective allowed for and encouraged mistakes and failures through allowing for and encouraging experimentation. They gave us all permission to be the imperfect humans who we are, and to see that we all fall into the traps laid by our socialization in a society structured around racism, patriarchy, ableism, ageism, white supremacy, heteronormativity, and all sorts of social relations (not to mention systems!) of domination. We all have the capacity to hurt, insult, and trigger each other, to do violence against each other’s minds and bodies, and bring out the worst sometimes, even if all that is far from our intentions. That we have so few spaces that specifically hold us, collectively and individually, in a warm embrace as we try to undo ourselves, our socialization, is our greatest failing, though.

So the tenderly curated ground at this summit to meet each other on the terrain of truth, dignity, and shared vulnerability was rare indeed—and a success that we rarely experience. We generated a space of sociality through our sociality at this summit, and one that felt more genuinely anarchist(ic) and caring then the vast majority of actually existing anarchist projects that proclaim shared principles on paper.

That everyone stepped up to that challenge—fiercely yet kindly chose not to retreat — was not because the organizers handpicked a remarkable group of people. It was because the culture that we are capable of creating together within our spaces does matter to who we are all able to become, and thus what kinds of caring communities we are capable of starting to practice and, I trust, more frequently constitute. Neither is Carla or the summit organizing collective remarkable. What distinguished them was their perspective on how one might achieve a society without hierarchy, but with freedom, dignity, democracy, and love. They aspired toward goodness, generalized and determined by those facing each other in person, instead of a predetermined set of what anarchists (or any political actors) are for and especially against. Or to put it another way, the summit for me became a way of enacting social goodness as dual power.

Being good to each other, forging new social relations in the shell of the old, isn’t going to end capitalism, smash the state, or nix all oppressions. It is nevertheless the prefigurative half of this herculean task. We also simultaneously need to constitute and experiment with new social organization. And both will only be as “good” as the dialectic between the goodness we struggle toward in our individual and institutional practices, growing, affirming, and reinforcing each other against all the hierarchical, oppressive horrors that batter us on all sides.

The end of capitalism won’t be a single, magical new day or jumping over a barricade to a rainbow-perfect society. It will be a series of fits and starts, unsteady, haphazard, and hurtful at times, across peoples and communities, until we reach an epoch that can safely be labeled something beyond capitalism. And if we’re lucky, and really good at perpetually testing out forms of goodness, maybe it will be something approximating a far more caring society, filled with egalitarian social relations and social organization.

As I said earlier in this essay, I know that I haven’t done justice by a long stretch to describing “organizing social spaces as if social relations matter.” The one and only way to do so is to try it out for yourself in person. You’ll know when it’s working because you’ll feel it, like many of us did in the miraculously grand spaces of Occupy and other uprisings. So let’s all get going to boldly, imaginatively, sometimes with success and oftentimes with failure, give it a friendly new go in our favorite real-life spots of everyday anarchism.

A longer version of this article can be found at the author’s blog.

Cindy Milstein is a collective member with both the Institute for Anarchist Studies (www.anarchiststudies.org) and Station 40 (a social center) and is actively engaged in anti-eviction organizing in San Francisco. She is the author of ‘Anarchism and Its Aspirations’ (IAS/AK Press), co-author with Erik Ruin of ‘Paths toward Utopia’ (PM Press). She blogs at cbmilstein.wordpress.com.

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Notes: I want to thank the summit organizers for their care and curation; I focused on Carla (her real name) in particular because I had the most contact and connection with her. Carla’s writing can be found via @joyfulcarla. The Thistle Institute, a radical alternative to the university and organizing entity for the Social Spaces Summit, can be discovered at http://thistleinstitute.ca/, and you can check out the Purple Thistle Centre for youth arts and activism at http://www.purplethistle.ca/.