Michael Schmidt Interview with Anarchist Affinity on Global Impact of Revolutionary Anarchism

April 15, 2014

Published originally on Anarchist Affinity (Melbourne, Australia) on 17 March 2014 and reposted on AK Press’s Revolution by the Book blog

In your recent book, Cartography of Revolutionary Anarchism (AK Press, USA, 2013), you argue that anarchists have often failed to draw insights from anarchist movements outside of Western Europe. What lessons does the global history of anarchism have to offer those engaged in struggle today?

The historical record shows that anarchism’s primary mass-organisational strategy, syndicalism, is a remarkably coherent and universalist set of theories and practices, despite the movement’s grappling with a diverse set of circumstances. From the establishment of the first non-white unions in South Africa and the first unions in China, through to the resistance to fascism in Europe and Latin America – the establishment of practical anarchist control of cities and regions, sometimes ephemeral, sometimes longer lived in countries as diverse as Macedonia (1903), Mexico (1911, 1915), Italy (1914, 1920), Portugal (1918), Brazil (1918), Argentina (1919, 1922), arguably Nicaragua (1927-1932), Ukraine (1917-1921), Manchuria (1929-1931), Paraguay (1931), and Spain (1873/4, 1909, 1917, 1932/3, and 1936-1939).

The results of the historically-revealed universalism are vitally important to any holistic understanding of anarchism/syndicalism:

Firstly, that the movement arose in the trade unions of the First International, simultaneously in Mexico, Spain, Uruguay, and Egypt from 1868-1872 (in other words, it arose internationally, on four continents, and was explicitly not the imposition of a European ideology);

Secondly, there is no such thing within the movement as “Third World,” “Global Southern” or “Non-Western” anarchism, that is in any core sense distinct from that in the “Global North”. Rather that they are all of a feather; the movement was infinitely more dominant in most of Latin America than in most of Europe. The movement today is often more similar in strength to the historical movements in Vietnam, Lebanon, India, Mozambique, Nigeria, Costa Rica, and Panama – so to look to these movements as the “centre” of the ideology produces gross distortions.

The lessons for anarchists and syndicalist from “the Rest” for “the West” can actually be summed up by saying that the movement always was and remains coherent because of its engagements with the abuse of power at all levels.

How is anarchism still relevant in the world today? What do anarchist ideas about strategy and tactics have to offer people active in social movements today?

I’d say there are several ways in which anarchism is relevant today:

1) It provides the most comprehensive intersectoral critique of not just capital and the state; but all forms of domination and exploitation relating to class, gender, race, colour, ethnicity, creed, ability, sexuality and so forth, implacably confronting grand public enemies such as war-mongering imperialism and intimate ones such as patriarchy. It is not the only ideology to do this, but is certainly the main consistently freethinking socialist approach to such matters.

2) With 15 decades of militant action behind it, it provides a toolkit of tried-and proven tactics for resistance in the direst of circumstances, and, has often risen above those circumstances to decentralise power to the people. These tactics include oppressed class self-management, direct democracy, equality, mutual aid, and a range of methods based in the conception that the means we use to resist determine the nature of our outcomes. The global anti-capitalist movement of today is heavily indebted to anarchist ethics and tactics for its internal democracy, flexibility, and its humanity.

3) Strategically, we see these tactics as rooted in direct democracy, equality, and horizontal confederalism (today called the “network of networks”), in particular in the submission of specific (self-constituted) anarchist organisations to the oversight of their communities, which then engage in collective decision-making that is consultative and responsible to those communities. It was the local District Committees, Cultural Centres, Consumer Co-operatives, Modern Schools, and Prisoner-support Groups during the Spanish Revolution that linked the great CNT union confederation and its Iberian Anarchist Federation (FAI) allies to the communities they worked within: the militia that fought on the frontlines against fascism, and the unions that produced all social wealth would have been rudderless and anchorless without this crucial social layer to give them grounding and direction. In order to have a social revolution of human scale, we submit our actions to the real live humans of the society that we work within: this is our vision of “socialism”.

In sum, anarchism’s “leaderless resistance” is about the ideas and practices that offer communities tools for achieving their freedom, and not about dominating that resistance. Anarchists ideally are fighting for a free world, not an anarchist world, one in which even conservatives will be freed of their statist, capitalist and social bondage to discover new ways of living in community with the rest of us.

Is it important to advance anarchism explicitly? Or is it enough to engage in social movements whose objectives we support without adopting the anarchist label?

This is primarily a tactical question, because the approaches adopted by anarchists have to be suited to the objective conditions of the oppressed classes in the area in which they are active, and the specific local cultures, histories, even prejudices of those they work alongside. The proper meaning of “anarchist” as a democratic practice – a practical, not utopian, one at that – of the oppressed classes clearly needs to be rehabilitated in Australia and New Zealand. Just as the Bulgarian syndicalists who built unions in the rural areas relied upon ancient peasant traditions of mutual aid to locate syndicalist mutual aid within an approachable framework, so you too must find a good match for anarchism within your cultures. We, for example, have relied heavily on traditional township forms of resistance to explain solidarity, mutual aid, egalitarianism, and self-management. Yet, it is also a strategic question because in my opinion, where you have the bourgeois-democratic freedoms to organise openly and without severe repression, it is important to form an explicitly anarchist organisation in order to act as:

a) a pole around which libertarian socialists, broadly speaking, can orbit and to which they can gravitate organisationally – though it is important to recognise that there can be more than one such pole; and

b) as a lodestar of clear, directly-democratic practice, offering those who seek guidance a vibrant toolkit of time-tested practices with which to defend the autonomy of the oppressed classes from those who would exploit/oppress them.

It is the question of responsibility that compels us to nail our colours to the mast. This is for three reasons:

a) firstly, because we are not terrorists or criminals and we have nothing to be ashamed about that requires hiding, even from our enemies (we should be able to openly defend our democratic credentials before mainstream politicians);

b) secondly, that by forming a formal organisation, people we interact with are made aware that none of us are loose cannons but are subject to the mandates of our organisation (with those mandates being public, fair and explicit); and

c) lastly, but most importantly, that the communities we work within, whether territorial (townships, cities, etc), or communities of interest (unions, queer rights bodies, residents’ associations etc) know that we are responsible to them, that our actions, positions and strategies are consultative, collaborative, responsive and responsible to those they may most immediately affect.

We’ve been eagerly awaiting the release of Counter Power Volume 2, Global Fire: 150 Fighting Years of Revolutionary Anarchism, is there any news on when it will be released? What ground will you be covering that people might not expect?

Global Fire is really a monstrous work: in research and writing for close to 15 years now, it’s really an international organised labour history over 150 years, tracing the organisational and ideological lineages of anarchism/syndicalism in all parts of the world. We have a lot to get right: we need to have a theory, at least, for why the French syndicalist movement turned reformist during World War I, or why the German revolutionary movement as a whole, both Marxist and anarchist, collapsed over 1919-1923, paving the way for the Nazis. These are issues of intense argument among historians, and we have to be able to back up with sound argument our stance in every case, from the well-known, like the Palmer Raids against the IWW in the USA in the wake of World War I, to the fate of syndicalism in Southern Rhodesia in the 1950s, or of the near-seizure of power in Chile by the syndicalists in 1956, and their fate under the red regimes in Cuba, Bulgaria and China, or the white regimes in Chile, South Korea, or Argentina. We need to understand the vectors of the anarchist idea in a holistic, transnational sense, but have often been hampered by the narrowness of national(ist) perspectives. Even within the Anarchist movement, histories have been more anecdotal and partisan than truly balanced and rigorous assessments, and have often been very disarticulated by language differences. With lengthy delays incurred by us trying to make sure that Global Fire is the best (in fact only) holistic international account of the movement. You can be assured that Lucien is working on refining the text, which if published in its current format would weigh in at a whopping 1,000 pages, and that we have a pencilled-in release date for 2015, though perhaps 2016 is more realisable.

Ecology, Ethics, Anarchism: In Conversation with Noam Chomsky (transcript)

April 3, 2014

chomsky and javier

First published on Truthout on 3 April 2014 (copyright, Truthout.org, reprinted with permission)

 

There can be little doubt about the centrality and severity of the environmental crisis in the present day. Driven by the mindless “grow-or-die” imperative of capitalism, humanity’s destruction of the biosphere has reached and even surpassed various critical thresholds, whether in terms of carbon emissions, biodiversity loss, ocean acidification, freshwater depletion, or chemical pollution. Extreme weather events can be seen pummeling the globe, from the Philippines—devastated by Typhoon Haiyan in November of last year—to California, which is presently suffering from the worst drought in centuries. As Nafeez Ahmed has shown, a recently published study funded in part by NASA warns of impending civilizational collapse without radical changes to address social inequality and overconsumption. Truthout’s own Dahr Jamail has written a number of critical pieces lately that have documented the profundity of the current trajectory toward anthropogenic climate disruption (ACD) and global ecocide; in a telling metaphor, he likens the increasingly mad weather patterns brought about by ACD to an electrocardiogram of a “heart in defibrillation.”

Rather than conclude that such distressing trends follow intrinsically from an “aggressive” and “sociopathic” human nature, reasonable observers should likely associate the outgrowth of these tendencies with the dominance of the capitalist system, for, as Oxfam noted in a January 2014 report, the richest 85 individuals in the world possess as much wealth as a whole half of humanity—the 3.5 billion poorest people—while just 90 corporations have been responsible for a full two-thirds of the carbon emissions generated since the onset of industrialism. As these staggering statistics show, then, the ecological and climatic crises correspond to the extreme concentration of power and wealth produced by capitalism and upheld by the world’s governments. As a counter-move to these realities, the political philosophy of anarchism—which opposes the rule of both State and capital—may hold a great deal of promise for ameliorating and perhaps even overturning these trends toward destruction. Apropos, I had the great fortune recently to interview Professor Noam Chomsky, renowned anarcho-syndicalist, to discuss the question of ecological crisis and anarchism as a remedy. Following is a transcript of our conversation.

Professor Chomsky, thank you so kindly for taking the time today to converse with me about ecology and anarchism. It is a true honor to have this opportunity to speak with you. Before we pass to these subjects, though, I would like to ask you initially about ethics and solidarity. Would you say that Immanuel Kant’s notion of treating humanity as an end in itself has influenced anarchist and anti-authoritarian thought in any way? The concept of natural law arguably has a “natural” affinity with anarchism.

Indirectly, but I think it’s actually more general. My own view is that anarchism flows quite naturally out of major concerns and commitments of the Enlightnment, which found an expression in classical liberalism, and classical liberalism essentially was destroyed by the rise of capitalism—it’s inconsistent with it. But anarchism I think is the inheritor of the ideals that were developed in one or another form during the Enlighnment—Kant’s expression is one exmple—exemplified in a particular way in classical liberal doctrine, wrecked on the shoals of capitalism, and picked up by the libertarian left movements, which are the natural inheritors of them. So in that sense, yes, but it’s broader.

You have described humanity as being imperiled by the destructive trends on hand in capitalist society—or what you have termed “really existing capitalist democracies” (RECD). Particularly of late, you have emphasized the brutally anti-ecological trends being implemented by the dominant powers of settler-colonial societies, as reflected in the tar sands of Canada, Australia’s massive exploitation and export of coal resources, and of course the immense energy profligacy on hand in this country. You certainly have a point, and I share your concerns, as I detail in Imperiled Life: Revolution against Climate Catastrophe, a book that frames the climate crisis as the outgrowth of capitalism and the domination of nature generally understood. Please explain how you see RECD as profoundly at odds with ecological balance.

RECD – not accidentally, pronounced “wrecked” — is really existing capitalist democracy, really a kind of state capitalism, with a powerful State component in the economy, but with some reliance on market forces. The market forces that exist are shaped and distorted in the interests of the powerful—by State power, which is heavily under the control of concentrations of private power—so there’s close interaction. Well if you take a look at markets, they are a recipe for suicide. Period. In market systems you don’t take account of what economists call externalities. So say you sell me a car. In a market system we’re supposed to look after our own interests, so I make the best deal I can for me, you make the best deal you can for you. We do not take into account the effect on him. That’s not part of a market transaction. Well there is an effect on him: there’s another car on the road, there’s a greater possibility of accidents, there’s more pollution, there’s more traffic jams. For him individually it might be a slight increase, but this is extended over the whole population. Now, when you get to other kinds of transactions, the externalities get much larger. So take the financial crisis. One of the reasons for it is that—there are several, but one is—say if Goldman Sachs makes a risky transaction, they—if they’re paying attention—cover their own potential losses. They do not take into account what’s called systemic risk, that is, the possibility that the whole system will crash, if one of their risky transactions goes bad. That just about happened with AIG, the huge insurance company. They were involved in risky transactions which they couldn’t cover. The whole system was really going to collapse, but of course State power intervened to rescue them. The task of the State is to rescue the rich and the powerful and to protect them, and if that violates market principles, okay, we don’t care about market principles. The market principles are essentially for the poor. But systemic risk is an externality that’s not considered, which would take down the system repeatedly, if you didn’t have State power intervening. Well there’s another one, that’s even bigger—that’s destruction of the environment. Destruction of the environment is an externality: in market interactions you don’t pay attention to it. So take tar sands. If you’re a major energy corporation and you can make profit out of exploiting tar sands, you simply do not take into account the fact that your grandchildren may not have a possibility of survival—that’s an externality. And in the moral calculus of capitalism, greater profits in the next quarter outweigh the fate of your grandchildren, and of course it’s not your grandchildren, but everyone’s.

Now the settler-colonial societies are particularly interesting in this regard, because you have a conflict within them. Settler-colonial societies are different than most forms of imperialism; in traditional imperialism, say the British in India, the British kind of ran the place: they sent the bureaucrats, the administrators, the officer corps, and so on, but the place was run by Indians. Settler-colonial societies are different; they eliminate the indigenous population. Read, say, George Washington, a leading figure in the settler-colonial society we live in. His view was—his words—was that we have to ‘extirpate’ the Iroquois, they’re in our way. They were an advanced civilization, in fact they provided some of the basis for the American constitutional system, but they were in the way, so we have to extirpate them. Thomas Jefferson, another great figure, he said, well, we have no choice but to exterminate the indigenous population, the Native Americans; the reason is they’re attacking us. Why are they attacking us? Because we’re taking everything away from them. But since we’re taking their land and resources away and they defend themselves, we have to exterminate them. And that’s pretty much what happened—in the United States almost totally—huge extermination. Some residues remain, but under horrible conditions. Australia, same thing. Tasmania, almost total extermination. Canada, they didn’t quite make it. There’s residues of what are called First Nations around the periphery. Now, those are settler-colonial societies: there are elements of the indigenous populations remaining, and a very striking feature of contemporary society is that, throughout the world—in Canada, Latin America, Australia, India, all over the world, the indigenous societies—what we call tribal or aboriginal or whatever name we use—they’re the ones who are trying to prevent the race to destruction. Everywhere, they’re the ones leading the opposition to destruction of the environment. In countries with substantial indigenous populations, like say in Ecuador and Bolivia, they’ve passed legislation, even constitutional provisions, calling for rights of nature, which is kind of laughed at in the rich, powerful countries, but is the hope for survival.

Ecuador, for example, made an offer to Europe—they have a fair amount of oil—to leave the oil in the ground, where it ought to be, at a great loss to them—huge loss for development. The request was that Europe would provide them with a fraction—payment—of the loss—a small fraction—but the Europeans refused, so now they’re exploiting the oil. And if you go to southern Colombia, you find indigenous people, campesinos, Afro-Americans struggling against gold mining, just horrible destruction. Same in Australia, against uranium mining, and so on. At the same time, in the settler-colonial societies, which are the most advanced and richest, that’s where the drive is strongest toward the destruction of the environment. So you read a speech by say Obama, for example, at Cushing, Oklahoma—Cushing is kind of the center for bringing together and storing the fossil fuels which flow into there and are distributed. It was an audience of oil types. To enormous applause, he said that during his administration more oil had been lifted than any previous one—for many, many years. He said pipelines are crossing America under his administration to the extent that practically everywhere you go, you’re tripping across a pipeline; we’re going to have 100 years of energy independence; we’ll be the Saudi Arabia of the 21st century—in short, we’ll lead the way to disaster. At the same time, the remnants of the indigenous societies are trying to prevent the race to disaster. So in this respect, the settler-colonial societies are a striking illustration of first of all the massive destructive power of European imperialism, which of course includes us and Australia, and so on. And also the –I don’t know if you’d call it irony, but the strange phenomenon of the most so-called “advanced,” educated, richest segments of global society trying to destroy all of us, and the so-called ‘backward’ people, the pre-technological people, who remain on the periphery, trying to restrain the race to disaster. If some extra-terrestrial observer were watching this, they’d think the species was insane. And in fact it is. But the insanity goes back to the basic institutional structure of RECD. That’s the way it works. It’s built into the institutions. It’s one of the reasons it’s going to be very hard to change.

In Nuclear War and Environmental Catastrophe (2013), you argue that global society must be reorganized so that “care for ‘the commons’ […] become[s] a very high priority, as it has been in traditional societies, quite often.”[1] You make similar conclusions in an essay from last summer reflecting on the importance of the efforts to defend Gezi Park in Istanbul, which you frame as being part of a “a struggle in which we must all take part, with dedication and resolve, if there is to be any hope for decent human survival in a world that has no borders.” How do you see the possibility of thoroughgoing social transformation and the devolution of power taking place in the near future—through the emergence and sustained replication of workers’ and community councils, as in the participatory economic model (Parecon), for example?

That’s a well-worked out, detailed proposal for one form of democratic control of popular institutions—social, economic, political, others. And it is particularly well-worked out, in extensive detail. Whether that’s the right form or something other, I think it’s a little early to tell. My own feeling is that a fair amount of experimentation has to be done to see how societies can and should function. I’m a little skeptical about the possibility of sketching it in detail in advance. But that certainly should be taken very seriously, along with other proposals. But something along those lines seems to me a prerequisite first of all for reasonable life, put aside the environment—just the way a society ought to work, with people in a position where they can make decisions about the things that matter to them. But also I think it is a prerequisite for survival at this point. I mean, the human species is reaching a point which is unique in human history—just take a look at species’ destruction, forget humans. Species destruction now is at the level of 65 million years ago, when an asteroid hit the Earth and destroyed the dinosaurs and a huge number of species—massive species destruction. That’s being replicated right now, and humans are the asteroid. And we’re on the list, not far.

In a speech reproduced over 20 years ago in the film version of Manufacturing Consent, you describe hegemonic capitalist ideology as reducing the life-world of Earth to an “infinite resource” and “an infinite garbage-can.” Even then you had identified the capitalist tendency toward total destruction: you speak of a looming cancellation of destiny for humanity if the madness of capitalism is not halted within this, the “possibly terminal phase of human existence.” The very title and argumentation of Hegemony or Survival (2003)continue in this line, and in Hopes and Prospects (2010), you claim the threat to the chance for decent survival to be one of the major externalities produced, again, by RECD. How do you think a resurgent international anarchist movement might respond positively to such alarming trends?

In my view anarchism is just the most advanced form of political thought. As I’ve said, it draws from the Enlightenment, its best ideals; the primary contributions of classical liberalism carry it forward. Parecon, which you mentioned, is one illustration—they don’t call themselves anarchists—but there are others like it. So I think that a resurgent anarchist movement, which would be the peak of human intellectual civilization, should join with the indigenous societies of the world so that they don’t have the burden to save humanity from its own craziness. This should take place within the richest, most powerful societies. It’s kind of a moral truism that the more privilege you have, the more responsibility you have. It’s elementary in every domain: you have privilege, you have opportunities, you have choices, you have responsibilities. In the rich, powerful societies, privileged people like us—we’re all privileged people—we have the responsibility to take the lead in trying to prevent the disasters that our own social institutions are creating. It’s outrageous to demand or even observe the poorest, most repressed people in the world taking the lead in trying to save the human species and in fact innumerable other species from destruction. So we should join them. That’s the role of an anarchist movement.

In “Human Intelligence and the Environment” (2010), you raise the possibility of factory workers taking control of the means of production and autonomously deciding to break with business as usual, opting instead to produce solar panels or high-speed rail. This recommendation is entirely anarcho-syndicalist in nature, in keeping with your own proclivities: indeed, it bears much affinity with the prospect of an ecological anarcho-syndicalism, a concept that has been advanced by the Environment Union Caucus of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW-EUC) recently. A particularly promising proposal the EUC has made is that of an ecological general strike. In a similar vein, economic historian Richard Smith recently called for the mass-shuttering of large corporations and vast swathes of industry as a means of giving humanity and nature a chance against climate destruction. Moreover, since the U.S. military is the single largest contributor to the problem of anthropogenic climate disruption, the Pentagon should effectively be dismantled for this reason, among others, of course. How might activists present these pressing goals in ways that do not lend themselves to being dismissed as mere utopianism?

Well, let’s take the idea of converting industry to producing solar panels, mass-transportation, and so on. That was not utopian. The US government virtually nationalized the auto industry a couple years ago—not entirely, but took over large parts of it. There were choices at that point. If there had been a powerful movement of the kind that we’re discussing, with a popular base, it could have pressed for something very realistic, which I think would have had the support of the working class. A strike will be regarded as a weapon against them—it’s taking away their livelihoods, their survival. The choices were two, really: either the government rescues the auto industry at the taxpayers’ expense and hands it back to pretty much the original owners, maybe different faces, but structurally the same owners, and have them produce what they were doing before, which is destructive. That was one possibility; that was the one that was taken. The other possibility, which could have been taken, and with a sufficient powerful popular movement might well have been taken, is to put those factories into the hands in the working class, and have them make their choices rationally, in the interests of themselves, their communities, the general society—and do exactly what you were describing: produce solar panels.

Take mass-transportation. Going back to markets—if you take an economics course, they tell you markets offer choices. That’s partly true, but very narrowly. Markets restrict choices, sharply restrict choices. Mass transportation is an example. Mass transportation is not a choice offered on the market. If I want to go home today, the market does offer me a choice between a Ford and a Toyota, but not between a car and a subway. That’s just not one of the choices available in market systems, and this is not a small point. Choices that involve common effort and solidarity and mutual support and concern for others—those are out of the market system. The market system is based on maximization of individual consumption, and that is highly destructive in itself. It’s destructive even for the human beings involved—it turns them into sociopathic individuals.. But it also means that the kinds of things that are needed for survival are out of the market system—like mass-transportation. That’s the form of economic growth that could help preserve the hopes for survival. I don’t think that it was at all unrealistic for that to have been done; there was nothing utopian about that.

Now as compared with things like say general strikes, I think that’s much a better step to take. It’s not saying, let’s throw a wrench in the machine and harm everybody in the interest of some longer-term goal. It’s saying, let’s take a wrench and fix the machine, so it can function right now, with all you guys working, doing better jobs, running it yourselves. You’re better off psychologically, socially, in every respect, and you’re also producing a world that makes sense to live in. That’s I think the better way to proceed, in general.

According to German critical theorist Herbert Marcuse, revolution can be defined in part as action which seeks to secure the life, freedom, and happiness of future generations.[2] In light of looming catastrophic climate change, this definition would seem to hold a great amount of importance today. Within the modern Western revolutionary tradition, some of the most promising movements have arguably been Gracchus Babeuf and the Conspiracy of Equals, Rosa Luxemburg and the Spartacus League, and the Spanish anarchists. What would you say is the role of direct action in revolutionary struggle?

First of all, I think we shouldn’t assume that revolutionary struggle is the only option. What we’ve just been discussing, for example, you can call reformist if you like: it’s taking the institutions, reshaping them, reconstructing them, turning them into democratic institutions, and carrying out actions that are quite feasible and would be beneficial for all of us. Is that a revolution, is it a reform? Who knows? What’s the role of direct action, say, in that? Well, the role of direct action would have been realistically for popular movements to have pressured the government to take that direction, which would not have been impossible. In fact right now in the Rust Belt—something like this happened in the old Rust Belt, on a much smaller scale. Back in 1977, U.S. Steel, a major corporation, decided to close their operations in Youngstown, Ohio, which was a steel-town that had been built by steelworkers, by the union; it was a major steel town. That was going to destroy everyone’s occupation, the community, the society, everything—and it’s a decision made by bankers somewhere, who weren’t making enough profit. The steelworkers union offered to buy the plants and have them run by the workforce. This was an effort that the corporation didn’t want. Actually it’s kind of interesting—it would have been more profitable for them, but I think a class interest militated against it. This happens frequently. A multinational frequently will refuse an offer by the workers to buy out something they want to close and prefer to take the loss of just destroying it to having the precedent of worker-owned enterprises. That’s what is looks like to me; I can’t prove it. Corporations are totalitarian institutions—we don’t get access to their internal decisions—but that’s what it looks like.

Anyway, the company refused, and it went to the courts. I think it went all the way to the Supreme Court. Staughton Lynd argued the case for the community and the steelworkers; they lost, but they could have won, with enough popular support. Anyhow, after they lost, the steel [factories] were abandoned, but they didn’t give up. Working people started developing small enterprises—worker-owned—which they tried to integrate into the community, and it’s now proliferated significantly. Around Cleveland, northern Ohio, there’s quite a network of worker-owned enterprises—not worker-managed. There’s a gap. But worker-owned enterprises which can become worker-managed. It’s expanding. Right now there’s an effort by the US steelworkers union to make some sort of a deal with Mondragón, the huge Basque conglomerate which is again worker-owned, with management selected by workers, but not worker-managed. And that’s got some prospects, too.

So what is direct action? Well all of these things are direct action; they’re direct action geared to the existing circumstances. Direct action has to be based on an analysis of what the existing circumstances are, and how an action can modify them positively. There’s no general formula; you can’t say direct action is good or bad. Sometimes it can harmful, sometimes it can beneficial; sometimes it can be revolutionary, sometimes it can be reformist. You simply ask yourself what can be achieved now. So these developments in, say, northern Ohio really are reformist—they’re even supported by Republican governors and by some sectors of business, because it sort of fits their right-wing, libertarian conceptions. Fine, let’s pursue that—nothing wrong with it. But you just can’t give general formulas for tactical choices. They depend on an exact, close analysis of the situation.

The Sparticists are a good case in point. Rosa Luxemburg went along with the Spartacist uprising, though she was opposed to it. She was opposed to it not in principle but because she realized it was going to fail, was going to be crushed. But out of solidarity she went along with it, and she was killed.

Returning to the question of natural law, I would like to ask whether you think natural right applies to non-human animals? In an interview from 2010, you acknowledged that there exists a “moral case” for vegetarianism, but at a recent talk at University College London you claimed that animals cannot have the same rights as humans because, lacking reason, they cannot be considered to have responsibilities. Can you clarify what you mean by this? As you likely know, many anarchists and anti-authoritarians today consider vegetarianism and veganism essential to the project of reducing humanity’s domination over nature.

That makes sense, but that’s separate from the question of whether animals have the same rights as humans. It’s a fact that animals don’t have responsibilities; we can’t overlook that. If I have a dog, the dog has no responsibilities. Maybe I’d like it to bark when a criminal comes, but I can’t say the dog’s guilty if it didn’t do it. So it’s a fact that animals don’t have responsibilies. Responsibilities are related to rights. This does not say you should murder animals, but it is a recognition of reality. In fact, vegetarianism or veganism I think have a moral basis. But so do lots of other things. Like when you got here, you drove or took public transportation, meaning you used energy—that harms the environment. You made a choice: your choice was to harm the environment in order to come here so we could have this discussion. We’re making choices like that every moment of the day. Well, one of the choices has to do with people in countries where there is meat but not much else: should they eat it? That’s another choice. We have our own choices. We are always—we can’t overlook the fact that we are constantly making choices which have negative effects, and this is one of them. There is an opportunity cost to vegetarianism.

Personally, I’m not a vegetarian—I almost never eat meat. The reason is I just don’t have time for it; I don’t have the time to think about it, I don’t want to think about it. I just pick up whatever saves me time, which usually is not meat, but I don’t purposely check to see if there’s a piece of chicken in the salad. Okay, that’s a choice. I don’t like—I don’t think we should have factory farming, the free range business is mostly a joke—I understand that very well. With regard to rights and responsibilities, they do relate, and I don’t think we can overlook that. You can say the same about an infant: an infant doesn’t have responsibilities. But the reason we grant the infant rights is because of speciesism, and you can’t overlook that, either.

In theoretical terms, I sense a great affinity between the analysis you and Edward S. Herman present in Manufacturing Consent and the dissident cultural research engaged in by Western Marxists during the twentieth century. You are famously given to quoting Antonio Gramsci’s saying, “Pessimism of the intellect, optimism of the will.” I would like to ask whether you believe the U.S. populace to be too conservative, distracted, and enthralled by the system to move radically against it? Do you think the public will become the “second superpower” you hope for in Hegemony or Survival?

I’m not sure the public is that conservative, frankly. There’s some interesting indications to the contrary. So for example in 1976, the bicentennial of the Declaration of Independence, there were polls taken in which people were asked what they thought was in the Constitution. Nobody has a clue what’s in the Constitution. But the answers basically were, do you think this is an obvious truth, and if it is—it’s probably in the Constitution. One of the questions was “from each according to his abilities, to each according to his needs,” and the majority of the population thought that was in the Constitution, because it’s obviously true. In the late 1980s, there were polls taken asking people, “do you think that a right to health care is in the Constitution?” A very large proportion, I think maybe a majority of the population, thought it was in the Constitution. If you take a look at polls generally, you find that even among sectors of the population that are considered very right-wing—you do studies of people who say, “get the government off my back, I don’t want the government”—they turn out to be social democrats. They want more spending on health, more spending on education, more spending on, say, mothers with dependent children—but not welfare, because welfare was demonized by racists, Reagan and others. And this runs across the board, even on international affairs. So a majority of the population thinks that the US ought to give up the veto at the Security Council, and follow what the general world population believes is right. You take a look at taxes, and it’s striking. There’ve been polls on taxes for about forty years. Overwhelmingly, the population thinks the rich should be taxed more—they’re undertaxed. The policy goes in the opposite direction. Polls are not definitive: you have to inquire into why people are answering the way they do; there could be a lot of reasons. But they’re not insignificant, either.

My own feeling is that people like Adam Smith were basically right, that there is a natural sympathy for others. I think the rich and powerful understand that. I think that’s one of the reasons why there’s such massive effort to destroy the institutions in the society that are based on solidarity. So for example why is the right wing—and in fact not just the right wing, because it goes over to Obama—so intent on undermining Social Security? It costs nothing, essentially; it’s a very efficient program; people survive on it; it works very well; there’s no economic problems that couldn’t be tinkered with—it’s really marginal. But there’s a major effort to destroy it. Why? It’s based on solidarity. It’s based on concern for others. There’s a major attack on the public schools—deep underfunding, vouchers, all kinds of things. Foundations are trying to undermine them. Why? Public schools are a major contribution to modern society. They’re one of the real contributions of American society—mass public education. Why destroy them? Well, they’re based on solidarity. If you take the ideology that we’re supposed to believe in, why should I pay taxes for the schools in my neighborhood? I don’t have kids in school, I don’t have grandchildren in school, and I never will. Why should I pay taxes? Well, you pay taxes so that the kid across the street will go to school, because you care about other people. But that has to be driven out of people’s heads. It’s a little like markets and consumption. Markets are favored by the economics profession, by the rich, and so on, up to a point—they really don’t believe in them, they want the powerful State to come in and save them if they’re in trouble. But ideologically they’re preferred, because they restrict human action to individual self-gratification—not mutual support, not protection of the commons.

Actually the commons are an interesting case. We’re coming up to the eight hundredth anniversary of the Magna Carta. The Magna Carta had two parts. One part was the Charter of Liberties—the central part was presumption of innocence. That’s out the window. By now, being “guilty” means Obama wants to kill you tomorrow; that’s the definition of guilty. “Innocent” means he hasn’t gotten around to it yet. But the other part of the Magna Carta was the Charter of the Forests—that’s the part that you find in popular myth, like the Robin Hood myths. Robin Hood was protecting the commons from the predators. That’s a big part of our history—English history. The commons were cultivated by the general population. The commons were the forests, the fields, the source of fuel, food, welfare—you know, widows would pick things from the forest to survive. And it was nurtured—it was nurtured by the public, it was cared for—they weren’t let to grow into jungles. They were carefully cared for. The Charter of the Forests was an effort not by the population but by the barons to protect the commons from the king, but the population wanted to protect the commons for themselves.

Then you move into the capitalist period, beginning with the enclosure movements which drove people off the land and so on, and you have a destruction of the commons. Today, in the capitalist ethic, there’s a concept called the “tragedy of the commons” which you study in economics, which teaches you that if you don’t have private ownership of the commons, it’s going to be destroyed. Well, based on capitalist morality, that’s true. If I don’t own it, what should I do to try to preserve it? But in ordinary human life, that’s just totally false. Privatization is the tragedy of the commons. We can see that in fact: when you privatize the commons, it gets destroyed for private profit. If the commons are kept under common control, they are cultivated and nurtured, because people care about each other, and they care about the future. When you ask, is the population conservative? I doubt it. I think these are deeply rooted sentiments and understandings which show up all the time: they showed up in labor struggles against the industrial system which was dehumanizing people, in peasant societies they show up, in indigenous societies today struggling against, say, gold mines—maybe it’ll give them more material wealth, but it’ll destroy their lives. You find this everywhere. And in the great thinkers of the past, you know, in the people we aren’t supposed to admire, like Adam Smith, it’s a central doctrine.

Actually it’s kind of interesting, if you look at Smith—everybody knows the phrase “invisible hand,” but practically nobody looks at how he used the phrase. He rarely used it, a couple of times. One of the uses is when he discusses what would happen—it’s an agrarian society he’s talking about—what would happen if some landlord controlled almost all the land? What would happen? He says, well, out of his natural sympathy and concern for other people, he would distribute the wealth, so, as if by an invisible hand, society would end up being egalitarian. That’s the invisible hand. The other major usage of it actually is in an argument against—against—what we call neo-liberal globalization. He considers England and asks what would happen if in England the merchants and manufacturers decided to invest abroad and import from abroad. He says, they would gain, and England would suffer. However, they have a kind of natural tendency to want to function in their own society—a kind of a ‘home bias,’ it’s sometimes called, kind of like an affinity to their own societies. So as if by an invisible hand, England will be saved from the ravages of what we call neo-liberal globalization. That’s not what you’re taught. But they’re coming from a different era. That’s the precapitalist era, and conceptions were quite different before capitalist morality distorted them.

——————————————————————————————————————-

[1] Noam Chomsky and Laray Polk, Nuclear War and Environmental Catastrophe (New York: Seven Stories Press, 2013), 83.

[2] Herbert Marcuse, “Ethics and Revolution,” in Ethics and Society: Original Essays on Contemporary Moral Problems, ed. Richard T. De George (New York: Anchor Books,1964), 140-1.

Ecology, Ethics, Anarchism: In Conversation with Noam Chomsky (video)

March 31, 2014

This is a video of my interview with Noam Chomsky that took place at his office at MIT on Friday, 28 March 2014.  We discussed the place of anarchism and anarcho-syndicalism vis-à-vis the profound and ever-worsening environmental and climatic crises today.  Specifically, we conversed about Immanuel Kant, the Enlightenment, participatory economics (Parecon), indigenous struggle, the commons, direct action, really existing capitalist democracy (RECD), vegetarianism and veganism, conservatism, democracy, and reform vs. revolution.

A transcript of our conversation is forthcoming.

From Infoshop.org: Depression and Suicide Amongst Radicals and Anarchists

March 16, 2014

blue nude

“Blue Nude,” Pablo Picasso (1902)

This is a link to an important essay by Nihil0 as published on Infoshop.org that deals with issues of depression and suicidality among radical critics of existing society.  As the author writes,

“While a variety of factors contribute to individual instances of suicide and the overall suicide rate, I believe that progressive radicals, anarchists, and social justice activists have somewhat unique psychological factors that can also come into play. Although they are probably just as likely to suffer from problems like social isolation or drug dependency, I believe that those who are informed about the myriad of crises that humanity currently faces are given an extra punctuation in terms of reasons to be dismayed. So, in addition to any personal problems they may have, they are also aware that the world seems to be going to hell in a proverbial handbasket [...].

When a progressive radical commits suicide it’s equivalent to a fascist putting another notch in his rifle. It is equivalent to the war machine rolling its tank treads over another freedom fighter. This, I hope, is reason enough for many to avoid death at their own hands.”

“Animal Liberation and Marxism”: CPGB Interview with Assoziation Dämmerung

March 8, 2014

ALF antifa

This is an excerpt from a very excellent interview conducted in November 2013 by Maciej Zurowski of the Communist Party of Great Britain (CPGB) with Susann Witt-Stalh, Christian Wittgen, and Christin Bernhold of the Assoziation Dämmerung (“Twilight” or “Dawn” Association), a German anti-capitalist grouping which places stress on the importance of animal liberation within Marxism, drawing both from the work of Marx himself as well as that of the Frankfurt School theorists especially.

“As a Marxist, one should know that due to the development of productive forces and a number of social factors, we have arrived at a stage where there is no longer a necessity for socially produced suffering. We know that suffering is something that humans share with [other] animals and that we have the possibility to abolish it. [...]

The most important feature we share with [other] animals is that we possess a tormentable body. Most Marxists disregard the significance of this commonality, which effectively means that they hold the body in very low esteem. They restrict themselves to defining the differences and only want to talk about reason, which is where neo-Kantianism comes in: consistent historical materialists would never be so assertive about an understanding of reason that is basically identical with the way bourgeois society defines and fetishises it.

Don’t get me wrong: reason is important, and I do not wish to minimise it. However, to many Marxists, humans possess reason; animals do not – and that’s the end of the story. The problem is that this is unscientific and wrong, given that early forms of reason already exist in nature. At a primal level, animals act reasonably: eg, by storing up winter supplies. Of course, it is not identical with reason as humans possess it – but we must recognise that reason didn’t just fall from the sky, and that is where most Marxists revert to idealism.”

Veganism or “Whole Food Plant-Based” (WFPB) Diet as the Future of Preventive and Therapeutic Medicine

February 5, 2014

waimea canyon hawaii

Waimea Canyon, Hawai’i

Nutritional researcher and professor T Colin Campbell has provided a devastating defense of veganism–or a “whole food plant-based” (WFPB) diet, as he puts it–in terms of the prevention of human illness and even therapeutic purposes (Counterpunch republication of original post on Independent Science News, 3 February 2014).  As the professor summarizes,

“[...] adoption of the WFPB dietary lifestyle offers far more health benefits than the modern medical system. For those who comply, current evidence shows that at least 90% of all cardiovascular disease and type 2 diabetes, upwards of 70% of all cancers, and a broad spectrum of other illnesses can be prevented, even cured. Assuming that this message is effectively communicated, I estimate that at least 75% of contemporary health care costs could easily be saved. Sparing the side effects (often death) of the existing system would be a very large additional bonus.

It is now time to replace the current medical-based disease care system with a diet-based health care system as Hippocrates prompted us to think about two and a half thousand years ago. We face some extraordinary problems, health improvement, health care costs, serious environmental disarray, unforgiving violence and political polarization and discord. We are entitled to despair but only if we continue to rely on the same medical and health strategies that got us to this place. Based on the extraordinarily positive responses that I personally receive in my hundreds of lectures and the millions of readers of our books, I am optimistic. All we need to do is 1) honestly demonstrate this effect to the public and 2) develop affordable and convenient programs to facilitate transition and I am confident that exceptional progress can be made.”

Hedges on Moby Dick, fascism, and sublime madness

January 27, 2014

anarchy leads the ppl

This is part of the conclusion to Chris Hedges’s “The Myth of Human Progress and the Collapse of Complex Societies,” a speech given in Santa Monica, California, in October 2013.  In his comments, Hedges reflects on Herman Melville’s Moby Dick as an allegory of prevailing society.

“I do not know if we can build a better society. I do not even know if we will survive as a species. But I know these corporate forces have us by the throat. And they have my children by the throat. I do not fight fascists because I will win. I fight fascists because they are fascists. And this is a fight which in the face of the overwhelming forces against us requires us to embrace this sublime madness, to find in acts of rebellion the embers of life, an intrinsic meaning that lies outside of certain success. It is to at once grasp reality and then refuse to allow this reality to paralyze us.”

Hedges closes by quoting Turkish poet Nazim Hekmet’s “On Living.”

II

Let’s say we’re seriously ill, need surgery—
which is to say we might not get up
from the white table.
Even though it’s impossible not to feel sad
about going a little too soon,
we’ll still laugh at the jokes being told,
we’ll look out the window to see if it’s raining,
or still wait anxiously
for the latest newscast . . .
Let’s say we’re at the front—
for something worth fighting for, say.
There, in the first offensive, on that very day,
we might fall on our face, dead.
We’ll know this with a curious anger,
but we’ll still worry ourselves to death
about the outcome of the war, which could last years.
Let’s say we’re in prison
and close to fifty,
and we have eighteen more years, say,
before the iron doors will open.
We’ll still live with the outside,
with its people and animals, struggle and wind—
I mean with the outside beyond the walls.
I mean, however and wherever we are,
we must live as if we will never die.

III
This earth will grow cold,
a star among stars
and one of the smallest,
a gilded mote on blue velvet—
I mean this, our great earth.
This earth will grow cold one day,
not like a block of ice
or a dead cloud even
but like an empty walnut it will roll along
in pitch-black space . . .
You must grieve for this right now
—you have to feel this sorrow now—
for the world must be loved this much
if you’re going to say “I lived”. . .

Marcuse, Resistance to the Counterrevolution

January 26, 2014

huey rev suicide

From “The Left Under the Counterrevolution,” which appears in Counterrevolution and Revolt by Herbert Marcuse (Boston: Beacon, 1972), 52-3.

This society strives to impose the principle of nonviolence on the opposition while daily perfecting its own ‘legitimate’ violence, thereby protecting the status quo. Thus the radical opposition faces the problem of the ‘economy of violence’: its own counterviolence is bound to cost dearly, in lives and liberties. What is the political value of sacrifices under these circumstances?

Martyrs have rarely helped a political cause, and ‘revolutionary suicide’ remains suicide. And yet, it would be self-righteous indifference to say that the revolutionary ought to live rather than die for the revolution—an insult to the Communards of all times. Where the Establishment proclaims its professional killers as heroes, and its rebelling victims as criminals, it is hard to save the idea of heroism for the other side. The desperate act, doomed to failure, may for a brief moment tear the veil of justice and expose the faces of brutal suppression; it may arouse the conscience of the neutrals; it may reveal hidden cruelties and lies. Only [ze] who commits the desperate act can judge whether the price [ze] is bound to pay is too high—too high in terms of [zir] own cause as a common cause. Any generalization would be ambivalent, nay, profoundly unjust: it would condemn the victims of the system to the prolonged agony of waiting, to prolonged suffering. But then, the desperate act may have the same result—perhaps a worse result […].”

Distinction must be made between violence and revolutionary force.  In the counterrevolutionary situation of today, violence is the weapon of the Establishment; it operates everywhere, in the institutions and organizations, in work and fun, on the streets and highways, and in the air.  In contrast, the revolutionary force which is destined to terminate this violence does not exist today.  Revolutionary force would be the action of masses or classes capable of subverting the established system in order to build a socialist society.  Examples would be the unlimited general strike, the occupation and taking over of factories, government buildings, centers of communication and transportation, in coordinated action.”

communards

On the EZLN’s Escuelita and Neo-Zapatista Autonomy

January 23, 2014

Originally published on Counterpunch, 23 January 2014

As many readers of Counterpunch are likely aware, the Chiapas-based Zapatista Army of National Liberation (EZLN) has recently launched an open initiative called the Escuelita (“little school”), a four or five-day program by means of which outsiders, both Mexican and international, are invited to reside with Zapatistas to learn more about the EZLN’s politics and the daily lives of the organization’s members, as well as to promote cultural exchange. The openness reflected in the launch of the Escuelita stands in contrast to the relative aloofness of the organization in recent years—with the EZLN’s command observing a period of silence for more than a year after Subcomandante Insurgente Marcos’ plaintive condemnation of the Israeli military assault on Gaza during winter 2008-9. Of course, at the end of the thirteenth Baktun and the beginning of the fourteenth (21 December 2012), up to fifty thousand Zapatistas silently marched through five of the municipalities the EZLN had liberated in its 1 January 1994 insurrection—thus overthrowing their prior reclusiveness while dialectically preserving their verbal quietude. Indeed, in this sense the Escuelita’s founding recalls the early years that followed the EZLN’s public appearance with its uprising, when the organization hosted Intercontinental Encounters for Humanity and against Neo-Liberalism—and even Intergalactic ones—that brought together radical thinkers and dissidents from Mexico and the world over to publicly strategize on ways to bring down capital and the State. I was greatly pleased, then, when in response to a form I had sent the EZLN some time ago, I received a letter signed by Marcos and fellow Subcomandante Insurgente Moisés inviting me to the second round of the First Level of the Zapatista Escuelita, to be held in late December 2013.

Registration for the Escuelita took place at CIDECI, or the Indigenous Center for Comprehensive Training, which has its campus on the outskirts of San Cristóbal de Las Casas, the largest highland city in the state of Chiapas. Also known as Unitierra (Earth University), CIDECI hosts weekly international seminars on anti-systemic movements, in addition to monthly seminars dedicated to contemplation and discussion of the thought of Immanuel Wallerstein. Much of the art adorning the buildings on the CIDECI campus depicts Zapatistas, and the Center has hosted Sups Marcos and Moisés to speak on several occasions, so it is natural that it would be chosen as site of registration for the Escuelita. Arriving with my friend Reyna, we entered the short registration line established for foreigners—the lines for those hailing from Mexico City and the states of Mexico being much longer than this one—presented our documents to the receiving team, paid the 380-peso fee (about $30US), and then were told we would be placed in a community belonging to the La Realidad (“Reality”) region located deep in the Lacandon Jungle. I was pleased to hear this, as La Realidad is my favorite of the five Zapatista caracoles (“snails”), or administrative centers located in the zones with Zapatista presence. Reyna and I then got in line to board the various vehicles the EZLN had organized outside CIDECI to transport us to our respective caracoles.

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Map of the 5 Zapatista caracoles and their corresponding regions. From Niels Barmeyer, Developing Zapatista Autonomy (Albuquerque: Univ. of New Mexico Press, 2009), xvii.

When the caravan from CIDECI entered the jungle and arrived at La Realidad some ten hours after having departed, we were asked to remain in the vehicles outside the caracol compound for just a few more minutes. Thus were we faced with a white banner draped above the iron gate that served as entrance commemorating 20 years since the Zapatista uprising in general and the caída (“fall”) of Subcomandante Insurgente Pedro during the fighting in Las Margaritas in particular. Once the Zapatistas had finished preparing themselves, the alumn@s were invited to file through to enter the caracol, just as skilled masked players struck joyful tunes on the marimba from the stage above where the students came to join the assembled Zapatistas for a brief orientation to the Escuelita. After declaring our support to the cause of revolution—responding with ¡Viva! to the mention of various persons and groups, such as the EZLN, Subcomandante Marcos, Comandanta Ramona, the Escuelita, the peoples of the world, the world’s women, and so on.—we were assigned to our guardian@s individually and then sent to sleep as segregated by sex while the marimba continued to play into the night. My guardián was a young Tojolabal male BAEZLN (base de apoyo, or “support base”) named Héctor—his name here is a pseudonym for reasons of clandestinity.

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Banner in La Realidad commemorating Sup Pedro, who died in the insurrection on 1 January 1994.

The next morning, 25 December, the Escuelita at La Realidad officially commenced with a collective presentation made by Zapatista teachers of the region regarding different aspects of life and politics in the BAEZLN communities pertaining to this caracol. In basic terms, these teachers spoke to the EZLN’s autonomous health and banking systems—with the former comprised of health promoters, male and female, who are trained in the three fields of acute care, obstetrics, and herbalism, and the latter comprised of lending institutions (BANPAZ and BANAMAS) which offer loans for productive projects at 2-3% interest and provide economic support for Zapatista families struck by illness—as well as their democratic system of governance, which in parallel to the official system is made up of three tiers: the local popular assemblies at the communal level, the autonomous Zapatista rebel municipalities (MAREZ) at the intermediary level, and finally the Good-Government Councils (Juntas de Buen Gobierno, or JBGs), which coordinate matters at the regional level. Of the three, the JBGs represent the highest authority for the Zapatistas, yet legal proposals can be raised at the local assembly level, and the BAEZLN representatives voted into the JBGs through assemblies are fully recallable. The autonomous authorities, moreover, receive no wage or salary for their work but are instead supported with food from their base communities. While the Zapatistas’ methods in civic administration thus seem to bear a great deal of similarity to the positive policy proposals made in Euro-U.S. settings by Karl Marx and some anarchists alike, they resemble and develop the political customs of many indigenous peoples of the Americas as well. Indeed, in philosophical terms in this sense, one of the teachers expressed the idea—as recognized also by G.W.F. Hegel and others—that the perpetuation of oppressive social conditions drives forward the dialectic: he spoke specifically of the memory of the Zapatistas’ ancestors enslaved by the feudalism imposed by the colonia as propelling the strength of the movement of BAEZLN’toward autonomy. At this time, one of the teachers noted that the EZLN’s goal at present is two-fold: one, to “liberate the people of Mexico,” and secondly to uphold and extend the autonomy of the organization and its constituent members.

The situation of women in the EZLN was first examined an hour and a half into the teachers’ presentation, when various female representatives spoke to the issue. Like Friedrich Engels on private property, the introductory speaker argued that the patriarchal enslavement of indigenous women began with Spanish colonialism, whereas previously the worth of women had supposedly been fully recognized, as based on women’s ability to reproduce the human race. This speaker noted both males and females to have been oppressed by the patrones imposed by European invasion and genocide, and she welcomed the vast changes provided by the EZLN in terms of women’s ability to participate in socio-political matters, whether as health promoters, communal radio progammers, JBG authorities, or milicianas in the guerrilla movement. Several of the speakers on women’s issues stressed that the struggle to increase women’s participation in the EZLN has not been an easy one, due both to resistance from men as well as the internalization of self-deprecating values on the part of many indigenous women themselves. Another issue is that females in this context tend to be less literate and knowledgeable of Spanish than males, such that engaging in administrative work using Spanish as the common language among BAEZLN from different ethno-linguistic groups proves challenging. One teacher noted that Zapatista women face exploitation on three fronts—for being female, indigenous, and poor—and based on her and other compañeras’ words, it seems they largely bear responsibility for domestic affairs and child-rearing within the dominant sexual division of labor which prevails in Zapatista communities. Speakers in this section also analyzed the Revolutionary Law on Women, passed by the EZLN before its January 1994 insurrection, by enumerating its stipulations—such as the right to freely determine the total number of children to bear, to reject imposed marriage and freely choose partners, to resist domestic violence, and so on—and afterward simply stating that all the conditions of the Law are being observed in Zapatista settings. However, this claim came too quickly, as we will shall see.

In the third part of the initial presentation in La Realidad, the teachers addressed some of the challenges the EZLN has faced in the development of its autonomy in the 20 years since its armed revolt. They claim now that their form of resistance is the word, both spoken and written: while in January 1994 their resistance took on armed form, it has now become peaceful and civic—with the resort to arms opening the subsequent possibility for the Zapatistas’ impressive development of autonomy. Despite this difference between January 1994 and everything after, the Zapatista movement remains under siege, with the “bad government” (el mal gobierno) working now to divide indigenous communities among themselves by encouraging participation in official political parties and recourse to state-provided services—a strategy it adopted in direct response to the insurrection, yet one that was subordinated in the years of peak intensity (the years following 1994) to the overtly repressive resort to direct militarization and the fomenting of paramilitary groups designed to terrorize BAEZLN and Zapatista sympathizers in eastern Chiapas. However, forced displacement of BAEZLN still takes place—consider the cases of San Marcos Avilés in 2010 and Comandante Abel more recently. One speaker mentioned the Lacandon indigenous people who live quite close to La Realidad as an example the Zapatistas do not wish to emulate—for the Lacandones have been made dependent on the State after having been stripped of their rights to fell trees and cultivate agriculture for residing in the region which has been designated as belonging to the Montes Azules Biosphere Reserve (RIBMA). Defining the principal problems which the EZLN confronts at the moment, one representative noted the issues of the occupation of lands “recovered” by the Zapatistas in 1994 by indigenous persons belonging to rival political groups, forced displacement, paramilitary activity, and the arbitrary incarceration of BAEZLN. This speaker connecting the experience of these problems with the “peaceful and civil” Zapatista approach, which is to engage in public denunciation through the JBGs.

To close this introductory presentation, the teachers accepted written questions from the audience of alumn@s. In response to a question that would continually be raised over the course of the Escuelita, one teacher said that the Zapatistas “respect” the ways of gays, but no more specifics were given on this. As for the question as to how to reproduce the neo-Zapatista model in other contexts—particularly in cities, where living conditions are clearly rather different—the teachers said that that prospect could be helped along by means of the promotion of an autonomous sense of politics, however that be translated into reality. Intruigingly fielding a question about Zapatismo and ecology, one of the teachers noted that the EZLN seeks to carry through the word of the people in terms of how to manage natural resources, such that the question of whether nature be ravaged or left alone is secondary to adherence to the vox populi—an interesting permutation of “green” anarcho-syndicalism or ecological self-management. Another question-and-answer had a maestro clarifying that BAEZLN practice a “high level” of abstention in official elections at the three levels (municipal, state, and federal). Perhaps most controversially of all, some of the teachers shared the general neo-Zapatista skepticism toward family planning methods, which are apparently considered in the main to be measures imposed from above to limit indigenous population growth. Along these lines, one maestra clarified that abortion is not performed at Zapatista autonomous clinics, considering it a practice of infanticide that should be suppressed if there are to be numerically more zapatistas. Separately, though relatedly, a different teacher declared that the Zapatista midwives are not trained by the Public Health Ministry.

Following the morning presentation, the alumn@s and their guardian@s traveled by group to the communities in which they would experience the Escuelita. Transport of these 500 people (about 250 students and their chaperones) took place by means of large sand-trucks—traveling in one of these during the journey out to community and back truly reminded me of pictures I’ve seen of the anarchist troop-transport vehicles used in the Spanish Revolution of the 1930′s. Upon arrival to the — community affiliated with the — MAREZ pertaining to La Realidad to which the group in which I was included had been sent, the first session of the Escuelita began for me, as Héctor and I were welcomed into the abode of the — family. (Thus, like many others, Héctor and I experienced the Escuelita with one family, though some alumn@s and guardian@s apparently experienced a more collective setting, such as took place in the actual space of an autonomous school.) The first text to be examined was Autonomous Government I, which like the remaining three volumes of written materials provided for alumn@s and guardian@s to study is comprised of varied testimonies from BAEZLN with different charges who belong to MAREZ affiliated with each of the five caracol regions.

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A scene from the — community, affiliated with the La Realidad caracol

This first volume tells its readers that the EZLN base is comprised of a total of 38 MAREZ, with 4 belonging to La Realidad, and it notes that this caracol was the successor to the first Aguascalientes established in 1994 by the EZLN in the nearby community of Guadalupe Tepeyac—Aguascalientes referring to the Mexican state in which the 1917 Constitution was drafted—which was in turn occupied by the Mexican Army in 1995, its residents displaced for six years until 2001. In 1995, the EZLN responded by founding five more Aguascalientes, administrative centers which would in 2003 become the caracoles and the seats of the JBGs. In terms of La Realidad, the region itself has an autonomous Zapatista hospital in San José del Rio—with a large state-based one recently installed in Guadalupe Tepeyac, and a government clinic (physically protected by barbed wire) constructed within the last three years just a couple minutes’ walk from the caracol itself. The text on autonomous governance says that the San José hospital has recently acquired ultrasound equipment for obstetrical purposes, but it remains unclear to me to what extent there exist rehab or harm-reduction programs for Zapatistas in public health terms—consumption of alcohol and all other drugs is forbidden for BAEZLN. Moreover, in sharing the names of all the Zapatista MAREZ which exist, the volume speaks to the role of revolutionary memory in the EZLN’s program: municipalities are named for Emiliano Zapata, Pancho Villa, San Manuel (Manuel being the founder of the EZLN), Ricardo Flores Magón (a renowned Oaxacan anarchist involved in the Mexican Revolution), Comandanta Ramona, Lucio Cabanas (a left-wing guerrillero who formed the Party of the Poor in Guerrero in the 1970′s), La Paz, La Dignidad, 17 November (date of the arrival of the urban-based Maoists to the selva Lacandona in 1983), Trabajo (“Work”), and Rubén Jaramillo (a campesino insurrectionary who sought to carry on Zapata’s vision until his 1962 murder by the State), to give just a few examples. Politically, volume I lists the seven principles of mandar obedeciendo (“to command by obeying”) which is to govern the action of representatives of the JBGs and all other civilian Zapatista institutions:

“To serve and not to serve oneself”; “to represent and not to supplant [or usurp]”; “to construct and not to destroy”; “to obey and not to command”; “to propose and not to impose”; “to convince and not to conquer”; “to go down instead of up.”

Beyond this, the interviews in the text discuss problems with rival organizations in the region corresponding to Morelia such as ORCAO and OPPDIC, and it provides some history showing the necessity of direct JBG oversight of projects proposed by internationals and NGOs to be implemented in Zapatista communities. Moreover, with regard to the northern region affiliated with the Roberto Barrios caracol, the text specifies that economic donations from visitors often go toward expanding cattle-herds, in accordance with the wishes of base communities.

The second volume, Autonomous Government II, which Héctor, my teacher, and I examined on the Escuelita’s second day, gives details about the specific autonomous social projects implemented by the EZLN, especially health and education. Interviews with educational promoters specify the types of classes on offer at the ESRAZ (Escuela Secundaria Rebelde Autónoma Zapatista, or the Zapatista Rebellious Autonomous High School): languages (Spanish and indigenous), history, math, “life and environment,” and integration (on the EZLN’s 13 demands). In the La Realidad region at least, autonomous education programs are designed in consultation with students’ parents, who are asked what it is that should be preserved from standard public education approaches, and what should be added. With regard to autonomous health, the text specifies that EZLN health promoters have composed a list of 47 points for preventative health, that medical doctors assist in solidarity with health projects, and that the San José del Rio hospital had recently acquired an autoclave thanks to revenue from the 10% tax the JBG collects on all construction projects undertaken by community, corporation, or State in its territory. In the northern zone of Chiapas, vaccines arrive every three months for Zapatista children, and the organization SADEC(Salud y Desarrollo Comunitario, or Communal Health and Development) assists with their administration; my teacher assured me that vaccines are regularly given to BAEZLN children in the zone of La Realidad as well. Furthermore, the second volume mentions various difficulties and successes experienced by the EZLN, both internally and externally: for example, the forced displacement prosecuted by federal forces of the Zapatista San Manuel community located in Montes Azules and the scarcity of land limiting the scope of collective projects to be taken in the highlands region corresponding to the Oventik caracol, or the exportation of Zapatista coffee to Italy, Greece, France, and Germany.

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Zapatista school in the — community with anarcho-syndicalist colors (rojinegro)

This same day, my guardián, teacher, and I decided to begin study of volume three, Autonomous Resistance, as well. This collection of interviews provides great insight into neo-Zapatista culture and resistance, as well as relationships between BAEZLN and members of other organizations, particularly officialist grupos de choque (“shock groups”). Providing an interesting perspective on Zapatista child-rearing practices, one representative explained the various alternative cultural activities Zapatista communities offer to their youth so that they not fall into “ideologies of the government”: sports, poetry contests, and dance. Also in terms of cultural norms, another interviewed spokesperson notes the celebration of religious holidays to be more popular outside the ranks of the EZLN than inside it—a reflection of the organization’s secular orientation. A socio-cultural milestone for the EZLN, the first and only appearance of the neo-Zapatista air force is also described in this volume: to protest the military’s occupation in 1999 of Amador Hernández, a La Realidad MAREZ, local BAEZLN organized a mass-production of paper airplanes carrying subversive messages which were ceremoniously launched into the barracks of the soldiers upholding the occupation. The resistance to this occupation also took on the form of sit-ins, dance, and exhortative speech.

In addition, the third volume examines Zapatista diplomacy and relations with other organizations. The construction of water-irrigation projects with which many internationals involved themselves—as is described in Ramor Ryan’s Zapatista Spring: Anatomy of a Rebel Water Project (2011)is mentioned as a sign of international cooperation and solidarity, while in contrast relations with local communities affiliated with the PRI (the ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party) and ORCAO/OPPDIC (comprised in part by ex-BAEZLN) are shown to continue to be tense and problematic. Indeed, it seems there is a true political competition going on between BAEZLN on the one hand and PRI militants on the other, with a number of respondents from the Morelia and La Garrucha regions expressing faith and pride that BAEZLN in many cases live better than their PRI counterparts, thanks to the organization’s reportedly consistent besting of the official system in health and educational outcomes—this despite the myriad social programs offered by the Chiapas state government, and the millions of pesos it spends on them. In universal (or galactical) terms, an education promoter from the Roberto Barrios region tells his interviewer that the neo-Zapatista struggle proceeds not only with the interests of BAEZLN in mind, but of all—tod@s.

The reading for the the third day was the fourth volume, Women’s Participation in Autonomous Government, perhaps the most interesting one of all—for it is testament to the patent conflict between Zapatista rhetoric and everyday life in this regard. From the La Realidad region, an ex-JBG member notes proudly that in neither organized religion nor in established political parties have women experienced the kind of participation that female BAEZLN have been allowed. A member from an autonomous council of the same zone claims the lot of Zapatista women to be better off than that of indigenous women in PRI communities, where high rates of alcohol and other drug abuse and sexual violence reportedly obtain. Nonetheless, a great deal of tension between the end of women’s liberation and respect for established patriarchal custom can be readily detected in this volume on women’s involvement. For example, the 47 points on preventative health from La Realidad include one endorsing family planning, while health promoters affiliated with Morelia suggest to their female clients that they ideally try to leave a 5- or 6-year gap between each subsequent birth, all in accordance with article 3 of the Revolutionary Law on Women, which grants female BAEZLN the right to elect the number of children they will bear—yet sources from Oventik and Roberto Barrios note that it is precisely this law no. 3 which is being least observed in practice, given the strong opposition expressed by many male BAEZLN to the use of birth control methods. Indeed, summarizing the results of a public discussion among BAEZLN in the Roberto Barrios region on women’s issues, one educational promoter reported the widespread opinion that women should not unilaterally decide on the question of number of children—thus expressing a popular repudiation of law no. 3! From La Garrucha, another educational promoter claims that women’s participation in her MAREZ is 2-3% of what it should be—that is, if I’m not mistaken, that >97% of female Zapatistas from that municipality opt out of taking on the charges passed to them through election. Sexual education would seem underdeveloped in the Roberto Barrios region, according to a Zapatista educator there, and in this zone marriage is common by 15 or 16 years of age, while in the Oventik region unmarried couples are apparently expected to ask permission from their parents to date—so that they avoid the “bad customs of the cities where lovers just get together without respecting their parents.”

In these terms, an interesting proposal from the base is that of the recommendations made in the Oventik zone in 1996 for an expanded Revolutionary Law on Women—a proposal that has yet to be adopted by the EZLN. While from volume IV it is unclear how this proposed expansion came about, and who precisely composed its articles, it in some ways reflects regression from the original Revolutionary Law: here, it is only married women who have the right to birth control, and this only to the extent to which agreement with male partners is achieved, while non-monogamous relationships are declared unacceptable: “it is prohibited and inappropriate that some member of the [Zapatista] community engage in romantic relations outside of the norms of the community and populace—that is to say, men and women are not allowed to have [sexual] relations if they are not married, because this brings as consequences the destruction of the family and a bad example before society.” In a similar vein, “arbitrary abandonment” and coupling with others while formally married are also tabooed in the articles of this recommended expansion. Whether such attitudes are representative of the thought of many or most female BAEZLN is unknown; however conservative such ideas may seem, it is also worth noting that 17 years have passed since their proposal.

Thus after finishing the last volume on women’s participation, the Escuelita in community had ended, and Héctor and I expressed our gratitude for the generosity showed by our maestro and his compañera (female partner) during the classes and our stay in the — community. We then met up with the other alumn@s (including Reyna) who had come together in the local assembly space and then departed for our hike to the access road at which we were to be picked up and returned by sand-trucks to La Realidad. Once the afternoon progressed into evening in the caracol, as more alumn@s continued arriving from other communities, the Zapatista teachers called us all back together once again for a final round of questions-and-answers, followed by the presentation of the Mexican and Zapatista flags and the singing of the anthems to State and EZLN, which in turn gave rise to more creative musical performances by the teachers and artistic interventions from alumn@s. I will confess that I cried for Sup Pedro when the maestr@s sang about this “simple” and “decent” man from Michoacán, born to a beautiful mother and killed in insurrection.

After the conclusion of the participatory cultural event, it was announced that all those desiring to return to San Cristóbal would be leaving in a caravan departing before dusk the next morning. Then the night was ceded to a large dance on the basketball court, as animated by a sustained series of ludic perfomances on marimba played by male BAEZLN of differing generations.

Fin de Año in Oventik

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Presentation of Zapatista flag, 31 December 2013

Upon returning to San Cristóbal, I was already greatly missing Héctor; I hope we will stay in touch. I considered which of the 5 caracoles to visit for the New Year’s celebration of the twentieth anniversary of the armed uprising and launched myself to Oventik, the closest to San Cristóbal. After being admitted into the foggy caracol with a crowd of other visitors shortly after arriving, I placed my belongings in one of the classrooms of the escuela autónoma, as a new friend had just recommended to me, and we then made our way to the basketball court where live music was being played under a roof, protected from the rain. Standing on stage alongside Zapatista authorities and BAEZLN, the performers included highland indigenous musicians and conscious freestyle rappers from Mexico City, among others. At a certain point in the evening, as the rain continued, the assembled Zapatistas performed a “political act” involving the marching presentation of the Mexican and EZLN flags and the public reading of the Revolutionary Indigenous Clandestine Committee’s (CCRI) declaration on the event of the twentieth anniversary of the neo-Zapatista insurrection, as performed by a Comandanta. The text was subsequently read in Tsotsil and Tseltal translations—with these being two indigenous languages spoken in the highlands region in which Oventik finds itself. In the Tsotsil translation, the word kux’lejal (“bodily pain”) could be heard uttered several times. At the end of this “act,” with the retiring of the Mexican and Zapatista flags, representatives of the EZLN wished all those assembled in the caracol a happy new year, and they particularly wished all Zapatistas a joyful twentieth anniversary for their resort to arms. Similarly to the case in La Realidad just days before, the remaining hours of 2013 and the first several hours of 2014 in Oventik were celebrated with several hours of cumbia rebelde, during which the basketball court was full with dancers, Zapatistas and their well-wishers together. Also present at the cumbia were organizers of the Climate Caravan through Latin America (Caravana Climática por América Latina), who sought to connect the assembled dancing rebels with this compelling initiative from below to combine direct action and information-gathering activities in resistance to unchecked ecocidal trends.

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Entrance to Oventik caracol, 1 January 2014

Questions, critique, and the future

There can be no doubt that the BAEZLN have been truly impressive in their efforts to “conquer liberty” and extend the cause of autonomy in the 20 years since their declaration of war against capitalism and the Mexican State. Nonetheless, it would contradict the spirit of critique and autonomy not to raise questions and concerns regarding different facets of the Zapatista movement. For one, what is the political model the EZLN is pursuing? As against the original demand for independence made in 1994, this model is not that of formal statehood—as is made, for example, in the Palestinian case—but rather that of developing the new society within the shell of the old. In his Developing Zapatista Autonomy (2009), German anthropologist Niels Barmeyer argues that the Zapatista example advances the creation of a counter-state to the official one presided over by the Mexican government (el mal gobierno). Contemplation of the various details provided in the four volumes of text assigned to alumn@s of the Escuelita would seem to confirm this diagnosis, from consideration of the Good-Government Councils (as counterposed to the bad government) to the Zapatistas’ alternative health and education systems. As Barmeyer notes, moreover, the EZLN provides protection to its members, even if the organization does not necessarily exercise a monopoly on “legitimate” use of force in the territories of its influence.1 Nonetheless, if the overall claim is true—that the Zapatistas really desire a State, or that the nature of their principles of self-government effectively express their wish for such, as an anarchist confided in me at the Monument to the Revolution in Mexico City a year and a half ago—one must then interrogate the attraction the Zapatistas have represented for libertarian socialists and anti-authoritarians the world over these past 20 years. Clearly, the 1 January 1994 insurrection has proven seminal for the adoption of the Black Bloc tactic all over the globe, while the indigenous character of the movement and the radical humanism expressed by its principal spokesperson—Sup Marcos—have enlivened and illuminated the radical imaginations and hopes of millions of observers. But what do anarchists have to say about the processes of socio-political autonomy undertaken by the EZLN since January 1994? Are they too similar to State institutions, or are they sufficiently distinct? Is it just a matter of “contradict[ing] the system while you are in it until it’s transformed into a new system,” as Huey P. Newton observed with reference to the “survival programs” the Black Panther Party implemented in the late 1960′s, “pending revolution”?2

How are outsiders, especially internationals, to engage with the persistence of authoritarian and inegalitarian attitudes toward women in social movements putatively based on the principles of “democracy, justice, and freedom” with which they express solidarity—despite the relative improvements seen in these terms over time? Can it justly be said that feminist perspectives are simply irrelevant if they are held by those who do not pass the course of their lives within a given movement? If it were to be affirmed, the principle underlying this second question would betray a cultural nationalism and relativism of sorts, one which undermines internationalism and global notions of solidarity. It would also effectively trivialize the disappointment expressed from the start by many Mexican feminists at the perpetuation of patriarchy within the EZLN—and, indeed, paper over the absurd expulsion of COLEM (el Colectivo de Mujeres, or the Women’s Collective, from San Cristóbal) from Zapatista territory on the charge that its feminist organizing threatened to “incite a gender war”!3 Conceptually, the idea of “autonomy” cannot immediately tell us which of the conflicting principles is to be held superior: in the first place, autonomy likely should presume substantive freedom for all as a precondition of its existence, yet in practice it is taken to mean the outcome of popular self-determination, as opposed to Statist or capitalist imposition. Such tensions clearly exist in appraising Zapatismo, especially with regard to the situations faced by female and non-heterosexual BAEZLN. A similar critical line of thinking could also bring to light the extensive deforestation which Zapatista communities have produced through their “autonomous” desire to raise cattle en masse in jungle environments, or it could criticize the Zapatistas’s drinking and selling of Coca-Cola and their generally non-vegetarian lifestyles—or at least the ambivalence Marcos expresses as regards the prospect of even discussing this latter point, for he declares vegetarian tactics of moral suasion to be an imposition to be disobeyed. As Mickey Z. Vegan could be expected to point out, the collective Zapatista butcher-shop from the Roberto Barrios region mentioned in volume III may not be the most liberating project to engage in, for either BAEZLN workers or the beasts themselves.

Thus, in spite of the issues I have observed and the doubts they produce in me, I consider the EZLN nothing less than a world-historical revolutionary movement, one which has played a critical role in inspiring and spurring on the multitudinous activist militancy seen throughout much of the world following the self-implosion of the Soviet Union—a militancy which radically seeks the abolition of those power-groups which threaten the entire Earth with social and environmental catastrophe. I also believe that the EZLN’s struggle has much more to offer the world still—given that the Zapatistas had originally sought to incite other Mexican revolutionary groups to join them in insurrection in 1994, and in light of the continued strength of the capitalist monster against which the BAEZLN revolted—no matter how optimistic Marcos’s declaration last year on the occasion of the new Baktun and the silent Zapatista occupation of the townships the EZLN had taken in 1994, that the world of those from above is “collapsing.”

However, I do agree with Sup Marcos that the world of those from below is resurging. Hence was I very glad to have been able to attend the first course of the Escuelita and to celebrate the twenty years since the Zapatista insurrection together with them. I wish the BAEZLN the very best for this year, and the next 20 as well. ¡Zapata vive!

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1Niels Barmeyer, Developing Zapatista Autonomy: Conflict and NGO Involvement in Rebel Chiapas (Albuquerque: Univ. of New Mexico Press, 2009), 5, 214.

2Cited in Alondra Nelson, Body and Soul: The Black Panther Party and the Fight Against Medical Discrimination (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2011), 63.

3Barmeyer 99-100, 206.

Richard Smith calling for Social Revolution against Climate Catastrophe

January 21, 2014

This is a video recording of an interview with economic historian Richard Smith, author of a couple of recent radical articles on ecology and global warming on Truthout (link here to his “Six Theses on Capitalism and the Destruction of Life on Earth” and here to “Beyond Growth or Beyond Capitalism?”) as well as of the forthcoming book To Save the Planet, Turn the World Upside Down (2014).  Smith calls for revolution, the shuttering of major corporations, socialization of production, participatory economic planning, and the “overthrowing [of] the entire order” throughout the world.

Arguably, the most interesting part of the interview takes place after the seventh minute.


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