Posts Tagged ‘commons’

Mobilizing for Justice in the Anthropocene: Autogestion, Radical Politics, and the Owl of Minerva (2/2)

September 18, 2014

 grabbingback

[This is part II of an interview on Grabbing Back: Essays Against the Global Land Grab (AK Press, 2014). Read part I here.]

Also published on Counterpunch, 19 September 2014

In the interviews you hold with Chomsky and Hardt in Grabbing Back, both thinkers point out the irony whereby the so-called “socialist” governments that have been elected throughout much of Latin America in recent years—Venezuela, Bolivia, Ecuador, and Uruguay, for example—notoriously have in fact been engaged in a significant intensification of the extractivist trends which their neoliberal precedecessors oversaw. This developmentalism has inexorably brought these “Pink Tide” governments into conflict with indigenous peoples, and it certainly has not been auspicious for nature, however much posturing Rafael Correa and Evo Morales like to advance in terms of the “rights of nature.” The fate of Ecuador’s Yasuní National Park is emblematic in this sense. As editor of Upside-down World, Grabbing Back contributor Benjamin Dangl has written at length on these tensions. How do you see indigenous concepts like sumak kawsay (“living well”) as realistic alternatives to State-capitalist depredation?

I think the implications of Dangls analysis of extractivism is as important today as, say, Rosa Luxemburgs work on the Accumulation of Capital in the 1910s or David Harveys work on the Limits to Capital in the 1980s, and it fits with some really important thinking going on by people like Silvia Rivera CusicanquiRaúl Zibechi, and Pablo Mamani Ramírez. The Pink Tide governments are interesting to me, because they show how rhetoric centered around land can lead to a kind of fixation on natural resources and infrastructure, which precludes the Prebisch-style development of the Third World. So I wonder, does the focus on the land come about through the export-based economies that were generated by the annihilation of industrial infrastructure vis-à-vis globalization, and does it also reflexively work to thrust into power a so-called populist leadership that makes gains in the social wage by simply speeding up the process?

It seems strange to me that so-called neo-Peronism (if there ever was a populist moniker, that was it) could dismantle and sell Mosconis YPF, a highly technical model of a nationalized energy industry, to the former colonial power, the Spanish oil giant Repsol, for pennies on the dollar while basically forfeiting huge gas fields despite the resistance of the Mapuche, whose land they are destroying in the process. Former Argentine President Carlos Menem became one of the most despised figures in the Latin American Left, but now Kirchner is selling off the Patagonia oil fields to North Atlantic powers and Malaysia while bringing in Monsanto. What if the populist wave has just ridden an exuberant surplus of popular political involvement, and is returning to the kind of elite populism expressed by people like Menem? We might say, let us not be so hasty in condemning the governments of Latin America, because look at what happened with Manuel Zelaya and deposed Paraguayan President Fernando Lugo, let alone the Central African Republic. They have to work with global hegemony, and that means either bringing in Chinese investors as in Ecuador, or US investors as in Argentina. But we should not concede the reality and the basis of what made “¡Que se vayan todos! such an important global position.1

In contradistinction to these problems, there is the Indigenous idea of sumak kawsay, as you mentioned, which places spirit and land along the same axes, and is epistemologically less driven to accept the division and privatization of land. It will be interesting to see changes in the ways that this concept is used over the next decade or so. Mahmood shows how the Islamic concept of dawa changed over generations to become tools of more general liberation—both from neoliberalism and from strict gender norms. But signifiers can be hollowed out through capitalism as well, so I think that its also important not to separate concepts from the people who produce them; for example, the ayllus that form Indigenous microgovernments, as Pablo Ramírez calls them, are profound structures that provide an interesting example of popular representation as opposed to the general diplomatic-discursive field of geopolitics.

It is also important to take note of Simon Sedillos excellent work tracking the mapping projects underway by Geoffrey Demarest and the Department of Defense in Colombia and Oaxaca, which are defined by this bizarre concept of geoproperty that mixes old English and Jeffersonian ideals of private property with contemporary land-titling strategies developed by economists like De Soto.2 Geoproperty is the conceptual artifice of a rather brutal strategy that deploys paramilitaries in order to separate Indigenous peoples from their lands, and it works both on a level of what Mignolo calls geography of reason3 and a level of pragmatic force (defoliation, paramilitaries, and militarization). Connecting neoliberalism to geography, James C. Scott notes how, during the commercialization of the ejidos in Michoacán, “the first task of the state has been to make legible a tenure landscape that the local autonomy achieved by the revolution had helped make opaque.”4

It’s here that Guillermo Delgado-P’s article in Grabbing Back becomes so crucial, because it takes back the notions of territory and land, and provides a kind of alter-anthropology that thinks Indigenous cultures with agrarian polyculturalism and a kind of negotiation between the popular concept of the commons and Indigenous practices of conservation. So the challenge for local activists is, perhaps, to create growth from within the “Pink Tide by learning from those who have always existed in a kind of threshold of state practices, and to do this in such a way that is, perhaps, illegible to the great powers in order to dodge the military incursions and counterinsurgency strategies while protecting increasing amounts of land. I find the more autonomized urban structures that sparked the mass movements in Chile in 2012 to be very inspirational along these lines, and in conversation with some of their organizers, I was told that they do have a relatively high level of respect and solidarity with the Mapuche. At the same time, these movements are different on several fundamental levels, and solidarity also becomes a question of recognizing ones limits, keeping the borders open, but understanding that the urban organizer is not the savior of the Indigenous peoples or the rural campesinos. In a sense, this is an inversion of politics in the classical sense, which relies on the polis for its basic way of thinking in Plato and Aristotle, but that is why anarchism today manifests a fundamentally different method of thinking than is possible within a strict adherence to the tradition of Eurocentric thought.

Within your discussion of imperialist history and inter-imperialist rivalries vis-à-vis the global land grab, you suggest that, had the US and France in fact invaded northern Mali in 2013 “for the quite valid reason of combating the human rights abuses being carried out” instead of for naked geopolitical interest, their intervention would have been palatable; furthermore, with reference to the crisis in the Central African Republic (CAR), you write that “[t]he French had every reason [in 2014] to intervene in defense of human rights and CAR’s uranium deposits.” Are you taking a cynical view of “interest” and raisons d’Etat (“reasons of State”) here? What, then, would you say about NATO’s invocation of the “responsibility to protect” (R2P) doctrine as a pretext for its 2011 “intervention” in Libya?

I wouldn’t call my analysis “cynical,” but I am certainly a materialist when it comes to the “raisons d’Etat” of NATO. You have only to look at the works of Samuel Huntington and the Trilateral Commission or the Bush Doctrine or Obama’s American Exceptionalism to find out what those interests entail. I do not support NATO intervention in Africa, although I share Noam Chomsky’s belief that non-imperialist aid to democratic movements is by no means ethically wrong. What if, for instance, instead of giving military aid to the Egyptian and Turkish governments, the US sent communication equipment and supplies to the protestors in Tahrir Square and Gezi Park?  Of course, the reflexive response is, “Well, that would never happen without some pretty serious strings attached,” but that’s why the transformation of the established order of the US becomes so critical on a global basis.

During the Spanish Civil War, the Republican side was aided by thousands of people throughout Europe and the US who came to fight Fascism. Che Guevara fought with Augustinho Neto against colonial power in Angola, and the French anarchists maintained an eager engagement with the FLN [National Liberation Front] and the ideas of Ben Bella until the Boumédiène regime (recall the Situationist International’s criticism of Daniel Guérin, that his excessive support of Ben Bella made it seem as though “Over a cup of tea, he met the ‘world spirit’ of autogestion).5

NATO intervention in the interests of protecting human rights would not necessarily comprise some form of evil—the problem is, it’s a purely hypothetical situation, which I don’t believe the world has ever seen. Look at the trials of the RUF leaders and Charles Taylor in the new world court two years ago; the RUF was armed and supported by Taylor, who was working with the CIA throughout the 1980s (they even helped him break out of jail), and there is evidence that he was on the US’s payroll until 2001.  Prosecuting people for doing what you pay them to do is obviously propaganda, and that’s what so much of the “humanitarian” military or juridical intervention amounts to.  Let’s face it, the NATO countries always intervene to preserve their “interests,” and I do not believe that these “interests” have ever coincided with rule by the people. Rather, as in Mali and the Central African Republic, the “interests” of NATO coincided with colonialism and control over resources.

I believe that the structure of NATO, itself, is antithetical to popular rule, and I do not believe that NATO can ever “intervene” in defense of human rights without a special interest of preserving capitalist relations in whatever form which, in the larger picture, only serve exploitation and displacement. Obviously NATO involvement in Libya was purely cynical—the operation to take out a cornerstone in Pan-African self-reliance has left Africa more dependent on EU countries than the BRICS—and the same operation has been seen with regards to Mali and CAR.

I would like to dedicate two more questions to your analysis of Middle Eastern history and politics in Grabbing Back. First, you claim Egypt to have been a critical part of the regional US/NATO axis during the Cold War, along with Israel and Saudi Arabia—please clarify what you mean by this. Surely under Nasser, Egypt’s orientation was greatly anti-Zionist, and even under Sadat, Egypt participated with Hafez al-Assad’s forces in the 1973 “Yom Kippur War” against Israel. What is more, Egypt was federated with Syria in the United Arab Republic that lasted for three years, 1958-1961.

I admit I didn’t flesh this point out, largely because of word count constraints and my anxiety about getting bogged down in diplomatic rivalries. First of all, I feel uneasy about saying, “if a country is anti-Zionist, it is not a US ally.” Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States have long financed militant struggle against Israel, for instance. Second of all, Egypt was one of those dynamic countries whose conversion to the side of NATO in the 1970s and ’80s was arguably a tipping point in the diplomatic struggle. In the book, I state that Egypt became an ally of NATO during the Cold War, and played an establishing role against the hegemony of Russia in Libya. While Egypt maintained significant antagonisms with Israel until the peace process following the Yom Kippur War, Sadat drew closer to the US, and a terrible fallout between Libya and Egypt ensued (leading to a brief border war in 1977). Sadat’s policies were a turning point in the direction of the Third World and the Non-Aligned Movement, and Gadhafi saw this as a huge problem. Mubarak projected those policies, which were indeed devastating, throughout the 1980s, and after the Cold War “officially” ended around 1989-1991.

Next, on Syria, you rightly situate Bashar al-Assad’s Ba’athist State within the regional “hegemonic bloc” comprised by Iran and Hezbollah that stands against the U.S., Israel, and Saudi Arabia, and you claim the U.S. to have backed anti-Assad “rebels” affiliated with al-Qaeda in the civil war that has raged for years. While this latter claim has been made by the Syrian State since the very beginning of the uprising in March 2011—as it similarly was made by Gadhafi with regards to the Benghazi “freedom fighters” before he was deposed by NATO—even hegemonic Western news sources now openly concede the point, amidst recent revelations that the U.S. government provided training and arming for the ISIS militants who have established the “Islamic State” in northern Iraq and eastern Syria. Even if the CIA could somehow have performed an accurate screen of anti-Assad rebels and denied support to fundamentalist actors—neither of which conditions would seem to remotely resemble historical reality—it is undeniable that U.S. Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) allies Saudi Arabia and Qatar have contributed immensely to the cause of Islamist “rebels” in Syria and—big surprise—the subsequent rise of the Islamic State. Indeed, if ISIS commander Abu Yusaf is to be believed, even the putatively “secular” and “moderate” opposition to Assad manifested in the Free Syria Army (FSA) units have in large part decided to join the ranks of Islamic State partisans; Nafeez Ahmed, for his part, cites Pentagon sources who claim at least 50 percent of the FSA itself to be comprised of Islamic extremists.  It would seem, then, that the conflict is now centered around a regional power-struggle between Assad and the Islamic State in Syria on the one hand, and Nouri al-Maliki’s successor Haider al-Abadi and Iran against ISIS in Iraq on the other, with the Obama administration in the confused position of now drawing up military plans to attempt to crush Islamic State forces. State-fascism against Islamist-fascism, then, as Ibrahim Khair put it at Left Forum this year. What of an anti-imperialist struggle at once opposed to Ba’athist authoritarianism and Wahhabism, as has been endorsed by Syrian anarchists?

Well yes, I completely agree with that call, and I think that Valentine Moghadam makes a great case for a global justice approach in her book, Globalization and Social Movements: Islam, Feminism, and the Global Justice Movement. But then I also think Maia Ramnath makes such an important case in Decolonizing Anarchism for anarchist participation in non-sectarian liberation. Would you say to Swadeshi militants training with anarchists in Paris at the turn of the 19th Century, don’t go back to India and fight in the independence movement, because you know, eventually Vinayak Damodar Savarkar’s philosophy of Hindutva will take power through the legacy of Hindu Masahbha, and then the country will be ruled by a kind of “new fascism”? I don’t think so. There is much to be said for figures like Lala Lajpat Rai and Pandit Madan Mohan Malaviya. They weren’t anarchists and some call them populists, but they helped make Independence a joint effort. There’s always a grey area, and I think we need to support and nourish the movement for liberation. That means taking part in what Antonio Gramsci calls a “historic bloc.”

It’s important to distinguish between progressive and reactionary social movements, but the logic of counterinsurgency policing and the international prison industry complex (Guantánamo Bay being the tip of the iceberg) as well as prevalent social Islamophobia makes this prospect extremely difficult. So we have our work cut out for us in solidarity to fight Islamophobia and militarization within the US while building a mass movement to close the chapter of the War on Terror forever. That means that we, ourselves, need to be fearless in our organizing—we need to dissolve the images of terror being promulgated by the US’s foreign and public relations agencies in a movement of our own autogestion, our own self-management. Hegemony is about how groups are organized to do what and with whom, so it is important to recognize the relationships between movements and their different potentialities. There are always prospects for hope, as identities are diffused and transformed by working and communicating together collectively. Hegemony is not about who wins or who has the power; it is about building and understanding relationships and generating power.

I think we share a common dream beyond BDS (which I strongly support), in what Seyla Benhabib and others have proposed as a “Confederation of Israeli and Palestinian Peoples.” I suppose I am particularly thinking about it through my own perspective based in tendencies advocated by Bakunin and Malatesta highlighting the federalist model of anarchist organization. But what tactics could bring about such a decentralized and engaged political horizon?

Where have such secular projects (the PLO had potential as such) failed and non-secular groups like the Muslim Brotherhood succeeded (at least until Morsi’s ouster)? The Muslim Brotherhood has been tied to all kinds of terrible things, including the CIA and ISIS, but perhaps this is why they deserve further analysis; how did they take power? In his excoriating evaluation of their strategy and tactics, Sadiq Jalal Al-Azm compared the Muslim Brothers to the accion directes terrorist groups of Europe during the 1970s. Their strategy smacks of “their own brand of blind and spectacular activism, also heedless and contemptuous of consequences, long-term calculations of the chances of success or failure and so on.” Their tactics include “local attacks, intermittent skirmishes, guerrilla raids, random insurrections, senseless resistances, impatient outbursts, anarchistic assaults, and sudden uprisings.” Al-Azm downplays some of the deeper organizational models developed by the Muslim Brothers in syndicates and religious networks, and it is significant that he wrote this description before the Arab Spring. That the Muslim Brothers assumed power [in Egypt] so rapidly suggests that what seems spontaneous is not to be underestimated, and that makes it even more interesting. What if Andreas Baader and Ulrike Meinhof had suddenly become president of a united Germany—if only for a year or so—and then acted the way that Morsi had acted? This appears to be a whimsical fantasy, of course, but its the question to which Al-Azms comparison leads us.

I definitely share a common self-criticism that we romanticize resistance, and there is no sense in romanticizing the strategy and tactics of the Muslim Brotherhood, but we should learn about their successes and failures as a kind of “diagnostic of power” to use Abu-Lughods term. How did the insurrectionary strategies of the Muslim Brotherhood benefit from the mass movement organizing, and vice versa? What are the tools that we have to move forward?

It is interesting that you compare Morsi here to a theoretical German State headed by Baader and Meinhof, given the relatively more humane policies Morsi oversaw vis-à-vis Gaza when compared with Mubarak and al-Sisi, and keeping in mind the continuity of Egyptian military power as a stand-in for the very militarism and fascism which sympathizers of the Red Army Faction saw concentrated in the ruling class of the Federal Republic of Germany after Nazism.

Briefly, though, I would comment here to say that the PLO as a secular movement “failed” in its historical acceptance of the Oslo Accords (1993), which it seems to have taken in good faith—while Israel and the U.S. have spent the last 20 years upholding and expanding the former’s colonization of what remains of historical Palestine. That the PLO has since Oslo largely reduced itself to the Palestinian Authority (PA), which manages Area A lands in the West Bank as a police force in the interests of the Zionist State and the Palestinian bourgeoisie, has certainly contributed to its alienation from the Palestinian people, who overwhelmingly consider Mahmoud Abbas a puppet, fraud, and traitor—he has been the unelected President of Palestine for over five years, and he has most sordidly buried the Palestinian request that the International Criminal Court (ICC) investigate Israel’s barbarities during the ghastly “Operation Protective Edge.”  In this way, the PLO’s myriad failures cannot be dissociated from the compensatory surge in recent years of support for Hamas and the general posture of resistance (muqawama) to Zionism, which of course extends beyond Hamas to include the PFLP (Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine) and other groupings. However, it is unclear that it should be the PLO and its cadre that bear most or even much of the blame for the perpetuation of the Occupation since Oslo, considering the well-known actions of the U.S. and Israel in the past two decades; furthermore, it has been reported that Fatah’s armed wing, the Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigade, has now reactivated itself to engage Israeli forces in the West Bank. Naturally, it is to be imagined that matters would be rather different in Palestine today, had Israel not assassinated Yassir Arafat with polonium in 2004. Now, following “Protective Edge,” and in light of the insult upon injury represented by the Netanyahu administration’s announcement that Israel will be embarking in its single-largest expropriation of Palestinian land in 30 years as revenge for the murder of three Israeli youth which initiated this vicious episode of colonial violence, the situation is most acute, arguably the worst it has been since the beginning of the Oslo period. In Hegelian fashion, we can hope that Israel’s mindless brutality will only accelerate the coming of its downfall—much in the tradition of Rhodesia and other reactionary regimes similarly dedicated to white-supremacism.

Thinking of the children of Palestine—particularly those of Gaza, who are the living embodiment of Naji al-Ali’s iconic Handala character—we are also struck by the plight of the thousands of Central American migrant children who have arrived at the U.S. border en masse in recent months. Aviva Chomsky has stressed the role that imperialist history and present U.S. foreign policy have played in destabilizing these children’s home societies of Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras, while her father Noam plainly asks why Nicaragua is not included within the list of sender-countries for these children: “Could it be that when Washington’s sledgehammer was battering the region in the 1980s, Nicaragua was the one country that had an army to defend the population from U.S.-run terrorists, while in the other three countries the terrorists devastating the countries were the armies equipped and trained by Washington?” To what extent do you see capital and the global land grab as intersecting with the global “pediatric crisis,” if we can call it that—not only in Gaza or Central America, or in Japan after Fukushima, but throughout the globe? Can the children of the world save the world’s children, as Dr. Gideon Polya asks?

The extent is terrible, because it is not merely the land grabs themselves but the political blowback that continues to have a cascading effect on global politics. In Mali, where an uprising in 2012 was caused in no small part by the liberal land and agricultural policies of the Amadou Toumani Touré government, nearly half a million people were displaced virtually overnight. With the ongoing food crisis in Northern Mali, the effect on children, in particular, is egregious. Ethiopia’s forced villagization program is an even more direct example of the global refugee crisis being created by the thirst for land coming from countries all over the world—including Saudi Arabia, China, India, and South Korea, as well as the North Atlantic countries.

Israel poses an interesting model, because land grabs have been accelerating every year, and as you mention, it reflects not only a kind of economic exigency, but a revanchist, populist sentiment. According to the UN, Israel has made 1,500 new orphans with its Protective Edge, and has made the largest land grab in 30 years in the aftermath. At the same time, Israel really has to be viewed geopolitically in terms of the hegemonic contest between the North Atlantic and the BRICS countries, where the fighting in Syria becomes critical, because Syria manifests Russias cornerstone in the region. The civil war stoked by the US and leading to the exponential growth of IS has led to a refugee crisis with 6.5 million internally displaced people and three million refugees in other states. Over 1.5 million of these Syrian refugees are children, according to the UN.

The US intervention in propelling ISIS to power and supporting the revolt against Assad seems to have been generally based on a desire to control infrastructure and hegemony in the region. So the terrible refugee crisis in and around Syria and Iraq can be viewed ultimately as locked into this New Great Game that has transpired from Afghanistan to Syria as an attempt to control the world’s diminishing fossil fuels, as well as farmland, mines, and other raw materials.

Within the diplomatic crises of warring states, you have an economic model of developmentalism, or “neoliberalism with Southern characteristics,” which leans heavily on extractivism and is propelled forward by the BRICS countries. There is a moral obligation for dewesternization of global hegemony, but it does not extend to a repetition of the mistakes of state capitalism. For example, does a new “development bank of the South” sound like something that will bring more wealth to terribly impoverished countries who really need it? I believe so, yes, and it is also a process of the accumulation of capital; will it not create greater ethnic divides and wealth disparities, as in Gujarat or the events surrounding the World Cup in Brazil? One can’t say, but it seems as though a reversion to “neoliberalism with Southern characteristics” is not an adequate goal.

Most essentially, during this process of land seizures for resource exploitation, people are displaced from the countryside, move to the cities, add to unsustainable food and water systems, and often further displace the urban poor. This works on these interconnected levels of international and domestic crisis, so it would be ridiculous to criticize without acknowledging NATO’s fundamental role in this postcolonial system. Taking action domestically to bring down the one percent, while providing an alternative model for the future.

In terms of Middle Eastern radical politics, the Kurdish freedom movement has certainly undergone a fascinating evolution from affirming the Leninism of yesteryear to now embracing Murray Bookchin’s social ecology, or “democratic confederalism.” In fact, Reflections on a Revolution (ROAR) has just published a lengthy examination of these libertarian-socialist achievements, which would seem to include a conscious rejection of money as an organizing principle, a marked stress on women’s emancipation and participation in society, and even a ban on deforestation and an encouragement of vegetarianism. Arguably, the Kurdish resistance represents among the most encouraging signs of the times, wouldn’t you agree?

It’s not so much a question of whether I support the peshmerga, but what openings are available. In a search for encouraging signs of the times, I think beginning with the Kurdish freedom movement is a fine place to start. In fact, when I was in the planning stages of Grabbing Back, I thought that including a piece about Kurdish liberation would be wise, but it did not work out—but not for lack of trying! It’s a well-known fact that the some of the Kurdish factions have had a rather close relationship with the US and Israel for some time, as has the Kurdish intelligence service, and collaborated against Saddam and Iran. Recall that Saddam used the chemical weapons that Reagan sent him to gas the Kurds, and Madeline Albright came to his defense when he was accused of war crimes. The history of this region is very complex and involves many traumatic moments, which involve a cautious understanding, not only of the organizations and movements, themselves, but of the potentialities within those entities for both autonomous liberation and co-optation by the US armed forces. This is why it’s exciting that New Compass Press recently has published a book about the Kurdish democracy movements, gender liberation, and ecology.

In the epilogue to Grabbing Back, you discuss the Spanish, Algerian, and Mexican Revolutions as luminous historical examples of autogestion, and you identify the Zapatista Army of National Liberation (EZLN) as a heartening contemporary embodiment of the practice of self-management. I very much agree, and with regards to the focus of your book, I would highlight the EZLN’s recent joint declaration with delegates from the National Indigenous Congress (CNI) against the “plundering of [their] peoples.”  Yet, reflecting on the neo-Zapatista example, you claim it to have been inspired by “the militancy of peasant-led anarchist movements during the Mexican Revolution,” particularly—as is befitting—the indigenous insurgents who formed part of Emiliano Zapata’s Ejército Libertador del Sur (“Liberatory Army of the South”). I would like first to ask whether the original Zapatistas can rightfully be called anarchists. While the Plan de Ayala of 1911 can be said to have anarchistic elements, especially given the stress on devolving lands controlled by hacendados to those who work it, and though Zapata personally was friends with famed anarchist revolutionary Ricardo Flores Magón, the General was not necessarily opposed to individual holdings in land, if memory serves, and he is said to have expressed confusion and disagreement with Magón on this very matter.

I don’t want to romanticize Algerian or Spanish autogestion, because there was a lot that didn’t go well. Then again, we can learn from those movements, and understand that perhaps they were a step in the right direction—self-management and mutual aid. I do believe that the EZLN is a heartening model of these kinds of dialectics today—of course, it’s not without its problems, but no group is, and those must be addressed from a constructive position (namely, within their group). My reference to “peasant-led anarchist movements” is, of course, a generalization of a discursive field of very contentious, complex political and social relationships that created the revolutionary movement of Magón and Zapata.

There is a large and ongoing debate about whether or not Zapata was an anarchist, and I find neither side to be completely convincing. Zapata had his own revolutionary persona and program to quote Colin M. MacLachlan, but he was also radically influenced by Magóns indisputably anarchist platform, and remained ideologically close to those anarchist principles. He was also studying Kropotkin while first engaging in land struggles, and remained closer to his troops than Magón to his.

It returns to the question of what makes you an anarchist? Are you an anarchist, because you assert yourself as an anarchist? From what I understand, David Graeber doesnt think so—since anarchism is about praxis, if you carry out anarchist praxis, then you would be an anarchist. Of course, being called anarchist by others does not necessarily make you an anarchist either (unless we are thinking through a Sartrean argument of identity and the Other, as in his fascinating text, Anti-Semite and Jew). But what if your practical work corresponds to anarchist ideas?

Is it not possible to apply a label of anarchist with the little-a as an adjective and not an identity? Godwin, for instance, never used the word anarchy at all, but not only is he universally thought of as an anarchist, he is even called “the father of anarchism,” for having influenced anarchists like Percy Shelley.

Proudhon, as the first person to really popularize and advocate “anarchy” realized its power as just that, an adjective that the ruling class utilized to describe the general order of the masses, the peasants, the workers. He used “anarchy” more as a way of stirring the pot and stoking controversy than as way of setting into order a new ideological regime.

You know, for me, I get sick and tired of the sectarian bitterness around labels. The fact is, Kropotkin called himself a communist and an anarchist communist; Bakunin called himself an anarchist and a socialist; Emma Goldman called herself an anarchist communist, Berkman a communist anarchist; the old IWW folks read Marx, believed in union syndicalism, and appreciated anarchism. I agree with José Rabasa that “When Hardt and Negri define ‘communism,’ we can imagine Flores Magón and Marcos agreeing….” Similarly, I think we can imagine Zapata’s “persona and program” within the general parameters of anarchism—the more “outside” it seems, the better.

For a similar reason, I dont necessarily think anarchism is about the absolute seizure of all individual land holdings, nor does Grabbing Back seem totally in that spirit. In Perrys essay, for instance, there is a general defense of the neighborhood by a black womens neighborhood association, and the women seem to open their homes or belongings to a commons. Their mode of organization is horizontal, and they do not accept fixed hierarchies of leadership. They are already participating in the commons, both intellectually and physically, and thats part of their practical struggle to defend their land; the commons are not a post-revolutionary end point” or a prerevolutionary dogma.  They happen through praxis.

The commons is an idea of participation and collective organization, not of an abstract proprietary system, and I would say that the non-authoritarian struggle for the commons is the basic structure of anarchism. Now if we say, “this person is not anarchist, because they have not proclaimed themselves as such,” I think we are using anarchism as a reductive ideological framework, whereas the concept, itself, is more dynamic.

For the same reason, I think Marx rejected the idea of Marxism. Some people believe that Marx believed in the total communalization of all things on earth, but it is more complex than that. He saw the commune as a collection of heterogeneous social relations with intimate relations to nature—not as property, but as something else (see his discourse on the commune in the Grundrisse, for instance). If you look to Proudhon as well, he says property is robbery, but then how can you hypostasize theft if there is not ownership in the first place? Proudhon defines capitalism as a system of legalized robbery, but it is robbery in a special way—not of private property, but of possession, a rightful sense of what’s due, where the basic structure of value is destroyed. I think there is room for an understanding of possession with dignity; not along the old “mine and thine” paradigm, but along the lines of use value, in particular.

Most collectives function through an assumption of mutual dignity, which appreciates aspects of generative gift giving, barter, and trade. Such mutuality is part of a sense of belonging that is collected and developed through individual contributions. I think that the individual develops out of the social, and not the other way around, but individuals develop different affinities that reshape and transform the social. Hence, unique characteristics are developed, while a collective story is generated. Of course, relationships are at the core, and it is through those relationships that we understand consensus of how things belong, either individually or collectively.

The idea of the the gift in anthropology is really interesting here, because it shows that, while individuals do not necessarily select the things that are given to them, they are said to possess the gift once it is given (and expected to give something back of superior value). Similarly, the usage of money in noncapitalist societies does not hold the same sense of exchange value; it is primarily a use value of exchange that manifests a different feeling of expenditure. I think David Graebers work in Debt: The First 5,000 Years as well as Towards an Anthropological Theory of Value is pretty fascinating in giving insight into these forms of relationship-building baseline communism that dont take away from individual achievement or personal growth.

Also regarding Mexico and the epilogue, you note the dialectical process whereby communal property in land—the ejido system—was enshrined in the 1917 Mexican Constitution yet progressively degraded in fact thereafter by neoliberalism until the coming of NAFTA in 1994, which “effectively liquidated” the power of the ejidos, on your account. Please clarify what you mean by this. I know that the ejidal system continues to provide a robust model of participatory decision-making and substantive equality in land distribution for a great number of indigenous and campesin@ communities in southern Mexico even nowtwo decades after the beginning of NAFTA, the concurrent amendment of Article 27 of the Constitution, and the introduction of land-privatization programs like PROCEDE and FANAR, to say nothing of the state-sponsored terror imposed by paramilitary groups like Paz y Justicia against EZLN sympathizers in Chiapas in the 1990’s.

You are correct, on the one hand, in insisting that we maintain adequacy to the facts regarding the continued struggle of ejidos in general, as many ejidos do still exist and have continued the revolutionary tradition of resistance to illegal land grabs since NAFTA—for instance, in Atenco and Chiapas.

It also depends on how you interpret the law. Manuel Castells believes that the transformation of Article 27 of the Mexican Constitution “ended communal possession of agricultural property by the villagers (ejidos), in favor of full commercialization of individual property, another measure directly related to Mexico’s alignment with privatization in accordance with NAFTA” (The Power of Identity, 78). In Life During Wartime, Fatima Insolación claims that the revision of Article 27 “allowed peasants to use their land as collateral for loans. Many farmers took out loans, which they were unable to service due to currency devaluation, the associated cost of living increases, and an inability to compete in the ‘free market.’”6 This is what I consider the greatest aspect of liquidation done through the free market; communal land holdings are turned into capital through loans that are impossible to pay off, so the property is turned over to the banks, which allow aggregation and transnational corporate land grabs. David Harvey marks this process as a kind of “accumulation by dispossession,” linking the “reform” of the ejidos to the subprime market crash and other neoliberal land grabs.7 Public Citizen documents the change after NAFTA, showing that in just ten years, the income of farm workers dropped by two-thirds, while millions of people became refugees from the lack of opportunity, growing violence, and drug wars that emerged particularly in Southern Mexico.

I think that the basic source of disputation is marked by a difference between what we might call the “ejido system” as the formal, constitution-based juridicial system of protection of indigenous land holdings, and what we would think of as a more general ejido system, which manifests traditional landholdings that have been in place since well before the 16th Century. The question of “What to do with ejidos?” has been an issue faced by governing regimes of Mexico since the Spaniards seized power—for instance, the Constitution of 1857, which incorporated the Ley Lerdo, and institutionalized ejidos as civil corporations. I in no way want to claim that there are no more ejidos, or that the power of the traditional form of agriculture has been liquidated. At the same time, Article 27 has been modified in order to privatize and “open up” markets, such that the system as it existed from 1917 until 1991 was transformed or “rolled back” in the words of Roger Burbach to a kind of neocolonial state.

A final question for you, Sasha. You write in the epilogue to Grabbing Back that we may not have much time left, given the profundity of the ecological crisis—a distressing reality that is certainly not lost on your colleague Helen Yost, who pens a moving report about the dignity of resistance to tar sands megaloads in northern Idaho for the volume. For his part, Chomsky has just written a column in which he employs the metaphor of the Athenian owl of Minerva—who begins her flight, as Hegel observed, only with the falling of dusk—as an extra-historical or even extra-terrestrial judge of the course of human history, which may well be coming to a violent end because of catastrophic climate change. Indeed, Chomsky cites Arundhati Roy’s recent note on the receding Siachen Glacier in the Himalayas, the site of various battles between the Indian and Pakistani armies since 1947, as the “most appropriate metaphor for the insanity of our times”: there, the disappearing glacier is revealing “thousands of empty artillery shells, empty fuel drums, ice axes, old boots, tents and every other kind of waste that thousands of warring human beings generate” in meaningless conflict. Amidst the depths of negation promised by climate catastrophe, what would you say are our responsibilities as activists committed to human freedom and the health of our Mother Earth? Is it just all for nought—a tale “told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing”?

In a Hegelian sense, I suppose it can be said to be a negative process. Then again the Omnis determinatio est negatio [“All determination is negation,” Hegel with Spinoza] returns us to autonomous times and history as “the development of the order of freedom,” as Martin Luther King, Jr., notedI think an important concern is organizing sustainable infrastructure like gardens, tool libraries, schools, and skill shares in our neighborhoods while also reaching out to indigenous communities whose land has been stolen, and who may appreciate mutual aid. What really hits home in Chomsky’s essay is the sense of meaninglessness—I think we create meaning by doing, we actuate meaning, and destruction of our work is an attempt to destroy actual meaningful existence. We perhaps require such a transformative chain of events that one would not even recognize the way of thinking “after the orgy,” as Baudrillard used to say.

What are we going to do after the People’s Climate March? My problem with the Climate Movement in its broadest formulation is that it opens the door to false solutions like agrofuels and fracking for gas, while destroying the land base. Water is a diminishing resource in the world today; we need to defend the land and radically transform the political and economic systems annihilating the planet, and I think that means we need to start thinking climate change beyond the current parameters of the movement and toward genuinely understanding problems of global justice that accompany the acknowledgment of biodiversity and the interconnectedness of all things.

That being said, there’s a tremendous need for mass mobilization to fight imperialism and climate change, which you correctly position in the same category, and that isn’t possible without also truly involving oneself in community efforts against environmental racism and extractive industry, as David Osborne recently noted in a critique of the climate march. We have to avoid the crushing homogeneity of misdirected populism in the sense of supporting or pandering to the conventional parties’ platforms just because they tell us what we want to hear. They have always betrayed their promise to the people, and it’s time to say, “We’ve had enough.” But we also can’t fall into the trap of attacking populism, as such, from an elitist point of view; I agree with Fanon that an idea is liberating insofar as you can use it tactically to recognize “the open door of every consciousness.” Once that door starts closing, it’s time to move on.

Perhaps that idea of the eternal return, what Nietzsche ideated as “how I become who I am,” brings us back to process of revolution in time: we find a kind of satisfaction in growth, but we only find real development in sustainability. All of life is in rebellion against the foreclosure of consciousness that is modernity. Finding another way is also a process of expressing revolutionary joy, and learning how to teach or spread that feeling to others.

1 For a general history of the movement against neoliberalism in Argentina, see the documentary Social Genocide: Memoria Del Saqueo: Argentina’s Economic Collapse, dir: Fernando E. Solanas, (ADR Production, 2004).

2 Teo Ballvé, “The De Soto Dillema: Squatters and Urban Land Tilting,” (The New School University: New York City, Mar 20, 2008).

3 See Walter Mignolo, The Darker Side of Western Modernity (Duke University Press: Chapel Hill, 2011), 72.

4 See James C. Scott, Seeing Like a State: How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed (Yale University Press: New Haven, 1998), 39n74.

5 For this latter part, see David Porter, Eyes to the South: French Anarchists and Algeria (AK Press: Oakland, 2011), 113 [also, Internationale Situationiste, no. 10 (March 1966), 80.]

6 Fatima Insolación, Life During Wartime: Resisting Counterinsurgency, (AK Press: Oakland, 2013), 189.

7 See David Harvey, The New Imperialism, (Oxford University Press: Oxford, 2003), 152-161.

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.

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[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.