Posts Tagged ‘revolution’

At The Base in Brooklyn: Investigating the Mutual Affinities among Marcuse and Bakunin, Magón and Benjamin

December 9, 2015

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On Saturday 12/19 at 7pm, I will speak at The Base in Brooklyn on “Marcuse and Bakunin, Magón and Benjamin: Investigating Mutual Affinities.”  This will be a revised and improved version of the talk I gave at the 2015 New York City Anarchist Bookfair (NYC ABF) eight months ago.  An abstract follows:

This talk examines the close affinities among four important historical radicals, half of them renowned anarchists from Russia and Mexico—Mikhail Bakunin and Ricardo Flores Magón, respectively—and the other half German Jewish critical theorists: Herbert Marcuse and Walter Benjamin. The similarities between Marcuse and Bakunin on the one hand and Magón and Benjamin on the other are striking, in terms of philosophy, revolutionary commitment, and personal lives. Marcuse and Bakunin share a common passion for Hegelian dialectics, the radical negation of the status quo, and the critique of Karl Marx, while Magón and Benjamin enthusiastically committed themselves to journalism and the written word as a means of subverting bourgeois society—beyond both of these latter having been martyred in U.S. federal prison and at the hands of Fascists, respectively, due to their revolutionary militancy. Indeed, all four thinkers have numerous affinities among themselves that transcend this convenient dyadic coupling suggested in the title. With this presentation, the speaker seeks to review the mutual affinities among these radicals and to open space for reflection on the meaning of their thoughts and lives for anarchist and anti-systemic struggle today.

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Review of Herbert Marcuse’s Paris Lectures at Vincennes University (1974)

October 27, 2015
The Burning of the House of Lords and Commons, 16th October 1834 exhibited 1835 Joseph Mallord William Turner 1775-1851 Philadelphia Museum of Art: The John Howard McFadden Collection, 1928 http://www.tate.org.uk/art/work/TW1258

J. M. W. Turner, “The Burning of the House of Lords and Commons” (1834). Philadelphia Museum of Art.

Published on Heathwood Press on 27 October 2015.  Co-written with R.C. Smith

Herbert Marcuse’s Paris Lectures at Vincennes University
ed. Peter-Erwin Jansen, Charles Reitz
142 pp. – $20
ISBN: 1512319023
CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform, 2015

Discovered in 2014 by Peter-Erwin Jansen, then annotated and edited by Jansen and Charles Reitz for publication in 2015, Herbert Marcuse’s 1974 Paris Lectures at Vincennes University do not necessarily provide any radical new material in comparison to some of the well-known works which he was already writing at the time when these lectures originally took place. That is to say that there is no grand treasure of previously unseen revolutionary insight waiting to be discovered in these hitherto unpublished manuscripts. With that observation in mind, what makes these lectures significant and worth reading for the Marcuse scholar has to do with some of the finer nuances of analysis that Marcuse presents regarding American society as the most advanced stage of monopoly capitalism. His discussion on the dynamic forces of revolution and counterrevolution are also notable in this regard. When considered in the context of his more major works, these lectures provide further insight into Marcuse’s overall critical theory. For the non-Marcuse scholar on the other hand – that is, the conscious citizen looking to understand the dynamic context of contemporary neoliberal capitalism and its historic genesis – this book offers an entry point into Marcuse’s thought and his excellent, highly reliable analysis of our modern times. This potential entry into Marcuse’s social philosophy is further reinforced by supplementary commentary by Sarah Surak, Detlev Claussen, and Douglas Kellner.

Integration, the dialectic between rulers and ruled, and new social movements

Though these lectures were first presented in 1974, Marcuse’s sharp analysis of some of the key trends of American society at the time highlight much of what we continue to observe today. In some instances, it could be said that Marcuse even anticipates what we now identify as neoliberalism, not to mention the rise of the mass-surveillance state and the underlying struggle and emergence of contemporary social movements.

Consider, for example, his discussion on the integration of the population with the dominant and coercive system of capital. By “integration” Marcuse means to describe: “the acceptance of, and even the identification with, the capitalist system among the majority of the population, including the majority of the working class” (p. 22). The general thrust of Marcuse’s analysis in this regard is the manner in which the dominant forces of contemporary society (the ‘bad totality’) attempt to keep people “within the framework of the capitalist system and, perhaps, even within the frame work of the capabilities of capitalism” (p. 22). As Marcuse explains, this integration is understood to take place “on three very different levels” (p. 22). The first is the sphere of consumption in which, “In satisfying the needs beyond the mere subsistence needs for a large part […] of the population, the increasing productivity of the service industries churns out more and more comforts, luxuries, and services like organized vacations, traveling, and so on and so on. These are powerful mechanisms which bind people to the established system” (pp. 22-23). In a sense these mechanisms of control help mask over surplus repression. They deflect from the suffering and misery which, in many ways, becomes the hidden reality of capitalist society. This is especially so, Marcuse explains, “when the people cannot imagine a better alternative” (p. 23).

The second level is what Marcuse terms “the management of the mind” (p. 23), which means “the consciousness as well as the unconscious” of the subject. In a sense, what Marcuse is surveying here is a reality we now know all too well: the maintenance of the present social order through structural and systemic mechanisms, albeit sometimes subtle, of control and coercion. The rise of the mass-surveillance state, as Edward Snowden has disclosed, is a perfect example. It is worth noting that it is an example that Marcuse also references in his lectures, decades before Snowden’s leaks revealed the hidden reality of state surveillance programs. Other examples can be found in what Marcuse describes as “two less noticeable phenomena, namely, the release and the satisfaction of primary aggression” (p. 23). In other words, “The increasing violence of films and television” as well as “The increasing aggressiveness in sports and entertainment, and so on” are exemplifications of a sinister psychological paradigm, one which we first learn about in the work of Freud. This paradigm, this play of psychic forces, can be described according “to the degree to which a social system frees the aggressive instincts of man and woman and at the same time succeeds in keeping them within the established framework so that they don’t blow up the society, that this satisfaction of aggressiveness strengthens the society which produces such satisfaction” (pp. 23-24).

To further describe the reality that Marcuse is pointing toward, we could cite several other phenomena as practical examples, including the self-deceiving satisfaction of consumerism. At the heart of consumerism and, equally, the greed and egoism commonly observed in contemporary society, is the unleashing and ultimate rationalization of excessive or rapacious desire for material goods, which, in many ways, is linked to deepening repression. On the one hand, consumerism reinforces the existing system; it strengthens some of the basic drives of contemporary capitalist society. On the other hand, in unleashing greed and egoism and rapacious desire, there is a sort of strange rationale on a systemic level which moralizes greed and attempts to keep the ailing psychology of consumerism in check. Thus, in the case of the Libor scandal for example, where it was discovered that banks were falsely inflating or deflating their rates so as to profit from trades, the bankers involved were condemned on a moral level. They were labelled as ‘greedy’ and ‘immoral’ and, in some cases, it was even argued that these bankers were in no way a representation of the system they inhabit. In popular discourse and reaction, it was rare to see any question of the capitalist context, of the logic or rational of modern political economy, which fosters the sort of behaviour of the bankers in question on the basis of the very impulses the contemporary social system unleashes. Thus, in an odd way, we observe another case of the degree to which the contemporary social system fosters, supports or frees antagonistic forces of man and woman while at the same time endeavouring to keep these destructive forces and impulses within the established framework. The satisfaction of greed and rapacious desire, as opposed to generosity, solidarity and egalitarianism, strengthens the system which produces such satisfaction; but it is moralized so as to ensure the maintenance of that system.

The final, third level “on which integration takes place is systematic and overt repression” (p. 24). Marcuse cites a particularly relevant example which concerns many young people today. To quote in full:

Students know all too well, for example, that if there is anything that indicates radical activity on their record, it will be all but impossible for them to find a job, especially with the entirely negative job market.

Allied with this systematic repression we witness a reduction of civilized sensibilities. You only have to look at some of the decisions made by the Supreme Court in the last years in order to see the dangerous extent of this reduction of civil liberties and, at the same time, the systematic and methodical increase in the power of the police, the National Guard, and other so-called forces of law and order.

This may suffice in order at least to outline the integration, the popular support of the system and some of the basic mechanisms which engender this support.

Following this, Marcuse turns his attention to a fruitful discussion “on the question of who is the actual agent of this repression”, or, as he rephrases, “who is actually the dominant class, the ruling class which is in control of American society” (p. 25). Here another example of particular relevance in our attempt to understand the broader social trends of contemporary society might be found, as Marcuse discusses the dialectic between rulers and ruled, offering some key passages which could be said to describe certain aspects of the unfolding of the contemporary neoliberal context (pp. 27-29). Referring back to the analyses offered by C. Wright Mills, Marcuse reiterates that “domination over the capitalist societies today is shared and organized by three groups” (p. 27), namely corporate leaders, politicians and the military. He then describes how this ruling class, “which not only is not monolithic but permeated with antagonisms, has a common feature, namely, the preservation of the established system” (p. 28). It is along these lines where Marcuse offers a valuable insight which further highlights the importance of this text in these early years of the 21st Century. He argues, when discussing the dialectical relationship between rulers and ruled, that the “various components of indoctrination, manipulation, and management of the mind also become […] instruments for expressing the will and the interests of the indoctrinated population” (p. 28). In essence, Marcuse is explaining the relation between structure and agency, in which “the government and its institutions, the ruling class, systematically makes what is called public opinion, but once made, this public opinion, which is constantly being reasserted, has in turn its own influence on the policy makers” (p. 28). One could argue that this practice is even more prevalent now, after decades of liberalization, in which the growing appearance of freedom – to debate policy or to vote according to one’s own will – is actually countered insofar that the people participate in the rule of society – that is, in the perpetuation of the misery of dominant, coercive and hierarchical social, economic and political conditions.

The people can indeed express their will, which is no longer their will but has been made their will by the ruling class and its instrumentalities. The people as authors, the people as buyers and sellers, in turn influence the policy of the rulers. […] There is no doubt that the people who cast their vote in any election are even, in the sense of the system, free people because nobody forces them to vote. But, still, are these the same people who can become subjects of radical change? (p. 29)

There is something horrifying about the reality that Marcuse is surveying here – a trend which, perhaps now more than ever, can be observed in its fullest. It is debatable, firstly, whether one’s vote can actually influence the policy of rulers. The crisis in Greece is a clear example of why such a question is justified. Even in the so-called radical party politics in the UK and the US led by Jeremy Corbyn and Bernie Sanders respectively, there is still an element of conformism – an element of conservativism, which, in essence, attests to the deepening of the status quo. The “oppositional” economic policies outlined by Corbyn and Sanders alike are really not that radical. They are viewed as progressive precisely because the social, political and economic context has, after so many years – perhaps beginning with the fall of the movements from the 60s and 70s – moved so far to the right. The arguably general absence of radical political subjectivity within these two examples of so-called radical Left party politics today attests to what Marcuse was indicating decades earlier. In a sense, the dialectic between rulers and ruled has developed beyond Marcuse’s conception, if we consider that, in the very existence of the party itself, the status quo of a less-than-revolutionary politics is upheld. Moreover, there is a distinction which must be drawn today – a distinction between the radical subjectivity of autonomous participatory (democratic) movements and the so-called radical subjectivity of the party, particularly as the politics of the latter persists as an extension of the hierarchical and institutional world, and, generally speaking, is framed largely by the ideology of representative democracy (i.e., democratic capitalism). It is debatable whether Marcuse was feeling his way toward this distinction in his 1974 lectures, but one could interpret his argument along such lines when he writes: “that there is a feedback, there is indeed a considerable degree of activity, opinions, and attitudes by the people influencing the government, and that on the other hand at least recognize themselves in their leaders” (p. 31). He then leaves us with one remark which is particularly telling:

The people as authors, the people as buyers and sellers, in turn influence the policy of the rulers. And it is interesting to think back, and not too long back, when among the American Left the slogan was “Power to the People.” “Power to the People.” The slogan is now used to far less a degree because the question “Who are the people?” cannot for any length of time be postponed (p. 29).

In some respects, the distinction highlighted above seems to be playing out today between the emergence of new social movements – which are grassroots, participatory, generally prefigurative, and more or less horizontal – and the lingering ideology of party representation. One could argue that it is, in part, the question “Who are the people?” that contemporary movements are attempting to answer in precisely the same way that they are also responding to the crisis of democracy. In other words, the question “Who are the people?” is symptomatic of alienation, socially and politically. The correct response is not a turn further away from democratic assembly and participation, to a further deepening of the questionable satisfaction of collective reliance on a leader; it is instead a revitalizing of the idea of the commons, of the grassroots, of collective struggle and solidarity – that is, dealienation on several levels. Occupy-style movements are a perfect example of the general political horizon contemporary social movements are suggestive of in this regard. Attempting on the level of praxis to answer questions around the contemporary crisis of democracy, participatory politics and what it means to be ‘public’ in twenty-first century society, the very political concept and definition of “the people” is brought into direct focus, so much so that the existence of hierarchy is challenged on the basis of a ‘mutually recognising’ politics which insists that the ultimate goal of emancipatory change must be, from the start, a product of (dealienating) interaction.

For Marcuse, the real possibility of a revolution in the most advanced industrial countries is one “not on a basis of poverty and misery, but rather on the basis of wasted abundance” (p. 49). Even though misery and suffering and struggle still play more of a role than what Marcuse may let on, especially now in the context of neoliberal austerity and the systematic dismantling of the welfare state, he is nevertheless on to something when he writes:

The result of the ever more explosive contradiction is the gradual development of what we may call an anti-capitalist consciousness; the development of an anti-capitalist consciousness and of an anti-capitalist mental structure, unconscious, among the population in the metropoles, a consciousness still largely unorganized, spontaneous, without definite goals, but, in any case, the consciousness and instincts, drives, “compulsions,” which very definitely come into conflict with the operational values required to sustain the capitalist system. That is to say, the protest comes into conflict with the so-called performance principle, which is the reality principle governing capitalist society. And against this performance principle, we see now the gradual emergence of an opposition―and I repeat, an opposition still unorganized, still to a great extent spontaneous―an opposition against toil as such, an opposition against alienated labor as a full-time job, opposition against the fact that life for the vast majority of the population, is to cite the phrase from Marx, “life as a means to an end and not as an end in itself,” namely life as a means to make a living, as one says, as a means for daily reproducing one’s own existence without ever, or only when it is too late, getting at the joy of really enjoying life (pp. 56-57).

Perhaps it is no coincidence that, in various instances of Occupy-style events and the ‘movements of the squares’, protest and struggle are just as present in action and language as joy, solidarity, and collective caring. Returning back to the joy of life, while practicing and experimenting with variations of participatory democracy and actual egalitarian possibilities – public and co-operative libraries, public medical tents, solidarity kitchens, social clinics, mutual aid networks, sustainability initiatives, self-managed workplaces – can it be that contemporary movements represent a more developed politics than what Marcuse saw fragments of in his own time? Is it not that these occupied spaces, these commons-oriented and participatory spaces of practice, are built on the idea of alternative forms of social relations which, in the process, seem to demonstrate a more mature form of the sort of new revolutionary movements of the 60s and 70s?  That contemporary social movements are beginning to emerge in challenge against not only the economic status quo but also the social, relational, emotional, psychological, political, cultural, and so on, attests in many ways to the many-sided transformative politics that Marcuse spent years arguing toward. To conclude this thought, consider the passage below in relation to some of the social movements we are witnessing throughout the world today, who aim toward a radical egalitarian and democratic horizon and seem to suggest some sense of a critically retrieved and holistic notion of social progress:

What is required to bring out the full, entire, and qualitative difference between socialism and capitalism is not so much the continued ever more efficient development of the productive forces, but the total redirection of the productive forces altogether towards new goals and toward a new quality of life. Now, in view of this fact, there must be not only the political and economic revolution, not only new institutions and basic social relationships, but also the reversal and subversion of the entire system of values that kept at least Western civilization going, going on the ever more repressive and destructive aspects, until this very day (pp. 59-60).

Capital, radical consciousness, and world-historical revolution

As alluded earlier, one of Marcuse’s principal concerns in the 1974 Vincennes lectures is to continue with a lifetime of investigation into the conditions underpinning the reproduction of the “bad totality” that is global capitalism, as juxtaposed with the possibilities of breaking free from this “Iron Cage,” to use Weberian terminology. As in his “Assessment” of “The Movement in a New Era of Repression” (1971), he observes in these lectures that the contemporary U.S. left lacks a “mass base” among the populace precisely because of the strength of integration, while on the other hand he laments the “sad phenomenon” whereby the oppressed racial and national minorities in the U.S. have been depoliticized and suppressed (p. 4)—thus blunting the revolutionary hopes he had identified as emanating from militant people of color at the conclusion of One-Dimensional Man (1964). The critical theorist moreover notes that, on the international stage, the “arrangement” the U.S. ruling class has made with the Soviet Union contributes to the overall stabilization of world capitalism, and he presciently speculates that a similar “arrangement” would be made with the People’s Republic of China (p. 7). Defining the “objective conditions” as “the strength or weakness of the State or the ruling class [versus] the strength or weakness of the working class,” Marcuse soberly acknowledges that the prevailing tendency is toward neo-fascism rather than any kind of socialism (p. 13, 10). In this sense, Marcuse observes knowingly that the problem of consciousness—the “subjective conditions”—does not have to do with any lack of knowledge regarding the factual situation, for the implicit and expressed political philosophy of the conformist majority in late-capitalist society would seem to be driven much more by powerlessness:

Yes, there are the objective conditions which one knows well: It is repression; it is corruption; capitalism no longer works without   inflation, unemployment, etc., etc. But what can one do? Nothing at all. (p. 18)

In idealistic terms, Marcuse counterposes against such widespread resignation the radical consciousness, which in Kantian terms mobilizes the “imagination as a cognitive faculty” to show “that the impossible is not impossible” (p. 16). It is in this sense that the radical consciousness is “way ahead” of the objective conditions, for it dialectically “projects potentiality in the objective conditions” and “anticipates possibilities not yet realized” (p. 18). Though Marcuse clearly sympathizes with this latter approach, he defines both the conformist and radical consciousness alike as manifestations of false consciousness—insofar as the latter refuses to apply a Marxist analysis to the changes in the capitalist system since the nineteenth century (p. 19). Speaking to the disillusionment felt by many of those formerly in opposition when ‘the Revolution’ was not consummated at the end of the 1960s, Marcuse criticizes the disengagement into which many radicals fell: “Any absenteeism from political life, any absenteeism from links with political activity is escapist and is conformist” (p. 33). Taking an historical view, the critical theorist observes that social revolution is a process, and that it cannot be presumed to be without its regressions. This is particularly the case for the world-historical revolution that Marcuse anticipated as possible for the end of the twentieth century or the beginning of the twenty-first: being “more radical and more sweeping in scope than all preceding historical revolutions,” this “would be a revolution not only in the political and economic institutions, not only a revolution in class structure, but also a total transformation and subversion of values in all spheres and dimensions of the material and intellectual cultures” (p. 59; emphasis added). The philosopher observes that:

we cannot possibly assume that the largest and most radical revolution in history […] would come about in a straightly ascending curve and would come about in a relatively short time. (p. 34)

Though Marcuse remains faithful to the possibility of this world-historical revolutionary transformation, and agrees with Marx that it would have to centrally include the advanced-capitalist core of the world-system, he specifies in the Vincennes lectures that he expects this revolution to be the work of “75 to 150 years” (p. 34)—in an echo of the closing lines to Counterrevolution and Revolt (1972). He clarifies that, though he believes the prospects for this revolution to be long-term, it will never come if the radical opposition does not strive to incubate it now.

As in Counterrevolution and Revolt, Marcuse in these lectures also discusses the phenomenon of the vast extension of the U.S. working class. Citing statistics compiled by Stanley Aronowitz and the U.S. government, Marcuse shows that monopoly capital has largely suppressed the middle class and made 90 percent of the population into a dependent class (pp. 40-42). The theorist then cites a famous letter from Marx to Engels (1865) in which the former tells the latter that the “working class is revolutionary or it is nothing at all” (p. 61). Marcuse interprets Marx’s statement here as suggesting that the laboring class is revolutionary insofar as its “needs and aspiration […] are irreconcilable and incompatible with the capitalist system” (p. 62). Returning to the discussion on conformist consciousness, he then declares the contemporary U.S. working class not to be revolutionary as a whole, though he does endorse Marx’s general point about the conflict between capital and labor, concluding that this antagonism is “bound to explode in the long run” (p. 62). As in a number of other addresses from this time-period, the critical theorist points out the militancy of a radical minority among the U.S. working class, compelled as it is by the combination of workplace alienation and revolutionary consciousness to engage in spontaneous acts of subversion, such as absenteeism, sabotage, and wildcat strikes (p. 63-64). Marcuse sees in such acts, and in the parallel vague public awareness of the obsolescence of the capitalist mode of production, the decline of the performance principle and a growing threat to regnant obedience (pp. 64, 52).

The critical theorist concludes by suggesting that this militant minority among the workers could, like radical students and people of color in struggle, serve as the catalyst for the future disintegration of U.S. and thus global capitalism (pp. 66-67). Closing on an ecological and syndicalist note, Marcuse anticipates laborers challenging workplace hierarchy and humanity engaging in a “total redirection of production […] towards the abolition of poverty and scarcity wherever it exists in the world today,” together with a “total reconstruction of the environment and the creation of space and time for creative work” (p. 69). Anticipating the profound exacerbation of the environmental crisis which was already evident at the end of his life, Marcuse announces that the “abolition of waste, luxury, planned obsolescence, [and] unnecessary services and commodities of all kind” would imply a lower standard of living for the world’s privileged minority, but that such a ‘sacrifice’ in capitalist terms would not be an excessively high price to pay for the possible “advent” of libertarian socialism (p. 69).

Closing thoughts

It is a testament to the fundamental character of Marcuse’s thought that he was able to identify, decades earlier, some of the deepest trends underlying the evolution of late-capitalist society. That he could, with remarkable precision, analyze the earliest developments of what we now understand as neoliberalism is one of many examples of the acute, incisive and penetrating qualities of Marcuse’s social philosophy (and also that, more generally, of the early Frankfurt School). Though it is certainly true that there are dated aspects to Marcuse’s argument in these lectures, this is only understandable considering that it is a basic principle of critical theory to remain rooted in history. Looking back, there may be concepts and arguments which can be retrieved and advanced. But this does not take away from Marcuse’s overall theses, formulated by way of remarkably complex and comprehensive research on the dynamic processes and forces of modern dominant, coercive and authoritarian society – as well as the foundational basis for emancipatory praxis and the development of an actual democratic, egalitarian social conditions.

At a time of endless “critical studies” and commentary, which do not always reach down to the levels of fundamental interdisciplinary analysis representative of the very essence of critical theory, we would do well to reflect on the crisis of contemporary social theory and the need to return to the roots of the Frankfurt School. In confronting the crisis of apolitical social theory, Marcuse can help show us the way forward as almost every sentence he composed in these lectures and elsewhere reminds us of the precisely foundational nature and transformative potential of critical theory.

The manner in which the critical theorist identifies, for example, the changing dynamics of capitalist society—whereby Marcuse suggests that revolution within the most advanced industrial nations will no longer be primarily based on hunger and misery but on wasted abundance (p. 49)—in many ways anticipates what we’re witnessing in these early decades of the 21st Century. Popular movements today – such as the sustainability movement, the circular economy, or the rise of eco-socialism, to name a few – are emerging in response to this very concept. The question of whether these movements are actually revolutionary and evidence an emancipatory politics is a legitimate one. In many cases, these mainstream initiatives – consider, again, the rise in the notion of the circular economy – seem to lack a more fundamental transformative project of thought. But what these movements are responding to – their language, their direction of imagination, and their efforts at re-designing modern political economy, no doubt exemplifies one of Marcuse’s basic arguments in his 1974 Paris lectures. Efforts in the realms of voluntary simplicity, political veganism, green syndicalism, and direct action for the climate represent more radical and direct manifestations of Marcuse’s argument with regard to ecological politics.

It unfortunately seems to be the case that many commonalities can be seen between the world-political situation today as compared to the case forty years ago. In light of the endless wars, extreme and burgeoning economic disparities, and ever-worsening environmental-health indicators, it is evident that capitalism continues to hold all of humanity and nature ransom in the Iron Cage. Though Occupy and the popular uprisings in the Arab world have demonstrated the significant potential for resistance and even revolution, the pendulum has clearly swung back again toward the consolidation of the system in recent years, as seen especially in Egypt, Syria, and the U.S. Perhaps the radical consciousness is more widespread now than before these breakthroughs, but it still confronts an entrenched conformist consciousness among the general populace, at least in the U.S. and Europe, as well as a fascistic concentration of power, wealth, and military might that is coordinated by the transnational capitalist class. Recent events in Greece evidence precisely this point. Here, a counterhegemonic movement emerged as a significant wave of grassroots energy only to crash upon the counter-revolutionary shores of the European Union, its entrenched neoliberal governments, and institutional politics. Greece may have seen mass mobilization, but much of Europe left revolutionary Greek movements to struggle for themselves (aside, perhaps, from the odd ‘solidarity’ march). In this sense, Marcuse’s comments on the glaring absence of a “mass base” for revolutionary social transformation remain apposite, as is the theorist’s analysis of the ideological basis for conformism, underpinned as it is by nihilistic fatalism and a mistaken feeling of powerlessness. Marcuse’s conclusion in the 1975 assessment of the “Failure of the New Left?” remains entirely true today: “[t]he transition to socialism is not now on the agenda; the counterrevolution is dominant.”[1] Though the inertial perpetuation of these negative conditions over time might lead one to conclude that a change in tactics and strategy would be justified, the problem of capitalism and domination still remains, such that the response in parallel likely remains radical mass-struggle to construct an anti-systemic multitude to disrupt and reorganize the hegemonic social, economic, and political institutions in all their facets.

Moving forward, the challenge for emerging scholars and writers in critical theory is to understand what key concepts need retrieval, critical sharpening or abandoning. In light of this challenge, an important question might be raised: how might these previously unpublished lectures inspire a project aimed toward advancing the Frankfurt School? What new ideas do they inspire? In what ways might Marcuse’s thought assist the pressing question of emancipatory politics and contemporary critical theory as we move forward in the 21st Century?

Another key challenge, as Marcuse would have it, is to engage with popular movements and help inform and guide their diversity of struggle today. Marcuse understood, in many ways, that revolutionary societal transformation is a complex, dynamic and many-sided process. In essence, we could say that it is subject to an extended social-historical process of revolutionary transition which could very well “take a time of at least 75 to 150 years” (p. 34). How can critical theory assist new social movements in establishing the basis for emancipatory societal transformation? Marcuse teaches us that, in the years past and in the years ahead, critical theory must constantly and normatively present the challenges of theory to movements in the field of practice. It is always possible that, in an actionist rush of blood for the thrill of practice, movements become inclined to abandon theory, usually to the detriment of practice which then turns incomplete, contradictory and incoherent. To borrow from Andrew Feenberg, theory must be a ‘philosophy of praxis’ – a ‘philosophy of praxis’ that engages on the level of practical action. If Marcuse (and arguably the first generation of the Frankfurt School in general) are the torch bearers when it comes to this philosophy of praxis, it is the challenge of the new wave of thinkers in this tradition to claim this torch and further illuminate the path forward. In doing so, theory must continue to draws its concepts and its inspiration from the revolutionary activity of new social movements and, as Charles Reitz recently commented, normatively challenge them to work for the radical rather than the minimal goals of socialism. If one were to take a single stirring inspiration from these lectures, this would be it.

[1]     Herbert Marcuse, The New Left and the 1960s: Collected Papers Volume 4, ed. Douglas Kellner (London: Routledge, 2004), 189.

Hans Joachim Schellnhuber: Fossil fuel industry must be “imploded” to avoid climate destruction

July 25, 2015

meltdown

This report on The Guardian from 10 July relays the radical German climatologist Hans Joachim Schellnhuber’s honest appraisal of the chances for keeping global warming below the “safe” limit of a 2C rise in average global temperatures, since the onset of industrialism.  Toward this end, he forthrightly concludes that the fossil-fuel system must be overthrown in the short term.  In his own words,

“In order to stay below 2C (3.6F), or even 3C, we need to have something really disruptive, which I would call an induced implosion of the carbon economy over the next 20-30 years. Otherwise we have no chance of avoiding dangerous, perhaps disastrous, climate change.”

At the 2015 NYC Anarchist Bookfair: Marcuse and Bakunin, Magón and Benjamin

April 12, 2015

MAB MAB poster 1-1

I will be speaking at this year’s New York City Anarchist Bookfair (NYC ABF), this Saturday, 18 April, at 3:30pm in the New School.  The topic of my comments will be “Marcuse and Bakunin, Magón and Benjamin: Investigating Mutual Affinities.”  I hope to see you there!  A description follows:

“This talk will examine the close affinities among four important historical radicals, half of them renowned anarchists from Russia and Mexico—Mikhail Bakunin and Ricardo Flores Magón, respectively—and the other half German critical theorists: Herbert Marcuse and Walter Benjamin. The similarities between Marcuse and Bakunin on the one hand and Magón and Benjamin on the other are striking, in terms of philosophy, revolutionary commitment, and biographies. Marcuse and Bakunin share a common passion for Hegelian dialectics, the radical negation of the status quo, and the critique of Karl Marx, while Magón and Benjamin share an enthusiasm for journalism and the written word in subverting bourgeois society and converge in their views on revolutionary armed struggle, in addition to having both experienced a sordidly tragic fate in U.S. federal prison and at the hands of European Fascists, respectively, due to their revolutionary militancy. Indeed, all four thinkers have numerous affinities among themselves that transcend this convenient dyadic coupling I have suggested. With this presentation, I seek to review the mutual affinities among these radicals and then to present some reflections on the meaning of their thoughts and lives for anarchist and anti-systemic struggle today, particularly in terms of ecology, feminism, and global anti-authoritarianism.”

NYC ABF

On the Life and Death of Comrade Ricardo Flores Magón

March 13, 2015

Against Capital, Authority, and the Church”

This is part II of an interview with Claudio Lomnitz regarding his book, The Return of Comrade Ricardo Flores Magón (Zone Books, 2014). Part I can be found here.


Continuing in the vein of the last question from the first part of our conversation, which had to do with the profoundly romantic love-relations, both platonic and sexual, that developed among the central figures of the Junta Organizadora of the Mexican Liberal Party (PLM) and those closest to them, what role would you say art and
beauty played in this movement? In the chapter on Magón’s bohemian period, “La Bohème,” you observe that an aesthetic sensibility was intimately related to the humanistic and revolutionary sensitivities felt by the militants affiliated with this group. Indeed, such a philosophical connection between art and social revolution has been identified at different times by Herbert Marcuse and Albert Camus, among others. G. W. F. Hegel is known for his view that aesthetic heroism is seen in one’s commitment to the cause of changing the world.

Although it is tough to respond to a question like this for the entire movement, because there was a fair amount of variation amongst its participants, one can say for the movement as a whole relied crucially on reading and writing—and that beauty was a key reason to gain access to literacy. Ricardo was very explicit in his correspondence on the significance of words, of discussion and thought, and insistent on the fact that it was consciousness, not violence, that really did the work of Revolution. Yet there was quite a lot more beyond the question of revolution itself. First, the contents of Regeneración and The Border included a fair amount of art and beauty—emphasis on poetry, for instance, interest in graphic art, and the recognition of literary authors and works. This emphasis was also critical in the development of interpersonal affinities—a factor that was indispensable for the social life of the militant, as we saw in the discussion of love.

There was also a philosophical principle at stake, which was that the movement felt that humanity was being degraded by contemporary forms of exploitation and oppression, and that beauty was in fact key to the human vocation. So, for instance, in one letter written from Leavenworth to Ellen White, Ricardo wrote: “I could not help laughing a little—only a little—at your lovely naiveté. You say that it is superfluous to speak to me of Beauty, and you say this when it is Beauty what I love most.” More philosophically, again from Leavenworth, Ricardo wrote to the socialist activist Winnie Branstetter that “Man has wronged the Beautiful. Being the most intelligent animal, the one most favored by Nature, Man has lived in moral and material filth.”

I would say that beauty and art were key to the formation of the militants, in the socialization of the movement, in the definition of the movement’s goals, in the formation of spiritual affinities between strangers who could then reach out and support one another spontaneously, and in the philosophical attitude that led individuals to revolt against what might otherwise have been naturalized as “their lot.”

This is also, I think, one of the reasons why we see important militants of the group tending to artistic production at different moments of their lives. In some cases—Práxedis Guerrero, Juan Sarabia, or Santiago de la Hoz come to mind—poetic writing was happening at the height of their role as political organizers. In others—with this to some extent being the case of Ricardo’s plays, for instance—the turn to artistic production is an alternative space for communitarian organization and militancy, at a point in time when political effectiveness in the armed revolutionary struggle had declined significantly. But it is generally true that a great number of militants wrote poetry or found forms of artistic expression, even if it was simply to court a potential lover.

For those who are more familiar with a reductive account of the Mexican Revolution (1910-1920) that prioritizes the reformist landowner Francisco I. Madero’s Anti-Reelectionist campaign against the Porfiriato—or at least, early on, the Maderista opposition to Díaz’s choice for vice-president in the planned 1910 election—it may come as a surprise to consider that the PLM organized a number of armed revolt in the border region during the lead-up to the Revolution in the hopes of catalyzing a generalized popular insurrection across Mexico. The first came in 1906, the second in 1908, and the third when the Revolution was very young, in December 1910, and then in Baja California during the first half of 1911. The most ambitious of these planned revolts was the first, slated to commemorate Independence Day in September 1906: with the central figures of the Junta Organizadora fully participating, the idea was to attack and take three major Mexican border towns—Ciudad Juárez, Nogales, and Jiménez. However, the machinations of the transnational spy network foiled the uprising, with part of the Junta being arrested and another part managing to escape capture. Díaz thereafter opted to have the U.S. State prosecute the revoltosos for their violation of neutrality laws which had been established during the Spanish-American War in exchange for his non-intervention in that conflict—with this being the very charge on which Magón and his comrades were imprisoned once again for three years in 1907, as retribution for their attempted insurrection. The 1908 revolt, an attack led by Práxedis Guerrero and Francisco Manrique on Las Palomas, Chihuahua, while the rest of the Junta was behind bars, seems to have been ill-advised, and a similar analysis could perhaps be applied to the December 1910 uprising in which Práxedis himself was killed.

In addition, in no small part due to this new jail sentence for many of the key figures of the Junta Organizadora, the PLM seems to have been relatively eclipsed in the years leading up to the Revolution itself by Maderismo, which provided a more incrementalist, familiar, and accommodating alternative to the one advanced by the PLM: for Francisco I. Madero (“Don Panchito”) stood for “law and order,” constitutionality, and bourgeois-democratic reform, in contrast to Magón’s stress on direct action, radical land redistribution, expropriation, and proletarian emancipation. You discuss the fascinating history whereby Madero approached Magón early on to offer him the position of vice-presidential candidate at his side—an offer which Magón readily rejected out of hand. Then, you show how Madero appropriated Díaz’s federal army to reign in and defeat the Liberal troops who had taken Mexicali and Tijuana in the months leading up to Díaz’s fall in 1911, and subsequently activated diplomatic channels with the U.S. to have the Junta and a number of PLM commanders imprisoned once again after Ricardo’s rejection—even if Madero had requested and received military support from the Liberals in good faith up to that point in the Revolution! Madero’s opportunistic traición (betrayal) clearly demonstrates his commitment to practicing authoritarian-Weberian statecraft, and it can explain the reason for which Regeneración came to refer to him variously as a “dictator,” a “second Porfirio Díaz,” and “a slave owner.” Can you expand upon the various dilemmas faced by the PLM in the early phase of the Revolution? You argue that, following its split with Madero, the PLM became a more marginal current in the revolutionary process, even as it became free to openly express its anarchist philosophy. Could it have been different?

Counterfactuals are always difficult. People will always debate whether Ricardo made a mistake in rebelling against Madero or not. At the very least, from a political point of view, his timing seemed ill-advised. Ricardo pronounced that Madero was a traitor while the revolt against Porfirio Díaz was still raging. This opened the group that was loyal to his position to being represented as traitors, paid for by the científicos, and doing Díaz’s dirty work for him. Many honest revolutionaries felt this way—including old PLM sympathizers like Esteban Baca Calderón and Manuel Diéguez, of Cananea vintage. Perhaps Ricardo felt that he would lose credibility if he supported Madero and then rebelled once Madero was in power. It’s hard to say. It is clear though that the Junta under Ricardo’s leadership had no effective military strategist, and its position with regard to Madero first, and then with regard to Huerta, Carranza, Villa and the rest of them, left the military leadership that it had in Mexico very vulnerable, since they always needed alliances, and these alliances opened them up to being labeled as traitors by the Junta in Los Angeles. So Ricardo’s decision on Madero in effect paved the way to a quick military defeat, but perhaps also to more lasting ideological influence.

Junta 1910

The Junta Organizadora of the PLM in 1910. From left: Anselmo Figueroa, Práxedis Guerrero, Ricardo Flores Magón (seated), Enrique Flores Magón, and Librado Rivera. Práxedis’ face has been superimposed onto that of another central figure in the PLM, most likely Antonio Villarreal, who broke from the group early on within the development of the Mexican Revolution. Besides the question of Villarreal’s defection to Francisco Madero, Ricardo held his rumored homosexuality in contempt. (Courtesy El Hijo del Ahuizote)

For Magón, armed struggle certainly was an important tactic, but given his view that the counterrevolution was concentrated in the three-headed hydra of capital, State, and clergy, social revolution to him was more expansive than mere insurrection—hence his belief in the need for agitational intellectual work to continue to inspire militant direct action, as through the issues of Regeneración. Magón’s decision after the failure of 1906 and the subsequent imprisonment of the Junta to prevent his brother Enrique from participating in the 1908 uprising and thereafter to emphasize the protection of the physical integrity of the PLM’s intellectuals led to conflict with Práxedis, who—perhaps in a more consistently anarchist way—felt he could not ask others to risk their lives in insurrection without doing the same. The twenty-eight year old militant died in the December 1910 revolt for having observed this belief, thus expiating his guilt for surviving Manrique, who was killed in the 1908 revolt—in a parallel to the fate of the EZLN’s Subcomandante Pedro, who similarly lost his life during the neo-Zapatista uprising on 1 January 1994.

Intriguingly, given this difference of opinion on theory and practice, you discuss how Práxedis was more wary of the employment of hatred than Magón in the revolutionary struggle, with the former declaring in some of his final articles for Regeneración that “[d]espotism can be annihilated without hatred,” and that “[w]e are going off to a violent struggle without making violence our ideal and without dreaming of the execution of our tyrants as if that was the supreme victory of justice. Our violence is not justice; it is simply a necessity.” What was Magón’s take on hatred, in contrast? Beyond this, I will say that your assessment of Práxedis’ supposed youthful lack of comprehension of the “value of survival” potentially runs the risk of betraying ageism. Do you disagree?

Your charge of “ageism” against me is probably right. I hadn’t thought of it that way, but there is a kind of paternal identification in my sympathy with Ricardo’s attempt to try to keep Práxedis away from battle.

Having said that, though, it is also true that I sympathize more with Práxedis than with Ricardo on the question of hatred. I think that Ricardo at a certain point was filled with a lot of bile. Many of his attacks on enemies, and on comrades who he came to see as enemies, are simply horrifying. One can understand why Ricardo hated when one considers the hardship and sacrifices that he endured, but that does not make his attitude attractive. Ricardo had many great virtues; his promotion of hatred was not one of them. Práxedis, by contrast, was more conscious of this problem, and one of the beauties of Práxedis is that he wrote his thoughts on this question down and published them.

Ricardo’s fanning of hatred was also predicated on his view of history, and not only on rancor. He was convinced that he was living at the cusp of world revolution, and he was by no means alone in that belief—particularly after the start of World War I. In some ways this sense might justify to a degree Ricardo’s continuous call for violence and even for murder, but I must say that this aspect of Ricardo is to me one of the most problematic. And one sees its negative effects in some of the people who were closest to him, as well as in loss of support for revolution by a people who were exhausted by continual and unending violence. This was an aspect of the Mexican situation that Ricardo did not live directly, but that is very relevant for understanding what Enrique and other Liberals experienced when they returned to Mexico after the revolution.

As the early phase of the Revolution developed and increasingly more former members of the PLM decided to join Madero, the transnational network supporting the “Mexican Cause” began to break down, as you detail—in part as a response to the virulent aggressivity Ricardo expressed to a number of his former comrades who would defect to Madero. One critical component of this uncomradely behavior has to do with Ricardo’s evident prejudice against non-heterosexuals: he reserved special ire for the lesbian Juana B. Gutiérrez de Mendoza, outing her publicly as a “degenerate” engaged in a “quarrel with Nature” following her break with the PLM, and Antonio I. Villarreal, who left the Junta for Madero and thereafter was accused of having had relations with a certain barber. Despite Gutiérrez de Mendoza’s “betrayal,” she would go on to help Zapata compose the Plan de Ayala (1911/1914) following her disillusionment with Maderista reformism, while Villareal the socialist served under Madero and received a promotion to lieutenant colonel for having done so, before founding a Mexico City version of Regeneración (which Magón considered “Degeneración” or “Regeneración burguesa”) and later charging Ricardo with having sold out.

Of course, the “charge” of homosexuality raised by Magón played into popular knowledge of the “Scandal of the 41,” which refers to a police raid of an upper-class ball in Mexico City in 1901 that involved the arrest of 41 young males who were found dancing with each other, half of them in drag. The implication is that the Porfiriato’s ruling class was effeminate, emasculated, and “degenerate,” whereas what was needed was masculine, masculinizing—and to a certain degree, patriarchal—regeneration! Unfortunately, with regard to the present, a similar dynamic seems to operate to an extent now in Mexico in terms of President Enrique Peña Nieto and Manuel Velasco Coello, State Governor of Chiapas. Certainly, these PRI potentates are horrid reactionaries, but it is known that one current of the opposition against them is expressed in terms of their being supposed putos, or gays (“fags”), in Magonist style. Several questions come to mind. First, to what degree does Ricardo’s homophobia mirror the prevailing prejudices of Mexican society at that time? It rather self-evidently contradicts the militant anti-authoritarian philosophy governing the PLM, which, being profoundly transgressive, “confronted the status quo and sought to create an alternative to it,” as you write. Furthermore, how much do you think Mexican society has progressed on questions of sexual and gender diversity in the century since the Mexican Revolution—no thanks to Magón, unfortunately?

It is probably impossible to gauge the depth or extent of “homophobia” during Magón’s day. The term itself did not exist and, as Carlos Monsivais once pointed out, the affair of the 41 was Mexico’s first homosexual scandal, and it happened in 1901. So my response to the first part of your question is tentative—but here it is: I have the impression that Ricardo was more intensively “homophobic” than many of his contemporaries, and I think that he was that for a couple of different reasons. The first was to do with the idea of regeneration itself—a notion that constantly relied on the view that Mexico was prostrated, humiliated, enslaved, and so on. These ideas all involved undermining virility. And indeed “virility” was a key value for the movement. This does not automatically lead to homosexual panic, but it can play in as a factor, and I think that for Ricardo, it did.

A second factor in my view is Ricardo’s extensive prison experience. Homosexual relations were extremely common in prison, and this was well-known in Mexico. Mexico’s chief positivist criminologist, Carlos Roumagnac, had published a study of criminal types based on extensive interviews in Belem Prison—one of the places where Ricardo had been held—and claimed that almost all of the prison inmates had sex with one another. Antonio Villarreal’s description of the Junta’s experience in federal prison in Arizona also dwelled on this point. It is possible that Ricardo developed an aversion to sexual advances that he’d been subjected to in prison, or that he developed a view concerning homosexuality and weakness, or that he himself was a homosexual and was terrified to be “outed.” We cannot say from the historical documents, but I think that we can say that experiences in prison were relevant.

Finally, the third factor is the political utility of the accusation. In the press, Ricardo was constantly on the attack, and he tended to use whatever he could to defile his enemies. The accusation of homosexuality was useful, and he used it—I would say not only that he used it, but that he indulged.

As for changes with present-day Mexico, Mexico has had tremendous transformations in gender and sexual relations—tremendous. Even in my life-time, let alone with regard to what was happening in the Porfiriato. Now, ideas of homosexual conspiracy, and of homosexual conspiracy in the elite, like anti-Semitic conspiracy theories, are still common and commonly indulged. In this regard, Ricardo was much less pernicious than contemporary conspiracy theorists, because he did not believe that Mexico was in the hands of a homosexual ring. I think that the fact that Ricardo was for the most part anti-nationalistic spared him from some of the worst aspects of conspiracy theories like the kind to which you refer, that tend to imagine the nation as pure, and then to posit its exploiters as a cabal of ill-born perverts. Ricardo’s homophobia was also directed to people who he saw as traitors, but to traitors of a Cause rather than traitors of a “pure” nation.

Given, as you say, that the anarchist revolution “was the most radical revolution that the Enlightenment spawned,” I was curious if you have any comments to share about the influence postmodernism and poststructuralism have had on the anarchist tradition in recent decades, as in the concept of “post-structuralist anarchism.” As you know, both these schools of thought reject the Enlightenment wholesale.

I don’t know enough about these tendencies to comment, but I think that there is good reason why postmodernism and post-structuralism would have a serious interest in anarchism. On the one hand, Michel Foucault’s criticism of the State and of sovereignty can easily lead to the exploration of anarchism as an alternative space; on the other, postmodernism’s rejection of the grand récit of progress provides ample space for the valorization of the peasantry, of artisans, and of modes of life that are distinct from the old Marxist romance with the industrial proletariat. Those connections were always extremely important to the anarchists, who were not at all committed to uprooting the peasantry and transforming it into industrial labor.

When I say that anarchism was the most radical current of the Enlightenment, I mean this especially with regard to the slogan “Liberty, Equality, Fraternity.” They took this further than anyone else.

Importantly, you observe that vegetarianism was an innovative social practice taken up by some members of the PLM and U.S.-based supporters of the Mexican Cause: namely, Práxedis Guerrero and Elizabeth Trowbridge, a young Boston heiress sympathetic to socialism who made a substantial proportion of her inheritance available to the struggle. Presumably, as you write, she and Práxedis adopted vegetarianism as an affirmation of their love for animals and a repudiation of the cruelty and suffering unnecessarily visited on them—such that their keen rejection of social injustice among humans was extended also to the animal and natural worlds. Perhaps they were also influenced in this decision by the examples of the anarcho-pacifist Tolstoy and Élisée Reclus, theVegetarian Communard,” which were in turn echoed by the vegetarian clubs that arose in the Spanish anarchist cultural revolution as well as among the Sarvodaya vegetarian-anarchists.1 In a parallel to the question of LGBTQ emancipation, to what extent do you see progress or regression in terms of the struggle for animal rights and liberation at present?

Yes to your comment on Tolstoy and Reclus. I think that the question of animals and animal rights is a sign of deep progress, and extends much further today than it did at the time of Elizabeth or Práxedis, because the question of the environment and of our responsibility as subjects no longer of human history, but of the history of life on the planet, is today of a different order than it was then. Remember that the Mexican Revolution occurred before the existence of the atomic bomb or of atomic energy. The sense that humans could actually destroy the planet was not yet there, even though there were ideas of conservation and concerns with destruction of environments. Frances Noel, one of the American radicals that I write about, was an environmentalist and supporter of conservation in California. More generally, the question of health, fresh air, and environment was part of the discourse not only of hygienists and eugenicists, but also of labor organizers and urban reformers at that time. So I don’t mean to say that environmental issues were absent then, but simply that they were of a different order. Today the environmental struggle is of the very highest priority. It was not then. This makes the vegetarianism of a Práxedis or an Elizabeth all the more interesting, relevant, and attractive today.

With reference to the Baja California campaign of 1911—the PLM’s most famous military struggle, which resembled a fiasco more than any successful revolution—you note a number of problematics: for one, that only an estimated 10 percent of the insurrectos who captured Tijuana were Mexicans, with the remainder being Wobblies from the U.S. and foreign soldiers of fortune. Secondly, this material dynamic led to the awkward situation whereby more experienced Anglo volunteers were elected as officers—in accordance with anarchist-democratic principles—to wage war against Mexicans, as in the case of the British aristocrat Carl Ap Rhys Pryce, who promptly announced the independence of Baja California following Díaz’s resignation in Ciudad Juárez in May 1911. Juxtaposed with the clownish venture capitalist Dick Ferris’ proposal for outright colonization of the peninsula in the interest of U.S. capital, Pryce’s move—which was not supported by the Junta in Los Angeles or by Liberals and Wobblies in the field—inexorably led many Mexican observers to conclude that the Liberal campaign in reality sought to facilitate the annexation of Baja to the U.S., as in the concept of filibusterismo, in a parallel to the previous loss of Texas and the entire Southwest after the war waged by James K. Polk against Mexico some sixty-five years prior.

This framing of the Baja campaign immediately served to delegitimize the Liberal efforts there, and furthermore aided in the ease with which Madero employed the federal troops whose command he had inherited against the PLM—with Mexicali and Tijuana falling within a month of Díaz’s abdication. While the Junta felt Baja was but one among several fronts, or puntos rojos, for libertarian upheaval in the country, this association made between the PLM and secessionism may well have marred its relationship with Mexican public opinion. Do you consider Ricardo’s decision to remain physically aloof from the Baja operation to have been a mistake, or believe that he was insufficiently forceful in distancing the Liberal campaign from the charges of filibusterism raised against it, his stress on direct action and revolutionary expropriation notwithstanding? In part, as you observe, this problem is inherent to the Junta’s anarchism, which was not concerned with “national integrity,” as patriots and statists are.

This is a difficult question to respond to, because we don’t actually know what Ricardo and the Junta was thinking, so my response is very tentative. It is clear that in 1911 Ricardo did not think or believe that the United States was close to a revolution (a notion that he might have thought in 1917), but if he felt that the Wobblies and Socialists in the Southwest were in fact strongly increasing in force and might be building to a position where they might aspire to take power, he might have been indifferent as to whether Baja stayed in Mexico, became independent, or was annexed to the United States.

My impression is that he may not have cared all that much if Baja had become an independent republic, but that he would have been adamantly opposed to annexation by the United States at that time. This is all speculation, you understand. According to Ricardo, he rejected both alternatives and wanted the peninsula in Mexico where it belonged—but this was after he was accused of filibusterism. I certainly don’t think that he cared what proportion of troops were Mexicans and which were foreign. The struggle was for liberation from economic and political exploitation, not for national independence. Ricardo was for extending Mexican nationality to foreigners who participated in the Revolution.

Should Ricardo have gone to Baja California to lead the fight? From the viewpoint of the fighters who sympathized with the Liberals, yes. At the very least, they should have been in more direct contact. The Junta tended to use John Kenneth Turner and Antonio de Pío Araujo as intermediaries, and the troops in Mexicali and Tijuana were never visited by Ricardo, or by Anselmo Figueroa, or Enrique, who were the senior members of the Junta then.

But on the other hand, Ricardo and the Junta always viewed Baja as one front, and not as their principal goal. In this respect, it made sense for Ricardo not to go there to lead the fight, because Baja was extremely isolated then, and he could not have led a propaganda effort comparable to what he could do from Los Angeles. And yet, the Junta was all imprisoned and sent to McNeil Island in Washington State after the fall of Tijuana. So it is possible that they would have been able to do more from Baja California after all.

Faced with the progression of the Revolution and particularly the coup d’etat of February 1913 led by General Victoriano Huerta that killed Madero and his vice president Pino Suárez—a coup which the U.S. Embassy helped to coordinate, in fact, as you show—Regeneración reacted by claiming all politicians to be the same, whether they be dictators, bourgeois reformists, or generals. Yet you suggest that this ultra-left type of analysis was not shared by the Mexican people at large. Could you speak, then, to the tensions between the “vanguardist” anti-authoritarianism of the PLM and the reality of the popular sentiments regarding the course of the Revolution, particularly in terms of the fate of Madero?

Maligning Madero was a bad political mistake that showed lack of regard for popular sentiment. Or maybe, as you say, it simply reflected the degree to which this was a vanguardist movement that saw its role as educating the people and weaning them from deception. Although by the time of the coup Madero’s popularity was very much in question, at least in some areas of Mexico—certainly in Mexico City—his assassination was deeply unpopular. Jibes in Regeneración against Madero and his wife and family at the time of their assassination were deeply insensitive, and might have guaranteed that the movement would remain marginal as a political force, if it hadn’t been for the fact that the movement was so deeply marginalized in Mexico by then in any case. Recall that at the time of the coup, the Junta was in prison in Washington, and many of the old militants of the PLM had left its ranks and joined other movements—often as those movements’ radical fringe.

Beyond the tactical blunder, there seems to me to have also been insufficient appreciation for liberal-democratic reform by the Junta, which is why they viewed Huerta and Madero as being the same. It is true that they were pretty similar from the point of view of economic policies. In fact, Huerta even made some concessions to the union movement in order to buttress some of his popular support. But the fact of parliamentary democracy was more of a value than the PLM recognized, in my opinion, including for the future of the labor movement.

What can you say about the relationship between the PLM and other insurgent movements opposed to Madero and his successors Huerta and Venustiano Carranza: that is to say, Emiliano Zapata and the Ejército Libertador del Sur, as well as Pancho Villa and his División del Norte? You observe that Zapata sympathized with the PLM’s September 1911 manifesto, and he would seem to have consciously taken the concept of “Tierra y Libertad” (“Land and Freedom”) directly from the Liberals, with the practical manifestations of Zapatista strategy arguably advancing in consonance with Magón’s call for generalized and decentralized armed revolt designed to expropriate the means of production. However, the situation would seem to have been rather different in the case of Villa.

I think that it is fair to say that Zapatismo got its main ideas from the Liberals, and that Zapatismo ended up being the best example of the sort of politics that Ricardo was advocating for. Obviously, ideology was not everything—and much of what Zapatismo did responded directly to conditions on the ground, rather than to ideology, so I don’t think that the PLM can take all of the credit, or all of the flak, for what the Zapatistas did and did not do. But their ideological influence was very real, and their points of confluence were many. The problem of the caudillo and of personalismo was a concern for the PLM—probably not shared by Zapatistas overall—but because Zapatismo did not really aspire to take power nationally, this concern was in the end secondary.

The PLM had a terrible opinion of Villa. This was in large part due to Villa’s role fighting the PLM during the Madero revolution, and to the fact that he was directly responsible for butchering many of their comrades. But differences with Villa also went beyond that sphere—to Ricardo, Villa was a typical politiquillo: corrupt, blood-thirsty, self-aggrandizing, in the pay of the Americans at first, and of the highest bidder after that…

The fact that PLM opinion on Villa was so negative, though, does not mean that there were no points of coincidence with this movement, or with Carrancismo, for that matter. The PLM’s 1906 platform had pretty broad influence in the Mexican revolutionary process. Because of Villa’s personal animosity to the PLM, there weren’t a lot of former PLM militants in his movement, but there were many prominent people in Carranza’s camp for a while, including people like Antonio Villarreal and Juan Sarabia, who were relevant players for the agrarian ideas of that movement.

A century now after the Revolution, do you see any movements taking from the example of Magón and the PLM? In an April 1994 interview, Subcomandante Insurgente Marcos of the EZLN explicitly tied Zapatismo to the thought of Ricardo, among others, while in Rojava a number of parallel developments taken up by the Kurds have seen the flowering of “democratic confederalism” and anarchistic self-management during the past few years. Self-evidently, as well, Magón remains a key reference for the movimiento social in Mexico to this day.

Ricardo Flores Magón was one of the few ideologues of stature in the Mexican Revolution. Other important figures, like Luis Cabrera or José Vasconcelos, for instance, were probably much better political analysts than Ricardo, but they were not visionaries, in the sense of imagining a truly alternative society. Hence, despite all of their shortcomings, Ricardo’s thought and experience return constantly. What is more, the transnational, feminist, anti-racist and anti-nationalist component is unique for the Mexican Revolution, as well as being a source of inspiration to any contemporary Mexican-American social movement worth its salt, starting with the Chicano movement in the 1970s. So PLM influence returns in social movements, just as you say, and it also often happens with individuals as well—I know that I was impacted by Ricardo’s writings when I first read some of them, when I was 17 (years ago!) and yet I knew very little about the Mexican Revolution then, and did not have any special interest in the subject.

As with many other complicated figures, there are people who claim inspiration from Ricardo but who have a politics that is not very compatible with his. This deserves to be noted, certainly, but the deeper point is that there are movements today looking to formulate various alternative forms of self-management, democracy and equality that have found—and will continue to find—much to learn from Ricardo’s thought, and from the collective experience of the PLM and of their friends and allies.

RFM Pics_6

Leavenworth Federal Penitentiary, where Ricardo and Enrique Flores Magón and Librado Rivera were imprisoned during the First Red Scare for violating neutrality laws and the Espionage Act. This would be Ricardo’s place of death during the early morning of 21 November 1922, whether due to conscious medical neglect or outright murder. (Courtesy John Murray Papers)

The ascendancy of Huerta in 1913 provoked a crisis in Texas and the rest of the border region which would ultimately prove fatal to Magón. In response to Huerta’s coup, Jesús María Rangel, a respected Liberal commander, organized an expeditionary force to cross into Chihuahua, do battle with the Carrancistas, and progress south to deal with Huerta himself, but they were forcibly prevented from doing so by Texas Rangers who met them at the border, fired on them, and arrested the revolutionaries who survived the shoot-out. The PLM immediately took up the cause of the “Texas Martyrs” and the surviving political prisoners. Then, in 1915, a Mexican uprising in Texas following the Plan de San Diego was met with a fierce, all-out reprisal against Mexicans located in the state: thousands were shot, lynched, or otherwise summarily executed by white-supremacist gangs. Such atrocities led Magón to declare in Regeneración that it was not the San Diego rebels but their executioners who should be shot. It was this declaration, together with Ricardo’s apt designation of Carranza as “another Díaz” and another “lackey of the White House” who would work to “subject the Mexican proletarian and turn him [sic] over to the foreign and domestic capitalist class, hand and foot,” as well as the accompanying call he made for Mexicans fighting in Carranza’s army to turn their guns on the officer class which landed him and Enrique once again in jail in 1916, until Emma Goldman’s efforts to raise bail gave them a temporary reprieve.

Then, with the coming of the Red Scare, the Magón brothers were tried and convicted yet again in 1918. Ricardo was sentenced to twenty-one years’ imprisonment, thanks to a new charge of violation of the Espionage Act, which had just been passed the year before. Such a sentence amounted to capital punishment for Ricardo, whose health was already declining. In point of fact, two years after coming to Leavenworth Federal Prison in Kansas, where he had requested medical assistance no fewer than 22 times, Magón died of a heart attack. Ricardo’s death came just days after he was transferred to a different cell farther away from Librado Rivera, who was also interned in Leavenworth on the same charge as Magón. While there is no question that Venustiano Carranza ordered Zapata’s assassination in Chinameca, Morelos in 1919, it is less clear that Magón’s end was due to outright execution rather than conscious medical neglect. Do you think Ricardo was murdered?

I myself don’t think that Ricardo was murdered, but probably we will never know for sure. I do believe that there was deliberate medical negligence with regard to Ricardo’s serious condition, and that his death might have been postponed or averted had he been given proper medical attention, but I don’t believe that he was strangled, as the theory goes.

We know for sure that one of the theories of his “murder” is false—as I show in the book—and we know for sure about the medical negligence. Whether Ricardo might have been murdered by a guard in any case is possible, and I am sure that there will be many who subscribe to that theory.

The reasons why I don’t think that he was murdered are, first, that Librado Rivera did not say that Ricardo was murdered in a letter that he wrote to a comrade from prison telling the tale of Ricardo’s death, at a time when Librado did not know what was being said outside the prison. After Librado’s release from Leavenworth, he did subscribe to the theory of Ricardo’s murder, but by that point the productivity of that tale was clear, and going against it would have been costly and unnecessary since, in a deeper sense, Ricardo was of course killed by his oppressors.

I also don’t believe that Ricardo was murdered because I don’t think that the Americans saw him as such a threat at that point. The Obregón government was willing to repatriate him to Mexico. If Obregón did not see Ricardo as a threat, why would the US government? Remember that Ricardo was practically blind by the time that he died, and in very poor health. Finally, Ricardo’s death was an embarrassment to the warden of the prison, who had repeatedly claimed that the prisoner’s health was good. It earned him a direct inquiry from the Attorney General. So I don’t see much motivation there either.

My sense is that the story of Ricardo’s assassination was a way of figuring and expressing the potency of his subversive ideas, and a way of pointing to the repression to which he was subjected by the American government. Ricardo’s ideas were indeed powerful. And he was indeed condemned to life in prison because of his resistance to the draft and to World War I, and because of his adscription to anarchism. All of that is true. I just don’t think that he was murdered by the guard, that’s all.

While the twilight of Magón’s life was full of pathos, given the decline of Regeneración, the poverty and marginalization experienced by the Junta members prior to imprisonment in Leavenworth, and the estrangement with Enrique, you make clear that Ricardo was encouraged in the end by an optimistic, almost Hegelian sense that the Mexican and Russian Revolutions illuminated the way forward for humanity, hearkening the beginning of a universal social transformation that would overthrow capital and all authority. In a letter written in Leavenworth less than a year before his death, indeed, Ricardo expressed his certainty regarding the “bright future which is [now] opened to the human race,” and he even identifies this as his “consolation.” A little less than a century on, we see that the multidimensional crisis of the capitalist world-order persists precisely because the revolutions of the twentieth century failed to displace the reactionary enemies identified by Magón from the stage of world history. In light of the intimate and profound knowledge of social revolution you have collected and presented to us in The Return of Comrade Ricardo Flores Magón, do you have any concrete suggestions to make to anarchists and other radicals today?

Thank you for this question—it is not one that I had dared to ask myself. As long as I’m not taken as some sort of Delphian oracle, here’s my response. I think that the most powerful aspect of this story and experience is the idea of the centrality of mutual aid. Also, I believe that the movement’s feminism, its punctilious resistance to nationalism, its commitment to love and to art and beauty, and its criticism of the State and of organized religion are all exemplary. I do not have as high an opinion of the movement’s embrace of violence or of its revolutionary theory, which was simply wrong.

Concerning the latter, Ricardo believed that each town and village in Mexico replicated a fundamental struggle between the oppressors and the oppressed, and that a revolutionary spark had the power to explode the whole tinder-box. In this sense, he can be seen as a precursor to foquismo and Che Guevara—with some of the same limitations as that theory, too. What Ricardo did not visualize though is that revolutionary processes are civil wars, and that in civil wars all of the fractures of society become politically productive and material for political exploitation. The dynamic of war was not, as Ricardo imagined, a kind of purgatorial fire that would end up cleansing society of its ills and giving birth to pure communism. Instead, civil war proved to be a process wherein coalitions were formed, leaderships emerged, and the life and freedom of the best people were bargained with. There were major gains in the process, to be sure, but the costs were huge, and the results were not what the PLM hoped for, so much so that many of its militants continued to struggle, and continue to rise up in arms until they were finally shot. I give the example of Lázaro Alanís at the very start of the book, who rose up in arms first against Porfirio Díaz, then against Madero, then against Huerta, then against Carranza, and was finally executed after participating in the De la Huerta rebellion against Obregón.

I don’t think much of Bakuninist theories of violence. But to my mind there’s deep philosophical truth in much of the doctrines of Kropotkin and others who believe in the primacy of mutual aid, and I also feel that there are communications media and organizational possibilities in the present that make at least some anarchist ideals more viable today than they were in the early twentieth century. Of course, new theorists will be necessary to put these resources into play in a way that is different from those that were tried in that earlier generation.

Thank you again, Javier, for offering me this conversation, which has given me much to reflect on.

1 John P. Clark, The Impossible Community: Realizing Communitarian Anarchism (London: Bloomsbury, 2013), 145-6, 180, 229.

Counterpunch repost: “U.S. Wars and the Climate Crisis” by Rob Urie

September 27, 2014
"Capitalist ‘reformers’ and global warming skeptics both depend on limiting the scope of available evidence to eternally debatable climate ‘science.’ What isn’t debatable is the cumulative environmental impact of capitalist production more broadly considered. Illustrated above by the black dots are the oceanic ‘dead zones’ surrounding the older industrial capitalist nations. Simply put, industrial capitalism has used rivers, streams and oceans as industrial toilets in the same way it has used the atmosphere. Climate change is but one aspect of already existing environmental catastrophe. Given the integrated nature of the biosphere environmental resolution must likewise be integrated. Source: Scientific American." (from Rob Urie, "Hank Paulson Does Global Warming," Counterpunch, 30 June 2014)

“Capitalist ‘reformers’ and global warming skeptics both depend on limiting the scope of available evidence to eternally debatable climate ‘science.’ What isn’t debatable is the cumulative environmental impact of capitalist production more broadly considered. Illustrated above by the black dots are the oceanic ‘dead zones’ surrounding the older industrial capitalist nations. Simply put, industrial capitalism has used rivers, streams and oceans as industrial toilets in the same way it has used the atmosphere. Climate change is but one aspect of already existing environmental catastrophe. Given the integrated nature of the biosphere environmental resolution must likewise be integrated. Source: Scientific American.” (from Rob Urie, “Hank Paulson Does Global Warming,” Counterpunch, 30 June 2014)

Note: the following are selections from Rob Urie’s latest piece, “U.S. Wars and the Climate Crisis,” published on Counterpunch, 26 September 2014

“Such now is the place of the early twenty-first century U.S. with systemically generated polices accumulating toward self-inflicted Armageddon and threatening to take the rest of the world with it. In the same week that saw renewed war for oil in Iraq and Syria it was reported that the Obama administration is rebuilding the U.S. nuclear weapons arsenal. In this same week that saw the largest climate resolution demonstration in history a series of dim shills for empire, a/k/a ‘leaders,’ went before the United Nations to offer the statistics of misdirection, ten times more than, thirty percent less than, that in context confirm the truism that something times nothing is nothing […].

With his recent misdirection on renewed war against Iraq and Syria and climate crisis the precise question of whether or not U.S. President Barack Obama is the most cynical person who ever lived remains irrelevant. The social ontology that suggested difference, as well as the words of the man himself, back into his fact as President of American empire. His assertion that IS (Islamic State) and Khorasans represent a direct threat to Americans places it in the set of all direct threats to Americans that has around 300,000 thousand dying every year from preventable medical errors. Climate crisis poses greater risks than any Mr. Obama will ever factually address. And his duplicity in undermining climate ‘negotiations’ in 2010 and 2014 while publicly proclaiming support is now a matter of public record.

Remarkably, or perhaps not so much, the Western commenting class is content with technocratic discourse on military tactics and ‘sectarian’ divisions in Iraq and Syria playing into the diversion that U.S. and ‘coalition’ actions have ‘political,’ as opposed to economic, basis. This isn’t to dismiss political consequences, but they are borne of economic motivations — the unifying theme between wars in the Middle East and climate crisis is oil. The U.S. is bombing oil fields ‘held’ by IS in Syria under the rationale that oil is the ‘currency’ it is funding itself with. Oil, munitions and credit default swaps are the currency the U.S. funds itself with.

Matters that are ‘externally’ related like wars for economic resources and climate crisis risk confusing ‘the issues’ that respective ‘experts’ find unsatisfying in their combined dimension. But discursive silos make addressing joint causes of global catastrophe in imperial capitalism impossible. The true threat that IS poses is in exposing oil as the currency of empire. Oil ties to political power through its economic power and it ties to military power through its fact as fuel for the machinery of war. Climate chaos, along with a century or more of slaughter and destruction for oil, is the concentrated product of empire […].

[T]he oceanic dead zones that surround capitalist economies are their own fact and metaphor for the Western creation of land-based dead zones through wars of conquest and slaughter for economic resources. Petroleum-based agricultural run-off and the dumping of massive quantities of consumer and industrial garbage create these oceanic dead zones. The misdirection of lip-service paid to greenhouse gas emissions while ignoring the other detritus of consumer and industrial ‘culture’ is to reframe global catastrophe as technocratic wrangling over ‘parts per million’ when the problem is political economy of death and destruction. Source: National Geographic.

The American tendency of personalizing the political leads to permanent misdiagnosis of the genesis of Western political dysfunction. Attributing Barack Obama’s pro-war, pro-Wall Street, anti-environmental policies to the man himself is to get it backwards. These policies serve his constituency. This constituency — Wall Street, arms manufacturers and extractive industries, determine the policies. Mr. Obama has his job as President through his ability to keep his nominal constituency of liberals and progressives on board with policies of permanent war, use of state power to deliver ever more economic resources to the already wealthy and end-times environmental policies. So will the political mis-leadership that follows him no matter their political Party.

What President Barack Obama’s actual policies have demonstrated — drone murders, surveillance and repression, persistent economic chicanery in favor of the already wealthy, war wherever the U.S. can find it and undermining all efforts at environmental reconciliation, is that the political space he occupies, the moderate center, is the true radical fringe when viewed through the lens of the continued existence of a ‘world’ that includes the rest of us. Rebuilding the largest nuclear arsenal in the world in 2014 is insane. There exists no conceivable explanation — bluff, taunt, economic stimulus, etc. that could frame the decision as the product of anything but a radically deranged system run amok, a genocide-suicide machine running on auto-pilot […].

If / when it comes, resolution in any of these dimensions will be brought about through acts against the corporatist moderates in Washington, London and Brussels, against Wall Street, the arms manufacturers and the extractive industries. Until these are gotten out of the way there is no hope for resolution. Divestment will not be effective — there are infinite sources of funding for industries that can turn guaranteed profits and even for those that can’t. Fracking is a financing and trading scam — the actual gas taken out of the ground doesn’t even pay for itself in the aggregate. Cap-and-trade requires a developed infrastructure of regulations; inspectors and global coordination that will never come into being because the economic interests being ‘regulated’ are the same ones developing these policies […].

The governments of the West are currently pulling out all of the stops to frighten people into supporting yet another war for oil resources in the Middle East. The threat of ‘terrorism’ is a cynical diversion and nothing more. Thirteen years after the attacks of September 11, 2001relevant portions of the investigation report laying blame on Saudi Arabia for the attacks remain redacted. Terrorism in the Middle East is state sponsored misdirection. True terror is having children that you cannot feed because bankers destroyed the economy. True terror is having fracking companies destroy your farm’s water supply and having no alternate source. True terror is having global warming raise sea levels to bury the island where you and everyone you know live. True terror is having a U.S. ‘humanitarian intervention’ bomb your village / town / city / country into the Stone Age to make way for a new pipeline.

The American Empire is in the death throes of decline. The powers that be are increasingly desperate and this makes them increasingly dangerous. Fracking, nuclear weapons, bombing Afghan wedding parties and banker scams is all that this leadership knows how to do. Resolution within Western political economy is decades past possible. People can divert themselves with incremental reform but consider this: the ‘evolution, not revolution’ crowd now has about four decades of devolution to answer for. Nuclear weapons? In 2014? Really? Really?

Climate Change and Human Alienation

April 27, 2014

Somalia300

“El Cuerno de África,” Santi Mazatl  (2011)

Originally published on Dissident Voice, 26 April 2014

“[The] self-alienation [of humanity] has reached such a degree that it can experience its own destruction as an aesthetic pleasure of the first order.” – Walter Benjamin, 1936

At the end of last year, the Humanist Workers for Revolutionary Socialism (HWRS) published a provocative position paper which presents their analysis of the climate crisis: “Alienation, Climate Change, and the Future of Humanity.” Aside from discussing the very real threat which anthropogenic climate disruption poses to humanity and terrestrial nature generally considered, the HWRS in this essay develop a theory of human alienation based on the thought of Karl Marx and Erich Fromm and posit such alienation as the main obstacle for the emergence today of radical mass-movements from below that would check the increasingly fatal trends toward unprecedented levels of suffering and death and global ecocide promised by climate catastrophe. Being Leninists, however, the HWRS recommend “revolutionary” party leadership as a means of directing the alienated masses toward the enacting of anti-capitalist social transformation and the rational mitigation of climate destruction. Clearly, such a recommended solution is highly problematic—yet the HWRS paper presents enough critical points for reflection and contemplation to merit a brief discussion of it here.

To begin, I would like firstly to delineate my agreements with the HWRS writers of “Alienation, Climate Change, and the Future of Humanity.” I certainly share the view that the capital-induced climate destabilization on hand necessitates a “worldwide revolution” as an equal and opposite corrective reaction (21), and I also hold that the psychical alienation and mutilation imposed by capitalism largely explains the fact that those from below “tolerate […] the constant wars, oppression, greed, cut[t]hroat competition, suffering, and destruction of the environment and this planet that the people in power inflict on the majority around the globe” (7). On the individual and group levels, too, the “only reasonable response” to the depth of the environmental crisis “would be for everyone who is aware of the situation to forget about their personal lives [sic] and immediately start a crusade to stop capitalism’s assault on nature and the entire planet” (18). I agree with the HWRS as well in their concluding thought that all organizations which claim the revolutionary mantle must “place the struggle against climate change […] as the highest priority in [their] program and [their] daily practice,” and that they should toward this end “immediately initiate a massive campaign about the need to overthrow capitalism as our only chance to avert the extinction of the human race, and combine [this] with daily interventions against the effects of ongoing environmental destruction” (30). In addition, the group’s social-psychological analysis of the grip which conformity, adjustment, bourgeois distraction, anxiety, and anomie hold over most people in “advanced” capitalist societal settings represents an intriguing explanation for the marked lack of mass-revolutionary consciousness and praxis vis-à-vis this seemingly quite terminal of threats to human happiness and flourishing and ecological balance. I believe this account—derived from Fromm, who in turn developed his critical, humanistic psychoanalytical approach from a synthesis of Sigmund Freud and the young Marx—to hold some merit, though with some reservations.

These important contributions notwithstanding, the HWRS account suffers from a number of grave issues, in my view. For one, as already mentioned, the grouping adheres to a Leninist/Trotskyist ideology, with all the distortions this implies: a highly delusional account of the historical rise of Stalinism in post-1917 Russia (8-9), a concomitant fetishization of Lenin and Trotsky (21), and the illogical assertion which follows—that only liberation “from above” can succeed in overthrowing capitalism and thus provide humanity and nature a chance of surviving climate chaos (30). Indeed, in Nietzschean (or even Heideggerian) terms, the HWRS resolve their stated concern for the problem of the alienated masses by saying that the possibilities for a post-capitalist, non-ecocidal future can be secured only through rule over the general populace by enlightened individuals who have somehow themselves transcended alienation (30). The HWRS clarify that the overcoming of alienation “cannot take place spontaneously” but must instead be the work of “a revolutionary [sic] party that knows what it is doing [!] and what is needed for victory” (28). Epitomizing dichotomous thinking, the HWRS opportunistically consider the only two options they believes possible in terms of staving off climate catastrophe: that either the global bourgeoisie will take steps to slow down global warming—which it is not doing and will not do—or Leninist parties capable of “leading the masses” will develop and intervene to outcompete the “reformist and centrist” oppositional alternatives and succeed in overthrowing the rule of capital within a quarter-century—that is to say, before climate change supposedly has progressed beyond the point of no return (23, 27).

Besides this highly authoritarian and unsavory political strategy, the HWRS account of human alienation may itself in some ways reify rather than help to illuminate the problem, for the essay presents something of a “locked-in” analysis. This is perhaps best illustrated in the authors’ citation of recent neurological studies which reportedly show that “[t]he brain is wired in a way that makes a person defenseless against the manipulation and demagoguery that are so common in capitalism” (26). If this claim is true—which it obviously is not—then how can the HWRS hope for the emergence of the Leninist vanguard which is heroically to lead humanity beyond capitalism, alienation, and total destruction in the first place? The assertion that “[p]eople are too alienated from life and from themselves to start a worldwide uprising against climate change” (19) is similarly extreme and unscientific. One need only look at the phenomenon of “group events” in China for a counter-example. Granted, the profundity of the climate crisis is truly horrifying, as the HWRS detail in this piece, and it is not as though any significant mass social movement—other than Occupy, in a way—has arisen within the Western world to the challenge of confronting the extent of its horror head-on. Under such conditions, tendencies toward despair and pessimism are natural and to be expected—yet they certainly are not justified as a means of prescribing “party socialism” as the only option available to humanity.

Anti-capitalism, socialism, and communism retain a truly world-historical importance at this late hour, as means of undermining and—it is to be hoped—ultimately tearing down the capitalist system that is without a doubt impelling life on Earth to utter disaster. In this the HWRS make an important point. Yet is simply not true that the chance for global communist revolution will arrive only through the domination of an actionist minority over the “average, backward person” to which the HWRS reduce the human multitudes (25). The writers of “Alienation, Climate Change, and the Future of Humanity” would do well to consult the opening line of the founding principles of the First International (1864), which reads that “the emancipation of the working classes must be conquered by the working classes themselves.” Consideration of the embodied history of Leninism and its monster-child Stalinism should be enough to delegitimize the tactics of Trotsky and company for all time.1As an alternative, anarcho-syndicalism, particularly of the ecological variety, holds a great deal more promise with regard to interrupting the fatal tendency toward climate destruction, in terms of both means and ends. Yet to return to Fromm and the issue of alienation, the observed lack of revolutionary activism in terms of climate issues among workers and people in general in industrialized societies may itself well be a reflection of the popular understanding that the State neither represents nor enacts the people’s will, whether on the environment, military spending, social programs, drug policy, or any other critical issue. For their part, U.S. polls from recent years (2012 and 2013) have shown consistent majorities expressing “belief” in anthropogenic climate change and concern for its effects.

Decentralization of power, self-emancipation, and anarchism remain important radical political alternatives to the utter irresponsibility and mindlessness of the global ruling class with regard to anthropogenic climate disruption. Self-management in the workplace—guided by the principles of participatory economics (Parecon), for example—coupled with community control of the political sphere would provide a humanistic alternative to “party socialism” that could well solve for the factors impelling climate catastrophe without threatening to impose a horrid repeat of the totalitarian political oppression for which Leninism has been responsible. The devolution of power to the global demos would indeed represent a recovery of the “lost treasure” of the “revolutionary tradition,” as Hannah Arendt terms the council system.2 Moreover, it would constitute a true political manifestation of Arendt’s concept of natality, the potential birth of a new world—this, in the face of the threat of mass-involuntary suicide.

Nonetheless, as Herbert Marcuse writes at the end of his most pessimistic book, “[n]othing indicates that it will be a good end.”3 In the minor chord, the HWRS does honestly consider the possibility that the climate crisis may already have progressed beyond the point of no return, such that a successful global anti-capitalist revolution in the near term may itself come too late (29-30). Clearly, a great deal of uncertainty surrounds these questions, and we confront the unfortunate reality that humanity will only come to learn the precise truth about these matters upon the conclusion of the next decade or two. Equally clearly, however, no humane alternative exists than to struggle for anarchist, anti-systemic revolution today.

——————————————————————————————————–

1To examine the relationship between Leninism and Stalinism with a critical eye, please consult Maurice Brinton’s The Bolsheviks and Workers’ Control (1970) and Gregori Maximov, The Guillotine At Work (1940).

2Hannah Arendt, On Revolution (New York: Penguin, 2006 [1963]), 207-73.

3Herbert Marcuse, One-Dimensional Man (Boston: Beacon, 1964), 257.

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.

“Six Theses on Capitalism and the Destruction of Life on Earth” by Richard Smith

November 14, 2013

haiyan

Super Typhoon Haiyan (Yolanda), Eumetsat

This is an excellent, lengthy essay by economic historian Richard Smith on the severe environmental crisis induced by capitalism and radical solutions to such.  It first appeared in issue 64 of the Real World Economics Review (July 2013), and was just recently republished on Truthout.

Some excerpts from Smith’s practical call for dealing with the profound ecological predicament include the following tasks:

“[to] drastically retrench and in some cases shut down industries, even entire sectors, across the economy and around the planet – not just fossil-fuel producers, but all the industries that consume them and produce GHG emissions – autos, trucking, aircraft, airlines, shipping and cruise lines, construction, chemicals, plastics, synthetic fabrics, cosmetics, synthetic fiber and fabrics, synthetic fertilizer and agribusiness CAFO operations, and many more.”

  1. [To] Put the brakes on out-of-control growth in the global North – retrench or shut down unnecessary, resource-hogging, wasteful, polluting industries like fossil fuels, autos, aircraft and airlines, shipping, chemicals, bottled water, processed foods, unnecessary pharmaceuticals and so on. Abolish luxury-goods production, the fashions, jewelry, handbags, mansions, Bentleys, yachts, private jets etc. Abolish the manufacture of disposable, throw-away and “repetitive consumption” products. All these consume resources we’re running out of, resources that other people on the planet desperately need and that our children and theirs will need.

  2. [To] Discontinue harmful industrial processes like industrial agriculture, industrial fishing, logging, mining and so on.

  3. [To] Close many services – the banking industry, Wall Street, the credit card, retail, PR and advertising “industries” built to underwrite and promote all this overconsumption. I’m sure most of the people working in these so-called industries would rather be doing something else, something useful, creative and interesting and personally rewarding with their lives. They deserve that chance.

  4. [To] Abolish the military-surveillance-police state industrial complex, and all its manufactures because this is just a total waste whose only purpose is global domination, terrorism and destruction abroad and repression at home. We can’t build decent societies anywhere when so much of social surplus is squandered on such waste.

  5. [To] Reorganize, restructure, reprioritize production and build the products we do need to be as durable and shareable as possible.

  6. [To] Steer investments into things society does need, like renewable energy, organic farming, public transportation, public water systems, ecological remediation, public health, quality schools and other currently unmet needs.

  7. [To] Deglobalize trade to produce what can be produced locally; trade what can’t be produced locally, to reduce transportation pollution and revive local producers.

  8. [To] Equalize development the world over by shifting resources out of useless and harmful production in the North and into developing the South, building basic infrastructure, sanitation systems, public schools, health care, and so on.

  9. [To] Devise a rational approach to eliminate or control waste and toxins as much as possible.

  10. [To] Provide equivalent jobs for workers displaced by the retrenchment or closure of unnecessary or harmful industries, not just the unemployment line, not just because workers cannot support the industry we and they need to save ourselves.”