A feed of recent articles from the independent global media platform openDemocracy’s Section Transformation, which tells the stories of those who are combining personal and social change in order to reimagine their societies.
17 June 2018. Confronting the money-power elite –
Those who control the creation and allocation of money are able to control every other aspect of society. Shouldn’t that be us?
The world today is controlled by a small elite group that has been increasingly concentrating power and wealth in their own hands. There are many observable facets to this power structure, including the military security complex that President Eisenhower warned against, the fossil fuel interests, and the neoconservatives and others that are promoting US hegemony around the world, but the most powerful and overarching force is the ‘money power’ that controls money, banking, and finance worldwide. It is clear that those who control the creation and allocation of money through the banking system are able to control virtually every other aspect of society.
What can be done to turn the tide? How can we empower ourselves to assert our desires for a more fair, humane and peaceful world order? I believe that the greatest possibility of bringing about the desired changes lies in economic and political innovation and restructuring.
The monopolization of credit.
I came to realize many years ago that the primary mechanism by which people are controlled is the system of money, banking, and finance. The power elite have long known this and have used it to enrich themselves and consolidate their grip. Though we take it for granted, money has become an utter necessity for surviving in the modern world. But unlike water, air, food, and energy, money is not a natural substance—it is a human contrivance, and it has been contrived in such a way as to centralize power and concentrate wealth.
Money today is essentially credit, and the control of our collective credit has been monopolized in the hands of a cartel comprised of huge private banks with the complicity of politicians who control central governments. This collusive arrangement between bankers and politicians disempowers people, businesses, and communities and enables the super-class to use centralized control mechanisms to their own advantage and purpose. It misallocates credit, making it both scarce and expensive for the productive private sector while enabling central governments to circumvent, by deficit spending, the natural limits imposed by its revenue streams of taxes and fees. Thus, there is virtually no limit to the amounts that are lavished on the machinery of war and domination.
In today’s world, banks get to lend our collective credit back to us and charge interest for it, while central governments get to spend more than they earn in overt tax revenues by relying on the banking system to monetize government debts as needed. These two parasitic drains on the economy—interest and the inflationary monetization of government debts—create a growth imperative that is destroying the environment, shredding the social fabric, and creating ever greater disparities of income and wealth.
How can money power be confronted?
Fortunately, we the people have in our hands the means of our own liberation: the power to allocate our credit directly without the use of banks or political money. How to assert that power is the theme of my most recent book, The End of Money and the Future of Civilization.
Over the years there has been a long parade of reformers who wish to take the power to create money away from banks. This is an admirable objective that I wholeheartedly endorse. But the alternatives they propose have been to revert to commodity money like gold (which has proven to be inadequate), or transfer the power to issue money to central government—what I call the “greenback solution,” which harks back to Abraham Lincoln’s scheme for financing the Civil War. That proposal calls for the federal government to bypass the Federal Reserve and the banks by issuing a national currency directly into circulation from the Treasury. At first glance this may seem like a good idea, but it has many shortcomings.
First of all, the greenback solution does not propose to end the money monopoly but merely to put it under new management: it’s a gross delusion to think that the Treasury is, or might become, independent of the interests that now control the Federal Reserve and the major banks. Consider the fact that most recent Treasury Secretaries have been former executives of Goldman Sachs, the most powerful financial establishment in the country. It is naïve to expect that they will serve the common good rather than the money power that has spawned them.
Second, central planning of complex economic factors has been shown to be unworkable. That is especially true with regard to money. Neither the Fed nor the Treasury is qualified to decide what kind of money—and how much—is necessary for the economy to function smoothly. The issuance and control of credit should be decentralized into the hands of the producers of needed goods and services so that the supply of money automatically rises and falls in accordance with the quantity of goods and services that are available to be bought and sold. If private currencies and credit clearing exchanges are allowed to grow without interference from vested interests, their superiority will quickly become apparent.
Third, the greenback solution does nothing to eliminate deficit spending and inflation, which are enabled by legal tender laws. As long as political currencies are legally forced to circulate at face value, the abusive issuance of money, the debasement of the national currency, and the centralization of power will continue. All government programs, including social programs and the military budget, ought to be funded by legitimate government revenues, not by the underhanded means of monetary debasement.
Centralized control of credit money and the imposition of legal tender laws enable the hidden tax that is called inflation. Salmon P. Chase, who as Lincoln’s Treasury Secretary presided over the issuance of greenbacks, argued later as Chief Justice of the Supreme Court that the issuance of greenback currency was unconstitutional and exceeded the powers of the federal government. “The legal tender quality is only valuable for the purposes of dishonesty” as he put it. Finally, the political process has been so thoroughly corrupted and taken over by the power elite that political approaches to solving the money problem have virtually no chance of success.
Towards more effective means of empowerment.
Business people, farmers, professionals, and others who are engaged in productive enterprise are clamoring to gain access to credit, but they fail to recognize that it’s already in their collective hands. Under present arrangements we give our credit to the banks, and then beg them to lend some of it back to us and pay them interest for the ‘privilege.’ But there is no good reason for credit to be monopolized in this way. Businesses routinely offer credit to one another when they deliver goods and services and allow some period of time for payment to be made. This practice can be extended and organized on a multilateral basis.
The real solution to the problem lies in creating new structures for allocating credit that are based on the legitimate needs and the resources of businesses, workers, and state and local governments. Competition in currency can transcend the dysfunctions inherent in the present centralized system and ensure that there will be sufficient amounts of different media of exchange to enable all desirable trades. Competing currencies will also ensure that political currencies like the dollar cannot be abused without losing patronage in the market. We need to promote the separation of money from the state by deploying exchange mechanisms that decentralize and democratize the control of credit.
Money is first and foremost a medium for facilitating the exchange of goods and services and other forms of real value, but the exchange function can be effectively and efficiently provided outside the banking system and without the use of conventional political money. This is already being done through credit clearing exchanges and through the issuance of private currencies or vouchers by businesses that produce valuable goods and services. Both approaches have the capacity to provide exchange media that can also be used by the general public to mediate all manner of transactions.
Is there any practical possibility of organizing producers on a sufficiently large scale to achieve this? Yes, because this approach is far more practical and empowering than any other currently on offer. Improvements in the human condition have always stemmed from the creativity, industriousness, and goodwill of people. A cooperative and compassionate, society can emerge from the creation of exchange alternatives that are based on voluntary, free-market, and community-based initiatives that enable people to transcend the money monopoly and the war machine.
This process begins at the local level by utilizing the credit of local producers to mediate the exchange of goods and services that are locally produced or sold. There are many examples of successful private currencies that have been circulated in various times and places. Whatever they are called—vouchers, scrip, credits, certificates or coupons—sound private and community currencies can be spent into circulation by any trusted producer or reseller who is ready, willing, and able to reciprocate by redeeming the equivalent amount as payment for real value, i.e. the goods or services that are their normal stock in trade and are in regular demand. There is nothing mysterious or complicated about this process.
The exchange of goods and services is also enabled on a moneyless basis by using a process of direct ‘credit clearing’ among buyers and sellers. This is already being done by scores of commercial trade exchanges (sometimes called ‘barter’ exchanges) that have been operating successfully around the world for more than 40 years. These commercial credit circles, comprised of thousands of businesses of all kinds, presently mediate an estimated 20 to 30 billion dollars’ worth of trades annually, and these numbers continue to grow.
As operational improvements are made and credit management procedures become standardized, these exchanges could be networked together to realize the vast potential of moneyless credit clearing arrangements. In this emerging worldwide web of exchange, members of each local circle or node are known and allocate credit to one another based on their reputation and ability to provide valuable goods and services. Thus we can eventually have an independent system of non-monetary payment in which credit is locally controlled but globally useful.
It is essential and entirely feasible that we reduce our dependence on the banking system and conventional political monies. Through the deployment of innovative mechanisms of exchange like private currencies and credit clearing networks, individuals, businesses and communities can empower themselves economically and politically to build a society that is free, fair, prosperous and peaceful.
A longer version of this article is available here.
As a young person, there’s nothing less empowering than listening to an older person tell you how real activism was done in the 1960s.
This article was first published on Waging Nonviolence.
On March 24 2018 I stood in the rain in front of City Hall in Bellingham, Washington with some 3,000 people for the local March for Our Lives demonstration. It was one of 800 similar events happening nationwide that day, with about two million people participating coast to coast.
The March for Our Lives against gun violence is one example of the wave of massive demonstrations that have swept the country since the Trump administration took office. From the Women’s March, to responses to Trump’s attacks on Muslims and immigrants, to protests against police violence, rallies for healthcare, and uprisings against pipelines, the last two years have been characterized by mass movements unparalleled in the United States in decades. Many, like the March for Our Lives, involve young people in leading roles. As someone who spent most of the past decade as a “youth activist”—in my case, a climate activist—I’ve been waiting for this moment for a long time.
I became an activist while attending Portland Community College at age 17 in 2005. Inspired by a political science professor who discussed social movements in class, I researched projects like the Campus Climate Challenge, a campaign to pressure school administrations to curb campus carbon emissions. I got involved in pushing for recycling at my college.
Fast forward a couple years to when Energy Action Coalition organized Power Shift 2007, a gathering of about 5,000 students in Washington, D.C. that included a multi-day organizing conference and a rally at the Capitol. At the time, it was the largest-ever demonstration for climate action in the United States. For many of us, this stands out as the moment the “youth climate movement” became a distinct force in progressive politics.
I didn’t make it to Power Shift 2007. But I was in D.C. in 2009 for the next Power Shift, an even larger gathering of some 12,000 youth. Then a senior at Oregon’s Pacific University, I convinced three classmates to fly across the country with me.
A lot has changed since those early years of youth climate activism. For one thing, many of us who got involved then are no longer “youth”—I recently turned 30. More importantly, the movement has grown in remarkable, unexpected ways, overlapping with other progressive organizing efforts. Indeed, my sense is that there’s no longer a distinct “youth climate movement” the way there was in 2009. It’s become several movements—for fossil fuel divestment, opposition to pipelines and solidarity with indigenous nations. Another way of looking at it is youth climate activists are just one part of a much larger coalition of progressive movements that simply didn’t exist on this scale 10 years ago.
For almost exactly a decade, I identified as a youth climate activist. After graduating from Pacific University in 2009 I volunteered for the Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal Campaign, focusing on involving college students in the effort to close Oregon’s only coal-fired power plant. In 2011 I moved to Missoula, Montana and spent four years rallying students and others to oppose coal export and mining projects. These last few years I’ve made a transition to supporting the growth and leadership of a new generation of young activists working on climate change or other issues.
Like all large movements, youth climate activism has had its successes and setbacks, its enormously inspiring moments and others when it failed to live up to its ideals. What follows are some reflections on lessons from the movement, necessarily limited by my own experience and position as a white male organizer from a middle-class background. Despite this bias, I hope these reflections may be of use to people involved in today’s fast-growing youth-led movements.
1. Trust in students’ abilities.
One of the best things the youth climate movement did early was stop telling young people they were apathetic—as media figures like Thomas Friedman were doing—and start saying they were powerful and inspiring. Events like Power Shift promoted positive messages about the abilities of youth. This inspired many young people, including me, to think we could make a difference and try to do so.
Still, some national groups have not fully realized this lesson, limiting their work with youth to voter turnout drives, trainings and large rallies. With some exceptions, large national groups have been more reluctant to trust students’ ability and willingness to engage in tactics like civil disobedience.
I first got arrested at a protest when I was 23, at a sit-in I helped coordinate in the Montana State Capitol. I had studied the philosophy of nonviolent civil disobedience and concluded that this was a step I was ready to take. I was less sure my slightly younger peers, who possibly lacked this background, would be willing to do the same. Yet, over the next few years, I was pleasantly surprised to see students who’d only recently gotten involved in activism step forward and risk arrest blocking the paths of coal trains and sitting in at lawmakers’ offices.
We tend to underestimate the ability of young people to intuitively grasp the significance of nonviolent direct action as a strategy. Of course, the opportunity to engage in this kind of activism must be presented in a way that feels accessible and meaningful—but when this is done, youth will step up. Have faith in their abilities.
2. Follow-up is hugely important.
Building a sustained movement means following up with those who participate to ensure they stay involved. A campaign that failed to do this well was Power Vote in 2008, a national multi-organization effort focused on getting students to pledge to vote ahead of the election. I was the campus lead for Power Vote at Pacific University and only later realized the flaws in how the national campaign was structured. We gathered hundreds of pledge cards with students’ contact information—but this valuable data wasn’t collated in a timely manner that would have allowed it to be used for following-up.
Follow-up is important in all campaigns, not just those with students. But it can be especially important for young people who are mostly new to political engagement. Following up and reminding students to fill out their ballots, show up to the next rally, and contact their elected officials helps build habits that will likely keep for years—but it requires mechanisms to ensure their data is preserved and used.
3. Teach transferrable skills.
The best activism serves two purposes: It accomplishes a campaign objective while helping participants master skills they can put to use in other contexts. This is especially important with young people, who often have little formal activist training but can take what they learn and apply it again and again.
Many activist skills—setting up meetings with public officials, testifying at hearings, holding nonviolence trainings—aren’t actually that complicated but can seem vastly mysterious to someone who has never done them before. Once armed with the right knowledge, young people become empowered to transfer skills to new campaigns and situations. Accomplishing this means structuring movements in such a way that youth have leadership roles and get hands-on experience building campaigns from the ground up.
4. Be specific about movement goals.
When I got involved in climate activism, we talked a lot about “comprehensive climate legislation” and “creating green jobs.” This sounded great, but it was sometimes unclear exactly what these words meant. This came back to bite the movement in 2009-2010, during the fight over national climate legislation that eventually went down in flames.
The problem with vague terms like “comprehensive legislation” is they mean many things to many people. As it turned out, to lawmakers—like then-Sen. John Kerry and Sen. Lindsay Graham—they meant a cap-and-trade plan riddled with loopholes and giveaways to polluters. This truly terrible piece of legislation split the climate movement—including youth activists—between those who saw it as a small step forward, and those who believed it was worse than nothing.
On the other hand, the campaigns that have done most to strengthen the climate movement have very specific goals tied to clearly defined strategies. These include efforts to stop oil pipelines, close coal plants and divest universities from fossil fuels. These campaigns have accomplished concrete wins while building coalitions that leave the movement stronger—whereas the push for national legislation left climate groups fragmented and demoralized. Fossil fuel divestment is a particularly good example of a student-focused campaign with an easily understood goal and clear framework for building power.
5. Partner with frontline communities.
Not only is this the right thing to do, but it’s strategic, fun and empowering. Some of the most inspiring moments I can think of from youth climate campaigns involved students interacting with people on the frontlines of extraction and polluting industries. I’ve seen student activists collaborate with farmers impacted by natural gas pipelines, residents of working-class rail line neighborhoods affected by coal trains and indigenous groups fighting oil infrastructure. In each case, the partnerships that developed were (I believe) mutually rewarding for both groups.
That said, building effective, lasting partnerships with frontline communities takes work. It’s not just about saying the words “people of color” and “climate justice” in every press release. This kind of work requires commitment to lasting relationships built on good faith and the belief in a shared stake in a better future. It requires learning form the people most affected by pollution so as to challenge fossil fuel industries effectively.
6. Partner with older activists.
Another of the most empowering experiences youth activists can have is the opportunity to work with no-longer-quite-so-young individuals who have a whole different set of life experiences. For students, it can be heartening to see that their generation isn’t the only one concerned about the status quo. Similarly, non-youth activists tend to find it encouraging to see young people rising to build a movement.
This doesn’t mean student and older activist groups should merge. There’s real value in youth-specific organizations that let young people bond and learn from their peers in a familiar setting. Different activist generations also tend to have different organizational cultures, which don’t always mesh well in the meeting room. However, none of this prevents youth and non-youth from collaborating on campaigns, attending each other’s events and building strong alliances. I’ve seen college freshmen and retirees sit down for campaign conversations that were eye-opening for both parties.
7. Have hard conversations about equity and inclusion.
From the movement’s early days, national youth climate organizations have used a lot of language about racial and economic justice. This positive language hasn’t always been supported by the kind of on-the-ground organizing needed to truly combat environmental injustice and oppressive hierarchies embedded in the movement itself.
The mainstream climate movement and environmentalism generally continue to be overwhelmingly white middle-class affairs. But today’s students seem more ready than ever to have tough conversations about dismantling racism and deconstructing environmentalism’s Euro-centric dominant narratives. As a white teenager, I wasn’t asking the kinds of questions that I should have been about these subjects—and I’m continually impressed by how much more aware today’s students, including white students, tend to be.
This isn’t to say white students don’t have a lot of hard work to do to address the implications of their privilege—and some will do it clumsily, especially at first. However, while the hard work remains to be done, I see a willingness to begin it that seems more widespread than it was 10 years ago. To do this work effectively, students need support from mentors and organizations that are committed to equity and inclusion as much more than catchphrases or boxes to be checked.
8. Youth need mentors, not sages.
As a young person, there’s nothing less empowering than listening to an older person tell you how real activism was done in the good old ‘60s (or the ‘90s, ‘00s, etc.). Young people don’t need sages telling them what to do. What they can use are mentors—people who’ve left their 20s behind and have experience and knowledge they’re willing to share, but do so humbly and with the realization that youth also have their own knowledge and skills to share.
As a student, I was never particularly motivated by the argument that because the generation before mine screwed up, it was my generation’s job to fix things. I wanted to know, since that older generation was still around, why they couldn’t pitch in and help. I’ve also known many, many older activists who have tried to help in just this way, and taught me things I never could have learned by myself.
The “youth climate movement” of today looks very different from the one of 2007. To become more effective it has both narrowed and broadened its focus. The narrowing is a result of it zeroing in on winnable campaigns like divestment and stopping pipelines, while the broadening is due to a growing focus on building bridges with other movements. Done effectively, both of these approaches may succeed in generating the kinds of incremental wins that could cascade into a national wave of climate and progressive victories.
I’m deeply humbled by campaigns like the March for Our Lives, which succeeded in building a truly massive youth-led movement in a way climate activists of my generation never quite managed to do. Yet, when 5,000 students came together for the first Power Shift in 2007, few movements were prioritizing youth leadership the way climate organizers were. The story of youth activism these last 10-plus years has been one of gradually building power, learning hard lessons and setting examples of what dedicated organizing looks like. The climate movement made a significant contribution to this process. Without the work of climate and other youth activists over the last decade, some of the larger mass movements of today might not have come into being.
What will youth climate activism, and young people’s organizing more generally, look like over the next 10 years? I don’t know, but I look forward to finding out.
12 June 2018. Why we should all be concerned about musicians’ mental health –
Music is crucial to everyone’s wellbeing, so when musicians suffer so does the rest of society.
Last month, the tragic news of the death of Frightened Rabbit singer Scott Hutchison hit the music community hard. He had spoken openly about his struggles with anxiety and depression, and channelled raw emotion into his songs. He was found dead at the age of 36.
Hutchison wasn’t alone in facing these problems. Around one in four people in the UK experience mental health issues each year, and this problem affects musicians disproportionately. A 2016 survey by the University of Westminster for the charity Help Musicians UK found that those working in music can be up to three times more likely to suffer from depression than the general public. Addressing this problem isn’t just crucial for musicians; it’s crucial for the whole of society and the economy, and for our collective health and wellbeing, because we all benefit when the creative arts are thriving.
Mental health is complex and there are many factors that can impact our wellbeing, from our surroundings to our relationships. But the Westminster research highlighted something that many people already know only too well—that musicians face unique pressures.
Low and unpredictable pay and a lack of financial stability affect musicians’ mental health, and the uncertainties around employment go hand in hand with the pressure to be ‘creative on demand.’ Many are forced to juggle several jobs and often work away from home which can be exhausting and isolating. The absence of a regular routine along with poor sleep and bad eating habits all influence wellbeing.
“Being a musician has the impact of any self-employed job, you never switch off, everything is connected to your success; your relationships, your friendships and your social life,” Joe Tilson told me in a recent interview, a singer-songwriter from West Yorkshire. “At the time I never thought of music as the cause of any of my low points, I saw it as the escape and cure, that I was lucky to have it.
Now I’m looking back from a more balanced life of music, work and family, I can recognise that a lot of the things that caused me anxiety and dark times were as a result of my devotion to music. Maybe if being devoted to music was more widely accepted as a choice for a living, the less disconnect there would be from the majority of people.”
But it’s not just the conditions that musicians face in the music industry that creates these problems—it’s also the condition of the industry itself. Over the last decade, austerity in the UK has squeezed local authority spending on arts and culture. Early in 2018, research by the Musicians’ Union found that 44 per cent of orchestral musicians in the UK say they don’t earn enough to live on because of funding cuts.
Because of this increasing financial squeeze, professional musicians who have spent years honing their talents are being forced to take other jobs, and it’s not a stretch to say that someone’s self-worth may decline when they aren’t able to use their skills to make a living. Musicians in the UK aren’t alone in facing this problem. In the US, for example, President Trump has repeatedly sought to end federal funding for government arts programmes, although fortunately, he’s been unsuccessful so far.
Despite the huge contribution of the music industry to the economy—with creative industries estimated to generate £85 billion net annually to Britain’s GDP according to 2016 figures—governments still fail to recognise its importance, including in education. Recent research by the BBC found that creative arts subjects are being cut back in many schools because of funding pressures and an emphasis on a narrow core curriculum. For universities meanwhile, courses in creative subjects are being undermined by a focus on graduate salaries as a measure of success, with many arts and humanities courses being labelled as a waste of time because they won’t lead to well-paid employment.
Music venues, which are integral to local communities, are closing. Around a third of the UK's small gig spaces have closed in the past decade, according to Music Venue Trust. One venue in south London, The Montague Arms, shut just a few months ago only to be replaced with a music-less gastropub—of which there are plenty already.
While these issues may not directly lead to mental health problems they send out the message that creativity isn’t valued, and when combined with the challenges musicians already face they have the potential to undermine their wellbeing even further. Witnessing the arts being sidelined runs the risk of depleting musicians’ self-worth and self-belief. Therefore, ensuring that everyone working in music has access to mental health support is essential, and there are a number of organisations which do offer help.
Last year for example, Help Musicians UK launched Music Minds Matter, a 24/7 nationwide mental health service for anyone working in the music industry. Despite government cuts to arts funding, the charity is increasing its support for various initiatives including the Musician’s Hearing Health Scheme and the Creative Programme, which supports emerging artists.
Musicians can also access free health assessments through The British Association for Performing Arts Medicine (BAPAM), while the charity Music Support offers help to anyone working in the music industry struggling with their mental health. It also provides ‘safe tents’ at music festivals for artists and those working backstage to address issues that may come up while on tour. Mind, the national mental health charity, also provides advice and support.
None of this is just an issue for individual musicians; protecting them and their ability to make music is also crucial for the health and creativity of society as a whole. We often express our innermost emotions and feelings through music and communicate to others what isn’t always possible in words. Listening to music has a major, positive impact on our mental health, in part because it releases dopamine, a neurochemical that’s linked to wellbeing.
Music lessons in schools also have huge benefits for children, boosting their happiness, self-esteem, concentration, numeracy and language skills. “The positive impact of art and culture on society can’t be overstated,” Ruth Kilpatrick told me, who works with the ‘PRS for Music Fund,’ a charity providing financial help and support to members of PRS, the UK’s music licensing organisation.
“Human beings thrive on connection and shared experience, a feeling of belonging and a sense of purpose. Music, art and culture in general all connect us to a common thread and deserve to be valued as such.”
Singer-songwriter Joe Tilson takes this argument one stage further: in an age where more work is being automated, he told me, it’s especially important to recognise the importance of creative arts and music.
“There is so much value and transferable skills from the world of performing music that can make people a positive addition to the workplace. People will always be creative. The less support the government gives, the more the government will be the focus of poor, angry, frustrated musicians.”
10 June 2018. The future of trade unions –
Unless democracy is reinstated as the movement’s guiding principle, organized labor will fail in any form.
British and American unions live in contradictory times. Scarred by 40 years of demoralisation and decline and with a tumbling membership, stringent legal restrictions on their work and fading political influence, they may also now stand on the cusp of a revival.
A wave of recent battles on both sides of the Atlantic, notably the ongoing teachers’ strikes in the US and an unprecedented 14-day strike by British university staff, might anticipate a coming upsurge in trade union action. Smug corporate types like to dismiss unions as industrial dinosaurs, killing time as they wait for the comet to land and finally bring about their extinction. We might yet get to see the smirks wiped from their faces.
The sharpest edge of this contradiction involves workers at the bottom of the occupational pyramid: the least-skilled, lowest-paid, largely female, migrant and non-white precarious layer of the workforce who British and American unions have historically struggled to organize. In the past several decades they have seldom tried.
The failure of unions to organize precarious workers has gone hand in hand with a failure of internal democracy. Falling membership in the past 40 years stems in part from union leaders not doing enough to draw on the talents and abilities of their members. An active membership, with real space to debate and change what their union does, is essential if unions are to organise precarious workers and bring about their own revival.
Different traditions within the British and American unions have addressed these questions in their own distinct ways. Each has their own take on what unions should and shouldn’t do, and each has their own approach to organizing precarious workers and fostering democracy within the labor movement. As unions teeter between revival and further decline, it’s worth thinking about what these traditions are, where they come from, and which we should support in the years ahead.
The first of these traditions is craft unionism. It was strongest in the unions of the British Trades Union Congress and the American Federation of Labor during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, and represented the most skilled, privileged and powerful minority of the labour force. More interested in making improvements within existing social arrangements than in transforming them, their bargaining power rested not on numbers but on the fact that the members of craft unions were, thanks to their long apprenticeships and training, not easily replaceable.
They were often contemptuous—and sometimes even fearful—of the great mass of workers below them, whom they saw as prone to outbreaks of self-defeating militancy which would jeopardise the gains that ‘respectable’ unions made through negotiation. In general, the craft unions ignored such workers whenever possible.
The second, more inclusive tradition is industrial unionism, which found adherents on both sides of the Atlantic in the rise of the mass production industries during the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Industrial unionists saw a greater role for unions in the fight for social change. This meant conceiving unions not as a minority of skilled workers but as mass organisations that could mobilise workers in each industry from top to bottom.
In the US the Knights of Labor, the Industrial Workers of the World and the mass production unions of the Congress of Industrial Organizations all succeeded to some extent in building a mass movement. The ‘new’ and general unions in the United Kingdom such as the Dock, Wharf, Riverside and General Labourers Union and the National Union of Gasworkers and General Labourers did likewise. Not coincidentally, they organised precarious workers (especially women and non-white workers) in far greater numbers than craft unions ever did.
The third tradition falls somewhere between unionism and charity. What might be called ‘philanthropic’ unions do not rest, as craft and industrial unions do, on the bargaining power, numbers and militancy of their members. They depend instead on middle- or upper-class support to promote organisation among this or that group of highly exploited workers who, such supporters feel, don’t have the time or the strength to organise on their own.
Some of the first major steps in the promotion of women workers’ unions took this form. In 1874, for example, Emma Paterson and a number of other female workers set up the Women’s Provident and Protective League, an organization designed to encourage the creation of womens’ unions. The League survived for several decades on subscriptions from prominent ladies with aristocratic titles. As a result, it was more likely to call for collaboration with sympathetic employers than struggle against those who were unsympathetic.
These three traditions all still exist today, and their future development will determine the destiny of British and American unions in the years to come.
The craft unions of the nineteenth century may be long gone, but the spirit of craft unionism remains. The horizons of many union leaders have narrowed during the past forty years of retreat even as their strategy to retain existing members—the so-called “service model” based on the provision of fringe benefits more than on demands at the workplace—has failed. Their record in organizing precarious workers, especially in rapidly-growing service industries, has been even worse. Money that could have been spent organising has flowed instead to the Democratic and Labour Parties in the hope that a legislative fix could halt these unions’ long-term decline. They still await political deliverance.
In other cases, the philanthropic idea holds sway. In the US for example, the Domestic Workers Alliance works with and on behalf of one such group: the people who work in other people’s homes, often the homes of the rich. The Alliance has won badly-needed improvements for domestic workers at a state level in California and elsewhere, working with an employers’ organization called Hand in Hand to promote good practice across the industry.
Yet the funds that make the Alliance possible depend on the goodwill of well-meaning liberal donors, who might not prove so generous if domestic workers choose more militant forms of protest. There are also signs that the Alliance has prioritised legislative solutions over the organising of domestic workers themselves, and some organizations affiliated with the Alliance, such as Domestic Workers United, have called for a different, more worker-led model of organization.
The same philanthropic model guides living wage campaigns at UK universities today. Academics, students and union officials have pressured university managers to boost pay for low-wage workers on campus, using tactics from media campaigns to artistic interventions that have often proved effective. As with the Domestic Workers Alliance, however, they tend to work over the heads of the workers who stand to benefit from the campaign, and who must defend those gains from future attacks by university management. Unless that changes so that member-led democracy replaces charity as the guiding principle of the movement, these campaigns and alliances will fail in the longer term.
If craft unionism is a dead end and philanthropic unions suffer from a deficit of democracy, then what of industrial unionism? The broad, radical thrust of that tradition has not energised the mainstream of the unions for some time, but its spirit still lives on.
To take one example, the Fight for $15 campaign has brought thousands of fast-food workers, service and domestic workers traditionally considered beyond the reach of the American labor movement into the union fold. Its legislative victories in city after city from New York to Seattle prove to previously passive workers that strikes and mobilisations can work. If Fight for $15 can join with other radical movements with a strong working-class flavour such as Black Lives Matter, undocumented migrants’ campaigns, the new fighting feminism and ongoing struggles for LGBTQ rights, it could go from strength to strength.
The same spirit animates a growing number of trade unionists in Britain. The Bakers’ Union, for example, has followed the American lead and organized the first strikes at British branches of McDonald’s in 2017 and 2018. Best of all, new unions have taken up the task of organizing precarious workers where the existing ones have failed.
The Independent Workers of Great Britain (IWGB) and the United Voices of the World (UVW) draw on the legacy of the ‘Wobblies,’ the Industrial Workers of the World. Working with food delivery workers at Deliveroo and migrant cleaners and service workers at several London universities, they rely on direct action by an active and engaged membership to force concessions from employers. To promote unity between Spanish-speaking and English-speaking members they began English-Spanish language exchanges. And they have strengthened the skills, capacities and militancy of their members on the picket lines and in the wider community.
At institutions from the School of Oriental and African Studies to the London School of Economics, they have waged successful strikes to secure better sick pay and holiday pay, and to end the outsourcing of their jobs. In April 2018 their struggle against outsourcing moved to cleaners, security guards and other workers employed by agencies for the central administration of the University of London. Their struggles have set an example for other trade unionists to follow.
That doesn’t necessarily mean that we should abandon established unions and create whole new ones. It does involve a fight for the real control of those unions by their members—a struggle as old as the labour movement itself.
These fights go on. The President of the Teamsters, James P. Hoffa, son of the infamous Jimmy Hoffa—a name associated with the corrupt unionism of The Godfather and On the Waterfront—was nearly unseated as President in late 2016 by a grassroots coalition called Teamsters for a Democratic Union. A 14-day strike in February and March 2018 has transformed my own union, the University and College Union (UCU), whose national leadership faced harsh criticism for its apparent willingness to end the strike on any conceivable terms. UCU leaders can now no longer rely on a rubber stamp from an inert membership, and the possibilities for a campaign by and for casual academic workers have never been greater.
The exact form that unions take as organizations is less important than the spirit that guides them. Craft unionism means further decline and irrelevance. Philanthropic unionism means eternal dependence on fickle liberals. Inclusive, industrial unionism remains the only tradition with real democratic potential. It alone has the wide vision needed to organise the millions of precarious workers alongside those with greater leverage and bargaining power.
Whether or not that tradition is expressed through new unions or old, the example set by the IWGB, the Fight for $15 and other grassroots movements is the one we should follow if we want to restore dignity to the most exploited and fight most effectively for real social change.
If politicians aren’t planning for disappointment then they’re not living in reality.
Dr Annette Clancy’s doctoral research explores the role of disappointment in organisations. I talked to her about the political significance of her work on May 15 2018.
Paul Walsh: How might your work apply to
politics? I'm thinking of Brexit as a disappointment time bomb in particular.
Annette Clancy: Brexit is a glorious example of the folly of fantasy. It was entirely conducted along the lines of a fantasy Britain. A fantasy Britain that never existed. I don't know when this honeymoon period people talk about in Britain that we're trying to get back to was; there’s certainly a degree of fantasy on the side of the Brexiters. Where disappointment comes in is that if we don't talk about our fantasies and try to uncover what they are...they're a cover story for something. Fantasy is a cover story. If we simply try and fulfil our fantasies we will always be disappointed. We simply will.
It's not possible to deliver the Brexit dream—because it is a fantasy. It was set up for disappointment as soon as it was articulated. And you know, the conversation that I believe should have happened is: What is this fantasy of a ‘white Britain’ or an ‘everybody-at-work Britain’ telling us about how Britain is constructed today? Do we actually have to have a conversation about immigration? Do we have to realise that there are swathes of people who are living in poverty and don't have jobs? They are the conversations that drove the fantasy and yet it's rare you see them being taken out and really articulated in a way that's meaningful for people.
The other thing about politics and disappointment is that we’re always going to be perpetually disappointed in politicians as we hold them to a higher standard. I think this is the joy of Donald Trump, who is doing exactly what he said he would do, which most politicians don't when they get elected. We have this fantasy idea of how politicians should behave, unlike how normal human beings behave. The real work goes on behind the scenes and we don't see it. If politicians were to be honest about the work, they might not get re-elected. We want the fantasy of the ideal leader, the ideal politician.
PW: Considering the recent UK council election results and ongoing accusations of anti-Semitism, what advice would you give to Jeremy Corbyn on dealing with disappointment?
AC: If political parties are not being disappointing, and being disappointed, then they and their followers are living in a fantasy. It isn’t real. And if political parties are not expecting and planning for disappointment—that is, reality—then they are not adequately planning for a real future.
On the other issue, why wouldn’t there be anti-Semitism in the Labour party if there’s anti-Semitism in the wider population? It’s only a controversy if we carry the fantasy that the Labour party is the good party and the Conservatives the bad party. My research on disappointment suggests we’re all good/bad at the same time. We’re all satisfying and disappointing at the same time. Rather than be shocked by this, what would it mean to say that this exists? The Labour party is representative of wider society and not a sanitised or polarized place in which everybody does the right thing all of the time.
PW: What might we learn from disappointment?
AC: We might learn what really matters to people. Are the tasks we're asking people to do—are they the right tasks? Are they do-able? One person I interviewed talked about exceeding their quota in a call centre by twenty per cent last year. This year the new normal is last year plus twenty per cent. Something about what we're asking people to do and the resources they have to do it with is contested by disappointment.
Can we learn from emotion instead of being terrified it's going to derail everything? What might happen if we were to simply listen and think about disappointment and other feelings we denigrate as negative? What might happen if we treated emotion as data? We could learn a lot about how organisations really work.
One of the things I learned when I started to talk to people is that everybody has an experience of disappointment. Yet there's very little written about it. That to me suggests there's a fear of what might happen if we were to talk about how disappointed we all are.
The more we talk about disappointment as failure—my failure to live up to your expectation of me, your failure to live up to mine—we're stuck in this blame/shame dynamic. We’re trying to work out whose fault it is and it kills and dampens down any possibility of doing something different. My research suggests that if you think about disappointment as loss, we have to mourn the idea.
I call it 'mourning the future'. As a woman you’re in your late 30s you think to yourself Do I have a child or not? It's not just a biological decision—it's a decision about how I imagined my life would be. And if we can actually mourn that future it means we can make different decisions about what that future looks like. If we can't mourn it then we're stuck.
With my clients I began to work with them around the loss, around this piece of grieving. What does it mean for you that you’re not the person you imagined yourself to be? What does it mean that you are never going to be the manager of that organisation? Or that you've tried for a job three times in this organisation and they don't want you. Move into that space and I discovered it really transformed people's working relationships. If we can move into the loss it’s a much more human place to be.
5 June 2018. The political significance of LSD –
The shifts in consciousness brought about by psychedelics could help to dissolve our fear of the other.
“Microdosing” on psychedelic substances like LSD—ingesting just enough to heighten cognitive faculties, enhance creativity, improve concentration and alleviate depression—is currently back in vogue among people not normally associated with anything remotely ‘countercultural’ in the USA.
The term psychedelic was coined in 1958 by British psychiatrist Humphrey Osmond and is derived from the Greek words psyche ("soul, mind") and delein ("to manifest"), hence "soul-manifesting," the implication being that psychedelics can access the soul and develop unused potentials in the human mind. It’s a contention that’s gaining increased acceptance in mainstream universities.
New York University, for example, is hosting clinical trials using psilocybin to treat alcohol addiction. The Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS) has been at the forefront of research in treating patients suffering from chronic treatment-resistant PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder) with MDMA, commonly known as ‘Ecstasy. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) recently designated its MDMA-assisted psychotherapy project as a ‘breakthrough therapy.’ Apart from MDMA, MAPS also advocates the use of Ayahuasca, Ibogaine and medical marijuana for a variety of conditions ranging from bipolar syndrome and drug addiction to autism-related disorders, ADHD and clinical depression.
The therapeutic use of psychedelics isn’t new. Between 1953 and 1973, the US federal government funded over a hundred studies on LSD with more than 1,700 subjects participating. Psychedelics were tested on convicts, substance abusers, people suffering from chronic depression and obsessive-compulsive disorder, schizophrenics and terminal cancer patients. LSD was also tested on artists and scientists to explore its effects on creativity, and on divinity students to examine spirituality from a neuroscientific perspective. The empirical data gathered from these tests was largely positive.
LSD “truly was an acid, dissolving almost everything with which it came into contact, beginning with the hierarchies of the mind… and going on from there to society’s various structures of authority” says author Michael Pollan in his book How To Change Your Mind: The New Science of Psychedelics. And that’s what makes this subject socially and politically interesting.
“It is curious to me that what I see as the two greatest threats—environmental crisis and [political] tribalism—these drugs directly address both those mindsets” Pollan told the Guardian in a recent interview. “They undermine our tendency to objectify nature, to think of ourselves as separate from it. They undermine tribalism in that people tend to emerge from these experiences thinking that we are all more alike, all more connected.”
If this is true, then those of us committed to social transformation must start to take the use of psychedelics much more seriously. But what’s the actual or potential connection between LSD and politics?
It was a Swiss chemist called Albert Hoffman who discovered the drug by accident in 1938. While conducting research on another pharmaceutical compound he absorbed the drug through his skin and staggered home to lie down on his sofa, where, “in a dreamlike state, with eyes closed”, he wrote later, “I perceived an uninterrupted stream of fantastic pictures, extraordinary shapes with intense, kaleidoscopic play of colours.” Hoffman felt he had been given the keys to unlocking the mysteries of the universe, “the mystical experience of a deeper, comprehensive reality.”
A few decades later in August 1960, Timothy Leary, a clinical psychologist from Harvard University, traveled to Cuernavaca in Mexico and ingested psilocybin (‘magic’) mushrooms for the first time, an experience that radically altered the course of his life. In 1965, Leary commented that he had "learned more about ... (his) brain and its possibilities...[and] more about psychology in the five hours after taking these mushrooms than...in the preceding 15 years of studying and doing research in psychology." Leary became a lifelong evangelist for the therapeutic benefits of psychedelics.
Theoretical physicist Carlos Rovelli, author of The Order of Time, says his romance with quantum theory and the mysteries of the space-time continuum were sparked by his LSD trips as a student radical at the University of Bologna. “It was an extraordinarily strong experience that touched me also intellectually,” he told the Guardian. “Among the strange phenomena was the sense of time stopping. Things were happening in my mind but the clock was not going ahead; the flow of time was not passing any more. It was a total subversion of the structure of reality. How do I know that the usual perception is right, and this is wrong?”
Rovelli has spent the better part of his life grappling with the relationship between space, time and consciousness, fundamental concepts that underlie existence and how we simultaneously perceive the world and shape it. “If I observe the microscopic state of things,” he writes, “then the difference between past and future vanishes … in the elementary grammar of things, there is no distinction between ‘cause’ and ‘effect.’” The concept of time, he says, “has lost layers one after another, piece by piece.” We are left with “an empty windswept landscape almost devoid of all trace of temporality…a world stripped to its essence, glittering with an arid and troubling beauty.”
Large parts of the world are being polarized at a rate rarely seen before, helped in no small measure by social media ‘filter bubbles’ and algorithms that divide people sharply along the lines of nationality or ideology, their underlying human connections rendered increasingly irrelevant. Perhaps such deep hatred and suspicion of the other was always there, but now it has taken center stage and is being used as a potent election strategy by populist and hyper-nationalist leaders the world over. Like herds of cattle, large numbers of people are being programmed and deployed as pawns for a larger agenda.
Therefore, perhaps real change begins with rewiring our perceptual framework. Psychedelic substances have been ingested sacramentally by indigenous cultures to achieve this goal since the dawn of time, and now they’re being validated by the scientific and medical communities. The shifts in consciousness that can be brought about by psychedelics can help in dissolving the man-made boundaries or fear of the other that are implanted in our collective psyche.
While Silicon Valley bio-hackers microdosing on LSD to enhance their workplace performance may not be looking to bring about tectonic shifts in collective consciousness, there’s no reason to restrict the use of psychedelics to these groups and purposes. They could also work as a potent catalyst to awaken humankind to the dangers of toxic nationalism and rabid nativism that threaten to engulf us.
In the first part of this article I explored the roots of the recent crisis at Save the Children UK (SCF-UK). That the principal characters involved have all now resigned their posts in the wake of this crisis becoming public is testament to the power of staff and supporters who demand so much better from an organisation of Save the Children’s stature.
They did some good things, of course, and they left behind an organisation that in the right hands could make a huge difference for children. But no-one can work to their best ability with confused ethics at the top. It becomes a constant talking point and distraction.
But from every crisis an opportunity arises, and this is a golden opportunity to do things differently. What might that mean in practice?
First, the organisation needs to complete the painful process of investigating the handling of allegations of sexual harassment, which is still the most vivid example of what went wrong. We had at least one investigation when I was there, which obviously didn’t do its job properly because two more are underway. To show that it has changed, the organisation should take the initiative by setting out its own version of what happened in detail, rather than waiting for investigative journalists, parliamentary committees or the Charity Commission to do so.
You can’t have change on the cheap, and you can’t build a new future while the past is left unresolved. Talking with present-day staff, I am confident that, with continued pressure, the organisation will succeed in stamping out the likelihood of sexual harassment or any other type of bullying.
But it can’t end there. The alleged sexual harassment was only the most obvious example of what was going wrong, an outward sign of a deeper problem. So it’s time to critique the whole framework in which previous leaders seemed to operate, including their version of success in an international charity and their understanding of what it means to work for children’s rights and international solidarity in the 21st century.
Lessons for the aid sector.
What happened at SCF-UK is an extreme case of what is happening in many charities, where long-held values and beliefs about how societies and organisations should work seem increasingly in tension with the context and incentive frameworks in which they operate.
The funding context is complex and difficult, as increasingly charities are encouraged to bid against each other for limited funds, and to compete on the doorstep. The struggle to survive and demonstrate impact tends to harm rather than help attempts to act in the interests of staff and beneficiaries. The temptation to focus on superficial gloss rather than profound challenges is one to which no charity is immune, and most have, on occasion, fallen.
Once a bulwark of values, the aid sector is in danger of becoming just another arm of politics and business—so long as a quiet but bold insistence on doing things differently continues to give way to a feeble attempt to copy and follow, to make endless compromises on the altar of growth.
The news that SCF-UK is suspending new proposals for UK Government projects is the final ironic nail in the coffin of the previous era at the top of the organisation. Leaders obsessed with growth at all costs must now realise that even that vacuous objective is undermined when care is not taken of organisational culture and values.
That’s why what happened at SCF-UK should stand as a cautionary tale; no longer a model to emulate, it is a case study to be reflected on at length. It is hard to distil such a complicated story into simple lessons for the sector, but let me suggest five maxims for a new generation of international NGO leaders:
1. Put values first. The ‘what’ matters—of course it does; large and powerful international charities really can make a countervailing difference against a trend to look inwards at national interests. But the costs have to be weighed too, so the ‘how’ matters just as much. The previous leadership may have been talented, but the real talent, as a wise friend in another INGO pointed out to me, is having success and impact without losing touch with your values and sense of solidarity. The charity sector should be proudly different, rather than chasing the coat-tails of other sectors that are wrongly perceived to be more efficient or effective.
2. Diversify your influences and relationships. Save the Children got the balance wrong between cultivating relationships with the powerful in the North and standing first and foremost with the underdog. What matters. How matters. And Who matters too. Voices from the South need to come to the fore to influence strategy. It’s not that you can’t partner with the private sector or work closely with governments—risks are often worth taking in these areas. But you have to do it thoughtfully, cognisant of the risks involved, and with a clear plan to achieve genuine impact and not just noise, handshakes and big-sounding numbers. A deeper analysis of politics and structures is required if charities are going to regain the trust of serious development professionals and the public at large. That means a concern for systems change and attacking all forms of inequality, and it means building relationships in a humble, listening way.
3. Growth is not a strategy. Being big and powerful is not enough. There needs to be a re-evaluation of the centrality of financial targets in the organisation’s culture. It is possible to grow fast and maintain a focus on impact, staff wellbeing and values, but this is hard. A really bold leader would consider non-growth or even shrinkage as seriously as growth. Leaving behind a smaller but better organisation is a sign of success, not failure. Be ambitious for impact, values and relationships, not growth.
4. Collaborate, don’t just compete and compromise. Development is a marathon as well as a sprint. Long-term relationships are more important than short-term ‘wins;’ solidarity is more important than fleeting results. The sector matters more than particular organisations. Every part of it should be trying to build up all the other parts, not to do them down. This used to be obvious; it should soon be so again. Moving away from the pressure to grow endlessly will help rebuild a spirit of collaboration.
5. Trust your staff. The ways of working that became dominant at SCF-UK were increasingly at odds with the instincts and preferences of those who made up the majority of the workforce: top-down directive leadership and too much compromise, too much cosying up to power. That is neither wise nor sustainable. Staff and supporters expect things in charities to be done in a certain way. They understand the need to compromise, but they have a good sense of when and where. And they expect to be listened to. Leaders are foolish when they ignore the wisdom of their colleagues. That is not to say that leaders can’t be bold and visionary; it means that they have to respect their colleagues, the wider movement and the evidence, and not just their own desire to do things differently.
None of these things are easy to get right. All depend on the wisdom of ethical leaders to strike a balance between different tensions and incentives, and to retain a real sense of humility—and I mean leaders at all levels. Experience is important, but one lesson from this crisis is that junior staff can sometimes see things more clearly than old-hands, and can make the difference if they are brave enough to speak out.
In the world of work, of politics and campaigning, we often feel that we are part of someone else's created system. But that is only partly true. We are the system too. We are creating it every day with our decisions and through our words and actions. It took me too long to learn this fact. It’s time to do things differently.
I believe the staff, and to some extent volunteers and supporters, are the key to SCF-UK’s future. Now that the media has outed the issues, staff and supporters have found their voice. More than ever they must keep pushing to ensure that a renewed and dignified Save the Children emerges, powerful in its support for children’s rights but always reflecting the values it publicly espouses in the way in which it operates: kindness, fairness and respect.
If we have learned one thing from this appalling mess, it is that people who care for an organisation cannot just leave it in the hands of trustees and senior leadership. We all need to take responsibility and, if necessary, take a stand.
Statement from openDemocracy.
In relation to the handling of allegations of sexual harassment at Save the Children UK, Save the Children-UK’s lawyers have asked us to point out that their client did not act to cover up or ‘silence’ complaints against Justin Forsyth and/or Brendan Cox; has policies in place to protect its workforce; and did not seek to discourage people from speaking out. Furthermore, that when the Justin Forsyth matters were raised with the Chair, he instructed HR to manage the process overseen by a Trustee. The complaints made in relation to Mr Forsyth were resolved at the time on a confidential and informal basis, with the approval of the complainants; and that when management became aware of an alleged incident involving Mr Cox at a Summer party in 2015 SCF-UK took immediate action to investigate the matter, and as part of the investigation Mr Cox was suspended and not allowed back into our client’s office.
31 May 2018. Learning how to think –
If we can’t think for ourselves we should learn how to think well with others.
Last fall Alan Jacobs published a slim book with a bold title: How to Think: A Survival Guide for a World at Odds. Jacobs is a professor of English literature, but in this book he joins a growing chorus of social psychologists who warn that enlightenment anthropology—what Jamie Smith memorably calls the “brains-on-a-stick” model of human persons—falls woefully short of reality. Rather, as people like Daniel Kahneman and Jonathan Haidt have shown, our bodies—our senses, emotions, and intuitions—shape and direct our reasoning.
Rather than trying to suppress the embodied aspects of reasoning—an effort that Jacobs thinks is futile and, indeed, counterproductive—Jacobs argues we should learn to use our emotions and intuitions to help us think better. In particular, I found his reflections on how we should think with others to be salutary. As he points out, we can’t think for ourselves—inspirational posters to the contrary—so we should learn how to think well with others.
One of the chief dangers of thinking with others is that we find it easier to think with people who think pretty much like we do. It can be threatening to encounter people who think differently from us. Drawing on the work of anthropologist Susan Friend Harding, Jacobs relies on the term “Repugnant Cultural Other” to describe how we tend to think against certain groups that our tribe considers to be odious.
Significantly, such groups are usually comprised of people who live relatively nearby. We’re not bothered by people in distant countries who hold odd views; they are merely interesting. We’re repulsed by our weird neighbor who votes for candidates we think are objectively stupid or dangerous. Jacobs cites Scott Alexender’s reflections on this theme:
“We think of groups close to us in Near Mode, judging them on their merits as useful allies or dangerous enemies. We think of more distant groups in Far Mode—usually, we exoticize them. Sometimes it’s positive exoticization of the Noble Savage variety (understood so broadly that our treatment of Tibetans counts as an example of the trope). Other times it’s negative exoticization, treating them as cartoonish stereotypes of evil who are more funny or fascinating than repulsive. Take Genghis Khan—objectively he was one of the most evil people of all time, killing millions of victims, but since we think of him in Far Mode he becomes fascinating or even perversely admirable—“wow, that was one impressively bloodthirsty warlord.”
As Jacobs’s concludes, “The real outgroup, for us, is the person next door.”
Another phenomenon that exacerbates our tendency to view our neighbors as Repugnant Cultural Others is the disinhibition effect that communication technologies can have. Jacobs quotes some of the obscene, violent language that Thomas More and Martin Luther used in their vituperative exchanges. They manage to make Donald Trump’s tweets look like a model of restraint and propriety.
As Jacobs notes, these exchanges were shaped by new technologies: “The violence of the language is partly explained by the disinhibition generated by a new set of technologies, chief among them the printing press and postal delivery, which enabled people who have never met and are unlikely ever to meet to converse with—or in this case scream at—one another.”
Digital communication technologies amplify this disinhibition effect; it’s incredibly easy to mock and insult people we will never meet: “As long as someone remains to you merely ‘the other,’ the [“Repugnant Cultural Other”], accessible through technology but not truly present to you in full humanness,” then it remains easier to fling insults and take-downs at them rather than to reason thoughtfully and charitably with them.
This is where being more deliberate about thinking from a particular, physical place can be a vital corrective to our technologically-enabled modes of debate. If we are friends, or at least casual acquaintances, with particular, embodied people, it’s at least possible that we will learn to think alongside them. And if we’re deliberate about befriending people in our broader communities, we’ll get to know people who also happen to belong to sociological groups that my tribe tells me to label as repugnant.
The embodied conversations such friendships make possible bring necessary inhibitions; we’re less likely to yell at someone standing next to us than we are to type a sarcastic, all caps comment at an avatar. To be clear, embodiment does not magically guarantee congeniality; humans are certainly capable of being vicious despite the inhibitions that embodied presence imposes. But embodied relationships with particular neighbors makes it more likely that we’ll engage others as human persons rather than digital avatars.
Maybe the most important “technology” for helping us think, then, is friendship. Thinking alongside people whom we disagree with and yet still care about trains our feelings and dispositions. We learn how to reason and converse as modes of membership rather than warfare. As Jacobs puts it,
“Learning to feel as we should is enormously helpful for learning to think as we should. And this is why learning to think with the best people, and not to think with the worst, is so important. To dwell habitually with people is inevitably to adopt their way of approaching the world, which is a matter not just of ideas but also of practices.”
I’m reminded of Wendell Berry’s recent essays and stories expressing gratitude for the many friends who have been his conversation partners over the decades. While Berry certainly has local friends, he has also sustained important friendships through letters and the telephone. If we’re guided by practices and virtues cultivated via in-person friendships, we’re better formed to use communication technologies “to think with the best people,” as Jacobs puts it.
Jacobs’s book has challenged me to be more deliberate regarding whom I’m thinking with, to ask myself whether I am indeed thinking with people who have good dispositions—who want to think well—and who think from different backgrounds and perspectives.
This article was first published in Front Porch Republic, a platform dedicated to renewing American culture by fostering the ideals necessary for strong communities.
30 May 2018. Is it time for voluntary poverty? –
Alternative forms of charity could have a deeper impact on the forces that underpin moral and social transformation.
Revelations of sexual harassment and abuse in the charity and NGO sectors have triggered deep questions about the nature of voluntary action today. What are the costs of increased size and bureaucracy and the distancing of not-for-profit agencies from grassroots constituencies and concerns? Are there alternative forms of charity that avoid these problems while achieving a different kind of impact on power relations, human relationships and values—the things that really underpin long-term moral and social transformation?
For the last six months, I’ve been volunteering with the Catholic Worker movement in London which tries to do just this. While there’s certainly a place for formal charities that are run by paid managers and employees, the Catholic Workers and other groups like them build their activities around an individual and collective commitment to serve the most vulnerable and destitute in society that eschews personal, material gain. With its roots in pacifism and Christian anarchism—which attracts people from all Christian denominations and none—the movement represents a concrete re-imagining of the nature of charity and serves as a counter example to many other contemporary institutions.
It was founded by Dorothy Day and Peter Maurin in the US in 1933, who initially joined forces to found a radical newspaper. When homeless people started enquiring about the ‘houses of hospitality’ that the newspaper described, Day felt compelled to act, and opened the first such house in New York to those who had been made homeless by the Great Depression. Since then, more than 150 other houses have been founded across the United States and Europe, providing food and lodging to homeless people and refugees within a supportive community environment that also acts as a hub for broader strategising and organising.
The movement’s way of life is simple but challenging. As the writer and researcher Carol Rakoczy put it in an article for Transformation: “For Day there was no dichotomy between the spiritual and the material; both were part of the same reality in which the Gospel text about feeding the hungry and sheltering the homeless was a daily joy and challenge. Love was the measure of her life, but Day was very realistic about the cost of this path, which was everything—comfort, reputation, misunderstandings, and the lack of a stable family life with a partner. She often quoted a phrase from the writings of Fyodor Dostoyevsky: ‘Love in practice is a harsh and dreadful thing.’”
Hence, both concrete action and self-sacrifice lie at the heart of the Catholic Worker movement, and it’s this relationship that distinguishes its work from that of other more formal charities. What makes the movement effective is the simplicity of this call-to-action in which everyone in the house or community is part of the same, shared endeavour.
Live-in volunteers commit to what Day called ‘voluntary poverty.’ “We cannot see our brother in need without stripping ourselves,” she wrote in her book Loaves and Fishes, “It is the only way we have of showing love. Voluntary poverty is the answer.” By stripping oneself of the desire to make material gains from charitable activity it is possible to foster a personal transformation that allows people to work with others in radically different and more egalitarian ways—not as clients or ‘others’ who are ‘poor.’
But the movement is not just about personal transformation; it also carries a broader political message, and from the 1930’s it has sought to challenge the injustices of the time. Day highlighted the horrors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki while several other Catholic Workers were imprisoned for their acts of civil disobedience against the Vietnam War. It’s the linking of these two levels of action together that’s still the essence of the movement today—a different form of individual motivation that supports, and is supported by, a much broader call for social and political change.
It’s in this spirit that London Catholic Worker provides meals and accommodation for up to 18 destitute asylum seekers at Giuseppe Conlon House, an ‘intentional community’ in North London. The aim is to provide concrete support for those who have no recourse to public funds, and to resist hostile immigration policies. Every month, live-in volunteers hold a silent vigil outside the Home Office to remember those who have died in fleeing war and persecution.
“Because we are able to work for free here—as a community—we can support the people who for political reasons aren’t getting support,” says peace activist Nora Ziegler who’s a long-term community member and volunteer at the house. “So, I see our work as resistance to capitalism, to the hostile environment of policy, and I feel very privileged that I have the freedom to do this. I feel like I am free to do the work that is important to me, because I don’t have to worry about finding someone who will pay me for it.”
Ziegler tells me that she once attended an event with senior staff at homeless charities. She noted that they weren’t interested in discussing homeless people who had no recourse to public funds. If refugees don’t have approved ‘leave to remain,’ they told her, it means that they’re illegal in the UK, while other staff said they ‘don’t have the funding’ to support such refugees. But if charities aren’t supporting some of the most vulnerable people in society who will? Perhaps that requires thriving models of charity outside the formal charity sector. Many charities rely on government funding, while others have a close relationship with government that affects their political neutrality.
Leading homelessness charity St Mungo’s, for example, was recently accused of working with the Home Office to find and arrest homeless people deemed to be staying illegally in the UK. In this context, the Catholic Worker movement is relevant because everybody is deserving of support and no questions are ever asked of them. “We never ask why they are here,” writes Day in Loaves and Fishes. For me, this approach is the heart of charitable work; recognising the inherent worth and dignity of every human being.
What makes Giuseppe Conlon House and other houses of hospitality different to a night shelter is that those who are welcomed—whether refugees or homeless people or anybody else—are not treated as ‘service users’ as in the vernacular of many charities; they are ‘guests.’ They live together with volunteers in an intentional community in which friendships can develop between guests and volunteers. Guests also move out of the house whenever they are ready.
“I think for a lot of people who are victims of the immigration system here it just crushes their self-worth, their self-esteem,” Ziegler says, citing the story of an asylum seeker who previously lived at the House. “He was a handful for us—there were many times where we had to ask him to leave at night because he came home very drunk, which was really hard. But I think at the same time, being here was really, really good for him. Not just because of what the volunteers did but also because of the other guests who were looking out for him. And I think he really needed that environment where it felt like people care.”
It is this type of community which has helped to create ‘wholeness’ for guests at the Catholic Worker Farm in North West London, which caters for destitute female asylum seekers and their children by providing temporary lodging, meals, counselling and English lessons. As Scott Albrecht told me (who calls himself the ‘kindly abbot’ of the farm), “The most significant thing is the lives of the women. They go from severe confusion and chaos to wholeness and wellbeing. That is the most rewarding and satisfying, like a woman from Afghanistan having her bones literally crushed. She has recovered.” The guests are called ‘sisters’ and over 500 women have been supported at the farm since August 2006.
Day implored others to return to the roots of Jesus’ teaching in order to support the most marginalised in society. The same teachings inspire Albrecht today. “I describe ourselves as ‘homo emptor’” he says, “Man the consumer. We’re constantly consuming. I think the Catholic Worker movement is an antidote to that with its teaching of voluntary poverty…The government has austerity measures and the Catholic Worker movement has teachings of dignity and every person is Christ. The movement is an antidote to systemic failures.”
Speaking as a charity professional myself, I don’t believe that everyone has to give up their salary in order to be effective. That would be unsustainable, and it could act as a barrier to people with less means who want to get involved in social action.
What we really need is a vibrant and dynamic civil society in which charitable institutions are just one part of the equation in forging a just and equitable society, and in which the most vulnerable people who ‘fall through the cracks’ are supported. Indeed, the initial findings of an inquiry into the future of civil society found that people are losing trust in big institutions, including charities.
That’s why voluntary action must exist outside of formal institutions, through self-organised networks like the Catholic Worker movement. Because there are no central headquarters for the movement, houses of hospitality work in agile and dynamic ways that are not hampered by bureaucracy, like the Saint Maria Skobtsova House which was founded in 2016 in response to the Calais 'jungle' and which supports refugee minors.
The Catholic Worker model is not utopia. There are still power inequalities between volunteers and guests because volunteers have a right to work and guests do not, just as volunteers choose to live in a house of hospitality and guests may not have a choice at all. However, the choice for volunteers to live in ‘voluntary poverty’ helps to mitigate these inequalities in power. It’s a lesson from which other charities might learn.
28 May 2018. We don’t have to be related to be a family –
Moving beyond traditional family structures is both personally and politically liberating.
A lot of my friends and co-workers are 'starting families’—by which they mean producing offspring and registering the details of the person with whom they officially have sex with the government.
I'm 35 years old, which is the kind of age when your parents, or even random people at dinner parties, start asking when you're going to ‘start a family’ too. Thankfully I rarely get asked that question because I don't really speak to my parents, never go to dinner parties, and most people don't realise I'm 35 because—as a visibly genderqueer person who likes colourful clothing—they always seem to assume that I'm a child.
But actually I’ve already started a family myself, just a different kind of family to the ones we’re normally used to. While 'proper' families spend their weekends at IKEA or hiking in national parks, I'm in the club dancing to Whitney Houston with mine, or in an anarchist meeting or a collective cleaning day for the local social centre.
When you don't have a nuclear family and you live outside of that tradition, knowing the purpose of the family and who gets to be a member is a little complicated. On an abstract level, family could be seen as the relationships that reproduce us i.e. that provide us with those things our jobs deplete but that we don't or can't buy—like care, cleaning, cooking, love, safety, and other domestic, personal and emotional things. Family isn’t always easy to separate from friendship or from work since they all resemble each other in different ways and are interdependent. In particular, and as marxist feminists have argued, capitalism is dependent on the unpaid domestic and emotional work that women are expected to do for men.
In Northern Europe where I live, family is usually understood as marriage, kids and a mortgage. But as I was growing up, I decided this setup wasn’t for me. I decided to bail on ‘womanhood’ and fight my way out of the patriarchal system of two genders, which in my case also meant opting out of the traditional notion of the family.
So at the moment, my family consists of my sister who lives up the road from me, a group of about five very close friends whom I consider my queer siblings, plus the three housemates I share a home with. My siblings, biological and figurative, are the people with whom I talk every day, tell everything, ask for advice, and go on holidays; people who I understand, feel understood by, and love.
My housemates are less close, but they’re the people I live with so we share domestic labour and support each other when we're sick or injured. They held me when I came home the evening that my girlfriend of two years dumped me via text, and they've always brought me soup whenever I've been ill. I remember this with fondness when it's my turn on the rota to clean the shower or scrub the floor.
Most people don't grow up dreaming about a family like mine. Many would probably assume that I lack the closeness or commitment that comes with traditional family ties, or that I'm immature or somehow incapable of having a 'proper' family. As I've experienced when fishing in my pockets for my ID at tills and bars, gender—which is intricately linked to family roles—is closely connected to the idea of a person's maturity.
As it happens, I and my queer siblings didn't grow up dreaming of our current family setup either: so many queers are disowned by their families, or have their relationships with their parents turn weird when they come out. Today 40 per cent of homeless people under 25 are LGBT+, many because they are kicked out of home.
For me though, a different definition of family works both personally and politically: it helps to make my own world better, and it enables me and my family members to share emotional and domestic labour more equally, live up to our values more easily, and spend more time organising and campaigning for social change.
There are good reasons why I’ve rejected the roles of woman and wife. It wasn’t because I was 'born queer;' it was because I wasn't willing to play the well-rehearsed roles that women have played in nuclear families since the beginning of capitalism—to do the cleaning, cooking and other domestic work for another person, usually a man, who is fully capable of doing it himself; or to jump in and take care of his emotional stress when it doesn't occur to him how to sort it out on his own. Based on current UK figures, wives do ten more hours of housework per week on average than their husbands. Not to mention childcare, and being the person who sacrifices herself to keep other people's lives together.
It’s not that I’m selfish; in my family we're very mindful of how much emotional and domestic labour we put on each other. We're not ungenerous with our love, and we probably do way more counselling and crying and cleaning the bathroom for each other than most nuclear families. But we’re careful not to free-ride on each other or dump problems at each others' doorsteps. Of course we all have times when we're needier or when we’re going through difficult patches, but nobody keeps a tally of who's asked for what.
Unlike many wives in traditional relationships, me and my siblings can opt out if we're having a bad day and come back the day after. Instead of calling each other up and immediately pouring it all out, we check first: 'is this a good time to talk? I could call Suzy instead. I just need to talk about something horrible that happened'. And saying ‘no’ every now and then is completely legit. How helpful is it to be supported by someone who's barely holding it together anyway? And how does it feel to ask for help from a loved one you can see is already depleted themselves?
By extending my family to a larger number of people I have both security—since there will always be someone there when I need them—and the freedom to say no.
The only life-long member of my family is my biological sister, and the fact that I'm not sure if my current family constellation will be exactly the same for the rest of my life is both a good and a bad thing. I'm probably missing out on some of the security that traditional family structures offer. Since there aren't any clear social norms that govern how nebulous queer sibling-families work, we're slowly working it out on our own.
In this neoliberal era of privatisation and austerity, who is it that would look after me if I got seriously ill? For whom would I take time off work to do the same? The answers are unclear, but we're talking about it. And while we're doing that, we're also campaigning against welfare cuts and organising for a collectively owned economy. The point is to contribute to social support structures that can help everyone when they need it—whether it's state welfare, or even better, welfare that's not organised through a violent, domineering and exclusionary institution such as the nation-state. And to work against our society's expectation that women, femmes and nonbinary people will be at hand to do the unpaid care work.
As well as putting question marks around security, though, not having a solid constellation of family members has also been liberating. I've had friends and partners in the past who are very close with the nuclear families in which they grew up, and I've seen how their families can act as a brake on their exploration of the values and politics they want to live by. They have a load of duties and expectations that I don't have: to get married, produce grand-children or be a ‘good girl.’ Not having a nuclear family has allowed me to rethink my life choices radically; I've been able to try different things, move to new cities, and be inconsistent in my identity.
Though I'm talking about 'freedom' I want to clarify that my family structure isn’t about becoming more individualistic or unattached. I haven't chosen this family setup so that I can be an autonomous individual who commits to nothing and needs nobody but themselves. On the contrary, I need my family. In fact, I need everyone in the broader society that I'm a part of, whether it's the anarchist political scene or the queer community; everyone I pass on the street; or the migrant workers in Portugal who grow my food.
The liberal idea of the self-sufficient individual is a myth spread by capitalists to justify the notion that competition and inequality are somehow natural. In reality we all depend on everyone else for our survival: how could we get good quality health care, education, food, transport, communications, or anything else worth living for if we didn't club together with others?
People often say that a society based on sharing and mutual gain is utopian; it can’t exist in real life. But that isn’t true. We already practice socialism within our families and between our friends. What we need to do is to extend more of it to others all around us, and that's what my family is trying to do.
When I returned to Save the Children UK (SCF-UK) in 2014 as Director of Policy and Research I joined an organisation that was in many ways unrecognisable to the one that had given me my first job 15 years earlier. Over the years it had grown in size and ambition. In some respects it seemed now to be an organisation at the pinnacle of its powers, but it was also straining under the weight of profound internal contradictions. A brilliant and slick operation with hotlines to all the important people, it was one which had begun to lose its soul.
The brave women who have spoken up about alleged sexual harassment in public, or made their case in private, have provoked a crisis that is bound to lead to significant improvements in working practices not only at SCF-UK but across the charity sector. The alleged working culture they have described is one that almost everyone who has worked there can relate to, men as well as women.
Like most of the staff, I did not know the alleged full extent of the allegations against Brendan Cox and Justin Forsyth until I read the stories in the media like everyone else. But an ex-colleague’s memorable description of an atmosphere in which women “had to keep safe” reflects what many women told me in confidence at the time, and the rumours I had heard even before I joined.
The handling of the investigation into alleged sexual harassment at SCF-UK has become a story in the newspapers, and rightly so. But most reporting and commentary has stopped there, as if the alleged harassment were an aberration in an institution that was otherwise getting it right. In my view, the macho behaviour, the alleged harassment and bullying, some of which I saw for myself, was a symptom of a deeper malaise, a sign of an organisation losing its way.
It’s not easy to talk about this kind of thing. There are feelings of loyalty to individuals, institutions, and the wider cause. There are worries that maybe speaking out will do more damage than keeping schtum. There is self-doubt about one’s own analysis. But as internal and external investigations continue into the allegations it is vital to speak openly and honestly about the past.
Value vs values.
The circumstances under which some men harass women are depressingly familiar. What requires more explanation is how any organisation lets them get away with it. If an agency knows about sexual harassment but chooses to manage the victims rather than the perpetrators, it is sending a clear message that the value of the men involved is more important than the values most people would assume to be at the heart of a charity. In SCF-UK’s case, one complainant allegedly told an internal investigation leaked to the BBC that she was advised not to tell anyone about her case and that both her and Mr Forsyth's reputations were at risk. "They weren't trying to protect me or safeguard any other women. It was just about covering this up as quickly as they could," she said.
So this is a story about values, and about what is valued. And the fundamental problem, in my view, was a leadership determined to pursue growth and influence at all costs. These costs included a woman’s right to work in a safe environment. But that wasn’t the only cost. An over-focus on rapid growth can mean staff being overworked and feeling undervalued and unhappy, leading to higher than usual staff turnover. It can mean problems with programme effectiveness.
An exaggerated desire for “influence”—meaning closeness to power—can lead to an over-emphasis on easy wins and “results” rather than the fundamentals of structural change. It can lead to ill-thought through partnerships and relationships, including with the private sector. And it can lead you to disregard the sector as a whole, putting the interests of a particular organisation above a broader cause.
The fundamental challenge for a new leadership determined to move on from the past is not just to tackle the issue of harassment, although that is the most immediate priority. It is to tackle the fascination with size and influence that can put decent organisations at risk.
Management vs staff.
People have moaned about management in every organisation I have ever worked for, and as a manager I have definitely been moaned about! But I have never before seen such an obvious and substantial disconnect between the leadership of an organisation and the majority of its staff.
Forsyth and Cox, with whom I have worked closely, and whose capabilities and commitment I acknowledge, brought from Number 10 a verve and talent for advocacy and campaigning, and a vision for what an agency like SCF-UK could achieve. To give them their due, they saw that the organisation could be taken to the next level in terms of making a difference in the world.
Along with Sir Alan Parker (whom I do not know) and other senior executives, Cox and Forsyth succeeded in building an effective machine characterised by an intense ambition to make a difference and populated by a passionate and talented staff. There were certainly times when I was impressed by their vigour, rigour and strategic thinking, determination to think outside the box, and preparedness to take risks.
But the costs were too great, and they either didn’t see them or didn’t care. Their ruthless approach to getting results went hand in glove with a limited concern for the values that attract people to work for charities. I would go so far as to say they disdained them. The examples set, the comments made, the decisions taken, all slowly built a picture of a leadership distant from the majority of their colleagues, and from the sector itself.
When Tony Blair was awarded a “global legacy” prize it felt wrong to the staff, but those at the top didn’t see it. When Forsyth was featured in the Financial Times’ “How to spend it” section usually reserved for the rich and powerful to describe how they like to spend their money, the coverage was tone-deaf. It was under this leadership that we saw so-called “poverty porn” fundraising adverts on television, pulling on the heartstrings of the public rather than conveying a more positive message about the dignity of people living in poverty.
In each of these cases, growth and influence seemed to matter more to the leadership than values. Of course, they were also motivated by noble goals—everyone is. But in their inability to understand dignity, authenticity and humility, and their instinct to buddy up to people in power, they lost their way.
I remember my very first meeting in my new organisation in 2014, when a group of colleagues sat around Cox taking notes on his directives rather than engaging in the to and fro of debate that is more usual in the NGO sector. One of the things I find most depressing, looking back on it, is how many young people will have joined the agency and thought that this was the norm for the charity sector; whereas those of us that have worked for a range of charities know it was an exception.
At one staff meeting, Forsyth defended his approach against a criticism that it didn’t reflect staff preferences by saying, “Save the Children is not a democracy.” Of course, he was right. But it is an organisation that depends on brilliant people putting in overtime and boundless energy for something they believe in—and those people need to be valued, nurtured and respected.
This macho approach to leadership, I learnt, was not unrelated to alleged sexual harassment. When an organisational culture begins to breakdown, management tends to break down too. I don’t believe that Cox or Forsyth were sufficiently well managed. In fact, as star performers when judged in terms of growth and influence they were given a lot of latitude to do as they wished. They were considered so valuable to the organisation that their weaknesses were arguably brushed under the carpet. People who complained were seen as a nuisance, as barriers. According to the SCF-UK’s own internal investigations by the law firm Lewis Silkin and reported by the BBC, the agency’s Head of HR received a "less than supportive response" when allegations were made about Forsyth’s behaviour, "which he feared was as a result of Sir Alan Parker and Justin Forsyth being very close."
Growth vs dignity.
What these leaders never understood, and what the new leadership of SCF-UK must, is that how matters as much as what. This is an unspoken truth in the charity sector. People go to work every day expecting to experience the values that their organisation claims to believe in. When that doesn’t happen, things begin to fall apart.
They knew they stood for influence and size, but they didn’t know exactly why. To “reach more children” was the mantra, but that is absurd. If it hadn’t been SCF-UK winning contracts it would have been other organisations, the “competitors.” One massive organisation or ten smaller ones? It doesn’t matter—the same number of children would be “reached,” and they don’t mind which organisations do the reaching.
Growth and influence are not goals in themselves, certainly not in charities. If you have lost your moral compass, your growth and influence are built on very shaky foundations. Dominic Nutt, a former head of media, reports the bizarre objective among senior SCF-UK executives to “take down Oxfam.” What kind of human rights organisation wants to “take down” another important charity? The same one in which a senior executive asked me at a meeting with other NGOs, “It there anyone here we should poach?”
Effective international cooperation is about putting the least powerful first—about transferring power. But at SCF-UK I heard NGO partners from the Global South referred to by leaders as “crazies,” and other charities badmouthed openly as the collegial practices of the charity sector were arrogantly ignored. It is not always easy to work in coalition with people from your own country, let alone from other cultures, but respect is a sine qua non of this type of work.
One final thought. It is easier to criticise others than oneself. What happened at SCF-UK was not my fault, but that does not mean I am above blame. I could have done more to counterbalance the alleged harassment, the ways of working and the overall direction of the organisation. The truth is that all of us could have done things differently, and we all wish we had been bolder earlier.
I did criticise and try to influence direction and strategy in management meetings, as did others. And I tried to exemplify a participatory approach in my team, attempting to build confidence and broaden perspectives. I was preparing to resign if Cox wasn’t dealt with—until he beat me to it.
But I was not organised and determined enough to use what power I had to insist on change. Perhaps I didn’t stay long enough to make a concerted impact. And ultimately, I wasn’t confident enough to tell Cox and Forsyth to their faces the damage they were doing to the organisation and the sector. That is my biggest regret.
History will not judge this moment in SCF-UK’s evolution kindly, but what next for the organization and other NGOs in the sector? That’s the question I’ll be exploring in part two of this article which comes out next week.
Statement from openDemocracy.
In relation to the handling of allegations of sexual harassment at Save the Children UK, Save the Children-UK’s lawyers have asked us to point out that their client did not act to cover up or ‘silence’ complaints against Justin Forsyth and/or Brendan Cox; has policies in place to protect its workforce; and did not seek to discourage people from speaking out. Furthermore, that when the Justin Forsyth matters were raised with the Chair, he instructed HR to manage the process overseen by a Trustee. The complaints made in relation to Mr Forsyth were resolved at the time on a confidential and informal basis, with the approval of the complainants; and that when management became aware of an alleged incident involving Mr Cox at a Summer party in 2015 SCF-UK took immediate action to investigate the matter, and as part of the investigation Mr Cox was suspended and not allowed back into the client’s office.
27 May 2018. Madrid’s community gardens –
Where neighbourhood counter-powers put down roots.
Michel Foucault, for example, studied in detail. There are no harmonious societies. Conflicts of interest between different social groups have been a constant throughout history, and are probably the main driver of social change. Counter-power emerged as a means of collective action whereby the injustices suffered by subordinate or oppressed social groups become politicized, either in the form of silent rebellions that remain latent in everyday life or through challenges that are publicly and openly declared.The main feature of power is that it inevitably creates resistance, a process
The forms this collective action takes have varied over time, due to factors such as technological developments, cultural changes or socio-institutional processes. The idea of counter-power has always been ambivalent: on the one hand, it is defined negatively by its capacity to say NO and prevent the hegemonic elites from carrying out their agenda; on the other, it transmits an assertive strength, a capacity to say YES and deploy new sensibilities, desires, ways of organizing and alternative lifestyles. Destituent and constituent power are two sides of the same coin.
Our cognitive reflexes tend to associate social struggles with images of revolts, mass mobilizations and epic insurrections, where conflict is dramatized. In the urban context, its mythological architecture would be the barricade – an ephemeral construction that symbolizes two worlds in conflict, made of the magic cobblestones that rise up to form fortresses described by Baudelaire. But what if, rather than the barricade, we were to think of counter-power in terms of a space such as a community garden? But what if, rather than the barricade, we were to think of counter-power in terms of a space such as a community garden?
We would speak of defending the existence of spaces where the lives of local communities and plants are cared for, food is grown and social relationships are harvested, of neighbourhood and environmental ecosystems threatened by the market and urban policies.
Let’s think of the workers’ movement with its unions and parties, consumer and worker cooperatives, mutual societies, newspapers and magazines, folk schools, cultural centres and libraries, people’s houses, choirs, bands, excursion clubs, theatre groups, women’s associations, mutual support networks in neighbourhoods… We will find a whole world run according to its own principles and rules – a constellation of community institutions where people could socialize, practise solidarity, and reproduce a culture and lifestyles that operate independently of power.
Does it not seem reductionist to think that this complex multiplicity, overflowing with life, is a mere exercise in the accumulation of forces awaiting the day of the revolution? Counter-power interests us because it refers to inhabiting a conflict without being obsessed with confrontation, and acknowledges that building new social relations can be a gesture of radical defiance. This connects with historical socialist and anarchist tendencies whose efforts were aimed at developing initiatives and projects that foresaw what a non-capitalist society would look like.
Long ago, the Labour Party activist G. D. H. Cole wisely stated that the revolution should look as little like a civil war as possible and as similar as possible to a record of events and a culmination of existing trends. This is why we emphasize the positive, constituent dimension of counter-power and track experiences that are able to transform our cities and people’s lives, bringing about small-scale radical changes at the same time. We will mention a few of them and then focus on one example: community gardens, specifically in Madrid.
Resisting austerity urbanism
A city is more than a place in space, it is a drama in time - P. Geddes
The financial crash that began in 2008 put an end to the illusion of a model of economic growth increasingly disconnected from meeting social needs. Cities have borne the brunt of the dramatic social and economic impacts of the crash (household debt, evictions, high unemployment, energy poverty, inability to afford food, deterioration and privatization of public service, etc.), which have given rise to a serious loss of social cohesion.
This process was aggravated by the application of an austerity urbanism that opened the door to the private sector in service provision and management, giving it an ever more important role in the definition of strategic guidelines for urban transformation.
This restructuring of urban policies is based on processes such as the promotion of megaprojects and mega-events, public–private partnerships (PPPs), opening up the most interesting sectors to foreign investment, unequal public service provision depending on the purchasing power of different neighbourhoods, gentrification, and the commodification of sectors such as environmental management, green areas or even the public space itself.
Investors, property developers and large corporations have driven the creeping commodification of the city, with the result that markets – disconnected from social needs and free from political oversight – determine the direction taken by urban governments. And citizens have suffered the dramatic consequences: market authoritarianism and the erosion of local democracies, booming corruption, an increase in environmentally unsustainable processes and an exponential growth in inequality. Investors, property developers and large corporations have driven the creeping commodification of the city, with the result that markets determine the direction taken by urban governments.
In Spain, the official narrative of the crisis began to be questioned publicly with the emergence of the 15M movement in 2011, which launched the most intense cycle of collective action in the country’s recent history. The protest camps and assemblies formed micro-cities at the heart of a larger city in a sort of project proposal for other cities, generating an atmosphere more favourable to social change.
Against austerity urbanism, what emerged from civil society was cooperative urbanism, intensive in its capacity to innovate to solve problems, citizen leadership and more democratic ways of understanding the public sphere.
In Spain, responses to the crisis have taken different forms: campaigns to stop evictions and recover homes, led by the Platform of People Affected by Mortgages (Plataforma de Afectados por las Hipotecas, PAH); citizen tides in defence of public services such as health and education, bringing together users, professionals and trade unions; the restoration of buildings to set up community centres; the organization of food banks for vulnerable families; neighbourhood support and solidarity networks against the exclusion of migrants from health services; or the takeover of abandoned properties to plant community gardens.
The plurality of resistance is not just defensive action against the loss of rights and the lack of resources and basic services, but a recovery of collective thinking and proposal-making.
The greatest successes of this plurality of counter-powers have been to discredit the story about the crisis; to put a stop to the most aggressive policies to privatize health, education or water; to popularize acts of civil disobedience (stopping evictions, occupations, refusing to pay higher taxes on medicines, medical care for undocumented people); to present popular legislative initiatives aimed at changing the legal framework, the outstanding example being the PAH proposal on the right to housing; and to develop a non-hegemonic use of international law, leading to several condemnations of the Spanish state for human rights violations. This is not just defensive action against the loss of rights and the lack of resources and basic services, but a recovery of collective thinking and proposal-making.This cycle of mobilization has consolidated a modest, imperceptible geography of resistance that takes the form of different ways of thinking about, imagining and inhabiting the territory.
Whether intentionally or unconsciously, in solving problems counter-powers tend to promote alternative urban models where different lifestyles can develop. They do this by re-signifying and politicizing concepts such as the neighbourhood or the public space, and by producing places where new social and practical relationships can be (re)built: community centres, community gardens, community-run equipment, the reinvention of empty or under-used public spaces.
Living in a different way implies the material construction of arenas where – albeit on a small, fragmented scale – it is possible to reproduce other patterns of relationships among people and between people and their surroundings.
Planning change in the city square
They can cut all the flowers, but they can’t stop the coming of spring.- Pablo Neruda.
This citizen counter-power was enacted in the protest camps that from 2010 onwards spread to large cities all over the world, from Tahrir Square to Madrid’s Puerta del Sol, from Occupy Wall Street to Gezi Park, as people demanded more democracy and rose up against ‘austericidal’ policies.
With thousands of people living side by side in the protest camps, the public space was seen as a collective, political site. The occupation of this space was ‘potentially permanent and self-managed’, making it a metaphor of another way of inhabiting the city, reinventing the public space as a common space, ‘a performative representation of justice and equality’, where people could protest in common, think in common, live in common and explore alternative values in common.
The protest camps were structured as temporary cities, with different spaces for different activities and needs: children’s areas, libraries, communication and information centres, dining areas, solar panels. In many of these camps, between the tarpaulins and the assemblies, community gardens somehow also found a space that was sometimes symbolic or evocative. Spaces where the community living in the camp imagined itself and made plans for the future, such as in the Huerta del Sol in Madrid, where there was a sign saying ‘if we last 40 days we will eat lettuces’.
Greek and Turkish Cypriot activists from Occupy the Buffer Zone in Nicosia set up camp on the disputed land. One of the ways they took ownership of this space, left a mark on it and gave it a new meaning was the Greening up the Green Line action, which involved building a small vegetable patch and ‘seed bomb’ workshops. These actions sought to give a new meaning to the green of the so-called green line (the demilitarized zone that separates the island), turning it into a cultivated landscape. These were temporary, shifting spaces, designed to highlight political demands and make links with other movements and spaces that were already there.
In Occupy Rome, the city’s guerrilla gardening groups and community garden (CG) collectives, organized their first joint action with the design and construction of the Orto Errante, based on movable vegetable patches; Occupy Wall Street organized workshops and guided visits to the community gardens in the Lower East Side; in Barcelona, the agroecology movement attended various protests with a nomadic garden, which ended up being seized by the police; and Occupy San Francisco planted an organic garden opposite the headquarters of Monsanto.
Elsewhere, the protest camps led to starting up projects that aimed to be permanent, such as Occupy the Farm, an urban farm on an occupied site in the University of California, Berkeley, or the People’s Peas Garden located in a public park and run by Occupy Gardens Toronto, which was active for five months until it was dismantled.
After the camps were taken down, the seeds of ideas planted by these gardens germinated elsewhere, as illustrated by the Puerta del Sol camp, which was dismantled to shouts of ‘We’re not leaving, we’re moving to your conscience’.
When neighbourhood assemblies in Spain start to work on their local environments, they often develop community garden projects. This has happened from Madrid and Barcelona to Burgos or Málaga, where the very name of the gardens reflects those origins: Horts Indignats in Barcelona, Huerta Dignidad in Málaga (in reference to the 2014 Marches for Dignity).
Urban agriculture has become a means to denounce speculation and demand a new culture of the territory. It has also enabled the creation of social and economic alternatives linking a wide range of social actors and collectives, from green activist groups to unemployed people’s assemblies, from neighbourhood associations to popular solidarity networks.
Community gardens or rooted counter-power
The gardens symbolised the opposition to what was happening. The possibility of building a better city based on the interests of local communities, an expression of people working together. The opposite of racial segregation, individualism and the urban renewal strategies that benefit only the rich and powerful.- C. Khan
In common with other critical social movements, the community gardens presented their demands under the umbrella of the right to the city, understood not as a legal claim, but as citizens’ right to intervene in the city, to build it and transform it.
This symbolic framework can be used to connect with other essential demands (against neighbourhood segregation and stigmatization, forced displacements, evictions, the criminalization of poverty) for imagining a socially just city, into which experiences like the community gardens incorporate issues such as urban ecology and food sovereignty.
The urban agriculture movement reveals and poses questions that go beyond the gardens themselves, calling on people to participate and share responsibility for our lifestyles and how we manage resources that are located beyond the city limits but are essential for the city’s subsistence in a context of social and ecological crisis, exemplified by climate collapse and the energy crisis.
Together with the right to the city, another central pillar in the ideas and practices of the urban agriculture movement is the notion of the commons. Indeed, the CG defined themselves as the urban commons from the outset. Thus, for Karl Linn they are neighbourhood commons, meeting spaces built and managed by people living in degraded areas of deprived neighbourhoods.
The urban commons revive traditional practices of community management of natural, strategic resources the community needs to reproduce, and adapt them to the urban setting. One of the strengths that gives the community gardens their radical nature and transformative capacity is their goal of creating a community in the broad sense, around sharing and collectively managing a space, resources (soil, seeds, water, tools), certain benefits (harvests, social recognition), and a group of people who define their own rules and organization.
This has led to the community gardens also being defined as green urban commons: ‘green spaces located in urban settings, with diverse forms of ownership and a wide range of rights, including the right to create their own management arrangements and to decide who they want to include in that system of management’.
The community gardens are self-organized, non-hierarchical experiences that combine a critique of the dominant model of the city with the mobilization of emancipatory practices and ideas. Against the ideology of homo economicus, the idea of the community refers to the way in which people create their own community intentionally, reflexively and by engaging in dialogue, generating groups that see themselves as inclusive, open, flexible, porous and rooted in the neighbourhood. Against the ideology of homo economicus, the idea of the community refers to the way in which people create their own community intentionally, reflexively and by engaging in dialogue.
The neighbourhood is that sphere between the productive and the reproductive, between the private, known, domestic space and the public space, comprising the larger, more abstract city that cannot be encompassed in its totality.
In the community gardens, the sense of belonging to the neighbourhood is defined culturally rather than geographically, seeking to involve and appeal to neighbours whose definition as a group is likewise flexible, as it refers to people who work collectively in the neighbourhood and not so much to their place of residence.
This sense of community belonging that characterizes the urban gardens is underlined by a gardener from Madrid, an unemployed architect: ‘It’s not a question of each person having their own plot, or each person managing, working and harvesting a separate, fenced-off area. That’s something people find very unsettling – they’re surprised that you’d go and put in the work without knowing what you’re going to get out of it’.
Because what is grown is not for commercial purposes, the gardens promote a sort of gift economy, where what each person contributes and what they receive is not quantified.
Another gardener from the same garden explains it like this: ‘This spade is not mine, neither is this plant. Because all of it is everyone’s, I have more of a sense of belonging. It feels more important to me, I have to look after it and defend it more than if it was mine or someone else’s. It’s everyone’s space and no-one’s space – a common good that we can all enjoy but that doesn’t belong to us’. For another gardener, ‘Being a community means working more on the basis of questions than answers. Things get decided through consultation, nobody imposes their views’.
For a gardener in one of Madrid’s oldest gardens, Adelfas, the community garden is ‘a place where we can go back to what a neighbourhood used to be, talk to the neighbours in a space that’s not commercial or defined by consumerism’. Another adds: ‘It’s a place where we do things collectively and connect with the earth, a place to be with people who have something in common, a part of the neighbourhood that’s really ours, unlike the park that’s cold and impersonal’.
The community gardens are self-organized, non-hierarchical experiences that combine a critique of the dominant model of the city with the mobilization of emancipatory practices and ideas.
Agroecology, self-management and social ties are the three features that define their work at the local level, where people grow food and harvest social relationships. Because they are in the public space, the community gardens are highly visible, attractive experiences, and very active in making connections with other initiatives (community centres, neighbourhood associations, consumer groups, cyclists’ collectives, education associations and schools, for instance), which means that they reweave the local social fabric.
As time goes by, the meeting space and relationships with other people become key to the group’s cohesion and compete in attractiveness with the gardening dimension, which was initially more relevant. As one gardener says, ‘When we didn’t know each other so well, we mostly talked about plants. Now we know each other we talk more about what’s going on in our lives’.
Another gardener, the treasurer of one of the largest gardens in Madrid, Huerto Batán, expresses her motivation in similar terms: ‘Now, rather than the tomatoes, the important thing is relating to other people’.
As well as the immediate activity, the community gardens prefigure what people would like their city to look like in the future, expressing the need for neighbourhoods that are more participatory, shared spaces, together with the introduction of more eco-urbanism (sustainable transport, proximity, renewable energies, composting, closing cycles).
Madrid community garden history
The community gardens were born in local communities that organized to regenerate degraded urban spaces on a small scale by occupying abandoned properties, spaces between buildings or underused green areas.
These empty spaces once again became inhabited, combining a modest reconstruction of the site, emphasizing the use value of the urban space, with a relational rehabilitation that seeks to restore the quality of the space by intensifying social relations (organizing activities such as street parties, community meals or cultural initiatives).
The protest side of the gardens was there from the start, revealing how far urban development policies and expert knowledge have diverged from the needs and aspirations of the city’s inhabitants. The action of occupying the space reflects the absence of ways to engage in a fruitful dialogue with local institutions, and reclaims the right of communities and citizens to take ownership of the public space and apply ‘collaborative planning and management practices to recreate it and think about what it should look like in the future’.
The movement began at the start of the twenty-first century with a few isolated initiatives taken forward by neighbourhood associations and ecologists, who by 2010 had set up coordination networks such as the Red de Huertos Urbanos Comunitarios de Madrid (RED). Since the 15M movement in 2011 many neighbourhood assemblies have been setting up gardens in different areas of Madrid, definitively locating this issue in the public sphere and putting it on the political agenda.
The RED serves to raise the profile of all the initiatives, encourage the exchange of experiences (visits, meeting), share resources (seed nursery, seed exchange, buying manure collectively), create mutual support mechanisms and promote training events (learning days, courses), as well as offering a resource space that can provide advice and support to people and groups interested in taking forward new initiatives.
Right from the start, the instability inherent in the occupation of land and the scarcity of resources led the RED to seek dialogue with the Madrid City Council, in order to regularize the status of the gardens and push for the launch of a municipal programme that would enable them to form part of the city’s green infrastructure on a permanent basis.
Between internal tensions and lengthy assembly meetings, sites being dismantled and occupied, protests and photo exhibitions, support from universities and international recognition (UN-HABITAT’s Good Practice Award for Urban Sustainability), the RED gained legitimacy as an interlocutor in negotiations.
Following a lengthy hard bargaining with one of Spain’s most neoliberal municipal governments, the status of the first 17 community gardens was regularized in 2014.
The gardens are located on sites categorized as green areas, and the right to use them is awarded in a public bidding process. In the list of terms and conditions a balance has been struck between respect for the uniqueness of citizen initiatives and their autonomy, while offering legal security to the City Council, in an innovative procedure that could be replicated in other cities.
This major victory was won after exploring the shifting sands of dialogue with the city government, without dying in the attempt, proposing new forms of engaging with state institutions from positions of conflict and not just confrontation, eventually progressing towards dialogue and even cooperation.
This giant step has enabled the community agriculture initiatives in the capital to consolidate and in just a few years to increase to nearly 60 regularized projects today.
The community garden map is the opposite of a tourist map, which shows only the city centre, because the low-income neighbourhoods predominate, especially those on the outskirts where most initiatives are concentrated.
In the city centre, where urban development is denser, it is much more difficult to find a physical space. Even so, the decisive variable is the thick social and neighbourhood fabric that the gardens require, which is more likely to be found in outlying neighbourhoods.
The institutionalization process is in the early stages and is gradually becoming consolidated, respecting the autonomy and non-party-political nature of the initiatives. In addition, since a municipalist coalition took over the City Council in 2015 further steps have been taken, advancing the joint development of public policies aimed at recognizing and maximizing the creativity and collective intelligence in our cities, involving citizens and the social fabric in designing and implementing policies that concern them.
This has led to the regularization of more gardens, including those located on non-residential land on a temporary basis, the building of the Municipal Urban Gardening School, consolidating a training plan to support community gardens jointly managed by the Red de Huertos, and the launch of a pilot project for community agro-composting.
Municipalism is a walking paradox – discomforting to central government powers and business interests, but also to local counter-powers, who are obliged to leave their comfort zone, abandon the logic of resistance and accept a change in their identity that will enable them to play a leading role in a scenario where securing new rights becomes feasible. Counter-powers seen from above, powers seen from below.
The ‘city councils for change’ find themselves in an unusual and paradoxical position between the pragmatism of the moment and the utopian impulse to bring about change. They are giving life to a space where it is possible to create more suitable ecosystems and environments for the experiments that are autonomously prefiguring another society. These are local governments that facilitate, support, and strengthen new forms of social institutions. These are local governments that facilitate, support, and strengthen new forms of social institutions.
How do these green islands operate?
The community gardens are organized as an assembly, where proposals are made and important decisions are taken. They also operate with working groups that are set up to coordinate specific tasks. Alongside these, are informal mechanisms based on thematic leadership – the person who knows about the specific topic and can take the initiative decides how to do it – and decision-making by those who are most often present in the space.
The work draws on the knowledge and experience of all the members, creating a climate of knowledge-sharing and ongoing, collective knowledge-production in response to the problems that arise.
Tasks tend to be organized depending on each person’s preferences and knowledge, although there are mechanisms to ensure that people take turns to do the most unpleasant ones – such as sweeping or stirring the compost.
A gardener from Adelfas, remarks how ‘there comes a time in this process when you have to do things you wouldn’t necessarily choose to. You might like the idea of spending the day with this person who’s a specialist in something and learn first-hand how they do their work, but you take responsibility and do whatever it’s your turn to do that day’.
The harvest – a motivation more symbolic than material – is divided among everyone present and is seldom a source of conflict. However, care is taken to ensure that it is shared out fairly. On one occasion, an older man broke a bone in his foot while working in the garden and was unable to go back for some time, but his share of each harvest was set aside for him and someone would take it to his house since his work had helped to grow the vegetables.
Some initiatives collect modest cash contributions from members, although people who cannot afford to pay are not excluded from joining the project. Others raise funds by making food or selling merchandise − badges, canvas bags, etc.− as well as by collecting voluntary individual contributions.
The practice of urban ecological agriculture is often the main initial attraction. Later, working and spending time with other people means that relationships tend to become more important than the vegetable-growing tasks as such. Gradually, a network of relationships is woven and encourages solidarity and mutual support.
Of course, as in any social setting, there are disagreements and disputes over how to manage the space or do the work, or because of misunderstandings. However, conflict is not usually seen as something to avoid, but rather an issue to be addressed. This is why some gardens in Madrid have developed their own regulations for dealing with conflict, and even make use of mediation processes through the RED.
From islands of green to an archipelago
The difference between a group of islands and an archipelago is the existence of connections between them. Once the gardens had put down roots in the neighbourhoods and become part of the social ecosystem, they and the RED focused on building bridges, gaining more allies, linking up with other campaigns and coordinating with other actors on various scales.
The advocacy work done by the community garden goes beyond their own neighbourhoods and their influence extends to the city as a whole, where they are making their own specific contribution to changing the urban model. These projects are involved in multiple mobilization networks both at the urban and the translocal scale, linked to citizen participation, food sovereignty and agroecology.
In 2015, the RED coordinated the First National Meeting of Urban Community Gardens. The ultimate aim is to transcend their own neighbourhood and become involved in a wider movement by connecting these islands to others, eventually consolidating ever-expanding archipelagos that break the bounds of established institutional structures and dominant practices.
To sum up
Madrid’s gardens have gained significant symbolic power as metaphors for social creativity, for citizens’ capacity to give abandoned spaces back their use value, for caring for nature in the city, and for the building of alternatives by autonomous citizens.
As well as mobilizing alternative ideas and becoming a means of protest, the community gardens have been a valid practical way to bring the organizational dynamics and critical discourses developed by the 15-M movement to neighbourhoods and municipalities.
They are also fostering connections between the various pre-existing group or neighbourhood processes, thus diversifying their participant profile thanks to their constructive and inclusive nature.
Locally, the community gardens bring together a range of feelings, demands and claims (environmental, neighbourhood, political, relational), while simultaneously stimulating processes of neighbourhood self-management that place an emphasis on direct participation, taking ownership of the space, the rebuilding of identities and the shared responsibility of the community as a whole for the different issues that affect the people who live there.
These exercises in micro-urbanism express people’s disagreement with the dominant model of the city and the lifestyles it induces.
The community gardens are an expression of the emergence of a cooperative urbanism, intensive in citizen leadership and more democratic ways of understanding the public sphere. The gardens imply processes of urban rehabilitation, both in the form of small-scale material changes and, especially, in the form of relational rehabilitation, in how links are developed among people and between people and their surroundings.
A garden doesn’t change the world; it changes the people who are going to change the world.
The community gardens act on the production and transformation of the urban space through their impact on human relationships and lifestyles rather than via major works of physical refurbishment. A garden doesn’t change the world; it changes the people who are going to change the world.
A habitable counter-power is one that allows people to experience in the here and now the major features of the future life to which we aspire, a process of immanent transformation that cannot be reduced to strategic calculations regarding the accumulation of forces and irreversible revolutions.
The anarchist Paul Goodman used to say: ‘Suppose you had the revolution you are talking and dreaming about. Suppose your side had won, and you had the kind of society that you wanted. How would you live, you personally, in that society? Start living that way now!’
As a mural in one Madrid community garden says: ‘A garden doesn’t change the world; it changes the people who are going to change the world’. The challenge for these projects is to keep their more political contours without losing their capacity to bring about change.
The original version of this article was first published by theTransnational Institute as part of their feature on State of Power 2018.
Those who burned hundreds of draft files to protest the Vietnam War deserve to be honored, remembered and emulated.
It was a big moment. More than a hundred people watched as a college professor held one end of a heavy vinyl cover, helping an 88-year-old woman, pull it from the top of a tall metal sign. Together, they unveiled a familiar looking historic marker—the kind that draws attention to battlefields drenched in centuries-old blood and the birth places of famous men all over the country.
This one, however, was different.
It read: “On May 17, 1968, nine Catholic activists raided the selective service office in Catonsville and burned hundreds of draft files to protest the Vietnam war.” It now stands on Frederick Road in Catonsville, Maryland—about a block from the building that housed the young men’s draft files.
The 88-year-old woman was Marjorie Melville one of those nine Catholic activists and, along with George Mische, one of only two still living. After the unveiling, which took place on May 5, she shared recollections of the action at a nearby church, including a funny story about her husband, Thomas Melville, who responded with a rousing and immediate “I’m in,” when invited to join the action. The two had recently married after leaving the Maryknoll order, where they served as a priest and a nun. “I was mad,” she recalled. “He didn’t consult me, but then I thought about it and decided, ‘I’m in too.’”
In its few sentences of block letters, the historic marker only mentions “priests Daniel and Philip Berrigan” by name. It doesn’t capture Melville’s motivation to join the Catonsville action and draw attention to U.S. military involvement in Guatemala as another Vietnam. She and Thomas shared their experiences in that Central American country in searing testimony captured in my uncle Daniel Berrigan’s play, “The Trial of the Catonsville Nine.”
The Melvilles brought John Hogan—a former Maryknoll brother who they had served with in Guatemala—into the action. Mary Moylan, another one of the nine, had been a nurse in Uganda, while George Mische had worked in the Dominican Republic. They all said that part of their radicalization, part of the journey that led them to Catonsville, was a result of seeing the far-flung damage wrought by U.S. foreign policy. David Darst, a Christian brother, and Tom Lewis, an artist and recidivist, had both lived in the inner cities and saw a less exotic version of the same brutal dynamic.
The hallmark of so much of our political expression is reactive outrage. It was then too. “Hell no, we won’t go,” was a slogan to be chanted by the young men who were drafted. There is so much to be outraged about, and our outrage matters. But the members of the Catonsville Nine were not outraged. And their action was not a response to the massacre du jour, but to the whole of U.S. foreign policy.
As John Hogan said at the trial, “I just want people to live. That is all.” And it was not carried out by those most affected by the draft. In fact, every member of the action was personally exempt from military service by their age, gender or profession, as priests and brothers. It was nine people stepping out of comfort and into commission and conscience.
My father knew he was but one of nine; he was moved by Mary Moylan and Marjorie Melville and her husband. He learned from David Darst, John Hogan and Tom Lewis—his dear friend and co-conspirator in many actions. He was challenged and inspired by George Mische and his brother Daniel Berrigan. He would be quick to point out that the Catonsville Nine was not just the “Berrigan Brothers.”
I don’t have any recollections of the action, since I wasn’t born until six years later. My father also wasn’t one to sit around and tell the peace movement’s “war stories.” But I learned the lasting impact of this one action by listening. Strangers would come up to my father—men of a certain age—while he was pumping gas, buying a newspaper or attending a demonstration to confirm his identity and then share some version of this: “I’m alive today because you destroyed my file. My card was at Catonsville. I was about to be sent to Vietnam. Thank you.”
My father would accept their thanks with discomfort and pride. Now, from a greater distance, I can understand the discomfort as part of a veteran’s process of atonement, a life saved from war after so many lives lost in war, and an affirmation of the path—narrow, rocky, grueling and lonely—that he had chosen for himself.
And then there were the friends, fellow community members—people as close as family. One was a young mother on Long Island, raising five boys. On May 17, 1968, she was sitting in her kitchen, listening to the radio, busy with some household task. The news announcer reported that nine Catholic antiwar activists were arrested after destroying draft records. She was a devoted Catholic, and this was an action involving two priests, a brother, a former priest, a former nun and four lay people. “I was sitting down, and I stood up. I haven’t sat down since,” she said. She went on to be a Catholic Worker, peace activist and a dear friend. I have heard that story countless times, from her and many others who were similarly catalyzed into activism by the Catonsville Nine.
Learning about this one day in May through the prism of the transformations of both strangers and friends has helped me see the draft board raid as living and continuing. It may have been 50 years ago that my father was one of nine who broke the law to prevent a greater crime, but it was only a month and a half ago that my mother, Liz McAlister, was one of seven, acting in that same spirit. As a member of the Kings Bay Plowshares, she gained access to the Kings Bay Trident Base in Georgia and symbolically disarmed the warheads, marking them as criminal.
From the Camden County Detention Facility in Woodbine, Georgia, she sent me a statement to share with those who gathered in Catonsville for the unveiling: “May the disarmament continue.” This was in keeping with the message the Kings Bay Plowshares carried onto the naval base, which read, in part:
“We come in peace on this sorrowful anniversary of the martyrdom of a great prophet Martin Luther King, Jr. Fifty years ago today on April 4, 1968 Dr. King was assassinated in Memphis, Tennessee as a reaction to his efforts to address the ‘giant triplets of racism, extreme materialism and militarism.’ We come to Kings Bay to answer the call of the prophet Isaiah to ‘beat swords into plowshares’ by disarming the world’s deadliest nuclear weapon, the Trident submarine.”
For this action, they face more than 20 years in prison. It seems like a very long time.
The Catonsville activists were sentenced to two and three year prison terms, which is also a long time. How do we use our time? My uncle, Dan Berrigan wrote in “Portraits of Those I Love” that “on the one hand, I do not want to live in a world without anger; on the other hand, I am not interested in dying just yet. But I don’t want anger to burn uselessly as a waste flame from an oil stack. Living on, nursing my flame I write. It is a way of surviving. It tells me my soul is my own.”
Action, community, collective courage—that’s the spirit of the Catonsville action. It is a way of survival. It tells us our souls are our own. So, thank you, Brother David Darst, John Hogan, Thomas Melville, Marjorie Melville, George Mische, Tom Lewis, Mary Moylan. Thank you Uncle Dan. Thank you Dad.
And thank you, Kings Bay activists, friends, family: Martha Hennessy, Clare Grady, Father Steve Kelly, Patrick O’Neil, Mark Colville, Carmen Trotta. Thank you Mom.
22 May 2018. Reveal, remember and resist: the three Rs remixed –
Passivity in the young is an obstacle to social transformation. Let’s teach kids to recognize and use their agency.
“It is not important what we cover, but what you discover.” Victor Weisskopf
I spent eight years at two schools in the UK as a parent governor and was vice chair on two very different governing bodies, working with committed staff and volunteers to try and improve educational opportunities for thousands of children. I’m not sure how much we achieved. When a system is focused on teaching children to pass tests rather than how to learn, it turns out young adults who are highly efficient at regurgitating facts and relatively inefficient when it comes to intelligent questioning and independent thought.
Passivity in the young is an obstacle to progressive change, so whilst acknowledging the value of the traditional ‘three Rs’ of reading, writing and arithmetic I’m proposing three more which might result in a more engaged citizenry, and ultimately a more equitable society: reveal, remember and resist.
Recently, my son returned from school and told us about a presentation pupils had received from a group of young Israelis. The presenters extolled the virtues of life in Israel, speaking of their wonderful experiences of education, community and of how proud they were to serve in the Israeli Defence Force. My son was uncomfortable with what he perceived as a propaganda exercise on behalf of the Israeli state. One of his peers bravely raised a hand and asked how the presenters felt about Palestinians wanting their land back in the Occupied Territories. The dismissive reply was that they had not come to talk about that issue.
Prompted by his sense of injustice, we accompanied my son to speak with one of the school leaders about the need for balance when addressing such a contentious issue. We pointed out that providing a platform for representatives of an occupying force without offering any counter narrative is at best an oversight and at worst an endorsement of what is viewed by many as a violently oppressive militaristic regime.
Apparently a parent at the school had offered to organise the presentation and no checks were carried out to determine the content. The deputy head was embarrassed, understood our concerns and agreed to look for opportunities to provide a more balanced presentation for students in future. That recognition will hopefully benefit all the students at the school, and it came about because a child spotted something he thought was unfair and chose to reveal rather than ignore it.
Sometimes it feels as if we live in the age of revelation—not in a biblical sense but a technological one. From Edward Snowden to Chelsea Manning to Christopher Wylie, modern-day whistle-blowers have direct access to information classified as secret by government agencies or private corporations. The growing impact of people-led movements, not just data-led, is evidence of the power even of smaller, personal revelations.
You have agency, so use it. Revelation is an active process.
On 14 June 2017, the catastrophic fire at Grenfell Tower in west London killed 71 people, injured scores more and left hundreds homeless. I cried as I watched the images on my television; I was moved to donate immediately to a charitable fund offering support to those affected; I visited the neighbourhood in the following days, not as a voyeur but as a bereaved community member.
In my childhood, I learned to ride my bicycle in the shadow of Grenfell; as a teenager, I learned to love and hate on the estate and the streets surrounding the tower. My parents have lived for over six decades no more than a two-minute walk from what is now a charred carcass, a Kubrickian monolith, testament to the deadly folly of man’s vaunting ambition and limitless greed. I felt the loss of those lives in a painfully profound way, not as a dispassionate observer.
And yet, in order to write the previous paragraph I had to Google the date of the fire and the numbers killed. I’m not devoid of empathy or indifferent to the suffering of others. It is human to forget. Healing requires us to leave the hurt behind, when we’re able to. As an individual coping with loss I don’t berate myself for forgetting. At a societal level however, we would do well to attend to the oft-quoted words of George Santayana: “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”
Ask yourself what the date was when planes crashed into the World Trade Centre. What year did the Second World War start and finish? These dates are, quite rightly, seared into our collective consciousness. This not-forgetting arises because those events have radically altered our reality. But it is also true that our reality has been radically altered in part because of that not-forgetting. The process of learning from the past in order to shape our future requires us to remember. Regardless of the direction of change we wish to take, it is important to recognise significant historical moments if we are to be taken seriously in our attempts to articulate a vision for change.
The act of societal remembering must not be passive, because societal forgetting is often engineered, imposed and active. Our governments move from one murderous overseas war to another, continuously privilege the most wealthy over the most deprived, relentlessly under-resource the services required to increase equality, and ceaselessly churn out the message that we’ve ‘never had it so good.’
But of that money promised by the government for rehousing and support for the families left homeless in Grenfell Tower, how much has been forthcoming? As we approach the anniversary of this beacon of inequality in one of the richest countries on Earth, why are there still families without a place they call home?
You have agency, so use it. Not-forgetting is an active process.
Most great narratives of myth and history feature individuals or groups struggling against seemingly insurmountable forces. Everybody loves an underdog because those tales reflect a universal truth about societies: if the objective is to better the lot of the masses, what is required is to challenge concentrations of power and authority. This is the fundamental mathematics of equality and justice—that the cake should always be shared fairly.
Holding on to that clarity is crucial, but it requires commitment and daily acts of resistance. The utter chaos that is the education system in England is a perfect example of something which runs contrary to the basic mathematics of equality and justice. When my children were younger there was a huge effort from the local authority to turn their small community primary school into an academy run by a large chain, headed by former and current hedge fund managers.
Initially, parents, pupils and staff worked to maintain a sense of togetherness, continuing to provide a village school feel for children from some of London’s most deprived areas. The demonstrable love for the school from pupils, parents and teachers was clear evidence of an institution rising to meet the needs of local people. In the face of what constituted an attempted hostile takeover, working to increase that love and to serve the community to the best of their ability was an act of resistance. In embodying the values we hold dear, in being the change we want to see in the world, we resist that which stands in opposition to those values.
As a parent governor, I sat in meetings with the local authority and representatives of the proposed academy chain where we asked for justifications, evidence and plans; scrutinised detail; and returned with further questions. All the governors agreed that this was not something anyone in our school community wished to proceed with. We started delaying, using all the tools at our disposal to tie the process up in red tape, knowing that if we could prove difficult enough for long enough, the proposal would go away.
One staff member then involved her union, who wrote to the press, organised community meetings, and mobilised parents and pupils to protest loudly with placards and chants. This was painfully uncomfortable for governors, who were often lumped in with the local authority as having betrayed the community and sold the school down the river, which was the opposite of the truth. But it was another effective tactic.
Eventually, the local authority agreed to give us six months to recruit an outstanding headteacher and to hit various progress targets as a school. We did so, and the following year the school was one of the most improved in London according to Ofsted (whether or not that measure means anything). The academy proposal disappeared, and five years later ours remains a state school sanctuary for many underprivileged children, successfully serving the needs of the community in which it sits.
You have agency, so use it. Resistance is an active process.
Resist, reveal and remember are the keys to any education worthy of the name.
It’s time to reclaim the mantle of “Progress” for progressives.
In Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress, published earlier this year, Steven Pinker argues that the human race has never had it so good as a result of values he attributes to the European Enlightenment of the 18th century. He berates those who focus on what is wrong with the world’s current condition as pessimists who only help to incite regressive reactionaries. Instead, he glorifies the dominant neoliberal, technocratic approach to solving the world’s problems as the only one that has worked in the past and will continue to lead humanity on its current triumphant path.
His book has incited strong reactions, both positive and negative. On one hand, Bill Gates has, for example, effervesced that “It’s my new favorite book of all time.” On the other hand, Pinker has been fiercely excoriated by a wide range of leading thinkers for writing a simplistic, incoherent paean to the dominant world order. John Gray, in the New Statesman, calls it “embarrassing” and “feeble”; David Bell, writing in The Nation, sees it as “a dogmatic book that offers an oversimplified, excessively optimistic vision of human history”; and George Monbiot, in The Guardian, laments the “poor scholarship” and “motivated reasoning” that “insults the Enlightenment principles he claims to defend.” (Full disclosure: Monbiot recommends my book, The Patterning Instinct, instead.)
In light of all this, you might ask, what is left to add? Having read his book carefully, I believe it’s crucially important to take Pinker to task for some dangerously erroneous arguments he makes. Pinker is, after all, an intellectual darling of the most powerful echelons of global society. He spoke to the world’s elite this year at the World’s Economic Forum in Davos on the perils of what he calls “political correctness,” and has been named one of Time magazine’s “100 Most Influential People in the World Today.” Since his work offers an intellectual rationale for many in the elite to continue practices that imperil humanity, it needs to be met with a detailed and rigorous response.
Besides, I agree with much of what Pinker has to say. His book is stocked with seventy-five charts and graphs that provide incontrovertible evidence for centuries of progress on many fronts that should matter to all of us: an inexorable decline in violence of all sorts along with equally impressive increases in health, longevity, education, and human rights. It’s precisely because of the validity of much of Pinker’s narrative that the flaws in his argument are so dangerous. They’re concealed under such a smooth layer of data and eloquence that they need to be carefully unraveled. That’s why my response to Pinker is to meet him on his own turf: in each section, like him, I rest my case on hard data exemplified in a graph.
This discussion is particularly needed because progress is, in my view, one of the most important concepts of our time. I see myself, in common parlance, as a progressive. Progress is what I, and others I’m close to, care about passionately. Rather than ceding this idea to the coterie of neoliberal technocrats who constitute Pinker’s primary audience, I believe we should hold it in our steady gaze, celebrate it where it exists, understand its true causes, and most importantly, ensure that it continues in a form that future generations on this earth can enjoy. I hope this piece helps to do just that.
Graph 1: Overshoot
In November 2017, around the time when Pinker was likely putting the final touches on his manuscript, over fifteen thousand scientists from 184 countries issued a dire warning to humanity. Because of our overconsumption of the world’s resources, they declared, we are facing “widespread misery and catastrophic biodiversity loss.” They warned that time is running out: “Soon it will be too late to shift course away from our failing trajectory.”
They included nine sobering charts and a carefully worded, extensively researched analysis showing that, on a multitude of fronts, the human impact on the earth’s biological systems is increasing at an unsustainable rate. Three of those alarming graphs are shown here: the rise in CO2 emissions; the decline in available freshwater; and the increase in the number of ocean dead zones from artificial fertilizer runoff.
This was not the first such notice. Twenty-five years earlier, in 1992, 1,700 scientists (including the majority of living Nobel laureates) sent a similarly worded warning to governmental leaders around the world, calling for a recognition of the earth’s fragility and a new ethic arising from the realization that “we all have but one lifeboat.” The current graphs starkly demonstrate how little the world has paid attention to this warning since 1992.
Taken together, these graphs illustrate ecological overshoot: the fact that, in the pursuit of material progress, our civilization is consuming the earth’s resources faster than they can be replenished. Overshoot is particularly dangerous because of its relatively slow feedback loops: if your checking account balance approaches zero, you know that if you keep writing checks they will bounce. In overshoot, however, it’s as though our civilization keeps taking out bigger and bigger overdrafts to replenish the account, and then we pretend these funds are income and celebrate our continuing “progress.” In the end, of course, the money runs dry and it’s game over.
Pinker claims to respect science, yet he blithely ignores fifteen thousand scientists’ desperate warning to humanity. Instead, he uses the blatant rhetorical technique of ridicule to paint those concerned about overshoot as part of a “quasi-religious ideology… laced with misanthropy, including an indifference to starvation, an indulgence in ghoulish fantasies of a depopulated planet, and Nazi-like comparisons of human beings to vermin, pathogens, and cancer.” He then uses a couple of the most extreme examples he can find to create a straw-man to buttress his caricature. There are issues worthy of debate on the topic of civilization and sustainability, but to approach a subject of such seriousness with emotion-laden rhetoric is morally inexcusable and striking evidence of Monbiot’s claim that Pinker “insults the Enlightenment principles he claims to defend.”
When Pinker does get serious on the topic, he promotes Ecomodernism as the solution: a neoliberal, technocratic belief that a combination of market-based solutions and technological fixes will magically resolve all ecological problems. This approach fails, however, to take into account the structural drivers of overshoot: a growth-based global economy reliant on ever-increasing monetization of natural resources and human activity. Without changing this structure, overshoot is inevitable. Transnational corporations, which currently constitute sixty-nine of the world’s hundred largest economies, are driven only by increasing short-term financial value for their shareholders, regardless of the long-term impact on humanity. As freshwater resources decline, for example, their incentive is to buy up what remains and sell it in plastic throwaway bottles or process it into sugary drinks, propelling billions in developing countries toward obesity through sophisticated marketing. In fact, until an imminent collapse of civilization itself, increasing ecological catastrophes are likely to enhance the GDP of developed countries even while those in less developed regions suffer dire consequences.
Graphs 2 and 3: progress for whom?
Which brings us to another fundamental issue in Pinker’s narrative of progress: who actually gets to enjoy it? Much of his book is devoted to graphs showing worldwide progress in quality in life for humanity as a whole. However, some of his omissions and misstatements on this topic are very telling.
At one point, Pinker explains that, “Despite the word’s root, humanism doesn’t exclude the flourishing of animals, but this book focuses on the welfare of humankind.” That’s convenient, because any non-human animal might not agree that the past sixty years has been a period of flourishing. In fact, while the world’s GDP has increased 22-fold since 1970, there has been a vast die-off of the creatures with whom we share the earth. As shown in Figure 2, human progress in material consumption has come at the cost of a 58% decline in vertebrates, including a shocking 81% reduction of animal populations in freshwater systems. For every five birds or fish that inhabited a river or lake in 1970, there is now just one.
But we don’t need to look outside the human race for Pinker’s selective view of progress. He is pleased to tell us that “racist violence against African Americans… plummeted in the 20th century, and has fallen further since.” What he declines to report is the drastic increase in incarceration rates for African Americans during that same period (Figure 3). An African American man is now six times more likely to be arrested than a white man, resulting in the dismal statistic that one in every three African American men can currently expect to be imprisoned in their lifetime. The grim takeaway from this is that racist violence against African Americans has not declined at all, as Pinker suggests. Instead, it has become institutionalized into U.S. national policy in what is known as the school-to-prison pipeline.
Graph 4: A rising tide lifts all boats?
This brings us to one of the crucial errors in Pinker’s overall analysis. By failing to analyze his top-level numbers with discernment, he unquestioningly propagates one of the great neoliberal myths of the past several decades: that “a rising tide lifts all the boats”—a phrase he unashamedly appropriates for himself as he extols the benefits of inequality. This was the argument used by the original instigators of neoliberal laissez-faire economics, Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher, to cut taxes, privatize industries, and slash public services with the goal of increasing economic growth.
Pinker makes two key points here. First, he argues that “income inequality is not a fundamental component of well-being,” pointing to recent research that people are comfortable with differential rewards for others depending on their effort and skill. However, as Pinker himself acknowledges, humans do have a powerful predisposition toward fairness. They want to feel that, if they work diligently, they can be as successful as someone else based on what they do, not on what family they’re born into or what their skin color happens to be. More equal societies are also healthier, which is a condition conspicuously missing from the current economic model, where the divide between rich and poor has become so gaping that the six wealthiest men in the world (including Pinker’s good friend, Bill Gates) now own as much wealth as the entire bottom half of the world’s population.
Pinker’s fallback might, then, be his second point: the rising tide argument, which he extends to the global economy. Here, he cheerfully recounts the story of how Branko Milanović, a leading ex-World Bank economist, analyzed income gains by percentile across the world over the twenty-year period 1988–2008, and discovered something that became widely known as the “Elephant Graph,” because its shape resembled the profile of an elephant with a raised trunk. Contrary to popular belief about rising global inequality, it seemed to show that, while the top 1% did in fact gain more than their fair share of income, lower percentiles of the global population had done just as well. It seemed to be only the middle classes in wealthy countries that had missed out.
This graph, however, is virtually meaningless because it calculates growth rates as a percent of widely divergent income levels. Compare a Silicon Valley executive earning $200,000/year with one of the three billion people currently living on $2.50 per day or less. If the executive gets a 10% pay hike, she can use the $20,000 to buy a new compact car for her teenage daughter. Meanwhile, that same 10% increase would add, at most, a measly 25 cents per day to each of those three billion. In Graph 4, Oxfam economist Mujeed Jamaldeen shows the original “Elephant Graph” (blue line) contrasted with changes in absolute income levels (green line). The difference is stark.
The “Elephant Graph” elegantly conceals the fact that the wealthiest 1% experienced nearly 65 times the absolute income growth as the poorest half of the world’s population. Inequality isn’t, in fact, decreasing at all, but going extremely rapidly the other way. Jamaldeen has calculated that, at the current rate, it would take over 250 years for the income of the poorest 10% to merely reach the global average income of $11/day. By that time, at the current rate of consumption by wealthy nations, it’s safe to say there would be nothing left for them to spend their lucrative earnings on. In fact, the “rising tide” for some barely equates to a drop in the bucket for billions of others.
Graph 5: Measuring genuine progress.
One of the cornerstones of Pinker’s book is the explosive rise in income and wealth that the world has experienced in the past couple of centuries. Referring to the work of economist Angus Deaton, he calls it the “Great Escape” from the historic burdens of human suffering, and shows a chart (Figure 5, left) depicting the rise in Gross Domestic Product (GDP) per capita, which seems to say it all. How could anyone in their right mind refute that evidence of progress?
There is no doubt that the world has experienced a transformation in material wellbeing in the past two hundred years, and Pinker documents this in detail, from the increased availability of clothing, food, and transportation, to the seemingly mundane yet enormously important decrease in the cost of artificial light. However, there is a point where the rise in economic activity begins to decouple from wellbeing. In fact, GDP merely measures the rate at which a society is transforming nature and human activities into the monetary economy, regardless of the ensuing quality of life. Anything that causes economic activity of any kind, whether good or bad, adds to GDP. An oil spill, for example, increases GDP because of the cost of cleaning it up: the bigger the spill, the better it is for GDP.
This divergence is played out, tragically, across the world every day, and is cruelly hidden in global statistics of rising GDP when powerful corporate and political interests destroy the lives of the vulnerable in the name of economic “progress.” In just one of countless examples, a recent report in The Guardian describes how indigenous people living on the Xingu River in the Amazon rainforest were forced off their land to make way for the Belo Monte hydroelectric complex in Altamira, Brazil. One of them, Raimundo Brago Gomes, tells how “I didn’t need money to live happy. My whole house was nature… I had my patch of land where I planted a bit of everything, all sorts of fruit trees. I’d catch my fish, make manioc flour… I raised my three daughters, proud of what I was. I was rich.” Now, he and his family live among drug dealers behind barred windows in Brazil’s most violent city, receiving a state pension which, after covering rent and electricity, leaves him about 50 cents a day to feed himself, his wife, daughter, and grandson. Meanwhile, as a result of his family’s forced entry into the monetary economy, Brazil’s GDP has risen.
Pinker is aware of the crudeness of GDP as a measure, but uses it repeatedly throughout his book because, he claims, “it correlates with every indicator of human flourishing.” This is not, however, what has been discovered when economists have adjusted GDP to incorporate other major factors that affect human flourishing. One prominent alternative measure, the Genuine Progress Indicator (GPI), reduces GDP for negative environmental factors such as the cost of pollution, loss of primary forest and soil quality, and social factors such as the cost of crime and commuting. It increases the measure for positive factors missing from GDP such as housework, volunteer work, and higher education. Sixty years of historical GPI for many countries around the world have been measured, and the results resoundingly refute Pinker’s claim of GDP’s correlation with wellbeing. In fact, as shown by the purple line in Figure 5 (right), it turns out that the world’s Genuine Progress peaked in 1978 and has been steadily falling ever since.
Graph 6: What has improved global health?
One of Pinker’s most important themes is the undisputed improvement in overall health and longevity that the world has enjoyed in the past century. It’s a powerful and heart-warming story. Life expectancy around the world has more than doubled in the past century. Infant mortality everywhere is a tiny fraction of what it once was. Improvements in medical knowledge and hygiene have saved literally billions of lives. Pinker appropriately quotes economist Steven Radelet that these improvements “rank among the greatest achievements in human history.”
So, what has been the underlying cause of this great achievement? Pinker melds together what he sees as the twin engines of progress: GDP growth and increase in knowledge. Economic growth, for him, is a direct result of global capitalism. “Though intellectuals are apt to do a spit take when they read a defense of capitalism,” he declares with his usual exaggerated rhetoric, “its economic benefits are so obvious that they don’t need to be shown with numbers.” He refers to a figure called the Preston curve, from a paper by Samuel Preston published in 1975 showing a correlation between GDP and life expectancy that become foundational to the field of developmental economics. “Most obviously,” Pinker declares, “GDP per capita correlates with longevity, health, and nutrition.” While he pays lip service to the scientific principle that “correlation is not causation,” he then clearly asserts causation, claiming that “economic development does seem to be a major mover of human welfare.” He closes his chapter with a joke about a university dean offered by a genie the choice between money, fame, or wisdom. The dean chooses wisdom but then regrets it, muttering “I should have taken the money.”
Pinker would have done better to have pondered more deeply on the relation between correlation and causation in this profoundly important topic. In fact, a recent paper by Wolfgang Lutz and Endale Kebede entitled “Education and Health: Redrawing the Preston Curve” does just that. The original Preston curve came with an anomaly: the relationship between GDP and life expectancy doesn’t stay constant. Instead, each period it’s measured, it shifts higher, showing greater life expectancy for any given GDP (Figure 6, left). Preston—and his followers, including Pinker—explained this away by suggesting that advances in medicine and healthcare must have improved things across the board.
Lutz and Kebede, however, used sophisticated multi-level regression models to analyze how closely education correlated with life expectancy compared with GDP. They found that a country’s average level of educational attainment explained rising life expectancy much better than GDP, and eliminated the anomaly in Preston’s Curve (Figure 6, right). The correlation with GDP was spurious. In fact, their model suggests that both GDP and health are ultimately driven by the amount of schooling children receive. This finding has enormous implications for development priorities in national and global policy. For decades, the neoliberal mantra, based on Preston’s Curve, has dominated mainstream thinking—raise a country’s GDP and health benefits will follow. Lutz and Kebede show that a more effective policy would be to invest in schooling for children, with all the ensuing benefits in quality of life that will bring.
Pinker’s joke has come full circle. In reality, for the past few decades, the dean chose the money. Now, he can look at the data and mutter: “I should have taken the wisdom.”
Graph 7: False equivalencies, false dichotomies.
As we can increasingly see, many of Pinker’s missteps arise from the fact that he conflates two different dynamics of the past few centuries: improvements in many aspects of the human experience, and the rise of neoliberal, laissez-faire capitalism. Whether this is because of faulty reasoning on his part, or a conscious strategy to obfuscate, the result is the same. Most readers will walk away from his book with the indelible impression that free market capitalism is an underlying driver of human progress.
Pinker himself states the importance of avoiding this kind of conflation. “Progress,” he declares, “consists not in accepting every change as part of an indivisible package… Progress consists of unbundling the features of a social process as much as we can to maximize the human benefits while minimizing the harms.” If only he took his own admonition more seriously!
Instead, he laces his book with an unending stream of false equivalencies and false dichotomies that lead a reader inexorably to the conclusion that progress and capitalism are part of the same package. One of his favorite tropes is to create a false equivalency between right-wing extremism and the progressive movement on the left. He tells us that the regressive factions that undergirded Donald Trump’s presidency were “abetted by a narrative shared by many of their fiercest opponents, in which the institutions of modernity have failed and every aspect of life is in deepening crisis—the two sides in macabre agreement that wrecking those institutions will make the world a better place.” He even goes so far as to implicate Bernie Sanders in the 2016 election debacle: “The left and right ends of the political spectrum,” he opines, “incensed by economic inequality for their different reasons, curled around to meet each other, and their shared cynicism about the modern economy helped elect the most radical American president in recent times.”
Implicit in Pinker’s political model is the belief that progress can only arise from the brand of centrist politics espoused by many in the mainstream Democratic Party. He perpetuates a false dichotomy of “right versus left” based on a twentieth-century version of politics that has been irrelevant for more than a generation. “The left,” he writes, “has missed the boat in its contempt for the market and its romance with Marxism.” He contrasts “industrial capitalism,” on the one hand, which has rescued humanity from universal poverty, with communism, which has “brought the world terror-famines, purges, gulags, genocides, Chernobyl, megadeath revolutionary wars, and North Korea–style poverty before collapsing everywhere else of its own internal contradictions.”
By painting this black and white, Manichean landscape of capitalist good versus communist evil, Pinker obliterates from view the complex, sophisticated models of a hopeful future that have been diligently constructed over decades by a wide range of progressive thinkers. These fresh perspectives eschew the Pinker-style false dichotomy of traditional left versus right. Instead, they explore the possibilities of replacing a destructive global economic system with one that offers potential for greater fairness, sustainability, and human flourishing. In short, a model for continued progress for the twenty-first century.
While the thought leaders of the progressive movement are too numerous to mention here, an illustration of this kind of thinking is seen in Graph 7. It shows an integrated model of the economy, aptly called “Doughnut Economics,” that has been developed by pioneering economist Kate Raworth. The inner ring, called Social Foundation, represents the minimum level of life’s essentials, such as food, water, and housing, required for the possibility of a healthy and wholesome life. The outer ring, called Ecological Ceiling, represents the boundaries of Earth’s life-giving systems, such as a stable climate and healthy oceans, within which we must remain to achieve sustained wellbeing for this and future generations. The red areas within the ring show the current shortfall in the availability of bare necessities to the world’s population; the red zones outside the ring illustrate the extent to which we have already overshot the safe boundaries in several essential earth systems. Humanity’s goal, within this model, is to develop policies that bring us within the safe and just space of the “doughnut” between the two rings.
Raworth, along with many others who care passionately about humanity’s future progress, focus their efforts, not on the kind of zero-sum, false dichotomies propagated by Pinker, but on developing fresh approaches to building a future that works for all on a sustainable and flourishing earth.
Graph 8: Progress Is Caused By… Progressives!
This brings us to the final graph, which is actually one of Pinker’s own. It shows the decline in recent years of web searches for sexist, racist, and homophobic jokes. Along with other statistics, he uses this as evidence in his argument that, contrary to what we read in the daily headlines, retrograde prejudices based on gender, race, and sexual orientation are actually on the decline. He attributes this in large part to “the benign taboos on racism, sexism, and homophobia that have become second nature to the mainstream.”
How, we might ask, did this happen? As Pinker himself expresses, we can’t assume that this kind of moral progress just happened on its own. “If you see that a pile of laundry has gone down,” he avers, “it does not mean the clothes washed themselves; it means someone washed the clothes. If a type of violence has gone down, then some change in the social, cultural, or material milieu has caused it to go down… That makes it important to find out what the causes are, so we can try to intensify them and apply them more widely.”
Looking back into history, Pinker recognizes that changes in moral norms came about because progressive minds broke out of their society’s normative frames and applied new ethics based on a higher level of morality, dragging the mainstream reluctantly in their wake, until the next generation grew up adopting a new moral baseline. “Global shaming campaigns,” he explains, “even when they start out as purely aspirational, have in the past led to dramatic reductions in slavery, dueling, whaling, foot-binding, piracy, privateering, chemical warfare, apartheid, and atmospheric nuclear testing.”
It is hard to comprehend how the same person who wrote these words can then turn around and hurl invectives against what he decries as “political correctness police, and social justice warriors” caught up in “identity politics,” not to mention his loathing for an environmental movement that “subordinates human interests to a transcendent entity, the ecosystem.” Pinker seems to view all ethical development from prehistory to the present day as “progress,” but any pressure to shift society further along its moral arc as anathema.
This is the great irony of Pinker’s book. In writing a paean to historical progress, he then takes a staunchly conservative stance to those who want to continue it. It’s as though he sees himself at the mountain’s peak, holding up a placard saying “All progress stops here, unless it’s on my terms.”
In reality, many of the great steps made in securing the moral progress Pinker applauds came from brave individuals who had to resist the opprobrium of the Steven Pinkers of their time while they devoted their lives to reducing the suffering of others. When Thomas Paine affirmed the “Rights of Man” back in 1792, he was tried and convicted in absentia by the British for seditious libel. It would be another 150 years before his visionary idea was universally recognized in the United Nations. Emily Pankhurst was arrested seven times in her struggle to obtain women’s suffrage and was constantly berated by “moderates” of the time for her radical approach in striving for something that has now become the unquestioned norm. When Rachel Carson published Silent Spring in 1962, with the first public exposé of the indiscriminate use of pesticides, her solitary stance was denounced as hysterical and unscientific. Just eight years later, twenty million Americans marched to protect the environment in the first Earth Day.
These great strides in moral progress continue to this day. It’s hard to see them in the swirl of daily events, but they’re all around us: in the legalization of same sex marriage, in the spread of the Black Lives Matter movement, and most recently in the way the #MeToo movement is beginning to shift norms in the workplace. Not surprisingly, the current steps in social progress are vehemently opposed by Steven Pinker, who has approvingly retweeted articles attacking both Black Lives Matter and #MeToo, and who rails at the World Economic Forum against what he terms “political correctness.”
It’s time to reclaim the mantle of “Progress” for progressives. By slyly tethering the concept of progress to free market economics and centrist values, Steven Pinker has tried to appropriate a great idea for which he has no rightful claim. Progress in the quality of life, for humans and nonhumans alike, is something that anyone with a heart should celebrate. It did not come about through capitalism, and in many cases, it has been achieved despite the “free market” that Pinker espouses. Personally, I’m proud to be a progressive, and along with many others, to devote my energy to achieve progress for this and future generations. And if and when we do so, it won’t be thanks to Steven Pinker and his specious arguments.
20 May 2018. Welcome to the ‘New Dark Age.’ –
A terrifying new book by James Bridle calls on us to embrace uncertainty.
Data is making us dumber. This seeming paradox has been gaining currency, at least in the tech-saturated Global North. We’re increasingly bombarded with advice on how to manage data overload. The English comedian Dave Gorman summed it up in the tongue-in-cheek title of his recent book: “Too much information: Or: Can Everyone Just Shut Up for a Moment, Some of Us Are Trying to Think.” We like to laugh about this stuff. It helps us to cope with the deep human fear that the world has moved beyond our understanding and control.
If indeed we’re in a state of hysterical denial, James Bridle wants to give us all a slap in his forthcoming book “New Dark Age: Technology, Knowledge and the End of the Future.” Bridle invites us to engage in a direct confrontation with our decreasing comprehension of the world. Through a wide investigation of diverse fields from aviation to social media, the pharmaceutical industry and climate science, he sets out to show how our data-driven culture is threatening our existence as a species.
While we might expect to be offered a route back to knowledge and security, Bridle’s book breaks new ground by proposing that we embrace uncertainty instead. “We have been conditioned to think of the darkness as a place of danger, even of death” he writes, “But the darkness can also be a place of freedom and possibility, even of equality. Uncertainty can be productive, even sublime.”
It’s an intriguing and unsettling proposal. As a journalist, technologist, and visual artist, Bridle has employed a multiplicity of strategies for thinking differently about technology. He’s still probably best known for developing what he called the “New Aesthetic” in 2011, now an art meme centred around a tumblr account that captures the physical objects and signs of the digital world like data centres or surveillance drones.
While the New Aesthetic makes the invisible visible, ‘New Dark Age’ appears to ask us to think the unthinkable. If you don’t like paradoxes, buckle up and hold on tight. The book is not an easy read. In fact, Bridle admits it was a struggle to write. “There is a kind of shame in speaking about the exigencies of the present, and a deep vulnerability, but it must not stop us thinking. We cannot fail each other now” as he puts it.
This shame and vulnerability spring from an inconvenient truth: our faith in data is failing us. More information is supposed to lead to better decisions, a cultural logic that has dominated the Western world at least since the Enlightenment. The warning that this relationship is breaking down, or perhaps is already broken, is being flagged across multiple disciplines. What Bridle attempts to do is to bring them all together.
The picture he paints is a daunting one. We learn that experts are drowning in data. There’s been an increase in data-dredging, where researchers cherry-pick the results they need, even if unwittingly. The pharmaceutical industry is experiencing a discovery crisis, returning exponentially fewer breakthroughs in new drugs. The intelligence services tell the same story. In 2016, NSA whistle-blower William Binney said that the bulk collection of communications data was “99 per cent useless,” one of many such statements in recent years.
It’s not only that data can swamp and mislead us; it also provides such a compelling picture that we often reject our common sense. Bridle provides a string of nightmarish examples of what is known as “automation bias,” including tragic airline accidents and a group of Japanese tourists who—following their SatNav in Australia—drove their car straight into the sea. Most of us have made absurd mistakes because of trusting machines more than ourselves.
Most harrowing of all is his chapter on climate. “The climate crisis is also a crisis of knowledge and understanding,” Bridle writes, “What we perceive as weather in the moment shadows the globe as climate: tiny moments of turbulent activity through which we can barely grasp an unseen, unknowable totality.” Our forecasting systems are already failing in the face of unpredictable climate events. If data aren’t helping us, we’d better get used to extreme levels of uncertainty as the norm.
Thus climate becomes the grand metaphor for our overwhelming loss of knowledge and control. But instead of running for the hills (and hoping they haven’t sunk into the sea), Bridle suggests that we embrace the “cloudy thinking” that springs from this loss of certainty.
It’s a theoretically interesting aim, but how would it work in practice? For Bridle, the first move is to reject anything that smacks of “computational thinking.” “Computational thinking insists on the easy answer,” he writes. “That which is gathered as data is modelled as the way things are, and then projected forward—with an implicit assumption that things will not radically change or diverge from previous experiences.”
The problem is, we’re addicted to this way of thinking. Bridle compares our “thirst for data” to our “thirst for oil”—insatiable and ultimately destructive. It’s a shaky metaphor, as he seems to acknowledge later on. Information, unlike oil, has the potential to be a free, infinite resource. However, today it’s anything but. Current data consumption habits carry a high environmental cost. As Bridle points out, “As digital culture becomes faster, higher bandwidth, and more image based, it also become more costly and destructive."
However hard it may be to change this culture, it seems at least possible to slow ourselves down. Books like the recent best-seller “The Organised Mind: Thinking Straight in the Age of Information Overload” by the neuroscientist Daniel Levitin are popular because they offer individuals practical advice on how to do just this. They also propose strategies for how to navigate our data-rich world more effectively.
“New Dark Age” also deals with this challenge. Parallels have often been drawn between the internet and ‘The Library of Babel,’ an infinite library imagined in an iconic short story by the Argentininian writer Jorge Luis Borges. Bridle engages this metaphor to call for new and radically different “categories, summaries and authorities” that can help us utilise the sum of our interlocking information systems. He uses the term “literacy” to mark the difference between full comprehension (which is impossible) and learning how to speak the language of the network.
But who decides on this navigation system—who are the new librarians? The latest backlash against Big Tech, sparked in part by the Cambridge Analytica scandal, may die down, but nothing fundamental is likely to have changed. Facebook, Apple, Google and Amazon will still remain hugely powerful and largely unregulated gatekeepers of the ‘infinite library.’ They have shown, time and again, that they don’t deserve our trust.
This brings us back to the theme of uncertainty. Humans are afraid of the darkness for a reason. We’re especially afraid if we’re blind-folded and others around us are able to see.
This is where Bridle’s thinking hits a familiar brick wall. Elsewhere in the book he acknowledges that technology is “a key driver of inequality across many sectors” and that one of the main reasons is “the opacity of technological systems themselves.” We all know that knowledge is power. Historically, those that lack it are always exploited by those who possess it.
In the opening chapter of his book, Bridle quotes from the godfather of supernatural horror, H.P. Lovecraft, who appears to anticipate the perils of the present: “….someday the piecing together of disassociated knowledge will open up such terrifying vistas of reality, and of our frightening position therein, that we will either go mad from the revelation or flee from the deadly light into the peace and safety of a new dark age.”
It’s an intoxicating quote, but what are we to make of such ‘peace and safety’? Surely Lovecraft knew that, when human beings are faced with darkness, they fill it with irrational belief? In the history of Europe, the early medieval period is often called the “dark ages:” centuries marked by religious war, civil conflict and civilisational decline.
The more apocalyptically-inclined might see parallels with our own post-truth age, since our societies appear to be polarizing and re-affirming the old certitudes of tribe, race and nation. The Brexit vote in the UK and the election of US President Donald Trump are only the latest symptoms of a trend that feeds off our chronic sense of unease. Bridle explores this political moment, but he doesn’t offer a convincing reason why people would choose his ‘productive uncertainty’ over the darkness that is manipulated by profit-hungry corporations, extremist groups and troll farms.
Here’s another Lovecraft quote: “The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown.” In asking us to overcome this fear, Bridle seems to be courting the impossible.
Yet “New Dark Age” does hit a nerve. If indeed we’ve passed ‘peak knowledge,’ it’s time to look despair in the eyes. Bridle makes a brave attempt to break through this existential impasse. Whether or not he succeeds, his book provides a fascinating and a much-needed spur to action.
'Ideal citizens' should not be defined by a white patriarchal system.
In 2018, the term “identity politics” is often associated with the promotion of tokenized personalities rather than on the representation and advancement of oppressed communities within society. This form of identity politics often revolves around empty partisan placards and exclusive single-issue platforms rather than on forming inclusive alliances meant to stimulate fundamental structural change. As such, it reinforces a populism that serves white supremacy and patriarchy.
The crisis of identity politics has undermined the concept of intersectionality, which is viewed as critical to the struggle for liberation from all forms of oppression. The recent assassination of the Brazilian Black queer activist Marielle Franco and the consequent public uproar demonstrate the threat intersectional leaders pose to the ruling establishment that uses division and preserves privilege to stifle change. Leaders such as Franco serve a vital unifying role in a peoples’ transnational solidarity movement that embraces—rather than eliminates—identities.
Ashanti Monts-Treviska co-manages a social enterprise, Cascadia Deaf Nation, which focuses on creating a member-owned cooperative model that co-creates thriving spaces with Deaf Black Indigenous People of Color (DBIPOC*) in British Columbia, Washington State and Oregon. Monts-Treviska is a doctoral student in transformative studies and consciousness at the California Institute of Integral Studies.
Gerry Ebalaroza-Tunnell is a Pacific Indigenous scholar and transformative coach who intermingles Indigenous epistemology and Western philosophies. Together, Monts-Treviska and Ebalaroza-Tunnell facilitate spaces for dialogue that shift paradigms and challenge the status quo. They are now working on producing a resilience and adaptability workshop to address the dynamics between trigger and response. In this interview, Monts-Treviska and Ebalaroza-Tunnell discuss the importance of intersectionality and decolonization as fundamental aspects of building a just and equitable society.
Yoav Litvin: Discuss the various components of your identity and the prejudices they invoke. Do you give preference to one over the other, or do you agree with Audre Lorde, who stated that “there is no hierarchy of oppressions”?
Ashanti Monts-Treviska: I appreciate the term “intersectionality,” coined by Kimberlé Crenshaw. Without the understanding of intersectionality, it would be difficult to express exactly what I have experienced with all of my identities.
I view the various components of my identity as aspects of my experience. They are not separated from each other. The complexity of my identity is unique because it allows me to interact and connect with almost everyone through resilient empathy, compassion, and conscious understanding, while dealing with a whole stack of biases against me.
Before I unpacked myself several years ago, I primarily adopted my most oppressed component, being deaf, because of communication barriers due to audism in my family, in my learning environments, in various communities including Black communities and communities of color and other spaces.
Audism is best described as oppression or discrimination against people who identify with the spectrum of deaf experience (deaf, hard of hearing, late deafened, etc.). It is basically a normalization of the devaluing of the experience of an inability to hear or inability to hear everything in the normal range of sounds. Audism is one of the manifestations of the white patriarchal supremacist system, which defines the parameters of ideal model citizens. It is an overarching paradigm of lateral and horizontal oppressions. Within audism exists cultural-linguistic audism, linguistic audism, lateral audism, dysconscious audism, and passive and active audism. Most hearing people practice dysconscious audism, intentionally or unintentionally.
Through the journey of unpacking myself, I realized it was a deep mistake to stick with the most oppressed aspect of my identity while ignoring or repressing its other components: being a Black Indigenous womxn. Each aspect has its own contributions to my overall growth.
My choice of a complex identity as a Deaf Black Indigenous Womxn of Color (DBIWOC*) means that I equitably acknowledge and embrace the Afro-Cuban and Native aspects of myself along with the resilient experience of being a deaf womxn. As a womxn, I am gender fluid when it comes to clothes, and I am a queer when it comes to relationships. It means I would be with a person because of the soul attraction and the way they carry themselves.
In terms of my own deafhood, most people tend to pity me because I cannot share an experience defined by sound. I am extremely sorry for people who choose to believe that deafness, as a pathological or medical anomaly, needs to be cured or fixed. I view the deaf experience as an organic one (including the ability to express myself creatively in American Sign Language) because it is a different way of processing information. There is an uncontaminated beauty in that.
Litvin: How does the Hawaiian anti-colonialist struggle play into your personal experience of decolonization?
Gerry Ebalaroza-Tunnell: Growing up on the island of Oahu meant that I was part of a unique culture that is a blend of many ethnicities that make up Hawaii. On my birth certificate, it states that I am of Filipino, Spanish, Chinese and Portuguese descent. But according to my DNA test, I am also 32 percent Polynesian.
In Hawaii, everyone looks like me, speaks the same Native tongue as I do, and experiences life under the collective banner of “Aloha.” In mainland U.S., I discovered that people live under an individualistic banner and in doing so, isolate themselves from one another.
My genetic makeup and life experiences meant that I was not only a member of those oppressed, but also the oppressors. My partaking in the system of hierarchical oppression, regardless of where I stood within it, was one of the colonizer.
The struggle to de-colonize myself came through education—colonized education. As I worked on my Masters, and then my Ph.D., I read, processed and struggled. Finally, I came to understand that my mind was not my own: It had been colonized.
I have come to appreciate Audre Lorde’s statement that, “The master’s tools will never dismantle the master's house.” But throughout my studies, I believed this statement was false; that colonized education could be used to dismantle the systems of oppression. I eventually discovered that the decolonization of one’s mind is not only rooted in the access to knowledge, but in the willingness to dismantle rooted and programmed belief systems. I utilized Western epistemology to inform myself about myself. It is now apparent to me that as a Pasifika Indigenous scholar and cultural practitioner, I must learn and teach to walk in both worlds to ensure that my voice and the voices of all future generations are not oppressed.
In fact, it was through the lens of the Hawaiian struggle for decolonization that I have come to find my decolonized self. I came to realize that Hawaii, through Aloha, retains a fragment of an uncolonized civilization. By its very nature, the collective spirit of Aloha welcomes all to participate and be a part of it. The practice of Aloha on an island far out in the Pacific creates a bubble of potential that could be leveraged toward a decolonized culture of modern human beings.
Litvin: What have been some of the difficulties in cultivating a nurturing social environment that respects all components of your identity? How do you define your community?
Monts-Treviska: It was very difficult to work with or fit in with various communities because of my intersectional experience. It is hard to ignore my Latinx and Native background as well as my deaf experience when interacting with Black communities. My unique intersectional background left me with almost no community because most people do not understand the meaning of co-creating a cohesive community.
Many are taught that charity is the best way to help those who are in need. Charity is practiced out of a sense of pity and is a means to avoid questioning the system of oppression. At Cascadia Deaf Nation, we believe in “sharity”: a sense of sharing the collective wealth within thriving spaces.
I work on reframing the cultural-linguistic narratives through a new concept of deafhood of color as a possible third space. Deafhood, in contrast to deafness, is a spiritual or transpersonal journey of discovering the deaf experience and expressing it truthfully and creatively. Deafhood is also a decolonization process of dismantling the dominant status quo. Audre Lorde's work, along with various third spaces, validated the need for a deeper understanding of deafhood to co-create a shift in collective awareness on multiple social levels.
Litvin: What is the importance of deconstructing privilege with the goal of building a just and equal society free of colonization?
Ebalaroza-Tunnell: If we are to decolonize ourselves collectively, we must start with decolonizing ourselves individually. To do this, we must reach back and connect with our own Indigenous ways and the means in which they were colonized.
Throughout the process of my decolonization, I found myself shying away from the principles embedded in traditional knowledge and moving toward the Western cultural values of acceptance and integration. I stopped believing that my Indigenousness was an integrated state of being, and I unwittingly gave up this important component of my identity. The realization of my oppression caused me to mourn, and I felt a deep sense of loss and sorrow as I became aware of the broken relationships and pain that I caused due to my shallow sense of power and privilege. Part of me inclined to take shelter behind the excuses for my behavior. I detached from those who I injured to safeguard myself.
It is instructive to examine the ancient story of the Tower of Babel, which has different versions in many global cultures: The tale of humanity and its great ability to work together to build a tower toward the heavens and touch the gods. In this story, humanity is scattered and languages are confused to ensure such a feat could never happen again.
Symbolically, this story exudes the self-organization necessary to build a tower and the collective imagination to dream it. What it also exemplifies is a disempowering force imposed on humanity. This power is colonization. We have come full circle here at the dawn of the 21st century: We have built a tower of human culture in which the stones are made up of a monetary illusion that is incredibly effective at allowing [nearly] 8 billion of us to simultaneously exist on this planet. To do so, we have erected a system that is very structurally demanding; a reality that requires reckless consumption. This is sustained through the protection of privilege and the establishment of firm hierarchies.
This societal structure was born through the dismantling of Indigenous epistemologies. All human cultures have been assimilated into this tower that we have created for ourselves.
Litvin: What is the nature of the transition from oppressed to the oppressor?
Monts-Treviska: In our culture, privilege is often unexamined. Deconstructing privilege is one of the first steps to decolonizing the self from the narrative of the privileged group. In order to acknowledge privilege, one first needs to understand its roots. Second comes the question [of] whether those privileges help to preserve or dismantle the system of oppression.
I am especially interested in the expression of privilege in social justice and equity spaces as it provides insight into how these dynamics work in society in general.
Paulo Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed afforded me deep insight into how people become oppressors within their oppressed group. As a deaf person of color, I could be an oppressor toward another deaf person of color or deaf-blind person or a deaf-disabled person within the deaf community because of my privileges that were either earned or awarded. Owning privileges and keeping them in check through humility enables a person the ability to share power and relinquish a hierarchical power structure. This is achieved by harnessing the power of listening, solidarity, humility, mindfulness, words and intuition.
Without acknowledging privilege, people easily fall into a dynamic of lateral oppression within oppressed communities. For example, in my case, a hearing Black person can choose to represent him/herself by using voice to overshadow a deaf Black person such as myself. As such, I had to learn to be more creative in bringing a different narrative to the critical issues. Unfortunately, I have to work harder to make that happen because I have less privileges in some areas.
Litvin: How do you view violence? What are safe spaces, and how do you go about constructing them?
Monts-Treviska: Most people associate violence with physical and sexual manifestations, but are unaware or desensitized to many other, subtler forms. In fact, many people are oblivious to the fact that they are being consistently violated through various channels of violence.
The problem is that we do not know how to honor each other's existence because we are taught to exist in survival mode rather than in an internal space in which we can thrive. Thus, we compete and are violent toward one another.
Audism is violence. Racism is violence. Saying something to disempower yourself and to disempower people around you is violence. Reading something that makes one group of people look bad through destructive stereotyping is violence. Dictating how a woman’s body should look like is violence.
We lack an understanding of what actually creates a nurturing culture that provides both “safe” and “sacred” spaces simultaneously. But what is really safe? All-Black or all-POC or all-deaf spaces are considered “safe” for these marginalized groups, but they are not always safe for people who have intersectional identities. Here, people can become oppressors toward their own people through lateral violence because of the systemic internalizations being unchallenged.
That’s why I would rather go with “sacred” spaces—to acknowledge that each person’s journey and life experience is sacred. In the “safe space,” we unintentionally project our privileges onto different people who are underrepresented or who are less privileged within that space. If I were to reframe the meaning of “safe,” I would use the word “sacred welcoming”—similar to the approach of welcoming a newborn every minute of our lives. Each person's soul is sacred; however, we contaminate the sacredness of our souls by internalizing the toxicities of our oppressive systems, which serve to divide people.
Litvin: Discuss the importance and transformational qualities of storytelling. What role does it play in effectively countering colonialism, while rebuilding community?
Ebalaroza-Tunnell: Alo—meaning “front” and Ha—meaning “breath.” Aloha means the exchange of the breath of life. That is what storytelling is: the exchange of ideas, the resolution of conflict, the changing of perspectives and the evolution of our collective being. Much can be accomplished by the sharing of individual stories.
From a Pasifika Indigenous worldview, storytelling is the most natural way for Indigenous wisdom to be passed on. The method of story gathering and story making/building can help us make sense of complex interconnected situations. It can serve as a tool for people to explore better ways to connect with each other by engaging in deep listening and transformative dialogue about issues that divide us.
Whether in caves or cities, the stories we tell remain the most typical and essential form of communication. All of us tell stories. We do not see our own stories as “stories” because we see experience through them. Narratives are not abstractions of life, but how we find ourselves engaging with it. We make stories, and those stories make us human. We can awaken into stories as we awaken into language or culture, which is present before us and will continue after we are gone.
Our stories possess truths and motivations, and they are wholly our own. We come together collectively—as two or more—with the incredible feat of melding these narratives together. These collective narratives could be anything we wish them to be and [we] should not settle for what we are told they should be.
Media and screens have us tethered and tied to a collective truth that is growing long in the tooth: The story of what it is to be a modern human—a colonized human. The reality of ourselves is so much grander than this foolish tale of dominion over all we survey. We could be way-finders once again, navigating across the sea by following the stars if only we chose to weave such a story for ourselves. The things we believe to be fictions are only a collective agreement away from becoming our reality.
Litvin: How do you view the culture of “political correctness”? What are some of its qualities that lend to oppression and the oppression of language?
Monts-Treviska: Most people think that they know how to say the right things. However, they do not bother to inquire about the intersectional experiences of different people, including deaf POC. It happens because most people are afraid of what they do not know or understand.
Words either disempower or empower us individually and collectively. A deep understanding of the power of words is an essential key to uncovering the root causes of oppressions. Political correctness is similar to an easy “one-size-fits-all” approach when it comes to dealing with various critical issues. Political correctness instills fears in people about appropriateness rather than encourages them to investigate the “other.”
When deaf people internalize the political correctness from the dominant majority (i.e. hearing people) and project it into their culture and communities, it creates oppression of subgroups within deaf communities.
If I were to reframe “political correctness,” I would frame it as “reality experience”; each person's reality is different from another person’s. We need to give people the space to embrace their own journeys. In order to decolonize our views on political correctness, we must learn from different people’s reality experiences without judgement. In that sense, we could embrace different people’s journeys and acknowledge their ability to contribute to humanity’s evolution of collective consciousness in an equitable manner.
Litvin: How do you avoid being used as a token within a predominantly white supremacist and patriarchic culture?
Ebalaroza-Tunnell: I take my work as the opportunity to teach. I wouldn't consider myself very popular within the supremacist and patriarchal models of our culture. If I were, these entities would approach me not to co-create communities, but along the lines of self-aggrandizement. Thus far, that has not happened. When it does—if it does—I suppose it will be as much of a battle as it would be for any teacher who challenges the status quo.
I must be true to myself and willing to sacrifice. I am no different than anyone else in this world. I would welcome more comfort than I currently have and relief from the discomfort I experience. How to find that and not sell myself out is the trick. It is a challenge to avoid self-colonization and that is the very struggle for enlightenment we all seek. Some days I am successful and others, I am not.
15 May 2018. The pitfalls of generational thinking –
Taking collective action on climate change requires that we avoid privatising and depoliticising the problems we want to solve.
The concept of generations has been central to the way scholars, decision-makers and activists portray the implications of climate change. International agreements enshrine ‘future generations’ as stakeholders in the decision-making of the present. Moral philosophers and economists describe ‘intergenerational’ obligations that are designed to preserve a stable environment. And climate-change science has been brought to a mass public by evoking the threats posed to our children and grandchildren.
This generational framework has emerged as the pre-eminent way in which human-caused climate change is rendered intelligible in contemporary societies. But the same qualities that lend the framework its appeal are also the source of some serious tensions: its use in public debate tends to privatise and depoliticise how the future is conceived.
One reason why future generations are so widely evoked has surely to do with what follows for our concept of the present. To speak of future generations is to imply the existence of a current generation, and to suggest that it lives at a critical juncture. When President Obama announced policies to tackle climate change in August 2015 he declared:
“We’re the first generation to feel the effects of climate change and the last generation that can do something about it…This is our moment to get this right and leave something better for our kids.”
In this sense, the generational frame evokes a collective subject and hints at its capacity for agency. Broadly in line with the relevant science, it implies that the most far-reaching effects of climate change still lie some decades away, but also that present-day choices will be critical for how they play out.
In a period when many have questioned societies’ capacity to take the long-term view, this offers a way to make the future more intelligible. ‘Generationalism,’ as it can be called, is a way to make the future susceptible to empirical investigation by producing units of analysis that can be aggregated and counted.
In turn, this makes it easier to contribute to political and policy planning, as when discount rates, for example, are applied in budgeting. By allowing the enumeration and allocation of value, generational thinking promises to render the future calculable and governable. It also facilitates movement between the micro and macro timescales by evoking both concrete individuals in the present and an open-ended chain stretching into the future, connecting lived experience with the ‘deep time’ over which climatological forces play out.
The concept’s utility also seems to hinge on how it brings together a variety of meanings. When one talks of the generations of a family, one is using the term in a genealogical sense to describe relations between concrete individuals. When one talks of the ‘present generation’ one is using the term in a more sociological sense to describe the shared fate and shared responsibilities of those born within a certain period. And when one talks more generally of ‘future generations’ one is using the term in an abstract, philosophical sense, to describe featureless markers in time—a succession of the unborn about whom we know little yet should care greatly.
The difficulty of separating these meanings is both the virtue and vice of generationalism. One problem is how future-oriented concerns become conflated with concerns about the wellbeing of ‘our’ direct descendants. Casting future people as kin groups—as ‘our children and grandchildren’—implies that, if individuals muster concern for their direct descendants, then their moral responsibilities are discharged.
But what if an adequate response to the human costs of climate change demands mobilising those in the world’s higher economic strata to show concern for those to whom they are not directly related, such as the poorest and least mobile sections of populations in lower-income countries? What if concern needs to be mustered for other people’s children?
The generational frame validates the thought that one might legitimately ‘look after one’s own.’ Thinking about the human future as the future of the family suggests a kind of privatisation, a shrinking of the sphere of ethical concern. To the extent that policy-making genuinely reflects kinship preference it’s unlikely to address problems in a fair and effective fashion. To the extent that policy is more enlightened but still understood in kinship terms it rests precariously on a misconception.
Consider also the idea of a ‘present generation’ as an unbounded and undifferentiated category. This image of unity is motivationally attractive, but what if serving the good of the future requires contesting certain ideas and interests? What if conflict in the present is part of responding effectively to climate-change issues, not just another problem to be overcome? Such possibilities are obscured if the living are all cast as members of one collective.
Such depoliticizing tendencies come through clearly in one of the most celebrated efforts to bring climate-change science to a mass audience: as Al Gore put it in his book An Inconvenient Truth:
“The climate crisis…offers us the chance to experience what very few generations in history have had the privilege of knowing: a generational mission; the exhilaration of a compelling moral purpose; a shared and unifying cause; the thrill of being forced by circumstances to put aside…pettiness and conflict…[T]his crisis is not really about politics at all. It is a moral and spiritual challenge.”
Generationalism risks obscuring the diversity of experiences, ideas and interests that characterise human society at any given moment. By locating the lines of conflict and solidarity on a cross-temporal plane, some important divisions—between rich and poor countries, different class groups, and rival views of the market, state and the economics of growth—are rendered less visible in the present.
Likewise, there is a risk of equalising the obligations of those who are unequally responsible for climate change if one lines people up as members alike of ‘the present generation.’ Justice, but also an effective concrete response to climate change, requires attending to intra-generational differences.
For how long will the challenges posed by climate change be expressed in generational terms? Will future generations, as we have learned to call them, still appeal to the interests of ‘future generations’ that come after them—to their children and grandchildren’s prospects? Generational thinking reflects a moment in time when climate-change problems, though recognised, are expected to manifest themselves in the future, at a distance of some decades from now. But as climate change increasingly intrudes on the present the cross-temporal perspective may recede.
The recasting of climate change as a problem of the present rather than the future would be a positive step.This is arguably the simplest way to contend with the pitfalls of generational thinking.The lure of channeling ethics through the family, and of overlooking some meaningful political and economic divisions, is thereby removed at source. As in other fields, taking collective action requires that we avoid privatising and depoliticising the problems we seek to solve.
Solidarity must extend, not only to all people but also to animals, the earth, and the environment.
I’ve told this story before. It doesn’t have a happy ending—but at least this time it has a hopeful one.
The day the men took Sasha away from her mother she was only three weeks old. A few months later they took her to the cage where she spent the rest of her life. This was ‘home:’ a prison of concrete and metal. No sunshine, no space to turn around, and nothing to do. Even though she had just hit puberty they forced her to get pregnant. It went on that way until the end, forced to give birth over and over until her body couldn’t take it anymore.
After years of confinement and abuse Sasha was packed into a pen with dozens of others in preparation for slaughter. No more boredom and no more pain, but the worst wasn’t over. One by one, they were pulled out until there was nobody left but Sasha. She ran back and forth, and then in circles, screaming. She struggled to lift the gate of the pen from its hinges but it was no use. She died because she was no longer useful. She died because she was born as a member of the wrong species, because she was a pig, and pigs don’t have rights.
But is that true, or even acceptable in an era when conceptions of rights are broadening? I’ve worked with many human rights organizations and admire their goals, but I’ve also felt a profound sense of despair, loneliness, and disappointment at how communities that are so deeply concerned with justice can so thoroughly fail to stand up for the rights of non-human animals.
When we see the horrors that human beings inflict on animals in slaughterhouses, fur farms, circuses and other settings, how, as decent people, can we not act? That was the question posed to me by a senior ACLU attorney when I sat down to talk with him about animal rights last fall. I had realized that something big was happening in the human rights world: after years of neglect and hostility the human rights movement was embracing animal rights in earnest.
A week after that meeting I learned that the Center for Human Rights and Global Justice (CHRGJ) at New York University—one of the premier human rights programs in the world—was taking a stand for animal rights and committing to an all-vegetarian food policy, which was announced publicly in April of 2018. The policy makes clear that the fundamental values underlying human rights advocacy demand that we have “respect for animals.” And crucially, it recognizes that an institution committed to working towards “a more just and humane world” must take a stand for the animals who are victimized by industrial agriculture.
Even more importantly, the policy—which requires the Center to purchase only vegetarian foods for its events—is grounded in an understanding of the interconnectedness of the struggles for human and animal rights—in “respect for animals and the humans impacted by the animal agriculture and processing industries, and out of concern for the environment on which we all depend.”
Margaret Satterthwaite, a renowned human rights law professor, attorney and a director of the Center, has recognized that this new policy is reflective of a profound and necessary shift in the human rights movement. As she told me in a recent email:
“The human rights community is beginning to recognize that our solidarity must extend to embrace not only all people, but also animals, the earth, and our environment. In moving to a vegetarian policy, CHRGJ is taking an important step to match our actions with our values.”
CHGRJ isn’t alone. The Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR), another of the world’s leading human rights organizations, recently embraced a vegan/vegetarian policy as “a meaningful act of solidarity” with the animal rights movement. The CCR policy further recognizes that an “increasing number of CCR staff members see violence against animals as contrary to a fundamental commitment to justice.”
The progressive National Lawyers Guild has adopted a similar position through an initiative spearheaded by women of color in the Guild's Animal Rights Activism Committee (now an independent project). In the wake of the steps taken by other human rights groups, the Guild’s President-Elect, Elena Cohen, told me that: “I am so proud that we have joined in the movement of progressive organizations in adopting a vegan food policy, to make clear that non-human animal oppression is integral to our anti-oppression work and vision for a more just world.” In addition, the Rebellious Lawyering Conference at Yale University—the largest student-run public interest conference in the United States—has been fully vegetarian for several years in a row.
Importantly, this support for animal rights is beginning to extend beyond internal food policy to the substantive work of human rights organizations. In April 2018, the CCR supported the Nonhuman Rights Project’s lawsuit to grant legal rights to chimpanzees by filing an “amicus brief” on their behalf in the Court of Appeals of New York. In another example, a recent statement from ACLU attorney Rita Bettis made clear that one of its recent ‘ag-gag’ cases which challenge laws that criminalize undercover investigations of factory farms is not just about promoting free speech, but about preventing “animal cruelty, unsafe food safety practices, environmental hazards, and inhumane working conditions.”
To be clear, this trend is not entirely new. Legendary human rights activists like Angela Davis, Cesar Chávez and Dick Gregory have championed animal rights for decades, and prominent progressive law professors—including Cass Sunstein, Martha Nussbaum, Laurence Tribe, Michael Dorf, Kristin Stilt and Sherry Colb—have all been strong advocates. What is new is that major human rights organizations are taking a stance on this issue through a wave of change in their institutional policies and practices. Crucially, this isn’t just a random hodge-podge of radical organizations. The ACLU, CCR and others are widely-respected organizations in the vanguard of the human rights movement, and bellwethers for social justice advocacy as a whole.
The leadership of CHRGJ includes two high-level UN appointees and several world renowned international legal scholars; the Center for Constitutional Rights secured historic Supreme Court victories on behalf of Guantánamo detainees years before other organizations got involved; and the National Lawyers Guild was the first racially integrated national bar association. The fact that change is happening in such organizations is a strong indication of a much broader, movement-wide shift towards the embrace of animal rights.
Prominent members of other major human rights organizations are also becoming more vocal in their support. For example, Simon Cox, a Legal Officer at the Open Society Foundations (one of the world’s largest funders of human rights advocacy and also a donor to openDemocracy), wrote in a recent email that “the idea of human rights is grounded in the notion that sentient creatures deserve respect and that harms to them should only be permitted when justified.”
William F. “Bill” Schultz, former executive director Amnesty International USA and Senior Fellow at Harvard’s Carr Center for Human Rights Policy, argues that animals deserve at least some legal rights. In October of 2017, he told me about an illuminating recent conversation about animal rights with his fellow board members in a leading US human rights organization:
“I say, ‘Screw ‘em,’” bellowed one board member. “Torture, genocide, people—they’re all more important.” And maybe they are. But all the other board members were sympathetic to the notion of rights for animals, knowing that it behooves human rights activists to extend their circle of care and concern to complex creatures outside the narrow confines of convention. He went on to quote the anthropologist Loren Eiseley: “I love forms beyond my own and regret the borders between us.” The extension of rights to animals, he added, is one way to diminish that distance.
In fact, that distance is already diminishing, and quickly. I’m grateful to all the human rights organizations and advocates that are taking serious steps to fight the arbitrary discrimination that denies our moral and legal obligations to non-human animals. Thank you for showing me that our commitment to liberty and justice for all really does mean something for all victims of injustice, brutality, and discrimination—human and non-human alike.
10 May 2018. 32 types of anti-feminists –
Have you gotten pushback against your feminist beliefs? If so, maybe you recognize these arguments.
Originally published on Everyday Feminism.
8 May 2018. Are we losing our love of life? ‘It must be the money’ –
Healing our relationship to finance is a pre-condition for building a grassroots-led investment fund that’s focused on wellbeing.
“Our buen vivir was taken 500 years ago when the Spanish colonized our lands and people.” Milvian Aspuac Con, AFEDES, Guatemala.
I knew right then I was going to be schooled.Thirty-eight of us, representing 24 organizations from six countries, had gathered in rainy Mexico City to design an investment fund that would re-imagine our economy—and our investment practices—with the concept of buen vivir at the center.
Buen vivir comes from Indigenous movements in Latin America and implies “right living” or life in balance with communities, natural systems and future generations. Our grassroots partners, financial investors, and adviser allies—all leaders in alternative economic practices—had joined the gathering because of relationships built up over time with my organization, Thousand Currents. They trusted us because we have a 30-plus-year track record of establishing respectful and productive partnerships with grassroots leaders around the world, and with those who have deeper pockets in wealthy countries.
But that doesn’t mean we knew how to build an economy that’s centered on love and equality. That was the challenge that emerged from the grassroots, and specifically, how to develop an investment fund that’s run on these same principles and values—in stark contrast to the mainstream of philanthropy, foreign aid, social enterprise and investing.
Most impact investment initiatives are centered on persuading investors from the Global North to lend money and ‘expertise.’ The accumulation of privatized wealth is then reflected in the centralization of power and control in philanthropy and social investing. That’s why we came together to design a fund that would not only provide capital to grassroots groups who had never had access to investment before, but also support donors in the US who are floundering in a broken, fear-ridden financial system.
In order to re-imagine finance in this way we asked: What if that economic power could be shifted to communities in the Global South? What if capital could flow in the service of well-being? That’s why I needed to be ‘schooled’ by Milvian Aspuac Con, the leader of an Indigenous-women led group called AFEDES, a long-term Thousand Currents partner in Guatemala. She went on to share what it means to “recover the deep love for life” after a long history of Spanish colonization.
In generations past, she said, her family lived well. Her grandparents produced food so they had enough to eat. Her grandmothers knew how to weave so they had enough clothes to wear, and what they needed for the house. They produced, sold, or exchanged the rest. They had little stress. They had a chance for recreation, to do other things besides work.
But in 1980, after the approval of neoliberal and “Green Revolution” policies in Guatemala, many multinational agribusinesses arrived to convince farmers that it wasn’t profitable to produce their own food, and that their land could produce extra crops and extra money instead. This, they said, was the ultimate goal. These companies got rid of trees and other forms of biodiversity in order to focus on cash crops like green beans.
As a result, Milvian’s community lost their traditional crops. Industrial agriculture meant that they had to buy seeds and apply for credit from these companies, trapping them in cycles of debt. Her family lost their way of life. In the end, Milvian’s father suffered bankruptcy.
“It must be the money,” she said. “My father lost the love of life and went after money. We are recovering from this…slowly.”
That feeling of loss—of substituting love for money—is common in contemporary societies, and it also characterizes the ways in which we usually approach the question of mobilizing finance for social change. We wanted to escape from these constrictions and develop a model that brought love and money back into a healthier relationship with one another, but this process proved to be much more challenging than we imagined.
Conventional attitudes toward money run deep—who has it, who controls it, and how many strings are attached to how it’s spent. Working through these questions became a year-and-a-half long process of co-designing a radically-different investment vehicle which would come to be called the Buen Vivir Fund. What we thought could be resolved in a week took many thousands of hours—2,934 to be exact.
That’s because we had to acknowledge that our own relationship to money was grounded in scarcity. Until we transformed that relationship—until we truly acknowledged our fears about money and inequality—we couldn’t build an investment fund that would run on different principles and result in wellbeing instead of profit or top-down control.
We also had to re-imagine our relationship with time. Maybe our initial plan and timeline needed more than a week to kick off, we thought, but with the outstanding leadership, initiative, and ideas of the people we had gathered together we could surely complete the co-design process of the Fund within a few months.
We assumed that many elements of the Fund’s design could be identified in virtual conversations prior to the gathering, and planned to complete the details of its operations face to face. However, it was only when we came together in person and built more trust and authenticity among us that the most important questions, ideas, and challenges arose.
Prior to the gathering we had essentially been assuming a mainstream investment model as a starting point, and then a process of proposing changes to that design. But when the conversation started our grassroots partners pushed us to depart completely from these mainstream models. Instead, they wanted to start with designs that already placed collective wellbeing at the center, like community-led savings and lending circles in their regions.
In order to learn the basics of each other’s approach to investment, savings, and enterprise, we realized that we had to deepen the sharing among grassroots partners and financial investors. We also extended the co-design process to more than a year to ensure that adequate time and care could be given to this vital opportunity for a completely different way of thinking about money and social change, one that was firmly centered in buen vivir but also financially feasible and sustainable.
Those living in higher-income countries have been conditioned to the commodification of time and the short-termism that’s created by mainstream financial investment practices. I too was frustrated, and our mindsets meant that many of us felt the pressure of time in the design process. Yet as Don Jorge Santiago reminded us, one of the advisers of the Fund who’s based in Chiapas and is a decades-long practitioner of the Solidarity Economy: “Are you committed, as this is what it takes when you are creating something entirely new?”
Ari Sahagún, another participant, shared how important it was to trust the process: “Bringing underrepresented voices into a previously-constructed process that was never designed by or for them simply does not work,” she told us. Hence, we needed to create a new and rigorous process that would uplift the determination, agency and leadership of grassroots communities. We learned that we had to prioritize this new process over expediency or efficiency.
Time did pass, and money from the Fund is now flowing. We started with one million dollars in investment capital and US$200,000 in grant capital, distributed between eight visionary projects in five countries—from a Members Assembly that puts ‘on the ground’ expertise on an equal par with those who put up the money, to loans where the investors shoulder the risk (because they can), to borrowers making a solidarity contribution of their choosing back into the fund after their project ends rather than being required to pay any interest.
In these and other ways the Buen Vivir Fund is designed for any growth (or more properly, abundance) to be passed forward to the next set of groups. But this isn’t just a matter of technics or operations. As I reflect back on my participation in the design process I can see how my own family’s relationship to money is also changing. My wife is currently in a two-year training program that has resulted in a significant decline in our household income. There has been the usual stress and anxiety in our conversations about wants and needs. And yet, at the point last year when our household income was at its lowest, our annual giving to causes we care about was at its highest.
We are continually reconsidering what wellbeing and a ‘good life’ means to us, and we are appreciating the abundance of wealth in our lives in the form of health, love and joy; relationships, community and family; and food and the stunningly beautiful Bay Area that we call home.
As it turns out, Milvian was right, and not only about her own experience or the design of the Fund: ‘It’s not just about the money.’ Confronting our fears about scarcity—whether within our own families or the global economy—means focusing not on wealth accumulation for the few but on the good life for all. The next challenge is to extend this realization to the mainstream of philanthropy, social investing, and foreign aid that currently runs on the opposite set of principles.
Feminism has always been mobilized and strengthened through collective joyful laughter.
There is no fiercer political weapon than laughter. The controversy around Michelle Wolf’s brilliant, uncomfortable, and brutally honest roast at the 2018 White House Correspondents Dinner is the latest in a long line of examples that reveal the threatening power of feminist jokes. As the author Margaret Atwood puts it, “Men are afraid women will laugh at them; women are afraid men will kill them.” This is why the Patriarchy has always tried to stereotype feminists as humorless killjoys, the anti-pleasure police, or shrill sticks in the mud.
In reality, nothing could be farther from the truth. From Samantha Bee’s satirical TV show Full Frontal; to the stand-up comedy of Wanda Sykes, Margaret Cho and Tig Notaro; to the explosion of playful memes and witty protest signs that forcefully satirize patriarchal predation, feminism is, and has always been, mobilized and strengthened through collective joyful laughter.
As I show in my new book, Specters of Slapstick and Silent Film Comediennes, insightful satire and exuberant comedy were important forces in the early years of the feminist movement. The biggest myth of anti-feminist propaganda—both in the present moment and in the history of the struggle—is that wanting equal rights and having a sense of humor are somehow mutually exclusive.
In fact, when women laugh too loudly or pointedly they’re often disregarded as ‘hysterical’—not in the positive sense or as a figure of speech but as pathology: ‘maybe we should send you to a mental institution and poke at your uterus to figure out what’s wrong with you.’
Comedy, though delirious and light-hearted, is often extremely violent and vividly obscene. There’s a fine line between edgy and insulting, and it’s long been the role of the clown to test the boundaries of that line as they change over time, particularly during moments of escalating social and political activism. Wolf exemplifies this tension between the timely and the taboo in her roast with jokes like these: “Sarah Huckabee Sanders, I loved you as Aunt Lydia in The Handmaid’s Tale;” “I know a lot of you are very anti-abortion, unless it’s the one you got for your secret mistress.”
Women, LGBQT+, people of color, and other oppressed minorities have long used satirical comedy effectively to ‘punch up’ against authority and speak truth to power. For example, as Lindy West puts it in “How to Make a Rape Joke,” there’s a difference between “a joke about women getting raped” and “a joke about the way that rape culture—which includes rape jokes, makes women feel.” Nothing is off-limits for progressive comedy, not even rape; what matters is whether the victim or assaulter becomes the butt of the punch line. Regardless of the comedian’s identity—even if you have to live in the aftermath of your own mockery—a joke that goes too far, or that risks exploiting its topic rather than exposing it, will typically fall on deaf ears.
The refusal to laugh is not always intentional. After all, laughter is supposed to be involuntary: it erupts in spite of ourselves, often in response to images and ideas that actively confuse us. This is neither good nor bad: we laugh when we’re not completely sure how we want to feel about something, and are still thinking it through. In other words, we are not always in control of the social consequences of our laughter, even though we would like to be.
Comedy is often a matrix for processing social change, as much as an active force that directly provokes it. As an example, take Mary Jane’s Mishap, a slapstick comedy from 1903 starring Laura Bayley about a housemaid who spontaneously combusts out of the chimney while trying to light a fire. Mary Jane erupts out of the roof and her dismembered limbs and torso rain down over the village skyline. Finally she returns as a ghost to haunt her own gravestone, which has the epitaph, “Here Lies Mary Jane. Rest in Pieces.”
Mary Jane’s explosion out the chimney is an absurd representation of how women desire to break free from the domestic sphere and the drudgery of everyday housework. I’m really attracted to these types of films in which gendered oppression is rendered ridiculous. That’s what slapstick is all about: the exaggerated representation of make-believe violence, but violence that strikes us as somehow too zany or cartoonish to be threatening in reality.
Women have always had a marginal position in physical comedy because audiences often feel uncomfortable laughing at comical images of violence against female characters. As with West’s distinction between rape jokes and jokes about rape culture, Mary Jane’s Mishap took aim at the tyranny of women’s domestic enslavement and the brutal mockery of violence against women in the home by presenting these things in slapstick form—and through that medium connecting with its audience.
The comedian Amy Schumer takes a page out of Mary Jane’s Mishap in her sketch show Inside Amy Schumer, which frequently features skits about women who spontaneously combust, self-decapitate, or commit absurd ritual suicide when their ability to derive meaning from their everyday lives stands in vivid contradiction to their own utopian gender ideals. Skits like “Trouble Accepting a Compliment,” “I’m So Bad,” and “Allergic to Nuts” all exemplify Schumer’s slapstick feminism ad absurdum.
This isn’t new. From the early 1900s, female slapstick comedy in the popular media has been an avenue for feminist activism and social protest. For example, the only way for Mary Jane to break out of the home is through the chimney. In another film released in 1914 called Daisy Doodad’s Dial, a bored housewife trains to compete in an amateur face-making competition so avidly that she is arrested for public indecency after she grimaces at random men on a street car.
She then shuts herself up in her bedroom and has nightmares in which she’s haunted by spectral superimpositions of her own disembodied face-making. Or take Laughing Gas (made in 1907), in which a black woman is given nitrous oxide by her white male dentist, and then spreads her laughter contagiously through the streets, including to several police officers who can’t arrest her because they’re all laughing too uproariously.
Social satire in these films arises from the jarring clash between how women and minorities are traditionally expected to behave and how they actually want to live, exemplified in suffragette protest comedies, trick films in which women metamorphose into giant spiders or man-eating dolls, and domestic disaster comedies where women ‘blow up’ or bust loose from their normative gender roles and domestic duties in a variety of astonishing ways.
It’s also important to remember that cinema, like Twitter or YouTube today, was the most popular form of new media in the 1890s and early 1900s. There was something about the power of cinema to display movement as never before—housemaids exploding, automobiles crashing, miniature nicotine fairies melting—that provided fertile terrain for social protest and cultural experimentation.
Women’s bodies were ideal for these ends, because they were believed to be physically malleable and less resistant to external manipulation—just look, for example, at the corsets women were expected to wear in the early 1900s that contorted their bodies into crazy human hourglasses. New media images, like gendered bodies, have always been celebrated for their limitless capacity for physical manipulation and visual invention.
People have been drawn to ‘new’ media throughout history because they believe in the transformative power of radical images to influence social and political breakthroughs. Female-identified and gender fluid bodies—the clothes they wear, the positions they assume, and the way their bodies occupy public spaces—are markers of how much social norms and cultural ideals can change over time.
I see so many parallels between the feminist protest culture of the early 1900s and our present-day moment in 2018, when satirical laughter and new media experimentation are again such vibrant parts of our collective imagination and activist resistance. One of my favorite protest signs at the Global Women’s March in 2017 was proudly raised by a group of women dressed as suffragettes: “Same Shit, Different Century,” it said.
Though the issues have changed—from voting rights to abortion rights to #MeToo—some things remain the same: feminist laughter is a forceful political weapon. Some will continue to repeat the old lie that “Women Aren’t Funny,” but that’s ok—it shows that they’re still terrified by the revolutionary power of collective laughter.
Using violence and suppressing free speech is no way to build a just society.
This article was first published in Waging Nonviolence.
In March, Richard Spencer, a prominent white supremacist, cancelled his speaking engagements at U.S. universities, saying he was deterred by “antifa,” a loose international network of radical anti-fascist groups that aims to shut down far-right talks and rallies. For antifa members and supporters, Spencer’s capitulation was both vindication of their aggressive tactics and a sign of their success in opposing fascism.
These confrontations between far-right activists and antifa groups—on the rise since the election of Donald Trump—are often presented as involving two opposing values: free speech on one side and the danger of allowing fascists to appear in public on the other. What is missing in this framing, however, is an understanding of the dynamics of censorship and of nonviolent action as an alternative.
At the forefront of this clash of values is Mark Bray’s 2017 book “Antifa: The Anti-Fascist Handbook,” which provides the most comprehensive justification for antifa tactics available. It has sold briskly and received considerable attention among its target audience of antifa activists.
Bray readily acknowledges that “Antifa” was written “on the run” during the early days of the Trump era to meet the demand for information about newly visible anti-fascist activists.
Responding in the affirmative, antifa activists believe that the ends (“stopping fascism before it becomes unstoppable”) justify the means: violence. The more thoughtful members of antifa add the qualifier “when necessary.”
As Murray, one of Bray’s anonymous U.S. informants puts it, “You fight them by writing letters and making phone calls so you don’t have to fight them with fists. You fight them with fists so you don’t have to fight them with knives. You fight them with knives so you don’t have to fight them with guns. You fight them with guns so you don’t have to fight them with tanks.” Beyond punching Nazis, antifa tactics drawing significant media attention include “no platforming”—or blocking or disrupting speeches—and “doxxing,” which consists of publishing private information about a target on social media to encourage harassment.
Despite its genesis as instant history, “Antifa” is a serious book that raises fundamental questions about the viability of liberal tenets of free speech and the role of violence in political protests. Bray, a historian, visiting scholar at Dartmouth College and an Occupy Wall Street organizer, used his radical credentials to gain access to the antifa network, which generally operates in secrecy. He interviewed 61 active or former members of antifa groups from 17 countries.
Supportive of the goals of antifa, but open to criticism of the movement, Bray argues that “militant anti-fascism is a reasonable, historically-informed response to the fascist threat that persisted after 1945 and that has become especially menacing in recent years.” The authorial voice he projects is humane and reflective, occasionally punctuated with references to his personal history and activist experiences.
The first two chapters are devoted to the history of fascism and anti-fascism, from the 1899 founding of the anti-Dreyfusard League to the early 2000s when antifa groups began to rethink their strategies in light of the rise of new far-right parties in Europe. While historical contextualizing is essential to understanding antifa’s “never again” rationale for preventative violence, Bray packs too many facts into too little space for readers without a deep background in European history to readily absorb and retain, making these crucial early chapters a hard slog.
This is unfortunate because the subsequent chapters are accessible and illuminating. Chapter Three addresses the recent emergence, in response to the refugee crisis in Europe, of “pin-stripe Nazis”: nationalists who cover their underlying fascist tendencies with a veneer of respectability. They claim to be protecting democracy against its enemies while providing a cover for racism, Islamophobia and restoration of patriarchal gender regimes.
The remaining chapters focus on the theory and politics of antifa at more pragmatic levels: lessons to be drawn from history; no platforming and free speech; strategy, including internal criticism within some antifa groups; the dangers of machismo within antifa; fetishization of violence; feminism and antifa; nonviolent antifa tactics; militant anti-fascism and public opinion; antifa groups functioning as reserve police in some Nazi encounters; popular culture’s relation to antifa (via punk, hipster and hooligan subcultures) and much more. There are two appendices: One offers advice to recruits from veteran antifa activists, while the other provides a bibliography on North American and European works on anti-fascism. Unfortunately, the book lacks an index.
The conundrum of no tolerance for intolerance.
Bray defends no-platforming, saying one of history’s lessons is that “it doesn’t take that many fascists to make fascism.” Mussolini and Hitler demonstrated that once fascism is legitimized, it can expand rapidly and quickly consolidate its power. Another is that, historically, fascists gained power legally. Therefore, Bray concludes that fascism must be stopped at its source.
He contends that most antifa groups do not reject freedom of speech in principle, but they maintain that the struggle against fascism takes precedence. On this point, he quotes Joe, one of his respondents, who says, “The idea that freedom of speech is the most important thing that we can protect can only be held by someone who thinks that life is analogous to a debate hall.” Bray argues that no one actually lives up to the absolutist free speech standard that liberals use to condemn antifa. History, he points out, is full of examples of liberal abridgments of free speech, including some systemic ones, such as wartime press censorship, incitement-to-violence prohibitions, obscenity laws, copyright infringement and incarceration.
Bray argues that the liberal Enlightenment ideal of the best, most rational, argument prevailing in a free and open debate does not take into account the irrational and emotional appeal of fascism. Citing appeasement in the 1930s, Bray contends that liberalism has failed to provide a reliable bulwark against fascism. To be sure, free speech is fragile and liberalism’s failures are legion. That is why these positions do require radical interrogation in struggles for social justice. Free expression is, however, a fundamental feature of participatory democracy, whether liberal or socialist.
When Richard Spencer announced on Twitter that he was canceling his “college tour” because antifa had escalated its efforts and—in his view—police were not responding adequately, it seemed like a victory for antifa. If so, it was pyrrhic. Antifa’s tactics, which attracted hostile media coverage, did little to advance struggles against racism, patriarchal gender regimes, ableism and the other causes the movement supports. Intentional bureaucratic obstructionism by various university administrators may have done as much to undermine Spencer’s tour as antifa. For example, he decided to quit the tour when only 12 people showed up for his appearance at Michigan State University, which scheduled his talk during spring break when most students were away from campus.
Bray faults liberal free speech theory for its failure to live up to an absolutist standard of free speech and for its hypocrisy. Yet, in doing so, he unwittingly encounters the conundrum that has dogged free speech theorists for centuries: what Karl Popper referred to as “the paradox of intolerance” in his 1945 work “The Open Society and Its Enemies.” Any system that legally valorizes tolerance, regardless of its ideology, must—by logical extension—resort to intolerance of the intolerant. Like liberalism, antifa and Bray are also caught in this logical trap. As Bray puts it, “An anti-fascist outlook has no tolerance for ‘intolerance.’” Yet, antifa is founded upon aggressive intolerance of fascists.
Presumably Bray means no tolerance for racism, misogyny, homo- and transphobia, etc. Intolerance of intolerance is the socio-logic, if not the formal rationale, for the European Union’s controversial 2007 measure outlawing Holocaust denial. That precedent also points to the possibility of legalistic tactics that antifa could use in some national jurisdictions, although it does not have the machismo appeal of violent confrontation.
Democracy has always been aspirational. Free speech is a desired goal, though very unevenly realized in practice. Bray persuasively chronicles some of the many failures of liberal democracy and free speech, and underscores the importance of radical struggles for greater economic and social justice. Antifa’s binary framing of choices—speech or violence—does seem to give Bray pause at times, as it should. He contends that the society that anti-authoritarians seek to create would offer more opportunities for free expression than the liberal status quo. For antifa, that is a society inspired by revolutionary socialism; for Bray, preferably one that is anti-authoritarian and non-hierarchical.
Suppression of free speech is a method fascists use to consolidate power and amplify the reach of the irrational emotional appeals of their propaganda. Hitler, for example, quashed opposition, banning trade unions and opposition parties, and established the Reich Ministry of Public Enlightenment and Propaganda, which controlled German media and cultivated anti-Semitism and the Aryan myth, most famously through films like “The Eternal Jew” and “Triumph of the Will.” Antifa, by seeking to suppress the speech of fascists, actually mimics their own techniques rather than providing an alternative.
Justifying violence on moral, not strategic, grounds.
Bray’s history of fascism and anti-fascism gives the most attention to violence on both sides. Fascists in inter-war Italy and Germany used violence and so did their opponents. Bray recounts clash after clash. From the 1940s to the present, he portrays anti-fascism as a continuing attempt to prevent fascists and neo-Nazis from being able to organize in public, with anti-fascists assaulting right-wing protesters and speakers. In some cases, this goes further, with anti-fascists assaulting anyone just wearing fascist garb, or bombing the offices and homes of prominent right-wingers. Bray recounts these events, presenting no reservations about any tactics used.
Bray argues that fascists need to be cowed into submission before they gain any sort of profile, arguing that the failure of the left in the 1920s and 1930s was letting fascism grow without sufficient resistance, though his claim is questionable. Most of Bray’s arguments concerning violence are about justifying it. The limitation of this approach is that even if one believes a violent action might be justified, morally or politically, it still may not be the most effective approach.
Bray presents violence as the alternative to liberal approaches, which rely on rational discourse and policing. Certainly, liberalism has often failed to deal with right-wing threats. However, there is another alternative: nonviolent action, the strategic use of petitions, rallies, strikes, boycotts, sit-ins and a host of other methods. This alternative has a rich history—including, for example, countering fascists using clowning. Bray can hardly avoid discussing nonviolent action because it is now used widely in contemporary social movements.
To his credit, Bray addresses nonviolent action. He spends much of his treatment countering the arguments about fascism presented by Erica Chenoweth, a leading nonviolence scholar and co-author with Maria Stephan of the acclaimed study “Why Civil Resistance Works.” Bray cites particular cases in his attempt to counter the findings of Chenoweth and Stephan. This is strange because Chenoweth and Stephan do not claim violence is never effective, but rather that a statistical analysis of violent and nonviolent anti-regime campaigns shows that nonviolent movements are more likely to be successful and to lead to freer societies years later.
More seriously, Bray does not come to grips with the assumptions underlying nonviolent action. As Chenoweth and Stephan show, and many others have argued, a key reason why nonviolent action is effective is because it enables participation by most sectors of the population, including women, children, elderly and people with disabilities. Anyone can participate in a boycott.
A second key reason for the effectiveness of nonviolent action is precisely its avoidance of violence. Many people see violent attacks on peaceful, non-resisting protesters as unfair, even inhumane. As a result, such attacks can recoil against the attackers, generating greater support for the protesters. This effect, called political jiu-jitsu, is reduced or nullified when protesters are themselves violent.
Bray is quite right to point out that many campaigns, categorized as primarily nonviolent, used some violence. But this does not mean the violence helped the campaigns. By the logic of political jiu-jitsu, it may have weakened them.
Throughout “Antifa,” Bray actually gives examples of when fascist violence was counterproductive for the fascists and examples of when anti-fascist violence was counterproductive for the anti-fascists. For example, in Sweden in the 1990s, “neo-Nazi violence provoked a harsh societal backlash.” Then, in 2000, a Swedish neo-Nazi, Daniel Wretström, “allegedly was killed in a fight with immigrant youth,” and was seen as a martyr for his cause. The neo-Nazis subsequently held an annual march in his memory. However, Bray does not dwell on cases in which violence is counterproductive and does not link them to a backfire process.
In terms of nonviolence theory, one of the shortcomings of much anti-fascist campaigning is that the use of violence limits participation. Bray notes the challenges that antifa groups have with excess machismo and the rise of feminist antifa (fantifa) groups in response. He gives no information about the demographics of antifa groups, in particular their age and ability profiles. It is reasonable to assume that most antifa activists involved in physical confrontations are young fit men, the same profile as most military forces and combatants in any armed struggle.
“Antifa” succeeds in its primary mission: providing English-language readers with an overview of the antifa network, its purpose, diverse international groupings, ideology and tactics. The book is an informed and revealing, yet one-sided, account of efforts against fascism. What it omits is a sustained discussion of strategy to counter fascism by any means except using force to deter or fight the presence of the far right in public spaces. This one-dimensional approach limits the potential for participation of many sympathetic people. Furthermore, it can even alienate potential supporters who might be won over and involved using less confrontational tactics.
Using violence sends a message that the way to oppose those with whom you disagree is to silence their speech. This can legitimate use of the same methods by opponents. Ultimately, suppressing free speech and using violence are not good ways to build the sort of free society Bray desires, because they fail to foster the attitudes and skills necessary for such a society to develop and flourish.
The Quaker movement was born out of radicalism. This weekend Quakers assemble to ask themselves, is it time for Quakerism to renew itself in a more participatory way?
This May Bank Holiday weekend, Britain's Quaker community will gather in London to decide whether to revise the book that informs our practice. If the answer is ‘yes’ it will kick-start a decade long process whereby every Quaker in Britain will have a say on how our faith develops.
As a point of comparison, it would be analogous perhaps, to the Church of England embarking on a participatory process to re-write the Book of Common Prayer.
In many ways, work to challenge unjust hierarchies and flatten structures is in our DNA: The Quaker movement was born out of the radical foment of the English Revolution with many of its earliest members having played prominent roles in the Levellers, Diggers, and Parliamentary causes. As the movement spread in the centuries that followed there were Quaker suffragettes, civil rights activists and anti-apartheid campaigners.
In recent more times, elements of the participatory Quaker business method have made the transition to the environmental and social justice movement. When Climate Camps, World Social Forums and Occupy groups have made large and small-scale decisions by consensus, there are strong echoes of the Quaker way of doing things. It’s also a two-way relationship. Many Quakers today are involved in non-hierarchical movements for peace, the environment and equality; a result of which is that Quaker spaces can often mirror the culture of the new social movements.
Depending how you count it there are about 20,000 Quakers in Britain - less than a third of a single parliamentary constituency. Can we model on the small scale the level of participation that advocates of deep democracy suggest could be applied more broadly? To involve everybody in revisiting how we represent what we stand for would be a brave move for any community, perhaps even more so for a non-credal tradition which encompasses a plurality of words to express what we believe. If we go ahead and say yes, we will have to hold faith that we will be held together by the trust and close friendships that emerge through collective action and reflection, whilst simultaneously staying open for transformation by every new person who comes through the door.
Through Young Quaker Magazine among other channels, younger Friends have for some time now been assertively calling for change within Quakerism itself: for a structure that does more to include those with unpredictable life situations, for a membership process more applicable to the internet age, for reserved spaces for under-represented groups on committees and for our community to do more to reflect the ethnic diversity of our global Quaker movement rather than only the narrow demographic of Quakers in Britain today. Could this be a process through which such changes could happen?
I don’t know if we will decide to revise the Quaker book or not – nobody does. The answer will emerge this weekend through quiet contemplation, discernment and listening. But maybe the point is not whether our book needs revising per se, but whether we are willing to revise our vision of how to embody the Quaker values we’ve inherited from our forebears and manifest them in the 21st century. The book (or the wiki, or the podcast, or the film) that results, needs to follow and adapt around that.
Quakers have a saying, that we ‘hold in the light’ those we are acting in solidarity with. This weekend we need those movements we’re part of to hold us in the light. Only when we are working on ourselves can we work with others. This weekend we will ask ourselves how.
3 May 2018. The revenge against the commons –
Why France’s biggest police operation since May 1968 is prepared to kill for Macron’s neoliberal nightmare (10k words).
This is a long read by one of the inhabitants of the Zad, about the fortnight rollercoaster of rural riots that has just taken place to evict the liberated territory of the zad. It’s been incredibly intense and hard to find a moment to write, but we did our best. This is simply one viewpoint, there are over 1000 people on the zone at the moment and every one of them could tell a different story. Thank you for all the friends and comrades who helped by sharing their stories, rebel spirits and lemon juice against the tear gas.
“We must bring into being the world we want to defend. These cracks where people find each other to build a beautiful future are important. This is how the zad is a model.” Naomi Klein
“What is happening at Notre-Dame-des-Landes illustrates a conflict that concerns the whole world” Raoul Vaneigem
The police helicopter hovers above, its bone rattling clattering never seems to stop. At night its long godlike finger of light penetrates our cabins and farm houses. It has been so hard to sleep this last week. Even dreaming, it seems, is a crime on the zad. And that’s the point: these 4000 acres of autonomous territory, this zone to defend, has existed despite the state and capitalism for nearly a decade and no government can allow such a place to flourish. All territories that are inhabited by people who bridge the gap between dream and action have to be crushed before their hope begins to spread. This is why France’s biggest police operation since May 1968, at a cost of 400,000 euros a day, has been trying to evict us with its 2500 gendarmes, armoured vehicles (APCs), bulldozers, rubber bullets, drones, 200 cameras and 11,000 tear gas and stun grenades fired since the operation began at 3.20am on the morning of the 9th of April.
The state said that these would be “targeted evictions”, claiming that there were up to 80 ‘radical’ zadists that would be hunted down, and that the rest, the ‘good’ zadists, would have to legalise or face the same fate. The good zadist was a caricature of the gentle ‘neo rural farmer’ returning to the land, the bad, an ultra violent revolutionary, just there to make trouble. Of course this was a fantasy vision to feed the state’s primary strategy, to divide this diverse popular movement that has managed to defeat 3 different French governments and win France’s biggest political victory of a generation.
The zad was initially set up as a protest against the building of a new airport for the city of Nantes, following a letter by residents distributed during a climate camp in 2009, which invited people to squat the land and buildings: ‘because’ as they wrote ‘only an inhabited territory can be defended’. Over the years this territory earmarked for a mega infrastructure project, evolved into Europe’s largest laboratory of commoning. Before the French state started to bulldoze our homes, there were 70 different living spaces and 300 inhabitants nestled into this checkerboard landscape of forest, fields and wetlands. Alternative ways of living with each other, fellow species and the world are experimented with 24/7.
From making our own bread to running a pirate radio station, planting herbal medicine gardens to making rebel camembert, a rap recording studio to a pasta production workshop, an artisanal brewery to two blacksmiths forges, a communal justice system to a library and even a full scale working lighthouse – the zad has become a new commune for the 21st century. Messy and bemusing, this beautifully imperfect utopia in resistance against an airport and its world has been supported by a radically diverse popular movement, bringing together tens of thousands of anarchists and farmers, unionists and naturalists, environmentalists and students, locals and revolutionaries of every flavour. But everything changed on the 17th of January 2018, when the French prime minister appeared on TV to cancel the airport project and in the same breath say that the zad, the ‘outlaw zone’ would be evicted and law and order returned.
I am starting to write 8 days into the attack, it’s Tuesday the 17th of April my diary tells me, but days, dates even hours of the day seem to merge into a muddled bath of adrenaline soaked intensity, so hard to capture with words. We are so tired, bruised and many badly injured. Medics have counted 270 injuries so far. Lots due to the impact of rubber bullets, but most from the sharp metal and plastic shrapnel shot from the stun and concussion grenades whose explosions punctuate the spring symphony of birdsong. Similar grenades killed 21 year old ecological activist Remi Fraise during protests against an agro industrial dam in 2014.
The zad’s welcome and information centre, still dominated by a huge hand painted map of the zone, has been transformed into a field hospital. Local doctors have come in solidarity working with action medic crews, volunteer acupuncturists and healers of all sorts and the comrades ambulance is parked outside. The police have even delayed ambulances leaving the zone with injured people in them, and when its the gendarmerie that evacuates seriously injured protesters from the area sometimes they have been abandoning them in the street far from the hospital or in one case in front of a psychiatric clinic.
The thousands of acts of solidarity have been a life line for us, including sabotaged French consulate parkings in Munich to local pensioners bringing chocolate bars, musicians sending in songs they composed to demonstrations by Zapatistas in Chiapas, banners in front of French embassies everywhere – from Dehli to New York, a giant message carved in the sand of a New Zealand beach and even scuba divers with an underwater banner. Here on the zone three activist field kitchens have come to feed us, architects have written a column deploring the destruction of unique forms of habitat signed by 50,000 people and locals have been offering storage for the safe keeping of our belongings.
A true culture of resistance has evolved in parallel with the zad over the years. Not many people are psychologically or physically prepared to fight on the barricades, but thousands are ready to give material support in all its forms and this is the foundation of any struggle that wants to win. It means opening up to those who might be different, those that might not have the same revolutionary analysis as us, those who some put in their box named ‘reformist’, but this is what building a composition is all about, it is how we weave a true ecology of resistance. As a banner reads on one of the squatted farmhouses here, Pas de barricadieres sans cuisiniers “There are no (female) barricaders without (male) cooks.”
Today has been one of the calmest since the start of the operation, and it felt like the springtime was really flowering, so we opened all the doors and windows of house letting the spring air push away the toxic fumes of tear gas that still linger on our clothes. It feels like there is a momentary lull. For the first time since the evictions, our collective all ate together, sitting in the sun at a long table surrounded by two dozen friends from across the world come to support us. I hear the buzzing of a bee trying to find nectar and look up into the sky, its not a bee at all, but the police drone, come to film us sharing food, it hovers for hours. In the end this is the greatest crime we have committed on the zad, that of building the commons, sharing worlds together and deserting the pathology of individualism.
Two years before the abandonment of the airport project the movement declared in a text entitled The Six Points for the Zad: Because there will be no Airport, that we would, via an entity that emerged from the movement , collectively look after these lands that we were saving from certain death by concrete. A few months before the abandonment the form that this entity took was the Assembly of Usages. Soon after the airport was cancelled, we entered into negotiations with the state (via the prefet. Nicole Klein, who represents the state in the department) following a complicated week of pre-negotiations, where we were forced to open up one of the roads which had had cabins built on it since the attempted evictions of 2012. It seemed that the flow of traffic through the zone was the state’s way of telling the public that law and order had returned on the zone. (see the text Zad Will Survive for a view of this complicated period).
A united delegation of 11 people made up from the NGOs, farmers, naturalists and occupiers of the zone attended the negotiations and did not flinch from the demand to set up a collective legal land structure, rather than return these lands to private property and agro-business as usual. In the 1980s a similar legal structure was put in place following the victory of a mass movement against the expansion of a military base on the plateau of the Larzac in Southern France. With this precedent in mind we provided a legally solid document for a global land contract, but it was ignored, no legal grounds were given, the refusal was entirely political. Three days later the evictions began.
The battle lines were made clear, it was not about bringing ‘law and order’ back to the zone, but a battle between private property, and those who share worlds of capitalism against the commons. The battle of the zad is a battle for the future, one that we cannot lose.
Day 1: Monday 9th April—everything begins in the dark.
The telephone rings, it’s 3.20am, it’s still dark outside, a breathless voice says two simple words, “It’s begun!” and hangs up. Everyone knows what to do, some run to offices filled with computers, others to the barricades, some to the pirate radio (Radio Klaxon, which happens to squat the airwaves of Vinci motorway radio, 107,7, the construction company that was going to build and run the airport) others start their medics shift. Hundreds of police vans are taking over the two main roads that pass through the zone.
Fighting on one of the lanes manages to stop the cops moving further west. But elsewhere the bulldozers smash their way through some of the most beautiful cabins made of adobe and the wastes of the world that rose out of the the mud in the east of the zone, they destroy the Lama Sacrée with its stunning wooden watch tower, permaculture gardens and green houses are flattened and they rip gashes in the forest. A large mobile anti riot wall is erected by the police in the lane that stretches east to west, a technique that works in cities but in rural riots it’s useless and people spend all morning hassling them from every angle. Despite gas and stun grenades we hold our ground. Journalists are blocked for a while from entering, the police stating that they will provide their own footage (free of copyrights!). The “press group” gives them directions so that they manage to cross the fields and the pictures dominate the morning news.
There are over a dozen of us are facing a line of hundreds of robocops at the other end of the field. One of us, masked up and dressed in regulation black kway is holding a golf club. He kneels down and places a golf T in the wet grass. He pulls a golf ball out of a big supermarket bag and serenely places it in the T. He takes a swipe, the ball bounces off the riot shields. He takes out another ball and another and another.
In the afternoon the cops and bailiffs arrive at the 100 noms, an off grid small holding with sheep, chickens, veg plots, and beautiful housing including a cabin built by a young deserting architect which resembles a giant knights helmet made with geodesic plates of steel. The occupiers, who have built this place up from nothing over 5 years are given 10 minutes to leave by the bailiff. Several hundred people turn up to resist, many from ‘the camp of the white haired ones’ which has brought together the pensioners and elders, who have called it a camp for “the youth of all ages” and have been one of the backbones of this long struggle. There must be nearly 200 of us, at the 100 noms, this time no one is masked up. A massive block of robocops is coming up the path, some of us climb on the roof of the newly built sheep barn, others form a line of bodies pressed hard against the riot shields, we are peasants and activists, occupiers and visitors, young and old and they beat us, burn our skin with their pepper spray and push us out of the fields.
We reply with a joyful hail of mud that covers their visors and shields. The people on the roof are brought down by the specialists climbers and the bulldozer does its job. A few minutes later as one of their huge demolition machines gets stuck in the mud, a friend shouts ironically to the crowd: “come on let’s go and give it hand and push it out!”, Hundreds approach, trails of gas take over the blue sky, dozens of canisters rain down on the wetlands, many falling into the ponds which begin to bubble with their toxic heat. I try to console Manu whose home, a tall skinny wooden cabin with a climbing wall on its side, has just been flattened, my hugs cannot stop his sobs. Our eyes are red with tears of grief and gas.
In the logic of the state, the 100 Noms ticked many of their fantasy boxes of those wanting to be legalised, ‘the good zadists’. It was a well functioning small holding, producing meat and vegetables and where the sheep were more legal than its inhabitants. It was a project that had the support of many of the locals. Its destruction lit a spark that brought many of those in the movement who had felt a bit more distant from the zad recently back into the fold of the resistance. Of course its no less disgusting than the flattening of all the other homes and cabins, but the battle here is as much on the symbolic terrain as in the bocage and it seems to be a strategic blunder to destroy the 100 Noms.
The live twitter videos from the attack are watched by tens of thousands, news of the evictions spreads and a shock wave ripples through France. Actions begin to erupt in over 100 places, some town halls are occupied, the huge Millau bridge over 1000 km away is blockaded as is the weapon factory that makes the grenades in Western Brittanny.
The demolition continues till late, but the barricades grow faster at night, and we count the wounded.
Day 2: Tuesday 10th April—between a barricade and a tank.
It all begins again before sun rise, the communication system on the zone with its hundreds of walkie talkies, old style truck drivers cb’s and pirate radio station calls us to go and defend the Vraie Rouge collective, which is next to the the zad’s largest vegetable garden and medicinal herb project. We arrive through the fields to find one of the armoured cars pushed up against the barricade, we stand firm the barricade between us and the APC. We prepare paint bombs to try and cover the APC’s windows with.
Then the tear gas begins to rain amongst the salad and spinach plants. A friend finds a terrified journalist cowering in one of the cabins, she writes for the right wing Figaro newspaper and is a bit out of place with her red handbag. “What’s that noise??” she asks, trembling, “the stun grenades” he replies. “But why aren’t you counter attacking?” she says, “where are your pétanque balls covered in razor blades?” Our friend laughs despite the gas poisoning his lungs, “we never had such things, it was a right wing media invention, and it’s impossible anyway, no one can weld razor blades onto a pétanque ball!”
There is so much gas, we can no longer see beyond our stinging running noses. The police are being pressurised simultaneously from the other side of the road by a large militant crowd with gas masks, make shift shields, stones, slingshots and tennis rackets to return the grenades. They are playing hide and seek from behind the trees. The armoured car begins to push the barricade, some of us climb onto the roof of the two story wooden cabin, others try to retreat without crushing the beautiful vegetable plot. It's over, the end of another collective living space on the zone. Then we hear a roar from the other side of the barricade. Dozens of figures emerge from the forest, molotov cocktails fly, one hits the APC, flames rise from the amour and the wild roar transforms itself into a cry of pure joy. The APC begins to back off as do the police. The Vraie Rouge will live one more day it seems, thanks to diversity of tactics.
In 2012 when we managed to stop the first eviction attempts of the zone, this was what gave us an advantage. Over the 50 years that the movement against the airport lasted, it used everything from petitions to hunger strikes, legal challenges to sabotage, riots to citizens ecological inventories of the zone, defensive tree houses to flying rocks, tractor blockades to clown armies. Its secret weapon was the respect we had for each others’ tactics and an incredible ability to try and not condemn each other. Pacifist Pensioners and black bloc worked together in a way that I had never seen before, which made criminalising the movement much more complicated for the government. Movements win when they have the richest most colourful palette of tactics at their disposal and they are ready to use every one of them at the right time and place.
In a woodland dip to the east of the zone, the Cheverie, is still resisting. A huge high cabin made from different types of swirling coloured clay – brown, grey, ochre and white – punctuated by mosaics and carved spiders, constructed by hundreds of hands, is about to be crushed. Hundreds of gendarmes surround it, one of them seems to have a machine gun strapped to his back. From the roof someone uses a traffic cone as a megaphone: “we are defending life and the living.” When the cabin is finally brought down a minor miracle occurs, none of the dozens of windows is broken, which will make it much easier to rebuild.
At the Fosses Noires, the brewery has been turned into a canteen, but the tear gas is falling on the pots, pans and piles of donated vegetables. After lunch, a second press conference takes place, yesterday the first one had brought dozens of TV cameras and microphones from radios across the country, 8 people from all the composition of the movement faced the cameras, their dignified anger was so powerful, so palpable, many of us shed tears listening.
Today there are 30 inhabitants in front of the cameras, it is those that have an agricultural and craft projects running on the zone, the tanner is there as is the cheese maker, the potter and market gardeners, cow herders and leather workers. They explain how over the last weeks of negotiations with the state, they handed over documents to develop a collective project within a legal nonprofit association that had been set up. They show that on this bocage to think ecologically is to realise that all the projects are interdependent, rotating the fields between folk, sharing tools and and everyone helping out on each others' projects when needed. To divide the zad into individual separate units makes no sense.
But the words are not as strong as the striking image of Sarah, our young shepherdess who like a modern day madonna holds a dead black lamb on her lap. She explains how her flock was legalised already and that this one died from stress when it was moved from the 100 Noms farm to avoid the evictions. Her grey eyes pierce the camera lenses, “they choose violence, they choose to destroy what we build, they choose to break off the dialogue with us.” Whilem a young farmer, whose milk herd squats fields to the west, raises his trembling voice, “ If there is no collective agriculture then you get what’s already happening in the countryside – individualism: eat up your neighbours farm land, be more and more alone with a bigger and bigger farm,” he takes a deep breath, “the isolation is pushing farmers to commit suicide, we are more and more alone on our farms faced with increasing difficulties. On the zad we hold a vision of farming for all, not just for us.”
The zad makes a call for a mass picnic the following day. Vincent. one of the supporting farmers from the region, a member of COPAIN 44, a network of rebel farmers whose tractors have become one of our most iconic and useful tools of resistance, sighs, “the government has broken any possibility of dialogue now, they have forced us to respond with a struggle for power.”
Between the tall poles that hold the breweries’ hop plants a long banner is raised, “Nicole Klein radicalised me.”
Day 3: Wednesday 11th April—gassing a picnic.
We are woken as normal by the explosions of gendarmes' grenades, fighting continues near the D281 road. A small group is trying to stop the police lining up in a field, there aren’t many of us, it feels hopeless, then out of the morning mist comes a tractor, its driver wears a balaclava, in the front bucket – a tonne of stones. He drops them in a pile just where we are standing, puts the tractor in reverse and disappears back into the mist.
In the next door field a towering guy wearing a balaclava and dressed in a full monk's habit throws a bucket of water over a handful of robocops – “I baptise you in the name of the zad”, he bellows. A cloud of pepper spray engulfs him, but one the gendarmes slips in the mud and drop his truncheon, at the speed of light the monk grabs it and runs off, wielding his rebel relic in the air. The police megaphone calls out “You must return the state’s property. Return it now!”
At lunch time, over a thousand people turn up to share a picnic in the fields. Over thirty tractors have come, some from far, despite the fact that its one of the busiest seasons for the farmers, they encircle the large Rouge et Noir collective vegetable garden, now littered with hundreds of toxic plastic tear gas canisters. “The state crossed the red line when they destroyed the 100 Noms” one of them says.
The crowd of all ages walk through the barricades and debris of yesterday’s battle that litter the country lanes. The atmosphere is festive, a samba band with pink masks leads us into the field beside the Lama Sacrée. A long line of black clad police stretches across the spring green pasture. The samba band approach, then all hell lets loose: gas canisters shower down, dozens of stun grenades are thrown into the peaceful crowd, panic ensues, people retreat across the hedgerows.
The houses of la Boite Noire, Dalle à Caca, Jesse James and la Gaité fall in the east. Simultaneously they attack la Grée, the large rambling grafitti covered farm at the centre of the zone that has an unconditional welcome policy. There is a car repair workshop, climbing wall and the rap studio and many folk escaping the misery of street life and addictions end up living there together. Farmers’ tractors are surrounding the building, a barricade made from the carcasses of cars, is set alight. But the tear gas is too strong and the tractors are forced to back off.
Out of the mist of gas come black lumbering troops, they charge across the fields. The whole zone is split in two by a seemingly endless lines of robocops stretching east to west. The crowd is dispersed, people are coughing up their lungs, they are furious. It began as a picnic, now it’s a war zone again. The gas clouds cling to the pasture, frightened cows huddle together in a corner of a tiny field. The medic post at the Fosses Noires has to move away to the Gourbi, but then the gas catches up with it there too and it moves to La Rolandière just in time before the police arrive to smash one of the zone’s most symbolic sites, the Gourbi.
In the very centre of the zad the Gourbi is where the weekly assembly of occupiers is held and Friday’s No-market, a place where excess produce is distributed with no fixed price but by donation only. Initially there was a stone farm house there, inhabited by an old couple who were evicted in 2012 and their home destroyed for the airport project. Then a wooden hut was built in its place, but its ramshackle pallet sides soon needed restoring and so a brand new state of the art cabin-like meeting house was built over 2015. But one night someone sneaked into this beautiful meeting house and set it alight.
But Gourbi was to rise from the ashes, and as an ironic response to the governments 2016 local consultation about the airport project, we held an all night building party whilst the results came through (55 per cent for building the new airport). To the sound of a wild one man accordion band doing kitsch covers of Queen and other trashy pop songs, hundreds of people stuffed the clay of the wetlands into a huge geodesic metal dome structure to build our new round meeting house. It was made of steel and mud to resist arson, but today the bulldozer crushed it with a single swipe of its blade. Worlds away in the metropolis, the Minister of Interior, Gérard Collomb, tells parliament “We want to avoid all violence in this country, this is what we are doing at Notre-Dame-des-Landes.”
By sunset the government claims to have evicted 13 more living spaces, bringing the total to 29 since Monday. The prime minister refuses to pause the operations, and the medic team share horrific photos of some of the 60 injuries since Monday, including 3 journalists. Meanwhile the cops release their figures: 32 injuries, but it turns out most are from the mis use of their own weapons. Solidarity actions pour in from thousands, including squatters in Iceland, farmers in Lebanon and eco builders in Columbia. In Paris, sex workers send in kinky zad themed S and M photos and students occupy the EHSS elite social science school in solidarity. That afternoon electricity is cut across a large part of the zone and many of our neighbors homes outside of the zad. It is a tactic reminiscent of collective punishment used during military occupations. At night the gentle lulling croak of mating frogs in the marches mixes with the hum of back up electric generators. Four hundred of us meet at the Wardine, in the old concrete cow shed covered in bright murals, we share stories, dogs bark, tempers fray.
Day 4: Thursday 12th April—are they ready to kill ?
The day begins with some good news on radio klaxon. An affinity group action just shut down the motorway that passes near the zad. Emerging from the bushes they flowed down onto the tarmac armed with tyres, fluorescent jackets and lighters. Within seconds a burning wall blocked the flow of commuters to Nantes. The group disappeared just as quickly as they materialised, melting back into the hedgerows. The more we fight for this land, the more we become the bocage and the harder it is to find us. Every day more and more people converge here, many for the first time in their lives.The art of the barricade continues across the zone, including one topped with an old red boat. Some of our most useful barricades are mobile, in the form of tractors, dozens of COPAIN 44’s machines take over the main cross roads of the zone.
Following an attempt by friendly lawyers to prove that the eviction of the 100 noms was illegal, the prefect is forced to appear in court in Nantes, but the case is adjourned. The indefatigable zad press group sends out a new communique entitled, After 3 days of evictions are they ready to kill because they don’t want a collective ? Clashes continues across the bocage as Macron take to the TV screens for a national statement about his policies. A social movement is rising against him, with university occupations, supermarket, rail workers and Air France on strike – he has to respond. The mise-en-scène is bizarre, he sits in a primary school class room. He speaks about the zad for a little over a minute, “republican order must be returned” he says, and “everything that was to be evacuated has already been evacuated”.
As he speaks a hundred and fifty concussion grenades are launched in less than half an hour in the Lama Sacrée field, the explosions echo across the bocage, bursting the ear drums of those nearby and raising the anxiety levels of those within hearing distance, which on this flat landscape of the zad, is all of us. The league of Human Rights demands that all parties come back to the table. A call is sent for people to converge on the Zone on Sunday: “ The time has come to find ourselves together, to say that the zad must live, to dress our wounds and re build ourselves.”
We walk home to la Rolandière, with its ship shaped library attached to the lighthouse, built where they wanted to build the airport control tower. The sun is setting, 20m high up on the lighthouse’s balcony a lone figure is playing a trumpet, fluid sumptous jazz floats across the forest. It is one of those moments when you remember why you live here.
That night under a clear constellation filled sky, the Assembly of Usages meets. We sit on wooden hand made bleechers under Le hangar de l’avenir (The Barn of the future). This cathedral like barn was built by over 80 traditional carpenters in 2016 using mostly hand tools, it is ornamented with snakes and salamanders carved into the oak beams. There are several hundred of us at the assembly, one of the peasants whose tractor is blocking the crossroads reads out a series of texts messages he has received from the préfete who is trying to negotiate with COPAIN 44. “Yesterday the Prime minister said it was war, today the president says its peace, therefore it’s all over.” It’s clear that she’s feeling that the situation has become much more complicated than predicted. A deal is made, move your tractors she writes, and I promise that by 10pm I will announce to Ouest France, the regional news paper, that it is the end of operations by the Gendarmes.
The meeting continues, we wait for the article to appear on the newspaper’s web site. I reload my phone endlessly waiting for the site to update. Suddenly it does, but it’s just a story about rock legend Johnny Hallyday, was it all a bluff ? Then it arrives, half an hour late. A cheer rises from the tired voices. At home we try to party a little, at least we might get a lie in tomorrow morning, it seems that it’s over for the time being?
Day 5: Friday 13th April—utopias with teeth.
I’m half awake, there is a rumble of vehicles on the road… At first I think it’s tractors, then I see the lights, blue and flashing, van after van of cops passing. We leap out of bed and run to the top of the lighthouse, the entire road is filled with vans as far as the eye can see. The huge barricade at the crossroads, which the tractors left last night following the préfete’s announcement, is on fire, a plume of black smoke frames the the orange dawn. The familiar pop of tear gas canisters being fired is accompanied by the crunching sounds of barricades being pushed by the APC. Radio Klaxon says they have kettled la Grée and are searching it, the Wardine camping is also encircled and a hundred and fifty cops are heading towards the Rosier.
The Lascar barricade, made of several burnt cars, with a huge metal doorway and a trench that is several meters wide, is being defended by nearly 100 of us. The forest is wrapped in toxic mist, ghostly rebel silhouette run from tree to tree, stones are aimed at the robocops with catapults that were made by Andre, an 83 year old who set up a production line for us during the eviction threats of 2016, his team churned out 1000. The cops throw stun grenades blindly from the fields into the forest, one explodes just above my head, caught in the tree it rips the bark into smithereens. Is this what they call the end of operations ?
A communiqué from the gendarmerie explains that they are clearing the roads and are not doing any expulsions or knocking down any squats, but that they are looking to arrest people who fired a distress rocket at their helicopter. At la Grée they take away two people but not for that charge. The gas pushes everyone back from the Lascar’s barricade and the grinders come out to cut the metal gateway into pieces. Despite the rising clouds of tear gas, people on the roof of the brand new Ambazada, a building that will host folk from intergalactic struggles, manage to sing some of our re purposed folk songs, recount the history of the struggle of the zad.
Then a moment of joy, one of the armoured cars attacking the Lascar tips into a ditch and has to be pulled out by the other one. The mud of this wetlands has always been our ally, its wetness our friend. When they retreat a banner is put up, “Cheap APC driving license available here.” Our other accomplice is humour of course, even in what feels like a war zone, with tarmac scorched, broken glass and rubble everywhere, being able to laugh feeds our rage. The police retreat again and the barricade grows back out of its ruins, bigger and stronger than ever. We notice that where the APC fell into the ditch is now a huge deep hole at exactly the place where the drain for the Ambazada was going to be dug, no need for digging, just put the plants in it to make our grey water reed bed. That’s what you call radical permaculture, least effort for maximum gain.
At midday the préfete begins her Press conference in Nantes. She confirms last nights message – evictions are over – and in a dramatic gesture, flourishes a page of A4 paper towards the cameras. “It’s a simplified form” she tells the press, “so that those who wish can declare their projects as quickly as possible…The deadline is the 23rd of April” she continues “ all we are asking is that they declare their names, what agricultural project they wish to develop and to tell us what plot of land they wish to work on, so that the state can process them.” She also confirms that it was Macron who was running the operation not the prime minister or interior minister, it was he who decided to stop the expulsions. “I am holding out my hand” she says, and asks for negotiations to re start on Monday, “I am giving the zadists a last chance.” Sitting next to her General Lizurey in charge of the Gendarme’s operations says that the number of zadists on the zone has increased from 250 to 700.
I walk through the Rohanne forest to The Barn of the Future, I breathe in the forest air, the sweet pine, the musty damp smell of mushrooms. The barn has returned to its normal use as a saw mill and carpentry workshop for the zad. It is the base of the Abracadabois collective that looks after the forests and hedgerows, harvesting fire wood and building timber and setting up skill shares to learn carpentry, forest biology, wood carving, chain saw use and learning about other ways of inhabiting forests inspired by indigenous practices from past and present. The saw mill is planking the logs, twenty carpenters are busy preparing frames for a new building, a new assembly and no-market hall for the Gourbi, that we aim to put up on Sunday during the mass action.
This morning I was enveloped in tear gas and now I’m watching some of the same barricaders without their gas masks making a barn using the techniques that have been used for millennia. It is somehow healing to watch the attentive work. It is this capacity to fight and build, to block capitalism and to construct other forms of life which gives the zad its strength. It is also another reason the state wants to destroy us, they can deal with nice clean alternative eco projects, easy to buy off and recuperate into new forms of green capitalism. But when those who have a systemic critique are also providing material examples of other ways of being, it becomes dangerous. The resistance and creativity, the no and the yes, are the twin strands of DNA of this territory, split one from the other and the zad dies. It becomes another ecovillage or Transition Town, alternatives without teeth.
Yet a second helicopter is flying above the barn, this time with Prime Minister Edouard Philippe and the minister of interior inside, they are getting a private birds eye tour of the zad. They have come to congratulate the troops for their hard work. As he shakes hands with the gendarmes Phillippe tells the press that “the state will not accept any reconstruction or reoccupation.” He is referring to the action planned on Sunday, “Any place that tries such an action will exclude itself from any possible regularisation…. and will thus put themselves under judicial proceedings.” Once again the threat of sorting the good zadists from the bad. The carpenters work late into the night.
Day 6: Saturday 14th April—we won’t forget our scars.
Bang, another wake up call, the APCs and dozens of vans pass by at the speed of a TGV train, bulldoze the barricades away on the D81 road again, and continue South, probably to Nantes where striking workers are holding a demonstration followed by one against the eviction of the zad.
Barricades are cleared at the Lama Fachée at the same time, and a strange new gas is spotted, dark yellow. It makes people throw up, sows mental confusion and a loss of all spatial and temporal senses. Behind one of the barricades, a trio of action medics are keeping an eye on the adjoining woodland where grenades are exploding, “ It’s been war wounds here,” they explain “skin and nerves hit by shrapnel, open gashes, eardrums damaged, necrosis and bone fractures.” Some folk have over 70 pieces of shrapnel in their limbs, it takes hours every day to pull them out and clean them, some have gone 3cms deep into the skin. Many of the new comers on the zone throw themselves into picking up the thousands of gas canisters that litter the fields, placing them in big bags for everyone to see in the “camp of the white haired ones.” Each canister costs 110 euros.
The demonstration in Nantes is big, 10,000 people. The 1000 riot police on duty attack it and gas people drinking on the café terraces.
The sun set is dark red this evening. The wood working tools and machines are cleared aside, the Barn of the Future becomes a meeting hall again for the Assembly of Usages. The fresh smell of saw dust perfumes the discussions about whether we should go to back to the negotiations on Monday. The response is no, not yet.
Day 7: Sunday 15th April—the human millipede realises a dream.
It’s the big day, thousands of people from all over the country are converging on the zone for the day of mass action. The troops have cut off a third of the zad, they line the lanes for kilometers, cutting off access to any of the part of the zone where homes had been destroyed last week. This includes the Gourbi where we hoped to bring the new building too. All road access to the zad are blocked off by the gendarmes, they tell people to go home because they won’t be able to reach the demonstration. But more than ten thousand of them disobey, park their cars and coaches in the nearby villages and trek for over an hour across the bocage. The details of the new building are still being finished, as the crowds arrive, such as a large ‘fuck you’ finger and the face of a fox that are being carved.
Through the pirate radio, text messages and word of mouth, we tell people to converge on Bellevue, the big farm in the west and wait for a decision about what we will do. 50 of us meet in a field in an emergency meeting, the farmers don’t want to risk their tractors, we don’t want to have a gesture that feels too symbolic, once again the collective intelligence comes to the fore and we come up with a plan B. The building will be erected as close to the front as possible without forcing the police line, there are too many families here to risk being gassed.Simultaneously we will ask people to unearth the staffs and sticks that had been planted in the ground in October 2016 when the government told us they were coming to evict. It was a ritual disguised as a demonstration, 40,000 people answered the call, planted their stick into the ground and made a pledge to return to get them if the government came back to evict the zone for the airport. The ritual magic worked, that time the government stood down. But now they were back with a vengeance and the moment has come.
Whilst people pulled the deeply charged sticks out of the clay, others on lane behind carried the huge wooden frames, planks and beams of the new building to the field between between the Wardine and the Ambazada. It takes a few hours to put the carpentry back together and raise the structure up, meanwhile thousands of people push their sticks back into the ground creating a huge circular pallisade around it. In the next door field the police start to tear gas and stun grenaded hundreds of people, some had been reading poems to the cops many held their hands in the air in a gesture of peace. Families hold their ground next to masked up barricaders.
Meanwhile, a handful of people decide as a kind of game, to take the campanille, the tower like addition of the new building, through the forest to the east.
A crowd of hundreds follows, we cross the road next to the cops who charge but are forced back by the mass of bodies, we try to get as near to the Gourbi as possible. The wind is on our side and blows the teargas back into the cops lines. But the playful act of defiance ends when its clear that we can’t get anywhere near the Gourbi, the police lines are too thick. However, the pleasure of running through forests and fields carrying part of a wooden building is clearly addictive. A few hours later, once the sun has gone down and the cops have left, a new plot is hatched. Why don’t we move the whole building, one and a half tonnes of it, 3kms across the fields, in the dark – to the Gourbi !
Despite the general state of tiredness that fills our bodies, we manage a huge heave, 150 of us lift up the structure. A mass of rubber booted feet walk in unison, it feels like a strange chimera shuffling across the bocage, half human half millipede. One of the carpenters directs the operation via megaphone, “a bit to the left ! slow down ! watch that tree branch !” Lit by the beams of dozens of head torches the building seems to float above the prairies, we are plunged into a space between fabulous dream and a scene from an epic film. Someone sits on the very top of the building pushing up the electricity and phone cables so we can pass under them. This is what we call the magic of the zad, the belief that anything is possible when we do it together.
We half expect to see the police helicopter, to feel its spotlight pierce the night, but nothing. The closer we get to the Gourbi the louder the chants: “on est plus chaud, plus chaud, plus chaud que le lumbago” (we are much hotter, much hotter than lumbago). When we arrive, fireworks shoot up into the darkness, a bright red distress flare illuminates the scene. We set the building next to the pilled up ruins of the dome. We light a bonfire, Gourbi has risen again. Whilst we were moving our house, Macron was being interviewed live on TV, sitting in a black and gold marble hall the Eiffel tower as monumental backdrop. He declares that airport had been abandoned as part of the “ecological priorities of the government” and that therefore our anger is no longer legitimate. Rather than an alternative society, the zad was “a project of chaos… illegally occupying public lands” he tells the nation.
“We have restored republican order” he declares, at least four times. We must sign individual forms before the 23rd of April or “everything that should be evicted will be evicted” he says. Macron ends with a ridiculous analogy: the zad is as if someone came into your living room to propose an alternative and squatted your sofa. Ridiculous and wrong, none of the land here belongs to private individuals, it all still belongs to multinational airport builders Vinci and the state. But his statement was a new ultimatum, a declaration of total war against all collective forms of life. We return home to the news, but it cannot blunt the memories of this improbable night.
Day 8: Monday 16th April—we will always re-surge, return, reclaim.
There are a half a dozen bodies perched like birds on the rafters of the new Gourbi, one plays a drum, a couple kiss, the green prairies below burst with yellow dandelions. We hear the rumble of APCs, it’s obvious they are coming straight here. The glint of riot visors shimmer in the sunlight, a column is moving towards us. A few flash bangs later and those on the roof are brought down by police climbers. The pillars of the building are cut by a chainsaw and the APC drives into it. Like the skeleton of a dying beast it crumbles to the ground. The police leave under a hail of stones, people sort out the broken beams. “Bastards !” a friend points to a stump of cut timber, “they sawed off the big fuck you finger and took it back to the barracks as a trophy !”
The Gendarmerie release their drone footage of the destruction on social networks. They need to show some success in their operation, they too are getting tired of this infernal cycle of destruction and reconstruction. A communication from a group called “Gendarmes and Citizens” denounces the fact that they are feeling “bogged down” and like “cannon fodder” faced with “rural guerrillas”. They deplore the “political paralysis” of the government who are on the one hand communicating with a “warlike tone” but are not following it up with effective orders on the ground. “Why are we not being given orders to arrest everyone in the squats?” they complain. So far there have been suprisingly few arrests, we wonder if they will just come back later, raid our homes, pick us off one by one, when things are quieter?
There is a new moon above tonight’s Assembly of Usages. Unsurprisingly the debates are heated, we have to decide to re start negotiations or not. The question has never been negotiate or fight, we always knew that we had to do both, but after so many days of attacks it’s not easy to accept to go back to the table. In the end we decide that we can meet the préfete, not to negotiate the base issues, but make demands for the continuation of talks, one of which is take the troops off the zone. “You don’t negotiate with a gun to your head”, one of the locals says, but we know that if we refuse to meet, Macron’s machine could return and destroy everything that is left, risking lives and in the end depriving us of this territory where we found each other.
An older friend of mine, someone who experienced the uprisings of ’68, writes to me. His letter just says, “the zad will never end, it will simply change shape.” And he is right. This attachment we have to this territory where we have been able shake our dependence to the economy and the state, is something that brings us together, however disparate our political perspectives. Our love for this huge playground which inspires us to organise together, this deep desire for the wetlands that lubricates our imaginings, these are not abstractions but feelings that are deeply anchored to our experience of this bocage and all our experiments that emerge from it. It is a place that compels us to recompose, to renew, to have the courage to put our political ideas into question, to always push ourselves further than what we thought was possible, to open ourselves up beyond a radical ghetto or walled off utopia.
Despite our barricades and the diversity of disobedience, if the state really wants to eradicate the whole of the zad, they can. Everyone would have lost their homes, workshops, fields, tools and we would probably find ourselves banned from returning to the region (a common judicial punishment in France). Scattered across the country without a place that enables us to grow roots together, we would loose all our strength. We know that changing shape is painful, but like a chameleon changes colours, we need to find a way protect this laboratory and camouflage its revolutionary potentialities from the eyes of the state. If we want to stay we need to find a compromise whilst refusing to let go of the commons.
Day 14: Sunday 22nd April—the art of changing shape.
It’s a week later. Over breakfast, Paul tells me about last night’s adventures. “It felt like we were robbing a bank. So organised, dressed in black, head lamps, maps, scouts etc. Except all we were doing was evacuating the bee hives from the destroyed homes and gardens, getting them off site.” he smiles “we had to carry them full of bees across the hedgerows behind police lines.”
The days have calmed down. Less cops on the zone, more bird song than explosions. The cycle of barricade growing and then being smashed slows down, partly because on the main roads the police bring in huge skips to take the materials away. In the smaller lanes barricades remain.
The restart of the negotiations on Wednesday went badly, nothing shifted, despite the presence of ex TV personality Nicolas Hulot, now Minister of Ecological Transition, in charge of the zad case since Marcron’s election. He is flown in specially to Nantes in the presidential jet. Following the meeting with us, he gives a press conference in the palatial hall of the Prefecture. The government’s hard line is held, the rights of property and the market reign, there will be no global or collective contract for the land, we have to give individual names and land plots by the 23rd or face evictions. In a rhetorical floury he ends, “ecology is not anarchy.”
Not surprising for a man whose ‘ecology’ involves owning six cars, signing permits for oil exploration and supporting the nuclear dump at Bure. Hulot is simply the ‘eco’ mask for Macron’s “make the planet great again” form of authoritarian neoliberal green capitalism. But his statement shows Hulot’s absolute ignorance of the history of both ecological and anarchist thought. Many of the first theoreticians of ecological thinking, were anarchists. Élisée Reclus, world famous geographer and poet, whose beautiful idea that humans are simply “nature becoming aware of herself,” fought on the barricades of the 1871 Paris Commune. 19th century geographer Peter Kropotkin, spent many years in jail and exile for his politics, but was renowned in scientific circles as an early champion of the idea that evolution is not all a competitive war of “red tooth and claw” but instead involves a cooperation, what he termed Mutual Aid. From the 1950s onwards, US political philosopher Murray Bookchin (now best known for the influence he has on the Kurds to build a stateless form of Municipal Confederalism, taking place in the autonomous territory of Rojova – Northern Syria) brought ecology and anarchy together.
At the heart of his Social Ecology is the idea that humans dominate and destroy nature because we dominate ourselves. To avert ecological collapse we had to get rid of all hierarchies – man over woman, old over young, white over black, rich over poor. According to Bookchin, our greatest lesson to gain from the natural world was that we had let go of the idea of difference, and reclaim the concept held by many small scale organic societies, of unity in diversity. Diversity being the basic force of all bio-systems. He envisioned a world that would be neither communist nor capitalist, but what he called “Communalist”. “The effort to restore the ecological principle of unity in diversity,” he wrote, “has become a social effort in its own right – a revolutionary effort that must rearrange sensibility in order to rearrange the real world.” For him the question of society, to reframe Rosa Luxembourg’s: “Socialism or barbarism” – was: “Anarchism or extinction.”
When we truly inhabit an eco system it becomes obvious that life has no control centre, no heirachy, no chiefs or bosses, no governments or presidents. Every form of life is a self organising form of commons – deeply connected and interdependent, always changing, always embedded and entangled – from the cells in your fingers to worms in your the garden, from the trees in the forest of Rohanne to the bacteria in your gut. As biologist and cultural theorist Andreas Weber says, all life forms “are continuously mediating relationships among each other – relationships that have a material side, but also always embody meaning, a sense of living and the notion of belonging to a place.” The more we observe the living world in all its complexity the more we are able to understand how to become commoners, how to truly inhabit a place and see that the separation between the individual and the whole is a fiction.
“In the ecological commons” writes Weber “a multitude of different individuals and diverse species stand in various relationships to one another – competition and cooperation, partnership and predatory hostility, productivity and destruction. All those relations, however, follow one higher principle: Only behaviour that allows for the productivity of the whole ecosystem over the long term and that does not interrupt its capacities of self-production, will survive and expand. The individual is able to realise itself only if the whole can realise itself. Ecological freedom obeys this basic necessity.”
And so to be really free is not to be an individual able to operate free from constraints, but to be tied to beneficial relationships with people and habitats, relationships that feed you materially and psychologically. Without a tie to your food – you starve, without the tie to lovers – you sadden. We are free because we are linked. Freedom is not breaking our chains but turning them into living roots and veins that connect, share, flow together and enable us to change and evolve in common.
Since the abandonment of the Airport, changing together on the zad has been a very painful process. On the zad often it is a fight between those of us who try to read the terrain and invent something new that is messy and hybrid yet fits the situation we are in and those of us who want to keep a pure radical position, more based on uprooted ideas and ideology than the complexity of the present moment, the here and now, the forces we hold and don’t. In 1968 Bookchin asked “When will we begin to learn from what is being born instead of what is dying?” It is a question still just as relevant today on the zad. Things have been moving so fast. After Hulot’s ultimatum, a ministerial announcement suggests that the Prime minister and minister of interior are on a war footing, they are prepared to go for it, evict the whole zone on Monday’s deadline, the 23rd.
During the re start of negotiations on Wednesday a technical meeting between our delegation and the bureaucrats, who look at the case from a purely land and agriculture question, had been set for two days later, Friday 20th. Once again we are on a knife edge, this could be the last moment of negotiation before a full scale attack, an attack that most of us who live on the zone know we can’t win against, however big our barricades.
The Assembly of Usages makes a huge strategic gamble, it's a paradigm shift in tactics. We decide to hand in the forms at the Friday meeting, but in a modified way, to show that yes we can fit the state’s square boxes of individual projects if they want, but that on the bocage nothing can be separated out, everything is interdependent. Whilst at the same time making a call out for people to come and be ready to defend on the territory from Monday onwards if the state attacks. It's the logic of hacking, take what’s there, re-purpose it, change its use.
Then one of the most unexpected types of zad magic takes place, an office of form filing is set up in the zad’s library, and for 24 hours the building becomes a disturbed ants nest, dozens and dozens of people are running around carrying white pages of paper, writing on computers, having meetings together, looking at maps of the zone, making phone calls. Comrades with great legal and administrative knowledge help out and and by Friday afternoon, just as the meeting at the Prefecture begins a huge black bound file of 40 different projects is produced, each with a name and plots of lands earmarked, but no single name attached to a single plot.
A colourful cartography of the commons of the zad (above) illustrates the interdependent and cooperative nature of the projects, be they a school of shepherding or the library, orchards or the sports group, mechanics garage or a snail farm, sunflower oil production or bringing up children together. Of the 70 living spaces on the zone, 63 are covered by the forms, only 7 decide not to take this bet of a barricade of paper. Of course paper barricades are not half as fun as ones on the streets, but this time they just might be the ones that save zad from becoming just another orgasm of history, another free commune which shone briefly but ended in bloodshed, another martyred experiment in freedom sacrificed for the sake of a pure revolution.
The zad always tried to go beyond the idea of a TAZ (Temporary Autonomous Zone), in favour of building a PAP ( Permanent Autonmous Zone), this desire is embedded in the solid buildings, the long term agricultural plans, the vineyards planted for wine in 5 years time. We can’t just let go of all the ties we built here, with the locals, surrounding farmers, pensioners, workers in the city, wanderers of all sorts, Nantes students and the youth, the owls, the black squirming salamanders, the knarly oaks trees, the mud. We must hold onto all these deep friendships and networks of struggle that we have shared with such intensity over the last decade.
The state bureaucrats were confused, some enchanted, the préfete seemed relieved. Leaving the meeting our delegation tells the press that “we have responded to the injunctions of the state because we want to stop the escalation of tension and at last find the time for dialogue and construction,” warning that “ if we take away one element of the collective, it cannot work. It’s up to the state now to negotiate.”
As I finally finish this text, the helicopter returns, anxiety rises again in my chest. It spends a long time swooping over the zone, observing this rebel bocage that it wants to reclaim back. Perhaps it is preparing for a final revenge against the commons, who knows, all we know is that during this last fortnight we have fought with every weapon we thought possible including the unexpected. Now we wait to see if the bet worked out…
P.S. On the 26th of April three days after we posted this blog, the Prime Minister made a statement about the zad: announcing a truce in evictions until at least the 14th of May, to allow time for the regularisation of the occupants who filed forms. According to the Minister of the Interior, “Everything moves calmly and in serenity, as always,” that hasn’t stopped them piling in with the tear gas this morning to clear barricades. The bet seems to have given us some breathing space, even though they remain with the logic of sorting the ‘good’ who have chosen the ‘right path’ and the bad ‘illegals’, something we continue to reject.
This article was first published on Zad Forever with many more powerful photos of the events described.
1 May 2018. The US teachers strike in historical perspective –
Previous waves of unrest offer clues to the possible regeneration of the American labor movement.
In the US, a teachers’ strike is spreading from one red state to another. It began in West Virginia when 34,000 teachers walked out on February 22 2018. They stayed out until March 7, against the advice of their own union leaders, until they received a deal that they could live with from the state government. They were soon joined by tens of thousands of teachers in Oklahoma, who struck from April 2 to April 12, and then their colleagues in Arizona followed them on April 26.
Now there are rumbles of teachers’ strikes in the blue and purple states of Illinois and New Jersey, and in states elsewhere. NBC News reports a “Red-state Teacher Rebellion.” There is no telling whether the rebellion will spread to more states and occupations.
The teachers’ strikes come at a difficult time for American unions. Their total membership has fallen from 17.7 million people in 1983 to 14.8 million in 2017, and the proportion of union members in the workforce has fallen even more dramatically, from 20.1 percent in 1983 to 10.7 percent in 2017. Unions continue to fund the Democratic Party, but their investment has seen few legislative gains. This is a story of failure, softened only by the occasional victory.
Yet the teachers’ strikes may offer American unions a road back to health. Historians have long known that unions seldom grow at a slow, steady pace. They tend instead to push forward in a series of leaps, in a kind of chain reaction where a strike in one industry inspires strikes in others. The growth of unions in one part of the country leads to the growth of unions in other parts, and to use the British historian Eric Hobsbawm’s term, the labor movement recruits “in lumps” as striking workers join unions en masse. The American labor activist Kim Moody, in his recent book On New Terrain, describes this process as a “labor upsurge.” Could the strike by teachers in West Virginia be the spark for just such an upsurge in 2018?
To answer this question it’s useful to look back to previous waves of strikes in the US like the rising of 1934, when striking workers laid the groundwork for the Congress of Industrial Organizations, or the mass strikes in coal, steel, the railroads and other industries during or immediately after the First World War, or the militancy of auto and other workers in the 1970s.
We could also look to more recent strikes in 2012 by the Chicago Teachers’ Union, the near-ousting in 2016 of President James P. Hoffa of the powerful Teamsters Union by the Teamsters for a Democratic Union (a rank-and-file movement), and the victories of Fight for $15 in the last two years. But I would go even further back to understand what an upsurge could mean for today’s American labor movement, to the ‘Great Upheaval’ of 1885/87. What happened then?
American workers in the 1880s lived, as we do today, in the aftermath of a global financial crisis: in their case, the ‘Panic’ of 1873. The ensuing depression wiped out many American unions. As today, the survivors faced a highly unequal society and a political system beholden to big money. In this historical picture, the infamous financier Jay Gould substitutes for the Koch Brothers and Andrew Carnegie stands in for Bill Gates.
Wages stagnated in nominal terms, at least for the rest of the 1870s and into the 1880s. Immigrants faced widespread discrimination, and Chinese immigrants were even excluded from the United States altogether from 1882 onwards. Black Americans endured the end of Reconstruction and the imposition of Jim Crow. American women faced exclusion from much public space and, when they worked for a wage, they faced a gender pay gap larger than that of today. Grievance piled on grievance.
However, union organizing started to expand again at the start of the 1880s, when economic conditions improved. A working-class movement, the Knights of Labor, rose from 10,000 to 70,000 members between 1878 and 1884. Telegraph operators, glass workers and railroad workers waged bitter strikes, sometimes successfully, and the final spark was lit in 1885 by workers on the Wabash railroad and the Southwestern rail system. Both railroads were owned by Gould.
In strikes during March and August, railroad workers twice forced him to reinstate strikers, grant overtime pay, reverse wage reductions, and tolerate their representatives, the Knights of Labor. Few strikes had ever succeeded against such a powerful adversary, and their victory over Gould gave workers in other places and industries the confidence necessary to down tools themselves. The Great Upheaval had begun.
This is the stage that some commentators think we’ve also reached today: on the cusp of a strike wave, this time sparked by the teachers of West Virginia. In the 1880s version of a labor upsurge, the strikes on Gould’s railroads opened the floodgates to industrial action. In 1886, 499,489 American workers engaged in 1,411 recorded strikes at 9,891 establishments. This was more than double the number of strikers in 1885 and far higher than the 129,521 strikers recorded in 1881.
Membership in the Knights of Labor rose to nearly a million in 1886, including tens of thousands of black and women workers. In the same year, the movement for the eight-hour working day pushed forward the cycle of strikes, boycotts, and protests. It reached its height in May 1886, when tens of thousands of workers across the country struck simultaneously for eight hours.
Workers pressed their case at the ballot box as well as in the workplace. Local labor parties sprang up to contest elections at local, state and federal levels. The radical economist Henry George ran for the mayoralty of New York on the United Labor Party ticket in 1886. He came a respectable second to the Democrat, Abram Hewitt, and beat the Republican candidate into third place—one Theodore Roosevelt.
Across the United States, workers elected labor mayors, state legislators and even congressmen in Washington DC. The two-party system briefly faced challenges that have seldom been seen since. In this strange time, Eleanor Marx, the daughter of Karl Marx, and her husband Edward Aveling could argue that “the example of the American working men will be followed before long on the European side of the Atlantic. An English or, if you will, a British Labour Party will be formed, foe alike to Liberal and Conservative.”
We are certainly not at that stage yet. The campaign of Bernie Sanders in 2016, which saw a self-proclaimed socialist come agonizingly close to the Democratic Party presidential nomination, may have given new strength to the American left. A widely-cited Harvard University poll in 2016 may have found that most younger Americans now prefer socialism—whatever they think it means—to capitalism. But an electorally successful labor party is not likely to emerge in the next few years. If it does, it will take more time and require enormous energy on the part of the left, forces within the unions, and a wide cross-section of American workers.
Yet we should not discount the possibility of a labor upsurge in the meantime. The grievances that are leading teachers to strike in state after state are shared by millions of public and private workers across the country. Like teachers, these workers have less and less to lose by industrial action, and falling unemployment means that finding replacements for them becomes more difficult. International events might further fan the flames that the teachers have set alight. Strikes by Amazon workers in Spain, for example, could spread to the great logistics clusters of the United States and set off a chain reaction across the American heartland—much as the railroad workers did in 1885.
There is, of course, a cautionary side to this tale. The Great Upheaval of 1885-87 ended in defeat for the unions and for the new labor parties. When railroad workers struck again in 1886, after Gould reneged on his promises, they lost. In May 1886, anarchists at Chicago’s Haymarket Square were accused of throwing a bomb at police. The events that followed set off America’s first ‘Red Scare,’ and the labor movement became one of its main victims. The Knights of Labor shed hundreds of thousands of members. The labor parties soon disappeared or were absorbed into the Democrats and Republicans. The labor upsurge of 1885/86 became the headlong retreat of 1886/87. Historians now see the Great Upheaval of 1885-7 as a great step forward, followed by an even greater step back.
There are things we can all do to ensure that the rebellion of 2018 does not end in the same way. You can join the strike wave. You can show your face and your solidarity at the nearest picket line, or the nearest pro-strike protest. You can donate to strike funds, tweet support, sign petitions, and get involved in any movement that supports the strikers and tries to unite the different strikes under the same banner of political change. Each time you do these things, it becomes more likely that future historians will refer to the Great Rebellion of 2018 as a landmark in the renewal of American unions, and not as another episode in their long-term decline.
29 April 2018. The beauty of a both/and mind –
How can we find our way out of the impasse that stymies action on the really big issues of the day?
When Massachusetts Congressman Joseph Kennedy III delivered the Democratic response to President Trump’s State of the Union address in January 2018 he chose an intriguing frame for his remarks. Not satisfied with rebutting Trump’s admittedly-minimal record on policy and legislation, JFK’s grand-nephew denounced the President for “turning American life into a zero-sum game” in which the well-being of some Americans must come at the expense of others—“as if the mechanic in Pittsburgh and the teacher in Tulsa and the day-care worker in Birmingham are somehow bitter rivals rather than mutual casualties of a system forcefully rigged for those at the top.”
The alternative to ‘zero sum’ is ‘positive sum’ thinking—a way of reasoning that rejects the dichotomies of ‘either/or’ judgments in favor of a ‘both/and mind.’ Kennedy argued that there’s no contradiction between raising living standards for one group or another, but the same technique could be applied to any set of issues or constituencies where more than one thing can be true. Does the image above show a 6, a 9, or both, depending on your point of view? That realization provides the key to a different way of interacting with one another in activism and politics.
Positive sum thinking is much more than lowest-common-denominator compromise and negotiation. It demands new methods of navigating our way through complex problems and solutions—a different mental architecture that encourages everyone to leave their comfort zones and enter into a genuine conversation that isn’t so pre-structured. But if we can make it work the benefits could be huge: both/and thinking might provide a route out of the impasse that stymies action on the really big issues of the day. How so?
Most contemporary democracies produce alternating periods of intellectual and political superiority for one side or another. That’s because political and cultural differences go much deeper, and are much more enduring, than we might admit—they don’t disappear through education or campaigning, or through changing demographics or rising incomes. The victory of one set of ideas or values also produces a counter-reaction which usually strengthens the opposition. Over time therefore, policy changes tend to cancel each other out, making it extremely difficult to make lasting progress on issues that require permanent, cross-party constituencies like human security, the abolition of nuclear weapons, and action on global warming.
This problem is getting worse as a result of rising political polarization, religious zealotry, fake news, and filter bubbles or echo chambers on the internet, all of which reinforce the infrastructure of zero-sum, either/or thinking. It’s now almost impossible to change your mind without being treated with suspicion, or to value someone else’s point of view without being labeled as a weakling, or simply to avoid a rush to judgment when presented with ideas with which you disagree. Even within the same political tradition like the progressive left in the UK and the US, factions are hardening, positions are defended to the death, and disagreement leads to censure.
The current debate around ‘identity politics’ is a classic case in point. Promoters of an ‘intersectional’ point of view emphasize the connections that exist between class, race, gender, sexuality, geography and disability. But they’ve been criticized for abandoning the traditional concerns of the left and escaping into victimhood, classified into ever-more elaborate sub-communities of oppression. Not so say the intersectionalists, since there are no forms of politics that function independently of our identities, which continue to be different. Therefore, a single-minded focus on economic questions will inevitably lead to the resurgence of social and sexual discrimination.
Recent exchanges between these two positions have generated much heat but very little light. They typify the limitations of zero-sum thinking, which stokes up the emotions of different combatants and exaggerates the gulf that lies between them. The result is an impasse, and a weakening of the left as a whole. But what if both positions were true, or at least were seen to contain enough elements of value to produce a new level of intellectual and political integration? That’s what Kennedy was getting at, albeit in a very different context—that positive sum, both/and thinking can find commonality at a deeper level that connects different experiences of oppression and inequality to the same underlying causes.
After all, why do we have to choose between non-exclusive options? The approach we adopt to something like ‘identity politics’ will be heavily influenced by our own position in society, our experience of discrimination, and our personal reading of strategy and history. These different trajectories may lead us to emphasize some forms of oppression and inequality over others at different points in time, or at different stages of the argument; in fact it would be remarkable—even unreal—if they didn’t.
But there’s much less disagreement on the origins of oppression and the long-term goals of liberation. “I want everyone on the left to understand that we’re all fighting the same struggle—that it’s people’s material wellbeing that matters in the end. On the other hand, everyone within the Left isn’t the same,” as Sofa Gradin put it in a recent article for Transformation.
The same analysis could be applied to any other deep-rooted disagreement where arguments are polarized so much that zero-sum thinking seems permanently entrenched—like Brexit, for example, or ‘freedom of speech,’ abortion, the sex industry, or how to engage with those who voted for Donald Trump. The benefits of a both/and mind seem obvious in situations like these, but how do we train our brains and manage our emotions to act in this way when the counter-pressures are so strong?
For starters, how about: ‘don’t rush to judgment, keep an open mind, put yourself in the other person’s shoes, and remember you could be wrong.’ This may sound easy, but in fact it’s immensely challenging, since none of these things arise automatically; they require some form of deliberate and conscious preparation, whether through techniques like mindfulness or meditation or some form of centering that stops you from leaping to conclusions about others and their views. Working through something like the identity politics debate requires mental agility without losing sight of fundamental principles. It’s like walking through a maze whose walls re-arrange themselves with every step you take.
Zero sum thinking implies closure, fixed boundaries and mutually-exclusive positioning; both/and thinking implies expansiveness, creativity, and the belief that multiple versions of the same account can be valuable or true. The only way we can really understand something is by looking at it from every angle, especially when even the most independent-minded among us are socialized into particular communities over time, each with their own assumptions, no-go areas and pressures to conform.
By contrast, the ability to hold contradictory realities in your mind for long enough to consider what they have to offer is characteristic of spiritual experience, expressed in ideas like detachment and non-judgment—what the writer and activist Gregory Leffel calls “metamodern mindfulness,” the willingness to place yourself between fixed ideological positions in order to appreciate ideas that don’t belong to any one of them exclusively. Think of this process as akin to rolling a sweet around and around in your mouth as it slowly dissolves, layer by layer by layer, instead of swallowing it whole or spitting it out because you don’t like the taste.
This is why philosophers from Hannah Arendt to Michael Walzer have seen ‘moral maturity’ as a willingness to welcome diversity and seek the common good together among people whose interests, at least sometimes, stretch further than themselves and their familiars. Clearly, there are some situations where this kind of mental and emotional openness and flexibility aren’t appropriate—in encounters with violent authoritarians, for example, or extreme sexism, racism and other forms of injustice—but in most situations it’s perfectly possible to keep a ‘straight back and soft front’ as some US activists describe it, simultaneously holding fast to your fundamental principles while being open to negotiating how they manifest in practice. We need “realists of a larger reality” as the late and great author Ursula le Guin once said, people with both grounding and creativity who can see transformative solutions beyond the status quo.
There are also some institutional innovations that seem to help people exercise both/and thinking, like alternative electoral systems that re-orient incentives away from winner-take-all solutions and exaggerated conflicts, and civil society groups that mix people of different views and backgrounds together in voluntary associations. “Standing shoulder to shoulder with people across our differences and creating new understandings and visions together is where the real transformative potential lies,” say activists Peroline Ainsworth and Kiran Nihalani on the basis of their experience of women’s co-operatives in south London.
Any civil society or democracy worthy of the name needs both/and thinkers to animate its institutions. Otherwise separation will be permanent. That doesn’t mean that everyone agrees on every issue, but it does require some agreement on how disagreement should be handled—as an invitation to deeper dialogue instead of a prelude to further fractures. This is exceptionally challenging because it runs counter to the realities of modern politics, media and knowledge production, but the other options are much, much worse: a slide into authoritarianism, enforced artificial unity, or permanent division.
Faced by these ‘beasts,’ there's beauty in a both/and mind.
26 April 2018. It’s a fact—welcoming works –
New Mexico has reduced the number of deportations far below the level of other US states.
A year after the Santa Fe City Council adopted in February 2017 a resolution strengthening its welcoming and non-discrimination policies toward immigrants, the federal government launched a series of audits demanding verification from local small businesses that their employees were eligible to work in the country. In response to this blitz, advocates and city officials held a press conference in early March calling out an attempt to disrupt business, wreak havoc, and create a culture of fear and panic.
“Today, children will wake up at home wondering if there will be a knock on their door; parents will go to work wondering if there will be a knock at the door of their place of employment; families will wonder if they’ll have one more meal together,” said then-Mayor Javier Gonzales, who, following President Trump’s election, became an outspoken proponent of cities enacting sanctuary and non-discrimination policies. “That is not what our country has ever been about, but it is what this administration is trying to do by dividing our communities. All of us in our community know that one of the best values Santa Fe incorporates every day is the value of welcoming people.”
And that value of welcoming is not just compassionate talk. There is proof that sanctuary policies are working, keeping residents safer than in places that collaborate with Immigration and Customs Enforcement tactics.
According to a new study from Pew Research Center, nationwide deportations made by ICE in 2017 increased 30 percent from the previous year. But these increases are not distributed evenly. In regions where city and state governments worked hand in hand with ICE, deportations have increased more than 75 percent. In regions where sanctuary policies are more prevalent, increases have remained relatively low.
Along with California, New Mexico has emerged as one of the most welcoming states for undocumented immigrants. And it’s not just the capital, Santa Fe. Across the state, immigrant rights groups and faith communities are working alongside local governments in innovative ways to resist the Trump administration’s deportation efforts. Not only have these efforts succeeded, but they have provided a blueprint for other towns, cities, and states to emulate.
Santa Fe adopted its first sanctuary resolution in 1999. It was a reaction to the new Illegal Immigration and Immigrant Responsibility Act, which threatened undocumented immigrants with lengthy bans. This first resolution was largely symbolic—a declaration of the city’s values, stating only that the city would not use its own resources to aid federal immigration officials.
Nearly two decades later, following Trump’s election and xenophobic rhetoric, city leaders and immigrant communities were activated once again.
Mayor Gonzales appeared on CNN, Fox News, NPR, and other news outlets just a week after the election explaining why Santa Fe would continue its welcoming policies toward immigrants and would resist any large-scale deportation efforts.
Somos un Pueblo Unido, a state-wide immigrant rights organization based in Santa Fe, held a meeting for its members a week following the election to provide a space for people both to express their fears and brainstorm ways of strengthening policies to better protect them. “What’s great is that when you are membership-based, the solutions are so deeply rooted in the realities of lived experiences,” says Marcela Diaz, Somos’ executive director. She has been with the organization for 20 years and helped the city with the 1999 resolution.
Over the next three months, Somos un Pueblo Unido worked with city council members, the ACLU of New Mexico, and other stakeholders to create a legally defensible document that would provide meaningful protection for immigrant families. The new policies bar city employees from inquiring about or disclosing information about residents’ immigration status, deny federal immigration agents access to non-public areas of city property, direct staff to improve language access on all government documents and programs, and mandate outreach to employers and community members to educate people on their civil rights and the city’s new policies.
While these are considered sanctuary policies, over the course of the drafting process, the word “sanctuary” was removed from the resolution. There is no legal definition of sanctuary, and advocates reasoned that the word could become a lightning rod for the Trump administration.
Even so, when the council unanimously adopted the welcoming, non-discrimination resolution in February 2017, the room exploded in cheers and applause. Everyone seemed to feel the weight of the occasion. “As a native Santa Fean, I’m proud to be on the right side of history,” said city councilor Renee Villarreal.
Unlike the resolution from 1999, this one wasn’t merely a statement of values, but a prescription of policies for the city to implement.
As people celebrated, Diaz said, she was thinking about what lay ahead: “Our work begins now.”
Over the past year the new policies have been put in place. There’s still work to be done, Diaz said, especially in the realm of language access, but has not received any complaints from members about the city not living up to its stated values.
Additionally, Villarreal said the city will start to coordinate with the county, school district, and local community college to ensure each entity is working together in a complementary fashion.
The city and groups like Somos hold know-your-rights workshops. Significantly, many of these trainings are peer-to-peer and allow the kind of firsthand information sharing that attorneys cannot always provide.
“We do a lot of peer-to-peer because it’s just different,” said Diaz. “The difference is that there are some organizations and some attorneys—and rightly so—that say ‘stay calm, don’t run.’ We know people that have run and have gotten away, so it’s weird for us to say don’t run.”
Somos does work with attorneys and groups like the ACLU to offer legal advice. But because a lot of important information comes from other members as they encounter ICE and Border Patrol, peer-to-peer is often most effective. As Diaz explained, “We’re not telling you to run—we’re just saying these are the consequences.”
Because there is no playbook for the crackdown on undocumented immigrants currently taking place, Somos un Pueblo Unido has had to be nimble and adapt to shifting ICE tactics. Through its member network, the organization can quickly disseminate information efficiently when ICE agents enter a community.
When ICE began launching audits back in February, Somos and other organizations throughout the state were forced to act quickly. Two days after the press conference where Gonzales decried ICE’s disruptive actions, Somos co-sponsored a know-your-rights workshop with the city, the Santa Fe Area Home Builders Association, and the Hispanic and Green Chambers of Commerce. The workshop was specifically designed for employers to learn what they are legally required to disclose during an I-9 audit and how they could best protect their employees. Despite just a couple days’ notice, more than 50 businesses showed up.
“We’re playing whack-a-mole,” said Diaz, referring to the fast-paced, random nature at which they are encountering new threats. “But that’s what sanctuary for us is—helping people understanding what’s going on and sharing resources. All of the answers are not necessarily going to be there. We have to be nimble, we have to figure out how to attack each tactic as it comes.”
Villarreal is also encouraged by the proactive way in which Santa Fe has faced these new threats head on. “It’s a sign of the activism in New Mexico,” she says. “That we have very strong immigrant rights organizations that work well with governments is a large reason why we’ve been successful.
Not all governments, however. Santa Fe’s immigrant community knows to avoid the state probation office and opt to deal with any legal business at the county jail. Why? Even though Santa Fe County does not cooperate with ICE, the state of New Mexico under Republican Gov. Susana Martinez does.
To be clear, members of Somos un Pueblo Unido are in the thick of a battle against the federal government. For these people, wins can seem temporary, while losses last longer and are felt more acutely. They come in the form of people being deported and families being torn apart. Despite the difficulty in feeling successful, though, New Mexico has proved to be a national leader in resisting deportation.
According to Pew’s analysis of data provided by ICE, 143,470 people were arrested during 2017, compared to 110,104 in 2016. (Trump’s first year in office pales in comparison to the 297,898 arrests during President Obama’s first year.)
ICE compiles its data based on 24 different regions that largely follow state boundaries. In 2017, Miami (which includes all of Florida), Dallas (which includes the northern half of Texas and Oklahoma) and St. Paul (which includes Minnesota, Iowa, the Dakotas, and Nebraska) saw the biggest jump in arrests made by ICE with increases of 76 percent, 71 percent, and 67 percent, respectively.
San Antonio (central-southern Texas), Houston (southeastern Texas) and San Francisco (Northern California, Hawaii and Guam) saw the lowest increases at 1 percent, 5 percent, and 9 percent, respectively. But those numbers can be misleading. In raw numbers, the Houston region saw the second highest number of deportations, and San Antonio ranked fifth.
On the other hand, ICE’s El Paso region, which includes west Texas and all of New Mexico, saw a modest growth in the numbers of arrests at 12 percent. But in raw numbers, the region remains the third lowest of all ICE regions with only 1,892 arrests last year. That still ranks above Baltimore (1,666 arrests) and Buffalo, New York, (1,494 arrests), which both saw larger increases last year of 34 percent and 27 percent, respectively.
Considering that New Mexico is a border state, its ability to minimize the number of residents deported stands out.
An analysis conducted by the Immigrant Legal Resource Center provides useful context. Mapping every county across the country, ILRC created a 0-7 scale to determine the extent to which counties do or do not work with ICE with 0 representing the highest level of cooperation and 7 representing the lowest level of cooperation.
Counties with a rating of 0 either work closely with ICE or have entered formal agreements under which local law enforcement officers are essentially deputized as federal immigration agents. On the other side of the scale, counties with a rating of 6 or 7, like Santa Fe, have comprehensive “sanctuary” protections in place to block local resources from being used to aid ICE.
According to ILRC, California laws passed last year turned every county in California into a 6 or 7. Oregon and Vermont also stand out with pro-immigrant policies prevalent across each state. New Mexico is the only other state where most counties have policies that favor protecting immigrants. Of the state’s 33 counties, 22 rank as a 4 or higher.
In a similar report, ILRC also looked at how county-level policies changed after Trump took office. In New Mexico, every county that ranked as a 4 or higher strengthened their policies over the past year. The same is true of every California county, along with many in Oregon. On the reverse side, counties in ICE-collaborative regions like Miami, St. Paul, and Buffalo largely decreased protections for immigrants, likely contributing the increased arrest rates.
While sanctuary policies can be credited for part of New Mexico’s success, the state has also built a supportive culture around its immigrant communities. Nowhere is this more true than its second largest city, Las Cruces, which sits just 40 miles north of the Mexico border.
In response to raids in February 2017, NM CAFé (an acronym for Comunidades en Acción y de Fé), a faith-based community organization and affiliate of the PICO National Network, led a protest in downtown Las Cruces, blocking parts of Main Street for 45 minutes. The group was joined by local faith leaders, and the next day a group of eight state senators and local representatives signed a letter to Gov. Martinez calling on her to bar ICE from entering sensitive areas like schools, churches, hospitals, and courthouses to calm the sense of anxiety running through the community.
“We wanted to push back against this narrative that ICE just gets to come in our communities and kidnap people from their homes,” said Johana Bencomo, a community organizer with CAFé. “We wanted to make sure it was something the community knew about.”
In many communities, civil disobedience could be divisive. But in Las Cruces, it seems to be energizing. Anxiety persists, acknowledged Bencomo, but “it hasn’t paralyzed people. If anything, it’s woken up many other people.”
Late last year, the city of Las Cruces adopted its own non-discrimination resolution.
CAFé also organized its members to pressure the state’s two senators, Tom Udall and Martin Heinrich, to vote against a Dreamers bill that included $25 billion in border security funds. In February, Udall and Heinrich joined California’s Sen. Kamala Harris as the only dissenting votes. In addition to its policy work, CAFé embraces organizing strategies similar to Somos’, such as holding know-your-rights workshops and teaching employers and employees what to expect from I-9 audits.
CAFé has also created a rapid response network that allows people to alert organizers when immigration raids are taking place. Staff and volunteers serve as operators, and once claims are verified, the organization can send email or text message blasts.
And when all else fails, CAFé turns to Father Tom Smith, director of the Holy Cross Retreat Center in Mesilla, just south of Las Cruces.
In May 2017, Father Smith took in Jorge Taborda as his first sanctuary case, although Smith prefers the term “Francisican hospitality.” Taborda arrived with his 16-year-old son, who is a U.S. citizen, after his wife was deported to Colombia. And since October, Smith has taken in a second person, Lorena Rivera.
“We are called by the gospel and the scriptures to welcome the aliens, to care for those in need,” Smith explained.
With room enough for only four people, Smith acknowledges that he alone cannot make a difference on a large scale. And while ICE has agreed not to enter sensitive areas like churches, if federal agents come with a search warrant, he cannot stop them. He said that his work is intended to “raise consciousness.” He allows media access to both Taborda and Rivera and also brings in school groups to learn from their experiences. “They listen to their stories, and it helps change their opinion because they’re hearing it directly from that person,” Smith said.
“Father Tom has been a godsend to our community,” Bencomo said. “He has shown the kind of boldness and courage our community members need.”
“We are building a really strong counter-narrative that is only enhancing Las Cruces’s culture,” Bencomo affirmed.
Despite the work being done by New Mexico communities to keep their residents safe, the Trump administration is determined.
The Justice Department is suing California over its new laws that bar private employers as well as state and local jails from cooperating voluntarily with federal immigration officials. The federal government maintains it has complete authority over immigration issues.
In Texas, the state legislature passed a law banning sanctuary cities. An injunction had been granted, but a federal appeals court ruled in March that the law could take effect. The court battle will continue.
Meanwhile, construction of Trump’s border wall is set to begin in New Mexico as well as parts of the Lower Rio Grande Valley in Texas. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis authorized the federal government to pay for potential deployment of up to 4,000 National Guard troops for the border mission through September. Arizona and Texas have committed hundreds of troops so far. Many fear that the further militarization of the border will serve only to cast immigrants in a negative light.
With the national landscape more fraught than ever, immigrant rights groups in New Mexico are busy.
Somos un Pueblo Unido has helped facilitate meetings to bring community members together with the law enforcement community and recently conducted a training for 90 Farmington police officers on the benefits of not checking immigration status, which they have ceased doing. Somos was also involved in McKinley County’s decision to cease its cooperation with ICE, and it helped dissuade Luna County, west of Las Cruces, from entering into a deputizing agreement with the agency. In Albuquerque, the election of a progressive mayor has meant a non-discrimination resolution in the state’s largest city is making its way through the city council.
The thought of continuing at this pace for another three years of a Trump term is daunting, but Diaz is encouraged by the experiences of the past year. “What it takes is giving people the space to stand up for themselves.”
Bencomo agreed. “I believe in the power of an organized community,” she said. “I hope we can keep building power so that we can continue to protect more families.”
This article was first published in YES! Magazine under the title “A Year Later, Fewer Deportations in Cities That Adopted ‘Welcoming’ Policies.”
24 April 2018. Sacred activism: a movement for global healing –
Our natural sense of interdependence has been replaced by an addictive focus on personal short-term profit.
Humanity is at the pinnacle of a historic death cult. Late last year, more than 15,000 scientists from 184 countries issued a dramatic “warning to humanity” over biodiversity loss due to overconsumption of resources. They agreed that if we continue “business as usual,” we’ll shortly approach a point where it will be too late to shift our apocalyptic trajectory; worldwide ecosystem collapse will be inevitable.
In its compulsion for unending growth, capitalism has developed a vampiric mechanism of planetary proportions, sucking the lifeblood out of the Earth’s body. In its addiction to mining, oil drilling, deforestation, the exploitation of billions of lives and the mental enslavement of humanity, today’s global economic system precisely embodies Wetiko, an Algonquin word for “cannibalism” that illustrates the insanity we’ve fallen prey to. Wetiko is the psycho-spiritual “disease of the white man” which makes amnesiacs of us—our natural sense of basic interdependence with other beings is obliterated and replaced with an addictive focus on personal short-term profit.
Through an insidious history of colonization, genocide, and imperialism, the Wetiko virus has gradually infected (nearly) all of humanity, brainwashing us into a mode of thought that proclaims that “the Earth is a dead exploitable resource,” “animals and plants have no soul,” “life is a game of competition and fight,” “love always ends in disaster,” “either we kill our enemies or they will kill us,” “we will be punished for our mistakes” and so on.
Under the spell of this subconscious conditioning, we are sleepwalking towards an abyss, lacking the psychological and spiritual capacities needed to make sense of and respond to the crisis we’re facing. With our collective survival on the line, we need a wholly different vision of ourselves and our relation to the living world that’s able to awaken our primordial love for life and our desire to serve it without reservation. Only with a unifying narrative that addresses the human disconnection at the root of our global crisis will the many social, political and ecological movements converge into a relevant power for global system change.
The seeds of Standing Rock.
What is sacred? It might seem cynical to speak about something “sacred” after millennia of unspeakable atrocities committed in its name. Yet, living in a civilization that has defiled virtually everything, emptied this world of meaning and processed it into commodities, our longing for the sacred might, after all, be the crucial guide out of our dead end.
When about 30 members of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe confronted the fossil fuel industry and the U.S. government, setting up a camp at their burial ground which was to be bulldozed for the construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline, they did so to “defend the sacred.” Ladonna Bravebull Allard, founder of the Sacred Stone Camp affirms, “We stood up because we had no other choice. Water is life. If there’s no water, we will die.”
Such “sacred activism” comes as a deep re-membering: We are of this Earth. There is no salvation outside of it.Patriarchal religions told of some out-of-Earth entity making covenants with exceptional people and asking us to renounce this world. Yet the original covenant of all people is with the Earth and is therefore of an Earthly, sensual nature. Activism doesn’t become “sacred” merely because it works “on behalf of” something sacred; but by recognizing, honoring, embodying and celebrating the inherent sacredness of all that lives—which isn’t anywhere beyond this world, but right here.
Sacred activism challenges us to make a choice at every moment, to decide for life, for solidarity and for trust despite the temptation of an overwhelming field of fear, greed and hatred. It was this clear orientation that fueled the resistance at Standing Rock – and drew in people from all directions to join it. Representatives of over 300 Indigenous cultures, black bloc anarchists, environmentalists, spiritual seekers and over 2500 army veterans banded together beyond their usual ideological divisions, because they were united by something more fundamental than ideologies – a shared spiritual center.
Standing Rock inspired similar resistances globally. Chief Arvol Looking Horse, spiritual leader of the Lakota, Dakota and Nakota People, writes in February 2018, “People all over the world are now beginning to understand that [water] is a living spirit: it can heal when you pray with it and die if you do not respect it. (…) Standing Rock has marked the beginning of an international movement that will continue to work peacefully, purposefully, and tirelessly for the protection of water along all areas of poisonous oil pipelines and across all of Mother Earth.”
Around the world, movements are arising towards decentralizing power, culture and economies, leaving the mega-systems of nation states and globalized corporations behind and building a society based on autonomous regions in which people can reclaim their sovereignty while caring for each other and the Earth again. There are remarkable movements in the Global South, such as the Indigenous Zapatista movement in Mexico, the Rojava revolution in the Kurdish zones of northern Syria, the Landless Workers Movement in Brazil, peace communities, such as San José de Apartadó in Colombia and many more. In the Global North, we see a revival of socialist ideals and the emergence of municipalism.
It’s worth noting that this revolution is feminine in essence. Women are the heart of many of these movements. From Rojava to Chiapas, from Standing Rock to Barcelona, we’re seeing the resurgence of feminine power fostering community, self-determination, healing and care for the Earth, shaking the foundations of patriarchal dominance.
How can this revolutionary impulse succeed? Trump defeated the Standing Rock movement, Erdogan is cracking down on Rojava and Colombian peace communities are severely threatened by paramilitaries. Running up against a globalized trillion-dollar economic, political and military system, every group and place resisting will face the same destiny as long as they remain on merely the local, regional or even national levels. The victory over capitalist globalization can, logically, only be global. In other words, either we form an unbreakable global alliance or we’re bound to fail. Yet, in this struggle, failure is not an option.
A starting point for a global alliance?
As I see it, a global alliance bringing together the many movements in the North and South, and mobilizing the many millions wanting radical change, could emerge around the following five shared thematic areas:
1) Fierce nonviolent resistance against the fossil fuel industry
Stopping the fossil fuel industry before it’s too late is the first demand for our collective survival. As people stood up against the pipeline at Standing Rock, people must come together and stand up everywhere to both impede new fossil fuel projects and shut down existing ones. At the same time, let’s increase the pressure on municipalities, countries, companies and banks to divest from fossil fuels and end subsidies.
The divestment movement reached a historic milestone in the first days of 2018 when New York City mayor Bill de Blasio announced his city would divest from fossil fuels and sue leading oil companies over climate change. Activist and author Naomi Klein, who assisted the announcement, comments that “What felt politically impossible yesterday suddenly seems possible.”
2) Transition to decentralized, clean energy and large-scale ecosystem restoration
Let’s establish regenerative energy systems based on the inexhaustible sources of sun and wind. We must ensure the transition will be decentralized, instead of staying stuck in the corporate framework. Let’s organize to create a decentralized infrastructure for energy-autonomous cities and regions.
Additionally, let’s rehabilitate ecosystems worldwide, as desertification, droughts, wildfires and misery aren’t only the results of carbon emissions but also of the destruction of ecosystems and natural water cycles. By creating systems of local rainwater retention, we no longer only need to adapt to climate change, we can actually restore and rebalance our destabilized climate.
There are powerful examples to follow, such as India’s “Water Gandhi” Rajendra Singh and his NGO Tarun Bharat Sangh that mobilized villagers in Rajasthan to restore thousands of square kilometers of degraded land, through which they’ve revived several rivers, rebalanced rainfall, ended extreme weather events and secured an abundant self-sufficient water and food supply for about 100,000 people in less than 25 years. Following a New Water Paradigm, let’s organize in communities united around watersheds for natural and decentralized water management wherever we live. “Rain for Climate,” a movement initiated by the Slovakian hydrologist Michal Kravčík, offers a corresponding global action plan.
3) Ethics of universal solidarity
To truly heal this planet, we need the power of community, which is much more than simply a political coalition. Whenever people come together around a shared goal and practice solidarity, they connect with a power greater than the sum of their individual efforts. Thus, they’re unified and driven by meaning, trust and possibility, able to overcome any obstacle.
We must recognize the crucial role of community, not just as an accidental side effect of camps or occupations, but as a vital aspect of post-capitalist society and so consciously engage in building and maintaining it. Thereby, politics becomes a matter of social design, because the divisions we’re suffering in our movements, most of the time, result from a lack of trust and solidarity among human beings.
We all carry a wound that expresses itself as fear or anger, attack or retreat in one situation or the other. So far, this wound has mostly been more powerful than people’s will for change. Systems of domination have prevailed by exploiting this human weakness, sowing discord among activists and setting them against each other.
A planetary community of sacred activists relies on living, breathing trust among its members. It will grow in power to the extent that we cultivate universal solidarity, truthful communication and mutual support. Instead of propagating moralistic heroism, let’s create places of encounter and new forms of coexistence that will allow us to heal our wounds and rebuild trust.
4) A common focus on an emerging vision for humanity
The world seems ready for radical change. The majority of the population in the West no longer supports the dominant economic and political system and is turning away from it in what journalist Chris Hedges calls the “invisible revolution.” Recent years have seen massive outbreaks of public anger and longing for a different society. Yet, little has changed. According to the documentary filmmaker Adam Curtis, we’re stuck in a state which most recognize as beyond insane, simply because no one can see a credible alternative.
The necessary global shift begins by radically reimagining our civilization. If we have an authentic vision for a nonviolent and regenerative way of life, a culture of solidarity and trust, we’ll be able to midwife the global transition. This isn’t anything we can make up; a true vision is something fundamentally different from a constructed idea, wishful fantasy or ideology.
As we abandon the mainstream mentality of dominant culture, we also overcome the drought of creativity which blocks people from imagining an alternative. We recognize that our spirit is deeply creative and that we always carry vision—this is why we’re alive. When a vision touches our heart and we allow it to guide our life, we’re driven by our deepest purpose and have enormous energies at our disposal. Yet we carry vision not only individually but also collectively.
As Ladonna Bravebull Allard of Standing Rock puts it, “The shared vision for humanity exists, whether we see it or not.” Our task is to become receptive for it, to see it, make it visible and activate it, using all means of communication, so that our collective imagination will no longer be driven by dreams of downfall, but elevated by the possibility of worldwide healing and unification.
5) A different principle of power
The fight between capitalism and those defending life is a power struggle. We need to seize power, but we need a different kind of power than the one usually deployed by revolutionaries. We have no chance of trying to overcome a globalized system of violence by constructing a counter-force through mass mobilization and fight alone. Many attempts to overthrow the dominant systems didn’t originate from power, but powerlessness, because activists let themselves be corrupted by the fear and hatred those systems propagated.
Native American activist Winona LaDuke writes, “Part of the mythology that they’ve been teaching you is that you have no power. Power is not brute force and money; power is in your spirit. Power is in your soul. (…) Power is in the earth; it is in your relationship to the earth.”
Despite terrible injuries, all life still automatically strives towards healing, regeneration and convergence, as this is necessary for its continuity. In nature, we find universal patterns at work, which operate according to what sociologist and futurist Dieter Duhm calls the “sacred matrix.” He writes:
“The sacred matrix is the cosmic pattern which forms the basis for the organization of life. It steers the information and energies necessary for the evolution and maintenance of life. When the individual connects with this guidance, channels for healing open up. When humanity organizes itself in accordance with the sacred matrix, channels for global healing powers open up.”
Beyond all alienation and division, there’s something all beings have in common, something we all deeply love. This something carries no name and is beyond description, but it is what people of all ages have experienced as “sacred.” When the veil of separation falls, we face the animated, eternal and truly sacred character of existence.
When people enter into this resonance, they experience healing, regeneration and convergence and often find themselves under great protection. Studying and learning to live according to the principles of sacred power will allow our movements to succeed in ways that previously looked impossible. The key to this power doesn’t primarily lie in external activities and strategies, but in a conscious shift of the whole way we live, think, speak and act – from the matrix of fear and violence to the sacred matrix.
Utopia or oblivion?
Ultimately, our success will result from unprecedented collaboration between the different organs of the emerging global alliance. A key part of this is to establish experimental centers that concretely model post-capitalist societies on a small scale, developing social and ecological structures that invite in and no longer systematically block off the healing powers of life. Such centers (at Tamera, we call these “Healing Biotopes”) as well as still-existing Indigenous communities could provide all those wanting to step out of the current system with the necessary knowledge to create functioning communities of trust and cooperation.
More and more places could break out of the dominant system, creating autonomous regions, and so give rise to a new system based on a local sovereignty rooted in global interdependence. While social movements slow down the pace of destruction through their resistance, they could also restore ecosystems and implement the infrastructure for post-capitalism.
Inventors could contribute new technologies to an ever-increasing number of regenerative communities and regions, donors could support them financially, journalists could provide the necessary public attention and allied progressive governments could create “free zones” for them to operate in. Guided by a shared global vision, an ever-increasing number of people would help birth a new era. Once a global alternative becomes realistic for a critical number of people, we would have created the conditions for the dominant system to implode and give way to a new one.
This is no longer only a dream. As dystopian scenarios become imminent, “utopia” remains as the only realistic way out. We mustn’t forget that it has always been through existential necessity, vision, community and surrender to spirit that people have made the apparently impossible possible. Let’s come together to build a world where creativity, cooperation and mutual support become the foundations of a sacred way of life.
This article was first published in Kosmos Journal.
22 April 2018. Intimidation: the new normal –
Increasingly, powerful people use threats, bribes and other tactics to avoid public scrutiny.
The allegations that Stormy Daniels had an affair with President Trump are being cast in the media as just another Trumpian scandal, a sexy side-plot to the larger spy novel of Russiagate. News coverage has focused on the salacious nature of the story in an attempt to highlight Trump as a singular bad actor who is far outside the accepted norms of the rest of society.
In reality, his behavior is frighteningly normal among the wealthy and powerful: intimidation is increasingly common among a whole class of politicians and business people worldwide. Silicon Valley investor and Palantir founder Peter Thiel, Harvey Weinstein, the movie producer and alleged sexual predator, and Erik Prince, founder of Academi (formally known as Blackwater), are all high-profile examples of such behavior in the USA.
Media critics Adam Johnson and Nima Shirazi have coined the term “Trumpwashing” to describe how media outlets often tend to misattribute systemic issues to the character flaws of a single individual, in this case the US President. But this tendency obscures the extent and importance of what’s really going on. We live in a historically unequal world in which the most powerful use a wide variety of tactics to protect their wealth and reputations. As inequality worsens it’s essential to catalogue and understand their playbook.
The first tactic in this playbook is to gain silence by buying loyalty, usually through offers of employment. After their alleged affair, Trump suggested that Daniels should appear on his NBC show Celebrity Apprentice. This may have been a ploy to continue their contacts, but it also would have established a relationship under which she would have been dependent on him for money. This is a pattern for Trump; during his alleged affair with model Karen McDougal he offered to buy her an apartment in New York City outright, an offer he also made to Daniels.
Harvey Weinstein also used offers of employment and monetary gain to keep his alleged crimes hidden, assaulting and harassing women while they were working with him on one of his movies or as employees of his company. As one of Hollywood’s most famous producers he could hold his victims’ careers hostage. Because their financial wellbeing and career reputation were directly tied to him they were less likely to speak out.
While most employers are not nearly as abusive, they have a similar level of financial control over their employees. Almost all non-union private employees in the US work under at-will contracts, which means that they can be fired for any reason except their membership in a protected class such as race or religion. In a country where only 39 per cent of people can cover a financial emergency of $1,000 this means that employers have a major influence over the loyalty of their workers. If you want to keep your job, you’d better not complain either internally or externally.
If silence can’t be bought through this kind of intimidation it can be guaranteed through legal means. Daniels was paid $130,000 to sign a non-disclosure agreement (or NDA) binding her to stay silent about Trump. She was only able to break her silence because of legal technicalities, though Trump’s lawyer, Michael Cohen, has subsequently filed a $20 million suit against her. While it appears that sloppy legal work might allow Daniels to tell her story, most NDAs are either too watertight or insufficiently high-profile to justify the dangers of breaking their terms.
In fact such agreements have become an increasingly common tool for powerful people to guarantee silence about any unsavory or unflattering information. Most are so broadly worded that they can cover anything that would portray a company or its executives in a negative light. NDAs may not legally cover up illegal action, but their strong language and broad definition certainly scare employees away from trying to challenge those in the hierarchy above them. Even if such a challenge were to materialize, few employees can afford the cost of the lawsuits involved.
When incriminating information does hit the public eye, wealthy people have other legal ways of punishing those who speak out. Lawyer Charles Harder is famous for doing this, and recently joined Trump’s legal team for the Stormy Daniels’ case (he also worked briefly with Harvey Weinstein but was fired in October 2017). Harder made his name during Peter Thiel’s revenge campaign against the media website, Gawker.
After Gawker subsidiary Valleywag publicly outed Thiel as gay and continued to cover his activities, Thiel compared the company to “terrorists.” In 2011, Aron D’Souza, an Oxford Law Student, met with Thiel to discuss potential legal strategies to punish Gawker. D’Souza suggested that Thiel finance lawsuits against the website and then coordinated with Harder to implement this strategy.
Harder worked on multiple suits against Gawker, which was finally bankrupted in a suit with Hulk Hogan in 2016. Thiel spent over $10 million on the Hogan lawsuit, and invested $45 million in D’Souza’s investment firm. Those with close to unlimited resources can easily manipulate the legal system in their favor.
Another example is Erik Prince, the founder of the Academi (Blackwater) investment firm, who threatened Congresswoman Jan Schakowsky with a lawsuit after she called for an investigation of his company. Prince’s lawyer sent Schakowsky a letter accusing her of making “false and defamatory statements” because she spoke of his emigration to the United Arab Emirates as an attempt to flee from prosecution.
Prince’s lawyers also brought up Schakowsky’s husband’s indictment for $2.3 million in fraud, for which he served five months in prison. It’s an example that highlights two other common tactics of intimidation: the use of disparaging information to silence those who speak out and the use of money to bury stories completely if that doesn’t work.
In the case of Daniels, the right-wing media has focused on her career in porn and erotic dancing in an attempt to discredit her. The most egregious of these attempts has come from the National Enquirer, which is owned by close Trump associate David Pecker. The Enquirer has published two articles about her on their website, both of which use photos of Daniels in racy outfits. Pecker’s magazine also bought former-model Karen McDougal’s story about her own alleged affair with Trump, declined to publish it, and then put her under a Non Disclosure Agreement in order to keep the story from running elsewhere.
The Enquirer was also instrumental in Harvey Weinstein’s attempts to silence his accusers. In 2016, the magazine’s Chief Content Officer (Dylan Howard) shared incriminating information with Weinstein that one of its reporters had received about the entertainment mogul, and then declined to run the story. Weinstein sent a private army of spies from organizations such as the Israeli company Black Cube to gain as much information as possible about his accusers, ranging from their current media contacts to potentially incriminating information from their pasts. An agent even posed as a wealthy donor to women’s rights foundations in order to get close with the actress Rose McGowan, who one of Weinstein’s key accusers.
If none of these other forms of intimidation are successful in buying silence, there’s always the threat or actual use of physical violence. Daniels says that a stranger threatened her after trying to sell a story about her alleged affair with Trump. In a sworn deposition to a US Federal court, an anonymous Academi/Blackwater employee alleged that Prince either murdered or facilitated the murder of people at the company who were cooperating with federal investigators. This tactic has become less common in most workplaces, but it has deep historical roots in the US—most famously with the Pinkertons and their violent anti-union activities.
Prince, Trump and Weinstein are only the most obvious and public faces of intimidation. Behind them is a deeper and more systematic process of normalizing threats and other tactics in order to silence anyone with information that embarrasses the powerful. A small industry of lawyers and private security firms has sprung up to protect the ultra-rich from the consequences of their illegal or immoral actions.
That we even have access to these few stories is the exception rather than the rule. In each case, a dedicated group of journalists and whistleblowers were willing to risk their careers, and perhaps even their lives, to get the truth out. There are surely many other examples where intimidation has already succeeded in curbing dissent, especially in the case of abusive employers.
Faced by such problems, the #MeToo movement provides a roadmap forward. It proves that highlighting specific stories, analyzing the ways they’re connected to broader societal issues, and then applying these analyses to our own lives can have a major impact. Weinstein might have lost his company and his power, but more significantly, the conversation about sexual harassment and abuse has spread far around the world.
If we can spread this more systemic approach to other oppressions in our day-to-day lives then we can break their power as well. This is not to diminish the specific impacts of sexism and sexual violence but to tie them to a larger analysis of power and a process of personal and societal transformation. Resisting intimidation, wherever it comes from, is a good place to start.