A friend of mine posted this to facebook. One of the commenters asked how far back we are supposed to go.
The thing about colonization, land grabs, genocide, slavery, gentrification – whatever manifestation of deciding you want something from people and just taking it – is that erasure is a key component. Which means the people that can go the farthest back are the people who are writing the wrong history.
A few years ago there was a post on Womanist Musings about how she could not trace her family history because she is the descendant of slaves. I also cannot trace my history. I am adopted and information about my biological relations is not available to me. My adopted family has a trail that ends in the holocaust or the pogrom. Who knows where all those wandering Jews wandered/were exiled from.
Getting to the origin of things is impossible. But we should still try. Because if you think about how hard oppressors have worked to destroy the histories of people, then you know just how important it is to protect and resurrect as much of it as you can. There is a reason why the Spanish destroyed the codices.
But when it comes to seeking justice, it is the present that is the most important thing.
The thing about this graphic, and the post that went with it, is that it is so easy to interpret it as referring to family history rather than current power imbalances. The history of one Spanish descended person in South America is not the important thing. The important thing is the unequal power of that descendant in the here and now. The important thing is the wealth that was extracted and continues to be extracted. They are injustices that have roots in history, but would still be problematic if they were new.
I agree that roots are important. I agree that we should be undoing our collective mindfuck – whether that is reclaiming indigenous beliefs or coming up with new ones. But identity and history are incredibly complicated. How do the principles outlined in this graphic get applied when the Cherokee nation decides to expel the descendants of black slaves who took the trail of tears with them?
For me the question is always about what is happening right now. What is most important to address right now? Who is suffering right now? What is the history that got us here, in all of its complexity, and how do we stop the bleeding?
A while back there was a Reddit argument between a Marxist and an anarchist. They were having the usual debate about what happens when a movement takes state power. The anarchist said something along the lines of, “When you take the state do you promise not to execute me by firing squad.” (There is something of a history here.) The Marxist’s reply was something along the lines of, “When we take state power do you promise not to start an insurrection?”
“Touché,” said the anarchist.
I’ve been trying to keep one eyeball on the happenings and debates in and about Venezuela right now. By that I do not mean the composition of the people in the streets. The evidence of that seems pretty clear. I’m paying attention to the disputes on “the left.” I’m thinking a lot about how those disputes could actually make movements towards justice stronger instead of being weaknesses that can be exploited by those who are clutching onto their power and privilege.
As anarchists, we will always be suspicious of and critical of power. I will never accept hierarchy or coercion, even from those who seem to share many of my other values. I’ll never support police power and its abuses, even if I am in moderate agreement with their bosses. I will never be comfortable with a top down model of change. However, I am also very practical. So while I cannot support a top down model of change, I can nominally support a power structure that provides more room to move toward the society I want to see.
I think us anarchists have to look at power structures and ask some practical questions. Do the people, especially the most oppressed, support the power structure? Are we less restricted and repressed under this power structure? Is there more room for our transformational projects to take hold? If I can answer yes to those questions then I can be, at least, less against that power structure than another.
But I will never stop being critical and bringing attention to the inconsistencies and hypocrisies. And when those criticisms are greeted with absolute hostility, as though any criticism means being traitor to the revolution, or at least on the side of the oligarchs, that is infuriating. It is especially infuriating because paying attention to our criticisms could actually strengthen the very movements that get so pissed at us.
Take this piece by José Antonio Gutiérrez D. He is not vilifying the government as a whole, but he is saying that many have been sucked up into its power structure and have become corrupt. He isn’t asking to undo what has been done or denying the positive things that have happened, but he is pointing out that some of the most radical democratic projects – like worker managed factories or real land distribution – have fallen by the wayside with disastrous consequences. Most importantly, he is pointing out the danger of resolving this crisis through more state power instead of through more people power.
Apart from the immediate measures (such as harmonizing the price of petrol, curbing the flight of capital, speculation and hoarding), it is essential to understand the real nature of the social contradictions facing the “process”. It is not enough to recognize that it is not perfect or that it naturally has contradictions. These contradictions and limitations must be identified, discussed, critiqued and corrected. We cannot just close ranks around them, justify them, nor even less so make a virtue of them and close our eyes to the impeccable “leadership” of the leaders.
The people today cannot be a passive agent nor nothing more than government shock troops: they must take back their capacity for political action, for acting themselves, with their own agenda, because socialism will not be built by the State. Decentralization, the autonomous development of the organs of people’s power and social control is an essential task in the present moment. There must be a transfer of power from the State apparatus to the popular movements and their organization
If I were to sum up my line of thinking at the moment, I guess it would be something like this. Centralized and hierarchical left movements should listen carefully to the criticisms of even the most pain in the ass anarchists. We are showing you your weaknesses, weaknesses that could be your downfall. (By downfall, I mean both the chance of losing power and the chance of becoming totalitarian.) And anarchists should be clear in their constant barrage of criticism that we also acknowledge – in so far as it exists – the community support and changes brought about by hierarchical movements.
I realize that this will be an uneasy and somewhat temporary truce. But at this time, we need each other. The world is less and less willing to accept any of the isms. When an anarchist criticizes a movement or government for authoritarianism or when a woman criticizes it for sexism, they need to be taken seriously without people getting defensive or dismissive. Those criticisms show you the weaknesses that need to be addressed. There is, unfortunately, very little room for error when trying to make a massive social change. There is, fortunately, less and less room to placate people by saying that their concerns will be dealt with later. We’ve all heard that before and we know that moment never comes.
So lets keep having that dialogue and critique and use it to make us stronger. Because the powers that we are up against are immense and we don’t have a lot of room to fuck up.
I don’t know about you, but I know nothing about pastoralism. A few days ago, I had a chance to listen to Lalji Desai, a pastoralist from India. The whole time I was listening I kept thinking how much pastoralist ideology and culture reflects the kinds of values and goals that anarchists are working towards.
Interdependence, customary leadership, knowledge sharing, egalitarian community relationships, sustainability, commons, solidarity, direct action, art/culture as transformative…All the things that anarchists talk about are part of the pastoralist tradition. Of course, a lot of that tradition was lost with colonialism. Interdependence became dependence. Customary leadership became hierarchical/political leadership. Knowledge sharing became intellectual property. Community relationships and units were replaced by the nuclear family model. According to Desai, patriarchy, exploitation, disempowerment, the loss of social status…it all came with colonialism and capitalism. And, unlike many of our theorists, the pastoralists are close enough to their history to remember what things were like before.
I haven’t had time to process everything, but I have a few thoughts to throw out here.
Mutual Aid – How can we better help each other. We could learn a lot from people that aren’t so far away from living by the values that we would like to see spread. And many of those communities are in constant struggle over rights and resources. If nothing else, they could use some more attention, especially during moments of crisis. Clearly, there has been a lot of anarchist solidarity with people in Chiapas. But there are so many more communities in the world.
Property – Many of us have a big blind spot when it comes to property. No matter what side of the debate someone is on (and here I am going beyond anarchists), the focus is almost always urban or agricultural. Too rarely do we talk about access to resources that are necessarily contradictory to the kind of private property model we have in the US. In other words, talking about land that can be fenced in is ridiculous when you are talking about fishing communities that need to manage ocean areas as commons or pastoralists who rely on the kinds of animals that can’t (and shouldn’t) be confined to a box.
Animal Rights – Undoubtedly, a big reason why most of us don’t know anything about pastoralists is that there aren’t many in or near our communities. But I wonder if another reason for our blindness is that there are too many people in the animal rights/vegan fundamentalist worlds who ignore cultural issues. In India, some pastoralists were kicked off of their land in order to provide a reserve for lions. They had been living with lions for generations, but suddenly the government made them out to be a danger to them. Now only lions and tourists get access to the land that pastoralists used to use and manage sustainably. How many animal rights folks would have fallen squarely on the side of the government story?
Environmentalism – Lefties in the US love our national parks. Rarely do I hear anyone on the left being critical when other countries start delineating territory as national parks for reserves. Yet those lands are almost always somebodies territory. Environmentalist movements have a horrible record with indigenous communities on those kinds of issues.
Feminism – The person before Desai spoke about indigenous rights, sadly leaving out any mention of North America. But worse than that, she mentioned the double oppression of indigenous women. She said that “traditional” beliefs sometimes negatively affected indigenous women’s rights. What she did not mention, and Desai did, was how many indigenous communities had much more egalitarian relationships before colonialism. That is definitely true with many North American indigenous communities. The belief that “western” women have more rights and that rural communities are backwards is so pervasive and so incredibly inaccurate. We need to get over that.
Taxes – One of the things he mentioned in his talk was how the government wanted them to give up their pastoral lifestyle in order to collect taxes. It is difficult to tax people whose territory is so large that it can take five years to get back to where they started. Of course, that got me thinking about libertarians and conservatives who hate taxes and love a certain conception of private property. I would love to hear an anti-tax debate between them and a pastoralist who would point out that their belief system is in opposition to itself.
That’s it for now, I think. Forgive any spelling or grammar errors. I’m typing this on a kindle with a shit wireless connection and very limited functionality.
P.S. That photo is of a worldwide women pastoralist gathering that I also spoke to Desai about briefly. The photo is linked from here. Haven’t read through the site yet, but it looks interesting.
According to Oliver Willis, some of us on the left are dumb because we aren’t ready to declare that a woman arrested for prostitution with her son present is an open and shut case of wrongness. He claims it isn’t about whether or not we think prostitution should be legal. It is illegal. She brought her kid. She involved “her child in what is very clearly illegal activity.” End of story.
But does Willis really think that people should never do anything illegal? Back in November, Willis claimed that Martin Luther King was one of the most important figures in black American history. And in this piece, he asked “Do people on the left think that Martin Luther King simply held one protest and those in power immediately rushed to pass the Civil Rights Act?”
I certainly don’t think that MLK held one protest. I know that he held many protests. I also know that he spent quite a bit of time in jail for breaking the law, as did a whole lot of other people in the civil rights movement. It was, after all, MLK who said “Never forget that everything Hitler did in Germany was legal.”
But perhaps Willis just meant that children should never be involved in illegal activity, even the illegal activity he might find moral. It so happens that I am currently reading Freedom’s Children, interviews of people who were children during the civil rights movement. Kids were actively recruited by MLK and others to participate in protests and nonviolent disobedience. They integrated movie theaters and restaurants. They went to jail. They got their asses kicked. Does Willis think that shouldn’t have happened? I doubt it.
What about immigration, Oliver. You said Romney lost because he “embraced in a bear hug the most fringe anti-immigrant position out there.” You seem to support immigration reform and scoff at Republicans who use the term “amnesty” to refer to legalizing those who crossed our borders without papers. Do you think immigrants who crossed the border illegally with their children should be strung up from the nearest lamppost?
No. I don’t believe that this is really about legal or illegal. I think Willis would agree that disobeying unjust, immoral laws is perfectly acceptable. If not, he has some explaining to do about his love of MLK. This is about Willis’s opinion of sex work and the people who do it. It is about his willingness to dismiss and dehumanize someone because they did something he finds icky.
Back when I took my first class on the drug war, I had this click moment in my head. Even though I had never been in favor of the drug laws, even though I knew many people who were caught up in the injustice system, I never really recognized the scheme for what it was. How I never saw the process of dehumanization is incredible to me. I mean, I had been reading about Nazi Germany’s laws against Jews since grade school. I knew how vagrancy laws were used during Jim Crow. I understood how laws were enacted to criminalize certain groups and justify their oppression. But somehow I never saw it clearly when it came to the drug laws.
And it wasn’t until relatively recently that I really gave a lot of thought to the laws against sex work. Who are they meant to control? Where did they come from? Who is getting their freedom taken away? What is the result of the War on Sex Workers?
But Willis doesn’t want to ask those questions. He doesn’t want to ask why a person might do sex work. He doesn’t want to ask why sex work is looked down upon more than working for Goldman Sachs. He doesn’t want to ask why someone might have to bring their kid to work with them. To ask those questions would mean seeing that woman as a human being and not a “criminal” – that classification which justifies taking someone’s freedom, taking their children, marking them for life.
When someone dared suggest that perhaps the woman’s choices were limited and that we should try to understand more about her circumstances before we judge, Willis chose to get butthurt that people had lower standards for the poor. Apparently, he thinks that following the rules and working hard will eventually pay off for everyone – despite all the evidence to the contrary.
No, Willis. Asking questions, refusing to completely dehumanize that woman, is not a “degrading” assumption that “a poor person must break the law to eat and that that’s somehow okay.” It is an understanding that some human beings have more limited choices than others. It is an understanding that laws are often made for the purpose of controlling certain groups of people. It is the unwillingness to dehumanize and degrade.
Willis believes in “absolutes, ” by which he means that laws are laws and should be followed by all. Nobody gets a break. The guy who stole millions in mortgage fraud schemes is exactly the same as the starving guy who stole bread. For him, anything else means “no moral guidance, no right and wrong… anarchy.”
Except that “no moral guidance” is not what anarchy means. Anarchy means no rulers. It means no hierarchies that allow a few powerful people to make laws that oppress the rest. It means understanding that moral and legal are not the same. It means freedom, mutual aid, and respect. It means trying to understand what your fellow human beings are experiencing and not assuming that your morals and choices are universal.
Laws against sodomy, laws against miscegenation, laws against drugs, and laws against sex work have all been used to target marginalized people. And even when some of the people who support those laws have good intentions – like those who know how destructive drug abuse can be – they cannot just close their eyes to how the laws are used. That is immoral.
I recently read The World That Never Was. I really liked it, despite the fact that it includes a gazillion people and can be hard to follow (even for someone who was familiar with many of the players). The book basically covers the period between Haymarket and WWI.
There is one part of the book where the author describes in the clearest and simplest terms what the liberal bargain was. The government would “guarantee the property of the rich in return for welfare protection for the poor.” A bad bargain, if you ask me, but I suppose it was understandable. So here is my question.
Is it better for us to fight to continue that bargain, meaning for those social protections, or should we just call the whole deal off and go for the property?
** Sorry that I am not able to put up part two of my media post this week. Work has been busy and I haven’t been able to wrap my head around much. So this little mini post will have to do for now.
For those of you who have not seen it. Jimmy Stewart is an attorney who heads out to the wild west to carve out his future. He is robbed and beaten by some thugs. It turns out that those thugs have been tormenting the town. The town sheriff, a bumbling and fearful fool, will do nothing. Stewart, filled with righteous outrage, is determined to use the law to put a stop to those thugs.
Also central to the story is John Wayne. Wayne is the town tough guy. The thugs don’t fuck with him. But he isn’t too inclined to do anything about the thugs fucking with everybody else, at least not until Jimmy Stewart drags him into it. Even though Wayne doesn’t want to get involved and acts like a hard-ass, we are supposed to know that he is really a good guy.
Stewart and Wayne play the liberal and conservative archetypes in that movie. Stewart is the liberal. He is an educated attorney from back east who hasn’t a clue how to fire a gun. He knows what is right and he is going to make sure it happens. Wayne is the conservative. He is tough. He can shoot guns and kick ass. People respect and fear him. The weak (including liberal Jimmy Stewart) need his protection.
Stewart and Wayne are the movie’s heroes. Stewart’s righteous indignation and lawyerly smarts along with Wayne’s brawn and good aim save the day.
The whole movie rests on the premise that an entire town full of people were completely incapable of dealing with a few thugs. The townspeople were, in fact, so pathetic that the best they could do was elect the most chickenshit amongst them for sheriff. You and I are supposed to believe that nothing can ever be accomplished without a hero. We are supposed to believe that we are helpless in the face of anti-social behavior.
I don’t believe that. I don’t have that low of an opinion of you or of me. And I definitely don’t think that we should design our whole society around what some disturbed people might do. Once you stop believing the myth that only a hero/politician/general can save the day, then the whole justification for the authoritarian state comes crumbling down.
At least in the movie, Stewart and Wayne actually did get the job done. In real life, Stewart and Wayne would be conspiring with the evil ranchers and thugs in order to rob us all blind. In the real world, there are no heroes. There is just us.
I will not guarantee that, if we managed to create an anarchist society tomorrow, it would not some day become authoritarian. Maybe some exceptionally bad outside actors would show up and the society would not be able to defend itself. Maybe internal divisions would weaken the community and make it an easier target. Maybe the society would, eventually, build back the kinds of hierarchies we have today. Maybe we would have to go through the whole process over again in 100 years or 50 years or even 10 years.
Should we not even try? Should we just concede to the people and systems that cause so much misery? “It won’t last forever” is a terrible reason not to pursue something. Nothing lasts forever. We should be trying for the best we can do, for as long as we can do it.
And we cannot fall for the myth that we are helpless in the face of a few bad actors.
One thing that really seems to throw people for a loop, when I talk about a world without rulers, is how we would decide who does what. The really interesting thing about that question is what it says about life today. By asking that question, you are pretty much admitting that
1. People spend most of their time doing shit they don’t want to do
2. All the shittiest work is done by people who have no better options
If you defend the status quo, you are defending a system which forces people to waste much of their lives. And you defend a system that absolutely must constrain our options in order to make sure that there will always be someone desperate enough to do the really shitty work.
There are some cultural beliefs that we are fed in order to justify this system. One cultural belief is that self-sacrifice is to be applauded. Well, self-sacrifice is not all it is cracked up to be. I’m not saying that life is all fairies and unicorns. I don’t think that the whole world will be able to lay around on beaches all day smoking pot and trying to keep the sand out of our beers. (Although more time to do that would be lovely.) And I appreciate those people who have spent their lives sacrificing themselves for their family and community. I also think it is a fucking tragedy that they had to do it.
For instance, I worked with a woman who had three jobs cleaning hotel rooms. She was a Haitian immigrant without a whole lot of options. Her life was spent cleaning up after people, most of whom treated her like shit. I respected her and the sacrifices she made in order to give her kids a chance for better life. But I think it is a tragedy that she had to make those sacrifices.
Meanwhile, other people that I have worked with have never had to clean up after themselves, much less anyone else. There are people who get paid to sit around reading journals and opinionating. They are often surrounded by “support staff” who clean up after them, file their papers, answer their phones, and generally make sure that they can spend most of their time doing what interests them. (And that goes for at home as well, where the support staff are called “wife” or “housekeeper.”)
The difference between the hotel maid and the researcher is usually an accident of birth, one which has largely predetermined how many options they will have in life. Sometimes an individual overcomes the odds. Sometimes an individual screws up every advantage they have been given. But we do not all start off in the same place. We do not all have the same expectations or options.
I think that sucks. I think it is a waste of talent. I think it makes people miserable. And I don’t think it is necessary.
All people should be able to pursue whatever interests them. Luckily for us, people have all different interests. I don’t like playing in the dirt. My parents used to punish me by making me pull weeds. They ruined me for gardening forever. But lots of people love growing things. So they would. So far so good.
What if there are some things that nobody wants to do? In some cases, those things just wouldn’t get done. If nobody out there thinks that knowing how to make a slinky is the coolest thing in the world, then the world will have to live without the joy of a slinky. That makes me a little sad, but not sad enough to learn how to make a slinky.*
What if there are things that take huge sacrifices to learn? What if people need to go to school for years? Who would do that? Have you ever seen the sacrifices that people make to become ballerinas? What about people who go to med school and then go work in some rural village and get paid in chickens? There are some seriously dedicated people out there. A better question would be, how many obsessive geniuses have had to abandon their passion in order to do droll jobs to pay the rent?
But what about the icky tasks? Who would pick up the garbage? There will undoubtedly be tasks that everybody wants to be done but nobody wants to do. And those tasks will need to be split up somehow. In my office, everybody takes turns doing the dishes. It is sometimes a friggin disaster, to be sure. But we muddle through o.k. Perhaps this task could be accomplished more efficiently otherwise, but sometimes it is o.k. to compromise efficiency for fairness.
And the really great thing is that people would no longer spend time doing inane things just because one person with power got a bug up their ass. I cannot tell you how many reports and projects I have completed only to see them filed away in some bosses drawer, never to be looked at again. In a fairer system, that boss would be just another worker. And they would have to convince us that their project was worthwhile or do it themselves.
But what about tasks that come with power? Doesn’t specialized knowledge give someone a certain amount of power? Yes. Sometimes it does. I have told many a nonprofit boss that they should really, actually look at the books once in a while, because I could be robbing them blind. There is a certain power in having that knowledge. Some things should not be in the hand of just one person. In accounting, we have a segregation of duties that is designed to catch mistakes or fraud. Certain types of tasks may be important enough to design those kinds of controls. With other things, it may suffice to simply have backup people, or cross-training as the biz peeps call it. Those individuals don’t have to be at different levels. They can be equals.
Wont some people be doing tasks that are more useful? Maybe. But isn’t usefulness somewhat subjective? It is true that some tasks deal more directly with basic human needs, like growing food, but maybe the person tinkering in their garage will come up with an invention that unexpectedly makes growing food easier. Besides, some of those seemingly unnecessary things are what we live for. Food keeps me alive, but I don’t know how much I would like my life without music,literature, and sex toys.
What about status? Won’t doctors always have more status than people who make sex toys? Not for me! Seriously though, status is also subjective. What confers status in a community of artists is not the same as what confers status in a community of farmers. As human beings, each of us will undoubtedly value some human contributions more than others. We just have to recognize that not everyone will agree with our opinion. And so long as my low opinion of your work does not come with my having power to restrict your life, it isn’t really a problem.
What about rewards? Don’t some people work harder than others? Shouldn’t they be rewarded for that? Isn’t it demotivating when you work hard and other people don’t? Yes. Maybe. And sometimes. Some people do work harder than others. But those people who slack at the job they hate might work their asses off doing something they love. People may want to get appreciation for extra effort. But people are motivated by lots of things besides fear and money. Fear and money are actually really crappy motivators.
I could start talking about gift economies or maybe some of the interesting things that parecon has to say about division of labor. But I will leave those discussions for another day. The essential thing is not the details of how work will be split up or how people will receive what they need to survive, but the principles which we should be looking at when we are deciding how to do things. We should always be aiming for more freedom, options, opportunities, fairness, information, and creativity. We should always be aiming for less constraints, power imbalances, secrets, and mind numbing bureaucracy.
To some extent, what I am talking about is a huge change in thinking. We need to stop ourselves from automatically reverting to authority when we should be focused on process and organization. And there are certainly skills that we could all use more of – better communication and conflict resolution being two of the most important. But much of what I am saying here is widely known and talked about in business.
Read management books and they will tell you how customer service is related to employee empowerment. They will tell you how monetary rewards only motivate employees for a short time. You’ll read about the benefits of cross-training and autonomy. Some businesses even institute policies based on these principles – to an extent. But the people in charge of the policies are always constrained by their need to justify and preserve the privileges that they enjoy within the current hierarchies. So they can never take things to their logical conclusion.
When you talk about a more just system, people will pose all sorts of problems that they want you to solve. These are always problems that are not really solved now. In fact, they quite often aren’t problems to be solved at all. They are tensions to be managed. There are always tensions between pursuing your interests and taking care of your responsibilities. There are always tensions where people have different priorities. We will always have to be vigilant that specialized knowledge doesn’t lead to power over others. But those tensions can be managed much more fairly.
I don’t think hierarchy is bad, but involuntary hierarchy is certainly bad. But its simple to explain to anti-hierarchyists that a committee cant sail a ship. But working on a ship is completely voluntary.
The ship analogy is perfect, actually. There are lots of different types of ships and there have been lots of different ways of organizing them.
A military vessel has a distinct hierarchy. The people retain their status differences even when not on the ship. Historically, in many places, officers would be from aristocratic or otherwise very privileged families. The riffraff would not just sail into a position of authority. That is hierarchy of the worst kind.
But what about a pirate ship? Pirate ships were often examples of democracy. It was not unusual for the captain to be elected by the crew. It was not unusual for the crew to depose any captain who screwed up. And pirate captains were certainly not required to be of noble birth. That isn’t quite anarchy, but it is a might better than the kind of hierarchy on a military vessel.
I go on boats sometimes. I know almost nothing about sailing. I have no problem deferring to my friends who have that expertise. I have no problem with agreeing, for a few hours, to do what my friend says and to trust their judgement. But when we stop sailing, that is it. It is temporary. It is based on expertise and practicality. It is based on mutual agreement between people, none of whom are in a permanent position of power. And, although I am technically following their orders for a time, I am not under them. That is situational leadership. I have no problem with that.
As to working on a ship being voluntary, that is not always the case. Anyone who has been on the underground tour in Seattle has seen those trap doors through which they used to shanghai sailors. Clearly, many people who have worked on military vessels were conscripted. Even people who volunteer for military service, or sign up to work on a commercial ship, are not usually doing it because it is what they most desire in the world. They are doing it because of economic necessity and because they see it as the best of all the options they have. When I go on a boat with my friend, that is a real choice.
It is easy to confuse the need for situational leadership with the need for permanent hierarchies. We are told to conflate the two at every turn. But they are not the same thing. We need situational leadership sometimes – like on a boat, or during a natural disaster – but we never need hierarchy.
People often ask me how I became an anarchist, but I’ve come to realize that it was really more of a discovery than a conversion. I think most people hold anarchist beliefs. The click moment for me was when I actually began to believe that I could live in accordance with my beliefs.
When I talk to people about anarchism I often get the response that it sounds great in theory, but it would never work. People don’t think it is possible to organize without hierarchy. They point to all the scary people out there that they can’t trust. They look at how we can’t even speak to one another, much less actually work together to solve big problems.
The first two criticisms are easy to respond to. There are plenty of people out there who are organizing without hierarchy – from pickup games of basketball to cooperatives. And if you think your neighbor is scary, wait until your neighbor gets elected and sends your kid to war. The people who want to be “leaders” are always the absolute last people who should have power over anything.
That last one is tougher to respond to. There is no denying that we have a really hard time speaking to each other. And if you can’t even speak to each other, then you sure as hell aren’t going to be able to resolve conflicts. But it isn’t that we are incapable. It is that we have been trained from birth to do all of the wrong things.
We don’t discuss things, we debate to see who scores the most points. Everything is broken down into heroes and villains. Nobody wants to hear an ill word about their hero. Nobody wants to hear a good word about their villain. If we read something written by someone we like, we ignore the weak arguments or fuzzy assumptions. If we read something by someone we hate, we look only for what is wrong and refuse to acknowledge any good points they might have made.
That’s assuming we are even willing to read things by people we hate. How many people only preach to the choir? How many people make sure that all their news comes from those with their same ideological leanings? How often do we let all our knowledge about another group of people come from media or politicians or some other filter with their own agenda – rather than talking to those people directly?
Where the rubber hits the road is where anarchists can show that it is possible for people from different backgrounds and belief systems to actually work together. We have to show that it is possible to resolve conflicts without coercive authority. And that means that we have to be open-minded enough to at least talk to people. It means we can’t be dogmatic. It means we have to acknowledge that nobody is right 100% of the time and nobody is wrong 100% of the time. It means realizing that you will never find anyone who supports everything you support. It means no more guilt by association. It means we should stop making assumptions about a person based on one thing they said or on the fact that people you don’t like agree with them.
That is a lot easier said than done. It is hard to have a conversation with someone who seems to hate everything you most value. It is hard to confront people’s prejudices. It is even harder to confront your own. Sometimes it isn’t even content, but style that seems to be the most difficult. Some people take a super logical approach to discussing things and seem cold and heartless. Other people meander through their stories and anecdotes, driving the superlogicals off the deep end.
We are all going to fail miserably a lot of the time. But we need to at least try. Our ability to create a different kind of world depends upon our ability to develop skills in communication, conflict resolution, and horizontal organizing. We know how to make revolutionary change. We don’t know how to make change that lasts and that doesn’t reproduce the same oppressions we fought to get rid of. Once we can learn how to resolve our own problems – without calling daddy, or the cops, or Smith & Wesson – the jig is up.
If we can manage to bring seemingly incompatible people to the table and actually accomplish something, then the naysayers will see that it is possible.
We have had a couple good snows this winter. That means that I’ve had to navigate snow and ice covered sidewalks without breaking my neck. Bad enough for me, who is generally steady on her feet when sober, but others really just have to forget about going anywhere until the snow melts.
It is a contentious issue around here. Shoveling the sidewalk is supposed to be the responsibility of the people in front of whose building the sidewalk is, or at least so says the city. There are lots of people who just never do it. I know exactly which buildings in my neighborhood will be impassable year after year. Now a DC council member has introduced a bill to impose penalties on those people who don’t get their sidewalks cleared within eight hours.
The proposed bill kicked off a fierce debate. Why should residents have to clear the sidewalks when they belong to the city? What if someone is out of town? What about the elderly and disabled? Will fines be imposed on them? If not, who decides who is disabled and so exempt? Do those sidewalks just go unshoveled? Can we trust the enforcers to implement the law fairly? They don’t have a very good track record.
Do you know how we could know who is out of town or elderly or disabled and needs a bit of help? We could know that if we actually talked to our neighbors. Do you how we could ensure that the sidewalks are clear so that those elderly and disabled could get through? We could coordinate with our neighbors. Do you know how we make sure some city bureaucracy doesn’t bury us in tickets and fines? We could dispense with the bureaucracy altogether.
Charles Eisenstein did a talk recently on the gift economy. He explained how gift economies create ties and obligations between people. Gift economies are about strengthening community. Cash economies, in contrast, separate people. You give me a service. I pay you for it. Now I owe you nothing. I have no obligation to you. Isn’t this really the same dynamic? I paid my taxes and now have no obligation to know or help my neighbors. The city will do it. If my neighbor acts like a douche, I can hide in my apartment and have somebody else confront them. All of it is to avoid the human relationships and obligations that any just society would have to be based upon.
A few months ago, I attended the Renewing the Anarchist Tradition (RAT) conference in Baltimore. One of the sessions was called Beyond Street Protests. We talked about different projects that people were working on or thinking about. One of the people there was from Pittsburgh and talked about anarchists trying to build community by helping out their neighbors. The subject of shoveling sidewalks came up. There was a bit of joking around about brigades of anarchist sidewalk shovelers. I mean it isn’t like you can change the world by shoveling your neighbor’s sidewalk.