Thoughts on politics, religion, violence, inequality, social control, change, and random other things from an autonomous, analytical, adopted, abolitionist, anarchist who likes the letter A

Fear of Cat Food and Other Anti-Revolutionary Yarns

February 13, 2014 By: Mel Category: Core, Seeking, Work

Scrooge and Marley MoneylendersSometimes you come across an article that so perfectly encapsulates something you have been obsessing about that you have to dust off your blog and throw out a minor rant. Latina Lista published just such an article this week.  So here we go.

According to a study by the (in no way biased) Prudential, “Latinos’ love of family today could spell financial trouble for retirement years.”

We are trained to be in constant fear. Fear of losing our jobs. Fear of losing our homes. Fear of medical bills. Fear of  ending up some solitary, elderly person eating cat food in a hovel. The answer, as is jammed into our heads, is to get on board with the system and try to hoard as much as you can. Don’t let those family and friends dip into your cash. Security comes with obedience and accumulation. Security comes by giving what little money you have to the dipshits at Prudential.

So how does that work out for people?

For one thing, going along with the system is not going to save you. My parents did everything they were supposed to do. There was a small business and a chamber of commerce membership.  There was a house and retirement savings. But along came Office Depot to squeeze my father’s business out. Then medical bills from a massive stroke. And of course there was some middle class lifestyle debt. When the IRS came around looking to take our house, did going along with the fear system help? Nope. You know what did help? Friends who lent my parents money.

Contrary to what we are told, security is mostly an illusion. And what security we do have comes from relationships, not possessions.

But the system desperately needs us to buy this lie. If we stopped fearing, if we stopped thinking we are in it alone, then nothing could keep us doing what we are doing. Nearly everyone I know is quietly plotting their freedom. We hate our jobs so much that we have to escape for bathroom cries. We have insomnia and anxiety. We are constantly medicated and looking for bullshit distractions.

And those are just the people who have enough privilege to still have jobs and something to fear losing. The truly amazing thing about the system is that we are fodder no matter what. If you have a job, you spend most of your waking hours away from the people and things you love in order to make money for greedy bastards. That isn’t enough though. They also want you to hand over some of what little money you make to “secure your retirement”. By which they mean that they want to invest your money in things that will make them money and hurt you. How?

Let’s say you have a retirement account. You’ll have a selection of mutual funds to chose from. Some of them may even say that they are “socially conscious.” What that means, generally, is that they will avoid one or two problematic sectors (like arms dealing). Everything else – sweatshops, union-busters, private prisons – they are all on the table. In short, these Prudential people are working on getting Latinos to give less money to their family and instead invest in the private prison corporations that put them in immigration detention.

When some investment banker tells you to stop giving money to your people and start “investing in your future,” what they are really doing is using you and your fear to finance your own oppression. And if you can’t benefit them through your labor or contributions, then they’ll throw you in prison and make money off of you that way.

I’m not going to tell you that, if you walk away, everything is going to be o.k. The other lie we are told is that we will be rewarded for doing the right thing.  You probably won’t. In fact, doing the right thing often means suffering. Just ask all the political prisoners out there.

Do it anyway.

And try to make it easier for other people to do it too. Let your friends and family and community know that you have their backs when they want to take a risk. Let them know that, so long as you have a roof and some food, they won’t starve or have no place to sleep. Nothing will change unless we are willing to risk something. We can’t make things safe. But we can make it a little easier on each other if we do the exact opposite of what that article is trying to get us to do.

And maybe, just maybe, if we could help each other get over our fears and take care of each other a little bit better, enough people would walk away to make the whole thing coming crashing down.

Harassment is About Power

August 22, 2013 By: Mel Category: Core, Criminalization, Sex, Stratification, Work

Yesterday it came out that San Diego Mayor Bob Filner is resigning in the midst of a sexual harassment scandal. Apparently he enjoys groping his employees. Also a groper is  Kentucky state representative John A. Arnold Jr. Just the latest in what is pretty much everyday news.

Earlier this week, Rolling Stone blasted Bloomberg for claiming to care about the safety of New York City children when 21% of the 145,652 NYPD street stops were of children. You might not think these things have much to do with one another. But they do.

I actually used to work for a law firm that represented plaintiffs in sexual harassment cases. There were bosses that busted into locker rooms while employees were changing. Bosses who liked to grope their employees. Bosses who conditioned promotions on getting their dicks sucked. Some all around charming dudes. (And yes. All of the defendants sued by the law firm were dudes. And all of the people who ever called for sexual harassment related consultations were women.)

Sexual harassment cases in the U.S., even the ones that should properly be called assault, are handled in civil court. If you get sued for sexual harassment, you may just have to pay a couple million dollars in damages. And I have to admit that winning those cases felt good. It was rare that someone actually lost their job for assaulting their employees. But watching some douchebag have to fork over millions of dollars does bring a certain satisfaction.

In theory, the law firm I worked for also did employment discrimination cases. But we never took any because they were so impossible to win. Even when some guy called us because n$%%@r was spray painted on his door, we didn’t take it. That kind of harassment wasn’t a winning case.

Mind you, at the law firm where I worked, we regularly put in 15 hour days. We worked weekends. We got yelled at. We were expected to do personal errands for our bosses. We got calls at 3 o’clock in the morning to be asked about files (at least until my phone got cut off and I let it stay cut off). In other words, we were subject to the kind of harassment that a lot of people have to deal with on their jobs. Most of us have to eat a certain amount of shit to earn a living.

I don’t say that to make light of sexual harassment or shrug off our collective shit eating. I say it because it shouldn’t be this way. For anybody. For any reason.

Public discussions about sexual harassment frustrate the hell out of me. First you have to deal with those people who deny that it exists at all. Then you have to deal with the ones who say that it exists, but women should get over it. Or the ones that hear any report of employer abuse and say people should just get a new job – as though someone who had been unemployed for years and has kids to feed can walk away so easily.

But sometimes I am even more frustrated by the people who agree it is a problem. Because invariably the response is to turn to the criminal injustice system, to become like France where you can (theoretically) be sent to prison for a couple years. Or they just want to continue suing people for money. Always, they ignore the fundamental issue.

Harassment is about power. People who have power feel they are entitled to whatever they want. People who don’t have power, or at least have less of it, will suffer consequences for sticking up for themselves against the powerful. The way to end sexual harassment, or any kind of workplace harassment, isn’t to transfer a little power from a boss to the injustice system. The answer is in getting rid of the power imbalance to begin with. That isn’t to say that, with no bosses, there would never be conflict. But confronting someone with equal power doesn’t carry the same kinds of consequences and risks. And the sense of entitlement bread by power will be, if not gone, severely diminished.

Now lets bring this out of the workplace. Because harassment doesn’t just come from bosses.

There has also been a lot of news about street harassment lately. That isn’t just people saying obnoxious shit to you on the streets. For instance, my friend Mandie recently had some guy grab her waist while she was waiting in line at 7-Eleven. My most frequently experienced harassment comes from douchebags who think it is o.k. to touch my hair. And then there was that fucker a few months back who thought it would be cool to slap my ass. I share Mandie’s homicidal thoughts when things like that happen.

Some people have an overinflated sense of entitlement. And while it may be less obvious than workplace harassment, street harassment is also an assertion of power.  You wouldn’t slap your boss’s ass, grab the waist of some MMA fighter, or go up and rub a cops hair. There would be consequences. When you do things like that to someone, what you are saying is, “I am entitled to whatever I want. And what are you gonna do about it anyway?”

And really. What are your options? Retaliation will likely end with harsher consequences for the person standing up for themselves (worth it as those charges may be). Like the woman in DC who was being accosted late at night and, after she pepper sprayed the dude, had assault charges brought against her. The law isn’t made for everybody.

Which brings us back to that Bloomberg article. Because it isn’t only random dudes on the street that are harassing people. Police harass people, especially young men of color, every day. They can stop you, grope you, and say horrible shit to you on a daily basis. Not a damn thing happens to them.

There are women who are recording street harassment of women. And there are men recording street harassment by cops. But how many of them are out recording both? The fact that Hollaback is actually sharing information about street harassment with a government agency doesn’t give me much hope that those women are making the connection.

Harassment – bosses of employees, men of women, cops of anybody they can get away with – is all about power. To try to use those very same systems of power to deal with the abuses is futile. It doesn’t help to “hold accountable” those in power. We need to be removing those positions of power and the sense of entitlement that goes with them. And we need to be making connections (though not equivalencies) between all the different power structures and hierarchies that create the conditions for abuse.

We won’t see an end to sexual harassment without getting rid of bosses. We won’t see an end to police abuse without smashing the injustice system. We won’t see an end to street harassment without ending the hierarchy that mets out power, privilege and entitlement based on an accident of birth.


But Who Would Do ___ ?

May 26, 2011 By: Mel Category: Anarchism, Core, Stratification, Work

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 now have this song stuck in my head. Damnit

Clarity Through Microcosm

March 31, 2011 By: Mel Category: Politics, Stratification, Work

I used to work for a hotel in Miami called the SeaView. It was owned by stockholders who had condos in the building. In a crunch, some of the condos were rented out. But generally only the parts of the building that were purely hotel rooms were for the public. The interesting part is who the stockholders were.

The penthouse was owned by Dwayne Andreas. At the time, Andreas was chairman of Archer Daniels Midland (ADM). That would be the food, feed, and fuel company that The Informant worked for. It was Dwayne’s kid that was found guilty of price fixing. And it is ADM that that hears that ka-ching every time congress votes for more ethanol subsidies.

ADM got to price fix and collect all those subsidies because Andreas gave huge wads of cash and other nifty gifts (like cheap condos) to politicians (Democrats and Republicans alike). This bipartisanship was evident in the hotel. We had both Republicans and Democrats who were stockholders there. Bob Dole was one. Business and media were well represented among the owners too. David Brinkley had a pad. So did the Hoovers and the Duponts.

Some of the stockholders got occasional shit for being extra cozy with Andreas. New York Magazine wrote about Bob Dole’s Sugar Daddy. And Brinkley got heat for becoming an ADM pitchman. But mostly nobody really knew who Andreas was. Nobody ever called to inquire about the high profile visitors to the hotel. Nobody protested outside. We had no need for anything more than one very sleepy security guard at night. I watched Andreas, Dole, and Brinkley take off unmolested to go eat at The Palm and decide our fates.

And while the rich white dudes of business, government, and media were out schmoozing; the rest of us held down the fort at the hotel. The nicer jobs – management, office staff, front desk, supervisors – tended to be held by Asians, Light Latinos, and Europeans. The housekeepers were Haitian women. As a front desk person, I was allowed to walk in the front door. The Haitian housekeepers had to use a back door.

Dwayne Andreas had a private jet and his own personal pilot. There were cars and drivers, of course. Management and office staff drove to work. The cars ranged from Mercedes to clunkers. I took the bus, but since I lived on the beach it only took me 30 or 45 minutes to get home. The housekeepers I worked with at night also took the bus. But they had three buses and a sometimes two hour commute home. Bad enough on its own, but a lot worse when you consider that they had to have other jobs to barely get by.

What got me thinking about all of this was a post over at Eye of the Storm.  It describes how Chuck Schumer was overheard briefing all the other senators on what they should say when their media conference call started.  It was the commentary about these powerful people being told exactly what talking points they had to parrot out to the media that brought back the SeaView.

I was working there in 2000 when the election fiasco occurred. Gore’s people stayed there for a while. Then Bob Dole swooped in to do media while the Republicans arranged the election for Dubya. The party used to fax Dole’s talking points to our hotel office. I got a kick out of reading them. But I got an even bigger kick out of seeing how much control the party had over someone who was once a skip away from the presidency.

I always thought that hotel would make a great book or documentary. Every strata of society was represented. All the relationships and machinations were blatantly obvious. It is hard to hold the illusion that government, media, and corporations have separate interests when they just went out for steaks and share the same pool boy. You can’t really believe that Democrats and Republicans are much different when none had any qualms living in a place where the people who cleaned their shit couldn’t walk in the front door. And you can’t believe that elections mean much when someone as high up as Dole could basically be replaced by a very talented and congenial talking bird.

Collaborating Across the Divide

February 11, 2010 By: Mel Category: Seeking

Here’s a hypothetical situation.

You work in a town with one factory.  You need your job.  Moving to another town, starting your own business, or getting some other means of survival is not an option at the moment.

One of your coworkers (let’s call him Bob) is a racist, sexist, homophobic SOB.  You are a black lesbian (let’s call you Michelle) who, for obvious reasons, does not get along with Bob.

You and Bob have found yourself in a situation.  Your employer (let’s call him Dick) is planning on cutting your salaries in half and doubling your work load.  Dick is counting on the animosity between you and Bob preventing any collaboration to thwart his plan.  Dick has his eye on a lovely yacht that he will be buying with your recouped wages.

What do you do here?  Take the cut in pay?  Move into your car?  Live on Ramen noodles?  Or do you find a way to work with Bob to fight Dick?

I make up this hypothetical situation because I think this is where we are stuck.  This is why, even when the majority of Americans want the wars to end or a public option or whatever else, we can never get what we want.  Yes, there is a lot of money and power blocking our way.  But that money and power would be no match for an organized and united population.

The other day on twitter, one of the people I follow retweeted the following:

Jane Hamsher on MSNBC just endorsed certain aspects of Tea Party.  I for one want nothing 2 do w/teabaggers or firebaggers.

So I asked my twitter-friend, “If the libertarian wing of the teabaggers got behind a massive anti-war movement (which they are talking about), you wouldn’t consider working together?”

The rest of the conversation went like this:

Him: No.  Just because ppl who want to undermine us support 1 thing I do is no reason to break bread with them

Me:  So you would rather have war continue and people die?

Him:  No, id rather the war end and not enable ppl who want the countrys destruction

Me:  You are stereotyping a whole lot of ppl you don’t know based on impressions from TV.  Really think you can trust TV impressions?

Him: Stereotyping, no, just listen to what they say

Me:  U mean that you have talked to them 1:1 or you listen to the ppl the tv likes to quote?

He never answered my last question.

I understand where he is coming from.  The tea party movement is, at best, blind to the racism underlying their movement.  And the movement has undoubtedly attracted many white supremacists and Christian conservatives whose views of the world are everything I would die in opposition to.


I do not believe that every person who is skeptical of government or resentful of government’s power over our lives is a neo-nazi.  And I definitely don’t believe that I can trust the media’s portrayals of who is at those gatherings.

I know that when thousands of average-looking people gather for a liberal anti-war demonstration, the media will find the one group of naked hippies with “Fuck the Gap” spray painted on their asses and present them as representative.  I know that thousands of preppy families could show up for a gay rights march and the news will find the two guys in bondage gear and present them as representative.  And so I must assume that they do that with everyone.

I don’t believe, as a Jew, I could ever work with a neo-nazi.  I don’t think, as a woman, I could ever work with a misogynist who believes he should have the right to beat his wife.  So I understand that there are some people that a person could not work with because of their extreme views.

However, I believe that people are called “extremists” for a reason.  And if we decide that we cannot work with anyone who is ignorant, fearful, distrustful, prejudiced, or angry – who would we work with?  Aren’t all of us struggling with those things to some extent?  Isn’t that part of being human?

The entirety of U.S. history is the story of elites fueling our prejudices and playing us against one another to their advantage.  If we have any hope of making things better, everything needs to be seen through that lens.

Liberals and Conservatives Fuel Conflict

December 04, 2009 By: Mel Category: Anarchism, Conflict

An incident happened at my friend’s job the other day that perfectly demonstrates why liberals and conservatives are ultimately doomed to fail in their efforts to resolve conflicts.

One of the employees is a very young woman.  She’s not particularly mature.  It’s her first job.  She was getting upset because some of the other employees were showing up late in the mornings, leaving her the only one there.

To give you a bit of background.  This business was run by a woman who had only one rule, that there were no rules.  Employees had been led to believe that they had a very chill policy about being a few minutes late in the morning.  Nobody had ever been spoken to about tardiness.

This young woman, rather than speaking to her coworkers, went to the new management.  Management instituted a litany of draconian new policies for people who are late.  These policies don’t effect everyone equally, as some people have children or live farther away.  And one employee has an illness that makes things particularly hard.

I have no doubt that the manager primarily responsible for the new policies had good intentions.  In her mind, no doubt, she is looking after the complaining employee – a very sweet girl who I’m sure made a compelling case for paternalism.

The problem is that every other employee was feeling beat down.  Moral sunk.  A small wall was put up between the other employees and the complainer.  A wall was put up between the employees and the management.  They’ve gotten over that incident, but their relationships will always be a little bit different.

It didn’t have to be that way.  The people at this place are all kind and conscientious.  Had the unhappy employee went directly to them, I have no doubt they would have changed their behavior.  They could have worked something out.  But that opportunity was lost.

If you believe, as I do, that the management had good intentions and were just trying to look out for the person they thought taken advantage of, then this is a great example of how liberals go wrong.  Liberals have good intentions, but they are constantly erecting walls with their paternalism.

If you are more skeptical and think that the new management was just exercising their authority, imposing discipline to get people in line, then this is a great example of how conservatives go wrong.  Conservatives think people are only motivated by consequences.  But all they create is fear, distrust, and resentment.

Liberals and Conservatives have been unable to resolve any of our fundamental problems, because nobody can solve somebody else’s problems.   The longer we rely on mommy or daddy to deal with things for us, the fewer problem solving skills we develop.

It doesn’t matter if you are approaching an issue with the intention to help people or to scare the piss out of them.  Putting a third party representative or authority in the middle of conflict degrades relationships and ensures future conflict.

How I Became an Anarchist

November 27, 2009 By: Mel Category: Anarchism, Core

An anarchist future depends on more people adopting anarchist principles. It occurs to me that learning how individuals became anarchists may be useful.  So here is my story.

I’ve always been a little independent and rebellious, but my teenage years really brought that out. Partially it was my natural reaction to the suffocating socialization we are all subjected to. Partially it was me being pissed that the world turned out to be a lot shittier than I had been led to believe. I started learning real history at this point, particularly Native American history.

I got into a lot of trouble. I ran away frequently. Eventually, I was kicked out of school and out of my house. (Truth be told, I wanted to get kicked out of both. I really hated them.) Luckily for me I had been part of a work experience program in high school and, through them, had been working for a law firm.

I sort of skated into law firm work and was able to pay the bills without too much suffering. At twenty-five, I found myself managing the Florida operations of a litigation support service. I was busy and stressed and not particularly happy, but the money was good.

I started the office from the ground up. When a year had gone by, I called the home office to find out about their raise policy. I was told that, unless there was a promotion, nobody got more than .50 an hour raise. With a promotion, people could get a dollar.

Now the people who worked for me did not get paid what they deserved, not even close. Starting salaries for the organization were pathetic. And these people worked their asses off. They were there late and on weekends (sometimes with their kids). They didn’t get overtime.

After my boss told me what I could offer, I went silent on the phone. Sensing that I wasn’t happy about what she had just told me, she said “remember, if you pay your staff too much, you won’t get a big bonus at the end of the year.”

I got a percentage of the profits, you see, and that was supposed to motivate me somehow. But I knew that I never wanted to be that person, the person who gave other people less than they deserved so that they could get more. And I realized that all businesses operated on that same ‘me first’ principle. I left shortly thereafter to try my luck with nonprofits.

So off I went to California to get my bachelor degree and a nonprofit job. (Nonprofits require a B.A. to sweep the floor.) By that time I had my high school diploma and an A.A. in sociology – night school mostly. It didn’t take long for me to end up in a management position again. I didn’t plan for it or want it. I was trying to juggle college and a full time job, after all. I just had this stupid habit of feeling compelled to get done whatever needed to get done.

But, in the end, the nonprofit work wasn’t much better than the for profit work. We were helping people, but not as many as we should have been. We were government funded. When I calculated the percentage of tax dollars that actually went to direct services, it made me want to cry. Some of the grants went through so many agencies that, by the time each agency shaved their overhead costs off the top, there was virtually nothing left.

And even though the organization I worked for made a good pretense of listening to and caring about staff, much of it was for show. Additional funding we received went straight into raises for my boss and a fat consulting fee for a wealthy board member. Meanwhile, we were short-staffed and asking employees to start paying a portion of their rising health care costs.

Worse than the frustration, overwork, and disillusionment was how being a manager changed my relationship with all the people I worked with. Although I felt like I spent most of my day battling with my boss on behalf of the staff, in the end I was just one of the managers who was making decisions behind their backs – decisions they often did not like, decisions that were sometimes bad. It didn’t matter if I had fought the decision in those meetings. Once it was made I had to stand behind it.

I’ve worked for other nonprofits since that one. And while I have steadfastly avoided any more management positions, I have seen the same dynamic in every place I have worked. Larger nonprofits, especially here in DC, have the added issues of ivy league elitism and grotesque hierarchy (which they are in denial of). Yet somehow they think that they are going to make the world a more democratic, egalitarian, and just place from within an organization that is anything but.

It ain’t gonna happen.

Now I don’t mean to bag on the people that I have worked with. In fact, if the woman who told me that I wouldn’t get a big bonus if I gave my staff too much had been an asshole, my life might have taken a different course. The fact is that most of the people I have worked with aren’t any more evil or selfish than any other people. It was putting power into the hands of a few and pretending that they could actually represent the needs, desires and thoughts of everyone else that made everything go bad.

In short, experiencing the disasters of hierarchy led me to ask if it were possible to live without it. Once I started looking around, I realized that it is possible. In fact, I think it is impossible to live with it.

So that’s pretty much it. Take a fiercely independent person, let them experience the disasters of hierarchy from both perspectives, throw in a bit of anarchist leaning literature and…voila.

Any other anarchists out there want to share their journey or epiphany or slog to anarchism?


Sen. Ensign Thinks Criminals Have it Too Good

October 06, 2009 By: Mel Category: Criminalization, Politics, Stratification

Senator John Ensign would like to put prisoners to work.   No, this isn’t some post prison project to integrate former inmates back into society.  He wants inmates to work.

S. 41
To require a 50-hour workweek for Federal prison inmates, to reform inmate work programs, and for other purposes.

Inmates would work 50 hours per week for federal contractors.  Their salary would be split

  • 25% to “offset the cost on incarceration of the inmate”
  • 25% for “victim restitution”
  • 10% held for the prisoner upon release (in a noninterest bearing acct)
  • 25% “paid directly to the inmate for mandatory expenses and for daily basic needs while the inmate is incarcerated.”  Although if they have child support obligations, they wouldn’t get that.  No explanation of how their “basic needs” would be met in that case.
  • 15% to any state and local jurisdictions that also force their inmates to work

Prison labor is a touchy subject.  Back in 1998, congress held hearings on forced labor in China.  There was widespread condemnation of the practice.  But that’s prison labor in China.  If it is here in the United States, the rules are a little different.

Section 1761 of Title 18 (chapter 85) imposes penalties for anyone who knowingly transports prison made goods (from out of the country or between states).  But the code also allows for gaping exceptions when it comes to the labor of those in U.S. prisons.

According to the Democratic Leadership Council, U.S. prison labor output is $2.4 billion annually.  Prisoners have, according to this Mother Jones report,  done everything from sew Victoria Secret lingerie to package Starbucks holiday coffees.  Prisoners even set up an event for John McCain during the presidential campaign.

Defenders of prison labor say that it is a win-win.  Prisoners get income and learn job skills.  (Cause cleaning roads and packaging coffee have a real future.)  Even better, companies and governments get cheap labor.  Governor Jodi Rell of Connecticut claims that prison labor is saving the state $2.2 million dollars.

Businesses don’t have to provide any benefits.  They don’t have to worry about unions.  When some Colorado prison inmates staged a walkout (after their wages were cut from $.85 to $.60 a day) Sterling Correctional Center just put them in solitary confinement.  That’s a corporate wet dream.

It’s too bad we mostly like to send people to prison for petty theft and drug use.  If this were a place where powerful people went to prison for gross violations of ethics, Sen. John Ensign’s recent ethics snafu might actually get him in trouble.

Wouldn’t it be ironic if he ended up working 50 hours a week in a prison because his own bill passed?  Except now I have a visual in my head of the senator hunched over a sewing machine, stitching together Victoria Secret panties…Creepy.


Poor Women Feed the World

September 24, 2009 By: Mel Category: Stratification, Work

Earlier this month, I wrote a post about women using women.  In it I commented on privileged women using poorer women to clean their houses and raise their children – women who have low salaries and no benefits.

But the truth is that all of our lifestyles are built on the backs of poor people (and women in particular), even if we don’t have the direct exploitative employer/employee relationship.

According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations,

Rural women in particular are responsible for half of the world’s food production and produce between 60 and 80 percent of the food in most developing countries.

And yet while these women are feeding us all, estimates are that 70 percent of the worlds poor are women.

It isn’t just an issue of small-holder agriculture either.  Women are overrepresented in all aspects of the grossly underpaid food system.  Women are the majority of wait staff, fast food workers, and counter attendants.

The latest occupational employment report shows the U.S. median wage at $15.57 per hour.  Workers in the food industry typically make little more than half that.  According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics “more than two-thirds of all low-wage workers in 2003 were in service-type occupations, mostly in food service jobs.”

Every step of food production  – from the farm worker to the food processing plant to the food prep worker to the counter help or wait staff – relies on millions of underpaid workers with few (if any) benefits and little security.

How is it that the people who do the jobs most fundamental to survival are so undervalued?

Women Using Women

September 08, 2009 By: Mel Category: Core, Stratification, Work

I have worked with many self-described feminists who have housekeepers and nannies.  I am amazed at how few of them see the conflict inherent in building your freedom on some other woman’s lack thereof.  And I’m not talking about Wall Street women.  I’m talking about liberal women who supposedly care about inequality, oppression, racism and poverty.

What I find especially frustrating is how a reliance on hiring poor women allows men to continue to shirk their responsibilities.  How many of you have friends whose husbands refuse to clean or do their fare share of the childcare?  Did they confront their husbands?  Did they attempt to confront the sexism and unfairness of it all?  Or did they just cop out and use their privilege to buy someone poorer to make the problem go away?

Racewire has an important article out that you all should read.  It is called
Immigrant Workers at Home: Hired Hands Hold Family Bonds and it reads, in part:

So immigrant workers help lift white-collar mothers toward that coveted work-life balance. But back at home, work remains the same as it ever was: hard, endless, and never fairly compensated. The difference for domestic workers, of course, is that they are still outsiders in the home, culturally and professionally. And when overworked and exploited, they end up tending to other people’s families at the expense of their ability to care for their own.

And let’s not forget that domestic workers have few rights.  They work long hours for low pay.  They work without health insurance or other benefits.  And they are specifically excluded from the labor laws that protect the rest of us.  Families that rely on domestic workers to give them time to pursue their careers, are relying on an exploitative system.

All inequality is related. If we accept the inequality inherent in using money to resolve a problem for a few women, at the expense of others, then we accept inequality, period.