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Resisting Racism and Militarism in 2013

by David Swanson
January 2nd, 2013

January 21st will be an odd day in the United States.  We'll honor Martin Luther King Jr. and bestow another 4-year regime on the man who, in his Nobel peace prize acceptance speech said that Martin Luther King Jr. had been wrong -- that those who follow his example "stand idle in the face of threats."

I plan to begin the day by refusing to stand idle in the face of the threat that is President Barack Obama's military.  An event honoring Dr. King and protesting drone wars will include a rally at Malcolm X Park and a parade named for a bit of Kingian rhetoric.

That evening I plan to attend the launch of a new book called We Have Not Been Moved: Resisting Racism and Militarism in 21st Century America.

The Martin King I choose to celebrate is not the mythical man, beloved and accepted by all during his life, interested exclusively in ending racial segregation, and not attracted to activism -- since only through electoral work, as we've all been told, can one be a serious activist.
The Martin King I choose to celebrate is the man who resorted to the most powerful activist tools available, the tools of creative nonviolent resistance and noncooperation, in order to resist what he called the giant triplets of racism, extreme materialism, and militarism.
Taking that seriously means ending right now the past five-year-long ban on protesting the president.  At Obama's first inauguration we held Good Riddance to Bush rallies because pressuring Obama to mend his militaristic ways was not deemed "strategic."

It turns out that refusing to push people toward peace does something worse than offending them.  It ignores them and abandons them to their fate.

But pushing is not exactly the verb we should be looking for as we strive to build an inclusive peace movement.  Nor is peace exactly the adjective.  What we need is a movement against racism, materialism, and militarism.

To build that, those working to reduce spending on the Pentagon's pet corporations need to also work against the prison industrial complex.  And those working against police violence need to work for higher taxes on billionaires.  And those working to protect Social Security and Medicare need to oppose the murdering of human beings with missiles and drones.
We need to do these things not just because they will unite a larger number of people.  We would need to do them all even if nobody were already working in any of these areas.  We need to do them because we are taking on a culture, not just a policy.  We are taking on the mental habits that allow racism, materialism, and militarism.  We cannot do so with a movement that is segregated by policy area any more than we can with a movement that is segregated by race.

The torture techniques are shared between our foreign and domestic prisons.  Local police are being militarized.  The latest insanity would have us arm our teachers so that when our children are shot up by failed applicants to the U.S. Marine Corps there will be, as at Fort Hood, more guns nearby.  Violence at home and abroad exists through our acceptance of violence.  Plutocratic greed drives both war and racism.  Racism facilitates and is facilitated by war.

We Have Not Been Moved is a book with many lessons to teach.  King spoke against the war on Vietnam despite being strongly advised to stick to the area of civil rights.  Julian Bond did the same, losing his seat in the Georgia state legislature.  African Americans marched against that war by the thousands in Harlem and elsewhere, including with posters carrying the words attributed to Mohammad Ali: "No Vietcong ever called me nigger!"  So did Asian Americans and Chicanos.  SNCC risked considerable support and funding by supporting the rights of Palestinians as well as Vietnamese, urging draft resistance, and stating its disbelief that the U.S. government's goals included free elections either at home or abroad.

Immigrants rights groups (to a great extent more accurately: refugee rights groups) are sometimes reluctant to challenge the war machine, despite deeper understanding than the rest of us of how U.S. war making creates the need for immigration in the first place.  But, then, how many peace activists are working for immigrants' rights?  Civil rights groups strive to resist rendition and torture and indefinite detention, warrentless spying and murder by drone.  Unless they are brought more fully into a larger coalition that challenges military spending (at well over $1 trillion per year both before and after the "fiscal cliff") the struggle against the symptoms will continue indefinitely.  Environmental groups are often reluctant to oppose the military industrial complex, its wars for oil, or its oil for wars.  But this past year the threat that South Korean base construction and the U.S. Navy pose to Jeju Island brought these movements together -- a process our survival depends on our continuing.

Our movement must be inclusive and international.  The movement to close the School of the Americas has not closed it, but has persuaded several nations to stop sending any would-be torturers or assassins to train there.  The movement to shut down U.S. military bases abroad has not shut them down en masse through Congress, but has shut them down in particular places through the work of the people protesting in their countries.  Where do we find media coverage that sympathizes with domestic struggles for justice within the United States?  In foreign media, of course, in the media of Iran and Russia and Qatar.  Those governments have their own motives, but support for justice corresponds with the sentiments of their people and all people.

Our movement should not oppose attacking Iran purely as outsiders, but working with Iranians.  We should not oppose attacking Iran because all of our own problems have been solved, or because the dollars that will be spent attacking Iran could fund U.S. schools and green energy, or because attacking Iran could lead to attacks on the United States.  We should oppose attacking Iran because we oppose militarism and materialism and racism everywhere.
We sometimes worry about having too many issues on our plate.  How, we wonder, can new people be attracted to our rally against another war if we unreasonably also oppose murderous sanctions?  How can we welcome new activists who doubt the wisdom of the next war if we unrealistically oppose all militarism?  How can we not turn people off if our speeches demand rights for women and immigrants and workers?  Do people who've never heard of Mumia need to hear about his imprisonment?  Don't we want homophobes to feel they can join our campaign without loving those people?

I think this is the wrong worry.  I think we need more issues, not fewer.  I think that's the genius of Occupy.  The issues are all connected.  They are issues of greed, racism, and war.  We can work with Libertarians on things we agree on.  We need be hostile to no one.  But we need to prioritize building a holistic movement for fundamental change.  Taxing the rich to pay for more wars is not the answer.  Opposing all cuts to public spending, even though more than half of it goes to the war machine is not the answer.  Insisting that banks stop discriminating, while drone pilots do is not the answer.

This is going to take work, huge amounts of work, great reservoirs of patience and humility, tremendous efforts at inclusion, understanding, and willingness to see changed what it is people become included in.  But we can afford to turn off racists.  We can afford to not appear welcoming to bigots.  We are many.  They are few.

The war machine has set its sights on Africa.  Its new name is AFRICOM, and it means business, the business of exploitation and cruelty.  We can better understand 9-11 and everything that has followed from it if we understand the long history of terrorism on U.S. soil.  We need the wisdom of Native Americans, Japanese Americans, Muslim Americans, and everybody else here and abroad who has been paying attention.  We need to move from making war to making reparations, at home and abroad.  We will have less reparations to make the sooner we stop making war.

We Have Not Been Moved
includes a never before published speech by Bayard Rustin in which Rustin quotes Ossie Davis saying to the President: "If you want us to be nonviolent in Selma, why can't you be nonviolent in Saigon?"

"All the weapons of military power," says Rustin, "chemical and biological warfare, cannot prevail against the desire of the people.  We know the Wagner Act, which gave labor the right to organize and bargain collectively was empty until workers went into the streets.  The unions got off the ground because of sit-down strikes and social dislocation.  When women wanted to vote, Congress ignored them until they went into the streets and into the White House, and created disorder of a nonviolent nature.  I assure you that those women did things that, if the Negro movement had done them, they would have been sent back to Africa!  The civil rights movement begged and begged for change, but finally learned this lesson -- going into the streets.  The time is so late, the danger so great, that I call upon all the forces which believe in peace to take a lesson from the labor movement, the women's movement, and the civil rights movement and stop staying indoors.  Go into these streets until we get peace!"

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Fire and Flames - A History of the German Autonomist Movement: A Review

by Adam Ford
Infantile Disorder
November 16th, 2012

This English language translation of a book long-considered a classic of autonomism provides a good introductory history of the German scene from the tumultuous year of 1968 to the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. But despite its strictly chronological style, it manages to feel weirdly disjointed and dispassionate, and so fails to provide much of a guide for those of us seeking to organise non-hierarchically in the twenty-first century.

As ever for books on the left, there is a blizzard of acronyms, and if you are a non-German reader then almost all will be entirely new. A glossary is provided however, and if you keep referring back to it, this isn't too much of a barrier.

Another common left problem encountered here is the slipperiness of label definitions. This even applies to the term 'autonomism' itself, with wildly different ideologies and forms of activity all coming under the same umbrella term. For some this is a strength of 'autonomism', for others a weakness, but when trying to read a book on the subject, it sometimes feels like particular activities have been shoehorned into the 'autonomist' definition simply because they are in some way anti-mainstream politics, and not 'K-groups' (of which more later).

Geronimo adopts the eight part definition adopted in Italy during 1981: "we fight for ourselves", "we do not engage in dialogue with those in power", "we have not found each other at the workplace", "we all embrace a vague anarchism", "no power to no one", difference from the "alternative movement", "we are uncertain whether we want a revolt or a revolution", "we have no organisation per se".

So vagueness and lifestylist individualism appears to be all, and yet the 'autonomists' as identified by Geronimo did organise huge events, and they did experiment with workplace organising. Focuses changed as history marched on and changes in economics drove changes in society. This mechanism lies almost entirely unexamined, accounting for much of the 'this happened, then this happened' style.

This difficulty is evident from the very beginning when Geronimo deals the year when workers and students rose in Paris, there was upheaval in Czechoslovakia, the Black Panthers battled cops in America, and 'The Troubles' began in the north of Ireland. All this took place as the post-war settlements around the world were breaking down at their first major recessionary test. Instead of looking at this, Geronimo tries to explain nearly everything in terms of US imperialism's carnage in Vietnam. Beyond the immediate trigger for action, the deeper motivations are not considered, and so any thorough analysis of autonomism - or any movement - is impossible. Still, Geronimo notes that a sizeable layer of students broke from the liberalism of the social democratic centre-left.

The next section - and in my opinion by far the most impressive part of the whole book - is actually dedicated to a very decent study of Italian autonomism. It looks at the organic composition of Italian industry, before tracing the shift from Stalinism to operaismo  ('workerism') which - in contrast to a left which now sought to integrate "the working class into capitalist development" - again sought "the complete negation of the existing system". As employers fought back by shipping out of operaist strongholds, the focus shifted to the "social field" - i.e. riots, "proletarian shopping" (organised mass looting), and the creation of a 'scene'.

And - aside from a few abortive attempts to organise factory workers - the "social field" is the only one on which Geronimo describes the various and diverse German autonome as playing on, following their formation in reaction to their own Stalinist 'Communist parties' (those K-groups again).

We are therefore given brief sketches of the rise and fall of the 'spontis' (anti-organisational individuals emphasising the 'spontaneous'), the insurrectionist Rote Armee Fraktion (Red Army Faction) and Revolutionäre Zellen (Revolutionary Cells) in the 1970s. And then through to anti-Reagan, anti-nuclear and mass squatting actions in the decade which was to catch the autonomen by surprise at its dramatic conclusion - the fall of the Berlin Wall.

When I put down the book for the final time, I was left with a sense that the sometimes massive numbers the autonomen pulled to their events, and the often ferocious intensity of their battles with state forces, very little had been achieved in the way of concrete gains. And this is the case whether you prefer - as I do - to talk in terms of gains or losses for contending social classes, or about individuals extending the reach of their own freedom (as do the autonomists in the 1981 Italian theses).

One prominent exception is the mass squatting of Hamburg's Hafenstrasse, which eventually led to the regional senate granting the squatters the right to stay in the buildings they had brought into use. These then became a prominent base for both a thriving counter-culture - including support of the world-famous FC St. Pauli with its unique supporter comradeship - and the autonomen's political struggles.

But apart from that - and the odd delay to this or that project of the capitalist class - it's difficult to point to much in the way of success. Of course, participants may well argue that I am being far too materialist, and the success was the emotional 'freedom' gained from taking part. Of course, that would be entirely their call. But perhaps that's almost the exact problem with the type of autonomism espoused within these one hundred and eighty five pages - it can be reduced to 'Did the individual have a good time while the world continued to burn?'

So if Geronimo wanted to show the German brand of autonomism as being a way forward for oppressed groups in the wider world - and I think he did - then Fire and Flames utterly fails to convincingly make that case. That's certainly not to say it's without merit - and as a bit of a politics geek I loved the many demonstration photos and posters included - but perhaps there is an even better book on the history of German autonomen just waiting to be written.

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Ned Ludd & Queen Mab: A Review

by Alan Brooke
The Luddite Bicentenary
November 14th, 2012

The bicentenary of the Luddite risings has produced disappointingly little new academic research on Luddism. However, this booklet of only 40 pages goes some way towards filling that vacuum. Based on a lecture he delivered to a conference to mark the bicentenary held at Birkbeck College in 2011, Peter Linebaugh sets out not only to rescue the Luddites from the ‘condescension of posterity’ but also place them firmly in an international context.

As Ned Ludd is the mythic symbol of Luddite resistance to unwelcome industrialisation in England, so Queen Mab, through her personification in Shelley’s poem of that name composed in 1812, becomes the symbol of a radical critique of western civilisation as a whole. Although Shelley later dismissed the poem as naive juvenilia, his passionate denunciation of monarchy, militarism, the church and capitalism remained an inspiration for working class radicals into the Chartist period and beyond.

From the vantage point of 1811-12, Linebaugh launches a sweeping survey of the processes underway which were dispossessing not only the Luddites and the English common people of the means of production, including the land, but were also impacting on traditional communities across the world. And, as with the Luddites, such communities responded with acts of resistance, which, while often ending in defeat, nevertheless helped shape the modern world.

From Ireland to Egypt, through Creek and slave risings in the US, the insurrections of Hidalgo and Miranda in Latin America and the reactionary backlash following the Ratcliff Highway murders in England,  Linebaugh links the increasing exploitation of producers and the expropriation of the means of production to the development of global capitalism. Inevitably, in such a broad brush approach, the details of such interconnectedness is sometimes assumed rather than demonstrated and there are some omissions. Particularly, since he takes the Luddite response to mechanisation in the woollen industry as one of his main points of reference, there is no mention of the clearances in the Scottish highlands and islands, where whole communities were swept away to make room for sheep.

Also, in following E.P. Thompson’s effort to assign the Luddites their proper role in history, Linebaugh has also reproduced one of Thompson’s historiographic errors in placing too much reliance on the late 19th century writer Frank Peel. Consequently Linebaugh suggests that the Luddite, George Mellor, could have been influenced by the utopian socialism of Robert Owen, even though Owen was not a socialist in 1812. Another reference to Mellor also claims that he was a veteran of the Egyptian campaign, for which there is no contemporary evidence, apart from the fact he would only have been about ten years old at the time!

However, such factual errors, and the inevitable omissions inescapable in such an ambitious synthesising work, should not put the reader off. The booklet is extremely thought-provoking and provides a backdrop to the Luddite risings which has not really been explored previously, since Luddite studies have tended to focus-in on the local rather than stand back and observe the global. It also adds a new dimension to English working class history as a whole and helps counteract some of the parochialism which still affects this field both academically and in orthodox ‘labourist’ approaches which concentrate on the supposed deference of the English working class, dominated by a trade union consciousness steeped in constitutionalism. Linebaugh brings to life the other tradition expressed by the Luddites and by Shelley’s damning philosophical condemnation of the British state in all its manifestations.

The final paragraph of the work contains one of Linebaugh’s most valuable insights encapsulated in a single word. Here he refers to the ‘poesis of the Luddites’. This concept is one which requires elaboration for all those who consider themselves the heirs of Luddism.  Instead of the ‘praxis’ of political struggle, an often mechanistic action born of a preconceived theory, the concept of ‘poesis’ implies, as its shared root with poetry suggest, an act of creativity, imagination, intuition and spontaneity. The Luddites have often been dismissed by orthodox Marxists and labourites because their actions did not fit in with the ideal course of class struggle. Linebaugh’s global panorama shows that they had a better grasp of what was at stake than those who claim to be guided by scientific theory. This work is a fitting bicentennial tribute to the Luddites and, notwithstanding its brevity, an important contribution to Luddite research.

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Send My Love and A Molotov Cocktail! A Review

by Cathy Green
SF Revu

Send My Love And a Molotov Cocktail!, a recently published short fiction anthology from PM Press, will interest readers of both the science fiction and mystery genres. Editors Gary Phillips and Andrea Gibbons have put together an interesting mix of pulp, hard-boiled and noirish mysteries along with several science fiction stories, many with a decidedly political bent. The editors are quite clear about this, right on the cover page -- "Stories of Crime, Love and Rebellion".

The anthology opens with "Bizco's Memories", a grim little tale of prison, politics and soccer, by Paco Ignacio Taibo II, translated by editor Andrea Gibbons.

John A. Imani contributes "Nickles and Dimes", a story set during the student protests of the late 1960s/early 1970s involving naïve middle class students, Black Power radicals, and FBI informants. Just as the protagonist encourages the students to attack the police for the fun of seeing middle class white kids beaten and arrested, so too is his radical group urged into actions they might not otherwise have taken by the undercover FBI agent in their group.

Fans of the hard-boiled private investigator subset of the mystery genre will recognize Sara Paretsky's name. She contributes "Poster Child", a Warshawski-less story featuring Jewish Chicago PD detective Liz Marchek and the murder of an aggressive anti-abortion protester. Lots of politics in that story.

Editor Gary Phillips contributes the fabulous, fun "Masai's Back in Town", a hard-boiled homage to blaxpoitation films featuring Masai Swanmoor a revolutionary still on the run from the law and at war with the Aryan Legion. Of course, the fight with the neo-Nazis is really just a distraction from Masai's real goal: the 2.7 million he stashed from a robbery of COINTELPRO funds back in the day.

On the more science fictional end of the spectrum, names fans will recognize include Kim Stanley Robinson, who contributes "The Lunatics", a mystery set on the moon, and Cory Doctorow, who has co-written "I Love Paree" with Michael Skeet, a story staring an ex-pat American caught up in a not so distant future Paris reactionary revolution to restore the Paris Commune. The middle of the book is anchored by a Michael Moorcock novella, "The Gold Diggers of 1977 (Ten Claims That Won Our Hearts)", featuring Jerry Cornelius and his family.

If you are not a fan of Moorcock or his Cornelius stories, just skip the middle of the book.

Other authors in the anthology include Luis Rodriguez, Larry Fondation, editor Andrea Gibbons, Penny Mickelbury, Kenneth Wishnia, Benjamin Whitmer, Rick Dakan, Summer Brenner, Barry Graham, and Tim Wohlforth. If you do not want to read a book with overtly leftist politics featuring union organizers of the 1930s, oppressed lunar mine workers, and grandmothers plotting revolutionary acts, then Send My Love And a Molotov Cocktail! is not for you. If you do not mind a book that wears its politics on its sleeve, then you should give it a chance as you'll be exposed to the work of some very interesting authors many of whom you are probably not already familiar with.

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Lessons for Building a Co-Operative Movement

by Michael Johnson
November 24th, 2012

Pm Press has released a second edition of John Curl’s 550 page history of “cooperation, cooperative movements, and communalism in America,” In this interview, Michael Johnson talks with John about what is new in the second edition, the surprisingly long history of co-operatives here in the US, and what his history has to tell us about building a 21st century movement for a co-operative/solidarity economy.

John’s life has been steeped in co-operatives. He has been a member for over 30 years in the Heartwood Co-operative Woodshop in Berkeley, CA, where he lives. He has belonged to numerous other co-operatives and collectives. In addition to being a historian of extensive research, he is a poet, woodworker, social activist, and has even been a city planner. He is also co-writing a book on how worker co-operators in the Valley Alliance of Worker Co-operatives are harnessing the power of the co-operative difference. Janelle Cornwell and Adam Trott, VAWC staff person, are fellow co-writers.

[Editor's Note: Throughout the text we will spell the word for "co-operative enterprises" with a hyphen and the word for "being cooperative" without it.]

On the second edition of For All the People

MJ: John, let's start with how the second edition of For All the People differs from the first one.

The second edition has three additional pieces.

1) A foreword by novelist and essayist Ishmael Reed.

2) A new preface by myself that discusses developments of the last four years. The first edition came out just as the economy was collapsing into the Great Recession. In the second edition I discuss the United Nations study which shows that worker co- operatives and all cooperatives around the world have fared better than standard capitalist corporations during these hard times. I discuss the reasons why the UN declared 2012 the International Year of Cooperatives.

I discuss the limited equity co-operatives created through squatting in the urban homestead movement in New York City. I discuss the Food Hub movement, a spontaneous rural cooperative movement on a national scale. I discuss the United Steel Workers Union’s partnership with Basque Spain’s Mondragon International to develop manufacturing cooperatives in the US and Canada. Finally I discuss the World Social Forum’s movement to reclaim the world commons, and cooperative management of the commons.

3) The second edition has an additional section of almost 100 pages containing my in-depth investigative report on the rise and demise of the Food System movement of the 1970s, focused on its two most successful centers: the Bay Area and the Minneapolis Twin Cities. The Food System movement was integral to the beginnings of natural and organic food in the US.

This movement was particularly revealing because on the one hand it was a spontaneous grass-roots movement that arose in many locations around the country, and also because in those two urban centers it was entered into by small outside groups with ostensibly radical ideologies, which tried to take it over, and involved government undercover agents. Both of those entryist groups caused intense internal strife that sped the movement’s demise in those locations. In comparison I also discuss the movement’s rise and fall in locations not affected by those small radical groups. I look at the successes and shortcomings of that movement as a whole.

MJ: “Entryist?”

JC: Yes. A political group is accused of “entryism” when it enters into another group and tries to take it over or transform it.

MJ: How well would the metaphor of “the 1%” and “the 99%” fit the story you tell of the ups and downs of co-operative economics in the US?

JC: Leaving the 99% metaphor aside for the moment, I would say that co-operative economics today can become an important option for about half the population, those with more limited wealth or income. Co-operatives mean that people with insufficient resources pool what they have in order to get onto a more level economic playing field.

Historically, the metaphor of “the 1% and the 99%” is redolent of the decades after the American Civil War, an era of great social upheaval and strife. Wealth was being consolidated into increasingly fewer hands, while working people were becoming impoverished. American capitalism was consolidating its domination of the country, and that was emphatically opposed by the vast majority of the working population of industrial workers and farmers. The two latter groups set up organizations based in co-operatives, and at first challenged capitalism on economic terms, trying to build counter institutions that they hoped would supersede capitalism. When the plutocracy destroyed their co-operatives, they made an effort to gain power though electoral politics. This era culminated in the defeat of all the working people’s organizations and the triumph of the “Robber Barons.” Nonetheless, the era is filled with inspiring dramas of ordinary people daring to follow their dreams, endeavors that still resonate with relevance.

Today’s metaphor of “the 1% and the 99%” arises from the reality that wealth in the US is quickly being redistributed again from a larger number of people into the hands of a tiny elite. While large numbers of people are increasingly impoverished and marginalized, a handful is amassing power in the form of money and capital.

MJ: I like the phrase you just used: “the working population of industrial workers and farmers.” For two reasons. First, we tend to forget that both groups have very strong connections, which I am going to ask about later. Second, it’s refreshing to hear them referred to beyond being an economic class without that fact being brushed aside.]

Independent self-employed small farmers and wage earners had a close relationship throughout the later 19th century. That was before the age of corporate farming, and the overwhelming majority of farmers were very small. Today it’s still hard to make a living as a small farmer, and many of them have another job on the side these days, so most still know what it’s like to be a wage worker.

But, as you state, “the 1% and the 99%” is a metaphor. Those are not really statistics. The numbers are there to make certain points, and bear no relationship with any statistical class analysis. The concept of class in the US is subjective, tricky, and constantly changing. To imply that there are two economic classes in the US, the 1% and the 99%, is to muddy up the waters very badly, rather than shedding light where it is sorely needed. Does the 98th percentile have more in common with the upper 1% or the lowest 20%? Compare the metaphor of “the 1% and the 99%” with Romney’s metaphor of “the 47%.” If 99% were really opposed to the 1% seizing the wealth, then this could not possibly continue; but in fact a much larger percentile than 1% actually support it and just want to get in on the action. There are a lot more shameless predators out there than just 1%. To grossly underestimate the strength of the opposition seriously weakens you.

The long history of co-operatives in the US

MJ: One of the most interesting discoveries for me in reading For All the People was how early on co-operatives and worker co-operatives emerged in the US, even before 1800. Does this reflect something special about our history or just how integral cooperation is in human life?

Both. Cooperation is the basis of human society. However, most societies today have been deformed and oppressed by small authoritarian groups for a very long time. But the dynamics of cooperation do not die, because they are so essential to a decent life. I would say cooperation is the norm because it can be suppressed but it cannot be destroyed. The essential concepts of cooperation are instinctive to most people, particularly when they are young. Look at the way kids get together in the park and organize a game. Or groups of musicians get together regularly as improvised cooperatives. Or young parents form play groups for their kids. In all of these situations people spontaneously self-organize activities based on freedom, direct democracy, and a general equality. Many people only experience cooperation outside of their work lives, in their private lives, with family, friends, and associates. But cooperative instincts always remain there inside the human condition like seeds waiting for the right conditions. When an oppressive society reaches a dead end, a new generation rejects the dying husk and reinvents its world, and that creative act is always based on mutual aid and cooperation.

Before you go on to your answer to the second part of the question—that is, how cooperation has been an important part of American history—I want to challenge you a bit on your saying “most societies today have been deformed and oppressed by small authoritarian groups for a very long time.” It touches an issue that is very central to how we strategize as a movement.

Basically, I find that thinking about oppression is a very tricky thing. Frequently we assume that it is the “oppressors” that cause oppression. Some very acute thinkers like Paulo Freire in his classic “The Pedagogy of the Oppressed” argue very strongly that oppression is a joint project of the ‘oppressor’ and the ‘oppressed’. And it would seem that every liberation movement—civil rights, gays and lesbians, women, etc.—is essentially the story of people empowering themselves by not accepting the role of the ‘oppressed.’

JC: Human nature is very complex, and we all have seeds of the oppressor in us. Power really does corrupt. Historically many leaders of rebellions have wound up as oppressors. But that is no reason to eschew rebellion or power. Chickens really do have a pecking order. It is instinctive. Dogs really do run in packs, and become instinctively submissive to the pack leader. People, on the other hand, have many conflicting instincts. I agree that oppressed majorities are enablers of ruling elites. That is the role they have been educated to play. When large numbers of ordinary people refuse to accept the submissive role, societies change. But people need to believe that social change is possible. If they think their only option is to exchange one oppressor for another, they will usually choose to accept their victimization and try to make the best of it. That is why counter institutions are so important, because they are living demonstrations that better social relationships are possible and within our grasp. They are possible because, besides the seeds of the oppressor within us, we also have the seeds of mutual liberation within us, the instincts of cooperation, of sharing, democracy, equality, extended family.

Now, to your question about “how cooperation has been an important part of American history.” America’s unique history did encourage mutual aid and cooperation. Indigenous America was largely based on cooperation and tribal collectivity. Every wave of immigrants to America, arriving from different parts of the globe, had to start from scratch. They pooled their resources and through mutual aid lifted themselves from poverty and oppressive situations.

Most of the wagon trains headed west were cooperatives. When settlers built new towns it was primarily through mutual aid and cooperation. No one came to America with the goal of becoming a wage slave. Industrial workers were trapped into oppressive situations by circumstance. They turned to mutual aid in order to form unions which were usually also cooperatives. Many workers saw a path to liberation through worker cooperatives in their industries. This culminated in the Knights of Labor’s plan to build a cooperative commonwealth that would supersede the capitalist system.

However, while the government eventually recognized the importance of co-operatives and promoted them in rural areas, particularly during the New Deal, government policy at the same time did not facilitate worker co-operatives in industrial areas, since worker co-ops challenge the wage system and thereby threaten the power of the establishment.

Farmer and labor movements and Co-operatives

MJ: Another very interesting finding for me was a) the extensive connections between farmers and urban workers in the late 19th century when industrialization, the “Robber Barons,” and the dominance of bankers hit America full force, and b) the major role that both worker and consumer co-operatives played in connecting farmers and workers at that time. Can you expand on that a bit? Also, what can we take from this history that would help us move out of our marginality? For example, is there a way suggested by that history to connect the new, local, ecologically-minded farmers with today’s worker co-operatives and labor movements?

JC: Key to understanding the extensive connections between farmers and industrial workers in the late 19th century is the Homestead Act of 1862, when Abraham Lincoln, in the middle of the Civil War, opened hundreds of millions of acres of western land to people who were willing to settle and farm it. That was a payoff waiting for eastern workers fighting the war. After the war large numbers of returning Northern soldiers flooded west and became farmers. So these were people who knew both worlds. If not themselves, then others in their families had been industrial workers. Workers and farmers knew they were up against the same enemies. In the post-war world that emerged, Robber Baron industrialists were driving eastern workers into the pits of wage-slavery, while railroad barons held farmers hostage to exorbitant freight rates and banks manipulated them to steal their land. Meanwhile, new waves of immigrants filled the eastern factories. But these too did not come to America to be wage slaves, and the dream of large numbers was to become farmers. So they were natural allies.

Both groups turned to co-operatives in their struggle. The farmers formed cooperatives in every aspect of supply, production, and distribution that otherwise had been dominated by banks, corporations, and railroads. Industrial workers turned to worker cooperatives in their industries, and consumer co-ops for home consumer goods, in order to break out of the corner that employers and the business community had trapped them in. When the co-operatives of both groups came under fierce attack, they allied with each other, turned to electoral politics and came together in the Populist Party, the most successful “third” party in American history.

But we can’t re-create that history today. History is an always unique set of circumstances. Today ecologically-minded farmers, worker cooperatives and the labor movement meet in the larger movement for sustainable social and economic justice. For example, many ecologically-minded farmers are involved with the “food justice” movement to bring good food to today’s “food deserts” in poorer communities. Much of that is done through farmers markets and co-op stores. Farmers’ markets themselves are largely cooperative, usually in conjunction with local communities and community non-profits. It is unrealistic to expect a direct organizational connection between (for example) a small organic farm and a co-operative print shop. But both might have a natural tendency toward using each other’s products and services, and that is mutual aid. Organizational networks like the Bay Area Network of Worker Cooperatives (NoBAWC) organize email listservs where large amounts of information connecting groups closer together are distributed. Groups devoted to assisting connections between disparate cooperatives perform a very valuable role, but the connective tissues and channels are by nature in continuous flux.

The mammals and the dinosaurs: getting down to the right size

MJ: Okay, drawing this cooperative connection between the working population of today and 125-50 years ago brings up another set of key questions. The co-operative movement and radical unionizing seemed to have peaked in the US in this same earlier 19th century period. For sure their vitality and size stands in stark contrast to what is happening now. Today worker co-ops play a minimal role socially and economically, and unions are in their 4th decade of steep decline.

• Is this an accurate reading?

• If so, are accurate future prospects bleak? Upbeat? Unknown?

• Or do we need to think about these kinds of questions in larger frames, like a multi-generational time frame?

• Also, is the recent collaboration between Mondragon and the United Steel Workers an indication of a new emerging vitality or just another positive effort?

JC: Government promotion of rural and farm cooperatives became national policy as part of the recovery efforts of the New Deal. Rural America was transformed by co-operatives in the 1930s. Besides farmer supply and distribution, co-ops brought electricity and water for drinking and irrigation to most of the rural US. Co-operatives are still strong in many rural areas and a part of everyday life today, and are still promoted by the government there.

Yes, unions continue to be in steep decline, due in large part to anti-labor legislation. Severe legal restrictions keep unions weak. And the current electoral system, based on the domination of money, is geared to produce legislators dedicated to keeping it that way. Only a complete breakdown of the current system will open the window wide enough for large-scale change today.

Yet large-scale change is inevitable in the 21st century. The current economic system cannot deal with the population continuing to explode, with climate change severely altering the situation, with the accelerating disparity between rich and poor. An enormous gulf is opening between a tiny elite and a mass of marginalized people. It is among the marginalized that the new shape of the co-operative movement will emerge. They will form economic and political organizations based on mutual aid and cooperation, because they will have to, in order to survive.

Meanwhile, social activists and visionaries are creating the backup. Unified through auspices of the United Nations, a world co-operative movement is emerging, based on an alliance of co-op activists, the labor movement, civil society nonprofits, and governments promoting co-operatives as an economic development strategy. It is only through this type of mutual aid that the new century can shape a successful and sustainable world.

And yes, the recent collaboration between Mondragon and the United Steel Workers is an indication of a new emerging vitality. Many unions are rethinking their structure, goals and missions. The straight jackets that have suffocated unions can be broken by new creative strategies. After all, unions are, at their core, organizations of mutual aid among workers. Their larger goal is not to make the deck chairs on the Titanic a little more comfortable, but to create the bases for a good life for their members and for the entire working population.

MJ: John, you’re sketching some awesome pictures here: “Large-scale change is  inevitable in the 21st century,” and it will require “a complete breakdown of the current system.” It seems terrible and wonderful at the same time. Please, say more.

JC: The only way this economic system can be maintained in the long run, is through widespread repression. Repression can take place almost invisibly, behind closed doors, one person at a time. That’s the way it’s taking place today. Like all those people evicted one by one from their homes. There doesn’t have to be tanks in the streets. The current world economic system is dysfunctional. The future it offers is increasing enrichment for the tiny elite at the top and increasing impoverishment for large numbers who were once “middle class.”
Many social rebellions have started under similar circumstances, when large numbers who once knew a fairly good life find it suddenly pulled out from beneath them. On the other hand, people will almost always accept bleak circumstances when they see no alternative. Once in a while they may riot, but that is usually just a tantrum, and usually accomplishes almost nothing constructive. Only when radical visionaries convince large numbers that another economic system is possible, can a constructive rebellion be set in motion.

Ours is essentially a non-violent rebellion, because our means need to always reflect our ends. We need to build the new world and to the degree we are successful, the old system will collapse by its own weight. That is not to say that we will automatically win. In times of great social change there are no sure bets. The world could sink into an era of barbarism. But I don’t think that will happen. I think a generation will rise to the challenge and create a better world for our great grandchildren.

MJ: John, one last follow-up on this. You say that we need to be nonviolent and that “We need to build the new world and to the degree we are successful, the old system will collapse by its own weight.” Are you pointing to a strategy of building a “co-operative system”—if you will—parallel to the oppressive system we are struggling within right now. If so, does the way co-operatives transformed rural America in the 1930s suggest how to approach this?

The worker cooperative movement in the US should follow the United Nations directive to forge a partnership with allies in government and civil society, because only with deep backing from those sectors can cooperatives grow extensive enough to transform our world.

Yes, the New Deal alliance that institutionalized cooperatives in rural America is a role model.

Even the banking sector participated constructively in it, with the rural Banks For Co-operatives program. We need to build counter institutions not as an isolated sector, but integrated into the existing economy as we build them one by one. They are basically institutions for the increasingly large numbers of our people who are being marginalized and excluded from the mainstream capitalist system, as well as people alienated and disgusted by the oppressive working conditions. When people learn to work together, pool resources and help each other through mutual aid institutions, we will all be stronger and more prosperous. A strong co-operative movement among marginalized people can be a transformative social force. I don’t expect the mainstream capitalist system to disappear soon. We have to plan to live with it as much as possible. But it inevitably goes through cycles of boom and bust. The co-operative sector is affected by those booms and busts, but not as much as capitalist enterprises. Bust times, like now, are a stimulus to the co-operative sector. The Great Recession may be a new normal, a situation that will persist through this generation at least.
I’ll try to clarify what I meant when I talked about the old system collapsing of its own weight.

I think the world is changing so that the current mainstream economic system is becoming like those gigantic dinosaurs that became increasingly unable to cope. Scientists tell us that during the age of dinosaurs mammals began as small furry creatures, and birds began as little feathered dinosaurs. The gigantic dinosaurs collapsed of their own weight when they became irrelevant to the new emerging world. This can be a model for the co-operative movement in this century.

MJ: Your reference to the dinosaurs and mammals reminds me of something I have just been reading. It was a talk by John G. Bennett, who died in the 1970s. He was a guy who seems to have done a lot of deep thinking about almost everything. He refers to one of the overarching values in our culture being the conviction that “more is better.” He uses the example of the dinosaur not only to refute this idea, but, just as you have, to point to the inevitable collapse of our dinosaur institutions. He then goes on to identify the mammals as the alternative, again as you have. He emphasizes two things about the mammals. One is that it is driven to become the “right size,” not bigger and bigger. Evolution favors the “fittest” not the “biggest.” His second point is about community, that mammals are internally small communities of cells and organs that are the ‘right size’ and that the most evolved thrive in small communities that are of the right size.

JC: Maintaining growth at a sustainable size is a key to success for individual co-operatives and the movement. Capitalist enterprises are typically swept up into the unending spiral of “grow or die.” Historically many co-operatives have gotten caught in that destructive cycle, including the old Berkeley Co-op, which collapsed after 50 years in 1988. [MJ: John tells this story in rich detail in the book.] To be sustainably successful, the co-operative movement needs to reject that model. Centralized, top-down, vertical growth of any co-op system invariably leads to collapse, whether by bankruptcy or being swallowed by capitalism. The structure of an extensive and sustainable movement involves horizontal growth of interconnected autonomous co-ops. Each individual co-op needs to find its “right size,” and be satisfied with that important accomplishment. Co-operatives are a movement with not one but thousands of centers and an unlimited periphery. Numerous people throughout America and around the world are now coming to realize the transformational possibilities of co-operatives, particularly worker co-operatives. It is a family of ideas whose time has come. With thousands of creative minds approaching the work from different perspectives, a dynamic moment is upon us; where it will lead is limited by only our practical imagination.

21st Century: bringing on a Co-operative America

In a short section titled “Does It Have To Be This Way?” you raise the issue of worker co-operatives having in fact been not only marginalized but actually “planned out of the economy” in our country. Planned out of the economy! That’s a big claim. However, you didn’t expand on that. Can you do that here? I am asking for that because it cuts to the heart of a major issue for co-operative economy and all of the movements for a new kind of economy. Namely: Is it possible for our small, marginalized worker co-op movement here in the US to become more than a passionate outcry against economic injustice and become a real hope for creating an economy “for all the people”?

JC: While urban and industrial worker co-operatives were planned out of the US economy, rural and farmer co-operatives were planned into the economy by the New Deal. The contrast is stark. In the rural case, there was a general national consensus that rural America could prosper only if the government promoted co-operatives. And so it happened. The opposite took place in urban and industrial areas, the stronghold of the wage system. The New Deal stopped their promotion of co-operatives at city limits. They were trying to save and revitalize industrial capitalism, not replace it, and that required not doing anything to threaten the labor pool.

Now we are in a very different situation. For many decades Americans have known a thriving flexible “middle” class and a general prosperity. That prosperity came about at the end of World War II, because all the other nations were flat on their backs and the US was the only one left standing. There was so much US wealth at the end of the war that for a while all ships rose. However, Americans were told the lie that prosperity was brought about by the capitalist system. Now that lie has finally played itself out. We are in the end game. Capitalism in America has always been geared to bringing prosperity to a tiny elite and oppression and poverty to everyone else. Now almost all ships are sinking and will continue to sink under this system. The system has to change, and the path of greatest benefits with least dangers is to promote mutual aid and worker co-operatives as national policy. That means opening the economic system to large numbers of worker co-operatives and other social enterprises, so that many more millions of people can have good jobs providing goods and services for each other. The worker co-operative movement of recent years may have started as a passionate marginalized voice crying in the wilderness, but we are now entering a world where large numbers of people realize that all the old answers have failed and if we want a decent world for our children and grandchildren, we must all become visionaries and reinvent the economic system of the future.

If you examine areas in the world where cooperatives are a significant, permanent sector of the economy, such as the Emilia-Romagna region of Italy, you will see that the government there has organized the economic playing field to make that possible, with advantages granted to co-operatives in recognition of their promotion of social justice and prosperity. There is no such thing as a “free market.”  Markets and economic systems are always organized and regulated by governments. In a just society, the government’s role is to level the playing field as much as possible. In this situation, where wealth is vastly unequal, the government can help to balance that inequality through advantages to co-operatives. It will be a struggle to get there from where we are today in the US, but at some point soon the social fabric will become explosive, and perhaps that will prompt the government to act.

MJ: John, I just want to go a little further into this because the possibilities you are discussing here are big. From the little that I know, it seems that the New Deal’s rural co-operative achievements got substantially reversed. For sure it has worked well in helping create credit unions and utility cooperatives in rural areas—electric, telephone, etc., and maybe some farmer co-ops. However, haven’t many, if not most, of the agricultural co-operatives the New Deal helped create been flipped into giant industrial agricultural businesses? Businesses that are undemocratic, wage-based “co-operatives?” This certainly seems to be the case just looking at the list on the Wikipedia page.

JC: Michael, even very large agricultural co-operatives are not corporate agribusiness farming as practiced by giant vertically integrated firms such as Monsanto, Dow, and DuPont, which dominate much of American agriculture today. Agricultural co-ops, small and large, are owned by their members for services, while agribusiness corporate farms are owned by investors and stockholders for profit, like all capitalist corporations. Typical members of farm co-ops are still family farms. Large agricultural co-ops can have organizational problems similar to those of all large democratic organizations. For efficiency sake they can concentrate power in a small board, which can sometimes act like a corporate board alienated from members. But a co-op doesn't have to be enormous to have those kinds of problems. One of the knottiest issues is labor: a farmer co-op can wind up acting in its narrow self-interest just as an employer. Even Mondragon in many of its international enterprises, where it has not been organizing workers to become member-owners, has slipped into that contradictory role as an employer, although it seems to be generally a benevolent boss.

That said, let's take a look at a few typical agricultural co-ops on the Wikipedia list:

"Southern States Cooperative is an agricultural supply cooperative owned by more than 300,000 farmers..." "Ocean Spray... currently has over 600 member growers." "Dairy Farmers of America, Inc... is owned by and serves nearly 16,000 dairy farmer members representing more than 9,000 dairy farms in 48 states." "Riceland Foods, Inc [has] 9,000 members who are farmers in Arkansas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Missouri, and Texas." "The Tillamook County Creamery Association (TCCA)... includes 110 dairy farms, mostly within Tillamook County."
Sunkist Growers, Incorporated is... composed of 6,000 members from California and Arizona." "Land O'Lakes is a member-owned agricultural cooperative [with] about 3200 producer-members, 1000 member-cooperatives..."

None of these, as far as I know, has abandoned its co-operative structure and been changed into a corporate farming operation. All are still serving real farmers. Co-operatives are still a core support of the continued viability of family farming.

Behind the familiar labels of those produce brands on the Wikipedia list, there really are numerous independent farms which use the co-operative structure to market their crops, and prevent corporate agribusiness from totally taking over.

MJ: Okay, let’s move on. John, this may be a bit of a stretch for you in your role as a historian: if it is possible for worker co-ops and the co-operative/solidarity movement to become a significant force in American politics—if, for example, worker co-ops and other forms of urban co-operatives were a publicly supported economic institution as you were just suggesting—can you imagine what that would look like? You are a woodworking artist. Can you look at the raw wood of these co-operative institutions and the current American landscape and visualize what could be?

JC: Actually it’s not that much of a stretch for me. In my opinion the world economic system is collapsing and will continue to collapse in the near future. The existing system cannot deal with the magnitude of problems that confront us. Historically a state of collapse can often result in a stark authoritarian regime. But it can also result in an energized population re-envisioning and redesigning the system. In the US, where we have a highly developed civil society, the latter is very possible. I think the landscape would look complex and multi-sourced. I see nonprofits and foundations becoming a major supplier of back-up and organizational tools to help worker cooperatives get off the ground and be successful. I see communities getting involved, with social enterprises, mixed organizations where the worker co-operative is one stakeholder and the community is another. I see communities turning to these types of co-operatives as an economic development strategy, to reduce or eliminate poverty. I see major nonprofit institutions such as schools or hospitals in the interest of community giving preference to local worker co-ops for goods or services. I see cutting-edge environmental organizations helping worker co-ops to find and invent new niches to fill. I think it can be a broad project under a big umbrella that will inspire the youth, offer them new creative possibilities.

Accepting the difficulties of cooperating

MJ: Finally, I have a question that looks at how the movement—co-operators, co-ops, and our networking institutions—have failed. How we contributed toward our own marginality.

My question has nothing to do with finding blame. It comes from wondering what might happen if we were learning more and more how to cooperate more deeply than we do. To manage our own rivalries and conflicts with each other better than we do. To empower ourselves personally and collectively in greater ways. I think our potential for cooperation and self-empowerment is far greater than we think, and we desperately need it to move forward.
For example, many co-operatives struggle with doing worker self-evaluations horizontally. That kind of honesty is a real challenge, but failing at it can be very costly. Or: the tension between some managers in food co-ops and workers who want to form worker co-ops. This kind of situation can get real heavy.

So I am asking if you have thoughts on how this played out over the past 200 years here in the US, and how important it may be now. Also, please speak from your own long experience as a worker co-operator.

JC: I think activists need to accept the reality that not everybody is very political, and never will be. You have to start with people as they are, and not demand more than they can freely contribute. This is, after all, mutual aid. In the variety of human consciousness, some people cannot see beyond their own skin. Those people are not good material for co-operatives. Some others just relate to their immediate family, or extended family, and everyone beyond those is an outsider to them. Some people identify strongly with groups such as ethnicity, nationality, religion, or even dog lovers or fans of a certain musician or a type of music or a certain sports team.

On the other extreme are people who are multi-cultural and international, who see themselves as part of a global human family. Or even larger, a great family of all life on earth. Or beyond earth: feeling at one with the universe. Most of us are somewhere in between. We each need to make the contributions that feel right to us and not be harsh on each other for shortcomings. Unrealistic expectations can result in bitter disappointment. And for no good reason since unrealistic expectations doom the situation from the beginning.

You have to accept that in a group or one-on-one not everybody is compatible. In my co-operative woodshop, which we started in 1974, I have seen quite a variety of personality types. Some fit in better than others. For example, one issue that was hard for a handful of people was territoriality. These people simply appeared to have a ‘territorial gene,’ and there was nothing they or anybody else could do about it. I’m talking about bench space. In my shop we share bench space. But that was extremely painful for these people. They appeared to need their own space clearly defined and had great difficulty sharing that space with anybody else. For the most part, these people just stayed in the shop briefly, and found another location where they did not have to share bench space. To generalize from that, members of a successful co-operative each need a space where they feel comfortable. Not every combination of people works. It’s not very different from a sports team or a band. If two people can’t work together, the group has to find another arrangement, or one of them should probably leave.

That’s not a big deal. It’s just the way of human society. Co-operatives are not for everybody.

Diversity is good, and there should be places in society for lone wolves, but they should not be permitted to take control of society.

Looking at the big picture, the option of working in a co-operative could improve the lives of the vast majority. Life passes too quickly to squander it in an oppressive work situation. In contrast, a life spent in cooperation and mutual aid in daily activities is a life well spent. Besides, it makes you feel good.

This piece was reprinted by Truthout with permission or license. It may not be reproduced in any form without permission or license from the source.

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Organize! A Review

Organize! by Jeremy Agar

Peace Researcher readers will pay attention to the name of one of this compendium’s editors. Aziz Choudry was a target of one of the more Keystone Kops moments in the continuingly inauspicious history of the New Zealand secret police (the most succinct summary of the saga that arose from the unmasking of the 1996 attempt by NZ Security Intelligence Service [SIS] agents to covertly break into the Christchurch home of Aziz Choudry can be found in Peace Researcher 19/20, November/December 1999, “Aziz Choudry Wins Case Against SIS: Out Of Court Settlement; Damages; Government Apology”, by Murray Horton, MH).

Authorities claim to be saving us from terrorists, but they prefer going after intellectuals. For the policy makers (themselves intellectuals, but serving a different master) people who think for themselves are always the greater danger, while the functionaries who do the snooping might well be resentful of eggheads.  Choudry must have fitted the stereotype of the trouble maker. Here was not just a social scientist but an organiser - and of course one with a suspicious ethnicity.

Formidable Line-up Of Activist Writers

Choudry is now in Montreal, an academic in International Education at McGill University, where Jill Hanley is an Associate Professor of Social Work. Eric Shragge is at the School of Community and Public Affairs at Concordia, another Montreal university. The biographical sketches indicate that all three are active in social justice activities, as are all their other 27 fellows. It’s a formidable line-up. Many of the 30 contributors are academics, though all 30 have varied resumes, escaping the simpler classifications of earlier times. To give an idea: two are trade unionists, five are students, two are researchers, five are community organisers, three are film makers or writers, one is a lawyer and one is a politician. But not one of the 30 identifies him or herself with just one designation, and most could as easily be provided with a different description from the one I’ve chosen.

This is significant, an indication of the approach the editors set out in their introduction. The put down that traditionally accompanies “absent-minded professors”; that they’re inhabitants of ivory towers, is not one that can be pinned on Choudry et al. They want to organise. Their collective are not primarily students or teachers or workers. They’re activists, seeking to combine theory and practice. To get an idea of the elasticity consider the sketch of one of the authors, of a chapter called “Prefigurative Self-Governance and Self-Organization: The Influence of Antiauthoritarian (Pro) Feminist, Radical Queer, and Antiracist Networks in Quebec”. It takes all of eight lines to list the identities of Sandra Jeppesen, from the “Random Anarchist Group, TAO Communications, Active Resistance, Uprising Bookstore, Block the Empire/Bloquez l’Empire... She has produced a punk-anarchist novel..., guerrilla texts and other trouble”. You get the idea.

Such postmodern travels infuriate the official mind, but they can also annoy that other traditionalist stereotype, the short-back-and-sides brigade, a species as common in Canada as it has been in New Zealand - and an objective ally. It would be a pity if potential readers allowed themselves to be hampered by any lingering culture shocks, which need to be left back in the 20th Century. The central theme of “Organize” is that all oppressions need to be resisted. Success demands unity, not judgemental preferences based on style.

“Dialogue” To Divide And Conquer

Some might be surprised that linguistic conflict is not addressed. From outside, the political news from Quebec is generally to do with Anglo-Franco tension. It’s not here. One obvious reason is that the writers are Anglophones, many, like Choudry himself, from international backgrounds. English is, for better or worse, the global language. But there is a further, more substantial factor. Quebec’s language wars are effectively over, and to wage a rearguard campaign would only be divisive, splitting natural allies. To look away from the old quarrels - more stuff from the short-back-and-sides era - was a smart choice.

A sidebar insert from Choudry looks at the 1999 Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) Leaders’ Summit in NZ, from which, by way of the Official Information Act, he obtained a Cabinet paper on how to deal with dissent. It’s an instructive look at how State apparatuses typically behave, and a more useful learning tool for radicals than comic diversions like the earlier raid on a suburban Christchurch house. For APEC the strategy in Christchurch was to try to co-opt protestors and non-government organisations (NGOs) by spreading an impression that the Government valued differing opinions, that it was open to “dialogue”. If public opinion forms a view that the State is “listening”, the Government can potentially build at least tacit support from “middle NZ” and split its opposition into “responsible” and “disruptive” elements. There’s one chapter from NZ itself in which Maria Bargh from Victoria University outlines the foreshore and seabed issue. It’s a succinct summary, though she might not now write that “activists from the last 20 years” tend to be in the Maori Party. Sometimes tides ebb and flow quite quickly.

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Catastrophism: A Review

by Seth Sandronsky
The Progressive Populist
January 2012

The politics and rhetoric of doomsday shadow the left, right and environmental movement in the Global North. What this trend assumes and explains is the focus of a new book titled Catastrophism: The Apocalyptic Politics of Collapse and Rebirth [PM Press].

Catastrophism is the view that society is on the path to collapse, ecologically, economically and morally. For some but not all catastrophists, a collapse will spur a rebirth and cleansing.

The book’s authors agree that capitalism does generate catastrophes. The most visible one is climate change; others are less easy to see, with species die-off a dire case in point.

Meanwhile, the political and rhetorical use of fear unites leftists, rightists and environmentalist. This may seem strange.

Yet strangeness apart, the rub is that for the right-wing, secular and sacred, fear works splendidly to galvanize support for ruling-class power that maintains its hegemony in large measure by splitting the working class by ethnicity, gender and race. By contrast, fearful politics and rhetoric tend to paralyze the left and environmental movement, a critique at the heart of Catastrophism.

Doug Henwood, author and financial journalist, in a foreword sets the anti-catastrophe table for the four chapters to follow. To this end, he maintains that dystopian narratives weaken progressives and are rooted in mistaken views of reforming and overturning the system.
Eddie Yuen explores the uses of catastrophe in the environmental movement. He surveys how in part catastrophes are normalized, contextualized, attributed and prophesized, from former Vice President Al Gore to the Rev. Thomas Robert Malthus.

Yuen suggests that presenting the public with fearful facts about the climate crisis, for instance, is insufficient to encourage them to engage in social solidarity. For him, self-organized movements are the key node of resistance to environmental devastation, everyday people coming together to combat their isolation in the face of corporate capitalism’s relentless attacks against them and the planet.

Sasha Lilley critically unpacks left-wing views of collapse as a means to awaken and cleanse society. Why? Catastrophists on the left are, she argues convincingly, are mired in “a deep-seated pessimism about mass collective action and radical social transformation.”
Against the backdrop of such defeatism over recent decades, Lilley defines one flavor of left catastrophism as that of determinism: the capitalist system’s limits alone will herald progressive social change. She evaluates the evidence of this from currents in anarchism and Marxism, past and present.

For Lilley, some Marxists misunderstand Marx’s view of history, seeing it as a mechanical unfolding of social change. Yet he placed at the center of this process the actions of living human beings collectively cooperating to end their oppression, with the overthrow of apartheid in South Africa a modern example.

For Lilley, there is also a voluntarism viewpoint of left catastrophists: grim material conditions alone (“the worse the better”) will spur radical possibilities. She takes up one variant of this outlook in part with an analysis of far-left groupings such as the Weather Underground during the 1960s.

James Davis explains how the US right views part or most all of the 20th century as a series of catastrophic defeats for apple pie and motherhood. We see such wound-licking in the apparent GOP re-set after decisive defeats in the 2012 general election, propelled in part by an emerging minority-majority electorate opposed to the agenda of the Republican Party.

David McNally wraps up the book with a brilliant chapter on the history and imagery of monsters under capitalism, especially zombies. His is a cultural and historical critique, and quite readable.

We journey from the England of Mary Shelly’s Frankenstein to France’s colony of slave-laborers in Haiti and Pennsylvania during de-industrialization. McNally pulls the curtain back on what does (not) happen to working people on and off the job every day, the routine “dead-time” of labor services for pay, a catastrophe that finds cultural expression in monster tropes.

Underpinning the book is the authors’ sense of urgency. Theirs is the view that an informed understanding of the actual character of the capitalist system can empower dissidents mobilizing together to build an anti-system movement.

Catastrophism launches a vital conversation for our crisis-laden era. In a time of real dangers and unreal cures, this is a book to read and savor with family and friends.

Seth Sandronsky lives and writes in Sacramento. Email

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Rediscovering the Power and Utility of Selma James

by Victoria Law
New Clear Vision
December 14th, 2012

In 2002, when my daughter was a toddler, I joined a fledgling group called M*A*M*A (Mothers’ Association for Militant Action). We were mothers who felt pushed out of political organizing because we came with children and the additional needs that children bring. We attempted to challenge the idea that once a woman becomes a mother, she can no longer be politically involved. We quickly realized that, in order for us to organize, we needed childcare for our very young (and, in one case, developmentally delayed) children.

Our requests for childcare were usually dismissed. When we brought our children to meetings and events, we were given the evil eye, if not verbally chastised, when our children made noise. Now, ten years later, childcare is still not the norm although it is offered at certain conferences and events.

None of us militant mamas had ever heard of Selma James, although she has been writing about the gendered nature of parenting and other care work since the 1950s. That, in itself, says something about the invisibility not only of women’s work, but also of those who write about women’s work.

In 1972, when Selma James, an anti-racist advocate for women’s rights since the 1940s, published “Women, the Unions and Work, Or What is Not to Be Done,” she wrote, “The very structure of the union puts women off. All those rules and regulations and having to talk at meetings and having meetings at night when we are putting our children to bed and washing up, often confirm to us that we are ‘backward.’”

I’ve never been part of a union, but I can say, from experience, that forty years later, we can substitute “activist group” or “social justice organization” or “pressing political cause” and the same often holds true.

*           *           *

In 1972, James launched the Wages for Housework campaign, calling on governments to recognize the importance of women’s work in the home to both families and to the economy, saying, “We demand a guaranteed income for women and for men, working or not working, married or not. If we raise kids, we have a right to a living wage.” This demand has yet to be met except, perhaps in the UK where, under the 1948 Family Allowance Act, the government PAYS women for the work of caring for their own children.

Now why is it that, in 2012, so many of us — particularly those of us who struggle to balance paid work, social justice work and childraising (or what James would term “care work”) remain so unfamiliar with Selma James, her writings and her work? What lessons could we have drawn from the campaigns with which she was involved and her documentation of other campaigns?

Recognizing that James’s writings have addressed many of these questions, PM Press (which also published my book about resistance and organizing in women’s prisons) has reprinted a collection of James’s writings, aptly titled Sex, Race, and Class. These writings range from her 1952 “A Woman’s Place,” based on conversations with her working-class housewife neighbors, to her more recent articles about campaigns and movements in the UK, Venezuela, Haiti and Tanzania. In many of her writings, she contests the typical (male) Left dismissal of women’s issues as divisive. Instead, she challenges men to join women’s struggles: “The question is: Are they going to join us?” she asked in 1971. She continues to ask that question today; I heard it this past April when she gave a talk at the local bookstore in NYC.

In addition to championing the right of women to be paid for their housework and carework, James has also documented struggles that might otherwise be forgotten: In “Hookers in the House of the Lord,” James describes, in great detail, the twelve-day occupation of a church by the English Collective of Prostitutes (ECP) in 1983. She details the strategies and tactics of the women involved as well as outside supporters. For instance, gay male friends ran a crèche for the Occupiers. Others cooked and brought them hot dinners — one pot for vegetarians and one for meat eaters. Prostitutes who were not involved in the occupation showed their support by wearing ECP badges while working the streets. Given last year’s Occupy explosion and current sex worker organizing, why do so many of us know nothing about this historic takeover three decades earlier?

Not all of her writings are explicit blueprints for campaigns and actions however. James’s 2007 “Rediscovering Nyerere’s Tanzania” allows readers a look into how societies could be structured to account for women’s work. She gives an overview of the concept of ujamaa (which she defines as “a form of traditional African communalism, variously translated as ‘familyhood’ or ‘African socialism,’ updated and developed to meet the needs of the new Tanzania.” For me, this was the first I’d heard of such a concept — let alone a concept that a government had attempted to put into practice. Being wholly unfamiliar with Tanzania, I wished there had been more context — why had the RDA (built to create ujamaa society) been destroyed by Nyerere’s own party? Even after it was destroyed, what impact did it have? What did its participants come away with even after it had been destroyed? And what can we, as people struggling for liberation in our own communities, learn from this experiment while also understanding the geographic, racial, national, class and access divisions between 1960s Tanzania and 2012 United States?

She ends this particular essay with these words: “As we renew the movement to transform the nature of politics and the economy so that purpose is once again watu — people — we must educate ourselves and each other about our hidden history, which includes an Africa that gives leadership to our struggle, as women, as men, as workers urban and rural, waged and unwaged everywhere.”

We should take this as a challenge to delve deeper into such campaigns and movements and bring these histories into our present-day organizing for a truly liberated society.

Victoria Law is a writer, photographer, mother, and Contributing Author for New Clear Vision. She is the author of Resistance Behind Bars: The Struggles Of Incarcerated Women (PM Press, 2009), the editor of the zine Tenacious: Art and Writings from Women in Prison, and a co-founder of Books Through Bars — NYC. Her most recent book, Don’t Leave Your Friends Behind, focuses on how radical movements can support the families in their midst.

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We Call This Progress: An Excerpt from Earth at Risk in Guernica

By Arundhati Roy
Guernica / A Magazine of Art & Politics
December 17th, 2012

From a speech at the Earth at Risk conference, Roy on the misuses of democracy and the revolutionary power of exclusion.

I don’t know how far back in history to begin, so I’ll lay the milestone down in the recent past. I’ll start in the early 1990s, not long after capitalism won its war against Soviet Communism in the bleak mountains of Afghanistan. The Indian government, which was for many years one of the leaders of the nonaligned movement, suddenly became a completely aligned country and began to call itself the natural ally of the U.S. and Israel. It opened up its protected markets to global capital. Most people have been speaking about environmental battles, but in the real world it’s quite hard to separate environmental battles from everything else: the war on terror, for example; the depleted uranium; the missiles; the fact that it was the military-industrial complex that actually pulled the U.S. out of the Great Depression, and since then the economies of places like America, many countries in Europe, and certainly Israel, have had stakes in the manufacture of weapons. What good are weapons if they aren’t going to be used in wars? Weapons are absolutely essential; it’s not just for oil or natural resources, but for the military-industrial complex itself to keep going that we need weapons.

Today, as we speak, the U.S., and perhaps China and India, are involved in a battle for control of the resources of Africa. Thousands of U.S. troops, as well as death squads, are being sent into Africa. The “Yes We Can” president has expanded the war from Afghanistan into Pakistan. There are drone attacks killing children on a regular basis there.

In the 1990s, when the markets of India opened, when all of the laws that protected labor were dismantled, when natural resources were privatized, when that whole process was set into motion, the Indian government opened two locks: one was the lock of the markets; the other was the lock of an old fourteenth-century mosque, which was a disputed site between Hindus and Muslims. The Hindus believed that it was the birthplace of Ram, and the Muslims, of course, use it as a mosque. By opening that lock, India set into motion a kind of conflict between the majority community and the minority community, a way of constantly dividing people. Finding ways to divide people is the main practice of anybody that is in power.
America has taken democracy into the workshop and hollowed it out.

The opening of these two locks unleashed two kinds of totalitarianism in India: one was economic totalitarianism, and the other was Hindu fundamentalism. These processes manufactured what the government calls “terrorism.” You had Islamist terrorists and you had what today the government calls “Maoists,” which means anybody who is resisting the project of civilization, of progress, of development; anybody who is resisting the takeover of their lands or the destruction of rivers and forests, is today a Maoist. Maoists are the most militant end of a bandwidth of resistance movements, with Gandhists at the other end of the spectrum. The kind of strategy people adopt to resist the onslaught of global capital is quite often not an ideological choice, but a tactical choice dependent on the landscape in which those battles are being fought.

Since 1947, ever since India became a sovereign republic, it has deployed its army against what it calls its own people. Now, gradually, those states where the troops were deployed are states of people who are fighting for self-determination. They are states that the decolonized Indian state immediately colonized. Now, those troops are actually defending the government’s rights to build big dams, to build power projects, to carry out the processes of privatization. In the last fifty years, more than thirty million people have been displaced by big dams alone in India. Of course, most of those are Indigenous people or people who live off the land.

The result of twenty years of this kind of free market, and this bogey of terrorism, is in the hollowing out of democracy. I notice a lot of people using the word democracy as a good word, but actually, if you think of it, democracy today is not what democracy used to be. There was a time when the American government was toppling democracies in Latin America and all over the place. Today, it’s waging wars to install democracy. It has taken democracy into the workshop and hollowed it out.

In India, every institution, whether it’s the courts, or the parliament, or the press—has been hollowed out and harnessed to the free market. There are empty rituals to mask what actually happens, which is that India continues to militarize, it continues to become a police state. In the last twenty years, after we embraced the free market, two hundred and fifty thousand farmers have committed suicide, because they have been driven into debt. This has never happened in human history before. Yet, obviously when the establishment has a choice between suicide farmers and suicide bombers, you know which ones they are going to encourage. They don’t mind that statistic, because it helps them; they feel sorry, they make a few noises, but they keep doing what they are doing.

Today, India has more people than all the poorest countries of Africa put together. It has 80 percent of its population living on less than twenty rupees a day, which is less than fifty cents a day. That is the atmosphere in which the resistance movements are operating.

Of course, it has a media—I don’t know any other country with so many news channels, all of them sponsored or directly owned by corporations, including mining corporations and infrastructure corporations. The vast majority of all news is funded by corporate advertising, so you can imagine what’s going on with that. The prime minister of the world’s largest democracy, Manmohan Singh, who was more or less installed by the IMF, has never won an election in his life. He stood for one election and lost, but after that he was just placed there. He’s the person who, when he was finance minister, actually dismantled all the laws and allowed global capital into India.

We should not be saying tax the rich, we should be saying take their money and redistribute it, take their property and redistribute it.

One time I was at a meeting of iron ore workers, and Manmohan Singh, the prime minister of that time, had been the leader of the opposition in Parliament. A Hindi poet read out a poem called “What is Manmohan Singh doing these days?” The first lines were: “What is Manmohan Singh doing these days? What does poison do after it enters the bloodstream?” They knew that whatever he had to do was done, and now it’s just a question of it taking its course.

In 2005, which was the first term of the present government, the Indian government signed hundreds of Memorandums of Understanding, or MOUs, with mining companies, infrastructure companies, and so on, to develop a huge swath of forestland in Central India. India has up to an estimated one hundred million Indigenous people, and if you look at a map of India, the minerals, the forests, and the Indigenous people are all stacked up, one on top of the other.

Many of these Memorandums of Understanding were signed with these mining companies in 2005. At the time, in the state of Chhattisgarh, which is where this great civil war is unfolding now, the government raised a tribal militia, which was funded by these corporations, to basically go through the forest to try and clear it of people so that the MOUs could be actualized. The media started to call this whole swath of forest the “Maoist Corridor.” Some of us used to call it the “MOUist Corridor.” Around that time, they announced a war called “Operation Green Hunt.” Two hundred thousand paramilitary began to move into the forests, along with the tribal militia, to clear it of what the government called Maoists.

The Maoist movement, in various avatars, has existed in India since 1967, which was the first time there was an uprising. It took place in a village in West Bengal called Naxalbari, so the Maoists are sometimes called Naxalites. Of course it’s an underground, banned party. It now has a People’s Liberation Guerrilla Army. Thousands of people have been killed in this conflict. Today, there are thousands of people in prison, and all of them are called Maoists, though not all of them are really Maoists, because as I said, anybody who resists today is called a terrorist. Poverty and terrorism have been conflated. In the Northeastern states we have laws like the Armed Forces Special Powers Act, which allows soldiers to kill on suspicion. In all of India we have the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act, which basically makes even thinking an anti government thought a criminal offense, for which you can be jailed for up to than seven years.

The Indian government—the largest democracy in the world—is planning to call out the army in Central India, to fight the poorest people in the world.

To read more, check out the full excerpt on:
Guernica / A Magazine of Art & Politics

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Dylan, Modest Mouse and the End of the World

By Dan Sharber
Red Wedge Magazine
December 10th, 2012

Dan Sharber takes a look at how and why some musicians are obsessed with the apocalypse.

So I read this book recently called Catastrophism: The Apocalyptic Politics of Collapse and Rebirth put out last month by PM Press. It’s about political tendencies that have an aspect of end-of-the-world gloom and doom. It covers a various range of topics over its short length -- from the environmental movement’s attempts to mobilize people through fear of the impending global collapse to right-wing catastrophists like Anders Breivik, who fear the end of the world is coming fast and multi-culturalism is the cause. it’s a good and very interesting book that I highly recommend.

But what made me think about writing something about it here is twofold. One, I’ve been listening to Bob Dylan a ton recently and his song “Let Me Die In My Footsteps” had been on my mind.

This song is about impending nuclear war and Bob’s desire to not go into the bomb shelters but to die in his footsteps above ground.

"I will not go down under the ground
’Cause somebody tells me that death’s comin’ ’round
An’ I will not carry myself down to die
When I go to my grave my head will be high
Let me die in my footsteps
Before I go down under the ground"

Isaac Brock
The second reason was that I recently pulled out Modest Mouse’s Good News For People Who Love Bad News.

I had not listened to this record in awhile and I remember when it came out just being ‘meh’ about it. But when I listened to it yesterday I realized how kick ass a record it is. It is not my favorite Modest Mouse record but even the fourth best MM record is still better than tons of other records out there.

But what got me this time was the song “Bury Me With It.” Especially this part:

"Well as sure as planets come I know that they end
And if I’m here when that happens just promise me this my friend
Please bury me with it
I just don’t need none of that Mad Max bullshit"

So now what does all this have in common you ask? Good question.

Well, the book posits in one of the essays that increased fear and a thorough appreciation of the level of destruction we’re seeing in the world right now doesn’t actually lead to people getting more involved in fighting against climate change. In fact in a lot of cases the opposite is true. People retreat and feel hopeless to make any change.

And while many “don’t need none of that Mad Max bullshit,” instead of trying to fight for a better world, many are more likely to simply want to “die in their footsteps.”

These songs do differ a little in fundamental ways though. Dylan’s song encourages the listener to get out into the country and see nature while you can so that you may die on your own terms. And while he does say that he would “throw all the guns and the tanks in the sea” this is predicated on him having “rubies and riches and crowns,” or put another way, power.

Dylan’s song is fatalist because he believes that we have no power to change these things and we should simply try to enjoy what little time we have left and not get buried by the fear. The sentiment at the end is good but the demoralization inherent in having no power to change things is demobilizing.

If you’re not rich enough to throw the tanks in the sea then just check out and get ready to die on your own terms.

To me this really relates to the theme of Catastrophism. For Dylan, the immense fear and almost incomprehensible destruction associated with nuclear war did not inspire action but caused crippling apathy and a move away from collective solutions into personal attempts to live right. While this of course is not true of all people historically, it is part of the point of the song.

Even when anti-nuclear activists hoped that the fear would spark action, the opposite was equally likely (and attractive to many).

Modest Mouse’s song is also about enjoying what little time we have on this planet but Isaac Brock takes this even further.

It is very pointed that the first verse has the line “I probably really should’ve been at work.” This song is not simply about the destruction of the planet (as the verse at the top of this deals with) but also about the stultifying nature of work in our modern capitalist system. Or as Karl Marx put it:

"[T]he fact that labor is external to the worker, i.e., it does not belong to his intrinsic nature; that in his work, therefore, he does not affirm himself but denies himself, does not feel content but unhappy, does not develop freely his physical and mental energy but mortifies his body and ruins his mind. The worker therefore only feels himself outside his work, and in his work feels outside himself. He feels at home when he is not working, and when he is working he does not feel at home. His labor is therefore not voluntary, but coerced; it is forced labor. It is therefore not the satisfaction of a need; it is merely a means to satisfy needs external to it. Its alien character emerges clearly in the fact that as soon as no physical or other compulsion exists, labor is shunned like the plague."

Anyone that has ever worked any shitty job knows these words to be true. Marx’s philosophy though is based on action. He wrote about this bitter alienation to point people to how things could be better. To how things don’t have to be this way. And how we could and should work together to change them.

Those familiar with Modest Mouse know that Brock peppers many of his songs with references to jobs, getting jobs, getting fired from jobs, bosses, etc (for some examples see: “Custom Concern“, “Float On“, “Third Planet“, “Wild Pack Of Family Dogs” etc). Also there is a strand of anti-suburban sprawl environmentalism in some songs (again “Custom Concern” and also “Novocain Stain“).

But instead of Brock looking to inspire some sort of action, again there is the desire to check out. And shoot guns at a mound of dirt. And when you can no longer do that or any of the other simple (though wholly unsatisfying) escapist activity, it’s time to die.

"Please, bury me with it."

Despite the best intentions of those who fight for a better world for all of us, the politics of fear and imminent destruction are not helpful. I am, of course, not chiding Brock or Dylan on this but merely using their songs for examples. There are larger issues here about the context within which these songs were written but, while interesting, I don’t have time to get into those here.

The book does a great job of pointing this out and where Brock says he’s not interested in that “Mad Max bullshit,” the intro essay in Catastrophism puts it a different way:

“Dystopia is for losers.”

And while I think we can all agree on that, fear is not a good motivator. We desperately need a politics of hope; imbued with revolutionary enthusiasm. Now more than ever.

Anyway, jam out to the songs and read that book. Then instead of getting overwhelmed and checking out, get involved in making the world a better place.

We don’t need rubies or crowns because we have numbers. Remember the words of Percy Shelley:

"Rise like Lions after slumber
In unvanquishable number --
Shake your chains to earth like dew
Which in sleep had fallen on you --
Ye are many -- they are few."

Dan Sharber is an activist and socialist in Texas. He guest-writes at the music blog 70 Day Weekend (where this article first appeared), and recently spoke on environmental disaster in capitalism.

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