The Context of Sweatshops

Every now and then, human beings are burned alive, die from an explosion, under a building that caved in, take their own lives or collapse due to exhaustion having worked for hours and hours on end in one of the many facilities across the world colloquially referred to as sweatshops. What follows usually entails some moral outrage in western social media and public discourse, a few stories on the generally horrible conditions facing vast amounts of workers that we otherwise never hear of, and some amount of debate concerning the advantages and disadvantages of this particular arrangement.

Within the discussions that follow in the wake of such events, unless we get caught up in particularities or dead ends, we inevitably at some point arrive at the baseline argument: Yes, the sweatshops and the conditions are bad, but it is the best option for many of these people. Charts are presented. Graphs displayed. Look, these poor countries are pulling themselves up by their bootstraps. They have growth. We get cheap clothes, and they get a chance to at least earn a living. No one forces them to work in the factories, in fact, they are lining up for the jobs. Isn’t this the definition of win-win?

Before addressing the core of this argument, it might be worth to refresh our memories concerning exactly what kind of conditions we’re dealing with for these sweatshop workers around the world. On April 24th, 2013, a nine-story building in Dhaka, Bangladesh, housing thousands of workers, collapsed, leaving over 1000 dead and 2500 injured. [1] Despite large, visible and growing cracks in multiple parts of the building, textile workers were “ordered” to return to work a day after the building was briefly evacuated. For many of them, that was the last thing they did as the building came down and buried them alive. Some spent days under the rubble, desperately screaming for help among decomposing bodies. Yet others lost limbs, friends or family members. Still, a year after the accident, investigations uncovered continued systemic abuse, for instance regarding “girls as young as 13 forced to work 11 hours a day in unsafe conditions”. [2]

On the night of August 12th this year, in the huge Port of Tianjin in eastern China, an explosion killed over 100 people, injuring almost 700, in a curious mix of state bureaucratic nepotism and corruption, capitalist pressures, and systemic safety violations. [3] Meanwhile, in Qatar, approximately 1200 migrant workers have died building facilities for the FIFA World Cup to be held there in 2022, with another 2800 projected to die by the time the games take place. [4]

We could keep going, just to drive home the point that these are not isolated incidents, but a reoccurring trend – from simply exhausting work, to straight out lethal working conditions. Beyond these spectacular death tolls, lies an entire world of worker health issues, human trafficking, inhumane work hours and degrading treatment – from diamond mines in South Africa, through soft drink producers in India to garment factories in Central and South America. Just in Malaysia, there’s an estimated 2 million foreign workers, often tricked into debt contracts by agents, and stuck indefinitely in what can only be described as modern day slavery. [5]

We often picture all these things as a distant phenomena, at least at arms length from our western societies. But when 7 Chinese sweatshop workers died in Italy in 2013, the joys of global capitalism had, geographically at least, gone almost full circle. [6] The mood could hardly be more somber as the Reuters article simply states that

One of the dead suffocated as he tried to escape through a window guarded by iron bars.

No further explanation needed.

But it doesn’t end there, as for instance the slave-like conditions of workers in the American prison-industrial complex testify to. Truth is, the effects of our system are not only felt someplace far away, in exploited countries throughout Africa, Asia or the Middle East, but are present all around us, also in western societies. They manifest as alienated and largely empty labor, “bullshit jobs” to lend David Graeber’s term, the constant conflict over wages and other concessions, and the way in which we, despite all so called progress and technology, often work more and endure greater psychological duress than did people of feudal societies or hunter-gatherers. Thus the standard liberal left narrative of unfortunate injustices far away that we collectively benefit from, rests on a false premise that here at home, everything is pretty much fine.

In fact, what the last 30 or so years of neoliberal policies have shown, is that not only are countries outside the western sphere exploited, coerced and dominated, but this very exploitation is used as a leverage to undermine hard fought gains even in the wealthy parts of the world, fought for by anarchists and other socialists, in Haymarket, in the streets of Paris, or on the barricades in Barcelona. Because when cheap labor is available abroad, even social democrats succumb to the pressures of market logic and see themselves forced to squeeze domestic wages, undermine working conditions and deregulate markets in the name of keeping national industries competitive. What we have seen since the late 1970s is not a political shift, but an ideological one. It is not the case of right wing parties taking over political power everywhere, but to a large extent also social democratic governments, left drifting aimlessly amidst the debris of shipwrecked Keynesian policies, capitulating to the hegemony of neoliberalism.

The notion that we’re universally benefiting, because we can buy cheap clothes, does not tell this full story. What we see when the veil of social constructs taken for granted is removed, are various groups of working class people pitted against each other and irrational use of both human and natural resources. The win-win, it turns out, applies to capitalist interests or corrupt bureaucracies, not the relationship of western workers versus those of the global south. We might be privileged compared to them, but we’re all worse off because of the coercive impositions of neoliberalism and, in the end, capitalism. The division is thus not a geographical one, this place versus that, but one of social relations – class versus class.

The story only gets better when we start to investigate why it happens to be the case, that all these workers are available and dirt cheap in all these countries, “voluntarily” entering death traps and enduring these horrible conditions. This piece of historical context goes back to the colonial era, when colonial powers seized and tried to put their new domains into good use:

In most places in Africa, Asia, and South America, colonisers initially had a very difficult time getting natives to work in their mines, factories, and plantations. To solve this problem, they either forcibly removed farmers from their land or levied onerous taxes in order to coerce them into seeking wage work, all under the guise of the “civilising mission”. This caused hundreds of thousands of people to move to industrial cities where they constituted a reserve army of workers willing to take whatever job they could find. [7]

Enclosures of commons, high taxes, brutal oppression – wait, haven’t we heard this story before, in another time and place? Indeed, it is precisely what had transpired in the heartland of industrial capitalism, not long before, and what is probably best known as the process described by Marx as primitive accumulation – an early, initial form of building up capital and, “enticing”, what was earlier largely self-sustainable farmers and rural populations to submit to wage labor. More recently, David Harvey revamped this term into accumulation by dispossession, which seems apt, because there is nothing strictly initial or primitive about this accumulation, and it has been ongoing, in different forms and parts of the world, ever since it began in the early days of European capitalism.

When the former colonies increasingly started to gain independence, new ways were added to the arsenal of incentivizing impoverished populations to perform work for the benefit of capital accumulation. One of these was national bondage, as for instance was the case for Haiti. All around the world, former colonial masters demanded compensation for the work they had, erm, overseen in said colonies. These societies were facing the option of complying or dealing with worldwide trade embargoes or military interventions, and so money continued to pour from the global south to the global north, often with humanitarian crises as an ignored side effect. This also happened to countries like Madagascar, Bolivia, the Philippines – the list could go on. Yet others, finding themselves on the wrong side (i.e. not the side of western powers and capitalist interests) of a conflict, were made to pay reparations.

With neoliberalism, a new tool emerged to further squeeze populations in the global south, and this was the process which seriously triggered the new age of sweatshops. In the wake of the crises of the 1970s, with rampant inflation combined with stagnation around the western world, the tune of the new ideology was privatization, deregulation and globalization, albeit somewhat selectively. New global institutions, such as the IMF, were central in administering the implementation of new policies in the countries of the global south. Those struggling with debt or poor finances – often themselves symptoms of earlier and ongoing domination by former colonial nations with imperialist ambitions – were offered a way out: Introduce the policies we require, and we will lend you money. This was the start of structural adjustment programmes (SAPs).

These deals were usually constructed to remove trade tariffs and subsidies in poor countries, deregulating their markets and opening them up for foreign investment, and removing any existing safety nets and public spending on education, health or other related things. Without the protective tariffs, these countries markets were flooded with cheap, subsidized western crops and other farm products, effectively putting entire domestic sectors out of business, once again, driving desperate populations into city centers where, you guessed it, western capitalists, thanks to the new policies, could buy up land, build factories, and take advantage of desperate people in an attempt to restore some of the profits that had gone missing since the end of the Keynesian era. To add insult to injury, these deals were often worked out with unaccountable and corrupt political elites, and much of the loans would often disappear never to be seen again by the general population. Where populations tried to or successfully overthrew such arrangements, outraged western interests would make the populations pay reparations.

An interesting case in point is the story of Ladakh, an isolated and sparsely populated area in the northernmost India. The inhabitants of this area lived without major outside interference, in agricultural communities on the mountainsides and plateaus of western Himalaya. They were self-sustainable, enjoyed good conditions with a lot of leisure time, and none of the social problems associated with western lifestyles – unemployment, inequality, and so on.

In the mid 1970s, Ladakh was suddenly thrown open to the outside world. Cheap, subsidized food, trucked in on subsidized roads, by vehicles running on subsidized fuel undermined Ladakh’s local economy. At the same time, the Ladakhis were bombarded with advertising and media images, that romanticized western style consumerism, and made their own culture seem pitiful by comparison. [8]

Suddenly unemployment, poverty, divisiveness, inequality and even violence cause by social tensions became part of the everyday life for the people of Ladakh.

These changes weren’t the result of innate human greed or some sort of evolutionary force. They happened far too suddenly for that. They were clearly the direct result of the exposure to outside economic pressures. [T]hese pressures created intense competition, breaking down community and the connection to nature that had been the cornerstone of Ladakhi culture for centuries. This was Ladakh’s introduction to globalization. [8]

Returning to the topic of sweatshops in general, it should now be clear that we are not dealing with a situation where the word “voluntary” makes sense as soon as we contextualize what actually happens. Desperate people, people made desperate by institutions that work hand in hand with business, are funneled into exploitative and dangerous labor, often under geopolitical conditions that make a mockery even of washed out concepts of representative democracy. The result is that groups of people are played out against each other across regions, and thus it is incorrect to simply say that the workers in the west benefit – often they lose their own jobs, security or autonomy in the process of globalization. It is also wrong to put the blame on the plate of consumers. Not only is it extremely hard for people to even know what layers of abuse and exploitation hide behind the commodities as they appear to them in the stores, but the entire purpose of this anonymous market of commodities is precisely to decouple the social relations of producers and consumers.

Very few people, if put in directly social relationships with others, would even think of submitting their peers to these levels of abuse just to get a shirt or some consumer good – never mind that without the backing of a strong coercive force, they wouldn’t have the power to do it. But from the vantage point of each individual actor in this individualized yet global setting – consumer, producer, distributor, worker – they are all doing what the system presents as their best option. This is often mistaken for a reflection of some sort of inevitable human nature, or an expression of self-interest, when it is just the result of people choosing between sets of rigged options. It is a systemic issue, that needs addressing beyond consumer boycotts, even if such boycotts and particular incidents where abuse is laid bare can be used as focal points of organizing resistance. What is needed, is thus solidarity with the exploited workers, as their cause is also ours, and only together can we overcome the real causes of our problems.

In summary, what can be said about the discussion concerning sweatshops is quite simple. When put in its proper context, saying that sweatshop work is the best option available for all these people around the world is not a successful defense of sweatshops, but rather a devastating critique of the present system.


[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/2013_Savar_building_collapse

[2] http://www.theguardian.com/world/2014/feb/06/bangladesh-garment-factories-child-labour-uk

[3] https://libcom.org/news/tianjin-explosion-tragedy-profit-corruption-chinas-complicated-transition-21082015

[4] http://www.huffingtonpost.co.uk/2015/06/03/qatar-world-cup-deaths_n_7500920.html

[5] http://www.humantrafficking.org/countries/malaysia

[6] http://www.reuters.com/article/2013/12/29/us-italy-sweatshop-insight-idUSBRE9BS04D20131229

[7] http://thoughtleader.co.za/jasonhickel/2011/07/02/why-jeffrey-sachs-is-wrong-about-sweatshops/

[8] The Economics of Happiness (2011, Grolick, Page, Norberg-Hodge)

Swedish Group Performs Open Rescue Campaign

It’s a dark night in mid-August, and the clock is nearing 3am. A small group of people huddles together in a spot of overgrown vegetation, just outside an industrial farming facility where hundreds, if not thousands, of pigs are held captive. These pigs live out miserable and short lives at the end of which awaits a sorry fate consisting of becoming food on the plates of those who value their arbitrary taste preferences over the lives and suffering of sentient beings.

It is the first direct action of this type for several members of the group, and nerves are running high. They’ve seen cars come and go near the facility. And was that voices in the distance? Finally, after making sure everything seems calm and quiet, the moment has come, and it is time to enter in order to save some of the individuals inside. The group leaves the safety of the forest line and hurries across the open yard towards the entrance to the facility. As they open the unlocked door, they realize that someone is already inside. Panicked, the activists dash back to safety, and curse the turn of events. No animals will be saved tonight. Or will they? Where do we go from here?

This is a relatively accurate re-imagining of an open rescue performed by the Swedish direct action group Tomma Burar (Empty Cages), one of three such rescues performed during their high profile August campaign in which they hit three sites, liberating selected animals from the cruel conditions prevailing in industrial animal farms. They had been planning the campaign for a long time, and thought out what they believed would be the best tactics and best strategy for their specific conditions.

Rather than conforming to the stereotypical demographic of naive teenagers often spouted by media, commercial interests or politicians, these were people of various ages and from various backgrounds, some of them parents, some veteran activists while some participated in this type of action for the very first time. As such, certain options were off the table. A full blown rescue, while hitting the factory farm hard financially, would at the same time pose several problems. Chief amongst them, was that these activists had families, and couldn’t afford to leave them behind, spending time in prison.

They had children and loved ones to care for, and had to strike a balance between benefits for the animal liberation movement and personal consequences. Usually this is where activists often would drop out, and where everyday lives lure those in theory opposing many aspects of the status quo to lull into a sort of slumber, pacified by the hardships and realities of our society. And it is indeed hard to blame people for not doing more, as they try to stay afloat amidst financial, social and political hardship. But these activist wouldn’t have any of that, and thus the idea of open rescue.

Back in the safety of the vegetation, the group is shaken and uncertain of what to do. Months of planning, and now this setback at the first step of their campaign. But not everything is lost. In their reconnaissance operations, they have pinpointed a backup location. A plan B. But the safety of the night will soon break into the exposing light of dawn, and the later in the night it gets, the bigger the risk that personnel will be present at the site.

Besides, the secondary location is not as well scouted as the primary one. Is it worth the risk? The activists consult with their off-site member that is on stand-by back at home. Together they iron out how to get to the second location, and the group makes a consensus decision to carry on. There’s no time to be afraid or get caught up second guessing oneself, it is time to act.

Open rescue is a type of rescue in which the activists are open with both their identities and their actions. It means that they will certainly have to answer for what they do to those who uphold laws, but it also means a great chance at publicity, and a platform to discuss animal rights and animal liberation. For this purpose, the group chooses to perform the rescues as partially symbolic actions, for which the legal ramifications will not include prison. Throughout the course of August, they liberate two pigs, eight hens and one salmon.

The animals are relocated to loving homes (well, the salmon is in the open waters, which is probably as homely as it gets) where they can live in natural and non-oppressive environments. The activists contact authorities and media and inform them about the actions they have performed. They also leave a jar of cookies and a signed letter at the sites where they liberate animals, explaining their actions. They take pictures, record sound, and record video, before, during and after the rescues, and have turned it all into documentaries and informational material on their website where people can hear their thoughts, see their actions and judge the results for themselves.

As they performed further rescues, the media attention picked up, and the activists got recognition on national level. They managed to get statements published in a multitude of papers, and garnered the support of thousands of people, dozens of whom even contacted the group and were eager to join into similar operations.

Some radical voices, on the other hand, criticized the group’s “tame” approach and friendly style of communication. But the effort the group put into this image is probably the key element of the broad popularity of their actions. The group contacted experts for consultation regarding how to best transport and feed the animals, wore protective clothing during all rescues, and generally made sure that derailing the debate with dishonest pseudo-concerns wasn’t viable, and that critics had to face on explain that the lives and well-being of these rescued individuals were not a priority compared to property rights.

This can be a valuable lesson to activists of all stripes. Just because we’re radical, we don’t have to treat those we oppose as bad as possible or profile ourselves with the most vulgar and polarizing rhetoric possible. Sometimes, we need to break things or violently defend ourselves. But other times, a friendly approach can be the most disarming thing in the world.

It feels like the clock is racing as the activists approach the second site. It will soon get bright, and as the group surveys the perimeter, they confirm that this facility is locked, and they will need to break open the front door. They proceed with their plan, get into the facility, select two pigs, and carry them to the car which they have prepared for the journey to safety.

As the activists leave the facility, it is already dawning, and they hurry into the car and drive off. The tension built up throughout the night’s events finally subsides, and some of the members of the group break into tears. The surreal circumstances of the rescue clash with everyday reality, driving a car down a countryside road seeing the two animals sleeping tightly in the back.

Even though the activists of Tomma Burar do not espouse any specific political ideas or principles other than their veganism and animal liberation sentiments, it is easy to extrapolate their actions and their thoughts to a broader context. By taking action into their own hands, and disregarding arbitrary laws, they question the very foundation of present day society. A foundation which consists of multiple layers of domination and oppression, which we can reject and act out against in a way that suits our own situation.

By being open with their identities, these activists became very relatable, with all their thoughts, fears, strengths and weaknesses, and it is easy to realize that they are not very different from anyone else. We can all let ourselves be inspired and take this with us as we envision the actions we can take ourselves, in our lives, to challenge the oppressive institutions that we are stuck with for now. At some point, all those small ripples will become a storm again, and through our actions we’re all potential links in the chain that will lead up to it.

As the early morning light paints the surrounding rural landscape in different shades of green, the activists reach the location of the new home for the two liberated pigs. One of the group’s members reflects on the night’s events:

-Watching them stroll around here, with grass under their feet, curious and playful, one single thought strikes me. How can anyone think we’ve done the wrong thing? It is absurd. We haven’t stolen anything. We have liberated two individuals.

The two young pigs grunt, as to confirm the statement, while they busily forage the surrounding grass for food and keenly explore their new surroundings. They sure enjoy themselves, but it is hard to tell if they know just how lucky they are. Back at the factory, vast amounts of their former companions will never experience anything other than crowded concrete floored confinements, with no light but instead a premature death down the tunnel.

As the activist group says it themselves, in one of their videos: Rescued animals are ambassadors for those left behind.


Links:
http://www.tommaburar.se/en
English website of the Swedish direct action group Tomma Burar

http://www.veganprat.se/29/
http://www.veganprat.se/30/
Vegan podcasts by members of the direct action group Tomma Burar, outlining their August campaign (in Swedish only).

Paul Mason’s postcapitalism

This text is a comment on Paul Mason’s The end of capitalism has begun from an anarchist communist perspective, and I suggest at least skimming through the original article to better understand the points presented here.

Almost a thousand years ago, the millenarian movement as well as that of the heretics, expressed views about society which Silvia Federici describes as, at their best, calling for “an egalitarian social order based upon the sharing of wealth and the refusal of hierarchies and authoritarian rule”. [1] Later on, the utopian socialists outlined remarkably similar conditions for human well-being, and soon enough, along came Karl Marx and underpinned his purposefully vague vision of a future communist society with a thorough analysis of capitalism and its inherent contradictions.

Anarchist communist Peter Kropotkin seized on the opportunity to point out the revolutionary potential of technology already some 150 years ago, and saw in it a seed and a means towards human emancipation – from the state, from capitalism, and from work as we know it. In each of these cases, externally or internally imposed material conditions put such ideas into immediate opposition with the reigning order, created genuinely revolutionary outbursts, and expressed utopian visions of a potential society. John Maynard Keynes, in turn, to take a mainstream figure of more modest claims, predicted that we would work perhaps 15 hours a week by now, thanks to that same technological potentiality.

What all these examples – and many others with them – also have in common, unfortunately, is that their largely commendable visions have not yet come to fruition. It is with this nuanced and somewhat somber realization that I’d like to approach Paul Mason’s recent text concerning the supposedly oncoming age of postcapitalism. Not to completely shoot it down as idealist or naive, but rather to draw on the strengths of his analysis while cautioning that a lack of realistic historical analysis combined with a somewhat sensationalist tone might lead to disappointment and unexpected outcomes. In a sense, I’d like to claim that all these groups and individuals, and their visions, were realistic, and that in a sense they were right – we could do this, we could have a radically different society – and that the actual turn of events is “wrong”, in that it defies a logic that springs from an honest concern for the well-being of sentient creatures.

Paul Mason proclaims that it is time to be utopian, and I agree, because I don’t see any reason to refrain from being utopian, at least to some extent, at any point in time. A social movement, especially a revolutionary one, must always know where it is going, even if it by necessity is a sketch and a hypothesis, because otherwise it is hard to know where and how to start, and impossible to utilize prefigurative politics to get there. The phrase “utopian” is far too often used in a cynical way, to deride proponents of radical change, and I refuse to identify with the term in such a manner. In that way, I see Mason’s vision as utopian in the positive sense of the word, and I agree with some of his sentiments. It is rather with the glimpses of methodology, and the analysis of past struggles for social change, that I find myself at odds.

First, Mason’s analysis of the left is somewhat odd. It seems to be focused on the center-left of modern social democracy, or as he himself writes, even liberal parties, which for me hardly qualifies as “the left”. If that is to be understood as the left, then certainly the left seems out of ideas, or even desire, to move beyond capitalism. But in that case, there is also an alternative beyond the left – whatever we might call it, in certain Marxist and various anarchist tendencies, which for a very long time have offered what can broadly be described as libertarian socialism. Not much of Mason’s critique seems aimed at libertarian socialism. These currents are largely materialist in their analysis, have always had utopian components, don’t focus on “forced-march techniques” and never intended to forcefully destroy the market “from above”. It seems then, that Mason applies his critique from an angle which he considers novel and not yet utilized, while in fact he echoes critiques of mainstream politics heard from anarchist and other socialist radicals for many, many years.

Mason does mention both anarchist David Graeber and Karl Marx, but does so somewhat in passing, while arguably, much of what is here presented as a “postcapitalist” analysis of capitalism could fit well within a Marxian analysis (left communists, council communists, autonomist Marxists, Marxist-Humanists, etc), and notions of building the new in the shell of the old are found abundantly throughout anarchist literature and thought, from Proudhon’s mutualism, through most anarcho-syndicalist tendencies and to modern representatives of various strains of anarchism.

Such distancing in itself can be seen as just a tactical way of avoiding being dragged down into sectarianism and ideological quagmires, but at the same times it raises concern whether the lessons of history have been properly accounted for in terms of how to go forward, or if Mason is genuinely trying to reinvent the wheel. This is eerily familiar to the Zeitgeist movement, for instance, which expresses many libertarian socialist ideas, but has a rather shallow analysis of state and capitalism, which in my opinion causes on the one hand its visions to have dangerous flaws, and on the other hand its praxis – how to proceed in practice to reach the goal – to be very weak and detached from existing social movements.

This somewhat generic concern could be found to be inaccurate on a closer analysis, but as the text unfolds, it is rather confirmed on several important points. Mason’s unproblematic relation towards the state being a particularly unappealing notion from an anarchist perspective, weaved in with a distinct lack of practical suggestions beyond dangerously naive appeals for the state to “nurture” the transition. Another significant problem is the, somewhat sensationalist in its self-confidence, statement that we are entering a unique and profound shift in our mode of production – apparently without even noticing it.

I would argue that throughout history, there have been many moments, a sort of paradigm shifts, where new sudden innovations, breakthroughs or disasters have shaped the unfolding events in often radical and sometimes unexpected ways. The Black Death changed the conditions for the feudal serfs, while the introduction of the steam engine and electricity fundamentally changed production and transportation as well as many other aspects of society. In each such shift, there lies a socially revolutionary potentiality. When, for instance, manual labor is substituted for electrically augmented labor, this ripples the fabric of the mode of production, introduces new contradictions and areas of conflicts, and disposes of old relations or traditions.

It is much easier to have a serious impact, in this state of a “blank slate”, where the relations and contradictions are new. It is not necessarily easy, but it is definitely easier than when fighting perhaps hundreds of years of ingrained customs, habits and control mechanisms. Each such shift, is in its own sense unique, with a unique set of attributes and potentialities. This is true also for information technology, but it is in my opinion not correct to envisage this shift as somehow uniquely different in its revolutionary potentiality as compared to the shifts earlier in history – shifts that so far often did lead to social upheaval, but that rarely overcame and fundamentally changed a given mode of production, or when they did, it wasn’t necessarily for the immediate benefit of the popular classes.

Electricity and the following industrialization, reshaped both society and the process of production in fundamental – violent, even – ways. But the basic underlying mode of production, capitalism, remained intact, and in fact, thrived. It was a reshaping it came to own, and which it molded in its own “interest”, despite fierce resistance from the would-be labor force that often preferred death or severe destitution to wage labor. As the portion of labor dedicated to agriculture shrunk away and was replaced by industrial work, to a point where the former has gone from an overwhelming majority to mere percentages in western societies, it is clear that the likes of Kropotkin were right regarding how little effort it would take to produce food for an entire population with new technological aids. What did not follow, however, was the radical break with capitalism that such potential lack of scarcity could imply.

Something that always irks me in discussions of this type, is whenever I come across the excitingly proclaimed sentiment – age old or brand new – that now we’ve reached a state of abundance that makes production according to ability and distribution according to needs a real possibility. It has always been a real possibility to organize society along such egalitarian lines, of course with “abundance” and the satisfaction of “needs” seen as relative to the material conditions of the time – nomadic hunter-gatherers, early farmers, industrial settings, and so on. But what is becoming more and more apparent as technology makes it increasingly easy to provide ever more abundant resources is that our present mode of production – capitalism – was never intended to embrace such a “post-scarcity” scenario, instead leading to absurd manifestations of artificial scarcity. This is something Mason of course emphasizes in regards to information technology, where inherently abundant resources are made scarce, but at the same time he doesn’t seem to note that we’ve operated on a policy of artificial scarcity in many other areas, such as food and housing, for the longest time.

We have enough food to feed the entire world, and enough resources to house everyone, but instead a lot of the food we farm is thrown away, while the homeless roam the streets surrounded by empty houses. Not to mention “Big Pharma”, where ridiculous amounts of resources are directed towards what can only be described as luxury consumption of medication instead of towards real, deadly and easily curable diseases that still plague large parts of the world.

When the industrial work allocation peaked in the west, and started to contract, again , as with agriculture, we did not see a revolutionary contradiction surface and prevail, but instead saw the growth of a new sector – services – as industrial jobs gravitated towards new markets. In this way, and hand in hand with globalization as well as other neoliberal policies, capitalism has once again turned an existential threat into a tool in its own service, this time largely aided by information technology. Here, Mason’s hopes of a great contradiction between the potential abundance of information and goods offered by information technology seem to already be partially put to shame, or at least in a state where we seriously need to ask ourselves how we are supposed to reclaim the initiative.

Another observation that puts specific IT-related claims of the exceptional conditions of our present time into perspective is Andrew Kliman’s book The Failure of Capitalist Production: Underlying Causes of the Great Recession [2], in which the author challenges what he calls the “Conventional Left Account” of the last decades; neoliberalism taking hold in the early 80s; worker’s share of income and real pay declining; profit rates rebounding; and growth lacking due to the redirection of profits from new production to de-regulated finance markets. Using convincing data and analysis, Kliman instead points towards Marx’s analysis of the tendency of the falling rate of profits, and argues that rather than a victorious neoliberalism, we’re seeing a desperate capitalism, unable to recapture its very contextual post-WW2 growth and profit rates. Here we have a rather orthodox Marxian explanation that could, if sensationalized in a way that Kliman avoids, offer the way out. Or perhaps used in tandem with Mason’s analysis. Even without taking sides, the thing to keep in mind is how many factors and aspects are at play, and how dangerous it can be to over-emphasize and single out one of them.

Mason’s approach also largely seems to deal with the state of western societies, even though he does mention that the workforce is “hugely expanded”. The fact that many of these new workers are also industrial workers (or service workers with very similar working conditions) doesn’t seem to affect the analysis. It can of course be argued that the potential for change will be realized in the most “advanced” part of the economy, but that was the idea a hundred years ago as well, when the sages of the time expected the proletariat of Germany to rise, but instead got a revolution in largely pre-industrial Russia. A shift might start elsewhere, due to specific circumstances, and then sweep over the world. This could be South America, The Middle East, or Asia depending on what factors we put most trust in.

All this doesn’t mean that we should give up or ignore information technology. On the contrary, I think there are relevant battles to be fought in this area, but so are the battles in workplaces, around social issues and around global economic and political power interests. Information technology is here but one of the arenas where we have to struggle, and we shouldn’t lose sight of the others.

So when Mason claims that what we need is “a project, the aim of which should be to expand those technologies, business models and behaviors that dissolve market forces, socialize knowledge, eradicate the need for work and push the economy towards abundance” we are left wondering what it is we are actually supposed to do, when these technologies right now don’t seem to “dissolve market forces” but instead, as for instance is the case with Uber or AirBnB, utilize the networking potential and people’s voluntary work and association, for free, to privatize and extract profits, and sometimes also to monetize and commodify yet another area of life that was before outside of the sphere of economics altogether. It almost sounds as a tech-inspired accelerationism, in worst case, and we’re not really given any hints as to how this technology is supposedly going to dissolve what it on the face of it seems to strengthen, or at least maintain.

This leads us to the topic of potential action, and sadly the feeling is that we are somewhat left wanting, in best case, and shirking, in the worst. The chief concern here is the unproblematic role that Mason attributes to the state in this process. Drawing parallels with late feudalism and the onset of capitalism, Mason describes how the state switched “from hindering the change to promoting it”, but what does that really tell us about the role of the state and the outcome of this promotion? The enclosures of commons, poor laws, combination laws, the harsh penalties imposed on those refusing to submit to wage slavery – all the parts that together form what is known as the process of primitive accumulation – do rather imply that the state co-opted the process, or was itself utilized as a tool by the new emerging elites.

This is where an anarchist analysis of the state, based on first hand experience and roughly 200 years of libertarian thought and struggles, together with a Marxian analysis of the role of the state in the rise of capitalism sounds an alarm bell the size of a Google server hall. Mason goes on to tell us that “It will need the state to create the framework – just as it created the framework for factory labor, sound currencies and free trade in the early 19th century” and that we need “to use governmental power in a radical and disruptive way; and to direct all actions towards the transition – not the defense of random elements of the old system”. There is however no mention how we are supposed to seize the state for these purposes, why we should expect it to already be on our side, or how we stop short of abusing that new power in the way power interests always have tended to abuse it – to protect themselves, the new elite, from enemies real and imaginary, known by a hundred different names.

Beyond this glaring issue lies another one hinted at in the last quote. Obviously, no anti-capitalist considers their struggle as one for “the defense of random elements of the old system”. While Mason at places acknowledges the multitude of struggles that can and should be pursued in parallel, he seems to at the same time dismiss at least a portion of them as being of this dubious type. But there seems to be a lack of examples here that only underscores the potentially unnecessary dichotomy. Some of the most popular and well known libertarian struggles were exactly a combination of defending worker’s rights within the old system, while at the same time building the new world in the shell of that old one. I am of course thinking about the anarcho-syndicalist movement, as well as the many ways in which anarchists radicalized working class struggles on bread-and-butter issues (I always instinctively want to write bread-and-roses issues – maybe I should) around the globe, from Haymarket, the Paris commune and the various eastern European as well as Asian revolutions and free territories, to contemporary struggles in South America or the Middle East.

What we are left with, then, is a set of good and inspirational (albeit somewhat sensationalist) notions regarding the revolutionary potentiality of technology, surrounded by a lack of utilization of the rich history of anti-authoritarian and anti-capitalist struggle on the one hand, and an unattributed echoing of many libertarian socialist ideas on the other. Now, at this point this text might indeed come across as a mauling of Mason’s ideas. But instead of dismissing it out of hand, I’d prefer to end by focusing on the potentialities of technology, because it is here that Mason’s contribution is the most appealing.

There is a lot of room for an anarchist communist reinterpretation of Mason’s ideas. Above all, there is definitely potential to more actively engage, as anarchists, in the ways that information technology is utilized and developed. Some years back, then-CEO of Microsoft Steve Ballmer, compared prominent software that runs under licenses impossible to utilize by commercial companies with “a cancer that attaches itself in an intellectual property sense to everything it touches”. [3] This should be like music to our ears. Engaging in and not only participating but actively trying to radicalize free and open source software and other autonomous, decentralized and empowering techniques seems today to be an underutilized method. It could work, for instance, similar to the techniques of the successful South American anarchist groups, which based their tactics around the notion of especifismo and social insertion; on the one hand, specific anarchist organizations; on the other hand, participation in social movements as anarchists, trying to help those social movements succeed while radicalizing them.

One of the most interesting features of the young internet was the way in which technology and norms outpaced regulation and oversight. Before legislators realized it, people were already utilizing the new technological basis to create and share on a scale never before seen. For a while, the internet was basically free. This led people to adopt practices that turned out to be at odds with what legislators and the political and economic elites directing them had in mind. As anti file sharing laws were passed around the globe, literally millions of people were formally turned into criminals, which for many for the first time opened their eyes to how little their individuality and liberty really mattered when push came to shove. To a degree, that rebellious nature of the internet still persists, and there has certainly always existed a potential in this power vacuum for anarchist radicalization, agitation and direct action. Many people intuitively object to the limitations imposed on the sharing of freely available resources, the surveillance, and state-corporate intrusions into both the privacy and liberty of individuals so prevalent online today.

There is a whole range of technologies and applications, from file sharing, secure communication and freely available software tools for users, to the collaborative projects for the purpose of creating these solutions for the benefit of everyone. All these things can be utilized on a scale between oblivious and radical, where the latter is more of a prefigurative politics to use and create things as an alternative, in opposition to the established norms and systems, as a means of building the new in the shell of the old, both in terms of users and creators. Or exactly as Mason puts it: “This is no longer simply my survival mechanism”. Having free software developers, creators and contributors of culture, and users of distributed file sharing connect with each other in consciously subversive networks is one thing. But as awesome as freely available software and culture are, we all still need to eat, and we need a place to call home. This is where I think it is important to consciously connect digital radicalism to the material basis, and the social conflicts taking place in the real world, thus expanding and strengthening the network of resistance.

There is no reason to believe that the impact that radical groups can have in real life social movements couldn’t be translated into the realm of software and information technology in general, and also tied in with other anarchist organizations and activities, such as for instance syndicalists and those involved in social movements outside unions. This would lead to a broad approach, where many methods are utilized and everyone can find their particular form of resistance, fostering an atmosphere of cooperation and mutual aid while engaging in and radicalizing many struggles at the same time. While it would introduce many activists to new and useful tools available according to need, it would connect the tech-savvy radicals to the traditional real world movements, thus connecting them to a rich tradition of this type of agitation and direct action, and also to the struggles and relevant issues of millions of people. This now starts to look as a nurturing from below, by the grassroots, and on a broad front. If Mason’s text or the coming book can inspire more anarchists to engage in direct action of this type, or think about ways to utilize this opportunity, then indeed, his contribution has been very helpful.


[1] Silvia Federici, Caliban and the Witch, https://libcom.org/library/caliban-witch-silvia-federici

[2] Andrew Kliman discusses his findings, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=V0yU5mTYxas

[3] Web Archive, Interview with Steve Ballmer, https://web.archive.org/web/20010615205548/http://suntimes.com/output/tech/cst-fin-micro01.html

Getting Ready For 1st May

Just a short post and an image, for a change. Ever since I read Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States years ago, I’ve had a special relation to 1st May. Not only was it the first time I really read something about anarchism and anarchists, about the Haymarket martyrs, it was one of the books that finally made me realize that this is something that strongly resonates with me. These were working class people, fighting for better conditions, but they also had their sights set on an entirely different society, they questioned everything. It sent me down a path from which I’ve not looked back since.

While I don’t necessarily think that this is the be-all end-all expression of anarchism – I think there is room for a multitude of different expressions – I feel like there is a slumbering strength in the working masses, and that anarchism has many times been part of realizing that strength, the people rising up to say we’ve built this world with our sweat, our blood and our tears. It is ours to tear down, and reshape as we see fit. Walking down the street underneath the red and black banners reminds me of that, and it is nice to be reminded sometimes.

Today, we spent some time putting up posters and stickers for 1st May. “Unfortunately”, we ran out of big posters, so this is mostly assorted small stuff that made it all the way back home for this time.

IMAG0445

Why Feminism?

There was a time, I hereby admit, when I was reluctant to call myself a feminist. It was all, I thought, in good faith. A good faith, it turns out, that wasn’t so good after all. We all like to think that our behavior and our opinions are justified, and often our subconscious is a great ally in helping us to suppress the inconvenient things that can potentially shake the foundations of our beliefs.

Why does it have to be called feminism? I thought. Can’t we just say equality? I specifically remember one incident that brought this seemingly innocuous position into conflict with what I thought I stood up for. It was a discussion with a close friend of mine, many years ago. It had started out as a casual talk about the various ways in which women are disadvantaged in society, but quickly got subverted by my questioning of the term under which to analyze and attack such injustice; feminism.

I must have opted for raising my concerns at a particularly insensitive moment of the conversation, because my friend went completely ballistic, and delivered a roughly minute-long, emotionally charged speech. Dumbfounded, as through a fog, I slowly absorbed the message.

Whenever you discuss gender inequality, inadvertently you spend most of the time complaining about the word feminism, instead of acknowledging and worrying about the issues facing oppressed people. Ouch. Women, because they are women, have suffered thousands of years of economic, political and social oppression, have been degraded, humiliated, objectified, abused, labeled less intelligent, burned as witches… and you can’t grant us one word, just one word, in honor of all these injustices? Yikes.

My friend comes from a broken working class family and had endured conditions that had left her emotionally vulnerable, and she had faced layer upon layer of oppression and social injustice throughout her as of then not too long a life. And there I was, taking up her time and making her upset by being what can only be described as a fucking idiot. That had to be it. I had this creeping feeling, too, that I was being a part of the problem, not a part of the solution, despite my solemn declarations that I was “for equality”. And, as Germaine Greer succinctly asked at a recent conference:

Equality […] what with? With the current state of men? With the corporate society we live in, which is unjust to everybody in it? [1]

Not only is the notion of equality a way to implicitly gloss over what is a patriarchal system, in which women have been subordinated to men, but it is in fact not the right word to start with. What we need is liberation, not from one but from all of the oppressive systems that put shackles on us in various ways. This is what we arrive at with a radical analysis that connects the dots – the struggle against oppression necessarily has to be the struggle against all forms of oppression, a struggle for liberation.

It doesn’t take long to bring down a house of cards, and I later realized that I had to own up to what I thought I believed in, and start supporting and fighting with those to whom I could extend my solidarity, instead of derailing said struggles with privileged, pseudo-intellectual self-centered bullshit. Not only that, but their fight was inherently connected to me as well, because feminism is the struggle against patriarchy and gender stereotypes which inevitably oppress, constrain or define everyone in some way. In its radical interpretation, it also concerns more than the dismantling of patriarchal structures, in that it is a starting point for liberation that goes way beyond gender roles, offering everyone a hope for a better and more just society in other regards as well.

In this sense, solidarity in itself is as much a realization of the interconnectedness we share as a willingness to help others. By helping others, we also help ourselves. And for me, that struggle would have to start with scrutinizing my own thought process, and my own behavior, because once I became willing to look beyond emotional argumentation, I realized how much of the oppressive and stereotypical patterns we reproduce in our own everyday lives. The personal is, necessarily, political, because the politics of all those personal acts hit back at us with the force of all the coercive institutions in our society.

One of the big problems here is that we tend to look at things from a purely personal and emotional perspective when it comes to behavior. For instance, a man is quite likely to say that he doesn’t like to cook or clean the house because he simply doesn’t enjoy it or doesn’t care about it, and that it’s not his fault that women don’t like being highly paid IT engineers. This completely misses the way in which our society conditions people into these roles and from a very early age clearly and constantly tells us what is the proper behavior expected from our gender (never mind trying to force people into rigid binary gender identifications to start with), while at the same time systematically devaluing the work typically associated with women, and overvaluing the work typically associated with men. But until we make a conscious efforts to look beyond ourselves, we’re stuck in an individual bubble that fails to explain any systemic causes.

A lot of people have done just that, in various ways challenging the powers that be, taking things into their own hands. From the suffragettes, running down Oxford Street, smashing windows and going on hunger strikes, to those with almost opposite views of the struggle for woman’s liberation, such as Emma Goldman. The suffragettes showed us that tactics of direct action can render results, and that popular movements most often consist of a militant and relentless contingent, as well as a more broad and popular mass. Emma Goldman, on the other hand, correctly predicted that a vote for women would not purify “something which is not susceptible of purification”. [2] Instead, she argued that one cannot plead for true liberation, but rather has to take matters into one’s own hands:

The right to vote, or equal civil rights, may be good demands, but true emancipation begins neither at the polls nor in courts. It begins in woman’s soul. History tells us that every oppressed class gained true liberation from its masters through its own efforts. It is necessary that woman learn that lesson, that she realize that her freedom will reach as far as her power to achieve her freedom reaches. [3]

It is here possible to interpret Goldman’s liberatory politics as more focused on causes rather than symptoms. Under-representation in politics, economics and the likes here being the symptom, with the prevailing attitudes permeating social institutions and the entire society, being the cause. And certainly, if we magically could establish 50-50 representation for women on all levels, we still would have done little to change the underlying patriarchal tendencies, or, as Goldman herself put it, it is unlikely that we would have “purified” the system as such.

Striving for tangible results such as equal pay for equal work or representation for the sake of establishing role models can indeed be meaningful, both in itself and in the sense of uniting and driving movements forward, but we cannot forgo a deeper attack against the structures behind these symptoms if we want to achieve true liberation. Neither can any aspect of liberation be taken for granted, as for instance the important efforts of the Mujeres Libres in revolutionary Spain show us. Not even the revolutionary conditions of those days guaranteed a liberatory space for women without the active participation and acquisition of such a space by the women themselves, in their instituting of schools, newspapers, sanctuaries, meetings and lectures for the benefit of woman’s emancipation. This always has to be an ongoing process – to realize liberation by constantly reclaiming one’s own power.

The way we look at leadership today is a striking example of problems deeper than mere representation. It is not only a matter of women being systematically prohibited from full participation, men enjoying privileged speaking [4], being paid more [5] and being overrepresented in leading positions in all sorts of organizations. We actually see stereotypical male attributes as good leadership attributes, and stereotypical leadership attributes as male attributes. They become one and the same here, with the implicit message that men are good leaders. Meanwhile, women in leading positions are often interpreted as women with masculine attributes. No wonder then that women find it hard to measure up to a society that expects them to be caring, nurturing, soft and good looking to be appreciated as women, and then an entirely different set of attributes to be considered successful in their careers or in leadership positions.

Maybe our society actually promotes pretty dubious attributes for those in leading positions, and maybe this has serious consequences, not only for those thereby marginalized, but also for society at large. Indeed, research shows that psychopaths are overrepresented as CEOs, and that these figures might actually be lower than the actual ones due to adaptive strategies. [6] [7] Another clue can be gleamed by examining some of our closest relatives among the primates. While chimpanzees live in highly hierarchical and patriarchal groups, where violence and subordination is common, the bonobos live in matriarchal societies where the females play a significant role, the hierarchies are weaker and deadly violence, even between different groups, is unheard of.

With all this in mind, I don’t think that what we need is more women acting like men, but rather, if anything, more men acting like women. To achieve that we have to not only stop marginalizing women as such, but also the attributes we associate as typically female. At the end of the day, we should relate to each other as humans, as sentient beings, really, and not as genders, and what we should value are attributes and tendencies that help us build societies free from violence, oppression and emotional deficits. In many ways, strength is today construed as a brick wall; firm, unyielding; but if you hit it for long enough it breaks into pieces. I want to be strong like the wind; soft; playful; impossible to break. That’s why I’m a feminist.


[1] Panel: ‘How to Be a Feminist’ (All About Women 2015) – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Jzcs4ti_bdI

[2] Woman Suffrage, Emma Goldman

[3] The Tragedy of Woman’s Emancipation, Emma Goldman

[4] http://www.filmsforaction.org/articles/10-words-every-girl-should-learn/

[5] https://twitter.com/oecd/status/574528018959335425

[6] http://www.forbes.com/sites/jeffbercovici/2011/06/14/why-some-psychopaths-make-great-ceos/

[7] http://www.hud.ac.uk/news/2014/july/psychologygraduatesdissertationacceptedbyacademicjournal.php

How To Make our Kites Fly

When I was a small kid, my family used to rent a cabin just outside of our town for a week or two every summer. It was nothing fancy, just a wooden house at a large lake, but I have fond memories of spending time there. I still vividly recall the smell and sound of camp fire at night, feeling the summer breeze against my face, or going down to the shoreline and watching the waves. One day, my dad decided we would build a kite of our own. I was excited. I’ve never been particularly good with my hands, and somehow I didn’t think of a kite as something you can build, but rather something you get ready-made. Dad worked on it for a good hour or two, and then me, my sister and him went outside to try it out.

It was a beautiful, sunny day. We gave it a good twenty minutes or so, but the kite didn’t really take off. Disappointed, me and my sister decided to go back to our cabin, but dad said he would stay and play around with it for another while. Walking back, I turned around, and watched as he ran across the meadow, patiently attempting to get it to catch wind. A couple of times, it looked as if it was about to, but then it wobbled and fell down again. I felt a sting of guilt coming over me, leaving him behind like that, and I felt sorry for him and for our kite. For some reason, that sight and feeling stuck with me, as a short intermission in an otherwise rather happy set of memories.

When I think of social change, whether it is just in the shape of organizing for an event, or generally thinking about all the ways in which society could be different, it strikes me that it is a lot like building your own kite. There’s the initial thoughts and ideas, the process of organizing or construction, and finally, full of anticipation, you go out and see if the thing you’ve been working on takes off. We know it can in principle, because we have seen it happen in our lives or in the lives of others throughout history, but we can never know for certain if a new project really catches on. We don’t know if we will experience the change we are fighting for. The question, then, seems to be; what makes them fly?

We could take the analogy a bit further here; the construction needs to be strong but flexible enough; we need motion to achieve liftoff – it is the very definition of a social movement; and we need to know how to navigate the wind, which is our ever-changing social context. But there comes a point when the analogy breaks down, and we have to grapple with how to translate what we think and feel into meaningful, practical action.

There is great inspiration to be drawn from the struggles of the Spanish revolution, the free territory of Ukraine, the Zapatistas of Chiapas, the Kurdish efforts in Rojava or innumerable amounts of other movements and individuals despite all their peculiarities, cracks and imperfections. But the same thing is never constructed twice, it always has to be built anew as something unique to the time and place it originates in, leaving the inspirational stories as the silver lining with the potential to unite us, to give us strength and confidence in our visions, and keep us going even when things seem gloomy and the world around us is unsympathetic.

For me, that focal point, that thing I always return to and start out of, is anarchist communism – a mesh of ideas, critiques and observations stretching from even before the days of the earliest of our comrades to the contemporary ones. This is the idea that no person stands above another, that we fight for the well-being of all, that free and voluntary association should be the basis of society, and that as a consequence, individuals would contribute according to their desires and abilities, while receiving from society according to their needs. Anarchism, here, represents the baseline, and communism the anticipated and desired outcome, an outcome that can only emerge out of organic and voluntary association, through agitation, education and direct action – not out of force or domination. With this in mind as my personal preference of the expression of anarchism, I also think that it is extremely important for the de facto movement to be inclusive, welcoming and multifaceted.

This is the notion of positive anarchism – an anarchism primarily concerned with the common struggles and overlapping points of solidarity, not the differences in forms of organization or personal preferences and predictions. All too often, radical movements become crippled by a tendency to spend time critiquing comrades rather than expending energy and resources on combating the oppressive systems we wish to dismantle. It doesn’t have to be this way. There are many practices we can utilize to stress the reciprocal and cooperative tendencies of anarchism. Practices such as for instance consensus decision-making exemplify the potential for building and bridging movements and ideas on a basis where it is in everyone’s best interest to construct opposing opinions in the best light possible, instead of mischaracterizing them to gain a simple majority for one’s own position. It is a matter of not seeing these processes as competitions of rivalrous ideas, but as collaborations and attempts to exchange, inspire and build a mutually beneficial common ground.

More concretely, this leads down a path of acknowledging that we will all find different ways to express ourselves in the common struggle. Some will organize in syndicalist unions, fighting the capitalists and bureaucrats in this arena, and will find great inspiration and camaraderie in such a struggle. Others will prefer acting through affinity groups, direct action, agitation or by directly joining social struggles – and some will do all or a mix of these things. Individualist and post-leftist forms of action and organized struggles of social anarchists can both complement each other, anti-work can be a part of the worker’s struggle, attacks against capitalism can be launched from feminist, anti-racist, anti-ableist, environmental or anti-speciesist campaigns or vice versa, and all these things together, all of us with our shared principles but personal preferences, can in this manner cover a wide array of social and personal areas in which we challenge unjustified authority and domination.

I also think that we need a vigilant anarchism. Anarchism means perpetual motion, it never stands still. Part of this means that we should always form critiques of ingrained systems, wherever they may manifest. Whenever a system, method or organization takes itself too seriously, and starts to act as an end in itself, it has to be questioned. This is not to be understood as an argument against all forms of organization, but as a way to keep organization fluid, ever-changing and never self-serving. A way to keep our practices on their toes, so to say. This notion of vigilance also ties into critiquing deeply ingrained methods such as for instance the scientific method – again, not to reject it entirely, but to object the arrogant trend of turning everything in its way into statistics, metrics and numbers – and complementing it with a fluid, subjective and dynamic experience-based understanding of struggles and social phenomena. Such vigilance also stresses that there is a fine line to tread between utilizing the rich historical examples and texts as inspiration, and turning them into dogma. Anarchism, in the end, cannot be found and defined exclusively in books and stories of old, it has to be experienced, lived and constantly (re-)defined here and now.

Finally, I believe that our anarchism must be a practical anarchism. We have to dare to try our kites – so what if a few of them crash horribly? Even in a crashed kite, the idea of the flying kite lives on. We shouldn’t let cynicism or doubt stop us from putting projects in motion. It is oftentimes easy to become overly critical of ourselves and each other, pessimistic regarding the society at large, doubt our efforts and capabilities and on occasion over analyze ideas instead of getting on with them. At times, instead, we find ourselves isolated, and while we might read about the great events of past times, the inspiring culmination of struggles, we lack the connection to our communities to start making a difference here and now, or we don’t know where to start. But the start is as important as any other part of the process. We are all links in a chain, and while some of us are positioned at the tipping point of social change, our actions and struggles are equally contributing towards that change wherever and whenever we live. We are like the waves and the wind, hitting the shores and the cliffs, slowly changing the terrain, until something crumbles, and gives way for a radically new landscape. There’s no point saying that the last wave or the last gust of wind was more important than any of the others. And just like the waves and the wind swirl and soar freely, we must be and act out the change we envision, in the very process of working towards our goals.

The details of our activities are often left vague – not because there’s nothing concrete to do, but because it invariably depends on the specific situation and location we find ourselves in. Where I live, for instance, the main problems concern things like inequality, racism, segregation, gentrification and alienation. There is a variety of struggles I engage in or would want to engage in; syndicalist union organization and workshops to empower ourselves; industrial action in solidarity with comrades; organizing in local communities to help alleviate the poverty and resignation; encouraging critiques of the present system and pointing out the core problems – in our workplaces, schools or other social areas; reaching out by leafleting, writing pieces and sneaking them into the free newspapers distributed every morning in our city; initiating or joining in protests; and generally supporting all movements and initiatives that share common goals and fight common issues. This is where we cannot be blinded by the image of the revolutionary climbing the barricade with a rifle in one hand and hoisting a flag with the other – tempting as that may be. This is often not what struggle looks like. Maybe, the biggest contribution you can make is helping to organize marginalized youths in a suburb in order for them to gain access to meaningful activities. If we want to change reality, we have to live and act in reality. And when we see that we can change it, when we establish positive exchanges with people, and feel the reciprocal solidarity, that is an immensely rewarding feeling.

The practice thus has to come out of asking ourselves what matters to us, what matters to our communities and where we think we could make a difference. We need to try staying on the right side of becoming too cynical, passive or sectarian on the one hand, and too wrapped up in books and fantasies on the other – even (or sometimes, especially) regarding the small things. In the small things we might find a stepping stone, both finding comrades and issues to engage in. No matter if it is just a matter of setting up stickers or posters, agitating, or actively engaging in struggles and organization. If it matters to you, it matters to me. That should be our mentality. I can’t help but think of Pride, the movie about LGBT activists raising money for the striking miners in south Wales. At one point, the miners’ representative gives a speech at a gay bar:

When you’re in a battle, against an enemy so much bigger, so much stronger than you… to find out you had a friend you never knew existed… well, that’s the best feeling in the world.

Our struggles are all intertwined, in the small things as well as the big ones. That is how we take things forward. With a positive, vigilant and practical anarchist movement – together as individuals, in solidarity, as a dynamic, heterogeneous and colorful synthesis.

For a moment, I imagine that I am that small kid at the meadow again. As I walk away in disappointment, I slow down my pace and turn around. I see my dad struggling with the kite. I squint as the sun hits my face, and I watch on as the dark silhouette of the kite wobbles – slanting left, slanting right – until finally it catches a breeze and, this time, it flies.

Colonialism, Imperialism and Animal Liberation

Colonialism is not a thinking machine, nor a body endowed with reasoning faculties. It is violence in its natural state, and it will only yield when confronted with greater violence. – Frantz Fanon [1]

It is, in theory, not necessary to point out the brutality and violence permeating the colonial and imperialist projects of various societies as they have come and gone throughout history. The arcs on which these events are documented are, as Marx said of capitalism, dripping from head to foot, from every pore, with blood and dirt. But in practice, the only danger lies in not retelling this story enough rather than in telling it too often.

Whether we are talking about Africans, enslaved and brought to the Americas as a tool for imperialist interests, native Americans robbed of their land, their freedom and ultimately their lives, the utter misery in Kongo under Belgian rule, or British imperialism in India, the underlying themes share a striking similarity. The bodies of the conquered were objectified as machines to do the work of their new masters, the land and riches were confiscated while the cultures and societies, in many cases, torn apart and destroyed. To accomplish this, an entire philosophy of domination was applied through a brutal and multilayered web of racism, sexism, religious persecution and cultural universalism strictly from the perspective of the conquerors. The cultures and practices of the natives were vilified and demonized (sometimes literally, as in the form of witch hunts), while atrocious behavior on the part of the invading empires – both at home and in their new colonies – was often explained as justified or even necessary.

It is no wonder, then, that anarchism is by very definition opposed to these practices of domination and that anarchists are among the foremost critics of this process and its lingering effects. This is very much the case also for anarchists engaged in the animal liberation struggle, as several parallels can be drawn in the way that the highly diminished status of non-human animals could be used as a platform to dehumanize and delegitimize the conquered populations and their cultures. With animals already neatly fit into the narrative of being mere tools and objects for human exploitation, labeling the colonized populations as animals immediately brought to life the desired associations.

Despite this, some would like to fit the animal liberation struggle into the imperialist project, as a form of cultural imperialism, turning such anarchists or other animal liberation activists into proponents of one of the things they abhor the most. It is often the strong advocacy for total abstention from animal exploitation – veganism – that results in accusations of racism and imperialism. How dare we force western values upon indigenous cultures and societies?

This is a serious accusation, and one understandably perceived as insulting for many engaged in the anti-speciesist struggle. But ultimately it is one worth dealing with, because doing so sheds some light on some of the implicit assumptions within the accusation itself. To start with, imperialism, and all its destructive tools, was a means of dominating others, and asserting one culture above another. Veganism, in this sense, is acultural. It doesn’t apply double standards by letting something slide in one place but not the other, it doesn’t try to establish cultural hierarchies and it is not looking to establish domination. On the contrary, it is the dismantling of domination, in all its forms, that vegan anarchists seek. We wouldn’t accept cultural expressions involving slavery, patriarchy or economic exploitation – no matter what culture we are talking about – so why should we accept any additional forms of domination in one place but not the other? Gary L. Francione, an animal liberation proponent, answers this accusation succinctly:

Those in this group beg the question and assume that speciesism is justified. That is, their position amounts to the view that it is racist or culturally insensitive to seek to protect the interests of another marginalized and particularly vulnerable group, nonhuman animals. I would imagine that most of those who have this view would not object if the marginalized beings were other humans. But this is just another way of asserting human supremacy and exceptionalism. I find that as objectionable as asserting racial supremacy. [2]

If anything, vegan anarchists espouse values that are strongly in conflict with contemporary western culture, and most efforts are rightly aimed at western societies because this is where a significant part of the severe exploitation of non-human animals takes place. Not only that, it is in many cases western influence that increases – or at least exerts a cultural and economical pressure to do so – levels of animal exploitation in societies that peruse no or relatively small amounts of animal products, such as is the case in India and among Jainists in particular. No vegan anarchists want to take away people’s means of subsistence. The claim is rather that whoever has the practical prerequisites – economic, environmental, social – ought to choose not to harm sentient beings for nearly arbitrary reasons such as old habits and taste preferences.

In fact, by trying to apply imperialist connotations to proponents of veganism, one unwittingly positions western cultures as the subject, and indigenous cultures as the object. As if the western culture is dynamic, always changing and open to questioning, while the indigenous cultures are static and confined to the state in which colonial powers found them hundreds of years ago, unable to evolve and unable to challenge their own norms and thus develop. Indeed, as Margaret Robinson, a vegan of indigenous background, points out:

When veganism is constructed as white, First Nations people who choose a meatless diet are portrayed as sacrificing cultural authenticity. This presents a challenge for those of us who see our vegan diets as ethically, spiritually and culturally compatible with our indigenous traditions. [3]

The push against speciesist thinking should transcend cultural boundaries, as should any global struggle against oppression, thus uniting the participants across such divides. Questioning part of cultures on grounds of oppression – from within or without – is only hypocritical when done in the traditional guise of ignoring the same issues at home. But here vegans and anarchists are adamant, and emphasize the injustice in western culture as one of the large causes for the problem in the first place. In many of the indigenous legends, the use of animals was seen as a sacrifice, which was done out of necessity, not out of the ability to dominate. Many of these cultures have been pushed beyond such a relationship with nature, and as such can within their own spiritual and cultural heritage find arguments for moving beyond the objectified relationship with animals often imposed by imperialist conquest. In other words, when the material conditions no longer necessitate the exploitation of non-human animals for survival, the indigenous traditions can in many cases be seen as an argument for veganism, and not against it.

When people single out veganism for this type of critique, typically also calling it a form of consumerism, they mistake it for being promoted as the one and only solution to a problem. But I don’t have to think that abstaining from buying slaves, by itself, would stop the slave trade, to think that it would be unethical for me to participate in trading slaves. Consequently, activism and veganism are two components to reach one goal – the end of human domination of non-human animals.

While the activist component of animal liberation promotes agitation, direct action and similar activities, veganism is a way of already living in the now without being complicit in the perpetuation of the exploitation, which, besides showing that our ends can be our means, also shows that it is a viable alternative, and as such paves the way for others to follow suit. The burden of proof should be on the participants in the animal exploitation cycle to show that despite their participation, their choices have no negative net effect whatsoever on the well-being of sentient creatures. Because if their choices do have such consequences, and there is a practical alternative that doesn’t, then clearly that alternative is a better choice. This is especially true if said alternative synergizes with the wider struggle against domination.

There is a difference here between on the one hand anti-capitalist struggle and on the other hand anti-speciesist struggle. While capitalism permeates our entire society, and can be very hard or even counter-productive to fully distance oneself from, our domination of other animals is literally advertising its own presence wherever we face it and is often readily avoidable, so we don’t have to marginalize ourselves in society or act in highly impractical ways in order to withdraw from its perpetuation. Instead, a sharp critique of capitalist practices such as industrialized animal farming can be used as a launching point for a wholesale attack on capitalism as a system. There are synergies abound, comrades, and we should all support each other in building a strong, multi-faceted and vibrant movement that challenges the dominant ideologies of present society on all fronts on which they conflict with freedom and well-being.

Veganism, as an ethical choice, is thus a consistent complement to activism in the quest to end human domination over and exploitation of non-human animals. It transcends cultures, in the same way that other forms of oppression should be resisted no matter where they persist. All cultures are living and constantly evolving, and can from within their own cultural understanding find the tools and means through which speciesism, racism, sexism, capitalism or any other form of domination can be opposed. Everyone who opposes domination should find it within their interest to engage in or at least support the anti-speciesist struggle, for what more severe form of domination could we imagine than the notion that it is acceptable to harm and kill sentient beings because one likes their taste?


[1] The Wretched of the Earth – Frantz Fanon [PDF]

[2] Racism Versus Speciesism: A Moral Battleground? – Katrina Fox [link]

[3] Indigenous Veganism: Feminist Natives Do Eat Tofu – Margaret Robinson [link]

Love Your Life, Fuck Your Work

The late polish science-fiction writer Stanisław Lem who, alongside Ursula Le Guin, is one of my personal favorites in the genre, once wrote a short story in which the protagonist astronaut crashes on a planet inhabited by robots. To fit in, the astronaut disguises himself as a robot, but is eventually exposed. In an unexpected plot twist, it turns out that everyone on the planet was performing the same act – they were all humans pretending to be robots. This is a powerful statement concerning how ideology can be so strong that it is hard to penetrate, but when someone or something breaks the spell, it seems at once both empty and absurd. In many ways this resembles our relation to work today, or, even more profoundly, our very definition of what work is. And it doesn’t end there, as our concept of work necessarily spills over to our concept of free time.

“Free time is a euphemism for the peculiar way labor as a factor of production not only transports itself at its own expense to and from the workplace but assumes primary responsibility for its own maintenance and repair. Coal and steel don’t do that. Lathes and typewriters don’t do that. But workers do.” – Bob Black, The Abolition of Work

But since the workplace is such an important aspect of our lives under capitalism, it is a natural arena for struggle and organization against the system – by no means the only one, but rather one of many. We spend much of our time working, and the places we work at will be what we inherit when the capitalist class finally steps into the halls of extinction. That does not, however, necessitate an endorsement of the conditions or form that work or more specifically wage labor currently takes on. We want the abolition of capitalism, the end of states and hierarchies, equality and well-being for all. In that vision, there is no room for work as we find it today, and therefore our relation to this type of work must always remain one of antagonism. Seeing and understanding it for what it is can be an important step in liberating ourselves spatially, physically and temporally, and allowing ourselves to push on with the things necessary for a complete liberation. In taking action in the present world, we must never let go of our objectives, and we must never be tricked into accepting as ours values of the very system we wish to overthrow. As such, a critique of wage labor is not just a critique of the formal relations in the workplace, but also of the resulting conditions those relations lead to – internalizing the boss, alienating work, long work hours and ultimately the many ways in which our ideas, thoughts and expectations about life and work have been shaped by the rise and development of capitalism. The systems at play are so sophisticated that they often turn us into the guardians and overseers of our own exploitation. The chains we wear today are as much mental as they are material, and breaking them must begin in our minds.

“The morality of work is the morality of slaves, and the modern world has no need of slavery.” – Bertrand Russell, In Praise of Idleness

All of this can be seen as a synthesis. We can be actively pro-worker and anti-work at the same time, and as our struggles bear fruit, the apparent contradiction dissolves as the new social relations reshape the society – no more workers, and no more work as we know it.

Some of us, like those working in the manufacturing industries, feel the full force of the system’s effects. As appendages to machines, we have ourselves become machines in a modern Cartesian nightmare, where the advances of science have, in uniting the body and the mind, expelled the latter. We are all increasingly playing the roles of robots. We are being monitored, analyzed and picked apart. Every second, every step is scrutinized in the quest for increased productivity and, in the end, profits. Utilizing modern technology, workers in factories are often recorded on video. The video is then analyzed, and broken down into small fragments. Each movement is documented, each sub-task measured and ultimately, like a puzzle, fit into a time frame between the monotonous motions of machines. Time study, they call it. No wonder that we feel, as Marx said, only as ourselves outside our work, and in our work as outside ourselves.

For those of us lucky enough to work with things that interest us, this alienation is often hidden under the appearance of partial work satisfaction. But it cannot hide the fact that we might be doing the right thing for the wrong reasons. It cannot hide the fact that behind the veil, the same system lurks, working us for the sake of perpetual growth and profits. We risk our health, we get burned out due to too many work assignments, while outside our windows others can’t even find a job to sustain themselves. We don’t make the decisions in our work places and communities and are, at best, blissfully unaware of the system that uses us and that our work perpetuates.

To add insult to injury, many of the tasks we perform today fill no real purpose other than the accumulation of capital, they are often in themselves a means to pacify the public, and cause externalities such as environmental degradation or immense suffering for non-human animals. Since most of us depend on jobs, on any job really, those offered need not be the least appealing, and the more desperate one’s situation, the more alienated and appalling the working conditions. All of this is sold to us as an unfortunate but necessary consequence of the splendid process of progress. But what is that never-ending progress for, anyway, if those contributing to it work too hard to enjoy it and feel themselves out of place in the midst of it? How easy it is to forget that, at the time of its large scale introduction, wage labor was seen as a horrible fate.

“Such was the hatred that workers felt for waged labor that Gerrard Winstanley, the leader of the Diggers, declared that it did not make any difference whether one lived under the enemy or under one’s brother, if one worked for a wage. This explains the growth, in the wake of the enclosures […] of the number of ‘vagabonds’ and ‘masterless’ men, who preferred to take to the road and risk enslavement or death – as prescribed by the ‘bloody’ legislation passed against them – rather than work for a wage.” – Silvia Federici, Caliban and the Witch

If there is one thing I want to highlight in this text, it is the following. The social construct that puts shackles on us, that binds us to workplaces we don’t want and jobs we feel alienated from – you owe it nothing. It, in fact, owes its entire existence to you, your work and your energy, which it slowly siphons out of you. Don’t blame yourself for not complying or for cheating it. Don’t stress yourself out satisfying a system that knows no human feelings or needs. Don’t feel bad for always looking after your interests as well as those of your fellow beings first. This is one of the reasons the status quo should fear us. Because if we can break that spell, we can empower ourselves and be examples for others. If enough people no longer find themselves within the constraints imposed upon us, the powers that be have no choice but to admit defeat or expose their true colors by resorting to increased coercion and violence. Should that mask of civilized appearance fall, the dance of revolution can begin in earnest.

In our jobs, as in any social environment, we should generally be respectful towards the people we meet, unless given good reason otherwise. As much is granted. But for all of us there are fragments or sometimes entire episodes of our jobs that are not concerned with human relations or human well-being. Fragments when, simply put, we’re up against the system, in a more or less pure form. In these circumstances, where no other beings can suffer from it, when our decisions don’t directly affect others negatively, we shouldn’t feel ashamed to cut every corner we can. There is no point in performing these jobs the way they are intended, because they are not intended for the world we want. We should take every opportunity to prioritize ourselves and our co-workers or other people we meet in our professional roles, to the degree we feel we can do that without harming others or jeopardizing our own sustenance. But in doing this, we should never feel bad, never feel like we owe anything, because we are merely reasserting our humanity.

What could this mean, practically? Don’t get dragged into internalizing capitalist value systems. You are not a part of your workplace. Don’t work harder than you have to, don’t worry about business as if it was personal, as if it was a person. Distance yourself – not from the people, but from the system. Encourage, subtly, your co-workers to do the same. Think of your well-being first, just do what you need to do to get by. Naturally, it is hard to be specific here, because every job has its own characteristics, and only those performing a specific one know the intricate details. But the bottom line is, whenever you can identify those moments when it is you against the system, always pick yourself and don’t feel bad about it, because it is the right thing to do. How far you want to take it is also something that must be determined on a personal basis, from quiet everyday protests like slowing down the pace of work, to outright sabotage. But always remember, the point is not the hasty demise of your particular workplace (or more likely, just your employment there), but to subvert the system so that it works as much as possible in our own favor, while we organize and struggle towards its eventual abolition. To leech back a bit of what it takes from us in the first place.

This doesn’t mean we shouldn’t lose ourselves in activities or ambitiously pursue tasks for long hours. But if we do, those should be tasks we set aside for ourselves freely, tasks in which we feel ourselves as our own masters, and in which we find our own purpose, alone or in free associations with others. Given the opportunity to shape our own world, we should shape it in a way that makes the tasks necessary for our well-being as convenient and as playful as possible. When we then do these things, we no longer really work, as much as we express ourselves and fulfill ourselves. We become the animal, the being, which is currently caged inside a robot’s body under the false pretense of reason and discipline. As a cog in the capitalist machine.

In freeing our minds and our bodies from some of the stress of our current jobs, in freeing ourselves from those internalized value systems that make us physically and mentally exhausted, we save energy, nurture our health and make space for other projects. We must never forget that our struggle is not meant to devour us, and that we must try to live as full and free lives already under the present condition. By doing this, we fill our lives with more joy and harmony, and our struggles with determination and energy. We shouldn’t feel bad for refusing to become machines, for breaking laws that break us, ignoring regulations we haven’t agreed to or deviating from norms we find objectionable. We shouldn’t be proud of our wage labor, or love our wage labor. We should be proud of ourselves and love ourselves and each other. Thus the title, and mantra of this text: Love your life, fuck your work.

The Price of Money

Background
Why do we have money? Where does it come from? Do we need it?
When it comes to money, there are as many theories as there are kinds, and it is as tangible and hands-on as it is mysterious. The most common myth, from Aristotle, via Adam Smith to various schoolbooks, is the one concerned with how it came to be in the first place; people got together to exchange different goods, and they needed some way to compare their respective value and something that could facilitate the exchange. But this explanation hasn’t been thoroughly backed up by empirical evidence, and it is very likely that the reality was more complex and diverse.

Anthropologist David Graeber has studied this subject, and found that many societies had some form of debt before they had actual money. Exchange in those days, many thousands of years ago, often happened within highly egalitarian communities, in what is often referred to as gift economies. People would give something away, with a vague expectation of getting something in return at a later time. In many societies this formed an important social fabric, and it was considered as rude to return something of roughly the same value as what was earlier received – for this meant that you didn’t want any further relation with the recipient! Sometimes no return was expected, and giving a lot was a symbol of status and prestige. We can find examples of such cultural expressions even in our own time, for instance within research. Often, it is the dream of a given scientist to contribute as much as possible to their own field – by all means more than they have received. A similar tendency can be observed in the free software programming community. This clearly indicates that our propensity for being generous, as opposed to being egoistic, is often contingent on environmental factors rather than biological ones. In short, we seem to be capable of both, and how we shape our societies will affect which behavior will thrive. If early hunter-gatherer societies are anything to go by, our biology has been well suited for egalitarian forms of organization where mutual aid, rather than competition, is the operating principle.

Money as an actual tangible representation of value was thus predated by this type of socialized debt, and its early appearances can instead often be traced to armies, as a means to pay the soldiers. In this way areas where armies set up camp turned into ad-hoc markets. But it wasn’t until capitalism — with commodity production, wage labor and the division of labor — forced itself into the lives of the late feudal societies that money came to dominate almost all exchange between people.

The Arcane Obviousness
As we can see, not even the origin of money seems to be a simple and straightforward matter. Meanwhile, one of the big problems today is that we take money for granted without contemplating what it represents and how it affects society. We’re so used to being surrounded by it in our every-day lives that it becomes an inevitable – and therefore near invisible – fact. We say that money can’t buy happiness, or that money is freedom, but at the same time there are occasions when we’re delighted to get our hands on some of it, or feel trapped despite having a fortune. We often talk about money, but we rarely talk about money.

The significance of money and commodities, how they appear and what they hide beneath the surface, was something Karl Marx took great interest in, and he called this the money- and commodity-fetishism. This is not to be understood as a consumerist worship of money or commodities, but rather as the observation that the attributes we usually ascribe to these things aren’t really their own to start with. When we’re confronted with different commodities at the store, and compare their prices, what appears as relations between commodities, are really relations between the workers involved in the production and the work required for it.  We can say that one is more expensive than the other, but we don’t know how the people behind these commodities relate to each other. The social relations appear as relations between commodities, not people. What is worse, this realization in itself doesn’t help dispel the appearance – even though we’re aware of it, we’re nonetheless faced with prices and commodities, not the people, both in our roles as consumers and producers, and thus we can’t easily rid ourselves of this appearance.

Another way to put this is to imagine a game of chess, with the pieces all set up and ready, on a computer screen. We ask the computer how to most quickly remove all the pieces from the board, and the answer is that we need to perform an intricate series of moves to achieve this desired state. The computer is here under the fetish-like influence of the rule set of the chess game, and according to those rules, the explanation is reasonable. But we, intellectually unbound by these rules, realize that we could just remove all the chess pieces immediately without performing the tedious moves. The difference between this fictive chess world and our own reality is that, for us, the rule set is not just in a computer, but exists and manifests itself as the society we face as soon as we walk out our front door. We can thus, if we examine them, claim that these rules or relations between commodities are not universal, but we cannot escape relating to them in our everyday lives. We have to play chess, whether we like it or not.

But already this theoretical realization that the economy is not quite what it seems, hints at some interesting consequences. Imagine if, when justifying some economic consideration, instead of saying “there’s not enough money” for such or such important project, we’d have to say that the societal work was put towards golf clubs instead.

The first task of any serious discussion concerning money is thus unpacking this fact; money is a social construct, not a necessary prerequisite for a society. Consequently, an honest assessment must in turn begin by asking not how we best use money, but whether it is the right tool for the job at all.

Generally, such a discussion about money, to the limited extent it ever takes place, falls into two categories; money as an incentive for performance — the proverbial carrot and stick — and money as a means to signal what is needed and what is to be produced in a society.

The Carrot (and the Stick)
The more vulgar proponents of the current system sometimes indirectly refer to money as a carrot or stick by defending inequality on the basis that it spurs people to self-improvement. But even if we don’t start at inequality, there’s usually an intuition at play regarding reward mechanisms; surely, money-rewards motivate people to perform better? This was the question Daniel H. Pink asked at the outset of his meta-study on motivation. What he found was that not only does the research in this field tell a quite different story, it in fact often reports results diametrically opposed to this initial intuition.

In short, Pink argues, people are generally motivated by a number of intrinsic factors; autonomy – to be self-directed and have control over their own work; purpose – to perform something that is perceived as meaningful; mastery – to get better at and eventually master tasks. These factors are contrasted by extrinsic ones; the carrot and the stick. What the research showed was that the intrinsic factors were significantly stronger for any task involving above rudimentary cognitive skills (creativity, problem solving, abstract thinking). In fact, when we add extrinsic rewards for such tasks, the performance actually drops! When we’re no longer doing something because of our intrinsic motivation to do so, we tend to lose interest. And if the extrinsic motivator, in the shape of for instance a profit motive, gets even further decoupled from the intrinsic motivators, we get results that Pink succinctly characterizes as “just… not good stuff”.

The exception to this involved tasks of mechanical nature where extrinsic rewards worked as expected, and this is probably where that false intuition of how rewards work comes from. Anyone familiar with the production industry knows that pay-for-performance used to be quite common, and that this could be shown to cause an increase in productivity (not worker health though, of course). In these cases, with repetitive, mundane and alienating jobs, there is little or no intrinsic motivation to start with, and thus extrinsic motivators work as expected. Money can also act as a motivator in a somewhat different way; if people get paid too little, for instance in relation to co-workers, they feel like they’ve been treated unfairly. If they are paid enough not to experience such feelings, money loses its appeal as a motivator, and the intrinsic motivators take over.

When we think about all this, it shouldn’t really be that surprising. Most people we ask, even those that earn very much or work very hard, don’t do it for money. If we ask a doctor, an engineer or a scientist, we’ll usually get an answer that can be reduced to a combination of the intrinsic motivators; autonomy, purpose and mastery. And we don’t even need to ask nurses, teachers or various service workers to realize that they don’t do what they do because of the money reward, unless it is in the form of a stick – out of necessity to survive. Amusingly, the occupations where we might find people that do it for money, or at least claim so, usually include those that concern money in the first place, like finance. Or to quote Noam Chomsky answering this question during an interview: “You’d never get anyone from the university saying that [they wouldn’t work unless paid], except from an economics department.” [1] Inversely, there is ample evidence of how extrinsic motivators in large quantities can produce results of not only poor performance, but of a nature detrimental for society at large. Ted Nace explores some such examples concerning stock options for CEOs in his book about the rise of corporate power, called Gangs of America.

We can draw some practical conclusions from these findings. Jobs that pay a high wage are generally not jobs where extrinsic motivators work very well. Jobs where they do work are often low-pay. This would indicate that our remuneration system has more to do with a social expectation of what a job is worth, than with actual pay for performance. Further on, it’s easy to see how the carrot often turns into a stick. Since within a capitalist system there’s always people in desperate need of jobs to make ends meet, and because in that they are at the mercy of any job opportunity coming their way, they don’t have to be paid well, and there is no incentive to make the job interesting or agreeable to start with. This starts a vicious cycle where such jobs are frowned upon and get stigmatized as even less valuable. Not only do we feel above jobs such as cleaning toilets, despite the fact that it has to be done, but we also build up this social expectation that is later transformed into (even greater) differences in remuneration. One example is the degradation of the status of physical labor throughout history, despite the fact that our society still depends on a lot of it being done, and despite that it is both physically and psychologically beneficial to perform some such labor for most everyone. Instead, we look down on manual laborers, while hurrying to the gym to burn some calories on a treadmill. This devaluation of some professions is often also justified by unconsciously appealing to the fetishism described earlier. We point out that the product of someone’s labor is worth very little in the economy, and triumphantly explain that they thus have to receive a low wage. Instead of having to look said person in the eyes and take full responsibility for our entirely subjective opinion that they simply deserve less than someone else, we hide behind seemingly objective economic conditions; in other words, we refer to the rules of the chess game. Checkmate, minimum wage workers.

There are of course other mechanisms at play as well, but that doesn’t detract from the findings regarding how money, motivation and social expectations are tied together. Without money, the stigma surrounding many present-day jobs could be removed, and we’d have all the reason to improve, simplify, diversify, redistribute and generally make them more agreeable to start with.

Signal and Distribution
Money, in the form of prices on a market, can act as a way to allocate production. When supply is high, prices tend to drop, and this deters producers from further production. Inversely, high demand drives prices up, and attracts new producers. This is one way to manage the question of production, but it is not the only one. When discussing supply, demand and prices, a lot of people visualize a real-time scenario where these variables continuously affect each other. In fact, most prices are not set in this manner.

Let us look at a producer of sports souvenirs – shirts, hats etc. Each product is available for a number of teams, and the price will be the same. But the teams will not be equally popular! Some will sell better than others. These differences are usually counteracted by stock and production adjustments, not with price increases on the most popular team’s souvenirs. We can thus already identify a decoupling of the expected market forces, and can point out that such an arrangement could work entirely without prices, just by gauging demand and adjusting stock and production accordingly. [2]

An objection might be raised at this point; we may be able to adjust our production without price information in this isolated example, but how many items is it reasonable to produce? There might be a need for other things, maybe more important ones, as well. How do we prioritize?

While it is not the aim of this text to present a full-fledged alternative, but rather to point out that what we often see as inevitable is far from it, it might be worth hinting at how this could work. Before doing so, however, we might want to investigate how the production is currently allocated. First off, it is important to remember that demand in the context of a market is not simply a human need, but a human need that can be backed up by money. Specifically, this could for example mean that a rich person desiring some luxury good can signal a demand, while a poor person in need of food, medication or some other urgent and fundamental necessity cannot. But the consequences go far beyond such individual examples and are structural as well. Since money is not evenly distributed throughout society (doh!), and thus some groups have far more than others, these groups will have a bigger influence on how production is allocated within society. When there’s some specific product or company we have an issue with, we’re often told to “vote with our money” and go elsewhere with our business. This is an unwittingly honest assessment of the system, in the way democracy and money get mixed up. If a group of people voluntarily come together to resolve common matters, and we deem that democracy could be a useful tool to do so, shouldn’t it be one vote per person? Of course it should. But there’s nothing democratic about our economic system.

We’ve already seen that money is generally not a reward for performance in the current system. But even if we wish that this was the case, how would we assess the performance in the first place? Does the surgeon, who just saved a life, have a rightful claim to a larger portion of the social production than the miner that risked his own deep underground? Does the computer engineer, eagerly coding in a creative trance, have a natural right to greater material wealth than the librarian, who is partly on sick leave due to chronic pain, and for whom every work day is an endless torment? Why does household work, still predominantly performed by women, lack any value whatsoever? If we are primarily concerned with needs – which is what allocation should be all about – the current system leaves a lot to be desired.

Now back to the question of priorities, for which an answer has already been implied above. We already utilize tools such as democracy or consensus decision making in many areas of societal organization. There is nothing unique about the economy in this regard. What, how and in which quantities things should be produced ought to be the result of the different needs and preferences of those involved, and there is no better way to discern those needs and preferences than letting those involved speak up. Then we won’t risk producing golf clubs when we in fact need medicine, housing, schools or medical facilities.

Summary
This text has primarily dealt with money, which is just one part of what we know as the capitalist mode of production. Much more could be said about the detrimental effects of that system as a whole, but there is a time and place for everything.

Money is a materialized form of social power. It is part of a system that hides the actual relations in our society, and deprives us of the possibility to rationally allocate resources through deliberate community decisions. We’ve seen that our motivation for being creative and productive is not dependent on money rewards, but that such rewards in fact often hamper our intrinsic motivation. Human needs are entirely separate from our different economic capabilities and always vary between individuals, both qualitatively and quantitatively. Often, it is those that cannot accumulate much wealth that have the most urgent needs. Each and every one of us is their own best judge of how to contribute in a society, and what needs that ought to be fulfilled.

This is not just a matter of rich and poor. It is a matter of perceiving the social aspect as second to none, and creating a society for human beings, instead of human beings for a society¹. Can we imagine a society where decisions are taken democratically, by the people whom they concern, whether it is a matter of what to produce or how we organize our neighborhoods?

If we think we can, then I don’t think we need money. It doesn’t offer us enough to merit its price; our place as social beings in a social context.


1) An example from the US: The 40-hour work week of 1950 can be reproduced today in around 10 hours. However full-time workers work on average 47-hour weeks – which is more, not less, than they used to. What would people from 1950 say if they had the chance to jump to a hypothetical future where they could choose to work 47-hour weeks at an unknown, but better, standard of living, or work 10-hour weeks at their current standard? What would we say about the same alternatives today?

Related literature:
David Graeber – Debt: The First 5000 years

Daniel H. Pink – Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us

Karl Marx – Capital, Vol 1

Ted Nace – Gangs of America [PDF]

Sources:
[1] Interview with Noam Chomsky, September 2011, Oslo:
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kOTBGrrDeXg

[2] The Left-Libertarian, Critique of Austrian Price Formation
https://theleftlibertarian.wordpress.com/2013/10/15/critique-of-austrian-price-formation/

Animal Liberation

Words are funny in many ways, aren’t they? They can say a lot about ourselves just by the way they affect us. Combining a couple of them might cause an even greater upset. Animal Liberation is one such combination. Many wince when they hear it in a conversation or read it somewhere, and have a distinct preconception regarding what this phrase means. Oh, that. Which brings us to the funny part, because, why would anyone react with suspicion towards the notion of their own liberation? Humans are, after all, just another animal. Then again, many live their physically and mentally sheltered lives under the impression that no liberation is needed. Anarchists usually know better, but despite this fact, our initial reaction would often subconsciously construct the same dichotomy; animals, that’s them. We, we are humans.

We are, however, but one of many animals on this planet. We haven’t been around the longest, we’re not the most numerous, and we’re far from the most skilled at many things. We don’t know what it feels like to soar through the blue vastness of the the sky, with the strength of our wings and our skills in using them being the only things stopping us from plunging to the ground. We have no idea what it means to dive into the depths of the ocean for long periods of time, unaided but for a sleek and sturdy body. We can’t even begin to imagine the scenery so self-evident to a nocturnal being that sees with sound waves. Yet, ironically, one of our most notable features, is exactly to proclaim how special we are. We have much more in common with certain animals than they have with others, still we are part of one world and they of another. While many other animals fill an important niche in the ecosystem, we’re not only quite irrelevant, but actually the only species that threatens the well-being of the entire planet. Still, we continue to measure other animals by our own yardstick, and congratulate ourselves to our superiority. But what is sophisticated reasoning and modern technology worth if we cannot value a life?

We are of course also capable of doing good things. Anarchists know that it is not a new, better, human being we need, but a society that enables us to nourish our tendencies towards mutual aid, cooperation and individual autonomy. A society that doesn’t hide the consequences of our actions from us, doesn’t alienate us from ourselves and one another, doesn’t pit us against each other, and above all, a society that isn’t contingent on the perpetual oppression of some by others. This is the liberation we should strive for. The liberation of all those oppressed beings, all animals. This is the Animal Liberation.

The interconnectedness of our social lives today is mirrored in the interconnectedness of our struggles and the different forms of oppression we face. The capitalist mode of production, with its ability to hide the social relations behind its ruthless, commodified and mechanical search for profits, in this way hides the suffering and exploitation of both non-human and human animals. To see this connection makes us stronger, and our cause the more important. In the same way that women have been objectified, not only culturally but also as a tool to control the reproduction of the working class, the bodies of non-human animals have been objectified to forward the interests of capital. By analyzing these things separately, we miss the bigger picture. There are synergies between all forms of oppression, and a strike at one is incomplete without a strike at the other. When white Europeans traveled the world and discovered other cultures, and people of color, what was one of the main justifications for the brutal subjugation of these new-found societies? “They are not human. They are animals.” By devaluing the lives of non-human animals, the road was paved towards doing the same to anyone that was different from the narrow norm. It is also a well known fact that violence towards other animals is often a precursor of violence towards humans. This is true on an individual level, as is often the case for women stuck in violent relationships, but also in the way governments have fine tuned methods of warfare on non-human animals in laboratories or military facilities before unleashing them on other nations. In other words, we have all the reasons to look at the big picture because it helps us to form the best tactics going forward. The boundary we usually draw between ourselves and other animals misses the point, because it has nothing to do with their ability to suffer. In that, they are just like us, and as anarchists we should recognize their suffering and make sure it is recognized as a form of oppression that we need to dismantle.

At this point usually a few concerns are raised. Even though few, if any, anarchists would disagree with the notion that factory farming is an atrocity, various forms of the “class first” argument are brought forward to signal that this is not the time to particularly think about other animals. This largely used to be the case with feminism as well, but it is decreasingly so, and that for several good reasons. First, these different struggles rarely stand in any sort of practical opposition to each other. It is possible to engage in both of them, and the same is true regarding the issue of non-human animals. From the simplest things, such as making sure the food is vegan when hosting functions, to supporting activists involved in the animal liberation struggle and seriously engaging with these ideas theoretically.

Secondly, the various forms of oppression will affect different people in different ways. Often they will intersect. We cannot set aside the plight of others because in making such priorities we often presume too much and are biased towards our own perceived grievances. This not only shows a lack of solidarity, but even worse so, tends to divide us instead of giving us strength in numbers. Sure enough, we cannot expect non-human animals to partake actively in the process of liberation, but this is also true for groups of humans, which would never lead us to think they do not deserve our solidarity. There are also significant numbers of anarchists already engaged in animal liberation in various ways, and in that sense the divisiveness of such argumentation is as real here as in the case of feminism or racism. Besides, the suffering caused to non-human animals, largely through factory farming and other capitalist institutions, is of staggering proportions. Forgoing all but the end to capitalism itself in the struggle for the abolition of it seems like a very narrow-minded and far-fetched approach to an acute issue of great consequences here and now. Although state capitalism utilizes many forms of oppression to divide and conquer its subjects, most of those are not unique to this system, and as such we have no reason to assume they would resolve with the end of it without a deliberate effort.

The revolution cannot be some distant and abstract mirage on the horizon. It must start within us, before it can happen on a large scale in the material world. Our means must be our ends, because we will reap what we have sown. Of course, lifestylism by itself will never bring about a social revolution, but at the same time the social revolution will never happen unless we act it out in our everyday lives – or it will come and go, leaving those marginalized forms of oppression intact. Just like refraining from owning slaves didn’t really forward the abolitionist cause, it also didn’t in any way justify doing the opposite. And using animals for our own benefit – when not necessary, which it rarely is for most of us – is in the same way not a personal lifestyle choice; it is not like picking which shirt to wear. It has direct negative consequences, death and suffering, which to a large extent can be avoided.

Another thing that needs to be pointed out is that this is not aimed at those remote cultures dependent on traditional hunter-gatherer lifestyles for their survival. The absolute majority of the oppression of non-human animals takes place in industrial facilities where domesticated animals are exploited for food, clothing and vivisection. This is where our efforts should be aimed. The difference between us and those traditional cultures is also that we, willingly or not, have been pushed beyond such a relationship with nature. From here, we can only go forward, and with what we know, with what we can do, there is no reason to revert back to a way of life that in any way harms other animals. We already have an immense debt towards nature, and we can live immersed in its beauty without causing any more suffering.

Despite all this, it would be unrealistic to expect everyone – or even just all anarchists for that matter – to become vegans tomorrow. Everyone has their own capabilities and constraints, and only they can know how to best turn theory into practice. This is also not the aim of this text. Rather, it is a plea to take that first step by recognizing veganism as a natural extension of anarchism, to start engaging with the idea of a society free from all animal exploitation and to start finding ways to take steps in that direction in practice. We can draw experience, strength and courage from our overlapping struggles, instead of letting them divide us. But to do that, we must be uncompromising in our questioning of unjustified hierarchies, authority and violence, and be prepared to also listen to those whose voice is otherwise not heard. There is nothing unique about human suffering. There is nothing necessary about our exploitation of other animals.