The specter of noble anarchism

Are they noble or authoritarian?

In a recent article, Gabriel Kuhn engages with an essay titled ”Anarchism, The Revolutionary Movement of the Twenty-First Century”, written by David Graeber and Andrej Grubacic in 2004. In the essay, Graeber and Grubacic herald the beginning of an ”anarchist century”, by looking at some contemporary trends in social movements and radical politics. They trace the outline of a “movement of movements”, which they identify with a form of “small-a anarchism”, that moves beyond specific anarchist and mass organizations, and works primarily through a hollowing out of the state rather than attacking it head on. Kuhn questions this assertion on several grounds.

Kuhn’s article is a welcome contribution to a much needed conversation about what anarchism could be today and going forward, and about the role of anarchists in ongoing social movements. My intention here is not to defend the original essay, Grubacic has already written a clarification and knows better than me exactly what the intent and meaning of the essay was. Rather, I’d like to grapple with the content of Kuhns text, in relation to how I understand Graeber’s and Grubacic’s article as well as anarchism in general. Because while on some level I think I agree with Kuhn, I find that the way he sets up his argument leaves me somewhat confused and unconvinced.

Kuhn critiques the “movementism” championed by Graeber and Grubacic as somewhat aimless, and calls into question whether this process of a rupture-less “hollowing out” is viable. Kuhn also questions the notion that we’re seeing a resurgent ”anarchic” wave of social movements, and instead points to growing fascist and reactionary presence in mainstream politics and social struggles. He finally asks if we are really making the kind of progress the authors seem to gleam in their essay.

Kuhn states that “[o]verall, anarchism’s historical influence has been much greater than often assumed”, and goes on to say that “[w]hile anarchism’s reformist legacy is strong, its revolutionary legacy is weak”. The confusing choice of wording aside – contributing to progressive reforms through direct action should not be conflated with reformism – there is truth to this statement, but it also sets us up for the most concerning part of Kuhn’s argument.

Kuhn writes that “[a]n important factor is that anarchists – for noble reasons – refuse to take on a role that revolutionary events often require”. This is a rather remarkable statement from someone who I think views anarchism favorably. For me, almost entirely to the contrary, anarchism is attractive exactly because it opens up a space of immediate action and analysis and doesn’t shy away from tackling problems head on and at their root.

What are these roles often “required” during revolutionary events which anarchists refuse to take on? It is a mystery to me, unless one construes anarchist refusal to take over state machinery or organize in hierarchical manner as a sign of nobility, and not a conscious strategy based on analysis and observations of what is effective and what has the potential to prefigure the desired outcomes.

The only clue we get is a quotation from Friedrich Engels’ polemic text “On Authority”. Originating as it did, in the midst of the conflict and collapse embroiling the First International, it is a text which treats its subject matter as a weapon to hurl at perceived enemies, and not as a matter for honest exploration. A full critique of “On Authority” is beyond the scope of this text, but needless to say, in it Engels makes some seriously damning conflations of force and authority, and the arguments were rightfully rejected wholesale by the fledgling anarchist movement of the time.

Anarchists cannot subscribe to authoritarian notions of revolution, this much is true. But that does not mean anarchists in general can be said to shy away from upheaval, ruptures, and violent self-defense. Rather, the point is how these things are organized in order to reproduce autonomy instead of top-down authoritarian structures. Defending yourself from attacks, and dismantling hierarchical and oppressive social relations, is in no meaningful way authoritarian or un-anarchist.

Kuhn then turns to Rojava and the (at least partial) success of the revolutionary struggles in that area. He notes that many “movementist” anarchists – including Graeber and Grubacic – have followed this struggle with excitement, while the values and methods of the Rojava revolution do not align with the impetus of movementism, with “parties, cadres, strategy, and grand theory”. It seems strange to me to first characterize the authors’ position as purely “movementist”, and then pointing out their inconsistency in supporting the Kurdish struggle.

If anything, this shows that they indeed do support movements that violently defend themselves, and acknowledge that ruptures can play an important part in revolutionary theory and practice. It also goes without saying that it makes no sense to only support movements that already fully align with whatever theory or practice one subscribes to. It is not only possible, but in my opinion necessary to support potentially liberating movements with all their faults. Of course, doing so more or less critically, and from an anarchist perspective, by supporting the self-organizing impulses within them, and not the leaders or processes of hierarchical ossification.

This last remark also points to a bigger general issue with Kuhns argument. He seems concerned with a tendency to neglect things like strategy and grand theory, on the part of the alleged movementists. But the very essay Kuhn refers to explicitly states that one of the problems of contemporary anarchism is the “overlooking of the effectiveness of theory“, and critiques a “reluctance to go beyond developing small-scale forms of organization” as part of its “political visions”.

It seems like Kuhn is describing the most extreme version of gradualist, spontaneist movementism, and not only presenting this as the authors’ position, but also goes on to substitute it for a general problem within anarchism. I don’t know about Kuhn, but I couldn’t name a single anarchist that subscribes to this exact position – a wholesale rejection of revolutionary ruptures, strategy, or larger political visions. Which isn’t to say that these things don’t need a lot of focus going forward.

Kuhn writes that anarchists “need to present models of revolution that differ from the Leninist one but are more substantial than the hope for some kind of historical magic”. Yes, absolutely. But isn’t that what anarchists have always tried to do? At times, it is hard to tell if Kuhn is lamenting an unfortunate development within parts of the anarchist movement, or confirming that anarchism as a whole is inevitably unable to grapple with concepts of power and revolution.

Part of this confusion, I think, stems from trying to measure anarchism by the yardstick of authoritarian ideology as well as contemporary statist and capitalist society. In this sense, anarchism is doomed to failure for the time being, because it aims to dismantle social hierarchies, not use some of them to alleviate others, or manage them all in a kinder way. But this is how movements for radical social change always fare – they lose, and lose, and lose – until they win. And until such a time, the victories of anarchism and anarchic practices will be submerged under the logic of hierarchical society, often hidden in plain sight in the everyday struggles and practices of people.

Kuhn ends by underlining the importance of anarchist organizations and anarchist ideas, which is great, but then, once again, undermines this emphasis by saying that “[a]narchists will in all likelihood not lead a revolution in the near future – or ever, considering the paradox implicit in the idea itself”, sounding much like one of the pure “movementists” he is critiquing.

What I personally take away from Graeber’s and Grubacic’s text is the observation of a real trend in social movements, with a shift of focus from mass organizations to a slightly more nebulous “movement of movements”. A trend that is somewhat exaggerated in my opinion, and one they extrapolate too far in terms of seeing it mostly replacing larger explicitly anarchist organizations or “anarchic” unions like the IWW. But a trend nevertheless, for better or for worse.

Here, there is an opening which it would serve us well to fill with discussions about how this shift has affected social struggles, and how the small-a anarchism in social movements could relate to explicit anarchist organizations and other mass organizations – something that for instance both platformists and anarcho-syndicalists have grappled with. Kuhn opens that door with his remarks, and adds valuable insights, but never truly steps inside. Will anarchists never lead or be a significant part of a revolution? Arguably, we already have, and we might yet in the future. But for that to happen, the specter of movementism as well as that of noble anarchism has to be exorcised.

Moving towards socialism

Bolivia, from the perspective of power. Can these flags, these ideas, these people and actions cross to the other side of the police line without trtansforming into something else?

It’s great to hear that the right wing bigots that seized power in Bolivia last year seem willing to respect the outcome of the election and step down. Their government never had any legitimacy, nor was it going to help the working class, the indigenous, the women of Bolivia, and the many otherwise marginalized groups in the country.

At the same time, it is easy to forget how and why the situation arose in the first place, and how MAS, Movimiento al Socialismo, ended up in a weak enough position for this to happen to begin with. First, there are of course great financial and political interests that want to see any ostensibly leftist governments throughout central and south America fail – not least the USA. This is a given, but it is also not enough of an explanation. Blaming everything on external factors is a sure fire way of not learning anything from the mistakes and processes that most certainly contributed to the crisis.

When MAS formed at the end of the 1990s, Bolivia already had a checkered past in terms of social movements and electoral politics. So MAS was not a naive attempt at parliamentary politics, but a conscious attempt to try doing it while avoiding the pitfalls of co-opting and paralyzing social movements. MAS was supposed to be the “political instrument” of the social movements, not their replacement.

How did it go? To start with, it is important to acknowledge that even given its limitations, MAS was able to do what no neoliberal government has managed in terms of actual improvements in the living standards of Bolivian people. Poverty rates decreased, including for the indigenous population, access to healthcare improved, infrastructure was developed, a new constitution acknowledging indigenous rights was passed into law, and the country managed to soften or at least delay the fallout of global crisis of 2008. In this regard MAS is a shining example of what was dubbed “the pink wave” of leftist governments across central and south America.

It is also, unfortunately, instructive of what went wrong with the pink wave in general. While measures like nationalization of natural resources, dismantling of various “free trade” agreements, new constitutions proclaiming the rights of indigenous populations, economic redistribution, and so on, all seemed in line with what was needed and on the surface did indeed improve the situation, the deeper, structural implication of *how* this all came about, and its effect on social movements, would play a big role in the downfall of not only the Bolivian pink tide, but much of the pink tide countries across the continent.

The process of institutionalizing the social movements began almost immediately for MAS. In what might seem as the most democratic thing to do, leading figures from all across the social movements were incorporated into the government. But instead of giving the people more power over their own lives, it only strengthened the government, which, supposedly, would act on behalf of the people. Any structural analysis would show, though, that taking over a ready-made state machinery, as is, and the myriad of institutions within it, is not only a process that will change those that do so, but also a process in which they immediately take on the interests of this state apparatus as their own.

When you’re suddenly in charge of the police, or of nationalized industry, the “stability” of the country, of the economy, and notions such as “law and order” become more important than anything else. As MAS itself became increasingly institutionalized, its ties to the social movements had the ironic effect of more easily dismantling and subsuming them under the umbrella of the state. Instead of inciting a vibrant counter-power that would hold the government to their promises and pose a real working class grass roots politics against what at best could be a politics of compromise from those in power, the figureheads incorporated in the state served to legitimize it, and cast doubt over those that were not happy with its programs and actions. An increasing cult of personality around Evo Morales did not help the matter either.

But what then, more concretely, were the problems with all this? Alongside the political incorporation of the social movements, went an economical counterpart. It is true that inequality was decreased through redistribution, and this in itself is great, but the way this was done served to further paralyze the social movements. The leaders and movements were bought off by subsidies, resources and jobs, rather than given power to self organize. They became economically dependent on the government, rather than encouraged to build and expand their own strength and autonomy.

Side by side with these readjustments, MAS also moved from the radical slogans of its pre-election days to increasingly far-reaching compromises with the Santa Cruz-based Bolivian latifunda – the rich land owners. This process completely derailed the earlier efforts of meaningful land reform. In line with the other developments, rather than empowering people and give them resources to organize their own life, it sought compromise with land owners and resource extractors, consolidated power in the government, and kept people happy enough with resource redistribution programs from above.

This also led MAS from a position of radical ecological reforms and a pro-indigenous position, to one which was largely in line with the interests of the landowners and the extraction industries. In some regards, these industries – some now owned by the state itself – could gain greater benefits than under earlier neoliberal governments, because the resistance of the social movements was contained. This is all strikingly similar to the so-called “national developmentism” which the Brazilian workers party, PT, administered during roughly the same time.

The commodity boom of the early 2000s, with extractive and export industries such as soy, iron ore, etc, generated money and resources which could be used for social programs. The method for keeping the population content thus depended on local as well as global economic growth, which in turn was largely based on environmentally detrmimental extraction. For many, the final straw was TIPNIS, the huge highway project that would take indigenous land, as well as parts of a national park for the purpose of building a highway. Protests against this project were met with repression in 2011.

This left-wing extractivism, with its resource redistribution and economic growth, also created a new growing middle class, which ironically did not feel great allegiance to the social movements or really even to the MAS, and in a way undermined part of their electoral and social movement base. When the economic boom was over, pink tide governments tied up in global extraction markets found it hard to keep up their social programs, and thus started to lose support even in their former core sectors within the population.

These are some of the processes that led to the situation in Bolivia, which serves as an example of a larger trend within the pink tide governments. So as MAS seems to come back to power, what have we, or they, learned, and what can we expect going forward?

Movimiento al Socialismo means, quite literally, Movement towards socialism. To me, such a movement or activity is best defined in the words of the old Solidarity group, as:

Meaningful action [is] whatever increases the confidence, the autonomy, the initiative, the participation, the solidarity, the equalitarian tendencies and the self -activity of the masses and whatever assists in their demystification. Sterile and harmful action is whatever reinforces the passivity of the masses, their apathy, their cynicism, their differentiation through hierarchy, their alienation, their reliance on others to do things for them and the degree to which they can therefore be manipulated by others – even by those allegedly acting on their behalf.

Understood in these terms, a meaningful movement for socialism can never exist in parliaments. There, only a distorted image of it can take hold, and if social movements aren’t watchful, they will take that image for their own appearance, and trade their own subjectivity for the subjectivity of the distortion. Seen that way, MAS is not the solution, it is not even the road. It is simply the restoration of at least some basic human dignity, and a call to action in order to organize the actual movement towards socialism, in our streets, neighbourhoods and places of work.

References and further resources: (The Intercept podcast on the 2019 coup and crisis)

The meaning of justice

It’s hard, especially for white folks, to comprehend how racist a place the USA is, so it is best to start from the beginning. And just to preface, this is an outsiders attempt to grapple with these things. I am not speaking for anyone but myself and my experiences as a white non-citizen living in the USA.

Some intuitively identify racism with things like the risk of being called a slur on the street, or an unfortunate prejudiced mindset in some people against others. While technically not wrong, these things relate to racism as a whole in the same way a needle relates to a haystack, or like the tip of the iceberg to the whole thing. Even more importantly, identifying racism primarily with prejudice makes us miss that it is, above all, a power dynamic – a system that benefits those in power and is prone to reproducing itself.

All nation states have displaced and oppressed people in the process of trying to enforce and project some sort of national “order” and narrative on the territory inside their proclaimed borders. But for the USA, if there is one defining foundational feature, it is racism. The country is literally established on the back of a genocide, through means of slavery as well as often racially fueled capitalist exploitation. Native peoples were mass murdered, cheated, driven off their lands and almost made extinct. Black people were kidnapped and transplanted into the plantations growing indigo, tobacco, and eventually cotton. Asian people died in droves building the railway system. Indentured laborers were shipped from all over Europe into dangerous conditions with high mortality rates to pave way for the riches of the industrial barons.

To undermine any potential solidarity growing between the exploited, they were actively pitted against each other by the rich and powerful. Not happy with your meager pay? Watch out, or the worse off will come and take your job! This is how whiteness was created. To drive home the point of how immaterial whiteness is, it is worth mentioning that many of the European workers – like the Irish – while not suffering the same level of oppression and discrimination as native peoples or black people, were still not considered white at this time.

It might seem like an irony of galactic proportions that a settler colonial state built on the forceful subjugation and exploitation of people from all over the world – and one whose economy still largely depends on undocumented migrants doing hard work – spends so much time bemoaning immigration and painting it as some sort of threat. However looking at the history of the USA, it becomes clear that this is not some sort of anomaly but simply a continuation of a long standing tradition. As has been said elsewhere, the US border regime is not a failed attempt at immigration control, but a well functioning precarization machine.

To cut a long story short, racism in the USA today permeates every aspect of the lives of native peoples and people of color, because the country is built on it, and wouldn’t – couldn’t – exist without it. The state has actively undermined and sabotaged native communities, while hand in hand with big business trying to exploit what little land they have left whenever the opportunity arises. For black people, the plantation has never really gone away – it has been socialized and trickled out into all aspects of the society. The types of institutions whose main purpose once was to chase down and lynch escaped slaves, or discipline unruly workers, now go by the name of police. Is there any wonder, then, that black folks are systematically targeted, abused and murdered? Thinking that the USA or the police can exist without racism, is like thinking that a gun can be a flower, or a skateboard a submarine. It’s a picture that liberals like to sell us, but much like the story of the American Dream, it is not really saying us anything about a potential reality, as much as it is a bedtime story that is supposed to put us to sleep.

As a person of color, you’ll be discriminated against when you apply for a job, when on the job, or when trying to collect benefits. You will be discriminated against when you’re trying to get an apartment, or when you try to vote. You risk getting stopped, beaten, murdered or otherwise abused and harassed by cops and white supremacists (of course, the two largely overlap) – whether you’re shopping at the Walmart or just playing in your yard. As a black male, you’ll have an almost 1 in 3 chance to be arrested by the time you’re 18, and potentially be sent off into the prison-industrial complex where you will do hard or hazardous work almost for free. You will be discriminated against in the educational system, and when you retire. You’ll be “offered” a way out of systemic poverty by serving in the military, flown off to some country on the other side of the world to do the bidding of big business and the state, and then disposed of as trash when (or if) you return. You’ll have white people threatening to call the cops on you (in other words, threatening your life) if they don’t like how you react to them. As a black person, your life expectancy is years shorter than that of any other ethnic category in the country. If they don’t just shoot you, they are sucking the life out of you and killing you slowly.

And god forbid should a black person get involved in any form of social movement or direct action. Anyone who has refused to act subservient to cops and engaged in social justice related direct action knows the abuse you’ll get from cops and authorities. I hardly know of anyone that has not been harassed, lied to, beaten, bullied, threatened or otherwise abused by cops and authorities for doing what is supposedly a democratic right. For black people, these things take on even more somber proportions. It is a fact that cops have systematically targeted black activists, from COINTELPRO to the bombing – bombing! – of MOVE in Philly in 1985. White supremacists can stand in capitol buildings yelling with rifles without any repercussions, while unarmed Black Lives Matter activists or completely innocent black civilians will be threatened, jailed or killed.

With all this in mind, things suddenly start to make sense. The armed white supremacists might be conveying their opinions in a somewhat rowdy way, but they are in all regards part of the same game as the politicians inside or the business lords of the country. The black person demanding an end to racism, on the other hand, is threatening the very foundation of the entire system.

So are we ready now to discuss the murder of George Floyd in broad daylight by 4 Minneapolis cops? Actually, there is not much more to say, that isn’t already being formulated in the streets, from the smashed cop cars to the burning police station in the 3rd Precinct. All I can say is may George rest in power and may we never stop seeking justice for him and the countless others who suffered and died because of this racist system. But what does justice really mean here?

It is said that a riot is the voice of the unheard. And they are not unheard because there is something wrong with the ears of the supposed receiver – it has been confirmed long ago that the system has no ears. It only ever loosens its choke hold on us when we collectively punch it in its racist face. That punch can look a lot like a riot in Minneapolis or Ferguson, but it can also look like a strike at Amazon or Walmart. It can look like organizing food programs Black Panther-style, or like other mutual aid efforts in our neighborhoods. Above all, it looks like us doing things for ourselves, without and against the system, and in a solidarity stemming from the knowledge that racism, capitalism and the cops are different sides of the same thing. Justice, in that sense, can only mean abolition.

No justice, no peace. Fuck racism. Fuck capitalism. And fuck the police.

The impossible promise

In the shadow of the ongoing covid pandemic, Bernie Sanders has withdrawn from the US primary race, leaving Joe Biden as the presumed Democratic presidential candidate in the upcoming elections. The same week the UK Labour party elected a new leader, Keir Starmer, clearly signaling a departure from Corbynist politics. This marks the end of a recent cycle of left electoralist pushes in these two countries and beyond. Their version of the pink tide is over, but unlike the south american one, it got swallowed by the sea before it even reached the shores.

Less noticed, but perhaps even more telling, was the formation of an initiative called Forward Momentum a few weeks ago. For those that don’t know, Momentum is a group within the UK Labour party formed in 2015 with the aim of pushing the party to the left, and to connect it to the Labour grassroots as well as to social movements. Now, apparently, a faction is needed within this faction, to push Momentum itself towards the grassroots.

Meanwhile it has also been revealed that staffers within the Labour party worked against Corbyn and for a Labour defeat in the election – a story as revealing as it is under-reported in the mainstream media, who have buried Corbyn once and for all, and presumably moved on to greener pastures.

This Monty Python-esque development directly relates to a dynamic that south african labor activist and anarchist Lucien van der Welt described as follows: Electoralism is not a way for social movements to get a foothold in the state, but a way for the state to get a foothold in social movements.

We’ve witnessed the development of ”leftist” parties historically, from the broad trajectory of social democracy as such, to specific instances of socialist or communist parties across the world, and how the closer they are to power, the more they morph into the thing they seemingly set out to change, reform, or defeat. From the aforementioned pink tide in South America, to Syriza, Podemos or Green Parties across Europe, to countless other examples.

There is a common theme here, a dynamic that plays out as these parties march through the institutions of the state.

I’ve recently tried to conceptualize these things in terms of a society where all decisions are made by a small amount of people around a very high table. Theoretically, anyone is allowed to join in the decision making, as long as they have stilts so that they can reach up to the table. However, stilts are very hard to come by and require a lot of resources. Now, people come together to try to acquire stilts for “one of their own” so that they can represent the rest at the table. Instead of putting work and resources towards directly trying to improve their conditions by acting for themselves, or putting pressure on the stilted elite – and in the longer run cracking and abolishing the stilts – energy is diverted towards this “pragmatic” project of elevating someone to the table, where, apparently, the real change happens.

A lot of the time this is enough to send meaningful organizing into a quagmire from which it cannot really recover, all without achieving any tangible results, but even if by chance the people succeed and the stilts are acquired, things tend not to pan out the way they were supposed to. This is because at the moment of “ascension”, the chosen representative has to make what I’d like to call the impossible promise: They must promise the others that they will not look down on them, while raising above them on their new stilts. In other words, the issue is not so much about intentionality, as about the structural conditions of the situation that these people put themselves in.

This of course goes far beyond individuals, as Peter Gelderloos put it, in an article discussing localist parliamentary parties in Spain:

Institutions are structurally immune to changes of heart precisely because they operate in complex, mutually reinforcing arrays, because they develop their own subjectivity and identity—their own interests—and the power they deploy can only be used in an authoritarian, centralizing way. Even an entire institution that managed to adopt revolutionary goals would erode the basis of its own power, and eliminate its ability to influence the other institutions, the moment it tried decentralizing power.

This “institutional subjectivity” also stretches beyond the national level, which can be seen in case after case where more or less leftist parties step into state power, like Syriza capitulating to the troika (European Comission, European Central Bank, International Monetary Fund) or the Workers Party of Brazil (PT) accommodating agribusiness as well as international financial institutions and backing down from some of their most ambitious policies even before taking power, in order to become more “electable”. As a telling sample of the resulting political situation, the landless workers’ movement (MST) in Brazil managed to reclaim less land under the PT than under their right-wing predecessor, because their tactic shifted from direct action towards waiting for the PT to solve their problems – something which, in power, they were unwilling to do, because they had to consider the interests of the large land owners and businesses in order to maintain power.


In a short Jacobin piece trying to come to terms with the defeat of the Bernie campaign, Paul Heideman acknowledges many of the pitfalls of electoral politics, but then draws a telling conclusion:

It is, of course, true that electoral politics in the United States are institutionally biased against socialists, and that the Democratic Party is run by a corporate-backed establishment that will do everything in their considerable power to stop socialists from succeeding on their ballot line.

But it doesn’t follow from this that electoral politics are uniquely hostile to the Left. After all, if there is anywhere employers have more power than the Democratic Party, it is surely the workplace, and the Left isn’t about to write off struggle in that field.

Yes, class struggle takes place in many spheres of society. However Heideman compares electoral politics with workplace organizing, without noting that the issue at hand is not only where, but also how, and along which lines, we fight back. The workplace equivalent to the electoral strategy of the Sanders campaign is not organizing militant and independent workplace organizations – it is trying to get elected or get someone else elected to the board of directors of the company, or backing a “nicer” person for becoming the next boss, and hoping that these people will enact more benevolent policies from their new position of power.

Just as we should reject such workplace approaches as a surefire way of getting trapped within the existing framework, logic, and power dynamic of the system, we have to struggle in the realm of so called “politics” in a way that doesn’t misdirect and debase our potential power. And this is perhaps they key issue that Heideman misses in his eagerness to as quickly as possible dismiss the threat of anarchism and other libertarian socialist theory and practice in the face of another electoral setback.

Electoral politics are by design an arena in which workers don’t have tangible power, and instead pits them against each other based on superficial ideological divisions. Meanwhile, in our places of work, in our neighborhoods and homes, in the schools, and in all places where our very lives are part of the reproduction of capital, we not only have a material common interest with other working class people, we also have the power to pursue said interest, because in those places we are the ones who make the system run. We are already the ones that make all the stilts.

To return to our “high table” analogy, and as we have already hinted at, the perils of electoralism go far beyond the problems of getting elected. Soon enough, the others at the table will also find ways to sow division between the newly-stilted and the people left on the ground. They will demand that the stilted representative controls the crowd, and tells them to keep calm in exchange for some mild concessions. The people end up fighting for improvements by means which reproduce their oppression and subordination, and those that want to abolish stilts and organize where their real power is at, will be ostracized and painted as purist, irresponsible, and impractical, laying the groundwork for splitting the movement and providing a justification for repressing the part of it that actually threatens the system.

Heideman also contrasts some nebulous concept of “anarchism”, exemplified by running co-ops and dumpster diving, with mass politics. This humorously desperate attempt at discrediting anarchism aside, there is a point to this line of thought if we dig deep enough. Clearly, any political organizing aiming at changing society will have to grapple with tasks of not getting stuck in or breaking out of subcultural or isolated political and ideological bubbles. In fact, almost all uprisings and even revolutions start with a particular spark (increased prices for public transport, food, or gas, austerity measures, etc) and then get generalized as they spread and intensify. But when using the phrase “mass politics” concerning the Bernie Sanders campaign, Heideman only gets it half-right.

Canvassing and voting happens on a mass scale, so much is true. But it is not politics, if by that we mean acting for ourselves to change our lives. Trying to convince people to vote for a particular candidate is not organizing. It doesn’t build any working class capacity to combat and sustain itself against the state and the capitalist class. After the election – no matter who gets elected – the canvassers go home, and we have not necessarily added one single bit of infrastructure to support workplace or community organizing going forward. Even while “winning”, it is possible that this capacity has actually decreased. No wonder russian anarchist Mikhail Bakunin called electoralism the “safety- valve” of bourgeois society already 150 years ago.

Mass politics is when we organize to change our conditions where we are at, on a mass scale. In our neighborhoods, as well as in our places of work, and sometimes in the streets. It is not automatically great or successful, but it is crucial in order for us to be able to build actual power outside and against state and capital.


But what about the fact that the people of the high table actually make decisions that affect our lives – at times even in a positive way? What about the labor laws, the protections for tenants that exist in some places, anti-discrimination acts, and other positive legislation or meaningful allocation of resources?

Yes, it is true that since they’re monopolizing power, by carrot and by stick, they make decisions that affect us. It is easy to understand how the idea that power and agency originates at the high table can be prevalent in a society where those at said table have control over media, education, infrastructure (and inversely, those in control of these things have their people at the table) and other things that help underpin their position. But it is fundamentally a reversal of cause and effect – it is like thinking that a thermometer causes rather than reflects changes in the temperature.

In similar fashion, electoral politics are largely a reflection of the power relations and stirrings in society at large. They are a reflection of the strength of social movements, and of the balance of power between social classes. The reforms might be signed at the high table, but they are won by class struggle and social movements. Even for relatively worker-sympathetic voices at the high table, positive reform becomes possible to push for while under the uncontrollable threat of well-organized movements of those without stilts.

Or in other words, as another piece critical of electoralism puts it:

Libertarian socialists generally argue that it is the balance of class forces, not the party composition of the political class, that determines legislative and policy outcomes under the capitalist state. If we want reforms in our favor, we must shift that balance through popular organization and mobilization, regardless of who is in power. (Often a wave of new, further left elected officials is a lagging indicator: a resultof that shift, not its cause.)

For those of us that never were big supporters of Corbynism, the Sanders campaign(s) or initiatives like Momentum, it is easy to gloat as they all seem to fall apart or loose their bearings. I however don’t really feel any enjoyment in this particular moment. To me it is disheartening seeing so much energy that could be used to build grassroots organizing which could help us here and now as well as make the stilts obsolete long term, instead spent on rebuilding them and granting them legitimacy, time and time again. The old french slogan from 1968 might go “Be realistic, demand the impossible”, but this is not the kind of “impossible” it meant. It said to be realistic for us, and demand the impossible from them. So can we please stop making impossible promises to ourselves?

Callifornia on fire

California, is on fire. I know, because I can smell it from where I am.


When I participated in a Mutual Aid Disaster Relief workshop last year in NYC, one of the things that stuck with me was the discussion about the term ”natural disaster”.

It sounds very innocent, but on closer inspection it tends to hide the social aspect of almost all such so called disasters. Storms, fires, earthquakes etc, all occur naturally, this much is true. In some cases they can actually play an important role in rejuvenating ecosystems.

The problem, however, begins when we move into the realm of disasters where humans were either the direct or indirect cause, or, equally important, where the social relations in our societies have caused catastrophic outcomes as a result.

A storm that hits a city is one thing. The resulting deaths, homelessness and suffering caused, on the other hand, are all directly proportional to the social, economic and political status of those affected. It is no secret that poor communities are hit the hardest, and that cutting corners in construction and safety is the norm and not the exception when it comes to “accommodating” poor people, both on a local and global scale.

So marginalized communities live in sub-par housing, often in areas more prone to be hit by disasters, and to top it off, they are often ignored when it comes to emergency response. Even worse, when disasters happen the state is usually more interested in (re-)establishing “order”, thus sending armed forces, imposing curfews, and engaging in other activities which directly and indirectly prohibit people from getting to safety and from helping each other. Then, when the social tragedy is a fact, the disaster is often used as an opportunity to gentrify areas and permanently displace people. This is the sick logic of state and capital.

Far from being a natural disaster, this process should be labeled an unnatural disaster, created opportunistically by the social system we live under. Or in the words of Japanese anarchist Kōtoku Shūsui, who witnessed the San Francisco earthquake of 1906 first hand:

hunger followed, and cold. Unemployment followed. One hundred thousand poor tasted bitter suffering to its fullest extent. And yet, this was not the fault of the fire, this was the fault of today’s social order alone.

Shūsui also experienced the mutual aid developing directly between people in this emergency, where the sluggish and disinterested state abandoned them. An experience that was important in his own political development towards an anarchist conception of socialism.

Today we also know that what we do to the environment on a large scale, the fossil fuel based and exponentially growing economy, causes emission of greenhouse gases, leading to climate change, which in turn leads to more extreme weather.

So is this what is happening in California right now? Just some fires caused indirectly by human greenhouse gas emissions? Mostly no. The reason why people are trying to escape the fires while losing their homes has a much more direct connection to the powers that be in our current social system.

The major electric company in California, PG&E, has prioritized profits and bonuses for decades, severely neglecting their infrastructure. Even after having been found guilty of causing 8 deaths due to a gas explosion in San Bruno in 2010, not only did the neglect and safety violations continue, the company even falsified gas pipeline records to avoid attention.

Their aging infrastructure has been the direct cause of many fires, most notoriously the Camp fire of 2017 that killed 86 people. In the aftermath of that fire, the company was forced to file for bankruptcy due to the immense amount of money it suddenly had to pay in fines and settlements. A well deserved financial fallout that nevertheless feels near meaningless compared to what the company has actively caused by its profit-driven disregard for safety.

The company has been forced to admit that its infrastructure probably caused the ongoing Kincade fire in Sonoma County in North California, and it has been confirmed that they are responsible for two other, smaller fires, that started during the weekend. All this despite the ongoing precautionary blackouts that the company has resorted to in order to avoid further fires.

So we have severe blackouts, human-made disasters, extreme corruption – if this would be in any place western or US media don’t approve of politically, it would be portrayed as a failed political and economic system. But what does that say about the most powerful state on earth, the flagship of the capitalist world?

Whether this could have been avoided had PG&E been a public company might be an interesting question, and it’s hard to imagine it would make things worse. But on the whole I think it partially misses the point. Most public companies are run like private businesses anyways, and have to deal with most of the same external pressures to cut costs in the name of “efficiency”.

Nor is corruption or exploitation limited to the private sector – it is inherent to power, which runs unchecked not only on Wall Street but also in politics. I think reclaiming the utility and making it into a public one is a fair demand, but not one that would be entirely sufficient. Let’s remember that the state of California that would be presumed to run the utility company in the best interests of the people, is the same that for instance uses prison inmates to fight fires. Inmates that, until a recent drop in interest (gosh I do wonder why) forced the state’s hand to raise remuneration a bit, earned as little as $1-2 a day.

Personally I think we will have to deal with this kind of problems until the day a few simple, yet in my view almost intuitive, things change. First, the ones who know best what to do are the workers, and they should be running the facilities themselves in a democratic fashion, without capitalists or politicians. Secondly, they should be beholden to the communities they serve – which in many instances are the very communities they live in. Together with the communities, they should decide what needs to be done, how to do it, and how to prioritize resources.

In this way, when issues are decided by those they directly concern, and power is dissipated, we might escape the incentives that not only set the agenda of utility companies today, but also of our entire society, and thus our entire lives. There’s a reason why the state and capitalist businesses cause harm and exploit people, while volunteer run grassroots initiatives create mutual aid information sheets, engage in resource sharing, and distribute breathing masks. We can’t eliminate disasters entirely or avoid disagreements, but how about we stop incentivizing downright destructive behavior?

On class reductionism

Times like these we live in leave their mark on everyone. Throughout the world, we’ve seen the rise of fascism and racist right wing populism. All sort of problems are blamed on the most vulnerable in our societies – a lot of the time people fleeing from conflicts created, fueled and supplied by western interests.

It’s hard to avoid being affected, even for people who consider themselves as socialists. Horseshoe theory is of course an absurd centrist myth, but there is no denying that certain more cynical and opportunistic elements of “the left” have always historically had a tendency to slip into red-brown alliances.

To a lesser degree, we have also seen socialists call for immigration control and strong border protection, and putting unreasonable blame on migrant workers instead of on capitalist enterprises and governments that try to stage a race to the bottom in terms of working conditions and wages across the world.

But going even further, I’ve noticed a worrying tendency among socialists which I think partially might explain the drift of some anti-capitalists towards more or less racist approaches to politics and analysis. It is a tendency that’s always existed in socialist theory, and which I think easily lends itself to sliding down this type of slope. It is the tendency to fall into class reductionism.

First, I am not talking about the vulgar type of class reductionism here, that disregards racism, patriarchy or state exploitation altogether. I am talking about people that are anti-racist, feminist and anti-state, but whose analysis, in the last instance, boils down to the primacy of class.

But isn’t this proper materialism? The material “base”, the mode of production, determines the ideological and political “superstructure”. As the productive forces develop, the mode of production becomes a fetter, it changes, and the superstructure follows. This is the standard story of orthodox materialism.

From it, it is easy to draw the conclusion that class society is the exploitative “base”, and other “forms of oppression” are helpful auxiliaries used by capital to perpetuate it’s domination. In it’s most mechanistic version, what this theory simply proposes is that technological development drives social change.

The problem with this “materialist” line is that, at its core, it is based on historical and anthropological data from the 19th century, used in a highly modernist context. This data is used to develop an over-simplified and stagist model of how societies develop, a model which at best only partially explains what is going on.

What we know today, is that the process of state or class formation is much more complex and nuanced. Military, religious, ethnic, state, patriarchal or economic power played different roles in different places, and almost any combination could at times be considered be the “base” of class formation.

Thus class was neither temporally “first”, nor always the primary determining factor for the rest of the social relations. To take an example from the industrial revolution, handloom weavers were often concentrated in factories before centralizing technologies were developed, as David Dickinson points out in his 1975 book The Politics of Alternative Technology.

The entire concept of so called historical materialism could be put in question, as for instance Alan Carter does in his book Marx, a Radical Critique. However, there are of course more recent and less mechanistic interpretations of so-called historical materialism, so let us briefly turn to one of them for a moment.

Autonomist marxism protests such mechanistic accounts by positioning the working class as an active subject in history, through the means of class struggle. Yes, forces of production tend to develop, but *how* they develop and are applied is influenced by class struggle. The subjective actions of the working class are shaping history, productive forces, and the mode of production – and not only the other way around.

What I am proposing is to extend this notion of “historical subjectivity” to other power dynamics and their subjects as well; racism, patriarchy, the state, the domination of humans over nature. None of these power dynamics is reducible to any other. They all co-constitute each other, and they all also contain within them their own dynamics, their own incentives for reproduction, their own struggling subjects, and their own seeds for a potential class society.

Thus we should neither expect racism to disappear automatically if class is abolished, nor expect the state to simply “wither away” on its own. We have to struggle against all such power dynamics here and now. The process of liberation is a struggle against all of these power dynamics simultaneously. But there are even more important insights at stake.

First, by erasing the driving forces and subjects of these power dynamics and reducing them to class, we will be unable to explain how society develops and the causality of social forces. It’s like looking for a key you lost under a street light, instead of where you lost it.

Secondly, this form of class reductionism very easily lends itself to instrumentalizing struggles. Thus even well-meaning people can come into struggles against racism, the state, or patriarchy with a mindset of this at best being a tool to further class struggle.

This obviously will alienate people for whom these struggles might be of existential proportions, and also simply leads to bad tactics. It’s not enough to fight racism on a class basis, you also have to fight class on an anti-racist basis, and so on.

Ironically, class reductionism can also lead to instrumentalizing the class struggle itself. Without a broad concern for all co-constituting power dynamics, even genuine class struggle can end up being used as a tool to gain power over people.

And lastly, maybe the most important point of all. I think all our political projects are doomed if we don’t ground them in a sort of ethics of empathy, solidarity and mutual aid. The primary reason we should fight racism, sexism, the state and capitalism is because all these power dynamics cause people great harm.

Whether all this is called materialist, intersectionalist, or something else is beside the point, but it is worth noting that intersectional analysis is often attacked on the basis of that it “demotes” class analysis to a shallow liberal framework of “classism”, and views all forms of oppression as simply reflections of certain identities.

This does not have to be the case though, and instead the proposition is to promote other power dynamics to the level of class analysis, and consider them all part of a connected web of social hierarchies producing different outcomes at different times, places and intersections. Identities are always a part of politics, the problem only arises when the former is mistaken for the latter.

To My Friend Van Drew

Umm, what? Who the f… I mean who are you? V-Van…Drew?

Well. I see you’re running for congress. That’s pretty much all the information I need, to be fair. Now, Van Drew, don’t take this personally, but I trust politicians just about as much as I trust data viruses, so I won’t click your link, because I’m afraid I might get one.

But, tell you what, Van Drew. I’ll make it up to you by giving you more than you bargained for. You called me a “principled” and “commited” New Jerseyan, after all, which is flattering. But you know what, Van Drew? The part that most caught me off guard in that sentence was “New Jerseyan”.

I’ve lived here for almost two years now, but haven’t thought of myself as one. I’m definitely not the typical one, Van Drew, that’s for sure – I don’t even have a car, for crying out loud. But, damn it, Van Drew, you are right. I am a New Jerseyan. Huh.

Now, before you get your hopes up, Van Drew, just let me tell you that I won’t be voting for you. Because I can’t, even if I wanted to. Not a citizen (not that that always helps, though). Albeit white and privileged, I’m one of those New Jerseyans without a voice in politics. Or, so it would seem. In fact, I don’t see it that way. Truth is, Van Drew, if I could, I probably wouldn’t vote anyway. Not out of spite, not out of principle – I’m not that principled in this regard, despite your kind words. Just.. out of the sheer feeling of how meaningless it is. But no, it’s not that I’ve given up. I’ll explain in a while.

Some say that my attitude here is in itself a privilege. That I am disrespecting the struggle of many fine people that fought hard for the right to vote. And to be sure, Van Drew, I’m totally against the discrimination of people in terms of refusing them their right to vote, if others have that same right. Be they indigenous peoples, black, women, working class people, or, like today, prisoners… but also those some call undocumented or even “illegal” (you’re not one of those a-holes, are you, Van Drew?) immigrants. So yes, people say it is privileged not to vote. But the thing is, I don’t mind people voting. This is not me telling people not to vote.

And the fact of the matter is, Van Drew, that those who predominantly don’t vote, even if we discount all the ways in which politicians and those with economic power try to prevent them, are poor and marginalized people. Rich, privileged people generally vote. You know why, Van Drew? Because if you’re well off, you both tend to think you deserve it, and that you actually have a say. The first part is self-delusion, but the second part is true, Van Drew. Those on the economic and social margins of this society, though, they know that their voices – votes or no votes, don’t matter. Because no matter who they vote for, the government and the capitalists always win.

This is the thing, Van Drew. You know what I believe in? I believe in freedom and in a society where everyone’s needs are met. That might sound simple, it might sound utopian, but, by god, Van Drew, with the resources we have today, do you know how easy that would be to implement? That’s why, to be honest with you, I am not that fuzzed about voting or the question you ask. “Should members of congress work across the aisle?”. I mean, what the actual… heck, Van Drew. That’s like asking someone in a burning house whether they prefer rice or pasta. That’s like asking people to vote on the color of traffic lights while their homes are commodities on a market. That’s like asking someone to recycle plastics in a world economy based on mass production and consumption, governed by infinite exponential growth.

I don’t know how you did at math, Van Drew, but let me tell you something about “exponential”. Picture a curve. It’s not one of those rather straight lines, or even slightly bent ones, this sucker is curving upwards – like hell. It’s one of those where, pretty soon, the line looks like it’s heading straight up, in fact. Imagine if that means resources over time. That is, plainly speaking, a hella lot of resources over very short time.

But, I digress. Suffice to say, Van Drew, your question sort of misses the point. Voting sort of misses the point. With all due respect, I think the problems in our society actually have a lot to do with most of us being told that the only way we can change society is voting for people like you. Now, ok, Van Drew, calm down, don’t take this personally. The problem isn’t you as an individual, or even all politicians. The problem is a society where we supposedly are free but yet can’t decide anything about most of the things in our everyday life without either having to defer to politicians, or simply abdicate to bosses and business owners that rule over our places of work and preside over our homes with the apparent authority of modern day feudal lords.

But as I said, Van Drew, I believe in freedom and in a society where everyone’s needs are met. Now, it is easier said than done to just “be free”, right? We can choose what we think, what we believe in, and how we act in the world, but we don’t exactly choose our conditions. And as little as we can choose our conditions, we can choose to simply “become” better or different people overnight.

But don’t get me wrong here, Van Drew. A lot of people like to talk about human nature. Human nature, this, human nature that. Humans are naturally greedy, naturally competitive. It’s a dog eat dog world, and so on. I don’t buy that crap, Van Drew, do you? Like, as I said about you and the rest of your politician friends, I don’t think y’all are bad people. Really. I don’t think you for some reason lack character or moral backbone, and thus I don’t think that the solution is to replace you with other, supposedly better people.

The problem, Van Drew, is that you and your politician friends, are placed in a situation within a definite set of conditions with certain clear cut incentives, that, pretty much like gravity makes an apple fall, make you and your politician friends “fall” from grace and time after time turn out to serve the interests not of the people, but of vested powerful interests, both political and economic. So it’s not that we’re not good enough to be free, Van Drew, it’s that we, if anything, are not good enough to rule over others.

What’s more, we humans don’t have a rigidly fixed human nature, we have all sort of tendencies and propensities. Egoistic ones, as well as altruistic ones. Peaceful and harmonious ones, as well as violent and unpleasant ones. So the question, Van Drew, is not what kind of humans we are, but what kind of conditions that bring out the best out of us, that bring out those qualities which enable us to live together, free, in a society where everyone’s needs are met.

And true, we can’t choose the conditions we try to realize this under, Van Drew. We can’t change ourselves by snapping our fingers. But do you know, Van Drew, how we humans evolve as social beings? By acting on our conditions, and changing them, we change ourselves. And if we want a free society where everyone’s needs are met, we can’t expect to accomplish that by social forms that are everything but free. Freedom cannot be given, Van Drew, it can only be taken. We can only become free and realize our aspirations for a different society, by directly acting for it ourselves. Despite certain appearances and narratives, that’s always how social change has come about.

That is why, Van Drew, I don’t care much for politicians and voting. That is why I instead see hope where people organize directly in their everyday lives to change their conditions there and then. In grassroots-organized unions, in tenant associations, in neighborhood assemblies, in social centers and book cafes, in study groups, in migrant sanctuaries, in mutual aid associations that help feed people or perform disaster relief, in autonomous art spaces and community gardens, and in a thousand other places that provide us with the means to change, but also with beautiful radiant things.

And where we struggle for dignified working conditions today, tomorrow we want to control and transform our places of work without any bosses or owners. Where we fight against gentrification and rent hikes we want communities to cooperatively manage the neighborhoods, and homes being a matter of needs instead of a commodity on a market. Where we fight with undocumented migrants, colonized peoples and people of color, against state repression and racist violence, we want a world without states and borders, divided and united only by the intricate social relationships we build as individuals, groups and communities, always fluctuating and morphing into something new, while respecting each others autonomy.

Where we do prison support we want to abolish prisons together with the economic and social roots for most so-called crimes, and otherwise use methods of restorative justice and mediation to resolve inevitable conflicts and hurtful behaviors. Where we fight for food security and decent access to basic supplies we want to let a thousand gardens grow under the control of those communities they concern, and turn them into wonderful flowering commons, while in the process creating independent, resilient communities where we contribute what we can and take what we need.

By starting to change the things around us, directly, as equals, in solidarity both because we care for each other and because we realize that our freedoms are inextricably linked, we also start to change ourselves. This is why the things I describe are not utopian, Van Drew, but a practical and open ended road map, an inspiring glimpse of what could be and a rough sketch of how to get there.

Do you see now, Van Drew, why your question washes off me like the New Jersey dirt when I hop into the shower in the morning? The aisle you speak of is a mirage. Bipartisanship is not open minded or pragmatic, but incredibly narrow and hopelessly far away from anything meaningful. The gulf between what is and what could be is an ocean, wide, uncrossed and untamed, and you’re sitting at the beach of reality, thinking pragmatism is using all the wood to make a bonfire instead of building boats to get to the other side.

We’re builders, Van Drew, but we’re also pirates. We will build our boats and sail off, with no regards for your laws and regulations, for the sanctity of property or borders. We will not sit around and wait for you or someone else to deliver us to the world we dream of. We’re dreamers, it is true, but what we dream of is a greater reality where we ourselves are the heroes of our story.

That is why, Van Drew, you have nothing to offer me, and why I now bid you farewell. Good luck with the questionnaire, which undoubtedly will provide invaluable information for your campaign team when it is time to decide the correct slogans to win back your seat. And, as soon as you’ve done that, I’m sure our lives will improve immediately. But, really, joke aside Van Drew, that’s not what it is about, is it. That, my friend, would be utopian thinking.

On elections and voting

USA, now that you’ve had your midterm elections, I’d like to say a few words about electoralism and voting.

First, let me say that I am not overly bothered about whether people vote or not, so I am also not interested in trying to shame people into doing either. I don’t think there is any merit to moralizing about it either way. If it makes you happier to vote – then do it, if you feel better not participating, then go right ahead and ignore it. Neither really affects your possibilities to organize and change the world around you in a positive way.

But here is the thing. Voting as a concept, and the idea that real, tangible change can be accomplished by voting – or even that voting is a sort of damage control or harm reduction – are all propositions that, in my opinion, overestimate the power of voting and elections. The problem with that, is that it can have the effect of tricking people into a false sense of accomplishment when they do vote.

Most countries, and especially the US, are inherently tied to financial interests and big capital elites in terms of what they can do policy-wise. In the case of the USA, in fact, serious research institutions have come to the conclusion that the country is, more or less, a type of oligarchy. Or, put in academic terms:

Multivariate analysis indicates that economic elites and organized groups representing business interests have substantial independent impacts on U.S. government policy, while average citizens and mass-based interest groups have little or no independent influence.”

This is further underlined by the fact that pretty much none of the significant indicators such as income inequality, wealth inequality, situation for minorities, incarceration rates and so on is in any way correlated to any particular party being in power – be it federal or state level. The fact that one of the most important movements in recent years – Black Lives Matter – formed as a result of repression of black folks under the first black president ever is but the most ironic of many examples that together show a trend – it doesn’t really matter very much who is in power, because power is in power. No matter who you vote for, the government always wins. And the government, it turns out, pretty much ensures business as usual for itself and for economic elites.

Ok, but what about all the times that congress or state legislature actually passed progressive laws that helped poor people out? Surely this cannot be denied, and shows that despite all, there is change to be had within this political system? This might be a tempting proposition because after all, it’s there, right in front of our eyes. We can see the politicians smiling, signing off on one or another bill that actually helps folks in their everyday life, be it in economic terms, lgbtq+ rights, anti-discrimination or something else.

I once thought so too. Then I picked up – almost by accident – a copy of Howard Zinn’s amazing book A People’s History of the United States. That book clarified many things for me, but the most astounding was that I started to see history from a bottom-up instead of a top-down perspective. Instead of putting the spotlight and cameras on government men in suits, the idea of change that the media tries to sell us, I started to see change as the result of social movements fighting for it – in the streets, in the neighborhoods, in workplaces – in every corner of our everyday lived experiences.

This made me realize that in seeing governments, politicians and laws as the source of change I was getting things backwards – I was confusing cause and effect. The laws, oftentimes forced upon governments and legislatures, ware caused by all these people fighting for them. For every good thing that has happened, for instance in terms of legalizing gay marriage, trans rights or other important lbgtq+ issues, there’s been a Stonewall. For every civil rights gain there was a Rosa Parks, a Martin Luther King and a Malcolm X. For every immiserated neighborhood or minority there was a riot, for every change they managed to affect there was a social movement. Without these movements, there is nothing. But without these politicians in power, and the capital owning elites that mostly have them in their pockets, there would be, what?

We don’t need them, but they need us.

Stepping back again, regardless of what one thinks of the efficacy of voting, there is an inescapable aspect of alienation about it. Voting is an inherently individualized and isolating thing. It doesn’t build any movements, it doesn’t create solidarity or bring us closer to people around us. It is just the ceremonial act of signing off on which group of powerful elites gets to decide over our lives for the next few years. The change it promises, as we’ve seen above, rarely materializes, and even in best case it is supposedly done for us, not by us, and not where we’re at.

Organizing, on the other hand, can have immense effect on our everyday lives and experiences, even before we’ve seen the change we’re working on. Getting together with people, establishing networks of mutual aid and solidarity, building affinity, empowers us and gives us a social meaning in our everyday lives. While your vote floats off into an intangible abstract political landscape, our everyday organizing, no matter how modest in scope and limited in time, makes real tangible change in your life and the lives of others, and when we succeed with something – winning a conflict with a landlord, a workplace struggle, providing food or security for our communities, etc – it is immediately felt and experienced by us and those around us.

Or, to sum up and put all of this more eloquently:

“Political rights do not originate in parliaments; they are, rather, forced upon parliaments from without. And even their enactment into law has for a long time been no guarantee of their security. Just as the employers always try to nullify every concession they had made to labor as soon as opportunity offered, as soon as any signs of weakness were observable in the workers’ organizations, so governments also are always inclined to restrict or to abrogate completely rights and freedoms that have been achieved if they imagine that the people will put up no resistance. Even in those countries where such things as freedom of the press, right of assembly, right of combination, and the like have long existed, governments are constantly trying to restrict those rights or to reinterpret them by juridical hair-splitting. Political rights do not exist because they have been legally set down on a piece of paper, but only when they have become the ingrown habit of a people, and when any attempt to impair them will meet with the violent resistance of the populace. Where this is not the case, there is no help in any parliamentary Opposition or any Platonic appeals to the constitution.” – Rudolf Rocker

Now, in an honest attempt to strike a balance, some people will inevitably say, “but why not both”? And this really leads us to the core of my issue here. Of course, as I’ve already expressed I don’t mind the act of voting as such. Since my entire argument is that, especially on a personal level, the act in itself is near enough meaningless, it shouldn’t matter much whether people vote or not, and if it actually has the slightest thrust, then why not do all these other things, and also vote?

The problem I have with this line of reasoning is connected to the problem I see every time an election nears. And this is the overestimation of the power of voting. “Why not both” puts organizing and voting on a sort of equal footing, as if we’re talking about a two pronged strategy. But a vote on an individual level has at best such minuscule influence, that it is an act of mystification to compare it to organizing. I could just as well be arguing that a steady breakfast is important, to have energy to be able to organize during the day. In fact, I believe a steady breakfast is probably more important than voting. There are probably thousands of things I could think of that are more important. So “why not both” is actually a rigged question – it is a symptom of the fact that even people that on some level understand how little – if any – difference voting makes, still act as if it made more difference.

This can have the effect of making people complacent, because if seen this way, voting in itself becomes an achievement, when in fact one of the main effects of the spectacle is precisely to act as a safety valve, redirecting popular anger and dissatisfaction into a sphere where it can safely be contained and worn down, like an animal stuck in quicksand. One highly unfortunate way in which this already happens in a very material way is union funds being funneled into political campaigns instead of used as leverage to express and expand workers’ power at the point of production.

In the end, there is no shortcut to affecting significant and lasting social change. It is a slow process of movement building at the grassroots, of experimentation, of failure, and of victories and gains. For those of us that want to build a new world, we have to stop looking at others and start building it ourselves where we’re at. If history has taught us anything, it is that such change can only come from us, and last only as long as we can reproduce it as a habit.

So no matter whether you vote or not, don’t let that process enclose the way in which you are political, straitjacket your activism, and curtail your imagination. From the point of view of electoralism and those in power, those of us that want to see a radically free and egalitarian society are demanding the impossible. But from our own perspective, such a society is not only possible, but increasingly necessary, if we want any sort of future at all. I don’t see how one can be any more realistic than that.

On fascism

This is a Jewish memorial site near Kazimierz Dolny, in Poland. It is a small town that at its height, a few hundred years ago, was an important trading hub on the banks of the river Vistula. The town used to have a significant Jewish population, but this all changed during World War II when the Nazis occupied Poland and committed atrocities both against poles resisting the occupation, differently-abled people, and ethnic or religious groups like the Jews, among others.

Jews and polish antifascists or “undesirable” civilians would often be rounded up and sent to either labor and concentration camps, or pretty much shot on the spot and buried in mass graves. The site on the picture, outside of Kazimierz Dolny, was an old Jewish cemetery at the time of the war, and was used by the Nazis for precisely such executions. But the Nazis didn’t stop at committing genocide – they also wanted to humiliate their victims. In Kazimierz Dolny this took the form of pillaging the Jewish cemetery and using the tombstones to build an access road and yard for a Gestapo office set up in a nearby monastery. Decimated, sent off to camps, and humiliated, the Jewish community in Kazimierz Dolny was pretty quickly all but a memory.

How do you recover from something like that? You don’t. The dead stay dead, and the living never came back to Kazimierz Dolny. There are no Jews living in the area today.

This is only one of an almost endless row of stories about those repressed and exterminated by the Nazis. To put it in a larger context, Poland used to have a population of over 3 million Jews before World War II. Around 3 million perished in concentration camps or on the spot executions – at the time this constituted 90% of the overall Jewish population in Poland. Most of the rest escaped never to return. Today, the Jewish population of Poland is around 10 000.

The monument on the picture features recovered pieces of the tombstones used for paving roads by the Nazis, and is inspired by the wailing wall of Jerusalem. It is an attempt to at least document what happened and honor the victims of one of the most devastating genocides in history. The story of Kazimierz Dolny is far from unique. Most cities and areas of Poland and beyond had similar experiences.

Some are commemorated with monuments or museums, for others, only the trees, earth, rocks and the sky tell their stories. These are stories of great sadness and disgrace, but also of equally great bravery and courage. They are also stories about the fascist ideology in practice, and how all attempts of organizing around fascism are inextricably tied to a history of genocide, persecution, rape, torture and immense, unimaginable human suffering.

What can we learn from all of this? How do we stop it from happening again?

There are no easy answers here, but the least we can do is to attempt to take small steps in the right direction, bit by bit.

I think that we can’t treat these ideologies as some sort of general ‘evil’ that can be corrected by persuasion or by simply contrasting it with some more or less general ‘good’. Things like ‘good’ and ‘evil’ are impossible to understand, and to defeat fascism, we need to understand these movements. They arise out of specific conditions, which we have to analyze to be able to undermine and attack fascism at it’s root.

We also need to understand that fascism starts small. All the atrocities recounted above started with parties that were tens or hundreds strong when their leaders to-be joined them. Even though the specific conditions today are somewhat different, the core ideology and impetus of these movements remain the same, within the small groups or larger movements we see today. Thus every such group carries the seeds of human disaster and genocide within it, and we have to treat them as such – to me, this means trying to undermine them at their base by any means necessary, and that there is no such thing as “too early” or “too harsh” when it comes to rooting out fascism from our communities.

Some of the means to do so might involve direct confrontations and self-defense where and when needed, like defending rallies, spaces, and other gatherings where groups usually targeted by fascists are present, or preventing fascists from effectively organizing or recruiting. But it is even more important to undermine the very foundations of fascism’s social and political appeal. This can only be done, in my opinion, by building locally rooted networks and grass roots communities where people feel empowered and in control of their lives – in other words, by self-organization that not only promises but also delivers real difference and meaning to people’s lives.

It is also important to realize that the same groups that are targeted by Nazis have often been persecuted by the police and other state institutions, meaning these authoritarian institutions are among the least likely to help fighting fascism. They are also among the least effective in doing so, as their authoritarian logic tends to reproduce oppression rather than move us towards a more free society. A really effective anti-fascism also can’t be anxious about what the public/majority or mainstream media think is appropriate at any certain point, because marginalized groups have rarely if ever been able to count on most of that part of society when trying to defend themselves from fascism.

Instead of this anxious least-common-denominator approach to anti-fascism that tries to please even the most moderate and conservative of social forces that aren’t straight out fascist, effective anti-fascism has to be based on the immediate needs and threats against marginalized communities, and only aim to build mass support or mass movements from such effective anti-fascist practice.

So what we really need is an anti-fascist group in every neighborhood, not only doing the direct and necessary work of counter-acting fascist threats, but also interlinking with a more generalized form of community self-defense with solidarity networks and networks of mutual aid taking care of problems with (for instance) landlords, radical unions in our workplaces, community gardens, social centers and all kinds of other structures of social care which we use to meet our every day needs and immediately improve our conditions, with the long term aim of transforming all the productive, financial and social wealth that today is mostly privatized by rich people or monopolized by states, and turn it into a commons in which we all share based on our needs and desires.

Who the hell would want or care to be a fascist in such a world? Let’s start here and now. Let’s smash fascism and create a whole new world while we’re at it. Because, in the end, I think it is the only way to really defeat it.

Concerning borders

There’s been a lot of talk lately about immigration and separating families. And rightly so, because what is happening both in the US and all across the world, with detentions, deportations, draconian border regimes and so on, is nothing short of a disgrace. It is a sort of collective moral collapse with even many of those espousing the values of solidarity starting to point fingers at others while supporting policies of closed borders and state violence against immigrants, working class people, activists and dissidents. Trump and his likes, on the other hand, have become a sort of symbol of the unabashed straight out racist, sexist and elitist politics that are at the forefront of all of this.
But that being said, there is a risk here of missing the broader point. Because this is not really about the Trumps of this world. Obama not only oversaw and expanded a deadly drone war, was in office while black people were being persecuted and killed to an extent that caused the rise of Black Lives Matter, but also, importantly, massively expanded the institutions and agencies designated for persecuting “illegal” immigrants – the very infrastructure Trump is now building upon.
Realizing that this is not simply about Trump is important, because that leads to realizing that the solution cannot simply be replacing him. Obama, Hillary, and even a Bernie Sanders, they are all beholden to the same power dynamics and pressures of the institutions. And the same “inertia” that sometimes has overturned Trumps outrageous policies, would overturn those of a very radical “left”-leaning president. The bottom line here is the following: Politicians are not the cause of social change, but the reflection of it. They are to social change what a thermometer is to heat. Sure heat affects us, but it would be futile to try to change it by manipulating the thermometer – at best we’d just be fooling ourselves.
Change does not happen when the “right” people are voted into office – it happens when social movements force change upon those in power, by themselves becoming the change they want to see. It happens through riots, strikes, agitation, assemblies, organizing, blockades, occupations, insurrections, and through a thousand other grassroots-oriented forms of direct action that undermine the power of political and economic elites while multiplying and building their own. This is the only way real change, change that promises more than just a brief pause or a band-aid solution, can be achieved.
It therefore infinitely saddens me when people bemoan separation of children from their parents, but still say that “we” need these borders, controls and detention centers. This is not true. The borders and the institutions protecting them (and which they in turn protect) do not serve us or make us safe. On the contrary, they are part of the problem, part of a system of nation states and global capitalism that most of the time also is the very cause of the unnatural disasters that generate refugees in the first place.
There are of course those that immediately say that abolishing borders altogether is unrealistic, and instead put forward piecemeal reform as the “practical” way to go about the issue. Yes, we can’t just abolish borders and keep everything else the same, because they are an inseparable part of a larger, tightly interdependent system. But that does not mean that the goal of abolishing them, and a practice towards that end, are in themselves unrealistic. Compared to trying to affect radical change through a system that is practically immune (and often openly hostile) to such change, directly attacking the problem at the grassroots is both more effective short term and promising long term.
While reforms can be part of that, they can never be seen as the thrust of such change. They are rather, if anything, a by-product of people’s struggles for freedom and equality. These struggles have to be based on grassroots social movements, or will just wind up getting recuperated into the very institutions they seek to abolish. So, for instance,
Where we see borders, we undermine them and help people cross. Where we see ICE or police repression, we create sanctuaries, mutual aid networks, and make the oppressors as miserable as we can through occupations, blockades and protests, and with an eye to abolishing these institutions and replacing them with our own ways of dealing with social problems, ways that are actually human-centered, not tailored for preserving the power of small elites.
Where we are being exploited at work, we organize not only to get decent wages, but to get rid of the dictatorial notion that bosses and private ownership of the resources we need to survive are concepts any more legitimate than feudalism.
Where we fight landlords that live off of our need for a home, and the gentrification of our societies, we organize not only for affordable housing, but to eventually put into practice the notion that these are *our* homes and societies, and any claims on them that landlords or big land owners put forward are as archaic as those of their medieval namesakes.
All these grassroots movements, linked together, form the bigger picture and the road map that I’m thinking of when I say “abolish ICE”, “abolish borders” and so on. I really think we can and should do it, but I think that we can only get there through this type of broad, diverse and direct action based social movements. To me, this is a more practical and inspiring starting point, than trying to persuade others (and ourselves) that if we only elect the right rulers, or convince enough of them to “do good” through reasoning, things will get better. Nothing about this system indicates that such a thing is even possible, because this system didn’t emerge to bring about equality, but to preserve and expand already existing power of a small minority.
That’s why I think it is important not to focus just on what the current US administration is doing, but on the system that led to this as a whole.