Race: A Factor of Social Reproduction

Recently I stumbled upon a text on the site libcom.org called “”Races” and the working class in USA”, also referred as “Letter #48”, from a group I think is called Mouvement Communiste1. Broadly speaking, the text consists of two parts. In the first part the authors take a look at race and class in the USA today through an array of statistics, and the second part takes a critical look at intersectionality, politics of identity, and other related themes. Reading the text, I found it lacking severely in almost every department. Seeing how a few groups I have decent respect for seem to have shared it approvingly, and that the themes are timely and important, I felt I needed to get some objections off of my chest. I will not cover everything though, and mainly limit myself to the main assertion of the writers, and the data they use to back it up.

The text starts out by asserting that racism in USA has to be understood “in the framework of the proletarian condition” and “must be fought with the means of class struggle against capitalism and its state”. It is an unremarkable, if in my opinion somewhat reductive start, and I was eager to see where this analysis would go. Soon enough this became painfully apparent, as the authors of the text proclaimed that racial discrimination towards Blacks is not, in our view, a central element of the exercise of capitalist domination and even less one of the present foundations of civil society and the state in that country.”

They go on to say that [i]t was, however, like that until the 1970s, before being swept away by the formidable civil rights movement of the 1960s, which succeeded in eliminating the racial segregation laws rooted in the slave regime of the previous century.”

Realizing they are already in a conundrum, the writers quickly note that:

Certainly, communists know very well that it is not enough to withdraw laws to change things and that competition within the proletariat maintained by capitalism ceaselessly regenerates antagonisms – of which racial discrimination is a part – between the components it is made up of.“

To sum up, the writers set out an argument that racism in the USA is blown out of proportions, and while still lingering, it is not in any way central to social reproduction, especially after formal racist segregation laws were swept aside in the 60s and 70s. It is also clear that the authors think that, in as much as racism is a thing in today’s USA, it is primarily a tool which capital might or might not use to divide the working class. Lastly, the writers admit that the change of the formal or legal situation does not mean that things on the ground have necessarily changed, but this is something the authors aim to show is the case throughout the text, which should lead to the following conclusion:

This text proposes that the discrimination which hits the Blacks does not target them because of their skin colour but because they are “over-represented” among the poorest.”

Having lived in the USA for years, and been involved in both analysis and practical work surrounding racism and working class struggles in the country, historical as well as contemporary, I was pretty sure I knew how this would pan out. Still I wasn’t quite prepared for how dire things would be at places throughout the text. So let us strap in, and take a ride through the arguments and data presented throughout the text.

George Floyd Rebellion and BLM
The first thing the authors of the text turn to is an assessment of the wave of social upheaval that followed the police murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis in May 2020. They initially seem to complain that “the media” wanted to attribute the uprising to “the nebulous BLM”, seemingly implying that this is incorrect, and that it is unclear what BLM signifies. Nevertheless, much of the critique towards this “badly structured” movement focuses solely on the organization going by the name Black Lives Matters, and pretends it is the movement as a whole. In this way, the movement as a whole can be portrayed as having as its “one shared ideology” the “refusal of the notion of class and, therefore, of class struggle”, and that the organization and/or movement “has served the campaign of the Democratic candidate for the US presidency very well, along with the Democratic Party in general, while provoking the mobilisation of Trump supporters around the defence of “law and order”. Radicals that participated in the uprising in one way or another, raise your hand if you recognize yourself in this description. Anyone? Ok, never mind then, let’s move on.

By flattening the entire spectrum of participants in the movement this way, the writers do exactly the thing which they accuse BLM of doing – they forge a narrative about a liberal movement focused on race, and obscure the real movement, which is much more dynamic and diverse, which – as any mass scale movements – finds supporters among liberals, and even some reactionaries, as well as among radicals. There is a large part of the movement outside of the organization that is BLM, and even within the organization, significant voices have been raised and entire chapters have left while raising critiques that are far more profound and interesting than anything found in “Letter #48” 2,3.

Another initial thread of the letter has to do with some of the methods and slogans of the movement, especially in relation to how the uprising evolved in Seattle. The first remark is about the slogan “Defund the Police”, which the authors characterize as follows:

It is a demand which explains in itself the political perimeter in which the movement is situated. Most of the activists chose to remain in the framework of the democratic dialectic of the state, without expressing political practices of autonomous organisation, capable of sketching the first lines of a social order other than that of capital.”

The authors continue by claiming that this slogan and its related practice actually endanger working class people, especially people of color and black folks:

In addition, to demand the removal of the police from poor neighbourhoods, to demand the sacking of the most violent cops etc., is not a solution for the impoverished who live in such degraded zones. To make their existence more bearable, it would also be necessary to neutralise in turn the informal police (drug dealers, gangs of all sorts) who subject these neighbourhoods to periodic culling and who rival the militias of the state in anti-proletarian violence and barbarism. On the contrary, there is the real risk (as is already the case in a good number of “at-risk” neighbourhoods in the metropoles of capital around the world) that large sections of the poorest populations crowded into concentrated habitats will turn towards the “official” defenders of existing law and order, towards the police and their legal auxiliaries. Some recent examples (Seattle, Minneapolis and Portland) show that the retreat of the latter from “sensitive” areas ends up with the growth of assaults on the inhabitants. Being particularly affected, shopkeepers call for private security guards, thus reinforcing the militarisation of these territories.”

This section is highly interesting for several reason. First, it includes a reference to an article supposedly backing up the claim that the retreat of police from “sensitive” areas results in the “growth of assaults on the inhabitants”. The reference is to an article in New York Times dated August 8 2020, with the title “Abolish the Police? Those Who Survived the Chaos in Seattle Aren’t So Sure”. Interestingly, “those” who “aren’t so sure” seem to be a group of small business owners located in the Capitol Hill neighborhood of Seattle, who suffered damages and lost profits due to the Capitol Hill Autonomous Zone and the withdrawal of police from the area.

Granted, the CHAZ in itself had its problems, but nowhere in the article is there a mention of working class blacks or PoCs feeling threatened or suffering assaults as a result of the withdrawal of the police. On the contrary, the article shows all the hallmarks of a propaganda hit piece intended to garner sympathy for petit bourgeoisie in the midst of a nation wide and radical wave of protests and uprisings, while discrediting the protesters. Considering that the writers of “Letter #48” spend considerable time bemoaning the “cross-class alliances” that “nebulous” BLM-movements get involved in, their choice of allies here seems peculiar.

Their off hand dismissal of the “Defund the Police” slogan is equally damning. In doing so, the writers showcase a lack of understanding of social movements in general as well as of radical abolitionist theories, debates and practices in the USA. In reality, the slogan was largely popularized by abolitionist circles, which were quickly propelled from the margins to the mainstream as the rebellion grew, and resulted in liberals and established media scrambling to try to contain the increasingly radical and generalized demands on the streets. This lead to at least 3 strains of interpretation of what the slogan meant – from simple reform, to serious defunding, to full on abolition4.

Still further, the authors’ attempt to correlate violence and insecurity with the withdrawal of the police comes across as highly dishonest, if one really delves into what the abolitionists want. Just as most people who would prefer a stateless society aren’t referring to a situation that might often arise in the power vacuum of a collapsing state in the absence of strong social movements, police abolitionists don’t put police withdrawal at the heart of their agenda, instead turning to self-organized community defense, rapid response networks, notions of restorative and transformative justice, and other theories and practices which have the purpose of replacing cops from within the movement, as for instance highlighted by the works of groups and individuals such as Critical Resistance5, Alex Vitale6, Project NIA7, or 8 to abolition8.

Lastly, instead of wanting to paint a bleak picture of police absence so badly so that they end up siding with petite bourgeoisie, the communists of “Letter #48” could investigate what black people themselves say about the presence or absence of police in their daily lives. In a YouGov poll from the early days of the George Floyd uprising – that means, exactly the time frame we are talking about – 60% of black folks reported that they felt “less secure” when they personally see a police officer, as compared to only 5% saying that they feel “more secure”9. Alas, if only these blacks read the communist “Letters” from overseas, which could dispel such false consciousness.

With this out of the way, let us now turn our attention to the statistics that the writers amassed, and the conclusions drawn from them. We will do this by replicating the headlines of the article, and in that manner go through the content section by section.

Legalized segregation
The authors get off to a strong start, declaring that legalized segregation is over in the USA, even though some institutional resistance has lingered, and that the “application of the law by judges, cops etc. is another matter entirely.” I’m sure most people noticed that Jim Crow laws have been ended, but to quote the authors of the letter, “communists know very well that it is not enough to withdraw laws to change things”, so one would expect an investigation of how de jure desegregation translates into de facto desegregation. While our friends will find some time later on to discuss this, they don’t say anything about it in general under this header.

This leaves us with the work of investigating what is trivially obvious to most people living in or familiar with US social conditions. The fact of the matter is that US authorities have targeted black people directly and indirectly, both before and after the abolition of segregation. This has happened by seizing land for public spaces, by local as well as federal policies subsidizing predominantly white neighborhoods, and probably most blatantly, by the process called redlining, which barred black people from the possibility of obtaining loans for buying houses:

To carry out these missions, the newly minted Home Owners Loan Corporation (HOLC) created maps to assess the risk of mortgage refinancing and set new standards for federal underwriting. The Federal Housing Administration (FHA) used these maps to determine the areas in which it would guarantee mortgages. But HOLC maps assessed risk in part based on a neighborhood’s racial composition, designating predominantly nonwhite neighborhoods as hazardous, and coloring these areas red.”

These practices were not abolished by the Civil Rights Act of 1964, as shown by the fact that the Fair Housing Act followed in 1968, and the Community Reinvestment Act in 1977. Did these laws prevent explicitly racist discrimination? It doesn’t seem so:

“A recent CAP report, “Racial Disparities in Home Appreciation,” highlighted that although the Fair Housing Act banned discriminatory housing practices, many lenders continue to unfairly target people of color with limited federal, state, and local oversight or accountability.” 10

And in a Pulitzer Prize winning series of articles, first covering Atlanta and then the national situation, investigative journalist Bill Dedman showed how banks pursued directly racist lending practices:

[A]lthough they had made loans for years in even the poorest white neighborhoods of Atlanta, [they] did not lend in middle-class or more affluent black neighborhoods.” 11

These, and a myriad of other practices by federal, or local government, by capital or by collective or individual actors, have resulted in levels of segregation remaining very high, and home ownership among black people being dramatically lower than for whites even accounting for level of education:

[C]ollege educated Black people are less likely to own their own homes than white people who never finished high school.“ 12

Even when black people own houses, racism does not stop affecting them:

“Racial bias not only undermines access to housing but can also affect property values. One study found that homes in Black neighborhoods were undervalued by an average of $48,000 due to racial bias, resulting in $156 billion in cumulative losses nationwide.” 13

Furthermore, the segregationhas contributed to persistent disparities in access to public goods—such as parks, hospitals, streetlights, and well-maintained roads—and has undermined wealth building in communities of color nationwide.”

In short, the situation of black people in terms of segregation in the USA is a result of a mix of practices, some due to pre-existing class positions and lack of resources (which often can be traced all the way back to slavery), some clearly and directly racist in nature. These factors were present before the abolition of legal segregation, but have also persisted beyond, in ways that are too numerous to mention exhaustively. The question remains, though, why the authors of “Letter #48 chose not to mention this at all.

Segregation in the administration
Next up, the text deals with segregation in the state administration, and it starts with the same good news as in the previous section: “Blacks can access all types of jobs in state administration”. The writers underscore this by mentioning Colin Powell as an example, and go on to say that “[s]tatistics show that Blacks in the Army are more represented than in the population, including amongst officers.” However, the very source they use goes on to say that:

Racial diversity decreases at the upper echelons of the military. While the officer corps has similar levels of racial diversity as the general population, those with higher ranks—generals in the air force, army, and marine corps, and admirals in the coast guard and navy—are disproportionately white. There is an even greater ethnic disparity in the top ranks.”

This immediately reveals the writers’ namedropping of Colin Powell as disingenuous, but also shows that racial disparities once again manifest, even in the military, except for the bottom level – the cannon fodder that is sent to fight imperialist wars for rich people. To add insult to injury, what actually explains the over-representation of young black men in the military is the predatory practices of US Army recruiters towards poor people, tied to various incentives.14,15,16,17

In other words, black people aren’t over-represented in the military because there is a lack of racial bias, but because they are on average in far more financially insecure positions, which, at least so far into our investigation, turns out to be based both on class positions and direct as well as indirect systemic racism. It is also worth mentioning that the problems with racism within the military are so serious, that some black folks in the military report being “[grinded] down by overt racism” and bear witness to a lack of judicial tools to fight this phenomenon18.

Furthermore, other types of administrative jobs aren’t exactly a walk in the park for black people. As an example from Alaska, an investigative book by United States Commission on Civil Rights, tells a sobering story:

African Americans have difficulty securing jobs, and when they do, often they are not given the opportunity for promotion to higher positions. This pattern can be seen in state, federal, military, and private sectors.” 19

A segmented labor market
The section on labor market gets off to the usual bright start with a clear statement that “[s]tatistics indicate lower wages for Blacks in all employment categories [and that] [t]he differential also exists for Black women even though they are lower down the scale”.

This is true, but it might also be worth quantifying this claim. While black men earn around 80 cent on the dollar compared with white men, black women earn as little as 63 cent per dollar. On aggregate, black households have a median yearly income of $40k, while white households have a median income of 68k20. In other words, the median black household income is roughly 59% of a median white household income. And if this seems like a large gap, then it is still nothing compared to wealth gaps. The median net worth of a white household, at $163k, is roughly 1000% or ten times that of the median black household, which is at approximately $16k21.

The authors of “Letter #48 instead choose to focus on what I guess should be considered the positives, writing that we must not forget that almost a quarter of blacks are paid at the same level as their White equivalents [and] a third of Black households do not live in poverty and destitution”. This is admirable optimism, seeing the glass as half full, or maybe rather, seeing that one third of the glass is still something. Very encouraging. It is however a misleading line of reasoning. Firstly, it is unclear which data point the writers actually use to reach the conclusion that a quarter of black people are paid at the same level as their equivalents, because looking at median incomes cannot provide that information. A suspicion is that it is based on a breakdown of the median incomes into various income levels, but not even this data can lead to that conclusion. Just to make things abundantly clear – the fact that, for instance, 10.8% of blacks fall in the above average $100-150k bracket, does not mean that they are being paid “at the same level as their White equivalents”. Indeed, research indicates the opposite – that black people get paid less for the same jobs and at the same educational levels22. Thus it seems once again that our friends, in their optimism, are obscuring real disparities which point, once again, towards explicit structural racism as a factor.

If the writers of the text actively fail to see explicit instances of systemic racism, they also do a good job of obscuring secondary instances of the same phenomenon, thus acting, in a way, like a Kafka-esque bureaucracy, shuffling a complaint between different departments, until they can be forgotten. They thus write:

Numerous Silicon Valley firms (Apple, Google, etc.) have adopted recruitment programmes for “people of color”, but struggle to find people with the right qualifications and experience for their needs. The difference in employability between Whites, Blacks, Latinos, Asians etc., is in fact due more to the fact that education does not match the needs of the labour market. These are disparities in education directly attributable to the material conditions of existence of these various populations (high cost of education, environments unfavourable to studying in poor neighbourhoods, unemployment, single-parent families etc.) rather than racism targeting a particular group.”

We will deal with the spurious claim that big tech companies are “anti-racist” later, while the very next section in the Letter gives us the opportunity to discuss the problem of education. As a quick spoiler, we’ll see that access to education in itself contains elements of explicit systemic racism. As for the labor market in general, it is also worth mentioning that at the point of hiring, as one example, racial discrimination persists, and does not show any signs of declining for at least the last 30 years23.

Access to education in retreat
The authors of “Letter #48” start off with some facts:

“According to the Civil Rights Project of Harvard University, run by Gary Oldfield, the real desegregation of state schools plateaued in 1988. Since then, schools have in fact become more segregated.”

After going into some detail, the section ends with the statement “[i]f, since 1964, more and more “white” universities have opened their doors to a growing number of Black students, this process has reversed since 1990″.

As we’ve seen before, the statistics themselves are correct, but what conclusions can be drawn from them, and do they support the main thesis of the authors? In this section, they are very silent, and the optimism from earlier segments seems gone. This is especially alarming since they’ve shuffled the problem of hiring, discussed in the earlier section, to education, in an attempt to show that there was no explicit racism involved. If we are to continue the Kafka analogy, we could see this as the end of the line, tumbleweeds masquerading as a dial tone with no one on the other side to answer, after being shuffled around by various bureaucrats. So there’s no escaping doing the work ourselves again.

Just to get us started, black eight graders are five times as likely as white to attend schools that are highly segregated by race or ethnicity, and more than twice as likely to attend high-poverty schools. In both instances, the percentage of black students in this situation is a whopping 70%. Needless to say, this has been shown to affect school performance24.

The failure of school desegregation is closely linked to the housing segregation. After school segregation formally ended, neighborhoods were still largely segregated and continued to be so, due to reasons we’ve partially already covered, like redlining. This resulted in the struggles such as that over the busing system, which could take white and black students alike to schools that weren’t in their immediate vicinity, thus supporting desegregation efforts25. While many whites did not dismiss the notion of mixed schools, explicit racist currents and deep rooted identification of black neighborhoods as dangerous caused problems that undermined these attempts. Republicans also tended to oppose busing when in power, and this proved to be a convenient cover for racist policies – they could now be made on economic grounds while still consciously appealing to racist sentiments, something we will come back to in greater detail later.

It is also notable that black people overwhelmingly report experiencing discrimination (76%), and that this level is higher among those with college education (81%) than those with high school education(69%), while57% of blacks with at least some college experience believe being black has hurt their ability to get ahead”26. This is an interesting observation, which also suggests that black people in environments socially assumed to be white, thus subverting race-based social expectation, face greater pushback in some regards. This is in line with the history of the Reconstruction, and the violent racist backlash to the gains blacks were making after the abolition of slavery.

In terms of class and race, it can be said that explicitly racist practices (harassment starting as early as pre-school, lower ratings despite similar scores, less recommendations for gifted and talented programs, etc)27 and economically based inequalities (majority in high-poverty low resource schools, restricted access to college due to economic situation, etc) have both compounded the problem in education, and with the end of the formal racist segregation, few efforts have really succeeded to desegregate housing and schools, and in that way level out the incomes and opportunities for black people. Thus both before and after formal desegregation, economic as well as racist factors have affected the continued racist outcomes, while the system at large has continued to reproduce racial divisions and inequalities.

Life expectancy improves but health situation remains terrible
This sections starts out by highlighting the life expectancy of black men (72.2) and women (78.5) as well as white men (76.6) and women (81.3). Here, as in all other areas covered so far, we see a discrepancy disadvantaging black people.

The authors of “Letter #48” go on to list some of the most common causes of death observed in Washington DC (Heart disease, hypertension, diabetes, tuberculosis, and HIV/AIDS) and quote the same source to establish that blacks “suffer and die from these killer diseases in vastly disproportionate numbers compared to white residents“. Disproportionately poor health not only affects black folks in the urban centers, but we learn that the same is largely true in rural areas. Lest we start to think that some racism might be at play, the authors are quick to point out that “Poverty and bad health walk hand in hand. Always, poor Whites are in the same boat as their Black peers. Poverty is thus the determining factor in bad health and not skin colour. To put it simply, the Blacks are over-represented in the most impoverished sections of the population.”

Avid readers might start noticing a trend, that is continued in this section. The authors list some statistics, and then draw conclusions that are not based in the least on the sources they have provided. We are again left to our own devices to make sure they have not “missed” something.

Let us quote at length from a comprehensive source:

“Differences in health status reflect, to a large degree, inequities in preventive care and treatment. For instance, African-Americans are more likely to require health care services, but are less likely to receive them.Disparity in treatment has been well documented in a number of studies, including studies done on AIDS,cardiology,cardiac surgery,kidney disease,organ transplantation, internal medicine, obstetrics,prescription drugs,treatment for mental illness, pain treatment,and hospital care.Certainly, difference in treatment can be based on a number of different factors, including clinical characteristics, income, and medical or biological differences. However, race plays an independent role.There are marked differences in time spent, quality of care and quantity of doctor’s office visits between Whites and African-Americans.Whites are more likely to receive more, and more thorough, diagnostic work and better treatment and care than people of color — even when controlling for income, education, and insurance. Differences also exist in the number of doctor’s office visits between Whites and African- Americans, even when controlling for income, education, and insurance. Furthermore, researchers have concluded that doctors are less aggressive when treating minority patients. Thus, the most favored patient is “White, male between the ages of 25 and 44.”In fact, at least one study indicated a combined effect of race and gender resulting in significantly different health care for African-American women. 28 (emphasis mine)

Maternal and infant health studies cited by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention further confirm these findings:

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, for example, black mothers and children die at disproportionately higher rates than their white counterparts, regardless of their income levels.” 29,30

A lot of research has also gone into uncovering the various racist myths concerning black people and their supposed higher pain threshold, which obviously leads to worse experiences when seeking medical help31.

There is also evidence suggesting disparities when it comes to classifying the need of black children to receive emergency care, and a greater reluctance to admit them to hospitals32.

Even when health care decisions are done by algorithms, studies show that they can transfer implicit and explicit racist bias as well as economic discrepancies in a way that leads to worse outcomes for black people33.

We could go on, and on, and on, but I think the point has been made. The writers’ assertions about health care for black people are completely unfounded based on the statistics they present, and wrong when statistics on racist discrepancies are considered. This is not to say that class and economics do not play a role – clearly they do – but more to point out that these two factors compound and interact to create a truly dire situation for black people in particular.

The writers of “Letter #48 end the section by saying that

Blacks have been proportionately hit three times harder than Whites by the Covid pandemic (along with Latinos and Native Americans). Living in unhealthy areas, cramped housing, lack of information, but also the high representation of Blacks among health workers are the causes of this.”

It is clear that a number of factors, including access to healthcare, insurance, occupation, education and housing compound to create a more serious situation in regards to covid for black people. But there is one factor missing, which plays a part directly, and indirectly through all other mentioned factors. I’ll leave it to the reader’s imagination to figure out which it can be. The imagination of the authors of “Letter #48”, it is increasingly clear, does not admit any such further factors.

The central question of housing
The authors dedicate this short section to discussing the limited access and ownership of housing which black people experience in the USA, and admit that desegregation is “weak” at best. They write that

The Whites tend to flee these areas, and this is notably above all because mixing in schools which young Blacks go to is associated with the idea of delinquency.”

We have already touched on this problem in the section on schools, where we discussed the close connection of that issue to housing, and also mentioned redlining outright. While clearly we are dealing with partially economic causes, it should also be obvious that the “idea of delinquency”, as imagined by many whites, spans the entire spectrum of innocent misconception to open racism.

Nevertheless, the writers press on with a theme that should be familiar by now:

Coming from poor neighbourhoods considered “sensitive” is often the cause of hiring discrimination against Blacks. But this problem does not only affect Blacks in the US. It concerns all countries. In France, for example, bosses are reluctant to employ residents of “mal famés” (disreputable) neighbourhoods such as Grande Borne in Grigny, in the Paris suburbs, and it doesn’t matter if they are called Adama, Mohammed or Francis.”

First, it is notable that once again, we are presented with no data, and a very unconvincing line of reasoning, as to how racial segregation is wholly explained by class and economic factors. Yet again, we have to venture into the wild to find some relevant information. And luckily, there is a lot of it out there. A recent and highly relevant study, for instance, asks precisely this question. The result of the experiment was the following:

race, per se, shapes how whites and, to a lesser extent, blacks view residential space. Residential preferences are not simply a reaction to class-based features of a neighborhood; they are shaped by the race of who lives there.“ 34

In other words, whites generally, consciously or not, tend to not only rate neighborhoods based on their socioeconomic appeal, but also based on racial composition.

In the case of hiring discrimination mentioned, we also only get anecdotes as the single justification for the remarkable opinion that employers discriminate on socioeconomic factors and based on neighborhood, not race. Yet again, these two correlating is just an unlucky coincidence, inherited from a dark past, banished by the passing of the Civil Rights Act, we must assume. The immediate instinct here is to repeat our feats from earlier sections and look for actual data that points to the contrary. We have actually already mentioned direct connections to racism in the section on the labor market. But let us raise the stakes. Can we try to not only disprove the general point that the writers of the letter are trying to make here, but literally discredit their assertion? It turns out we can.

In a study that looked into bias in hiring practices in the US, the researchers found that

[r]esumes with white-sounding names received 50 percent more callbacks than those with black-sounding names.” 35

Whether the same would be true in France is a matter for further investigation. Personally I know I’ve seen this type of research confirming the same bias in Sweden, and I would be rather surprised if these findings weren’t indicative of a general trend. But no matter what, I wouldn’t lend a lot of credibility to the unsourced words of the writers of “Letter #48.

The police and criminality
This section contains an unusual admission, so let us start by quoting the first few sentences:

“Blacks are more exposed to police violence than Whites, Latinos or any other fractions “of color” of the population. If there are more Blacks murdered by the forces of repression, that is partly due to racism but also to their higher level of participation in economic activities deemed criminal, as is shown by the law enforcement statistics.”

It seems that the authors’ heroic attempts not to see racism faced an obstacle too difficult to scale here, but they still immediately point out that there are socioeconomic factors involved. Let’s leave aside the fact that, as we’ve mentioned before, even these socioeconomic factors tend to harbor components of structural racism, and let us still call this a victory. If we squint, this part of the analysis is actually reasonable, if underplaying racism a bit. Unfortunately, as if on cue, things take a weird turn:

“Also, the violence that Blacks are subjected to is greater from other Blacks (perpetrated within the family or by gangs) than from Whites or the police. This is shown by the figures for inter-racial murders and for gun homicides, where the US holds first place in the world.“

For anyone familiar with the political climate and discussion in the US, this is a familiar form of whataboutism, aimed at shifting focus from structurally racist violence, towards the victims. There is a word for it, when used in more extreme fashion on the right – “black on black crime”. Other than being a myth, because this highlighting of black crime is largely explained by the social and geographical racial segregation36,37, it is a racist tactic to turn the discussion on its head. Trump has used it, and right wing extremists as well as more established republicans use it frequently in various forms. I’m not sure how the writers of “Letter #48 got the brilliant idea to recycle such far right talking points, but let us just call it an unlucky accident and move on.

To be brief, it should be mentioned that police and policing in the USA has its roots in slave patrols, repression of indigenous populations, and subduing unruly workers in the fledgling urban industries. As such, policing has a clearly delineated historical heritage of racism and a distinct class character built into it. These characteristics have never gone away, and there is a massive amount of data to support this.

First, the police force is an organization or community with a well established identity and ideology. They have an overblown danger imperative, a siege mentality, and explicitly anti-black biases38.

We also have data showing that the more black people live in a neighborhood, the more likely are white cops to use a gun during an emergency call response – much more so than black cops. Thus it seems to matter, who is holding the gun39. This is not to suggest, as some liberals do, that hiring black officers solves the problem. The police is also beholden to systemic institutional pressures, and the institution changes the individuals rather than the other way around. But it does show that white police seem to have a stronger anti-black bias which translates into greater use of force.

There is also an overwhelming amount of research40 that shows the explicitly racist biases and outcomes of policing in the USA, from traffic stops, Stop and Frisk incidents, to abuse, violence torture and of course, murder. It is interesting that this section, in the original text of the “Letter #48”, is among the shortest. Perhaps it was just the least fertile for the writers’ argument, because no amount of statistical acrobatics41 can hide the fact that policing in the US is deeply racist.

Not to mention the overt racist incidents within the force and overlap of the police and outright racist organizations42, or the comical “discovery” of “racist infiltration” into the US police force in a recent report, which found that

[w]hite supremacist groups have infiltrated US law enforcement agencies in every region of the country over the last two decades” 43

As if overt racism has been anything but the normal way of operating for US police since its inception.

In summary, even though they do their best to avoid the topic, at least the writers of “Letter #48admit that racism plays a role here, and as a result there’s no need to list statistics exhaustively to disprove them, especially as much of that data overlaps with the next section.

Criminal justice and discrimination
The section on “criminal justice” is surprisingly lacking, considering that prisons have been one of the greatest areas of contention and resistance in class based anti-racist movements in the US, with a long history of critique44 and a modern abolitionist movement including such classics as Angela Davis’ Are Prisons Obsolete? The writers do mention that

The majority of prisoners is made up of “people of color” with an over-representation of Blacks and Latinos [and] Almost 70% of people incarcerated are inside for crimes linked to drug dealing.”

But don’t follow that up with any closer look, even though the latter statistic hints at the cause of the former. The War On Drugs, a vicious government policy deployed in the 1970s, might have just as well been called the war on black people, and it is a phenomenon with roots going as deep as the history of slavery. But let us not get ahead of ourselves. Once again, we’re dealing with a section where the authors drop a few facts, and then largely stay silent, presumably because it’s hard to make a point that supports their general argument. The argument in question of course falls apart immediately, would it be made. It is well known that drug criminalization in the US happened not only in a way that explicitly prioritized working class neighborhoods, based on which drugs were popular there compared to middle- or upper class neighborhoods, but was also designed to directly target black people. Even as many of the architects of the war on drugs claim that they have changed their minds, we still live with the effects of it, with a prison population that has exploded in recent decades:

There are 2 million people in the nation’s prisons and jails—a 500% increase over the last 40 years.” 45

Many of the practices surrounding this process, also didn’t and still don’t simply target blacks because of their socioeconomic condition. As a recent summary of studies46 showed:

More than one in four people arrested for drug law violations in 2015 was black, although drug use rates do not differ substantially by race and ethnicity and drug users generally purchase drugs from people of the same race or ethnicity. For example, the ACLU found that blacks were 3.7 times more likely to be arrested for marijuana possession than whites in 2010, even though their rate of marijuana usage was comparable.”

Or in relation to Stop and Frisk, where it was found that

[t]he highest officials in New York City had “turned a blind eye to the evidence that officers are conducting stops in a racially discriminatory manner,“

Or in relation to stopping vehicles:

A closer look at the causes of traffic stops reveals that police are more likely to stop black and Hispanic drivers for discretionary reasons—for “investigatory stops” (proactive stops used to investigate drivers deemed suspicious) rather than “traffic-safety stops” (reactive stops used to enforce traffic laws or vehicle codes). Once pulled over, black and Hispanic drivers were three times as likely as whites to be searched (6% and 7% versus 2%) and blacks were twice as likely as whites to be arrested. These patterns hold even though police officers generally have a lower “contraband hit rate” when they search black versus white drivers.“

Blacks were also found to be put in pre-trial detention at rates of 3.5 that of whites (which has been shown to affect sentencing), are more likely to be denied bail, have higher money bond set, are twice as likely to be charged with offenses that carry a mandatory minimum sentence than similarly situated whites, are more likely to be charged under habitual offender laws, some research suggest that parole boards are influenced by race, and there’s research suggesting that racial bias among correctional officers also shapes parole outcomes despite comparable in-prison conduct.

As before, we could keep going for a very long time, but the point is probably clear enough. There is a clear structural racism in the US prison system.

And this should come as no surprise, as many people have pointed out time after time, especially in relation to the prison system’s role as a substitute for slavery. The saying that the plantation never disappeared, but just shifted form and moved out into society at large, has a lot of truth to it. And so, even going back to the 13th amendment, which technically abolished slavery, we notice that this amendment did not cover the case of prisoners. That’s why we now have mostly-black prisoners working jobs in prison without getting paid, doing everything from assembling commodities to working as firefighters, under abysmal conditions of health, and in systematically poorly maintained facilities.

None of this seems to be of interest to our communist friends.

Civil society still scarred by racism
In this weirdly but unsurprisingly named section, the authors establish that “[US] civil society remains polarised and identification by race remains strong”, which, yes, we have not failed to notice throughout this investigation. They, however, seem somewhat confused by this:

“This is the paradox of the United States, where the population in general and proletarians in particular define themselves first of all in terms of race, despite the generalisation of wage labour and the fall of legal barriers to equality before the law.”

Here, in one sentence, the authors both reap the fruits of their own analysis, and fail to adhere to their own caveats. They have spent numerous sections failing to notice explicit racial discrimination, and must thus call the observed racial divisions and identifications a “paradox”. Secondly, they seem to have forgotten their own proclamation, to the effect that “communists know very well that it is not enough to withdraw laws to change things”. Their position this far, can thus be summarized as, “When communists face a reality that does not reflect their analysis, something must be wrong with the reality”.

Advanced “antiracist” capital
Having done so well at the beginning of many sections, it is disappointing to see the opening statement of the present one:

Capitalism in the US (as elsewhere) is neither racist, nor antiracist. It is quite simply capable of exploiting in turn all the various divisions and fractures existing within the dominated class to assure the valorisation of capital.”

I’m not sure what reality the authors of Letter #48 exist in, but it is surely not the one as the rest of us. Capitalism has historically always been racist. There has been no point at which racism didn’t play an important part. In fact, the writers will soon be quoting Marx to that very effect, in relation to the role of slavery in the rise of North American capitalism. Since those days there has not been a minute where capitalism has not been in a close relation to both explicit and implicit racism. The agnostic capitalism of the writers is thus not a historical phenomenon, but an abstract ideal construction – and one at that which there is no certainty could ever exist as such in practice.

Next, our attention turns to the main topic of the section, which is meant to expound on this doubtful foundation:

Today, for the advanced sectors of capital, those with a high technical composition and active globally, racial discrimination is no longer useful. It is even judged counter-productive. The support of the giants of high-tech, particularly all those of GAFAM (Google Apple, Facebook, Amazon, Microsoft), for BLM is something which must not be forgotten.”

This claim is backed up by the fact that Apple pledged $100 million to “challenge systemic barriers that limit opportunity for communities of color in the critical areas of education, economic equality and criminal justice.” Let us first look at the numbers. Just Apple’s annual R&D budget stands at roughly $18.75 billion, while the annual gross profit tends to hover around $100 billion, and the annual revenue sits around 270 billion47. Quickly translated onto my own earnings, it would mean a donation of $1 for the cause of the abolition of structural racism. On a personal level, few people would be impressed, and considering the amount of money corporations use for various types of PR campaigns, it is probably a pretty good deal – it sure managed to impress the communists behind “Letter #48”. Let us instead be honest for a moment. If this announcement was about investments in LGBTQ issues, every socialist worth their salt would simply call that rainbow capitalism, and proclamations that corporations – even if we just limit ourselves to big tech – now are in any way pro-LGBTQ, would be met with ridicule. Not to speak of cops kneeling and marching in Pride parades, or other similar stunts.

A more precise statement regarding all this, grounded in historical developments and power dynamics, would conclude that capitalism is still firmly racist and patriarchal, but that it will dress up in any color or costume in order to cynically exploit small or big trends, developments or contradictions, for its own benefit.

In reality, the thin veneer of inclusivity barely covers the obvious inequality hiding behind it, and the tech firms hailed as “anti-racist” generally fail to live up even to their own promises and proclamations48. Companies like Apple thrive on racist practices of forced labor49, have racist ads ran for them50 and even lobby China to soften prison labor laws51. Being able to tap into the free black US prison labor force would likely be a dream come true for the likes of Apple, only potentially offset by the perceived PR losses resulting from such endeavors.

Next, we are reminded that The Democrat Joe Biden, then the Presidential candidate, in his turn expressed himself in favour of the protests while condemning violence committed by the protestersand much is made of the fact that some Black Lives Matter member has reluctantly stated that Biden is to prefer over Trump. We’ve already dealt with the imprecise way the authors of the letter try to approach last years uprising and the myriad of tendencies and organizations within the broader movement, so we’ll put that to the side. And as far as Biden goes in general, this is not much different from when Obama was in office, and in fact presided over the presidency while the repression of black people was so harsh and blatant that the Black Lives Matter movement was born in the first place. In short, it isn’t exactly convincing if it is meant to signal some significant shift in the political and/or economic ruling class.

Not to mention factors overlapping government policies and labor market, like the militarized southern border of the US. Scholar Aaron Bobrow-Strain commented, during an interview on Against the Grain52, that the border regime of the US should not be viewed as a failed attempt at keeping people out, but as a successful precarization machine. It provides jobs for people in the border-industrial complex and opportunities for tech industry to provide the tools, while at the same time serving up cheap precarious labor through the practices of racist violence upon those fleeing dire circumstances in Central- and South America. In the context of “Letter #48” we’re of course focusing on racism against black people, but it is worth mentioning that other racist policies, hitting people in different circumstances, are deeply ingrained in the US imperial machinery, and that corporations of all stripes make great profits off of such policies.

Turning the tables
Before wrapping up and trying to provide some sort of concluding remarks, we’ll briefly mention something that doesn’t fit into any of the categories above. To reiterate, the main thesis of the writers seems to be the argument that most of what we perceive as racism in US society in particular, is actually the result of the economic class position of black people. The fact is, that the opposite has often been the case in the US, especially since the time of the civil rights movement. The smoking gun is the famous 1981 Lee Atwater interview. For those unfamiliar with it and with him, Atwater was a White House staffer under Ronald Reagan, and was widely lauded on the right as “South Carolinas most effective Republican operative.”

In the interview, Atwater does something rare – he speaks clearly about the tactics Republicans had pursued for decades in order to win over racist votes while not alienating other sections of the population completely:

You start out in 1954 by saying, “Nigger, nigger, nigger.” By 1968 you can’t say “nigger”—that hurts you, backfires. So you say stuff like, uh, forced busing, states’ rights, and all that stuff, and you’re getting so abstract. Now, you’re talking about cutting taxes, and all these things you’re talking about are totally economic things and a byproduct of them is, blacks get hurt worse than whites.… “We want to cut this,” is much more abstract than even the busing thing, uh, and a hell of a lot more abstract than “Nigger, nigger.” 53

This was a realignment of what had been referred to as the Southern Strategy – a catchphrase for a Republican political analysis and practice, which identified the racial tensions following the civil rights movement’s victories, and aimed at playing off those tensions with racist rhetoric to win white southern voters. As Atwater points out, this was no longer viable in the same way a few decades later, and thus racist rhetoric was veiled in “fiscal conservatism” – a prime example of a sort of dog whistle.

In conclusion, the authors of “Letter #48” have argued that racism does no longer play a major role in the social reproduction of the system in the USA. They admit that this was the case in the past, but draw the line roughly at the victories of the civil rights movement of the 1960s. From then on, they argue, any vestiges of racism are marginal, and generalized wage labor has made capitalism agnostic, or even “anti-racist” in some respects, because it is a hindrance to capital accumulation.

Throughout their text, they’ve provided numerous links, mostly showing how racial inequalities are still a material fact in the lives of the people in the USA, and in several categories these inequalities are growing. However, none of these sources actually support their thesis, which takes the form of short sentences here and there, either undermining the statistical findings to make their case, or pulling proclamations out of thin air to the effect that this nevertheless is all a matter of class. In contrast, this text has provided ample evidence on pretty much every matter touched upon by the original text, which shows that racial dynamics affect every aspect of the lives of black people, and that these various dynamics and categories interact and overlap – poor housing, poor education, job opportunities, incarceration, violence, and so on. This has been done mostly without even referencing or bringing up the de facto extreme right and racist movement in the USA, which stretches well into the republican party and is a real risk for black people all over the country, and instead focused on more seemingly innocent but nevertheless pernicious and wide-ranging dynamics of everyday life.

So where the authors of “Letter # 48” set out to prove that racism in fact was only veiled class antagonism – something we have seen no evidence for – we’ve now been able to show that racism in the US not only persists as a factor of social reproduction, but also has a long tradition of being veiled in conservative economic terms. In doing so, we have been able to show that the authors’ thesis is standing on its head, and have now hopefully managed to put it right side up again.

In the section concluding the situation of black people, the writers say that

“[a]dvanced capital in the US could certainly change its position rapidly if Black proletarians found their place in the class struggle again or if the antiracist fight fused with that for the political autonomy of the working class”

in regards to the notion that “advanced capital” is now “antiracist”. Are we to understand that this “identitarian” black anti-racist movement they have painted at the beginning of their text, has caused the black population to leave their place in the class struggle? Turning for the last time to statistics, black people are actually more likely to be unionized54, and view socialism more favorably than white people55. They play integral parts in political organizations, in mutual aid efforts, in labor organizing, as well as during uprisings in the streets. To be sure, we’re not essentializing or claiming that all black people are, do or think the same things. But many black folks have reacted to the material conditions put in front of them in a way that have put them right in the middle of the class struggle.

The statement, in the context of the entire text, sheds some light on why blacks might find it difficult to exist in predominantly white working class spaces: Because material issues which explicitly concern them and which complicate every aspect of their daily existence are waved away, or at best instrumentalized, and the call for unity instead goes along a narrow line – only what will directly benefit the white part of the working class. Now we’re slowly sliding into the territory of the last part of the text, and as for these concluding sections on intersectionality, politics of identity, and the writers’ explicit adherence to a “determinist Marxism”, I am very much in disagreement with them, but that is a topic for another time.

Finally, in a political climate where the far right is rising to prominence everywhere and explicit racist ideologies, practices and policies are gaining traction, it is easy to succumb to opportunism and tone down notions of anti-racism, receding into a reductionist economism that not only leads to bad analysis, but also risks to actively hurt black people, people of color, and other marginalized folks and ethnicities, sometimes going as far as straight out red-brown alliances. As a secondary concern, such analysis and practice based on it, will undermine rather than support building strong working class movements. As such, I think it is important to react and counteract such tendencies, and I hope to have done so here. I’ll leave it as an exercise for the reader to determine where exactly on the scale from harmfully ignorant to blatantly racist the text we’ve been scrutinizing belongs, and with that said, withdraw back into the shadows.

1. http://libcom.org/library/races-working-class-usa-mouvement-communistekolektivn-proti-kapit-lu-letter-48

2. https://www.blmchapterstatement.com/no1/

3. https://leftoutmag.com/2021/02/04/breaking/amp/

4. https://www.politico.com/news/magazine/2020/06/12/abolish-defund-police-explainer-316185

5. http://criticalresistance.org/resources/

6. https://theintercept.com/2017/10/15/alex-vitale-interview-the-end-of-policing/

7. https://project-nia.org/

8. https://www.8toabolition.com/

9. https://www.vox.com/2020/6/17/21284527/systemic-racism-black-americans-9-charts-explained

10. https://www.americanprogress.org/issues/race/reports/2019/08/07/472617/systemic-inequality-displacement-exclusion-segregation/

11. http://powerreporting.com/color/

12. https://www.americanprogress.org/issues/race/reports/2019/08/07/472617/systemic-inequality-displacement-exclusion-segregation/

13. https://www.americanprogress.org/issues/race/reports/2019/08/07/472617/systemic-inequality-displacement-exclusion-segregation/

14. https://newrepublic.com/article/156131/military-views-poor-kids-fodder-forever-wars

15. https://inequality.org/research/military-recruiters-high-school/

16. https://scholarship.claremont.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1117&context=pitzer_theses

17. https://www.teenvogue.com/story/the-military-targets-youth-for-recruitment

18. https://www.huffpost.com/entry/racism-in-us-military_n_60affb01e4b0f2a82ee77724

19. https://www.usccr.gov/pubs/sac/ak0402/ch3.htm

20. https://www.census.gov/content/dam/Census/library/visualizations/2018/demo/p60-263/figure1.pdf

21. https://www.pgpf.org/blog/2019/10/income-and-wealth-in-the-united-states-an-overview-of-data

22. https://www.shrm.org/resourcesandtools/hr-topics/compensation/pages/racial-wage-gaps-persistence-poses-challenge.aspx

23. https://www.pnas.org/content/114/41/10870

24. https://www.epi.org/publication/schools-are-still-segregated-and-black-children-are-paying-a-price/

25. https://www.oah.org/tah/issues/2017/february/the-troubled-history-of-american-education-after-the-brown-decision/

26. https://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2019/05/02/for-black-americans-experiences-of-racial-discrimination-vary-by-education-level-gender/

27. https://www.seattetimes.com/education-lab/to-understand-structural-racism-look-to-our-schools/)

28. https://academic.udayton.edu/health/07HumanRights/racial01c.htm

29. https://www.americanprogress.org/issues/race/reports/2018/02/21/447051/systematic-inequality/,
https://www.cdc.gov/reproductivehealth/maternal-mortality/pregnancy-mortality-surveillance-system.htm and

30. https://www.kff.org/report-section/racial-disparities-in-maternal-and-infant-health-an-overview-issue-brief/

31. https://www.aamc.org/news-insights/how-we-fail-black-patients-pain

32. https://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/racism-in-healthcare#emergency-care

33. https://www.nature.com/articles/d41586-019-03228-6

34. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3704191/

35. https://www.povertyactionlab.org/evaluation/discrimination-job-market-united-states

36. https://aninjusticemag.com/black-on-black-crime-the-mythology-65fe7e60d84d

37. https://www.teenvogue.com/story/black-on-black-crime-myth

38. https://www.vox.com/policy-and-politics/2020/7/7/21293259/police-racism-violence-ideology-george-floyd

39. https://media.nature.com/lw800/magazine-assets/d41586-020-01846-z/d41586-020-01846-z_18100874.png

40. https://outline.com/rMR2Hs

41. https://www.bostonglobe.com/2020/06/11/opinion/statistical-paradox-police-killings/

42. https://prospect.org/justice/police-and-racist-vigilantes-even-worse-than-you-think/

43. https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2020/aug/27/white-supremacists-militias-infiltrate-us-police-report

44. https://www.akpress.org/classic-writings-in-anarchist-criminology-ebook.html

45. https://www.sentencingproject.org/criminal-justice-facts/

46. https://www.sentencingproject.org/publications/un-report-on-racial-disparities/

47. https://www.macrotrends.net/stocks/charts/AAPL/apple/gross-profit

48. https://thewashingtonmail.com/how-big-tech-allows-the-racial-wealth-gap-to-persist/

49. https://9to5mac.com/2020/12/29/iphone-workers-forced-labor/

50. https://9to5mac.com/2021/06/08/apple-suppliers-in-china-racist/

51. https://www.ped30.com/2020/11/20/apple-prison-labor-lobbying/

52. https://kpfa.org/episode/against-the-grain-april-30-2019/

53. https://www.thenation.com/article/archive/exclusive-lee-atwaters-infamous-1981-interview-southern-strategy/

54. https://www.bls.gov/news.release/pdf/union2.pdf

55. https://www.surveymonkey.com/curiosity/axios-capitalism-update/

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.

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.

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.


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

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.

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]

[1] Interview with Noam Chomsky, September 2011, Oslo:

[2] The Left-Libertarian, Critique of Austrian Price Formation