On elections and voting

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We don’t need them, but they need us.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

On fascism

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Concerning borders

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

In the era of Trump

As I went out for a small picket protesting the inauguration of Donald Trump today, it gave me the opportunity to reflect on the recent events, and the ongoing drama that has unfolded like a horror show ever since he announced his candidacy in the primaries last year.

The protest, held in the center of Cambridge, UK, where I currently live, brought together a curious mix of people – from disgruntled liberals, Labour voters and Corbyn supporters, to union organisers, socialists and a couple of us anarchists. Among the signs and chants condemning racism, sexism and anti-immigrant sentiments, ours stood out a bit – while we agree with all that, we also reject what many people unfortunately mistake for the solution. Let’s face it, where would most of these people be had Clinton picked up her expected win?

Comically, a passer-by reproached us for being anti-Trump and anti-Brexit, telling us that we should accept the democratic outcome, as he would have done. Obviously missing the part of our signs saying no to Clinton and Remain as well as Trump and Brexit. After hearing that we seemed to have a broader critique of the system, and of capitalism, he backtracked and told us communism doesn’t work. He then discovered our red and black flags: “Oh, so you have the anarchy flag…” he said, “but how do you organise things without leaders?” Soon after he disappeared into the crowd again. I guess sometimes you just can’t win either way.

And that is sort of the point here. Saying no to Trump, for many, implies saying yes to Clinton, or perhaps Bernie Sanders. But the fixation with these false dichotomies is a symptom of a deeper problem with politics today, where representatives and celebrity-like political figureheads are hailed as saviours. Instead of analyzing the systemic issues, the particular interests of various powerful groups, and of the capitalist class as well as of the government, we reduce the problem to simply one of having the wrong ideas or personality traits. That is dangerous, because if your analysis misses the point, so will any action you take based on said analysis.

The outrage over Trump’s sexist, anti-immigrant and populist rhethoric, and the hypothetical difference that a Clinton would make, has to be put in perspective, beyond the type of superficial identity politics by the logic of which, Clinton, as a woman, would mean a victory for the struggle over patriarchy and sexism. As quick as some people seem to be in hailing the next saviour, as fast do they seem to forget what just played out before their very eyes.

The outgoing president, Barack Obama, a black man, if that eluded anyone, oversaw a regime of brutal war, detentions, neoliberalism and, crucially, blatant structural racism towards indigenous as well as black people, to the point where violent clashes with the police and a growing Black Lives Matter movement materialized as the desperate outcry of various hugely marginalized and horribly abused communities. Behind the scenes, the entire prison-industrial complex with it’s lifeblood – the war on drugs – ensured black americans could be used as cheap labor, in what is nothing else than modern day slavery. Exactly how did the symbolic presence of a black man at the helm of this oppressive system help those people?

The anarchist revolutionary Mikhail Bakunin, in his eerily prophetic polemics against authoritarian socialism in the late 1800s, once pointed out that the people do not really care whether the stick they are being beaten with is called “The People’s Stick”. Likewise, today, we can say that any oppressed group – be it women, blacks, immigrants or LGBTQs – is not automatically better off just because “one of them” is administering the oppressive system at some level. This is because the dynamics of power itself , be it political or economic. A shared identity, in some narrow sense, does not necessarily mean a shared interest in abolishing all those structures of power.

Now some could say that Obama, for instance, faced a hostile Republican party apparatus that crippled his possibility to enact meaningful change in many areas. While this is partially true, it has to be noted that this is pretty much by design. No matter if we’re talking of a system rigged for a two-party setup, or one with a multitude of bickering political interests, the entire point is to direct people’s attention to something that does not and cannot emancipate them – the theater of parliamentarism – and away from what can – self organisation and direct action.

Change has never emanated from parliaments, it has rather reached them after often long and arduous grassroots campaigns and people’s struggles in the streets, in their communities and at their places of work. But it is easy to mistake the cause for the effect, when, day in and day out, we’re fed media images of those parliaments as the real seats of power, while we rarely get to see the people that really make change happen, or force it on parliaments, by their own actions. What parliaments do, though, is often to take the momentum out of such social movements and struggles, pacifying them, and in that making them reliant on an alienating form of politics that limits them to adjustments within the pre-determined parameters of the system.

Shortly after Donald Trump was sworn in as the president of the United States, several sections of the White House website were taken down. Most notably, those concerning LGBTQ rights and environmental issues. Many take this as an ominous sign of things to come. While it is true that we should not expect much good from Trump in this regard, it could be argued that the US government now operates according to a more honest policy than it has in a long time. Because despite Trump’s awful politics and track record, it is not at all obvious which is actually worse; the powers that be openly rejecting the important problems facing us, or ostensibly acknowledging them and then pretending to be doing something about it.

While the latter will just pacify us and make us expect someone else to actually make the change we want and desperately need, the former offers a meaningful alternative, although disguised as a sobering realization.

We have to be the change we want to see. We have to fight for ourselves.