Friday, June 23, 2006

The roots of modern Anarchism

Before I left for Turkey, there was a request to discuss the history of Anarchism. In particular to compare my anarchism “to that of the late 1800s and early 1900s, which was allegedly responsible for acts of terrorism.” It was an excellent question from Dan Weaver, who is the man behind “Upstream: A Mohawk Valley Blogzine” that I enjoy reading when I get the chance.

To begin with, let me say that I have read up on anarchist history, especially of Spain, but that history is always up for interpretation, especially when we’re talking about radical history. As I can only (and only claim to) represent my version of modern anarchism, I will only present my interpretation of anarchist history.

What I call “anarchism” has its roots in the early days of Socialism; I’m not going to enter a boring treatise quoting various authors like Proudhon or Kropotkin, others have done it better than I and its not necessary. Let us say, however, that these early (first half of the 19th century) anarchists were contemporaneous with Karl Marx and had a similar critique of Capitalism and Class Theory. Where they split from him is in the area of analyzing the State: Marxists believed that the workers needed to seize the State and use it to their advantage, they tended to be more authoritarian in their organization
[1]; Anarchists, on the other hand, saw the State as a tool of oppression that could not be divorced from its origins, they tended to be more egalitarian.

The anti-authoritarian Anarchist thread continued throughout the heyday of the Left in the late 1800s and early 1900s. Since it was rarely as well organized as the Authoritarian branch, it is often ignored. Except, that is, in the area of violence. Anarchism has always had parallel pacifist and violent strands of thought within it. Unfortunately, like all philosophies, Anarchism has occasionally been used to “justify” horrific crimes like the murder of innocents.

At the same time, I cannot dismiss all violent anarchists as “terrorists,” since I know many thoughtful, caring individuals who adhere to the violent strand of thought. What I instead advocate is taking each act of violence, and each violent anarchist, as an individual occurrence. We should look at all facets of the action: the intent of the anarchists, the outcome, the target and the methods.

Let me give an example: in 1936 as Franco’s
[2] armies crossed the Straights of Gibraltar in an effort to support an ongoing pro-Fascist coup against the Republic of Spain, the ordinary sailors in the ships (who were forced conscripts and largely anarchist or socialist in their leanings) realized that they were delivering death to their countrymen. That day, across the navy, there was an unplanned general uprising as sailors fashioned what weapons they could to attack their traitorous commanders and the fascist soldiers. While in the end they failed, I believe that their actions upon that day were warranted and defensible, even noble. Here were poorly fed and trained conscripts wielding makeshift tools against the well armed veterans of the Morocco campaign in an attempt to protect their homes, families and comrades from the horror that they correctly foresaw.

Likewise, I do not universally condemn contemporary attacks on property, such as those done by the Earth Liberation Front and Animal Liberation Front throughout America today. The incredible care that many of these individuals take to avoid hurting human beings
[3] is the best evidence that I have to the fact that they cannot be lumped in with Fundamentalist criminals like those that bomb abortion clinics or hijack planes with no regard for the dignity of human life.

To get back to your question, Dan, how is my Anarchism today different from that held at the turn of the last century? While we still have roots in the class-based organization of the past, today we have moved beyond simple class issues and identify with the oppression of dignity and freedom in all of its forms. In particular the issues, feminism (“anarcha-feminism”), animal-rights/ecology and racial equality have probably come to be equal to class issues in many people’s worldviews. The importance of ecological thinking cannot be underestimated in modern Anarchism, which often seeks to re-green our world. Many anarchists link the oppression of workers to other forms of human oppression (race, gender, religion etc) and to the general abuse and exploitation of our natural environment.

Modern anarchism has also taken a turn of late towards post-modernism. The “Po-Mos”
[4] reject the concept of Progress and the universal efficacy of Science; this is tied to the our wariness over the idea that anything that is new is better that is so popular in America. Instead, po-mo anarchists attempt to utilize other methods for understanding the world, often drawing from the disciplines of philosophy, art analysis (both visual and written) and anthropology to find their answers. I believe that the use of technology as a tool for oppression and exploitation is what has soured many anarchists to the fetishization of Progress and Science as eternal “goods.” It’s hard not to be wary of a philosophy that has killed so many and destroyed so many beautiful things.[5]

The final philosophic thread that has been integrated into modern Anarchism is what I refer to as the “joy of living.” Tied to the ideas of the
Situationists, the Autonomen and the Surrealists, Anarchists have delighted in living as an art form and in creating political spectacle out of daily life. Anarchism has always believed in personal liberty and in everyone’s right to a good life,[6] modern Anarchism has mixed that up with a form of art that involves spontaneity, dark humor and a seemingly unquenchable lust to make meaning out of life.

In all, the threads of anti-authoritarianism, post-modernism, ecological thinking and situationism have combined with traditional class-based anarchism to create a philosophy that is rich, varied and a world apart from the politics of Emma Goldman (though we still love her). I hope I’ve answered your question to your satisfaction.

[1] It is my personal belief that since authoritarianism is a more efficient form of organization, the traditional Marxist domination of the Left has come not from a more successful theoretical base (I think the examples of Stalinism, Maoism, etc, speak to the efficacy of the Authoritarian Left in improving people’s lives), but from their ability to organize assaults upon the generally more poorly organized, egalitarian anarchists. I have seen this with my own eyes at conferences and protests, but is perhaps best understood by reading Homage to Catalonia by George Orwell, where he describes the Stalinists literally attacking the Anarchists during the Spanish Civil War.
[2] The future Fascist dictator of Spain who would open death camps that killed untold numbers of Spaniards.
[3] Note that no-one has ever been hurt by the ELF or ALF
[4] This is a slightly derogatory term found amongst non-po-mo anthropologists, but as a fan of Post-Modernist theory, I use it myself.
[5] How many native religions and practices have been destroyed by Scientific Progress? How many homes and communities bulldozed? How many Thalidomide babies have been born?
[6] However you interpret that.

Wednesday, June 21, 2006

I'm back

I'm back from my trip to Turkey and I would like to thank my friend Natalie, who put up posts during my half-month hiatus. The trip was fantastic and I hope to incorporate some of my thoughts into future posts. In particular, the Turkish cult of hero-worship of the former leader Mustafa Kemal Ataturk has got me captivated. Look forward to your comments.

Thursday, June 15, 2006

Thoughts on Sex

Sex is a vitally important topic for society to discuss in a thoughtful way. The generally held view is that sex is a powerful event. By having sex with someone, it can move a relationship to its next level. It can also destroy a relationship, because one seeks it outside the bond. It can create bonds and destroy them; what a powerful force for something that we are biologically driven to do. It seems that humanity is in a predicament: we want sex, often from multiple different people at different times, and yet sex is the key to creating and destroying our most profound relationships.

I am willing to go out on a limb here and say that this view of sex is completely wrong, for several reasons. For one, sex does not always create or destroy a relationship; we can all think of examples of meaningless sex. Thus sex must need something else to affect people’s lives in such a profound way. It is also possible for us to examine love relationships where the act of sex is not the creator of the “next level.” Many people today have sex early in their relationships, long before they are willing to “take the plunge” and “be committed.” The example of the Sex and the City ladies who constantly engage in sex, but are always talking about searching for deeper meaning, comes to mind. They have separated sex from profound relationships. Some other act, usually a sacrifice or giving of some sort, is always required for one to show true love.

On a more concrete, non-television, example, we can look to conservative Christians who are “saving themselves for marriage.” Very few people are foolish enough to get married without having some sort of knowledge that it is a profound relationship, that it is “true love.” Therefore, they must come up with some non-sex solution to expressing their profound feelings.

So, in analyzing the situation, we can find that sex in and of itself has no meaning. It is a physical act between two people that feels good and meets emotional and physical needs. However, we can also recognize that it can mean something more in a particular context. The truth is, that when we say that two people are bound to one another because of sex, what we are actually saying is that these two people have developed strong feelings outside of sex and then chose to express their commitment to each other through the symbolic act of sex.

Which brings up the question, why sex? Sex in America has several powerful qualities that make it a powerful symbolic statement. For one, it is an act that shows, in America, complete trust and vulnerability. We strip off all of our protections, symbolized by our clothing, and show our true selves to one another in a way that very few others can see us. We bare our animal nature to one another. Secondly the act of coitus itself has incredible psychological and emotional strength, even if it is viewed from a purely biochemical role. Therefore any time sex is used to reinforce a bond, it brings biology into the scheme in a way that other acts usually can’t. Lastly, its cultural baggage is overwhelming. We have valued sex in the English-speaking world as a meaningful exchange of vows for millennia; this can best be seen in the fact that, traditionally, a marriage was not real until it was consummated. This is a cross-cultural phenomenon.

So, why can this type of symbolic act also break apart relationships? Once again it is not the act in and of itself. The strength of the “swinger” movement, where married couples swap spouses for sexual adventures, shows that people can remain in a relationship and commit what is usually considered infidelity. Likewise, many people can sympathize with the spouse of someone who can no longer perform sexually finding gratification elsewhere. The example of a paraplegic’s spouse who has a lover, but continues to serve as a faithful spouse in other ways comes to mind. These people have found other ways to express and re-express their bonds that has nothing to do with sex.

The power that sex has to destroy a relationship is well documented; however there is another way to view this. After a bond has been established through sex, it can be broken through sex because: if we assume that there is an emotional and biological need for sex in most human beings, and we assume that both partners can perform with adequate competence, then if one partner is receiving sex from another source, its not to meet an unfulfilled need, but instead a symbolic statement about that person’s position and bond with the other person. It is the act of betrayal of the bond, not the act of coitus that shatters relationships. And for a relationship that is built upon a non-sexual symbolic act, betrayal can be just as painful; one can be cheated on regardless of whether one has had sex or not.

In the end we see that sex of this profound sort is the symbolic representation of a bond that exists independently of the act. It is the act of stripping one’s self bare, physically and symbolically, uniting one’s pure, unadorned self to another person, and, finally, culminating the act in a powerful release of emotional, physical and psychological energy. The strength and commitment of the relationship has nothing to do with sex, its symbolic statement.

-By Jesse

Wednesday, June 14, 2006


It's always about money. Our McCulture has taught us that we can no longer create our own happiness. They have convinced us that only they can provide meaning, that we need them to distil it, bottle it in too much packaging, sell us the detachable accessories and double-a batteries necessary to make it work and then develop the breath mints to take away its horrible aftertaste.

I'm tired of having beautiful women whisper from advertisements, ‘buy this product and you can have us!’ I'm done with worrying about what the Gap marketing wiz would say about my clothes, or what whoever pretends to be Ann Landers would say about my relationships.

It all seems pretty overwhelming: thousands of ads daily, thousands of images, thousands of commands. However, I do think that there is something an ordinary person can do to improve the world, in their little way, and in the process possibly make their own existence meaningful. Any person can look at what they are doing and ask why they are doing it. If they can’t figure out why they do something, they can try to figure out who convinced them that it was their idea to do it, who profits from their action, and who suffers.

Of course, there's a chance that one might discover that one's lifestyle is one's own, that there is no puppetmaster, no insidious bug of jingoistic consumer brain-washing. However, chances are, if you’ve grown up in industrialized society, your actions and decisions are somehow based upon the desires and values of the propagandists and marketers. There is no shame in admitting this; they’re good at what they do. But now that we have discovered the cancer, now that we know the enemy, we can begin to root it out. We can stop participating in the ecocide, the genocide, the suicide.

Then, since we are, by nature, social animals, we can join with others who are following their own north star to freedom. From the ashes of a false identity a phoenix of a new society can emerge, a society that is governed by, and made for the needs of, its members. It is in this phoenix, which is not a dream, but a reality for thousands of those detached from the Matrix, that we rest our hopes and dreams upon.

Only with self-discovery can we improve ourselves, and the only change we can be sure of attaining is self-change. Like Jack Kerouac on a dusty backcountry road, I’m beat, tired of the old, empty ways and ready to grasp onto my own life- to succeed or fail for myself and on my own terms.

It’s time that we realize that fashion is a whim of a designer and patriotism is based of the fancy of boundary line makers. It's time that we free ourselves, start building a new society and try to remember what love was like before it needed a diamond, a scent, or a particular set of words to be true.

…We owe it to ourselves.

-By Jesse

Tuesday, June 13, 2006

The Promise of Government Development: Hiding Behind a Leaky Dike

A few weeks ago, the Press and Sun Bulletin of Broome County announced that the State of New York was considering opening a facility to hold sex offenders in Pharsalia, in Chenango County (northeast of Broome County); Pharsalia already holds a smaller facility that would be upgraded to hold 500 offenders. The headline, predictably, screamed "1,000 New Jobs" though the paper did express some reservations:

1) The high concentration of sex offenders being brought to Pharsalia might be dangerous to the community if there was a break.

2) Studies show that prison workers spread out their earnings far beyond the local area (they often commute long distances, for example) possibly negating much of the benefit to the Pharsalia area.

3) The current population of mental health patients might be endangered by the new inmates.

4) The fact that the Governor's plan to confine sex offenders after their sentences are finished (the purpose of the Pharsalia plan) is being challenged in court means that the jobs might have no security.

These complaints are legitimate fears, but there is one that I think has been ignored by the Press and remains unknown to the general public: the problem of relying upon government for employment. A look at the list of the top 10 employers in Broome County finds that 5 are public entities; in a similar list for Chenango County has 6 of the top 10 in the public sphere. Camp Pharsalia would certainly join that list.

Public sphere work is, of course, necessary: we need schools, roads, fire departments and ambulance squads. I would never support the radical Libertarian idea of complete privatization of society, in fact, I support more social spheres coming under the control of local communities. However, the key word here is "local." The jobs that too often come under the rubric of "public" having nothing to do with local control: big prisons, big university centers, big water reservoirs, big building projects and big parks. The jobs do not create wealth, they just move tax money around.

More importantly than the fact that tax dollars are not created, but simply shifted, is that these jobs have the tendency to hamstring local power. Just as the expansion of Wal-Mart into our community siphons our ability to control our destiny and sends that power to Bentonville, AK, these big projects too often put our communities directly into the service and orbit of New York City. Some of this is inevitable, after all NYC is one of the world's great metropolises, but it is not necessary that we simply give them the control of our lives. What if they decide to send their children elsewhere (or to keep them at home)? Or if inner-city prisons enter fashion? What is the state government no longer needs Camp Pharsalia? When we give over to big bureaucracy, we have no control of our destinies. We have more than enough examples to show that they often care little for the fate of our communities down in that mighty City and up in Albany.

In my discussion of the parallels between Buffalo and New Orleans, I spoke of how the people of both places suffered because they placed their trust and well-being in distant masters who, it turned out, had little care for those same people. In Buffalo, the great corporations who owned the factories and the federal government, authorities whose centers of power lay far away, betrayed the city. With New Orleans, it was blind trust in the dike-building Army Corps of the Engineers and the Federal Bureaucracy that that destroyed them. Too often, the promise of centralization leads us down the path of subservience and, ultimately, ruin. Who has respect for the servant that grovels before him? To the community that does literally anything to bring him there, especially if there are a thousand other places willing to do the same tomorrow?

Why should the people of Pharsalia turn down the Governor's offer to build the new prison center? Because they would become a colony of New York City, not a community standing on its own ground. They would give up all pretence of local government and live under Gubernatorial Fiat. To take him up on his offer would risk building their community behind a leaky dike that can crumble at the whim of a distant politician or a faceless bureaucracy.

-Posted by Jesse (Originally posted at York Staters on 1/23/2006)

Sunday, June 11, 2006

Buffalo and New Orleans, sisters in suffering

When the dikes broke and Katrina spilled over into the proud city of New Orleans, two tragedies occurred: one natural and one man-made. The natural disaster was a hurricane that meteorolgists predicted would eventually come and was a mighty force. The force of the hurricane, while mighty, was magnified thousand-fold by the man-made disaster.

As we all know, the foundation of the city rested under sea level, an artifical arrangement created by the levees and the Army Corps of Engineers. The people of New Orleans put their trust in a distant Federal government, a government that taxed them, demanded and recieved their allegiance and sent thousands of their sons and daughters away to war. At the same time, the Federal government cut the budgets that funded the very levees that the city relied upon for its survival. The unfortunate people found that when you put your lives in the hands of a barely accountable federal agency (an army division) that represents a government located half-way across a continent away, the inevitable lack of interest from that government can have disasterous results.

This man-made situation was later compounded by the fact that after the levees broke and the tragedy began, the people continued to turn their eyes to a distant Federal government. To all of our horror, that government did nothing for days.

Perhaps some of the people of New Orleans, and the US in general, are beginning to suspect that their trust is misplaced. But of course, up here in Upstate NY, our cities are nowhere near as vulnerable as submerged New Orleans.

Or are they? What about Buffalo's fiscal problems? When the press discussed photos of the devastation of New Orleans, they would often compare it to a war zone. But to me, ruined homes, boarded up store-fronts and abandoned factories reminded me instead of the Rust Belt, albeit covered in sea muck, not rust and slush.

Is not the tragedy of the Rust Belt not a story of the victimization of communities by central authorities as much as New Orleans is? Perhaps our problem is that our man-made tragedy cannot be blamed on an act of God and that our misery was stretched out over years (and continues) while theirs occurred in a few days. America was justly horrified by the looting and violence in the wake of Katrina, but is able to blithely ignore the spike in violence that follows every factory closing. Murder, spousal and child abuse, petty theft and alcoholism are some of the symptoms of slow death for our communities that rarely appears on television screens.

Like the people of New Orleans, trusting the Army to build walls to protect them and the Federal Government to bail them out when disaster hit, we trusted the corporations that we worked for to keep the factories open if we did our jobs, we trusted federal and state governments to bail us out if disaster hit. The betrayal of New Orleans in the days after Katrina is a crime that is echoed in the passage of NAFTA and every free trade agreement that not only tears the heart out of our communities, but those of other peoples across the globe.

You would think that perhaps its time that we learned out lesson, but yet you still see so many of our local "leaders" turning to the easy solutions of corporate development and federal/state aid, yet again. How many jobs have to be outsourced before we learn that the corporations don't care a rat's ass about our livelihoods, our homes and our communities? How many "free" trade agreements have to be signed before we learn that the federal government cares more about corporate campaign donations than the people of the Rust Belt? I think it's time we stop seeking our solutions on Pennsylvania Avenue and in the halls of power and instead turn to Maine Street (or perhaps State, Court or Division or wherever) and halls of our own towns, cities and villages.

-Posted by Jesse
(Originally posted on York Staters on 2/12/2005)

Tuesday, June 06, 2006

Big Men and Hero-Myths: Observations from the FDR Home

Recently, I visited two great estates along the Hudson River: the Vanderbilt Mansion National Historic Site and the Home of Franklin D. Roosevelt National Historic Sites, both in Hyde Park. The region is certainly a frontier zone between the sprawl of “BosWash” and Upstate society and especially in Hyde Park one can see the growing line of condos, strip malls and McMansions working their way north from New York.

However, my discussion today will not be on the creep of Sprawl or the border conflict between two ways of life, but instead on the observations that I had in the homes of “Great Men.”

American society, and we are not unique in this regard, seems taken with the idea of a single mighty hero-leader who shapes society to their will. According to this theory, history and society moves along with no major changes until the appearance of one or more of these hero-leaders: Napoleon, Lenin, Caesar, Alexander, Hitler, Churchill, Washington, FDR. These people, regardless of the moral value of their actions, are the same in the fact that they possess a vision of the future and the will and ability to see that vision enacted. History bends itself around them. This theory suffuses our view of history, all the way down to the local level (for more on this, take a look at my discussion of the Harry L. Johnson memorial in my home town). At the FDR house, the President was referred to as “the Big Man,” so I will use that term to sum up this concept.

A place like the FDR house is a monument to not only FDR, but also the concept of the Big Man itself. We come and stare at the minutia of his life, his stuffed birds, the ramp he used to maneuver and his favorite dressing gown, and somehow these things are important. In fact the house and its staff, in carefully preserving and interpreting these items, proclaim that these things are “history.”

History, in my eyes, is the story that a society tells about itself to give meaning to the present and to inform decisions on the future. When a society says that one particular 100 year old dressing gown is important history because a particular individual wore it while another one is fit for rags because only ordinary people wore it, that teaches a lesson to everyone that hears it: some people are so important that their used toothbrushes and mismatched socks should be preserved for posterity while the rest of the people, you and I, are worthwhile only to serve and admire these individuals.

These concepts are the antithesis of democracy and equality. They are the ideological foundations of hierarchy and oppression because they legitimize the idea that some folk (Big Men) deserve to control and dictate over the lives of other folk (you and I) because they are somehow more endowed with vision, will and ability. However, we cannot ever devise some method for truly determining who has these qualities so instead this philosophy is utilized to legitimize the position of those already in power and controlling others. Why is one man a President and another a shoe salesman? Because he has those three qualities. How do we know he has those qualities? Because he is the President and the other man is a shoe salesman. It is a form of cyclical reasoning that occurs on all levels of society. Why does the manager deserve more pay than the assembly line worker? Because he has proven himself a more valuable human being by demonstrating vision, will and ability. He has done this by becoming a manager.

The Big Man theory eliminates outside factors. It gives no place for racism, classism, heterosexism or sexism (for example), because the Big Man would “obviously” rise above those factors through his natural endowments. When the question is asked: why did FDR, the nephew of a President and the inheritor of great wealth and prestige, become President, isn’t that quite a coincidence? The answer is that he must have come from a family of strong-willed, able, visionary people.

I am not saying that President Roosevelt was not a titanic figure in history, that he did not have true compassion for poor folk, that he did not have incredible will to overcome disability and disease. But the man that was FDR has been dead for 62 or so years now and what we have at the FDR memorial is not an unbiased look at the man that was Franklin Delano Roosevelt, but a carefully orchestrated shrine to the idea behind Roosevelt and to the hope for another hero-leader to emerge to take his place.

-Posted by Jesse

(Originally posted on York Staters on 3/15/2006)

Saturday, June 03, 2006

Joining the IWW

A few weeks ago, I finally took the step and joined the Industrial Workers of the World, better known as either the IWW or the Wobblies. Unlike most unions, the Wobblies take several radical stands, including:

Opposition to the capitalist system of wages and owners.
A faith in the efficacy of direct action instead of traditional techniques of governmental recognition and collective bargaining.
A wide-net organizing tactic that allows any worker (even those in other unions, unemployed, still in school or retired) to join, even without support from their co-workers. Thus you, if you’re not an employer, can be a Wobbly today.
A tradition of opposition to government repression and militancy.

After years of decline, the Wobs are slowly coming back and they have found many members amongst Anarchists who are drawn to the organization’s long and proud history (see here) and its tactics. They’ve also begun successful campaigns at organizing Starbucks and in non-profits, where workers are often exploited but ignored (because they’re working for a “good cause”). For more information about joining the Wobblies click here.

"An Injury Against One Is An Injury Against All." -The IWW Motto

-By Jesse