Thoughts on Spain

I will be the first to admit that I haven’t been engaged with the protests/encampment/revolution in Spain the way that I should have been. This is partly because of events going on in my personal life, and partly in an attempt to keep me grounded in the here and now instead of wishing I had been somewhere else at just the right moment, which at least for me is the danger of watching such inspiring things happen from afar.

"we don't represent any political party or labor union, we are outraged citizens"

Happily, Counter Cartographies Collective has done some nice blogging about what’s going on so I don’t have to go too far out of my way to catch up. There are also some good materials at the Edu-factory site, and the website for the Acampada Sol itself is pretty amazing.

In her autobiography, Emma Goldman often labeled as anarchist folks who themselves thought they subscribed to other forms of political thought like liberalism or socialism. For her, anarchism was a way of approaching the world, the spirit of treating everyone with respect (ok, except for those who were part of the state’s apparatus of repression) and fighting for a world where everyone could be free in every sense of the word. More than any one specific political theory or Marxist strain, this has always seemed to me a pretty reasonable way to think about anarchism, not to mention an appropriately anarchic one.

From what I have read about the Acampada Sol, it resembles very closely my idea of an anarchist space. It has assembly-based decision-making, an egalitarian ethos that constitutes a constant struggle, and at least some effort to recognize and valorize the subaltern (and maybe more than that). Is it perfectly nonhierarchical? I’m sure it isn’t. But that isn’t the point of an anarchist space. The point is to create alternatives to capitalism and liberal democracy in such a way that the possibilities for radical freedom are expanded rather than foreclosed.

In other words, if you believe, as I do, that ideally all people should be able to determine the right course for themselves, then working to create or support a system of representative democracy, even on the small scale in an encampment, is to immediately give up the possibility of ever living in a free world. Experimenting with other forms of relating and governing spaces, on the other hand, even if they are difficult, faulty, or even unsustainable, leaves open other possibilities.

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the anarchist next door

A few days ago, the New York Times published an article about a self-identified anarchist in Austin, TX, who has succeeded in obtaining the FBI records of his own surveillance.

First of all: what? Is it that easy to just obtain your own FBI file, that perennial joke of leftist circles? Apparently it might be. The ACLU has directions for this exact purpose here, and also has a really interesting collection of information on domestic spying here, if you want to read more.

OK, so now that we’ve covered this minor revelation, I can move on to the article’s actual content. Given the media’s need to demonize anarchists (see Graeber 2009), the article is surprisingly flattering in its portrayal of Crow as a peaceful if somewhat unconventional guy who believes in something. This is a stark difference from the vision of anarchist as an outlaw ready to throw buckets of piss at cops in a moment’s notice. And the Times can’t deny that the FBI surveillance—based on the FBI’s own records—is unjust and not a little ridiculous. However, while the article suggests that this is clearly a widespread phenomena:

Other targets of bureau surveillance, which has been criticized by civil liberties groups and mildly faulted by the Justice Department’s inspector general, have included antiwar activists in Pittsburgh, animal rights advocates in Virginia and liberal Roman Catholics in Nebraska. When such investigations produce no criminal charges, their methods rarely come to light publicly,

it stops far short of examining how chilling and harmful these practices can be. Mr. Crow’s case is far from an anomaly. Look, for example, at the affidavits presented against the 8 members of the RNC Welcoming Committee during the Republican National Convention in St. Paul. In one case, the most incriminating piece of evidence in the affidavit is the fact that the defendant was present at a meeting where another person made an inflammatory statement. I would say I hope we can all agree that such an act is hardly grounds for imprisonment, except that the person in question was in fact nabbed off the street and thrown in jail for several days on the basis of said affidavit.

The evidence presented against Scott Demuth, the evidence which is supposed to justify his six month prison sentence, is that he was in possession of (easily available) Google maps and (easily available) press releases from the Animal Liberation Front. That’s it.

And these are just recent examples from the Green Scare. Look a little further and we easily find hundreds of examples–not only from previous decades like Cointelpro, as mentioned in the Times–but much more recent observations of law officers going undercover at protests and often behaving violently or otherwise “inciting a riot.”

The Times article isn’t news to those of us who care, nor is it an exposé for those unaware of the level of political surveillance in the U.S. It’s more like a human interest story that at least makes the goat-owning punk next door (and me) seem a bit less paranoid and a bit more on the money.

P.S. “Anarchism was the catchword for an international terrorist movement at the turn of the 20th century.” Really, NYT? This totally ignorant and laughable definition is the best you can do, as if Bakunin, Goldman, the Haymarket Martyrs, and even Noam Chomsky never existed? At least read the Wikipedia page for crying out loud.

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Privileged dilemmas: how to feel bad without making it all about me

A few years ago while working as an undertrained, underpaid, undersupported case manager, I found myself struggling with a nasty case of secondary trauma. It is difficult for me to even talk about it without going down the rabbit hole of psychobabble and self-doubt. The best way to describe it is to describe one of the most startling symptoms: every time I saw a mother and child, a couple, or really any kind of family unit, without being fully conscious of it, I would try to move out of earshot. I was working in domestic violence, and eventually I realized that I wanted to avoid seeing the display of verbal or physical abuse that I had begun to assume must be occurring in every family. In other words, when I saw a hetero couple strolling together down the street, I assumed that the man would begin calling the woman names or hitting her at any moment. Fucked up, right?

Anyway, one of the major problems I’ve had with acknowledging and dealing with secondary trauma  is that it occurs because of intense empathy for others’ pain (which is not to say it is inevitable). Because of this empathy, it is really hard for me to acknowledge my own pain—the secondary trauma—as legitimate. I mean, what could be more whiny-first-worlder than to complain that other peoples’ problematic lived experiences are so bad that they are traumatizing me? Those people had to actually live it, not just hear about it!

It seems to me that there is something in there that has a lot to do with broader struggles for social justice and wanting to recognize one’s own privilege. My understanding of the world suggests that while I am oppressed by certain systems (capitalism and gender, for example), I also benefit from others (race, class, sexuality, and nationality are all systems that privilege me and my experiences). What gets tricky for me is balancing being a good ally and trying to notice when my experiences are being validated a little too easily, but also feeling ok acknowledging my own pain and–dare I say–oppression.

Maybe this is part of what generates so much defensiveness around intersectionality on the left (I’m thinking especially of feminism here–just check out the comments on this post to see what I’m talking about). I suspect that sometimes I get defensive  because acknowledging my privilege can feel like it requires downplaying my own pain. But (and here’s where the rabbit hole starts) then I worry: how can I tell the difference between the need to validate my own feelings and simply feeling threatened by the loss of privilege? Is there one?

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on the interwebs today: activist work for pay

It definitely doesn't look like this.

I followed the trail from this post at Feministing today to Jessica Valenti’s post about pay for activist work. Pretty interesting stuff to think about. Certainly I’m often infuriated at the way that social service work is generally done by young women who are expected to do incredibly draining care work for an income that almost qualifies them for food stamps (no exaggeration there, really). This shows so little respect for the work, for the women who do it, and especially guarantees that the low income communities of color that constitute the client base will continue to receive inconsistent and inexperienced assistance at every agency where they are supposed to be supported. [Mind you, this is an insider critique; I’m not saying young women are incapable, just that a balance of age and experience would generate better service provision as well as less burnt out, more effective social service workers.]

On the other hand, I find myself stopping short of wholeheartedly endorsing Valenti’s points because I’m wary of the entire system of activist superstars. I wonder if it might not be better to work toward eliminating the uppercrust of nationally known activists in favor of building activist capacity more broadly. It seems that Nonnie Ouch is already a kick-ass activist in her own right–why does she need Dan Choi to come inspire her peers?

And someday soon there will have to be a post on money and Marxist alienation.

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on the interwebs today: oprah

Just read this Bitch post on Oprah  and found myself wondering what a forthright article from Oprah might contain, if she were to write a piece like Roseanne Barr did. I guess it’s all a performance, but I found it fascinating to learn what a clearly defined and intersectional idea of feminism Roseanne has and I’d love to know the same about Oprah. Especially since some of the more appalling/compelling parts of this Newsweek expose are still rolling around in my head… Oprah’s show surely does sometimes revel in a revolting level of materialism and that bit about the gift from her assistant gives one pause.

Also, this:

http://youtu.be/1ZwSTadVGqE

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self care

Today I was thinking about a few changes I have made that have improved my life the most in the last few years. Though it’s my understanding that many anarchists are suspicious of psychology/psychoanalysis/etc. as a whole because of its individualist tendencies, I find psychobabble both essential for coping with my life in the world that I have been given as well as incredibly helpful in allowing me to dream about what it means to be really happy. For me, this harmonizes well with an anarchist desire to be fulfilled, in this world and not the next.

(Aaron Fermer - SFWeekly)

First, I have learned to be kind to myself (or at least I have learned that I should try to be kind to myself). Being kind to oneself doesn’t need to contradict being kind to others, nor do I want to go down the slippery slope of yuppie justification for materialism. Kindness isn’t manifested through consumption. For me, being kind to myself comes in the form of asking what I need or want from a day or a given situation. If I am feeling unhappy, asking what I might need in order to feel better and then not feeling guilty if I place those needs first and foremost in my day. Anarchism is a lot about creating genuine interconnection with others, and I am a lot more capable of doing that when I feel satisfied and at peace with myself than when I feel guilty or angry.

The second is the power of an open mind (which has some nice parallels in what I think works best within anarchism itself). I only learned to meditate, for example, when I figured out that it wouldn’t work if I tried to actively shut out all my thoughts. Rather, I have to recognize and accept that how I feel is how I feel, and what pops into my mind is uncontrollable. It does no good to try to stop either. What I can control is how much time and attention I give to these thoughts, just as I can control how I act on my feelings. Once I figured out the key to meditation was opening rather than closing my mind, I was able to relax for possibly the first time in my life.

Just some thoughts I wanted to throw out there since in my experience, those who feel the most committed to radical kindness to others are often the worst at practicing this with ourselves. Recognizing privilege can make us being kind to ourselves feel indulgent and selfish, but what are we working so hard for if not a world where we can ALL feel fulfilled? And we’ll never get there if we’re all burnt out.

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anarchist culture and me

In Direct Action, David Graeber describes anarchist spaces in New York as being always in a state of construction and becoming. He sees this as an important anarchist value, wanting to be in the place “where the spectacle itself is produced” (p 279).

I think about this and other aspects of anarchist culture a lot, because I don’t know if it’s just me and my own insecurity or what, but it’s things like that that make me constantly feel strangely out of place among anarchists in the US. Despite more or less wholeheartedly sharing values, I just don’t get a lot of the cultural stuff. Even though I love Johnny Cash, I love wearing bright colors. Even though I get that most standards of cleanliness were propagated solely to sell more chemical cleaning products, I still feel better when I take a shower every day.

It’s important and legitimate for me to understand and acknowledge the importance of my own happiness, and so I try to balance changing the world with sometimes taking the easy (or comfortable) way out.

That doesn’t mean that I don’t want to hang around with all black wearing dirty punks. I do. But somehow I end up feeling like an aged hippie among such folks, as if they are the only authentic anarchists and I’m nothing but a liberal. Sometimes I think this is partly the result of an age difference: I wonder how many of the punk anarchist kids will remain committed to anarchist ideals in the long run versus how many will gradually reintegrate into yuppie life because they set the anarchist culture bar so high for themselves. I wonder if the conflation of youth culture and anarchist culture is really endemic to anarchist ideas, as Graeber thinks, or if it’s because anarchist spaces are overrun with kids just looking to rebel. I like “Anarchy in the UK” just as much as the next punk, but when it comes down to it, I have to reject the late 70s punk vision of “anarchism” (which is actually more like capitalism-fueled nihilism) and remain committed to the vision of love and solidarity that I find so compelling.

On the other hand, I know that age is a form of hierarchy and a way for me to claim a bit of rank on my anarchist comrades. And while it is a legitimate critique to hope that white folks aren’t just slumming it as anarchists for a few years of their late teens, it is deeply unfair of me to assume that they are.

I guess what I’m trying to say is: I’m in the market for a long-term, sustainable kind of anarchist community for myself and I’m having trouble finding it. Is it because I’m missing something?

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