Emergence is a Revolution in Human Thinking

normal_iil-symbol-flying-geese-copyA theme keeps popping up in the news of technologies, ideas, and predictions all based around theories of complex adaptive systems.[1] We hear about things like self-organizing and self-learning computer programs, hive models of military organization, cloud networks, and decentralized intelligence. Dig deeper into the scientific, industrial, and academic literature and a world begins to emerge from view, a scientific revolution under our feet. In places we comes across management theorists proclaiming the end of power as we knew it within businesses, dystopian projections of apocalypse, technoutopias of artificial life, and countless experiments of social control. What is happening here? These currents are little known of or discussed in society except in the passing references of reporters and pop scientists. Politically, the military and powers of industry have been the vanguard of this domain, seeking to harness its findings to bank encryption, missile guidance systems, and redesigning their capacities as widely as possible. Amongst revolutionaries these ideas, industries, and experiments are largely unknown.

Recently, I came upon an article from the journal of the National Association of Engineers entitled Health Care as a Complex Adaptive System: Implications for design and management by W.B. Rouse. The piece is concerned with laying out the implications for system design and organizational management of capitalist industries due to the problems created by increasing understanding of emergence in complex adaptive systems. Looking to health care, the author draws out some themes that are being repeated throughout the literature of society’s institutions and the voices of their power brokers. The growth of our understanding of the biological and social worlds via emergence is creating a revolution of thought, and one that has within it an inherent critique of dominant power. Continue reading


Lessons from a Social Service Worker’s Strike

Barack ObamaThis piece was written in 2004-2005 in the wake of a strike at a behavioral health facility. Through the immediate eyes of those experiences it grapples with a number of forces in working life we find ourselves up against today. Today I would place different emphasis on the final sections about the various committees and conception of revolutionary unionism that was popular in Portland at that time. Still it’s surprising how relevant and contemporary this reads. As something of an aside, it also contains an attempt to understand power (as a cooptive power) through an emergence approach, which I hadn’t remembered anything like that as far back as nearly a decade ago. It also is likely the first place that direct unionism found its way into print, and quotes a never published piece from Pete Little on direct unionism circulated within the IWW that was highly influential at the time. The initial quotes below may read strange, but the Malatesta and Richards are intended to be there as contrast to the account of what follows. Herman Gorter’s piece conversely draws out some of that criticism. Continue reading

Communication is a Revolutionary Act: Thoughts on communication and media for liberation

fight-for-15Traditionally many radicals have looked at communication and media as tools for implementing their ideas, programs, and lines on populations. Adopting the same model from capitalist marketing theory and propaganda models, communication is thought of as transmitting information from sender to receiver, with most of the thinking centered around how we can best transmit the information to our receivers, how to achieve the greatest numbers, etc. Different media are debated, and today fascination with the emergence of social media and internet culture has captivated political actors of all stripes. After the development of mass industrialized media around a century ago, the model of media and communication as a megaphone still is dominant in the actions and thinking of our time. Continue reading

Meaningful Work: An appeal to the young

cover_elec_01_jmlFrom the time I was a child, I was told to follow my dreams and do something I truly loved. Granted I rarely met an adult who was passionate about their work, but they seemed sincere in their desire for others to take that path. The advice of course usually had a piece of bitterness attached to it. As I came of age, the terrain didn’t look pretty. Most of my personal passions were deserts for employment. Nor did I really know anyone who was living the dream, so to speak, at work. My path began from leaving that advice behind.

Society is littered with talk of meaningful work. The creative class, jobs that means something, doing something with one’s life, work that matters, helping people; we’re inundated with phrases, words, and images that describe our poverty and the future that we are supposed to aspire to.

It’s actually worse for people who commit themselves to making radical change in society. A confluence of pressures pushes down on them year after year through family wondering when they will grow up, friends perpetually moving on to something better, and a gnawing sense of wasted potential. Why bother with the endless meetings, the mindless work, and for what?

Unless you’re born into a situation where work is unnecessary, nearly everyone experiences the modern workplace. Service work in particular serves as a stark reminder of reality and alternatives. The unending drudgery of task after task slinging fatty coffee that literally poisons people’s health, selling useless items created on the backs of abused workers elsewhere, cardboard boxes rolling down the line that just keep coming and coming, forcing a smile when we are cursed at or harassed; Nearly everyone has been forced to participate in the bitterness of having our time stolen. It’s perhaps harder to bare for those who know the widest extent of the misery of humanity and understand how preventable it all is.

The sense of meaninglessness in jobs is a strong current in society. Tv shows, films, music, and other forms of pop culture repeat the comedy, frustration, and depression of spending one’s time on tasks that seem pointless. This isn’t to say that people’s jobs don’t make a difference. Many things we do keep society running and contributes to the social good. The meaninglessness of work in today’s society arises out of the reflection of workers that their time is not really benefiting the people they serve or advancing them as people. As a healthcare worker I can see both sides of this. Obviously healthcare is crucial for societies. At the same time any hospital worker can recognize how it is that the healthcare system not only harms people, but also in general contributes to people staying sick. Meaning is something deeper than just keeping the gears moving and helping our fellow human beings. Meaning is about where we are headed and who we are. This is where youth get squeezed and falter.

Modern capitalism with its base of debt makes everything seem possible. The compulsion to put food on the table is softened by easy credit. We can go back to school, live on credit cards, travel to cheap places, and find means to delay work enough to get by. Young people accumulate useless degrees and insane debts while deferring the future and often slipping into the delusions of jobs that simply do not exist. Choosing what to do with our lives takes on the characteristic of other more banal decisions. We are shopping for an ethical product. Validation stands at the core of this, and plays off the fear of a wasted life, idle efforts, and ending up trapped chasing false ideals. What to tell worried parents who watched their child squander what chances they had for material success? It is better to say that one is employed fighting poverty, educating the youth, or some other remix of Mother Theresa, Gandhi, or perhaps Bono.

The problem is that there is no escape. Professors spend decades moving town to town as itinerant adjuncts teaching the most bland classes, writing mechanical essays in desperation to stay published, and constantly struggling for something more stable. Even at it’s best, University life leaves less time for liberatory thought and action than the part time service worker. Union organizers spend seventy or eighty hour weeks at the service of hostile bureaucracies, and too often find themselves in the position of pimping the Democratic party and selling backroom deals with management to disillusioned workers. NGO staff share the same fate, bending to the will of the funders and forced to represent the interests of the powerful under false flags of social change. Self-employment and cooperatives turn activist efforts into business efforts, and consume more time than any capitalist could ever demand from a job. Good people find themselves lost there, tired of all the worn appearances that hide a rotten structure, yearning to escape too their work and get back to something more authentic.

We need to question and even condemn the pressure on youth to find meaningful work. As long as we live in capitalism, its deep wells will poison all the streams flowing into our cities. With capitalist work, even the most holy pursuit will end up in mindlessness, subservience to stupid management, and in fighting the current trying to make some good out of a hostile situation that constantly tries to undo our efforts. This isn’t to say that some don’t enjoy their jobs. Some do.  Yet on the balance, the vast majority can’t find employment that will engage them, and those who do generally must sacrifice the rest of their lives for the privilege. The real question to be raised isn’t whether you should enjoy your job or not, but whether you should dedicate your life to work. Or better, what is the relation of living to working?

This logic should be turned on its head. It’s not what we’re employed doing that should define, validate, or give meaning to our lives; it’s our life itself that does.  How much brighter does the future look to liberate oneself from the oppressive concept of boundless sacrifice to meaningful jobs? Why shouldn’t youth seek to maximize their lives against this work? There are other roads open to us.  We can work, as we must, but can struggle to find the most time for ourselves and our causes. Better we write, protest, organize, and gather in our workplaces on time off, than to cement that relationship into employment or worse into our identities.

Our lives are defined by what we do, not who writes our paychecks. A political life is an attempt to regain a meaningful life. It is a task for all of society, and not monopolized by a special class employed as professional politicians, bureaucrats, and humanitarians. Meaning is not at work, but in the beauty of daily living, in struggling for a better world, and whatever path your desires take you towards. Our joy is not found in simply imposing our will onto the world, but in the happiness that can only be found in fighting for a more just and beautiful world around us. Dedicating oneself to the struggles of others changes you. Within, we must fight to constantly overcome ourselves against the current, a process that can be deeply enriching. The commitment and work of liberation makes all of society our classroom, our workplaces gymnasiums, and our neighborhoods galleries.

Sacco and Vanzetti remind us of the infinite potential and beauty of life even from within the walls of prison. The two Italian anarchist immigrants dedicated their lives to the causes of their class working as a cobbler and a fish peddler respectively. Their sacrifices were more than just in their professions, as they were framed for murder and executed by the state of Massachusetts. The writings of the pair from prison are inspiring not only for their perseverance and insights, but for their joy. Sacco wrote to his son Dante his final letter before his execution, sitting down as we do, to find words for the path life carries us down. Facing his own death and the life of his son in front of him, he wrote

“Don’t cry Dante, because many tears have been wasted, as your mother’s have been wasted for seven years, and never did any good.  So, Son, instead of crying, be strong, so as to be able to comfort your mother, and when you want to distract your mother from the discouraging soulness, I will tell you what I used to do.  To take her for a long walk in the quiet country, gathering wild flowers her and there, resting under the shade of trees, between the harmony of the vivid stream and the gentle tranquility of the mothernature, and I am sure that she will enjoy this very much, as you surely would be happy for it.  But remember always, Dante, in the play of happiness, don’t you use all for yourself only, but down yourself just one step, at your side and help the weak ones that cry for help, help the prosecuted and the victim, because that are your better friends; they are the comrades that fight and fall as your father and Bartolo fought and fell yesterday for the conquest of the joy of freedom for all and the poor workers.  In this struggle of life you will find more love and you will be loved.”[1]

In spite of all the sadness that surrounds us and plagues this world. Our daily lives can be the work of love. We do not need titles, positions, or to be taken into service to achieve this work. We only need the commitment to set ourselves to the betterment of all and to dive head in to the struggle against power. Against the monotony and pervasive depression we see, Vanzetti offers this:

“I am convinced that human history has not yet begun; that we find ourselves in the last period of the prehistoric. I see with the eyes of my soul how the sky is suffused with the rays of the new millennium.”[2]

Beyond the horizon of today lie potentials for humanity freed from the artificial constraints of society twisted by the contours of power and wealth. We do not need to imagine paradises, utopias, or that any political movement can solve all of humanity’s problems to see how much more is possible. This is the task of youth today, to constantly push further in practice and expose the expanding vista of human potential.

Democracy and Autonomy – (Fragments of a draft, 2009)

There is a gap in the ideas people are using today between the critique of the state and the concept of autonomy. The critique of the state contains a component which focuses on the centralization of power and the effect that hierarchical power relationships has on society as a whole. The distance between centralized state authority and the practices, beliefs, and needs of the people creates a political problem for those who want to see a society run by and for everyone. With the centralization of power and resources, the state is an organized force only a few steps away from an organ of popular repression, and the consolidation of power of a ruling class or a ruling class to be. There is a contradiction between the notion of an institutionalized power body and self-governance of the people.

This critique is fairly common sense, and is even granted to some degree by those who admire dictatorship and hierarchy (jab right, fake left. Democracy + iron clad leadership). A traditional answer that has become quite popular is to decentralize. Replacing centralized power with decentralized power is seen as the antidote for the alienation of power from the people, and diffuse power creates a social counterweight to potential rulers to be. The idea then is to disperse power on some level into localized forms of popular governance.

Why local? Here we find a leap in logic. Local is counterpoised to the national and global logic of centralized bodies, which hierarchy makes incapable of navigating the different conditions we all find ourselves in. Standardization, monoculture, and unitary approaches to disparate environments are characteristic of centralized institutions. The thought is then that local autonomy provides the scale and organizational level where people actually are. Autonomy then is a form of participation based on local freedoms and responsibilities to other locales. It’s worth seeing though that despite the definition, self-law, autonomy is essentially a negative concept. Autonomy is autonomy from generally, autonomy from the constraints of present society.

The common reply to this, by anyone you talk to on the street is, why wouldn’t people just use their autonomy to fuck everyone else over? Some locales seek autonomy to carry out reactionary and racist measures against minorities in their community.

The problem here is that we’re confusing two different things by missing something  fundamental.  We see a problem, the state. Features of that problem (centralization) have real impact. The solution proposed is a reply to those features. The focus though is essentially on the form of the state, and so the solution obscures something quite basic, it’s content. Proposing is to merely disperse power relationships into smaller units, and to create formal democracy (with the hope that real democracy emerges out of that). It’s natural then for people to say, well why wouldn’t other power issues emerge, but on a smaller scale?

But if we think about content, then the whole thing is flipped on its head. Since we live in a society rife with struggle and contradictions, democracy is not always democratic. Minorities can be right and just, and majorities oppressive. Workers can vote to strike to keep black workers out of their company, and it can be autonomous and democratic, but reactionary. Whatever solutions lies to our problems will lie here and not only through forms.

Against Organizational Patriotism – (Draft Fragment from 2009)

“The place where workers, as workers, can move in “organic unity” at this stage of the political development of the class is at the point of production. Does this mean strikes, for example? It does, and it doesn’t. Some strikes involve mass participation in struggle, but most clearly do not. No alternative conception of the world is manifested in those strikes where the union and the management co-operate in the orderly closure of operations; where picketing is only a dull and tiring public-relations chore; and where the bulk of the workers just disappear till a new contract is signed. And this is the character of most present-day strikes.” Reflections On Organizing, Don Hammerquist http://www.sojournertruth.net/reflections.html

Commitment, accountability, and pride are necessary for the proletarian movements. We need organizations so that our actions can be effective, so we can develop and strategize, and so that lessons of struggle aren’t lost every 2 years or so. There is no place for free-agents in this movement. Anyone who has tried to work with someone who has no respect for an organization, yet continues to use it for personal or political ends, knows how this actively harms the work we want to see. Some level of organizational patriotism is in order then.

But this can and does go too far. The quote above contains within it something crucial for us to understand in our organizing. Not all actions by workers advance the working class, and not all organizational advances are good for the working class. That’s just to point out that what must come first for us is the advancement of the working class working towards the abolition of class society and all its wrongs. As revolutionaries we must keep in focus that our job is to move forward the class in our struggles, not only our organizations. Unions are infamous for acting parochially and guarding the interests of some small subsection of the class at the expense of the broader working class.  The ILWU’s selling out of B-men, the UFCW’s creation of graded union membership after the California grocers strikes, racist white unions striking to keep black workers out, etc., these are only the most obvious examples of how working class struggles can sometimes work against the class.

The upshot of putting the organization first is to lose clarity over the direction of the struggle in hopes of flying the organizational flag. This is a form of opportunism that can emerge from a genuine desire for change that gets overcome by organizational patriotism. In contrast to this sort of patriotism, we need to be organizational internationalists. We should welcome the advancement of a plurality of organizations that move the class forward. We should choose to strategize around struggles that advance the class as a whole, not merely those most expedient for organizational jockeying.

Lost Conversations: Questioning the legacy of anarchosyndicalism

voz de mujerThere is more interest than ever in anarchosyndicalist unions, their history, and lessons for doing organizing in today’s context. During its peak, anarchosyndicalism engaged millions of workers on every continent except Antarctica. Though the Spanish experience through the CNT and 1936 revolution stands out, anarchosyndicalism was perhaps stronger in Latin America and Asia than in Europe. Despite the depth of those experiments and today’s interests, our knowledge of anarchosyndicalism is still poor. Continue reading