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

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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.

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

Fighting to Heal: Anti-social violence and a path towards healing

image-516Yesterday morning a shooter, purportedly an ex-reservist and civilian IT contractor Aaron Alexis, killed 12 people at the DC Navy Yard.[1] As information about the recent mass shooting on a military facility emerges we appear faced with yet another instance of a mundane act of violence. An act of terrorism appears unlikely, instead a combination of anger issues, mental health, and workplace disputes is being identified.[2] It is obviously too soon to make any judgment on the facts, but the reactions and a recent trend makes it worth exploring.

I come into contact with patients with PTSD, veterans, and people who have experienced and perpetrated such violence through my employment as a healthcare worker. Before the identity of the attacker was released, the response from a number of vets I heard yesterday was almost exclusively that “this could not be one of our own, it has to be foreign terrorism”. This was surprising to me because of the recent spate of mass shootings carried out by Americans, let alone the less well acknowledged fact that most acts of terrorism at home have been carried out by Americans ourselves. There is a real disconnect here between the perception of our society and people and where we have come to. In Miami even just in the past six months a casual survey of local news shows a disturbing trend of anti-social violence: a whole family bound and gagged and shot execution style, children shot without apparent reason in robberies, and elderly people executed without request and subsequently robbed. Objectively these situations are quite rare, and their incidence has been decreasing (although anecdotally there appears to be some rebound since the crisis for which I haven’t seen good data either way). Still, we should pause and reflect on the fact that events like someone opening fire with an AK-47 on a park filled with children is less than a national event. Today, it seems everyone, even some people from foreign nations for whom such acts are nearly unheard of, is unsurprised about such violence in the US.[3] A familiar chorus points to gun control or mental health as the source of the violence.[4][5] Why do we not see questions being raised about what it is that is causing people who live here to seek out carnage against people who they don’t know and have no reason to wish any harm on? Increasing funding for mental health and restricting access to guns would likely help and should be supported. Yet the underlining corrosion of social relationships will be unaffected by such changes. 

Mass shootings are acts defined by their willingness to harm indiscriminately, in a way an attack on society as a whole or at least some sub-section of it. While larger scale violence against strangers is more flashy, anti-social attitudes and acts are much more common than this. Everyday in this country there are more mundane examples of people who resort to other less attention grabbing acts of anti-social violence that show total disregard for the lives of others. Beneath the criminal side of this phenomenon lies a social decay across American society that has eaten away at our trust, relationships, and capacity to function as a society. We live in a society filled with fear, mistrust, and a perception by many that we get ahead in spite of each other rather than with each other. 

The blame must be placed strongly at the door of the State and ruling capitalist interests who have carried out a toxic experiment on this country. This should be made clear, the moral and social violence and misery of this society is produced in part by the values and order of this society. Neighborhoods have been decimated by social engineering aimed at neutralizing political opposition in poor neighborhoods.[6] Drugs and crime flourish while the State sustains a program of mass incarceration against large sections of the population, leaving whole communities drained of resources, under siege by police and gangs, and creating the impetus for more crime and trauma. Social safety nets are slashed and everyday brings new experiments in shoving people into greater precarity and poverty for the benefit of an increasingly tiny and insulated elite. Without politically organized community and movements, people face this deprivation and the violence of everyday American life alone. The effect has been a social and moral decay in spite of the earnest efforts of millions to improve their situation through whatever means they find.

Yet we should also reflect on what could have been done to prevent the downward spiral, and what has been done to avert worse social decline. Faced with this situation, much of the progressive forces of American society has been channeled into charity and institutionalized social service or at least played a defensive role in trying to maintain existing social welfare measures. While clearly inadequate as a response, it must be recognized how the humanitarian work of countless individuals, many outside any organized social or political spheres, keep society functioning in spite of the barbarity of the ruling order. Large scale acts of solidarity like the anti-globalization movement, anti-war movements, Occupy, etc., accentuate this but also should not overshadow the innumerable people who constantly try to carve out a more humane existence by dedicating themselves to others. The fact that an overwhelming majority of Americans put forward effort to help Haiti after its horrible earthquake should be noted for a clear desire for and vacuum of ways to contribute to a greater whole.

Politically, progressives aspiring for liberation have lost sight of a collective universal needed to help society heal and to form the foundation of a future society. The reaction against the old left’s universal concept of humanity was correct as it was one which in the name of humanity wrote out the majority from it’s program. The needs of the oppressed were subjugated in a way that held back the advance not just of oppressed communities, but of everyone as a whole. An understanding of difference and autonomy were too long absent from the dominant currents of progressive thought. Yet the alternative has left us with a solution as fragmented as society itself. Too often the left is content to reinforce existing capitalist identities. Post-modern politics of fragmentation often aligns itself with the cultural politics of ascendant ruling classes now contesting power within the existing political and economic structure. The pragmatics of alliances and balkanization of the political landscape is one factor in disarming us against the ruling class attacks. What is missing is a sense of how we can move forward in dismantling the divisions that this society creates rather than reinforce or seeking to advance with them. The problem is less conceptual than practical. How can we heal this society and create a new order for social relationships that dismantles the corrosive structures and interactions of exploitative, racist, patriarchal, and other hierarchical relations?

Of course we all have a role to play in this too through having internalized the culture of America. We are neither perpetrators nor victims of this system; we are simply people making hard choices everyday. Often we choose to overlook chances to help others and avert harm because of all the things society has thrown at us. While not the main factor, thoughts and deliberations do have an impact and power that sometimes is not recognized. A mass change in attitudes can’t be willed into existence, but working to change our thinking can have a positive effect on our communities in the long run.

There are few voices that seek to fix this situation for everyone, in part because the problem goes beyond where people normally do politics. Social healing would require both removing the causes of constant trauma in American society, as well as creating new social forms and struggles outside the institutions of American power. It is not simply attacks and poverty that have created this situation, but also the absence of positive community. Defending against new encroachments on social welfare and standards of living are justified. Yet our program should go beyond both defense and expansion of social welfare measures. Any increase in people’s standard of living is good for humanistic reasons and should be supported. However, politically our efforts should focus on ways in which we can wrest control of social life out of the hands of hostile forces, and into those of a conscious collectivity. For example, we should be struggling not only for universal healthcare, but for healthcare directed and administered by organized communities. We should not let market forces or elements of the political establishment set what our health is. Instead we need to build an autonomous political force behind our own conception of health arising from discussion, debate, and activity within our neighborhoods. That is to say our struggle should be to organize people for the expropriation of resources for their own health and wrestle that control out of the hands of business and the State. While not realizable within capitalism, the lines drawn by such struggles carries the potential to sustain revolutionary movements acting based on their daily lives against the State and capitalists. 

img_0419Combatting anti-social acts and mentality requires a process of healing and construction of social alternatives. While limited by the corrosive nature of capitalist society itself, part of the contribution of anarchism is its understanding of the self-organization of societies and the possibility of collective action to transform our daily lives. The role of anarchists in particular in social healing should be experimenting, promoting, and educating about the potential of solidarity, and wherever possible creating opportunities for social bonds of mutual aid to grow and flourish. In absence of large scale movement against dominant values and order, such a path is difficult. Yet we benefit from being more clear about both how far society has fallen and our potential as healers. Anarchism has the ability to become a motivating force in society and with its actions contest the dominant values and ideas leading society to perpetual trauma and decay. For all of its faults, Occupy Sandy gives an example of how radicals can in key moments expose capitalism and offer an alternative.[7] If that kind of universality of solidarity can be built upon, we may have a chance at stemming the tide of anti-social violence and decay.  The flourishing of society is tied not just to opposing evil, but also to sustaining beauty, justice, kindness, and compassion. In this way the struggle of anarchists is not merely to defeat the evils of capitalism and the state, but also for the construction of moral and aesthetic virtues in common with each other. Against the tide of depressing anti-social violence and attitudes, we must be building new worlds and new values every day wherever we find the strength and capacity to break through.


[6] Some examples and citations of the social engineering of urban centers, suburbs, and the project of spatial deconcentration carried out by the federal government are laid out in my article about transportation and urban space called Taxing Our Lives: Unpaid costs and wages in transit. https://snappalos.wordpress.com/2010/12/07/taxing-our-lives-unpaid-costs-and-wages-in-transit/

[7] While not endorsing the New York Times or even Occupy Sandy itself per say, I think it illustrates the tensions created by the work done in Occupy Sandy. http://www.nytimes.com/2012/11/11/nyregion/where-fema-fell-short-occupy-sandy-was-there.html?pagewanted=all

Ditching Class: the Praxis of Anarchist Communist Economics

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(From a chapter published in the AK Press book The Accumulation of Freedom)

Libertarian Communism, the Aspiration of Classes in Struggle

Class relationships stand at the core of global societies in our time. The interlocking web of capitalist and state power relations are embedded and reproduced as class exploitation at every level in communities. The abolition of class exploitation is the foundation of any future socialist economy, one which we hope would lead to a society where all people and communities would be able to develop autonomously to their full capacities. During every struggle for liberation and autonomy, class has stood in the way of further developing our human potential. Class has provided the bedrock for counter-revolutions and, even more threatening to liberation, has been capitalism’s ability to reproduce class relations even when the old actors, the capitalists, have fled the scene. New classes rise to take the place of the old ones, and the failure to do away with class altogether has led to some of the worst human tragedies, particularly in the former Soviet countries and various national liberation struggles.

Any group of people who seek to do away with class exploitation will run up against a problem. How is another form of economic activity possible? The easy answer is that capitalism is not eternal. Capitalism is realistically a marginal form of economic organization in human history, though one that spread from Western Europe a few centuries ago to become wholly dominant, and has left a path of carnage (human and environmental) in its wake. Still, we don’t want merely a different economy, but a better one, and hopefully one that transcends the problems of tyranny, inequity, waste, and deprivation.

Libertarian communism is one such possibility, though there needs to be a disclaimer. None of the so-called “communist countries” had any semblance of communism. All had class systems with workers and managers, with wage systems, and where the workers neither owned nor controlled their work and its products. Thus, those countries resembled capitalism more closely than a society based on the abolition of remuneration in the form of wages and democratic control. [i]

Likewise most people identified with communism today, only believed in communism after their own disclaimers. Marx, Lenin, and most of their followers made a distinction between higher and lower stages of communism, where we would pass from lower to higher communism as the revolution unfolded, the proletarian state withered away, and so on. Many Marxists thought of this lower stage as socialism. For this reason whenever mainstream Marxist theory attempted to address the question of post-revolutionary society, the emphasis was placed on the lower phase of communism. The lower phase, following Marx’s conception of a transition period, would bear some of the marks of the capitalist society which gave birth to it, including compulsion to work via a collectivist wage system— sometimes of labor vouchers, or at other times different wage schemes. For this reason, much of the Marxist communist economic literature isn’t actually communist, but focused on collectivist economics. The higher stage of communism is left to be determined by the post-revolutionary working class, except for a few exploratory remarks in Marx’s corpus.

Libertarian communist economics, however, have a few defining features:

  1. A commitment to a future economy based on the praxis of the revolutionary working class and popular classes.
  2. An economy based on the destruction of the wage system of labor, and a de-linking of the value of labor in production from the distribution of society’s wealth to its members.
  3. Collective control and management of the entire economy by the direct control of workers and community members united in a council system of direct democracy.
  4. The abolition of intermediary institutions of power governing the economy.

Libertarian communist economics’ assets are also some of its weaknesses, at least in regards to what is sometimes called prescriptive economics. Prescriptive economics attempts to lay out a vision, in our case, of a post-capitalist economic system based on some core values. Praxis is the concept of linking ideas and vision with concrete practices and struggles. Historically, it was the anarchist communists who generally took up the problem of the possibility of classless society, and even then only tempered by the necessary recognition of the leadership and innovation of everyday people to solve the problem concretely. The lack of materials on prescriptive economics can be traced in part to the strong commitment in anarchist and libertarian communist thought to the concept of praxis. Continue reading

Acts of War: Why the greatest perpetrator of mass violence is the State itself

Victims of mass violence carried out by the US government

Victims of mass violence carried out by the US government

As a nurse, a human being, and an anarchist, I was horrified to see the trauma enacted on people in Boston.[1]  I was further saddened because I know that in our sick society tragedy breeds tragedy. Sadly, and predictably, the tragic Boston bombing has provided an opportunity for unprincipled people to go after opponents, to construct new political and cultural boogeymen, and for tabloid journalists to advance their careers. To be blunt, I am disgusted by Steven Kurlander’s recent piece written for the Huffington Post A Lesson of the Boston Bombings: Stop Classifying Criminal Anarchist Violence as Acts of War.[2] In times of turmoil there is a dangerous tendency for acts of violence to be used as tools to attack civil liberties, human rights, and the further conquest of power and wealth by elites. Kurlander’s article contributes to this environment by using the tragic Boston event to justify dominant power and possibly crackdowns against political dissidents. Continue reading

On Uneven Ground

bilde“We had a major success with staffing! The company agreed to staffing ratios”. Applause erupts, smiles from the tired faces wearing our glorified pajamas.

Her words swirled about in my brain. I saw images- the faces of patients-, hours of the day- lifting, bending, pressing syringes, rushing down halls-, and all the moments of crisis I’ve carried with me through the years. The weight of the hospital pulls on your soul.

The hall was set with folding tables and cheap plastic tablecloths decorated the sad displays of institutional food. Bizarre textured wallpaper seems wrapped around the whole room, blanketing the scene in dull flesh colors. The union meeting took place in one of the conference rooms of the hospital, the same place where we receive trainings about how to smile, how much money is being lost, and why our work is never enough.

Staffing is a word, but in hospitals it’s everything. It means how many patients a nurse takes care of. Bad staffing can produce situations of such intense work that you literally have no idea where you are, responding second-to-second without any view of what happened or what comes next. Staffing is why we cry in the break room for patients who died in shameful avoidable situations, when we grimace in pain in the bathrooms having suppressed our bodies to complete too many tasks, and when we feel the emptiness of futility to help human beings face-to-face with reasonable needs and nothing to be done. Senseless. Continue reading