Cindy Milstein On Mending The World As Jewish Anarchists
This week, we air a conversation between Scott and anarchist, author and organizer Cindy Milstein. The conversation is framed around the most recent compilation that Milstein has edited and contributed to, “There Is Nothing So Whole As A Broken Heart: Mending The World As Jewish Anarchists” (AK Press, 2021). During the conversation, they speak about walking through the world as queer, non-binary Jewish anarchists, Palestine and Israel, Milstein finding increasing healing and ritual among diasporic Jewish anarchist and other communities, antisemitism from the right and the left, argumentation and Cindy’s relationship with Murray Bookchin and more. [00:10:28 – 01:44:47]
And Sean Swain speaks about the recent meeting between Vlad Putin and Joe Biden [00:01:48 – 00:10:26]
BAD News #46
Just to briefly mention, the latest episode of BAD News: Angry Voices From Around The World for June 2021 from the A-Radio Network is now up and downloadable. Hear anarchist perspectives in English from Thessaloniki and Athens in Greece as well as Colombia and Ethiopia! Keep an eye out the middle of each month for the next episode!
Thanks for your support!
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Eric Laursen on Anarchist Conceptions of The State
One thing that sets anarchism aside from other radical, egalitarian critiques of Power developed in the modern West is the conception of the State as an enemy. But what is the State, how does it work, why and how do we as anti-authoritarians and anarchists oppose it? These questions and more are the focus of the recent book, The Operating System: An Anarchist Theory of the Modern State (AK Press, 2021). This week, we air Scott‘s conversation with Eric on the book, theorizing the State as computer operating system, the necessity of social revolution prior to a political revolution and other heady topics.
TFSR:So today I’m talking to Eric Laursen, who is the author of the new book The Operating System: An Anarchist Theory of the Modern State. And I want to welcome you to the Final Straw.
Eric Laursen: I go by he/him/his pronouns. I am, I guess, a longtime journalist-activist. And I’ve made a study of the state, partly as a result of not only my activism and my involvement in the anarchist movement but also just some of the work I’ve done as a journalist over the years on finance capital, corporate structure, aspects of the economy. So it all comes together in this book, which I call An Anarchist Theory of the Modern State. But I think of it also as an introduction to that. I want it to be a conversation starter for people, especially in the anarchist movement itself to think a little more systematically about what is this thing that we’re so opposed to? What is the state? We know what capital is, we think we know what the state is, but do we really, do we really understand the connection between the two as part of anarchist theory? And where does that get us? What I’m trying to do in the book is to throw out a new way of looking at the state or thinking about it, and then get more people involved in a discussion around that. It’s something that I think should appeal to non-anarchists as well, simply because, like most of us, people in the general public think of the state and they think, “Well, yeah, I understand what that is, that’s government or whatever.” But really, it’s more than that. And I think that anybody who wants to understand better what kind of a society we have needs to think about the subject very seriously.
TFSR: The book, I also think it comes at a really opportune time because we have this post-election where Biden’s coming in and it’s possible that people who are driven to organizing or movement work, because of Trump, might start pulling off from that when there’s apparent low of the really egregious harm that we can see so clearly with Trump’s administration. You say that, in more recent anarchist analysis, there’s been a loss of the focus on the state, in favor of analyzing power more generally, or in the forms of race, gender, and sexuality, but tracing anarchism back to its beginning, in the 19th century, it was distinguished by its anti-state stance. Why do you think it’s important to refocus an anti-state argument in our liberatory politics? And why is it not enough just to focus on capitalism? One more part of this question is how does the analysis of state help us understand better these other aspects of oppression like race, gender, sexuality, citizen status, etc.?
EL: Well, yeah, that’s a good question. I do want to say just at the outset that I’m not complaining about the direction that anarchist analysis and thought have taken over the last 30-40 years. I don’t think you can really have up-to-date anarchism unless you address all of the subjects that you just mentioned in a specific way. There has to be an anarchist angle on racism, class, obviously, on colonialism, imperialism, and so forth. All of those things. What I think is that the answer to your question is that the state is the organizing principle for these oppressions. You can look at it this way: Can you understand racism unless you understand how it helps promote and bolster the state? How can you understand sexism or gender inequality? Unless you look at them in the context of how do they serve the state? There’s a lot of analysis among Marxists about how capitalism benefits from these sorts of oppressions, but not a lot about how the state specifically does. And we have a tendency, the way we were brought up to think of the state as the solution to these problems, that through the courts, through the legal system, through legislation, and so forth, that those are ways to tackle gender inequality. What I’m suggesting is that ultimately, that is not the case, that the state has a stake in maintaining gender equality, maintaining racism, maintaining other forms of prejudice and inequality. And that we have to bring it back into those discussions before we can really deal with those problems.
TFSR: Right. So I guess before we go too far, if you can share what your definition of the state is. You said it is a sort of organizing principle, but is there more that you would like to expand on how we can understand what the is?
EL: Yeah, definitely. One of those rhetorical things I do in the book is I think of the state in two ways. There’s the state with a small ‘s’, which could be the United States, or Egypt, or Russia, or Mauritania, or any number of states that we have in the world. But then I also refer to the State with a capital ‘S’. And the state with a capital ‘S’ is a system that all of these individual states have adopted in one manner or another. The State, I argue, originated in Europe, and it’s been exported all over the world. It’s probably the most successful export of all time, on a certain level, at least in the intellectual sense.
So what does all that mean? State with a capital ‘S’ is what we’re really talking about in this book. And that is a system or a way of organizing reality, or the perception of reality. I compare it – and this is where the title of the book comes from – to a computer operating system, like iOS or Windows or something like that. And what that means is that the state is an attempt to create a framework with which we can organize reality and manage our lives within that reality. It struck me in researching computer operating systems that really, they attempt to be all-encompassing. Microsoft wants you to use Windows, so that everything you can do, more and more of what you do can be done within that operating system. You pay your bills, you get entertainment, you write, you create, you design art, you do all of these things. You manage your relationships with people in every part of your life.
And that there’s a continual effort to make these operating systems encompass more of what you do day to day. The state, the modern state, which is about 500 years old or a little bit more, is an attempt to do the same. It creates a framework that every aspect of our lives operates within. It’s how we govern ourselves, how we organize our economic life, the economic life of the country. It’s how we educate ourselves. It’s what creates everything from educational standards to weights and measures. The fact that we use inches rather than meters is something that the state came up with. It’s something that was decided upon by this institution. Capitalism is part of the state in the sense that capital is needed to promote economic growth, which is needed to help the state expand, strengthen itself, expand outward, expand deeper into the population. There are various aspects of this. But the basic statement I’m making is that the state is not just government, it’s an entire system that has been set up to essentially satisfy all our needs and it’s a framework in which all of our day-to-day planning takes place, all of our aspirations can be theoretically achieved within this framework of the state. It’s something that’s, I guess you would call it a totalizing thing. It’s continually to try to absorb more of the things we do that are new. Suddenly, we decide we need to travel internationally, which is something that people really for the most part didn’t do until a few hundred, couple hundred years ago. The state needs to regulate that. Everything we do, the state finds a way to fit into their framework, otherwise, it suppresses it. The question is, after 500 years, do we still want our lives to be regulated and directed in this way? That’s the challenge. But I hope that gives you some idea of the basic conception here.
TFSR: Yeah, the last thing you said reminded me of another point that you make is that the state intercedes, interjects itself in every relationship that we have, so that we have to go through the state to do anything, basically, more and more things. One line that you have in the book that really struck me is, and you talk about it in various ways, but I’m gonna quote you: “the state has trained us to think of it as a substitute, or perhaps, a shorthand for the collective, or the community.” And in a way, this calls to mind for me Debord’s The Society of the Spectacle, and also the totalizing aspect that you talk about reminds me a bit of different analyses of fascism and totalitarianism. But I wonder if you have any thoughts on the way that your operating system analogy helps us to think about that totalizing aspect that the replacement, the image, imitation of life, and maybe how technology fits in that? Because you’re specifically outlining or elaborating on the technological aspects of that.
EL: Yeah, I like the fact that you use the phrase “imitation of life.” What I meant by a substitute is that the state provides us with something that, without the state, we might think about providing for ourselves through small-scale organizing, direct democracy, communal cooperative forms of economic production, and so forth. The state is a substitute for that. You don’t have to do this, we will provide you with the superstructure you need to do these things, we’ll make it easy for you. There’s a sense in which the state is a product that’s been sold to us. Because, yes, we understand that as human beings, you need to cooperate and work together in order to produce food, to reproduce, to tame the environment, or get what you need out of the environment. But we’re going to provide a framework that makes it easy for you, you can do it all through us. It is an attempt to relieve us of taking responsibility for ourselves on a certain level. It’s the same as if you buy a house with an alarm system, rather than actually having to get to know your neighbors and forming a community with them, we will sell you an alarm system so that you can sit in your house and not have to worry or think about the other people out there. That underscores a little bit the connection between capitalism and the state, that capitalism is one of the tools that the state uses to fulfill these needs and to make itself into this substitute that you’re talking about.
TFSR: I really like the way that your book includes an analysis of capitalism, but as necessarily linked to the state. Because sometimes we might focus so much on capitalism as this worldwide system, that we don’t think about how it operates through the state. But one thing that really comes into relief in your analysis to me is the fact that both the state and capital get the benefit of the doubt, as being permanent, inevitable, perpetual. And I was wondering why you think that is. You have said a couple of times maybe that it proposes itself as the solution to our problems, even though, as you’re pointing out in this book, they’re both also the cause of our problems. So why is it so ingrained in our mind, and why do we accept it?
EL: This is where we get to the cultural part in a way. The state has been one of the things very adept at creating an emotional link between itself and the population, in other words, us. In the early days, in the 15th-16th century, Renaissance period, when modern states really first appeared in Europe, there was the monarch, there was the king, or the Emperor, or what have you, who had a personal connection. There was an attempt made to make people feel a personal connection with these sovereigns, that there’s a sort of a godlike quality to them. Really, what they were at that point was dictators or warlords, if you look more closely, but the attempt was to say, “Alright, let’s form a tight emotional bond between Elizabeth I of England or Louie XIV and the people.” So they felt like there was almost a family that you were part of with these people. The next thing you had was the nation-state or the national state, where the state was the embodiment of a larger community that you were part of. And so, there was the family of French people or English people, etc, that you belong to. So that’s another form of an emotional tie. Fascism, you could say, is sort of the end result of that. That’s the ultimate in the nation-state connection. Although it’s really built much more on pushing other people, excluding certain other groups, rather than including the group that you’re a part of.
Then you have what I guess is known as the social-democratic or welfare state, which is something that we had in the mid-20th century before neoliberalism came in, and the idea of that was that the state is something that can really substitute for socialism, or for anarchism, or these other revolutionary ideologies that grew up. Yes, we can have racial equality, we can have reform, we can have a social safety net, the state will provide it. You don’t have to think about it anymore. Or you can give us your suggestions, send your representatives to Congress. The emotional bond there is this sort of bond over welfare, over safety and the ability to feel secure in yourself. Nowadays, we have what I call the neoliberal state, which has abandoned a lot of that. The neoliberal state is all built on the idea that “we give you the opportunity.” We don’t give you welfare, but we give you an opportunity to do wonderful creative money-making things and that’s the key thing. So each stage along the development of the state over the last 500 years has been a different rationale and a different way of building a connection between people and the state that the state relies on to legitimize itself. So that’s the cultural aspect of the whole thing.
TFSR: Yeah, that analysis, in your book, I found really helpful because it points to the way that we exist now in the hangover of the post World War II era where there was this welfare state, and also the concessions that were made to various civil rights-oriented movements, and even among like anarchists and other anti-authoritarians, you can see people who have an anti-state analysis will still have this knee-jerk reaction that the state would provide us some solution or is there for us in some way.
EL:And that it will again again if we push it hard enough, and we try hard enough to reform it.
TFSR: Right, which in a way explains a lot of the repetition of protest movements, because we end up repeating these old forms that no longer really working. To bring that to the present moment, what was one another aspect of your book that’s so helpful is that you wrote this in the wake of the pandemic, and also the uprisings after George Floyd’s murder, and we’re talking today after another black man was murdered in outside of Minneapolis, while the police officer Derek Chauvin is being held on trial. So there’s still this rebellion going on. But you incorporate this analysis of the virus and the pandemic and the very literal, invisible state violence into your analysis of the state. So it’s very up-to-date. And as the pandemic started, I started having some hope that the contradictions would be so stark to everyone, that we’re expected to pay rent and bills and we have no health care and the horrors of this all would become clear to everyone, but in ways, I’m seeing that go away. And I wonder if you have any thoughts about what events in the crisis like a pandemic provide us an opportunity for resistance and how we can avoid it being co-opted?
EL: That’s a really challenging question. And I think that ultimately it’s something that has to happen independently of any particular choices. But you’re absolutely right that when something like the pandemic happens, it makes starkly clear how incapable the state is and the system we have are coping with this problem that at a certain level it created. It’s the same thing with the death of George Floyd, for example, or this most recent atrocity we had, that it makes starkly clear that this is a pattern, it’s not a freak event, this is something that somehow must be in the interest of the state to allow, that the system is not broken down here. This is how this is supposed to behave. So yeah, these crises do make a lot of things very crystal clear to us that worked before.
The problem is that the State does have ways to recoup when these things happen, the state can throw money at developing vaccines. It can prosecute someone like Derek Chauvin and use that as a demonstration that “yes, we can do the job that we’re supposed to do in terms of making sure that everybody is treated fairly and equally.” Those are not permanent solutions. They don’t address the fundamental issue. In the case of the pandemic, the problem is that globalization has created a situation in which and the advance of industrial societies into wilderness areas, wildlife areas has made it almost certain that we’re going to have more pandemics going forward. And yet the state has not developed the ability to cope with them. It treats them all as emergencies rather than improving public health systems and so forth that would help us to be prepared for this thing, it has not done that.
In terms of the issues that are raised by the movement for Black Lives, essentially, no real reform or real fundamental change is made in the system of policing. It stays in place, it is never really reformed except in cosmetic ways. And things just go on as before. What I argue in the book is that we have to think of revolution as a two-part process. And that contrary to the way we’ve tended to think of it in the past, the social revolution has to come first. We have to start thinking about organizing in and beyond and outside of the state so that we have some conception of what we would put in its place, rather than simply… If a revolution happens tomorrow, and the United States government is swept away, we can put something in its place that’s better, that we’ve already conceived and we’ve already begun to implement, rather than essentially having to rebuild the state in an emergency, which is what has tended to happen with revolutions in the last 200-odd years. So that’s a big order. But I think that we have an opportunity in a weird way because the state has withdrawn from certain parts of our lives.
Under neoliberalism, the state has decided that the social safety net is not something that needs to provide or something it can provide only in a very limited way. That gives us some space to recreate something like that along more cooperative or collective lines. We can start to create a more humane community ourselves outside of the state because the state isn’t competing with us so much in that area. The interesting thing about the Biden administration, for example, is that there’s some understanding of this and some understanding that they have to do something to make it look to us as though the state is actually able to be effective in our lives and helping to improve our lives. It’s not going to last, it’s not going to work. The opposition to it is huge, and it’s not going to go far enough. What we’re going to find at the end of the day is that we do have to start implementing something new ourselves. This is something that goes back to the early, classical thinkers of anarchism, Bakunin and Kropotkin talked a lot about this, they didn’t use the word “prefiguration”, but the need to start the revolution now among ourselves, so that we have something to put in place this genuinely different. So that’s the challenge that I see.
TFSR: You talk about how the revolutions that some leftists will hold up as successful always end up reproducing the state in various ways. Because, I guess you’re arguing, that because that social revolution hasn’t happened, or the ingrained Statist thinking doesn’t get critiqued enough to say that we can’t actually use the state to achieve freedom. And something I really appreciate your book is that you use the State to talk about… you don’t make these distinctions among the states, because essentially, this larger system of States functions in a similar way, even if various tweaks happen from one state to the next. And they rely on the system to stay together. I wonder if you have any more thoughts on that failure of revolution, or the way that State thinking gets replicated? Or leftists get caught in the feedback loop of Statism?
EL: Yeah, it’s really powerful when you take a close look at it, because if you look at the Russian Revolution, the big one of the last 100 odd years, the first thing the new Soviet state started to do after it came into power was to essentially reassemble the Russian Empire that had disintegrated just before the October Revolution happened. The process of suppressing ethnic minorities or Russifying them continued, geographic areas that had succeeded were pulled back in, an immense military establishment was built up once again, an immense prison establishment was built up once again. Really, the pattern was put right back in place that had existed before the Soviet Union, maybe it was a little more efficient this time, but essentially, the ambition of that state was the same.
You can look at it similarly, if you look at sort of post-colonial states. You can look at India, which is a country that never existed really in that form until the British imperialists put it together. They created literally an Indian Empire. When Britain pulled out, it essentially turned that whole structure lock, stock, and barrel over to the indigenous people. And specifically to people who were English-trained, who were trained to think about the state as something fundamental, to think of economic development as something that powers the state. And who essentially ran that Empire along, in a lot of ways, remarkably similar lines. This is why I say that the state has been something that’s a European export because it’s essentially sold to at least a small stratum of people in each of the places that it comes in contact with. And they’d set up something that’s ultimately along the same lines, where there are territorial boundaries, there are certain kinds of institutions that are common, there’s a nationalist thinking in each of these places. And that’s essentially what we get. It doesn’t always work. We have failed states all over the place. But that’s the aspiration. And the remarkable thing, of course, is that if you look back even 100 years ago, there were vast parts of the world that had no state, where the State really only existed in name. Today, it’s very, very different. Almost everything is encompassed by the State now, and the parts of the world that that still resist or lie outside of it, such as, for example, people in Amazonia, there’s tremendous pressure upon them as well. So, the reality is that the State has almost become supercharged in the last 100 years. And anything that’s resisted it or stood in this way is being undermined increasingly rapidly and quite violently, in a lot of cases.
TFSR: Thinking about the way that the state has come to settle itself all over the globe is helpful too to think about it as that colonial export, especially since Settler State comes into more focus in a lot of critiques now within indigenous-led movements. But I wonder if also there’s a way that the State is used to try and consolidate power after a revolution. But there’s this other problem. And maybe this pertains to the system of states that you’re talking about, where if there was a revolutionary movement or freedom movement that was isolated, how does it exist as a non-State structure, while the system of states at large exists and would continuously exert that pressure for it to conform in some way? Do you have any thoughts on that?
EL: Yeah, that’s a problem. The answer to that, ultimately, is resistance. And in the book, I talked a little bit about the idea of insurgency, rather than revolution. And this has been an interesting topic lately, amongst other writers as well, is that insurgency is something long-term. It involves creating a prefigurative or an alternative community within the present State while we are resisting it. Insurgency is something that could include anything from the Zapatista movement in Mexico to the Landless Movement in Brazil, even in some respects to the agriculturalFarmers’ Movement in India, where people are forced to organize outside of the State because there’s literally no way that the State can address their demands, however reasonable those demands are. And so you start to develop something that is outside the state, and that can eventually create institutions that can replace it.
Now, I don’t say this in the book, but I’ve thought this for a long time, is that ultimately, if the State is going to be brought down, most likely the process is going to start in the developing world, where state structures and power are more tenuous. They’re not exercised as uniformly literally in the geographic space. And where there’s room for people to develop alternative institutions. Most likely what we’re going to see is developments like this growing and really metastasizing in the developing world, and then perhaps extending to places like the United States, Western Europe, and so forth. Because I think also there are, in those places, more of the remnants of traditional ways of life that alternative structures can be built around, and this is something that goes back to the beginnings of anarchist thinking. In the 19th century, Russian anarchists looked to traditional peasant communities, as offering models to develop some an alternative system around, rather than this European state that’s been grafted on to the place. And I think that that’s going to continue to be something that we see.
Just getting back to the point we were talking about a second ago, one of the things that the Soviet Union did once it got into power was it essentially completed the job of destroying those traditional communities in Russia, which has begun under the Czarist regime. The Soviet Union essentially completed that task. So that’s the thing we see in empires or restored empires, even when they have leftist governments. I think that the answer is to start at home and to start locally, and to consciously, really consciously create structures where the intention is not to let them be co-opted by the State.
TFSR: You make the argument in the book that all the so-called good things that the state has provided, particularly in the last 100 or 150 years, maybe extending to that long have been co-opted: from community-based solutions and versions of mutual aid. Do you want to elaborate on the history of how those things have come to be seen as state-based programs that really came from communities?
EL: Sure. The example I use a lot because I wrote a book about the subject is social security. The social security and medicare systems in this country are something that really was born out of cooperatives from mutual aid associations that workers formed in the 19th century. You have people pouring into large industrial cities from the countryside, there was no social safety net, there was a need for people to provide these things for themselves. And so they did. Welfare systems or social insurance systems like Social Security and Medicare, in this country, were created as a way to nationalize that. In the early 20th century in the United States, when universal health care systems were starting to be discussed, there were people in the American labor movement, who literally said, “We don’t want to do this, we don’t want to back this because we feel that the state is going to at some point snatch back, it’s not going to be forever. They say it will be but it’s not, we have to organize this ourselves.” And that thinking died out.
But I think that these days, there’s a real need to revisit it and to look at institutions like Social Security, for example, or unemployment insurance, or these social safety net systems, and think about whether this is something we can essentially denationalized and turn into something that’s run on a cooperative basis. Because, again, what we have seen is the state makes a commitment to these kinds of programs over the last 100 years, let’s say, and then withdraw out of that commitment, they said, “Well, maybe this was a bad idea, maybe we need a lot less of this.” Well, no, we don’t need a lot less of this, but the state thinks we do. There’s a need to revisit that element of the social contract that the state imposed on us.
TFSR: To pivot our discussion more to revolutionary aspects. One thing you say is the state exists because we choose to let it, and that feels really empowering to think about as a way to, not choose to let it. But to me, it also calls to mind some of that social contract idea that keeps us within the circle of the state that we’re all here by some form of consent. Right? So I was wondering, what are your thoughts on and how do we choose not to let the state exist? What does that look like?
EL: I can give you a little bit of a visual. It looks a bit like the Capitol Hill occupation that happened in Seattle a few months ago. It looks like people rejecting the police, rejecting the presence of the police in their communities. It looks like people essentially forming in small clusters to self-govern themselves and then reaching out to other groups that are doing something similar. It can seem very small scale, it can seem minuscule compared to the power of the state itself. That’s the challenge. But I think that the answer to that is what used to be known as internationalism. In other words, smaller communities, right from the get-go need to link up and network with smaller communities in other places that are doing something different. We need to have a network that is as widespread and as diverse as the community that the state itself governs. We have to create a new, larger federal structure that is consensual, cooperative. We need to figure out how to do this.
An interesting model, actually, if you want to think about it, is, although there are problems with this model on a certain level, the committees of correspondence that existed in the colonies before the American Revolution, which is essentially people who were interested in independence, interested in freedom, who essentially formed a letter-writing collective among themselves. There wasn’t a lot of transportation or travel between the states or the colonies at that point. So you use the mail to essentially create a community that wasn’t there before. It’s a prefiguration of the internet and of social media, and what can be done with that. But the point is to find commonalities with people in other places and to share tools and methods of organizing that can work in more than one place. So there’s essentially getting creative thinking about how to organize going completely outside the state, but also outside of state boundaries, outside of specific state boundaries.
TFSR: That seems important. One of the things we’re talking about here, and you talked about in the book, too, is the State’s so good at scaling up, and I hear this often within anarchist organizing groups, that’s a problem that we have. We have our mutual aid network with our town, and maybe some neighboring towns, but how do we scale that to the region? Scaling, in a way, sounds like it could end up reproducing that state form. How do we think about doing that across the state lines and not within a state idea of bigness and totality?
EL: Well, the first thing is to keep in mind people’s specificity. Not everybody’s struggle is exactly the same everywhere. And so to be sensitive to that, I should back up a second. You said the magic word, which is “scale”. That’s the ultimate argument for the state: we have the resources, we have the reach, we have the depth, we have the technology and the expertise to do beneficial things on a large scale, you don’t. Okay, so that’s the primary argument for the State’s existence today. What we need to do is rather than thinking about scaling, to begin with, we need to think about addressing local needs and local desires. The federative part comes later. And if you structure an organization that’s built around fulfilling the needs of people in a local community, and doing it in a directly democratic way, there’s less likelihood of putting together a federated structure on top of that, that subordinates everybody to some big idea. That’s ultimately what you don’t want to do. But it has to originate at that local level. And they have to be focused that way.
You’re going to be a little surprised to hear this, but I would direct people to look at some of the things that Ho Chi Minh wrote during the Vietnam War, in terms of when he was talking about what’s needed to win this war. He stressed over and over again, there’s a need to go to the people and find out what they want. Don’t tell them what they want, but to find out what they want, and to give them the power to get those things for themselves. That was a big part of why the National Liberation Front was accepted in so many parts of the country because there was this constant emphasis on putting the question back to the people themselves and helping them to organize. And maybe it was a little bit phony, maybe people were induced to think this. The North Vietnamese system was fairly monolithic. But I think that he was right in terms of what the emphasis has to be for any liberatory movement. It’s got to constantly go back to that local level.
TFSR: Yeah, that makes a lot of sense. And yet, in your book, you also keep an eye on the fact that there are these huge problems that affect everyone, like the climate catastrophe that is happening and worsening constantly, it is inescapable for everyone to some extent, and then you also talk a lot about the forced migration and displacement of people that are being caused by climate, by state violence, by economic and trade agreements. I want to get to the strategy that you articulate at the very end of the book. You talk about making a reasonable demand that is impossible for the state to fulfill. Can you explain that strategy and how that relates to these very big problems that we’re facing?
EL: Yeah, with climate change, it’s easy, in a way. There’s nothing easy about climate change, but it’s easy to address that point with it, in that if you look at the measures that are contemplated through the Paris Accords to deal with climate change, they are inadequate. A reasonable request of the state in a time of climate change is to do what needs to be done so that we don’t all die, so that the planet doesn’t become uninhabitable for us. Nothing that has been proposed, including the proposal the Biden administration has made over the last few weeks or started to formulate, will do it. Well, it is a reasonable request that we be able to continue to live a healthy life on this planet, the state system has proved pathetically unable to meet that. It’s for a very simple reason, which is that the State is built on this model of rapid economic growth at all times, it cannot reconcile itself to a world in which that is directly antithetical to survival, it can’t do it. And so, essentially, we asked theSstate to address this problem of climate change in a realistic way. It falls back on things like carbon trading, or efforts to sort of shoehorn this back into the private enterprise system in some way or other, clunky innovations, desalinization and removal of carbon from the air and so forth. Innovation is going to solve the whole thing. Don’t worry about the inequality part. Once we start to ask for reasonable things, that the state can’t deliver, we start to expose the workings of the State, its MO, the way it operates, and how the way it’s operates is antithetical to the lives that we want to have. So it’s a matter of exposing what’s hidden there, essentially.
TFSR: Going back to a discussion of the pandemic and the response to demanding an end to state violence is more state violence. Those moments heighten the hypocrisy of us relying on the state to solve these problems.
EL: …more of the same and getting the same results. Sorry.
TFSR: Right, exactly. I was interested in your use of the term of making a reasonable demand that’s impossible for the state to fulfill. I see people and using the impossibility theoretically within anarchist or anarchist-influenced or adjacent ideas, and I wonder what your thoughts are on that category of impossibility as part of our thinking through, shaking off the State, as you said?
EL: Right, that’s where we have to have a dialogue with other people on the Left, essentially, we agree about the demands with other people on the Left, who are not necessarily identifying as anarchists, also want a healthy planet, they want an end to racial injustice, and so forth. But they think that it can be done through the State. And what we need to get across is that that’s not possible anymore, that these are problems that cannot be met by the State because of the State’s own interests clash with any attempt to really address these problems seriously. That’s where that discussion has to go. I hope that people will go on upon reading this book.
TFSR: Putting all this critique of the State into an accessible and easily digestible form… These are things that I’m aware of, and yet putting them all at once and seeing how glaring the failures of the State are, when listed off in this way and analyzed in this way…. I don’t know, I think it really makes it even more imperative. And then, as you emphasize, the anarchist aspect of it, anarchism always gets dismissed by even Leftists as impossible. When you put the word impossible on the state as the solution, we see that anarchism doesn’t look so impossible anymore, because it’s actually perhaps one of the few hopes that we have to actually get at something like surviving.
EL: Yeah, in a way it’s the attempt to continue to use the state to achieve something that it’s not interested in achieving. That is unrealistic, that is impossible. And we can continue to beat our heads against that wall, or we can try something else. I’m really sensitive to the fact that in this book, in terms of dealing with the problems that the state creates, I don’t suggest any magic bullets or any quick fixes, or here’s how we organize… here’s the step by step, this is how we organize in order to overthrow this thing and to do what we need to do. These are not easy things. There are no easy solutions. But the beginning of it continues to be organizing locally, understanding our needs as a community, being our communities, and working from there, that’s a step that we can’t skip. There’s no way to finesse that.
TFSR: It might be suspicious even to have a clear blueprint, but one of the things that I see your book really insisting that we do as anarchists and people who are getting opened up to these ways of thinking is to see to what extent we still contain these vestiges of the state in our attempts to solve the problems of the state, or we get caught up in the traps the state sets for us as a means of redress or something. Your analysis helps us keep trying to de-link from the state in various ways.
EL: Right. That’s what we need to push for constantly, is that capitalism, the state are enormously adept at co-opting. That’s what they do. That’s one of the ways they evolve is by co-opting things that are done on a community level by individuals outside of the system. It is honestly hard to avoid. But, as I say, in terms of the social safety net, is that it is possible to find gaps, to find places where there’s a vacuum, places that the state has not entered into yet, or the state has withdrawn from, in fact, because it doesn’t think it needs to address these things anymore. Like having a social safety net. That’s been the hallmark of this sort of the neoliberal era is just eroding the social safety net. And like I say, that gives us some opportunities to fill those gaps with something different. We still have to guard against being co-opted, because the State might come running back in and say, “Hey, looks like we better do something about this.” But we can at least be sensitive, and we can be aware and we can keep pushing into those areas.
TFSR: Another tactical question for me is do you see a flaw in the totalizing desires of the state? And furthermore, where would you locate right now the biggest threat to the state on the side of freedom, not on the side of further fascism or something like that?
EL: When you say flaw, you mean something that is a weakness in the State, a chink in its armor?
TFSR: Yeah, exactly.
EL: Okay, something that makes it vulnerable?
Well, a lot of it is actually very physical right now, and I’m talking from a high level here, the way relentless economic development has destroyed parts of the world itself. You have places like the Sahel in Africa that are basically being desertified, that used to be farming areas, you have the Amazon that’s being destroyed. Global warming is one piece of this, but you have devastation of the physical landscape going on all over the world in one way or another. And ultimately, that’s going to make it less likely for the state to be able to continue its path of all-devouring economic development. I bring this up a little bit in the book and the more fanciful thinking that people in the economic and political elite have about spaceships and space stations and colonizing other planets.
You see the talk about that among people like Richard Branson or Jeff Bezos, you can see that talk multiplying as it becomes clear that we’ve already devastated huge parts of this world. Well, let’s just go somewhere else and do the same song and dance there. The problem is that leaves the vast majority of us stuck with a basically alluded world. And so that’s the thing that I think is going to create a crisis. Again, global warming is part of that, but there are multiple facets to it, that we can take advantage of, where we can point out, this is what essentially the plan that these people have for us is, we have to do something about it. So we need to point out where they’re essentially creating a world we don’t want to live in, they don’t want to live in.
TFSR: Yeah, because they’re preparing the rockets. We’ve been talking for a while, and maybe I’ll ask a question about anarchism. Anarchism, specifically, was developed in a particular context, historical context and geographical context in Europe as a response to a specific stage of state development and capital development. It also calls to these stateless societies that have existed and do exist and existed before the state and capitalism. I wonder how you feel anarchism, given that historical origin, serves us today in this context, and why it still is so helpful for thinking about the path towards liberation?
EL: In two ways, anarchism is more relevant today, or more clearly relevant today. Number one, I hope my book is reflecting a certain amount of thinking on the part of other people who already said it, is that we’re not dealing with a situation where all we have to do is end Capitalism or tame Capitalism in order to get out from the dilemmas that we face now. It’s a more complicated project than just using the State to tame this thing. That doesn’t work. And I think this is becoming more obvious to us over the last few decades.
The second thing is that anarchism doesn’t just look forward, it encourages us to look backward and to look around us for other systems, or elements of other systems that might work. So, anarchism is an invitation to think creatively about how we organize society. There’s nothing determinist about it the way there is a lot of times about Marxism, like we must go through this stage of historical development before we can do this. No, we can look at the way people are organizing things in indigenous communities, we can look at the way people were organizing things in fourteenth-century Europe, we all have these things, our ideas and tools and notions that we can put to use. So that’s the exciting part of anarchism is that it tells us that we’re not bound by some historically determinist process. We can change the process. These tools are here, if we want to use them, we don’t have to go through a hundred more years of capitalism in order to think we’re ready for it. So there’s an exciting creative element to this. That’s not something I talk about a lot in my book, because I’m talking about some fairly depressing things in my book, but that’s the part that has a lot of promise, where there’s something really optimistic we can grab onto.
TFSR: Yeah, that’s like a really helpful way of putting it because something that struck me in reading your book and other things I’ve been thinking about is that we get caught in the status way of thinking, even when from this a lot of leftist traditions, by agreeing to the inevitability of the state and inevitability of capital. And anarchism allows for a way of viewing history as more contingent, unless evenly developed on this road of progress or whatever, that allows for the creativity that you speak of. I could ask you so many different questions. And a lot of things came up in my mind that I hadn’t even prepared for while we were talking, but to wind it down, are there any like things that you want to bring to our listeners’ attention that we didn’t cover, or that you’d like to expand on as a way to close it out?
EL: Yeah, I’d like to suggest something actually. We touched on this a little bit earlier. There’s an anxiety people have when they think about life without the State. Well, there are so many things that we have acquired that we like in the last 500 years. We have fine art, we have computers, we have music, we have access to all kinds of culture that we didn’t use to have, people have much more of an opportunity to rise out of their social class, all these various things, and there’s an automatic fear that if we didn’t have the state, we wouldn’t have a framework where we could get all these things. And what I want to suggest is that that’s something we have to get over. It’s not true.
The example I like to give is, if we hadn’t had the state for the last 500 years, we would probably have computers now, we would have software systems, they’d be different. They’d maybe be less hierarchical, they’d be organized differently, but we would have got there. Would we have not had an Einstein, if there hadn’t been institutions of higher education to nurture people like that? Well, we probably would. They’d just be less hierarchical, and they wouldn’t be designed to reproduce an elite the way they are now. So the framework the state creates, it creates the mentality, a lack of confidence in the world outside of that framework. And that’s something we have to try very consciously to overcome. It’s not just that there won’t be chaos, it is that we can have all the same things that we really, really value now, that we value for good reasons, for honest reasons. And we don’t need this framework in order to get them. I think that’s an important lesson for people. And it’s something that is very hard for people to get over this sort of fear factor, or this feeling that we have to stay in the sort of womb of the state or else we’re going to lose everything. That’s the ultimate big scare we have to get over.
TFSR: Yeah, that seems like the other side of that contingency or that it’s not inevitable that the things that we have, the so-called fruits of the state could have come in other forms, and aren’t worth the pain and violence that we have to experience to have them. That’s a really helpful and important point. Well, thank you so much for talking to me, explaining some of the ideas, and refocusing our analysis on the state. I’m really excited about this book and I loved our conversation. So thank you for your time.
EL: I got to say your questions were great. And you pressed me on some points that are really good to press me on. So I appreciate that actually. Because, as I say, I want the book to start a conversation, not to end it.
TFSR: Exactly. I think it will, it’s making a really important contribution, and I hope it will help inject this focus on the state into the regional mutual aid networks and projects that are going on right now in such a dire time.
This week, we present a conversation with Shane Burley, author of the new AK Press book, “Why We Fight: Essays on Fascism, Resistance, and Surviving the Apocalypse”. For the hour, we speak about the contents of the book, anti-fascism, toxic masculinity, pushing racists and fascists out of cultural space, antisemitism (including in the left), conspiricism, right wing publishing and other topics.
TFSR:So, I’m happy to be joined by Shane Burley. Shane recently published Why We Fight: Essays on Fascism, Resistance and Surviving the Apocalypse through AK Press. We spoke with Shane in 2018 about Shane’s previous book Fascism Today: What It Is and How to End It. Thank you so much for taking the time to chat, Shane, and for this enjoyable and insightful book. Would you care to introduce yourself further for the audience with any preferred gender pronouns or anything else you want to say?
Shane Burley: Yeah, thanks for having me on, I love the show, I’m happy to be back. I use he/him or they/them pronouns. The new book is a collection of essays, some published before, some were not published before. I write for a number of places, NBC News, Daily Beast, Al Jazeera, Protean magazine. My last book was Fascism Today: What It Is and How to End It from AK Press, and I think, that’s the last time I was on the show, I was talking about that book.
TFSR:I really enjoy that chat and I’m looking forward to this. Can you talk a bit about your focus on the apocalypse in the book? I really enjoyed explorations of End-Time concepts in the introduction and counter-posing a revolutionary hunger for a new beginning versus a reactionary draw for regression back to the purity of oblivion on the Right.
SB: Yeah, it would be dishonest to not discuss this cultural pessimism that we are living in, it’s not even just in the place of the culture, it’s a real depression that we are living in. Socially watching as a collapse basically takes place on a number of different levels: ecologically, economically, socially. As we live through really profound emotional crises, the murdering of BIPOC communities by police, the constant mass shootings… We’re talking now, after a week of basically almost daily mass shootings. We are seeing really massive ecological devastation, one that feels like it’s triggering an accelerated collapse, and it’s really hard to then think about what it means to confront power or improve the world or even great revolution when we’re living in such a state of uncertainty and a real cynicism about the world. So when I look back at the work I’ve done over the Trump years, that was the primary feeling I started to get and also about what it means to live through the apocalypse. So I talk in the book quite a bit about mutual aid work and how people have survived, and how expectations and structures and communities have really changed over time. When we were doing mutual aid work during the pandemic, what stuck out to me a lot more is that people were in need of the mutual aid work more, but also the mutual aid work was better. We had reached a certain capacity on it. Years back, I used to do food not bombs and all kinds of mutual aid work and I felt like in a way it was performative. A soup kitchen down the road did much better than we did. State services were much more effective than we were. We were there for ideological reasons, but people were there to provide services, probably better than we had. That changed, and I think, because of that, that’s opened up a space, a very real space in this crisis – for us. For us to be us, and for us to offer another vision.
So I look in a lot of ways at traditions of the apocalypse that have maybe a different spin on the depressions. I talk about Jewish Messianism a little bit, particularly work ofGershom Scholem and others, with the idea that when we’re talking about the end of the world, the crisis that we’re living through, of collapse, of mass shootings, of the world, that’s actually the day to day realities of capitalism and the state. We can expect that this is basically an accelerated version of the world we live in. It doesn’t end anything. The only way we end it is we change the rules. If the world is actually fundamentally different, then it could actually set the end, and so I pull on this work by Walter Benjamin and others, I’m thinking about what the Messiah means as a concept. And really what the messiah means is that the Messiah brings the end, not the end brings the Messiah, it’s the other way around. And when we think about this in a broader social way, if we’re thinking about this Messianic Age is one that we all participate in the different ways, we pull the pieces together, that it’s actually us that ends the world by building a new one, not just reacting to the crisis as other people have.
And that reminds me in a lot of ways that fascists often present themselves as revolutionaries, but they are a continuation of the same. Being a radical anti-Semite or a radical misogynist is not revolutionary. That’s just a very loud version of the world we live in. What’s truly revolutionary, is to build the world a mutual aid, kindness, and solidarity, that’s a truly radical vision and that’s what actually ends things. So I think when we are going forward, we have to live in the reality of the world that exists now with very serious problems that aren’t necessarily just getting better. We have to start thinking about what it looks like on the other side, and I think that vision of the apocalypse, so to speak, of this profound end and change, is one that we should start to live in, one where we can think about how we’re going to build something new as a form of resistance.
TFSR: Have you read Desert?
SB: I have read Desert, many years ago.
TFSR: It sometimes gets talked about in these terms and for listeners that haven’t, it’s an eco-anarchist text that was published in the early 2000s that talks about what happens if ecological collapse as a process is going on, and how do we take agency during it and make the best out of it possible without… Some people read it as a pessimistic approach to the problem of anthropogenic climate change, but I always took it as this practical approach that. Like “Alright, the government, the militaries are considering this to be a way that the world is going to be shaped differently as we move forward and continuing to shape itself differently. How do we adjust to this? How do we adapt and had we make the most out of it?” So I think, a radical ecological justice-centered approach towards doing a similar thing in recognizing that their power struggles are ongoing seems like an attempt to turn the apocalypse into something else. I don’t know. Maybe gives up too much agency, and I doubt that the authors are wishing for a WaterWorld scenario, but…
SB: Yeah, there is a nihilistic version of that vision of collapse, and it’s actually not just a radical version. We have this all over the place. There’s a giving up or trying to live in the moment, purely in the moment as a way of accepting the reality of climate change, but I think the actual reality is not that someday it will explode in some spectacular moment of excess, but that things just get worse over times and then profoundly change. And I think we’ll be confronted with what does it mean then to build a society. And I think the structures of the past, the states, and economic systems, they will survive to a point through this crisis. But we will have to decide whether or not we’re going to challenge them through that and build something that actually creates a new vision. I think we should obviously deliberately do everything we can to push back an ecological crisis. I don’t want to get anyone an “out” there to say like it doesn’t matter, but we do need to think more about what does it mean to build a world, not just stop that, but in the midst of that, I think by doing that, we’re going to find a much more cogentanswer, find a more important answer for how we live our lives, for what effective resistance looks like, but I think we’re also gonna find an answer to the problem itself. We’re gonna find an answer to the ecological crisis by building a world amidst the reality of it and thinking about was the new rules. I saw this meme a year ago, it said “I’ve been trained to survive in a world that no longer exists”. I think we need to start thinking about what world does exist and training each other to survive and flourish by those new rules.
TFSR: Yeah. Your intro also points to the possible limitations of a negative version in movements of opposition, such as like shallow anti-fascism. You mentioned mutual aid as a thing that people have been engaging in and that’s been engaging them more. I want it just like tap up a thing that I heard recently and would love to hear your ideas of it. But in a recent episode of Black Autonomy Federations’ podcast, Lorenzo Kom’boa Ervin talks about white anti-fascism as a shallow response that only wants to fight Nazis in the streets without recognizing and actually struggling against the structural fascism faced byBIPOCcommunities from the start of the American project. What do you see in the anti-fascist movement and vision that gives you hope, and how do you see the building of positive, wider approaches that actually aren’t just oppositional?
SB: I think that critique is really important. Black anti-fascism, in general, has been entirely erased from history. It’s almost as part of a different tradition, a part of this Black radical tradition, that’s not the same as anti-fascism, which I think has a certain narrative to it that anti-fascism is a white radical project or something. And that erases the NAACP NRA chapters that were fighting the Klan, Black Panthers, which was basically an antifascist platform. There are dozens of organizations that go over the history, frankly, a lot earlier than any white anti-fascist organizations which in the US didn’t really come onto people’s radars until the 80s. There are a number of things there. So, on the one hand, it’s a debate over what constitutes fascism. Is the state and police fascism, or only these insurgent white forces? I think that it might actually not matter as much. Both things are important and obviously, intervene into successful life or any equitable just society. I think what people often are focusing on it’s very easy and non-complicated to fight neo-Nazis, that’s not emotionally or morally conflicted in a lot of ways and it’s actually one that can uniteton of people. But when we’re talking about real systemic white supremacy and anti-Blackness, specifically, it becomes really complicated for people and they don’t always jump in with the same ease of commitments. And those movements require a lot more long-term work, we’re talking about really high stakes and talking ones that don’t have easy answers. And so I actually think it sometimes even the push-back from the view of it as anti-fascism is to think about, looking at a situation of what is important here.
So this is April 2021. We have just seen a slew of murders of Black folks by the police. Now when we are looking at the issue, is the top priority the white nationalist organizations, or is it a top priority fighting expansive, violent policing. Well, I think both are and we get to see them actually working together, to have them actually intersecting in really profound ways. We can’t start to see those things as fundamentally separate, and so I would less push back on anti-fascist groups that focus on white nationalists. It’s good to have a focus and be skilled at one thing so that you can do that one thing really well. But I think it’s important for all of us to see how do we work those things together? How do we build coalitions? How do we see larger projects, how are those things able to support one another? And that gets to mutual aid because mutual aid is what is required to have what we used tocall social reproduction, for movements to reproduce themselves and exist. We now live in a place where the existing structures of the system no longer can even take care of basic needs in the best-case scenario. So this is whatPanthers used to call Survival Pending Revolution programs. It’s what we actually need to survive. And I think what we’re seeing now and what we saw over 2020 particularly, is that any of the mass movements that were rising up to confront the police, one, needed antifascists, because the police were coming with their allies in white nationalist white militias, and (two) they needed mutual aid to just help build the infrastructure, to get people to events, to get people fed at events, to get medical care – all those things that now are required. What we’re seeing now is none of those things can exist independent of one another. If we want to have avibrantantifascists that pushes back on white nationals, then you have to have a mutual aid structure there to support it. You’re gonna have to have a mutual aid structure to support, if they’re gonna be really mass movements against the police, that has to have their structural base. So now we have to start thinking about what does it mean to build the infrastructure between movements with collaboration and solidarity, and then, more importantly, how does that become permanent? How do we grow and not mean it’s just here for this event, but now we are gonna rely on these structures permanently and they’re gonna grow into a a permanent, existing movement that’s always there. Those are the questions I think we enter into as the world is changing and as we enter a place of permanent struggle.
I was just talking with some reporters about the recent slew of protests around the country this past week, and I was saying, I think the people on the ground no longer have to turn to just one incident. We’re living in a case where there’s constant repression by the police and – communities of color and all around the country – and because of that, we also now have a state of permanent revolutionary action. People are engaging in permanent organizing. This March is all the time, constantly. The generations have changed, people’s realities are changing and now there’s a place of permanent struggle, and because of that, we need the place of permanent collaboration, solidarity, coalitions, and infrastructure.
TFSR:I think it’s pretty fair to say, and from this perspective that an antifascist perspective takes into account the structural dynamics that have been normalized in our society. Obviously, you can say a name like Rodney King, and that sparks a lot of attention for people. There were – besides the individual makeup of that person, his life – there were thousands of Rodney Kings going on simultaneously in the early 90s, in 1992, at the same time, but the wider public’s attention was not captured by the constants of the brutality against Black, Brown and Indigenous populations against poor people more generally, but especially against racialized people. And in my life of around forty years now, I’ve seen an increase of, you know, it’s not just a rebellion every few years. It’s happening as you say, it’s like this perpetuation, this constant thing. Do you think it’s just the technology that’s led to this discussion, the cameras everywhere on people’s phones or the social media activity and people relating to each other outside of the mainstream press or some wider shift in our culture that recognizes the constants of brutality and hears the voices of people that are brutalized?
SB: I think it’s a number of things. I think you are right, technology has a big thing to do, it makes us ever-present. I sympathize with people that are critical of technology, but the reality is that there’s a dialectic to it, that it actually helped, for example, create the visibility around police murders. It helped to create organizing visibility and things like that. It also helps to create repression. Cameras in everyone’s pocket also helps police nab protesters, but it has definitely accelerated that presence. The sense that we’re existing with lots of people all the time… So I checked my Twitter and I can see what’s going on in a lot of people’s lives all the time, and they’re with me all the time. I think that creates that sense of presence and particularly in people’s struggles. So that’s one thing.
We’re seeing certain types of crisis accelerate, environmental and economic ones in particular. So I was born in the 80s and lived through the 90s. There was a lot of sense of perpetual growth when I was growing up, that it just wasn’t going to be a big economic crisis for at least middle-class white communities, but that was a little more of a point of stasis. Well, that has really broken down, that “end of history” mentality has broken down really effectively and also with the increase of just nationalist movements all around the world. I think that we will eventually return to a place of really aggressive, combative struggle. Those things happening in concert with one another creates a bit of that. I think there’s also been generational shifts that happen because of organizing. We actually see the results of a change in consciousness that is a result of real material organizing, the material conditions have affected people’s ideation, the way that, for example, Gen Z thinks about struggle, is a little bit more present than my generation was when I was their age, or, probably the generations before. So there’s been a bit of a move there. I’m not a person who just believes in purely material conditions. I don’t think that when the time is right, the working class just rises up and that happens. I think it actually requires agency for people, but I do think those conditions have dramatically changed. And because of that I actually think people have lived with the notion of organizing a little more frequently, it comes naturally to people a bit more because infrastructure has existed for a while, at least as we transmit histories and things like that. So I think a lot of that’s there. Now that doesn’t mean it’s going to be successful. It means that there’s energy there. It can a lot of directions, so it requires us to intervene, actually channel those things in particular directions, but I do think in a lot of ways, the conditions had just become more dramatic. People’s reactions are more dramatic, the material deprivations are more dramatic and obvious. I think we’re able to see the world a little more clearly now.
TFSR: Stepping forward a little bit and because you’re talking about the material conditions and the changing circumstances that you witness, at least between a sense of perpetual growth versus deprivation, I’d like to jump to the last essay and talk about experiences of broken promises and entitlement and unreachable goals. Your last essay talks about toxic masculinity and not just on the far Right but just as experienced within the wider culture in the so-called United States. And I wonder if you could talk about, including but not necessarily just focusing on incels and Wolves of Vinland, but like the deeper roots in our culture and what you try to draw out in that essay about recognizing the toxic roots of hyper-masculinity or a disembodied masculinity. What was it? Your wife used the term “intoxicating masculinity”. And ways that you see of breaking that cycle of violence.
SB: The essay you are talking about was originally called “Intoxicating Masculinity” and it was the notion we’re talking about, specifically the Wolves of Vinland and the project Operation Werewolf and the way in which it actually makes – I would say a man, but I identify as a gender non-conforming, but a masculine-presenting person, so it has an effect on me and other people of infecting them with this fake euphoric notion of their masculinity, fake promise that people live out with. I was talking with my wife, and we had this joke about, because one of the notions – and here was this tradition – it used to be called masculinism, I’m not sure what it would be called, maybe just would be a part of feminist circles now, but it was talking about “in what way does patriarchy also harm men?” And there is this joke, we’re talking about the Men’s Rights Movement, which I talk a bit about in the chapter, this ultra misogynistic movement. And I was thinking of that meme, where the guy shoots someone and says, “Why did you shoot yourself?” So it’s patriarchy shooting a man looking and saying, “Why did feminism do this?” It’s this idea that patriarchy has created such a profound sense of disconnect in a lot of men, that it creates this constant cycle of toxicity, inability to relate, inability to be whole. And then the question is how do we parse through that in a way. What would even non-toxic masculinity be? Is there something it’s even possible? I don’t know, I don’t have the answer to something like that. But what happens there is that masculinity plays a character in a lot of people’s lives, and a lot of people feel like it’s something that has to be quested after and that the pernicious thing about something like Wolves of Vinland, is that it calls to question on men who were promised something from patriarchy and then are doing everything they can to seek it out and to live it out engaging in the most higher of toxic forms of abuse.
TFSR: Yeah, and also pointing out that Waggener, the founder of it, the self-help industry…: you set someone desiring a path, you set someone seeking this unattainable platonic ideal, and then you just find a way to harvest their energy, while keeping them addicted to the visions of a carrot on a stick in front of them. If you could talk a little bit more about Wolves of Vinland and maybe that character and what they do.
SB: The Wolves of Vinland is a white nationalist pagan group, so basically they were a bit innovative in their structure. They created this group on Nordic paganism, specifically a white nationalist, white supremacist version of Nordic paganism, and they built their organizations like a biker gang. So, you’ll see the guys to get patched in like if they were in one percent or something they were like 1%er…
TFSR: Hells Angels.
SB: Yeah, like those Rebel Motorcycle crews, and they have the hierarchies within that, and they all study the runes. And Paul Waggener had started stepping further in creating these different brands and self-help projects – financial projects and different things. There is one called the Werewolf Elite Program which was making a lot of money and helping people build similar groups to the Wolves of Vinland for themselves. I followed a lot of the program while doing research for about a year and chronicled that. Essentially, what they’re doing is stacking a bunch of very b–rate self-help stuff mixed with intoxicating masculinity, this promise that you could be like Paul, this hulking person, built by steroids and covered in tattoos, and that you would be able to be great and wonderful, just like him. They follow this process, pay him tons of money to basically follow this model and they really ease people into what is an incredibly violent white nationalism by using coded words. By taking people one step at a time, by phrasing things in ways that feel more like a gym or more like maybe black metal culture than it does like white nationalism or what people would assume is white nationalism. And then it takes people along this road and gets people really deeply involved in these projects and sets people up in this revolutionary vision.
So they retell people the story of their own failure as one of something other people have done. You shouldn’t have to be alone. You shouldn’t have to be so poor in your career. You shouldn’t have to live in that house or live in a town where no one respects you. Basically, they offer their program as a solution to that. So, one of the things they talk about absolutely constantly is testosterone. They over-essentialize gender and they use testosterone as a marker for that. What they constantly do in their videos is trying to get people to get on testosterone. What they want they will do is to be injecting testosterone, to have their testosterone as what Paul Waggener says is maximum normal for a human body. That’s what he says is the “correct.” He often uses the term – that’s “correct”. What he is saying there is he’s using testosterone as a proxy for masculinity or maleness. Now, that’s not science, that’s not reality. Injecting more testosterone doesn’t change how you sense. It doesn’t make people’s personalities different, that’s a pseudoscience they’d like the prop up, but what they want to do by saying that is to conflate the two. Your lack of success in your life is your lack of masculinity and your lack of masculinity is bio-social. It involves your testosterone, so by literally injecting testosterone, you’re becoming more masculine as they define it, and so there are all these modules that they have in there to reframe how people think about the world, to put them in the toxic binaries, they think that women or folks of color as fundamentally biologically different than them, and then retail them a story of their own heroism that they can acheive. For example, they are having people constantly working out, but what’s really interesting about their workout programs is that they’re meant to make people intentionally painful and intentionally uncomfortable. And when you do that, you actually break down people’s sense of self. When people are constantly in pain, doing these workouts, they are constantly feeling that they’re improving themselves, that they are participating in something, that they’re part of this great grand story of becoming a hero, and that has an intoxicating effect. It reframes how people think about their lives and think “Oh, wow, I’m on my way to greatness”. In reality, you’re just pumping money into a b-rate self-help program.
TFSR: Possibly leading towards long-term health difficulties from straining yourself perpetually to chase after this goal of looking like Paul.
SB: Yeah, some of the programs in their advice on things like the amount of… I’ve been through all their programs, their not healthy programs, this is not a healthy way of doing things. And this notion that you have to treat your body as an enemy thing sets people up for obvious things like body shaming, but a real, deep sense of discontent with your body, with your own identity. I can’t imagine that anyone in this program comes out feeling anything than worse about themselves and therefore more toxic in their relationships and cling to patriarchy even more so as if it’s going to be the solution to the problem.
TFSR: In an earlier essay called “Contested Space”, you talk about these social spaces that are taken up, particularly in the creation of art and identity, focusing initially on neofolk as activator engaged by the far Right, and in that essay, you also point to what we talked about: the Wolves of Vinland and their connection to a racialized, maybe Assatru Folk Assembly or an Odinist approach towards Northern European neo-paganism. You talk to some of the people involved in, for instance, Heathens United Against Racism. I’m wondering if you could speak a little bit about – in particular, with neofolk or with metal – the taking of the aggressive feelings that people are drawn towards. There’s a history of struggle in spaces of punk and metal, for instance, around racist ideas or anti-racism. If you could talk a little bit about what you found and the expressions of anti-racism from some of the pagan folks.
SB: Yeah, in “Contested Spaces”, we talk about this idea of what are spaces where people from the radical left or working-class communities also might have white nationalists in those same spaces. I think that term was really used for things like Oi, punk rock venues in the 80s, where there be white nationalist bands and also be anarchist bands and there be multiracial bands and they would somehow be in the same “space”, sometimes physically the same space. These were days when venues were not particularly woke to what some of these bands were actually talking about, and so literally people might find themselves in the same space, and so the battle will be held for that space. If you talk a lot of folks in Anti–racist Action or the anti-racist skinhead groups in the80s – early 90s, a lot of them were going to punk rock spaces specifically and kicking out white nationalists, and they’ll credit that for why we don’t have a ton of white nationalist bands in punk rock these days because they went in and said: “No. This was ours and we’re not gonna cede this ground to you. We are not gonna say ‘Okay, because you’re here, I guess this is yours’”. But that has expanded out to a lot of places where white nationalists and fascists have basically staked their claim in different subcultures. So neofolk music is one, black metal music is one, inside spirituality, Nordic paganism. Honestly, European paganism, in general, has this problem, but particularly with heathenism, which is Nordic Northern European paganism. There are people fighting out there, different fight clubs, different gyms, things like that. People want to have some of those spaces themselves and what it comes down to the fact that fascists don’t belong to these things.
For example, neofolk is a form of music. It uses traditional folk, cultural music, romantic melodies, things like that, mixes in black metal, and other things. That’s music and it attracts people for aesthetic reasons, and I know people who are radical antiracists, anarchists also have some of that. There’s the look to indigenous traditions. There’s the look to the ecological sustainability, things like that. So there’s a reason why traditional folk art might be appealing and so thebattle linesof being why does the white nationalist get to have this? Why are they allowed to be here uncontested and to say that this is actually a legitimate form of art for them? They don’t get that, they don’t get anything. So people who are in those subcultures have a unique role in the ability to push those people out, so it’s happening. It’s happening in neofolk with a number of projects, it is happening very heavily in black metal, and I think folks like Kim Kelly and bands like Dawn Ray’d have done a really good job of being divisive in a positive way and saying “Here’s the line: no fascist black metal in these spaces”. In creating intentional spaces for anti-racist, revolutionary black metal.
And groups like Heathens United Against Racism have done that inside Heathen saying like “We’re anti-racist heathens, we have nothing to do with these in these racist heathens. In fact, we are active organizers and we are going to kick them out”. And in a way, they take a special responsibility because they know Heathenism better than non-Heathens, and so the unique angle that they could take it on, and I think the lesson in a lot of ways is a tactical one, it is that people, if you’re in a particular subculture, maybe you’re in a religious group or in something that isn’t explicitly political and that there is far Right influence, it’s on the edges or people trying to make Entryism. You have a unique angle in which you can take it out, and I think a lot of people are taking thatin that position that they’re in and using it to push back. I think that’s been incredibly effective. This happens in a lot of different ways that aren’t just about fascism. For example, I’m Jewish, there’s a number of Jewish groups that specifically fight for Palestinian rights because they think “Okay, we have a unique position here in the Jewish community, where we can fight from an angle that maybe other people can’t”. So I think that that’s actually what we’re talking about is what we can do in an anti-fascist sense in these specific subcultures.
TFSR: A thing that I came across recently that another member of the Channel Zero Network that this podcast participates in, 12 Rules For WHAT, which is an anti-fascist podcast based out of the UK, did an interview with this project called “Postcards from Cable Street” about anti-fascist engagements into role-playing games, RPGs, into fantasy and gaming culture that I thought was really a fascinating breakdown, especially asking about okay, so there’s these neo-romantic elements that you find in a lot of fantasy games like orcs and wizards, and whatever else, and those characters or races or whatever often get crudely turned into archetypes by racists that are trying to engage with Tolkien stories or whatever else. That overlaps with a lot of fantasy metal type stuff. I think it’s interesting when people are actively saying “No, actually, and I don’t need to engage with this and take it back. It was never yours, but we’re going to fight you out of these spaces”.
SB: In the original draft of the essay, I had to take it out because it was running long, but I talked about Furries because there is a recent issue, maybe 2019-ish where basically furry conventions were happening, and there was far Right, alt-Right Furry people and folks like Milo Yiannopoulos who were trying to go into the furry world. So Furries got together and decided “No, this is a fascism-free Furry zone” and they engaged as Furry. So they weren’t just an activist group coming from the outside that may not understand or respect Furry culture and saying “Oh, we’re going to take care of this…” “No, we’re taking care of it, we’re gonna organize, we’re gonna learn about this and confront it there.” And I think that’s not the only way, obviously, to approach fascism but it’s a particularly effective one in the sub-cultural world, where fascists actually are. Those sub-cultures are really important for fascist recruitment and organizing. Because they have, for example, a counter-cultural vision and they want to approach people on that counter-cultural level, and they also want to affect what I talk about as meta-politics. Basically the way people think of themselves, the cultural modalities that come before practical politics, and subcultures have a really important role in that. So they want to be in those spaces. Particularly if they see a subculture as the vanguard of coming cultural standards. I think, wherever people are at, they should really – and this is good, in terms of organizing as a journalist, to look at where you’re really at, what communities and networks are you part of, what identities are you working with in this way. Does it give you a unique position in those struggles?
TFSR: Because you mentioned meta-narratives and stories that we tell each other… I thought that the story that you told around the alt-Right publishing houses and far Right publishing houses, for instance, Counter-Currents, are not one that I had seen laid out in such detail before. Can you talk about that project and the world around it? Maybe some other publishing works. Also, Arktos is like a project that I’ve seen in radical bookstores that carry in their fringey sections, like things about conspiracy theories about the Arctic or whatever. And, not for a while at least seemingly, making the connection of some of the other materials that that publishing house carries. I think, if you were to mention some of the far Right thinkers that those houses carry, people might be a bit surprised to see them at their local independent bookstores,
SB: I talk about two publishers – Counter-Currents, ArKtos and those are generally considered two of the biggest, if not the biggest, far-Right publishers in English. What’s interesting about Arktos is I was enjoying a documentary about the Flat Earth Movement a while back and I noticed that when they were at a conference, a big Flat Earth Conference, Arktos was the main sponsor of it. I’m not a defender of Flat Earthers, though I’m guessing most will probably didn’t realize what Arktos was. I think that Arktos and a lot of these publishers basically go where they can. This comes back to the subculture question. They go where they’re not gonna be fought and where they feel like they can build something.
So basically Counter-Currents is an explicitly white nationalist publisher, they publish a lot of books to the right of Richard Spencer. A lot of their authors aren’t people that people would know, but that is not the point. What they do is they create an intellectual canon for white nationalism, where the left or other academic traditions will build big volumes of books, big libraries, they’re gonna do the same thing. Most of the books I came across are just republished blogs and things like that. For example, they have a book that collects blogs that try and take white nationalist lessons from My Little Pony. Real, rigorous intellectual works like that. But what they’re doing is basically making it so that they pile up a number of books so it feels like their tradition has an intellectual weight. What they do is oftentimes publish any author, philosopher, literary figure that was a part of the far Right. So there’s a lot of focus on Ezra Pound, authors that crossed over a bit. Big figures in their movement, Julius Evola, Carl Schmitt, Oswald Spangler. What they wanna do is create that large canon of what they call “traditionalist writing”.
Arktos is also a fascist publisher, though they maybe always don’t lean in with the white nationals quite as much. They are run by a former skinhead and they are pretty openly involved in… They were a part of the alt-Right corporation with Richard Spencer, they created altright dot com and they’ve been a real central piece of the alt-Right movement. They’re known for actually publishing a lot more international stuff, basically translating a lot of fascist philosophers from around Europe, but also folks from South Asia, India, Hindu nationalist authors, a lot of conspiracy stuff, a lot of alt-religion, which is the pieces that often have crossed over. Like you mentioned, it’s not uncommon, at least it wasn’t uncommon to find Julius Evola books in cult or new age bookstores. It wasn’t uncommon to find somebody like, for example, Jason Reza Jorjani who is involved in the traditionalist movement, he ran Arktos at one point, had some questioned relationship with Steve Bannon. He wrote a book basically about how ancient Aryans had ESP and stuff. His book has actually been in para-psychology departments in these book stores. People often allow them in unquestioned.
So those but those books are those publishers have allowed what the alt-Right has also called meta-politics to flourish, to help them build up a really committed base of people by creating a large diffuse set of ideas that they could draw on. A lot of the books you find in Arktos are in contradiction with one another. One couldn’t be true if the other one was true, but that’s not the point. The point is that they want to argue that their far Right position isn’t just simple bigotry, that it is actually deep philosophical tradition with all these different scholars and all these different historical figures, all these different artists that make up a really vibrant living tradition. And that by itself has a propaganda effect. Just the existence of these publishers and these books has a propaganda effect. But when you look even a little bit, you are gonna find that there are actual fascists involved in the organizing of publishing there, a lot of race and IQ kinds of stuff and scientific racism. And basically, anything that they can capture together that they can get from the distant parts the world. They also will sell things that they think are associated with the Left or they think are associated with edgy parts of radical culture. I’ve seen John Zerzan books at ArKtos. Obviously, Derrick Jensen as a favorite over there. They’ve recently published Pentti Linkola, which is a genocidal eco-fascist, but it wasn’t really a part of their tradition before. So what they’re trying to do is get as many things together, so maybe they get someone from this tradition. Maybe they can pull someone from this. They’ve sold neofolk records for a long time. So these are the kinds of ways in which they build up that base.
Counter-Currents specifically has taken a lot of hits since the deplatforming wave that started in 2017 after Charlottesville, mostly because they’re the most upfront about their white nationalism. For example, they publish a tribute to Hitler and things like that. It’s pretty clear, there’s neo-Nazi stuff going on there. Arktos might be a little more confusing for people looking at, though they’ve had a lot of attention because of their attempts to connect with Steve Bannon and with international traditionalist movements and Alexander Dugin, the Eurasianist from Russia. So they’ve had some attention, but I think they haven’t been deplatformed in the way that Counter-Currents has. When the alt-Right first started, it was called alternative Right then, about 2010, around a website called AlternativeRight dot com, that Richard Spencer made. The goal was to build meta-politics. It was the build-up of a philosophical base, with the idea that, if they did that, it could actually help radicalize a group of people that they could move on to engage in movements and that’s what happened. They started in 2010, they didn’t start launchinginto street activism until 2015, and then with Trump in 2016 they helped ride that wave. Now they’re back in that building phase, and so I think if people want to look at what’s gonna stop the next wave of this specific version of white nationalism, you’d look at Counter-Currents and Arktos because that’s their base, that’s the foundations on which they build their movement.
TFSR: Just to jump back for a second to a range of things that you’ll see coming out of these publishers, fascism has been defined as syncretic before and the ability to hold opposing opinions in this magical sense. So to see something like Savitri Devi standing alongside a New Atheist, Richard Spencer, I guessisn’t that surprising.
SB: Yeah, these things run in complete contradiction to each other. One of the things that Arktos was founded on was this concept of traditionalism whichpeople mostly associate, at least in the US, with Julius Evola. What they wanted to do was to recreate this culture around white nationalist esoterica. In doing so, you’re gonna see a lot of out there stuff that they created symbolic. For example, they publish an old book, a republishing of an old book that says that white people come from an ancient Aryan god race that comes from the Arctic, they descended down through India and was degenerated because of their interactions with not-white peoples. This is a very neo-Nazi myth that was published a hundred years ago, but they’re republishing that now because they believe it literally. That’s not the point. The point is that they like the myths to help build up this cultural sensibility of storytelling about themselves, and that is a lot of the ways in which they think about this, about building a mythology and cultural scene and a sense of identity, it is really foundational for how they approach politics. They’re anti-materialist in a lot of ways, they believe in building a consciousness exclusively and hoping that politics emerges from that consciousness. I don’t think that’s how politics happens. They have been successful in a lot of ways in doing that. So I think people dismiss a lot of their stuff for being so silly, but the reality is thatit goes somewhere. They also publish a lot of esoterica that has been involved in real acts of white nationalist violence and terrorism. For example, Julius Evola. Both Arktos and Counter-Currents are really built on republishing Julius Evola stuff that wasn’t in English, and he was really foundational for what was called the Years of Lead. Basically, these fascist terrorists in Italy in the 70s bombing things as a strategy of tension helping them bring down the government. And now, for example, a lot of the Satanist white nationalist writings or stuff to do with Miguel Serrano and different forms of esoteric Hitlerism are inspirational for a lot of Atomwaffen and other groups that are basicallyengaging in accelerationist violence and plotting attacks on anti-fascist and non-white folks in synagogues, and things like that. So this has a real effect. They build this foundation and it actually results in real acts of killing./
TFSR: Mmmhm. And at least one of the interviews says that their publishing model isn’t so much that the materials are, like people are gonna be buying the books that cost money and keeping them in. It’s more buying the books to put on their shelves, it’s more about the idea of I am identifying with the thing that I am buying and it’s providing funding for this website, but most of the shit that they’re translating, they’re putting out for free online, right?
SB: Most of it is. And actually, the books are really expensive, much more expensive than the books should be. There’s an interesting phenomenon that I’ve only really seen there, which is that they’ll publish a book and publish the hardback and the paperback at the same time. The hardback will be three times as expensive as the paperback. The reason is that you’re buying a prestige copy to give them a large donation. That’s the function of it, you’re not buying literature, you’re buying a token that shows that you have donated to the cause, so to speak, and then the books function in a way of building that sense of allegiance to something. So, for example, there’s a good book I read called The Cleanest Race, it’s about North Korea and racist politics in some of their propaganda. The author describes the way that Juche ideology is created there, where there is these multiple volumes of books and Kim Il-sung basically wrote these to mimic Mao’s creation of a lot of literature. If Mao’s gonna be a great political figure, he was gonna be a great political figure. So he wrote these books. If you’ve ever read any piece of theJuche books, they’re completely incomprehensible, just nonsense strings of words that don’t make any sense, that don’t add up to anything political. But that’s not the point. The point is that they go on someone’s shelf and they are lined up next to each other and they look like a really big canon of political philosophy. Look at all these books, something really deep, a whole nation was built on these books. And that’s what happens here in Counter-Currents.
Some of these books are literally just collections of movie reviews. Greg Johnson’s released, I think, four giant volumes of his movie reviews, some of which were just posted on message boards. This is not important literature that changes lives, but it does add to the canon. Look at all these books, stacks of these books. They must have something really profound to say. And that has been in a lot of ways how the white nationalist movement, particularly in Europe and the US, has helped to create an image that it’s not just street people in boots and braces, but that it’s actually something that has really core ideas because they have a critique that we must engage with. It should go without saying that they don’t have a critique and we shouldn’t engage with it.
TFSR: I guess the last question that I had is: you wrote a chapter “The continuing appeal of anti-Semitism” and I was wondering if you could talk a bit about that. You talk about some of the different historical tendencies in western anti-Semitism, comparing and contrasting the way that they’ve come out between Christian anti-Semitism… I wonder if you could talk a little bit about the blood libel and the trajectory of that into today, cause we see that in relation to QAnon. And there’s also the, obviously, there’s certain Christian sects that have a support for Israel as a state, but that’s based on the idea that if the Israelis get into enough conflict with neighboring states that it’ll bring about the second coming of Christ, which doesn’t seem very much like it’s an appreciation of those people who are gonna get killed in flames from the sky or whatever. You also talk about the space given by the Left to anti-Semitic tendencies, whether it be 9/11Truthers or some strains of anti-Zionism that bleed into anti-Semitism. So I just threw a lot at you, but I think you wrote really well on the topic.
SB: To start with the blood libels. Blood libel is essentially a medieval Christian concept. There’s this idea that Jews needed Christian children’s blood to make matzoh or to engage in different rituals. I shouldn’t have to say that’s not true, but it’s not true. Basically, this rumor about the Jews led to centuries of expulsions and mass murders, torturing of Jews, and things like that and in a lot of ways set the stage for later conspiracy theories, obviously laterProtocols of the Elders of Zion, which is a forgery that allege that Jews were plotting to control the world through deviant modernity and things like that, and lead to a lot of the modern structures of conspiracy theories we have now…
TFSR: And that was produced by the Czarist secret service, basically right?
SB: Yeah, it was under the belief that the coming socialist revolutionaries in Russia were Jews, and so to disrupt the revolutionary work would be to turn people more further against the Jews and also to take their attention off of the Czar. One thing is was really critical about anti-Semitism is that it confuses the direction of power. So, anti-Semitism is fundamentally different than a lot of other bigotries because of the way that it functions. What a lot of it does, it attempts to turn very righteous, for example, class anger against the powerful and turn it back on someone who’s less powerful. So, basically, if you’re angry about rents going through the roof, losing your job, basically saying “Oh, actually, it’s not the capitalist class, not the one percent that controls, it’s this other class of people, these Jews – and maybe you know a Jew in your neighborhood. Maybe the Jew works at the bank or maybe a Jewish person is a landlord, and then we can identify them, single them out and it can redirect anger away from the powerful and back onto somebody else, and so that’s really the function of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion. That’s a historical function largely of anti-Semitism, and that’s actually in a lot of ways why there is a continuing appeal towards anti-Semitism, cause what anti-Semitism does, it gives a face and voice to an anger, a class anger and a subjective anger that’s very real and doesn’t always have an easy place to go with. It’s a lot easier to name a name and use demonic images of that person and weird narratives than it is to say “Actually, it’s a system of capitalism and it’s people I can’t get at, they are unreachable a lot of ways, they’re controlling it”. That’s a very unsatisfying narrative. It’s very difficult to organize around that, and anti-Semitism is a stop-gap there. Conspiracy theories are likewise, they’re able to create a more satisfying emotional narrative.
I’m going to oversimplify this, because there are volumes written, but a modern anti-Semitism that shows up in the 18-19th centuries, basically is a secularization of Christian anti-Semitism. Christian anti-Semitism saw Jews as a demonic race that killed Christ, that were working in secret cabals to undermine Christian civilization. They were forced into money-lending in some cases, so then the image became that they were actually responsible for economic problems, even though it’s actually the king and things like that. And when people were looking for a way to explain the changes that were happening in the economy in the world – financialization, contract law, just basically modern infrastructure. The structure was then blamed on the Jews. People looked at old, Christian anti-Semitism that was superstitious and they modernized it with a pseudo-scientific explanation they called anti-Semitism. “Oh, it’s actually the Jews who are creating this new cultural sphere in their own image, they were responsible for Usury, and now the whole world is Usury!” That kind of logic. And that continued through racialization of Jews up into Nazi Germany.
I think one of the things I’m getting at there is why a lot of folks, much of them Moishe Postone, and other Marxists have called structural anti-Semitism is that there are some really basic things in the psychology of Western countries, but now internationally, that mistakes where power is and anti-Semitic narratives make up the underlying superstructure of it. So for example, conspiracy theories are so rampant now and they all come down to a really well-worn track that comes from anti-Semitism. So you mentioned QAnon,it’s the idea that Democrats have a satanic cabal where they use blood for rituals, it is the blood libel, they don’t say Jews quite as frequently, usually, it takes a couple steps on the road to get to Jews, but it literally is the foundation for all this conspiratorial thinking. The Protocols of the Elders of Zion is foundationally how people explain things like Rothschild and George Soros and those sorts of conspiracy theories that have motivated the Right and some parts of the Left as well. What’s happened is that I think anti-Semitism has built up this structural base and it’s really hard to free people of it, because what it does is it manipulates the impulse to liberate oneself. One of the things that I think when you looking at critical theory and people like Adorno and Horkheimer talk a lot about how not all impulses to liberate are actually good. In fact, some of this energy can be turned backward and some fascist moments actually take whatRobert Paxton calls “the motivating passions”, basically energy created from class conflict or from the crisis, things like that, and it turns it back on marginalized classes of people. Instead of organizing across the working class or amongst anti-racist coalitions to confront the powerful. So anti-Semitism is a really key piece of that. One of the things I want to get at with this is that not only is anti-Semitism dangerous for Jews and needs to be fought for that reason, but it also is dangerous for everyone, because it takes any impulse to liberate, it destroys its actual ability to do so. We will never liberate people from oppression if we’re wrapped up in conspiracy theories, if we’re looking for Rothschilds rather than looking for capitalism. The continuing appeal of anti-Semitism I talk about is the continuing appeal of easy answers for this to look at the complexity of modernity and try to boil it down to just one or two key elements instead of seeing the complexity and realizing that we have to work together in mass movements to confront it.
There is a certain impulse towards populism on the Left and I don’t have a problem with that in essence, I think that there needs to be a sort of left populism. People have to tell the story in common language and populism, historically, been the language by which working people talk about socialism. “Oh, it’s just working folks, they’re put down by these elite class”. I understand that sympathy, but we can’t stop there. We can’t let that populist anger redirect from who’s actually responsible here, and so I think it’s important to have some analysis in there. It’s important to see things with complexity.
It’s important to listen to Jews when we are talking about anti-Semitism. There’s a lot of mistrust when the claims of anti-Semitism come up that we should be taking seriously. If we want to not go into the direction of conspiracy theories and anti-Semitism, we have to be able to hear people basically creating those boundaries and saying that that’s happening so that we can actually start to work against those trends. That’s really important. I think that we need to obviously be at its best and avoid making grand conclusions and stuff. I thought that the killing of Jeffrey Epstein was suspicious, but I’m not going around saying he didn’t kill himself, because I have no evidence of that and I think it’s really important to be really clear about what we know or we don’t know. And building a common shared reality is I think the foundation where we make effective political decisions. This is true, we need to be really obvious about our bigotries, we are not free of them. We need to be really upfront about the anti-Blackness that we have, the misogyny and a queer-phobia that we have, and that does bleed into our organizing. That’s gonna be really important. But the other answer here, the less satisfying one, is “I don’t always know.” We have never had the revolution, like none other, so we don’t actually know in a way what unites people with the perfect rules of the game. I think there’s a lot of trial and error. We have to be willing to learn, to be subjected with each other and hear that, and we have to be willing to live in a very complicated world that we are now: states, capitalism. Late-stage capitalism operates in ways that we don’t have a clear road map for, and so we’re having to adapt to really complex systems, we need to create narratives to explain those and then to communicate with other people about them. It’s a really challenging project. I think it’s one that we just have to be vigilant in and to really look at the lessons we’ve already learned about the reality, conspiracy theories, bigotries in our organizing and lacks of a path to power.
TFSR: Where did you get the title from?
SB:I got it from Fredy Perlman. The first version of the essay talked a bit about Fredy Perlman, two essays about Fredy Perlman’s “The Continuing Appeal of Nationalism”, which is a good essay. It’s more about left nationalism and the appeal of nation-states as a solution to oppression. I have a somewhat different perspective on that. And though it’s not exactly the same thing here but I think in a way it’s about the appeal of easy answers. The other essay was the “Beirut Pogrom”, which I have mixed feelings about. It’s about the violence perpetrated by Israel, though he gets some facts wrong and things like that, but I went back and forth thinking about both those essays when writing this. I think Fredy Perlman is one of those voices that remains iconic, classic, edgy and useful decades past when it was written. I think it always will be, he wrote so little, but those essays stand out so much.
TFSR: Awesome, I think that’s really well put. Also, it’s Bernie Sanders who killed Epstein.
SB: Hahaha! I heard it was JFK Jr.
Okay. I really appreciate you having this chat, for the work that you put out, again, I think I said at the beginning, I think the book was beautifully written. The introduction literally had me tearing up a few times.
SB: I really appreciate it, it’s really kind of you to say.
TFSR: Where can people find your writing, or follow you online? Where can they get the book?
SB: You can get the book anywhere ya buybooks and also akpress.org, that’s the publisher. You can find me on Twitter @shane_burley1 and I’ll be putting out a bunch of different articles ina number of places. That should be the prime location.
Revolutionary, Indigenous political prisoner, Oso Blanco, is marketing the first in a series of full-color postcards based on his paintings to fund-raise for children’s schools in Zapatista territories and Turtle Island. More at BurningBooks.com
Certain Days Calendar Call-Up
The Certain Days: Freedom for Political Prisoners Calendar collective (CertainDays.org) will be releasing our 21st calendar this coming autumn. The 2022 theme is “Creating a New World in the Shell of the Old,”looking at collective approaches at creating a more inclusive and fulfilling world through mutual effort. Read the invitation up at their website!
Scott: We’re talking today about sort of the current state of radical anti-authoritarian, queer liberatory movements, and the legacy of gay liberation, you know, from the 60s and 70s, and like, gay history. Before we get into it, can you introduce yourself and the kind of work you’ve done? We’re talking about, specifically, Christopher Chitty’s book and sort of your placement within that, and if you want to say anything else about yourself, and your pronouns, whatever you feel.
Max Fox: Sure, my name is Max Fox, I use he/him. I am the editor of this book that was written by Christopher Chitty. It’s called Sexual Hegemony: Statecraft, Sodomy, and Capital in the Rise of the World System. I’m also an editor at gay communist magazine called Pinko and the translator of short book by a French theorist Guy Hocquenghem called Ampitheater of the Dead.
S: Which is sort of that’s how we met sharing an interest in Hocquenghem. Do you want to talk at all about how you got involved in editing Christopher Chitty’s book and the project, and how you, yeah, how your work relates to it?
MF: I knew Chris when I was in college at UC Santa Cruz, he was a graduate student in the history of consciousness department, which is this kind of fairly unique, critical theory, Marxist philosophy, etc, etc, style graduate program that I, as a young, enthusiastic leftist was like, “wow, simply the coolest thing you could possibly be studying”. And so I like tried to sit in on all these classes in that department, which is sort of one of the ways that I encountered him.
But we met really organizing on this anti-austerity, anti sort of tuition hike, movement, in, let’s say 2009-2010.Like right after the crash, that became the sort of Occupy California, Occupy DC system movement, which was sort of like a precursor to the Occupy Wall Street stuff. And so he was someone who I met in this moment of kind of like, intense, you know, personal transformation, I suppose.
And he was also working on this very incredible sounding theory, that promise to, in my view, kind of revolutionize the understanding of the history of sexuality, sexuality studies, queer theory, etc. And I was like, very eager to have something like that, because I felt kind of dissatisfied with a lot of the sort of sexual politics that were ready to hand at the time, it was, you know, “gay marriage” moment. And I felt kind of unconvinced by a lot of the positions on both sides even, and I wanted something more like, whatever Marxist or rigorous or something like that, you know. And Chris was working on precisely that. So I was very eager for him to finish his dissertation and sort of get that out in the world.
And so when he died in 2015, you know, I was personally very devastated. And I attached that feeling to this thought that, like, the work wouldn’t be finished. And that was something that I could actually sort of put some efforts towards. And so I, I didn’t really think it’s gonna be such a long project, but I sort of assumed the responsibility of collecting his, sort of, the draft material that his family and his friends had access to, and finding a publisher and, you know, getting it through the revision process and things like that, and now kind of like seeing it through the publicity end or whatever.
Yeah, so you know, it’s like this, you know, I had an intense, like, intellectual response to this. I wouldn’t have done it, I don’t think, if I didn’t think it was worth thinking about or thinking with, but obviously, there’s a pretty significant, like, emotional component as well for me.
S: Yeah, thanks for sharing that history that you have, like connected with Chris Chitty. And I mean, yeah, it is, I think you’re right, back then, to say that the work is going to make a giant contribution. I’ve felt reading this, that it has really affected my way of thinking and also responded to some of my own frustrations. But also I want to like yeah, acknowledge that kind of like personal grief work there, that must have been part of your editing, but you like, brought this thing out, which I think is super important. If you’re ready to kind of move into some of these ideas, then like tease them out a little bit.
So, in your foreword to the book, you summarize the project, as, I’m quoting you, “an attempt to think through the failure of sexual liberation, by what Chitty described as returning the history of sexuality to a history of property”. And like we could talk about that as kind of combining his readings of Marx and Foucault as you do, and that’s a whole debate within queer theory. But, uh, I was wondering if you could sort of explain this argument the way that you sum it up, how would you articulate the relationship that he explores in the book between same sex practices, particularly sodomy, sex between men, and the development of the bourgeois state? And how is the figure of the homosexual or homosexuality helped consolidate the state?
MF: Yeah, okay. So he, one of the tricky things about this book, I think, is that it’s making two slightly different claims that they’re obviously related, but the relation between them is maybe a little underspecified. He is saying that there’s a way of grasping power that falls into the name of sexual hegemony, which is basically how a ruling class comes to install it’s particular sexual practices and norms in the intimate self conception of numbers of classes that don’t occupy the same position in society. So that’s sexual hegemony. And then secondly, he’s saying that the figure of male homosexuality kind of illuminates the particular history of how in capitalist society, sexual hegemony is an integral part of bourgeois rule or rule of capital sexual relations.
And he’s telling a story about how, in the earliest sort of capitalist societies and the earliest spaces in the world that you could plausibly claim are governed by capitalist relation to production — which he, following this economic historian Giovanni Arrighi, locates in northern Italian city states in 1400 or so, Venice in particular — he says that, well, okay. So first of all, in the Mediterranean basin, there is, in this moment, there’s a basically widespread and unremarkable just fact of men having sex with men. It’s just simply, it’s not, it doesn’t have its own name, necessarily, or it’s not, that doesn’t give you a sort of unique social status, because it’s so ordinary, you know. Basically relations of production, you know, apprenticeships and seclusion of women in the household, and even you know, things like, the type of ships that they use, all of this basically contributes to a public sphere that is exclusively male, essentially, where men and women don’t have any access to each other, except for within their own family. So that’s kind of prohibited by the incest ban, sex between these people. And so the only kind of sexuality you’re gonna have, if your man, is with other men who you will encounter, you know, on the docks, or in the marketplaces, or in your workplace, or in the cruising areas and in the taverns and whatever. And that’s simply what you do. It doesn’t give you an identity or whatever.
And so he’s saying that around the same time that capitalist relation to production began to take hold. There’s also a new form of Republican governance, where the laws of the city have some shared source of legitimacy. It’s not just a kind of feudal lord or whatever, but there’s some attempt at reviving a kind of like civic base of power. And that then obviously kind of comes in conflict with the actual disparate levels of power that people have. There are more powerful rich people and less powerful working people. And so you need a way of managing this conflict that doesn’t end up expressing itself in overthrowing this new form of government and installing rule of the many who are poor, instead of the few who want to have the legitimacy of consent or whatever. Anyway, sorry, that’s, that’s a bit of an aside. The point is that these governments start adopting a new way of enforcing or regulating sodomy, which as I said before, wasn’t really a sort of serious problem. But there are problems obviously when you have disputes between lovers or disputes between clients and patrons, right. And so instead of, you know, punishing sodomites with capital punishment — which was maybe, you know, a scary threat in the past, but wasn’t ever actually applied very often — what these governments do is they start a special police force that is just there to investigate accusations and issue fines, basically.
And so what this does is it incentivizes people to inform on each other. If you’re mad that your ex is going out with your rival, then you can call the police about it and say, these two sodomites, I saw them in the loggia the other night, and you should go find them 24 Florins or whatever. Or you’re a sex worker, and your john doesn’t pay you and you threaten to turn him in, or whatever. So it establishes a new way that power operates in these relations that were more directly mediated by personal sort of encounters with each other. So that’s in the first instance, that’s like a way that the emerging bougious state — or capitalist relations of production that need a form of government to kind of take hold — changes and kind of takes a new form in these ways of regulating sodomy, are ways of taking sexuality into itself and turning it into a new instance where the state like is a is a presence of people’s lives where it wasn’t before. I don’t know if that was actually a direct enough answer at all. Do you think that was good for your question?
S: Yeah. I mean, that really breaks it down in a helpful way for me. I mean, the first sort of historical chapter starts there when you’re talking about and like, the way you explain it shows, it’s like the first sort of capture of whatever becomes homosexuality, because you talked about how it kind of routes the relationship through this state. So like, you can have recourse to this concentrated form of power in that police force that will fine people. And so people then like, give up whatever relationship they have between each other to go to this other place to deal with their problems. And I think that, yeah, the way you explained it was really helpful.
And then the other aspect of it that I think is important, in what you’re saying, is that it becomes a way of trying to mitigate potential threat, right, from like, the many, or the lower classes. Yeah, there’s this framework of like, consent to be ruled, by getting your recompense, or whatever it could be, like if you’re jealous, or something’s taken from you, or you’ve been forced into a situation you don’t want. But then that also diffuses the possibility of rebellion in some way. I mean I guess that’s the definition of sexual hegemony and how that helps, like, work for state power. And there’s like this way that he traces the increased politicization of homosexuality to that history of producing the proletariat. So you were talking about the emerging forms of capitalist production, that goes from cutting people out of subsistence ways of living, bringing them into wage work, creating these urban centers, where people are living different lives and working different ways. And he often calls that like a kind of surplus population, or superfluous.
The thing that’s really interesting is that there’s these cultures of public practices of homosexuality, where the men are working together. The thing that really strikes me is how Chitty’s argument replay some of the old coordinates of talking about homosexuality, that can either be a kind of pro gay way of thinking, or a really homophobic way of thinking. So like, it usually centers around the kind of that superfluousness or uselessness or the non-reproductive aspects of sex as a form of decadence and disruption of a moral form. And I was just wondering, are we so inundated with this framework that, can we think about sex between men outside of that moral framework? Is it always going to be ambivalent? Like there was a way that like communist parties would say homosexuality was a was bourgeois decadence, and like, it’s true to a certain extent, right, like Chitty’s showing us that it’s tied to that, but it’s not, yeah, I mean, I’m to articulate this, if you want to jump in.
MF: So I mean, there’s a lot there. So there’s another thing that he’s trying to do in this argument, which is to say that this repression that we have come to identify with the meaning of sexuality, of homosexuality or queer sexualities, whatever, “deviant sexualities” that’s not a necessary feature, either of sexuality as such — which is like, maybe that’s not exactly what its objective investigation is — or sexuality under capitalism. Because, you know, he’s a good reader of Foucault, power is productive as well as oppressive, right. So you don’t want to have a concept that can only say, “sexuality is what the state takes from you”, or something like that, or stops you from having.
And so he aligns this history of kind of like, Arighian hegemonic centers of the world system, as capitalism kind of expands over the globe. So it goes first from Florence and Venice in northern Italy, and that goes to Amsterdam, is the next center, then London and then New York. This is the sort of world systems theory, according to Arighi narrative of caplitalist expansion. And Chitty says, “Okay, let’s find out what happens in the moment of transition from one center to the next, when the declining center is experiencing crisis or loss of its previous capacity to exert hegemony”. So he’s saying in these moments of decline, you can find increased depression and that’s actually what the repression means. It’s not that capitalism has this kind of like, inherently sex negative aspect, it’s that as a sort of cyclical crisis ridden system, it’s going to have these moments of dissolution that will have, you know, semi predictable effects. And one of the predictable effects that he asserts is discoverable in the record is that there’s this increased attention to male sodomy, or men having sex with other men, in these moments of crisis and dissolution of the hegemonic center.
So on the one hand, that’s one explanation for this kind of like moral valence, right? So like, capitalism only notice is that sex between men is even happening in this moment when it itself is going through crisis. So of course it’s going to attach a kind of pejorative meaning to it, right? Because it’s looking for reasons for its decline. And I think that’s, you know, relatively convincing. I have to say I haven’t done this historical research myself, so perhaps another set of archival material would be able to make a counter argument that says, “no this is actually constant, or actually it has nothing to do with the temporality of financial crisis” or blah, blah, blah? I don’t really know, I mean, this seems compelling to me. But I don’t think it’s actually necessary for his argument to be true.
I think that the point that he’s making…so capitalism is characterized by a kind of ceaseless drive to expand, and consume evermore arenas of human social life, right? Like that’s observably the case, that’s theoretically drivable, from, you know, Marxist analysis and from, it’s a classic tenet of most people left. And what that means is that historically, generally, what that means is people who are living in non-capitalist parts of the world, and basically subsistence forms of social production and reproduction, are severed from their capacity to live like this and brought into the circuits of capitalist production. And so a lot of the times that has meant then turning them into a kind of like industrial proletariat, putting them to work in factories, or on plantations, or, you know, sending people to die in armies or settle genocided territories or whatever. But something that that requires is that you have this kind of floating population that’s been severed from the means of reproducing their own life at the very beginning, so the premise of capitalist production is a surplus population, right? That is sort of not able to meet its own needs for survival without seeking employment on the market. Right, or in kind of non-waged areas, whatever in the household, internally, or in the gray market or whatever.
And so I think one of the useful things about Chris and his analysis is that he has a sophisticated enough reading of Marx and capitalism to sort of dispense with what a lot of the traditional Marxist — basically moral positions — on work are, and say, you know, “it’s not good, that people are productiv, in fact, that’s a source of domination”. These questions of like, “is homosexuality somehow intrinsically related to non productive modes of living?” I think he deals with it in a number of different ways. One of which is to say that the forms of direct production under capitalism produce homosexuality, you know? Like the classic form of capitalistic production is — this wasn’t always historically the case, but you know, in the fantasy — is the sex segregated factory, right? So, a bunch of men who all spend 8, 10, 12 hours a day with another 100, or 1000, whatever, some number of other men. You know, most of them often historically live in dormitories, or in workhouse style situations, they certainly don’t have enough money to start a family, you know. So oftentimes, historically, the only kind of pleasure they’re going to find is in each other. Or the other sort of like proto-typically capitalist form of productive activity is shipping, you know, where you have the same problem, right? And obviously, famously, these are like hotbeds of homoerotic intrigue.
And, you know, the same goes for the army. The same goes for, I mean, if you think about the fucking settler colonies, like on the frontier, all the men are either there alone in the wilderness, and out away from the social world that they were raised in. So it’s everywhere, once you start looking at this. You know, prisons, obviously, famously. Once you impose a kind of sex segregated route norm on the sort of productive social apparatus — which wasn’t consistently the case throughout the history of capitalism, certainly — but then you inevitably have the problem of proletarians are gonna have sex with each other. And so anyway, so that’s one of the sources also of this concern for regulating sexuality, regulating homosexuality is because it’s a labor discipline question sometimes, too.
S: Yeah. I mean, so like, this does a few things, right? Like in the earlier articulations of sexual liberation, and also gay liberation, like sexual liberation more generally, and gay liberation, there’s like that repressive idea that there are these forces that are making us not have sex we want and then gay liberation, like had the strategies of trying to find proof of like, the natural ness of homosexuality throughout history. And so in a way, what Chitty does is expanding on Foucault, like you were saying, who says, “Well, no, the homosexuals invented at a certain moment, and it’s not this eternal force of like, repression and sexual license” or whatever.
But in another way, I think what I like so much about what Chitty’s doing is like, he’s saying that we’re not asking necessarily the right questions when we are focusing on these things. So like, like you said, homosexuality as we know, it is created by the development of capitalism. But the other thing he keeps insisting on, Chitty, is like that it’s contingent, right? And that’s, I guess, the other kind of deviation from like, Marx, it’s like a contingent history. It’s not necessarily that it was this way. And so in a way, there’s, like, the ambivalence of homosexuality, which is also like, is a tool of rule and a tool of oppression. It’s a medium for us to like, find liberation and a way that we’re captured is like inherent to that process. And I don’t know, I mean, in a way, it’s like, I mean, I’ve seen this being articulated in various ways, but like, almost like an unresolvable paradox in a way. And so like, I guess what I’m interested in exploring with you a little bit is like, how it shifts the coordinates of what we think about when we try to aim for liberation.The way that Chitty, if I can quote from him, like the way he articulates that, and this is a line that you just mentioned to me before we start recording, he says that “queer would then imply a contradictory process in which norms of gender and sexuality are simultaneously denatured and renaturalized”. And that’s like the process of sexual hegemony, like using sexuality as a rule, a form of ruling. And like the threats are often public sex or cross class sex. So I was wondering if you want to help me unpack that, if you spent some time on that? Like, what does he mean by these norms, the sexual hegemony being “denatured and renaturalized”? And like, what does the double sided process look like?
MF: Yeah, so there’s another one that I find very helpful, that I think might also illustrate this a little bit, which is that…oh I can’t remember where it is so I’m going to try and just reproduce it from memory, but it’s probably gonna be slightly different: “sexuality could only become a problem for a society in which biological reproduction was decoupled from the reproduction of ownership”. So that, you know, that’s, maybe that’s a little complicated, but it’s an historical argument, which is about the dissolution of the kind of like, feudal world, where, let’s say, land title is passed down through the family, and, you know, on the peasant side or whatever, and, and sort of, conversely, political rule is hereditary inheritance as well in the aristocratic sense, or whatever. In that society sexuality appears as something that’s kind of natural, right? It doesn’t, it can’t really be an object of anxiety or control in the same way. And historically, it wasn’t.
You know, you had this kind of, I mean what Focault talks about, it’s like, the pastoral power versus that, whatever, the medical discourse or whatever. But, um, priests could tell you to confess, but like, there’s really not a lot of power to investigate whether or not people sex was taking place, according to the way that you wanted it to be, or to punish people for it. Because it’s very hard to, you know, provide evidence that a sexual act took place, in the absence of being there, compelling eyewitness testimony. Peasant marriage in feudal times was actually quite limited. So anyway, it just wasn’t a floating social problem that needed regulation the same way that it did, once, he’s saying, ownership — private property relations — become transferable, alienable. Which is the hallmark of capitalist relations of production.
So in that sense, sexual norms have become denatured, they once appear to be organic, natural expressions of the sort of unitary creative world., and now they appear to be an object of political contention and control. And so they’re renaturalized in this new way, by the reimposition of what appears to be necessity of socially objective meaning that’s enforced by, you know, state repressive apparatus, but as well as the kind of like private mechanisms of coercion and control in the workplace and family. So these new norms that say, in the past you may have been able to, like, whatever, fuck your friends in the field, but now there’s a different type of threat from the police. And so you become a different, a new kind of person. You become, your nature changes, right, and you’re suddenly apprehended by the state in a way. And so it’s this, it’s this kind of decomposition of a previously automatic organic expression of the social order, where sex is a kind of meaningless in that it doesn’t make a difference whether or not ownership gets transferred in the normal way, to something that might disrupt it. And it might disrupt it because there’s a new type of person in the world, and that is sort of, like, the subject of the hegemonic sexual norm, and the deviant person who fails to be protected by this norm. Does that help?
S: Yeah, totally. I mean, it’s interesting because, you know, where we are today, we get stuck on identity. And it’s like, the problem that you talked about, like sexuality becoming a problem for statecraft and like state rule, is like internalized for us as a problem, like, “who am I?” And like, “how do I figure that out?” But if we trace back those identity terms, they’re like police orders or whatever, like, that there were forms of controlling criminalization. And he also talks a lot about how, like, this is a history of policing, right? So the policing of homosexuals goes hand in hand with the policing of sex work and also the policing of vagrancy.
MF: Sure, yeah.
S: And so the other thing that I think this is parallel to, and maybe there’s something to articulate here, is like, within the Marxist theory there’s — this is another form of maybe primitive accumulation, in the way that Sylvia Federici talks about in Caliban and The Witch in terms of how the gendering of women forms a kind of enclosure around their bodies and sexuality — like this is another enclosure, which is like an identity type rather than whatever those organic forms are. That could have existed before. And if you’d think about those previous communities and like, maybe even pre feudal, right, like, it just wasn’t a problem. Or there were other norms in which it was like, acted out, but like, it’s not like, “yeah this guy sleeps with other men sometimes” wasn’t like a problem. There’s just like, “oh yeah, that’s a thing that someone does”.
MF: Yeah. Or it’s just like, yeah, that’s what men do they love to have sex with beautiful people, whatever, as long as they’re the active partner, or whatever. Like, it doesn’t have bearing necessarily on the social standing of the person doing it.
S: Well, that’s the other thing that I think is in the book that like, because it’s not to say that there were these previous sexual utopias where, like, men could have sex with other men freely, but they often happened along power lines of like, young and old or different classes, or like, how he talks about the kind of, like, workshops where a master and apprentice might have a sexualized relationship. But it wasn’t one, there was a discrepancy in power there between the master and the apprentice. So it’s not like these were old gay utopias.
MF: Yeah, I mean, that’s one of the interesting things that he does with this is, it’s like, there’s a liberal story, and it can basically take the same material that he’s looking at and say, like, “okay, there was this precapitalist utopia for gay people. Somehow, let’s say, the capitalists decided to chase them out of Eden and pursue them across these centers of financial power, up until the present, at which point they finally rebelled at Stonewall and now we’re free”. And that kind of posits, on the one hand, a kind of like, a single tradition and identity that was like, unbroken, again, that somehow cross all these social formations. And one that was unjustly persecuted, and one that would recognize itself in the present as kind of like, finally free, right?
And there’s a lot of things that don’t really hold up about that argument. One of them is that there were these sexual norms that we would now call violent, or abusive, or rape, you know, that was just simply how these practices happened. You don’t have to be like, “Well, you know, they really should have been persecuted by the state” or like, “actually was fine because they all really consented at some level”, or whatever. It’s just like, there’s a real heterogeneity to the social practices, that doesn’t really fit the kind of like, triumphant, oppressed past, liberated future, sort of arc.
And it also kind of flatters the present and says “and now we know better, and now violence doesn’t happen in sex. And all of our ways of conceiving of pleasure are totally fine for everybody involved, and we don’t have any contradictions that we still need to work out.” So he has this kind of like skeptical view of what was a very, very effective tool for people to win real, serious changes in their condition and the present. But like he’s not just saying, “well it wasn’t actually like and I’m here to speak the truth because I love academic freedom” or whatever. But because it’s actually a much more complicated question than we like to imagine.
S: Yeah, totally. Like, I guess,speaking personally in my relationship to this, like, so there’s a kind of double nostalgia that maybe falls into some of that liberal trap. Like when I first read Foucault, in The History of Sexuality talking about like, “before there was a homosexual people weren’t an identity, they did things” and I was like, “Oh, yeah, that makes so much sense.” That’s like liberating to be like, “I don’t have to be a thing I could just do whatever I want”. And l mean I don’t think that Foucault is necessarily saying that, but that was how I first received it, you know? And that kind of connects to the naive sort of sexual liberation, gay liberation discourse that gay sex, queer identity in different forms, like transness, whatever, are inherently disruptive and revolutionary, and will overthrow capitalism if we can just like, fuck whoever we want, wherever we want. And that was a line that people took strategically also, which is like, maybe on the other side of looking for recognition of rights and entry into the power structures of, you know, marriage and military, etc.
Okay, so there’s like an nostaligia, definitely, for me for like those moments of gay liberation, where like, the militancy was also paired with this kind of way of thinking, like, “Oh, are sex is revolutionary”. And I see that also, just like, generally today with radical queers kind of replaying a lot of those old moments. But and then, you know, with a lot of the academic stuff that tends to be pessimistic about the revolutionary structures, never were satisfactory to me, but like the way that he argues it, that Chitty argues it, does something that makes me, it helps me understand it a little bit more in a more complex way, than to simply be pessimistic about it. Although there is certainly a pessimistic line in it. Yeah, like one of the ways he phrases it is that “the ideas of liberation elevate a liberal bourgeois theory of the state into the constituent of principle of human desire and all other cultural formations”. First of all, how does he help us — in your reading and understanding — understand the failures of gay liberation? How does it like, help us articulate a new pathway for our liberatory movements, starting from the positions of like, gay, trans, queer, whatever you want to call, whatever, different ones that are sort of loosely linked? Like, how do we go from this critique to like articulating a movement that really wants to be, you know, revolutionary, that wants to tear apart these hierarchies and oppression?
MF: Yeah, no, that’s, I mean, that’s the trick, right? I mean I think that it’s so helpful and refreshing to have someone sort of, just say like, “here’s why this doesn’t quite work”, you know? Yeah, I too, find it unbearably romantic to imagine that the sex in the 70’s could have somehow fucked its way into a utopian universe or whatever, and the only reason it didn’t happen was because AIDS, maybe. I don’t want to dismiss the gravity of everything else that people were doing, it was in the context of like, pretty widespread, sustained, intense militancy. It wasn’t just just sex or whatever, right? I’m not being so Stalinist about it.
I’ve been reading this book that I’m pretty sure Chris was reading throughout early on or whatever, by this theorist, Moishe Postone, who taught at University of Chicago where he did his undergrad. And it’s this critique of what he’s calling “traditional Marxism”, “traditional theories of Marx”, that basically mistake what Marx was doing, for giving a critique of capitalism from the perspective of labor, so as to say like, “labor makes capitalism but then capitalists take it away, and if we just get rid of the capitalists and keep laboring in the same fashion, then we’ll have socialism and then everything’s going to be fine”. And Postone is like “no, that’s not really what Marx was saying. Marx was saying actually that because of these, the contradictory character of the sort of basic categories of capitalist society: abstract labor, commodity, etc, etc, abstract time”- I don’t wanna get into the details too much, but basically, like, “you can’t rely on a kind of like simple affirmation of your position that you find yourself in, within capital society to kind of like undo the problem. You need to find a way to self abolish, basically.” To kind of like, not so not simply just get rid of everything, but like, you know, transform the present such that you’re no longer reproducing your own domination.
And I think there’s a kind of a symmetry in the way that Chris was trying to treat these categories around sexuality. Sexuality appears as this potentially a standpoint of critique of sort of straight society or whatever. And you could imagine that all you need to do is get rid of the straight people who are preventing us from living out the free satisfaction of our desires and then we’ll be able to kind of like, you know, stop upholding the larger capitalist social order that we are convinced — and I kind of agree — that your sexuality is, like a really integral part of. And that’s basically, and it’s interesting, but that’s basically the kind of thesis of sexual liberation movement, right? It’s like, our desire is blocked or impeded from its full expression in the social, and what we need is to find a way of removing these barriers to its kind of full expression, and then the problem is going to be over. And to critique that position, and certainly not to say like, “no, it’s actually fine, everything’s fine. You’re complaining, you’re whining about nothing”. There’s serious vectors of misery and violence, obviously, you know it’s still going on much more intensely around gender and trans people right now. But there’s obvious enemies to be opposed by any kind of liberatory political formation.
The trick is to not let yourself be so mesmerized by them that you think that they are the only kind of danger, right? Like the whole of society needs to reproduce itself in your moment, somehow, through the mediation of these categories, and our movements have to have a delicate enough grasp of what presuppositions we might be affirming, when we are working out the kind of horizons that we’re going for, or the sort of strategies that we adopt or whatever.
S: Yeah, that makes me think of this line that really stuck out to me as like, it’s not something that is expanded upon in the book a lot, and it’s a place where I want to keep thinking, maybe you have some thoughts on it, where he writes, “the central contradiction connected with homosexuality, and by extension, with the category of heterosexuality and social power more generally, is that of consent. How various societies have understood consent as the basis of the exercise of power more generally”. Yeah, there’s, I just think there’s a lot contained in there. And also consent is a term that’s being used a lot within our movements to reframe our thinking around justice and accountability. But I was wondering if you have thoughts on unpacking that. Like how could a queer movement or gay liberation be articulate around this idea of like, consent on one hand, power on the other. Because there’s something here about being, it’s not just like, about consent, but like, being kind of pushed into consent to be ruled, too, I think
MF: Yeah, so that’s, yeah, I find it really suggestive and helpful. But I’m not positive exactly what he meant. I’ve only been thinking about this example for like, an hour or so today so I hope I’m not going to walk myself into a bad position. But there’s this interesting article today in the New York Times that was about touch hunger through the pandemic. And it was this person who was like, “I did sex work, I was like a dominatrix and I really liked it because I was able to kind of like, be much more explicit about the type of touch and interaction and shit that I was going to get in a sexual situation. Because, like lots of women, I had childhood socialization to, sort of, unwanted touch from all types of people. And this past year of like, touch hunger or whatever during the pandemic, has really made me reconsider how much I consented to touch that I didn’t want as a sex worker, and I like reached out to all these other sex workers. And I asked them about it too, and they’re all like, ‘yeah, I’ve consented to like”…basically the thrust of it was like, consent and desire are not the same. You know, you basically you can extract, like a sort of misogynist, you know, rape culture can extract consent quite easily from people whether or not that’s what they want or what’s good for their psychic well being, etc, etc, etc. Or has anything to do with kind of like, social equality, you know. Consent, in other words, is like actually a way of reproducing exploitative power relations, and it’s an integral part of a sort of misogynist in this world that operates on gender balance.
And I know I was reading that and I was like, “yeah, so then maybe consent isn’t really the question, is it?” Right?” If it can be the constant throughout all of these stories of like, not all of them are traumatic, but you know, shitty times that people had that stayed with them and affected how they continue to operate in the world and access pleasure and things like that, maybe it’s not the sufficient criterion that we are looking for to have a sexually free world. I think that kind of direction is what he’s going towards, and this question of the normative order, current sexual hegemony that we all kind of live in, carry out.
Yeah, so it’s a way of kind of like eliciting a kind of consent at a formal level, to this terrifyingly violent world. Like consent to be governed by social relations that run on gendered violence, you know, like, how could you possibly have a meaningful, discreet sexual encounter that’s separate from that larger context? And say “yes”, to that, but like, not to the rest or whatever, I think that’s kind of the direction he’s going in. And there’s a lot of feminist legal thinking around this, that I, unfortunately, I’m not as versed in as I’d like to be, but you know, it kind of extends this contractual idea that you can freely enter into some kind of relation with another person in an unequal society. And, sure, you can, in a practical sense, like, you know, in fact it’s necessary for the society to operate – you have to have this level of formal equality for its concepts of legitimation to operate. But if you don’t buy the presupposition, the sort of capitalist rule, like you’re an anarchist, or communist or anti authoritarian of some sort, then that’s just simply not sufficient to guide your interactions. Looking at the way these concepts are really deeply embedded in our capacity to think about relating to other people. It’s tricky, you know, I wouldn’t say, like, we need to get rid of this concept, you know, and just kind of figure it out later. But, you know, there’s some pretty serious contradictions that are worth following.
S: Yeah, you lay that out in a helpful way. So like, he talks about the norms of consent being part of the bourgeois development of sexuality, sort of like post World War Two I think in terms of like domestic heterosexual marriage. But you also connect that to like this sort of myth of like the liberal subject who consents to be governed, and that’s what we’re kind of taught ideologically. Of course that moment of consent is always pushed outside of our actual experience or history, it’s like this other time. Also going back to that kind of Edenic version of like, the gays being expelled. So that makes sense to me, and like sexual identity then consent can be used strategically, but if we get caught up in that as the thing itself, then we’re stuck in that discourse.
MF: I think that’s a good way of putting it.
S: And that’s why I think that’s interesting too, to think about in connection to, you know, there’s like, consent culture, but then also the kind of abolition movements and transformative justice discourse that goes around, like we often use the word consent to get at those things, but the thing that like, that transformative relations are getting at, isn’t about articulating consent, but articulating relations that don’t operate along those same power differentials, right.
Or it’s like, if we had to actually theorize consent in this way it would be infinitesimal, right? Like every moment would be having to consent to, and that’s like, an impossibility in a way. I don’t know. I’m also just like, kind of going off of this, the way that you kind of unpacked the example from that sex workers experience because it’s also been something that’s critiqued within like BDSM, where they’re like, Well, it seems this place where consent is made very explicit, and yet here, all these examples of like, where that explicit consent culture can be abused, by people who have various forms of power within that culture. So yeah, I don’t know if you had some thoughts on what I was saying there.
MF: It’s making me think of some things that I don’t think I’m capable of reproducing right now.
S: *laughs in understanding* Okay that’s fine.
MF: I know it’s a rich field of thought. And I’m just not going to pretend like I can contribute right now. *laughs*
S: Totally. No, I mean, yeah, I’m just getting excited about but like, yeah, that’s another conversation perhaps. So there’s like a couple more things that if you’re up for it that I want to touch on. You mentioned the kind of interruption that HIV/AIDS brought to queer movement. And that, you know, also coincided with further dismantling of radical movements like Black liberation and Indigenous movements. But you know, Chitty’s argument has some interesting things to say about how AIDS kind of like, replays histories of control of sexuality. So I wonder if you wanted to expand any bit anymore on like, the way the history of disease and epidemics is tied to our understanding of sexuality? Because like, it was preceded by syphilis and etc. Yeah, if you had some thoughts on that, or just expanding on AIDS in relation to gay movement.
MF: I put the finishing like the final edits on the manuscript, last like April? Like in the first month of lockdown. And I’d been working on the texts — that make sense, he died — since 2015, and I mean, not, you know, consistently, but I’ve been sort of going through it at various different levels. And that whole time, I didn’t quite catch how central disease was to his narrative. Until this last April, you know, what he’s pretty explicit, that, you know, the sort of like preconditions for a modern bourgeois concept of sexuality, a sexually free body, you know, a has to do with the kind of enclosures in the European countryside to bring all these new, uprooted, ex-peasants to the city, etc, etc, etc, social capital, social relations, production, blah, blah, blah. But also you need to have plumbing, and you need to have a sort of health infrastructure that can keep people’s bodies relatively clean. And this is the result of successive pandemics.
So it doesn’t go into a lot of detail about this. But like the vagrancy laws that are first used to criminalize sodomites in northern Italy, are passed in the aftermath of the Black Death, to kind of manage this kind of collapse in feudal social order, right? So like the feudal countryside is transformed in the wake of this plague, right? And so all of a sudden, these peasants can kind of travel in a different fashion. And they need to suddenly compel them to stay in place in a new way. So they pass all these vagrancy laws: you can’t be more than 100 yards from your local town or whatever. And these are the same vagrancy laws that they start using to threaten the sodomites with. And secondly, syphilis, the way that it’s transported from the New World kind of demonstrates the kind of the new global trade networks and relations of extraction, domination and violence, that are kind of putting Europe into a new kind of like orientation towards the rest of the rest of the world. In particular, exposing its proletarian populations to all kinds of new bodily conditions, basically. Syphilis, that kind of transforms the needs of the emerging state to kind of manage and have kind of like sanitary body around cities, so it’s not spreading pestilence.
Cholera obviously is a similar story, you know, when you have these kind of enormous swarms, where you’ve kind of just dumped the factory working population. But because they’re living on top of each other, they’re super liable to spread disease if it shows up. And so all of a sudden you need to invent plumbing and heating, you know, epidemiology and whatever. All these modern conveniences also go into a kind of reconceptualization of public sphere so that men are no longer free to piss on the street, he says, the story is bourgeois women start showing up in public once again after centuries of being secluded in the household and they’re scandalized by all these penises that are everywhere. And so Europe starts putting up these urinals which kind of hide the penises, but obviously also in this dialectical fashion that kind of concentrate, and eroticize…what does he call them? “Temples of urethral eroticism”. And so anyway, the point is there’s this whole thread of existence of disease as a kind of motor of this sort of social transformation of what sexuality means, in the story that he’s also telling that I didn’t quite grasp for the first number of years I was working with the text, only past year that it really hit me.
And then he has this whole other story where like, okay, so you have the sexual, gay liberationists in the 60’s and 70’s, who are like “we have a glorious past that we need to kind of liberate, ourselves and it, through us.” And then with the arrival of HIV AIDS, all of a sudden, the histories that these activists are telling are quite different. They are about the kind of like bodily practices that actually constitute material social reality of what homosexuality is, because that is where the virus lives. You know, that’s what’s salient for them, politically and essentially. it changes the sort of the way that they’re theorizing about themselves and about history.
And so he’s like, you know, both of these things are quite valuable contributions to the understanding of sexuality, homosexuality, particular. Now, maybe in 2013, or whatever, the kind of like, apocalyptic urgency of the HIV AIDS crisis is in the past somewhat. And so we can kind of be a little bit more critical or assess these histories with a bit more distance. And we’re no longer kind of under this injunction to tell politically helpful stories that will save our lives. And now we can kind of like look at why maybe these presuppositions of the political movements that made these demands which are quite productive. Also, on other moments kind of inhibited a total liberation.
S: What’s interesting to think about, Hocquenghem was an early sort of utopian liberationist — although I think he’s more complex than that, because he also includes an idea of like, overcoming homosexuality — but he was so concerned, and he didn’t want to disclose his status or whatever, with HIV, because he was worried that it would imperil the liberationist forms of sex that he had, that were so important to his vision of revolution. Which was like, you know, cruising and everything, but then that’s something that he’s been criticized for, for his unwillingness to avow his like, yeah. Or that paradox of like this sort of sexual liberation and in his situation. But then on the other side, I’m thinking like, he kept it separate in a way that is problematic for, it puts a limit on it’s like sort of contribution at that point.
That’s not really a question *laughs* but the other side I’m thinking of, like, this book, Sexual Hegemony, in a way, like it’s maybe a weird connection, but maybe this will say something to you. I don’t know if you’ve read it, but to me it reads like totally as a companion to Samuel Delaney is Time Square Red, Time Square Blue-,
MF: Oh, yeah.
S: Where he’s writing in the height of the crisis in New York, of the HIV AIDS crisis in New York, and the way that’s used as a political tool to criminalize sexual public sexual activity under like public health measures.
S: While still maintaining this kind of utopian vision of sexuality in the midst of a health crisis. And yeah, there’s like a way that Chitty’s work kind of really resonates for me with the way that Delaney articulate sexuality, and he even gets these things about consent too, because he discusses masculine violence as a kind of effective a false scarcity that’s imposed on sexual availability — which like, really parallels the idea of capitalism enforcing sort of false scarcity or creating that. This is not also well thought out, I’m kind of like, going here in this moment.
MF: Yeah, that’s so funny that you say that. Yeah, I mean, he cites Delaney a couple times, I think. Definitely borrowing from it. But it’s so funny. Maybe this is just like, I mean, so this was an adaptation of his PhD thesis. So maybe this is just like how those things go. But um, I’ve read it so many times. And then I’m like, I’ll be reading another book that I know Chris also read, and I’m like, “Oh, my god he’s just…this is that argument”, or he’s just doing this, just kind of transposing that. So like, Hocquenghem in Homosexual Desire, in the first couple of chapters, I reread it, I’m like, ”Oh, my God, that’s exactly the form of argument he’s doing”. But then you’ll read Mario MIeli and you’re like, “Oh, that’s what he’s writing about”. And I mean, obviously, it’s like, he’s giving a direct response to Foucault History of Sexuality, Volume One. And then, you know, I’m reading Time Labor and Social Domination. And it’s like, oh yeah, that’s the form of argument he’s doing. And it’s like, whatever, maybe that’s just, like I’m saying, that’s just what a PhD is. You kind of process all this thinking and generate something that’s mostly digested, but still, it’s own new object.
Yeah, I mean, I think it’s very unique. Also, obviously, it would be very hard to kind of combine all of those positions and not have something totally new. But, um, yeah, the Delaney I think, because he’s like, he’s like a legit liberationist. For whatever reason, I was going back and reading this article by one the members of the GLF. And, you know, which is like, held up as, “Oh, in the past the gay liberationists were radical and now they’re assimilationist, or whatever, we shouldn’t be like the GLF, blah, blah”. And I was reading it, I was like, this is super misogynist, and transphobic and like pretty boring, actually. It’s like, you know, he wanted to go back to like, use like, some term from Byron, rather than the alphabet soup that current radicals have. And just like, “okay, man, like, sorry, that you got annoyed by some kids”. But, uh, Delaney is like, very much, I mean, I’m sure he has some weird cranky positions, too-
MF: But at least in terms of his sexual politics, like about the sex that he has, and sex he writes about and puts in circulation, I mean he’s just like, he’s just free. He’s like, I’m here to experience pleasure in all types of bodies and write all about it. And like, I understand the sort of social and political dynamics that are flowing through the bodies in this moment, and it has a lot to do with, you know, capitalist development. That is such a valuable tradition, and not one that is always found in the kind of like, more properly political legacy works or whatever. I guess I didn’t, yeah. I don’t think, I don’t remember what the precise question was.
S: I didn’t really articulate a question. I was just kind of trying to put some pieces together. But that actually helped me because I think why I reached for Delaney, after talking about the interruption that HIV AIDS brought in to the liberation movement is that he’s still able, he writes in the 80s, about the work that was being done around care and support and health. But he also is able, within that moment, to still envision liberation as politics and sex as connected. And perhaps part of it is his fiction, that he’s a fiction writer, but he, in a way he can go into places — the things that I like about Hocquenghem is that he ultimately doesn’t want to hold on to any of these categories. And that’s why he upsets people who want to find liberation through these categories. And then that’s also what Chitty says, ultimately, and maybe this is where we can bring this to the current moment. The argument ends up, there’s a pessimism that’s like, “okay, liberation isn’t gonna be just gay, because the gay identity is a product of capitalism.” And we’ve known that for a while, but he articulates that in a new way that allows us to get more at the complexity of it.
So I don’t know I guess to get to a sort of final question: if the problem of queerness is created by the development of the modern state, right, then we can reach liberation without also overthrowing the state. So then the question I keep coming back to and I don’t think this has to be pessimistic or nihilistic is like, what’s left for gay liberation or radical queer movement? Does it need to be called that? Or another way maybe of putting it is like, where do we find points of solidarity that can keep like delinking gay liberation from identity and interiority, but open places to like work together? Because like, the power effects that Chitty traces historically happened to other people that wouldn’t identify as gay too, right? So I mean my basic question is like, where do you think this leaves us, radical queers who are also fighting for liberation?
MF: Yeah, that’s a hard question. Yeah, I don’t know. I mean, I don’t have a great answer, like, practically, pragmatically. I think that we’re in a really weird moment. You know, I think that we’re living through some type of transition between, let’s say…I don’t know, historical period, I mean, you wouldn’t want to make a prediction about any epochal change from inside of it. But it certainly seems as if the kind of thing — you were talking about this a little bit earlier — the kind of social order that being gay or being queer was dissonant to, is kind of defunct. And you know, there’s a number of different ways you can characterize that it has, you know. Some people like to call it Fordism. Some people like to call it kind of, like the classical sort of, like, you know, post post-war capitalist period, where social reproduction is kind of like privatized in the hetero family. And that’s been in kind of a bit of crisis for the past forty years now, or more, right? You know, it was like 50 years since Stonewall a couple of years ago. And it’s obviously like, you know, a crisis that lasts that long…maybe you don’t call it a crisis after a certain point. You just call it a new sort of period? So there have been ways of stabilizing social reproduction even though that type of family organization is no longer hegemonic. But then that means because it’s not hegemonic, maybe it wasn’t necessarily a feature of this particular order of capitalism, like social reproduction still takes place, even if it’s like largely mediated by the market or debt financed, or even kind of effected through queer forms of chosen family or distributed sort of community care models, or whatever.
I think what is useful about the political position of queerness being the inheritor of a tradition of really serious attempts at grasping how these different orders of social reality connect and reproduce each other. Because, you know, it’s really easy to say like, “oh, sex has nothing to do with the economy, real material productive activity” or on the other hand it’s easy to say, like, “oh, it’s just like a kind of mechanical expression of class belonging”, and that gets you to kind of fucked up positions of proletarians aren’t queer, and then therefore it’s bougious give a shit about pleasure. That’s just never been historically the case.
So there’s a really powerful and valuable tradition of thinking that has been handed down to us, I suppose. At a great cost, against serious genocidal perril, for multiple generations. But we’re in this ambivalent position where the object of that tradition of critique has transformed in ways that it didn’t totally foresee. Which is, in some ways great, because then it’s like, okay, so some of the real horrible shit is taken care of, or like no longer as urgent. And in other ways, it means that we need to kind of rework those traditions and presuppositions and what we inherit in a way that’s kind of faithful to them, but still kind of gives us a way out of the present because we still need to get out. And I think, in particular, sorry that was a long way to say: one of the useful things that there is still on offer in the queer movement is this ability, is this repertoire that we’ve developed, of grasping how what appeared to be natural or extra-economic forms of social existence that have a kind of objective or necessary or compulsory character, right? You don’t choose whether or not you have a sexuality, you just choose whether or not to kind of live it out, or express it in a particular way. But it’s something that’s, you know, in the social world that we live in, it’s given to you. And there’s all types of ways of that that evolves, you know? But an interesting confirmation of this sort of objective nature, you know, whether or not you want it, it the kind of the larger, kind of political activity or asexuality, right? Like, this is a type of identity position that like, is clearly real and meaningful and valid in exactly the same ways as all the other kind of like, whatever, allosexual identities, but it doesn’t negate the existence of having a sexuality as a kind of imperative, as a social sort of unavoidable fact. And, in fact, it confirms it, in this kind of negative way.
So a queer movement would be one that is capable of grasping these imperatives as intimately related to questions of revolution, solving these imperatives politically, through some type of collective struggle means investigating why they take the form that they do in this particular society with this set of compulsory socially objective relations. And not just saying, like, “Oh, it’s natural”, or, “oh, you just want to do this because I feel like it” or, “it’s socially constructed”, or whatever, so that we just need to kind of tell enough people not to do this in this way that we can get out of it. Like, no, it’s actually probably going to take…and obviously, like, you know, some level of that tactic is successful, you know, it’s necessary to any kind of social movement, unfortunately. You have to kind of do the really thankless work of yelling at people or bothering them about stuff that they think is the reflex, but there’s also a different level that it exists on and we need to have a kind of way of grasping that. And that’s not at all a concrete answer. But I think that’s the kind of precious insight or tradition or whatever in the queer liberatory lineage that I think is really useful.
S: Since we’re forming our discussion around this book, if like, what this book does is “historicize the history of sexuality” — I think that’s something he says — like, I’m thinking about how Hocquenghem talks about, like, the leftists are always fighting the last revolution. And like, if we get caught up in the conditions that produce gay liberation — which was like, according to Chitty, the policing of sexuality, that led to confrontation, like fighting police in the streets, which led to Stonewall — if we’re fighting that, that war now, like, that’s the wrong war. Because, you know, homosexuality has been included it’s no longer a threat. And it’s not the node of control in the same way. It is in other places, I guess, like, particularly around transness right now is being articulated.
But the other thing is like, this book doesn’t give us a predictive thing, obviously, a predictive tool. But since he articulates all these moments around these times of financialization, like we’re in that moment, right? We’re in a time of like, sexual hegemony potentially changing. So that term can give us something to think about the way sexuality is politicized. Not as like a simple dynamic of like, “yes or no” or “repressed or liberated”, but like, it’s a subtle tool that we need to kind of, like, try to understand how to wield for ourselves and not for the state. But like, yeah, I guess we’re still inundated with all those slogans that are so intoxicating from that time when there was way more visible militancy, you know, and the social war was visible, right, like, a lot more going generally visible at that time. So.
MF: Yeah, people picking up arms in a different way.
S:Yeah. I like, get left in this pessimistic place of “gay liberation has been totally captured”. But that’s also an old story. And then still like a thing of how the new articulations of queerness are potential locations of solidarity. And seeing the work that pinko does too, in terms of the way that the journal kind of brings together different fronts, I think is helpful to think through those kinds of modes, you know? Like, yeah, there’s a lot and I think it’s expansive, right? Like in the two volumes, it brings together different movement work on different fronts, right? There’s stuff around sex work, there’s stuff like the Trans History Project, there is theories of sexuality, there’s a mix of old discourse, like reprinted texts from the old movement, there’s like new takes on things. I don’t know. I think I like that because it’s like seeing it as a coalitional politics.
MF: Oh, yeah. Interesting. Sure. Yeah. That’s nice. But it’s nice to think about it like that. Yeah. I mean, with Pinko, one of the fantasies that I had, when I started working on it was that we would have a kind of a venue for bringing together a bunch of different perspectives that don’t, hadn’t really been in conversation, but also kind of like, hopefully trying to consolidate what might be a new position that I don’t know that we have yet. I mean, I’m hopeful, and I’m sure that it reads differently from the other side, you know, it’s more maybe more coherent, or more like, all in sync or whatever.
But the other thing that I thought would be important, to have a magazine or some kind of a record going was of these struggles around sexuality as the current dominant, hegemonic mode begins to sort of transform. I thought it would be useful to have a kind of place that was attending to the different ways that people are trying to work out what it means to be militant with these problems, or these concepts or whatever.
You know I think one of my favorite pieces was sort of the first issue — and I don’t know, I don’t want to say this in like a too simple way — but it was the interview with these two trans people who went down to a coal ship, a coal train blockade in Kentucky, I think. And they set up a kind of classic like encampment-style protest occupation thing that has been a really dominant form for a lot of types of protests for the past decade or so. And we had this interesting conversation with them, while they were, you know, there at the camp. And they have this very hopeful, like, “we’re here to support the miners, but we’re also members of the community, we’re from Appalachia, and obviously there’s, maybe there’s some tension around our transness or whatever, but like, we’re able to talk with them in a kind of chill way and resolve this conflict”. And when it came to us, there’s like, this cool story about precisely that. This coalitional thing, or it’s like, wow, trans struggles and the classical worker militancy thing can come together in these wildcat places where they block circulation. It’s this perfect illustration of so many political trends, like, we love this fusion.
And then actually, what ended up happening was in between the interviews that we did and the publication of the magazine, some Trump dude showed up, basically, and took over the camp, or like, installed themselves in the camp, and the miners basically weren’t able to reestablish their own control. And so the trans people were like “thid is not a chill place for us to be and we can’t trust you dudes to kick out this fucking biker gang or whatever, so we’re leaving” which is a reasonable thing to do.
Anyway so we ended up having to run this kind of long intro paragraph about why they didn’t quite work. Like what they thought was the fissures in their previous assessment that they’ve been able to do this interesting coalitional thing. And like, I don’t know, yeah, I don’t want to tell the story like, “haha they were proved wrong” or whatever. But I thought having the space to kind of investigate, there’s quite a lot to be learned in figuring out the limits also, of these forms of political action and political sort of conduct and protest and thinking. And I was glad that we had this venue where we weren’t like, “Oh, we have to give this kind of posi story about, you know, the powerful moment of unity between the macho miner dude and the less macho trans people or whatever”. It wasn’t a kind of affirmative thing. Like, what was interesting was that like, we could actually take the time to take apart why this in particular, this one thing didn’t work. Because obviously that’s going to happen much more than winning, you know? And so like, there’s a lot in figuring out how to think about how things come apart? And what to do with that, and what to learn about that. What I find interesting about the potential for Pinko.
S: That makes sense. And that’s sort of like, with the kind of crisis theories, like, or we look at the sort of moments of crisis as potential openings for something, even though all the past moments haven’t been moments of winning, they’re like moments of loosening where other things can happen. And that’s, I don’t know, that’s where I’m at right now. Is that like, instead of thinking about that punctual moment, to like, look at the places where things are being done differently in the present, and work from there. I don’t know if it’s like, yeah, aggregate, or what, but like we can’t tell these deterministic histories, which are, like, kind of used both in like liberationist theories and repressive theories, you know?
S: Well, we’ve been talking for a while. So I don’t know if there’s like any final thing that you kind of want to touch on. Is there any way you want to like direct people to find your work, other than read Sexual Hegemony that’s put out by Duke University Press.
MF: Yeah read that. Exactly. Yeah, go find that on, I mean the Duke website as a good place to buy it from. I’ll put a plug: the Duke Press, the people who work there are unionizing. So you better support them if you have any kind of interaction with Duke. You know, maybe if you buy the book, you should add a note saying you recognize the union or whatever we find is effective about those things.
S: I signed today on their author’s support letter and I saw your name. *laughs*
MF: Yeah. Yeah, I mean, actually, that’s funny. You probably can’t buy, I think if you want to buy the Hocquenghem translation that I did, I think I will personally have to fulfill it because the publisher is sailing on a boat in the Arctic now and she dropped off all the remaining copies that are in my closet. So if you really want to order a copy, I guess I can put that in the mail. But I wouldn’t I wouldn’t count on that being like a prompt delivery. And then Pinko you can find it at pinko.online.
S: Cool. Well, thank you so much for taking all the time to talk.
MF: Yeah, thank you so much for asking such awesome questions. I hope it was coherent.
S: I think you did a really good job explaining the main ideas of the book, also in a way that like helped me think about it. Like, because I’ve read the book and probably a lot of people listening won’t have read it, but, so like, yeah you brought up new aspects of it for me. I think it was really clear.
This week we are re-airing a conversation that Bursts had last year with Aric McBay, who is an anarchist, organizer, farmer, and author about his most recent book called Full Spectrum Resistance published by Seven Stories Press in May 2019. This book is divided into 2 volumes, and from the books website [fullspectrumresistance.org]:
“Volume 1: Building movements and fighting to win, explores how movements approach political struggle, recruit members, and structure themselves to get things done and be safe.
Volume 2: Actions and strategies for change, lays out how movements develop critical capacities (from intelligence to logistics), and how they plan and carry out successful actions and campaigns.”
This interview covers a lot of ground, with topics that could be of use to folks newer to movement and ones who have been struggling and building for a while. McBay also talks at length about the somewhat infamous formation Deep Green Resistance, some of its history, and tendencies within that group that led him to break with them.
Links to Indigenous and Migrant led projects for sovereignty and climate justice, and some for further research:
Wet’suwet’en Strong [groundworkforchange.org/wetsuweten-strong.html], which includes extensive educational material on allyship, racism, settler colonialism, and decolonization.
Interview on TFS with Smogelgem, a Wet’suwet’en Hereditary Chief of the Likhts’amisyu clan, on ongoing struggles against pipelines and moves to create a Wet’suwet’en lead climate change research facility on their lands at Parrot Lake.
Chicano anarchist communist prisoner, Xinachtli, fka Alvaro Luna Hernandez, has an upcoming parole bid and is hoping to receive letters of support. Xinacthli has been imprisoned since 1997 on a 50 year bid for the weaponless disarming a sheriff’s deputy who drew a pistol on him at his home. The last 19 years of his incarceration have been in solitary confinement. Details on writing him letters and where to send them can be found at his new support site, FreeAlvaro.Net, as well as his writings and more about him. He is also one of the main editors of the Certain Days political prisoner calendar, author and a renowned jailhouse lawyer. Parole support letters are requested no later than March 20th, 2021.
Mumia has Covid-19
It was announced last week that incarcerated educator, broadcaster, author, revolutionary and jailhouse lawyer Mumia Abu-Jamal has been experiencing congestive heart failure and tested positive for covid-19. There are actions scheduled in Philadelphia before the airing of this broadcast, but you can find more info and ways to plug in at FreeMumia.Com
Transcription, Zines, Support…
Thanks to the folks who’ve been supporting this project in various ways. You can pick up merch or make donation that support our transcription work with the info at TFSR.WTF/Support. Our transcripts are out a week or so after broadcast and we’re slowly starting to transcribe older episodes. Zines can be found at TFSR.WTF/Zines for easy printing and sharing. You can find our social media and ways to stream us at TFSR.WTF/links and learn how to get us broadcasting on more radio stations at TFSR.WTF/radio! Thanks!
U.N.I.Verse at War by The Roots from Instrumentals Album
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TFSR: So I’m very proud to be speaking with farmer, organizer, artist and author Aric McBay. Thank you so much for taking the time to have this conversation. Would you mind telling us a little bit about yourself, what stuff you’re farming, for instance, where you are, and what sorts of organizing you’re involved in?
Aric McBay: Sure. And thank you so much for having me on your show. So I farm just east of Kingston, Ontario. We have a vegetable CSA farm Community Supported Agriculture. So we grow about 40 or 50 different varieties of vegetables, and we provide those to about 250 households in our area. We do kind of a sliding scale to make it more accessible to people. And we normally host a lot of different educational events and workshops. But of course most of those are on pause right now.
In terms of community and activism or community engagement, I have worked on many different causes over the years. I’ve worked with militant conservation organizations like Sea Shepherd or doing tree sits. I’ve been a labor organizer, I’ve been a farm organizer. I’ve helped start community gardens. A lot of the work that I do right now is about climate justice and about other issues that are topical, at different times in my area, especially prisons, and housing right now. Prisons are quite a big issue that the nearest city Kingston has the largest number of prisons per capita of any city in Canada. So prisoners issues continue to be very important and I think that the situation with COVID has only kind of highlighted the ways in which prisoners are treated unfairly, and in which the prison system actually makes us less safe, makes our society more dangerous rather than less so.
TFSR: Well, you did an interview with From Embers at one point, which are friends of ours and members of the Channel Zero Network. They also had a show recently, or I guess a couple of months ago, about the pandemic and the history of pandemics in the Canadian prison system. And it’s like, yeah, it’s pretty sickening. And you’re on occupied Anishinaabe and Haudenosaunee land, right?
AM: That’s correct. Yes.
TFSR: And this is Tsalagi and Creek land where I’m calling you from. So you’ve been thinking and working around big picture ecological survival, and as you said, ecological justice for quite a while. For someone picking this up on the radio and maybe not keen on environmental concerns, can you give a kind of a quick snapshot of where the civilization is in terms of destroying the Earth’s capacity to carry complex life?
AM: Sure, and it’s so easy to forget about or to push aside because the other emergencies in our daily life just keep kind of stacking up. So right now, we are in the middle of really a mass extinction on on this planet. And industrial activity, industrial extraction has destroyed something like 95% of the big fish in the ocean, has fragmented huge amounts of tropical forest and deforested many tropical areas, including much of the Amazon at this point. But it’s really climate change that’s kind of that global, critical problem. The temperature has already gone up nearly one degree from their kind of pre-industrial norm, but the emissions that human industry have put into the atmosphere of the greenhouse gases, like carbon dioxide and methane, are already enough to set us on a path of significantly greater warming. That’s even if we stopped, you know, driving cars, or burning coal today.
And so that produces a bunch of different challenges. Of course, we’re going to see already more and more hot weather heat waves, like we’ve certainly been seeing this summer, more extreme storms happening more frequently. But in the long term, the outlook is potentially very grim. Depending on the emissions that are produced around the globe, we could be looking at not just one or two degrees of warming, but potentially five or six degrees of warming by the end of the century. And that produces a very different world from the one that we live in. Even two degrees of warming would be enough to essentially wipe out all of the coral reefs on the planet, to wipe out entire biomes.
We’re at the point where even relatively conservative international organizations understand that climate change could displace hundreds of millions of people, could create hundreds of millions of climate refugees around the world. And there’s never been any displacement like that. You know, when you talk about making a place where where potentially billions of people live, much harder to live in, and much harder to grow food. And, you know, we’ve seen things like the so called Arab Spring, for example, and the situation in Syria where those areas of unrest or those uprisings were triggered, in part by prolonged droughts and agricultural failures. And we have seen the streams of refugees coming from those places, especially in the United States, has really increased the amount of xenophobia and racism I think that a lot of people on the right feel comfortable demonstrating.
So the ecological crisis is not just about fish and trees, it’s really about the kind of society that we’re going to have in the future. For human beings, are we going to have a society where fascism is considered kind of a necessary response to streams of refugees moving from equatorial areas, as of local economies collapse? Are we going to see an even greater resurgence of racism in order to justify that? Are we going to see much more draconian police response to deal with the unrest and uprisings that could happen? So our future, our future in terms of justice and human rights really depends on us dealing effectively with climate change in the short term, because climate change is not something that we can kind of ignore and come back to and 20 or 30 or 40 years. There’s a real lag effect, that the emissions now those are going to cause warming for decades or even centuries. And the response is really nonlinear. So what I mean by that is, if you double the amount of greenhouse gases that you’re putting out, that doesn’t necessarily double the temperature impact. There are many tipping points. So as the Arctic ice melts in the Arctic Ocean, and that white snow turns to a darker sea, then that is going to absorb more sunlight, more solar energy and accelerate warming. It’s the same thing in the Amazon rainforests, the Amazon rainforest creates its own climate, creates its own rainfall and clouds. So you can easily hit a point where the entire forest is suddenly put into drought and starts to collapse.
We really need to prevent those tipping points from happening and to act as quickly as possible to prevent catastrophic climate change, because it’s going to be almost impossible to deal with, in a fair way once that happens. And that’s really the idea of climate justice, right? That the impacts of global warming are disproportionately put on people of color, on low income people, on poorer countries. And so if we want to have a fairer future, then that means those of us who are living in more affluent economies have a responsibility to reduce those emissions. Those of us who have more affluent lifestyles, their main responsibility to deal with that, to produce a future as well, that is fair and just and where human rights are still important.
TFSR: And like to, I think, reiterate a point in there, it seems like fairness and justice are good rulers to kind of hold ourselves to, but it seems like it’s for the survival of the species, as well as for the betterment and an improvement of all of our lives with these eminent and emergent threats. Resolving this and working towards working together with everyone is the best option.
AM: Yeah, I mean, I think it’s true. And I think one of the reasons that I’m interested in organizing around climate justice is because it’s one of the ultimate areas of common ground, right? It kind of connects people who are in many different places and working on many different struggles. Because activists who I work with, who are mostly anti-racist activists, understand why this is important. I mean, we’re already seeing that impact around the world. And activists who work on food security and hunger, I mean, it’s totally clear why climate change is important, because our ability to grow food in the future depends on avoiding catastrophic climate change. When I’m working with anti-authoritarians, it’s the same thing. So I really do see climate justice as an important movement building issue, something that can connect a lot of causes that might seem more disparate from from kind of a distance.
TFSR: I think your work does a really good job of pulling together, the fabric, sort of like weaving together these pieces and patchwork to say that these are all interrelated. And for us to ignore one of these elements means that we create a much weaker fabric, if even something that’ll hold together at all. Your most recent and huge two part book was entitled Full Spectrum Resistance, and the first subtitle was Building Movements and Fighting to Win, and the second was Action and Strategies for Change. Can you share what you mean by “full spectrum resistance”, and what you hope these books will bring to the table for folks organizing to not only stop the destruction of complex life on Earth, but to increase the quality of our survival and our living together?
AM: Of course. So I wrote this book because I’ve been an activist for more than 20 years, and almost all of the campaigns that I worked on, we were losing ground, right? I mean, that was the case for many environmental struggles, but also in struggles around the gap between the rich and poor, around many other things. But I saw in history and around the world, many examples of movements that had been incredibly successful. And the fact that a lot of the rights that people take for granted today – a lot of our human rights – come from movements that learned really valuable lessons about how to be effective. Movements that didn’t know necessarily know at the beginning, what would create kind of a winning outcome. And so full spectrum resistance is an idea that I think encapsulates some of the key characteristics that successful movements need to have, especially when they want to move beyond maybe a single issue or a local concern.
So one of those components of full spectrum resistance is a diversity of tactics. I think that’s really critical. I think one of the reasons that the left hasn’t been as successful in recent years, is that it’s really been whittled down to a couple of main tactics, it’s been whittled down to voting, and to voting with your dollar, right? To kind of ethical consumerism. And those are very limited tools. And they’re tools that leave out the vast majority of tactics that movements have used in the past, right? Successful movements like the Civil Rights Movement, or the suffragists or their movement against apartheid in South Africa. They used a huge range of tactics. I mean, they certainly use things like petitions and awareness raising tool at different times. But they also use tactics that allowed them to generate political force and disruption. So a lot of people don’t realize that, you know, to win the right to vote suffragist movements use property destruction and arson quite frequently. When people are talking about Nelson Mandela and the anti-apartheid movement, people often use Nelson Mandela, ironically, as a reason why we shouldn’t be disruptive. They think of him as this really peaceful guy because he spent close to 30 years in prison. But Nelson Mandela helped to create the underground armed wing of the African National Congress. That was a struggle that used armed self defense and sabotage extensively in South Africa. And allies used all kinds of economic disruption, especially divestment around the world to try to pressure the South African government. And we can take a look in more detail at some of these case studies if you want. But I think a diversity of tactics is really critical in building movements that win. Because if we stick to only one tactic, then that really limits our ability to escalate, and that limits our ability to adapt. It’s easy for those in power to understand how to undermine one tactic, if it’s the only one that we use.
I think another aspect of full spectrum resistance is cooperation among different kind of…constituencies, you might call them. So those in power can stay in power through divide and conquer, right? That’s one of their primary tools is to split resistance movements or social movements into different manageable chunks, like “militants” and “moderates”. So they can split the people who are willing to go out into the street and protest with kind of maybe a broader, more moderate group of people who support them. And they can just go ahead and arrest you know, a small group of militants in the street, if they’re able to separate those people.
Let me, actually let me give you an example of how a diversity of tactics and this cooperation can work. One of the movements that I talk about, or one of the campaigns that I talk about in the book, is an anti-apartheid group that organized in New York City at Columbia University in the 1980’s. And they were an organization that was trying to get Columbia University to stop investing in companies that did business in South Africa, right? South Africa was kind of a resource empire at the time, there were huge mineral resources that were being extracted, and people were making a lot of money. But because of the racism, because of the authoritarianism of that apartheid system, people around the world were really struggling to generate political force to put the pressure on to end the system of apartheid.
And so Columbia University, like many universities had big endowments, big investments. And there is this group is called the committee for a free South Africa at Columbia University. And they started with kind of classic strategy of awareness raising, so they held discussion groups and teachings about apartheid. They had, you know, petitions to try to convince the government of Columbia University to divest from South Africa. And they really did everything that you were supposed to do, right? They did all of the things that we’re kind of told, told that we are supposed to do in order to succeed. They built that public awareness and understanding, and they hit a wall. They got to the point where the administration and faculty and student representatives in the student government all voted for divestment by the top level of government, their board of trustees overruled them. And I think that point that they reached is a point that a lot of our struggles eventually meet, right? Where we’ve done the things that we’re supposed to do, but still those in power refused to do what is right. And it was a real turning point for those anti-apartheid organizers. And their attendance at events started to decrease after that, because well people thought “hey, this struggle is over, the Board of Trustees isn’t going to diverse, so what can you do, we just lost this one.” But those organizers, they weren’t willing to just give up, they realized they needed to escalate to win.
They decided to plan a series of disruptive simultaneous actions, they started a hunger strike. And they took over a building, they blockaded a building on campus and said “we’re not going to go anywhere until Columbia University divest.” And this was a big risk for them, right? Because they’d seen this declining participation. But it actually worked. They started with a handful of people at this blockade. And more and more people started coming. There’s this fascinating statistic about this campaign. Before the blockade, only 9% of the student body considered themselves at least somewhat active in that campaign for divestment. So only 9% had shown up to a rally or you know, signed a petition. But in the weeks to come, 37% of the entire student body participated in that blockade, by joining rallies or by sleeping overnight on the steps.
So, you know, that kind of divestment campaign, I think is very important. Now, in part because that campaign worked, Columbia University eventually did give in and did agree to divest. And that shows to us, you know, the value of a diversity of tactics, the value of disruption, the value of cooperation between people who are using different kinds of tactics. I think that really is something that we can learn and apply very effectively. And then the current day, another key part of full spectrum resistance is that solidarity between movements, to avoid the divide and conquer tactics that those in power try to use. And the fourth thing is really an intersectional approach is to try to synthesize the different ideas and the different philosophies that motivate different campaigns and that motivate different movements. Because we’re in a time when I don’t think single issue campaigns can succeed anymore, certainly in the context of climate change, but also in the context of rising authoritarianism. We need to look at how we can build that shared analysis, build genuine intersectionality in order to create movements that are truly powerful and effective.
TFSR: So with the Columbia example, it’s really interesting to point to that, I hadn’t heard of that before, and that seems like there’s a lot of lessons to be gathered from that. With what we’re talking about with the scope of climate change, like the larger scope of climate change, obviously, is you can break it down into smaller and smaller points of this extraction thing happens in this place, those materials are transported here, they’re processed here, they’re consumed or subsidized by these populations are these organizations. So I guess, like the level of amplification of resistance that you’re willing to apply to a situation should scale according to what you’re trying to succeed at doing.
With this wider scope of resistance to something that you could look at as a whole as the way that governments backup energy infrastructure, and monocrop industrial agriculture, the scale of this…I get kind of lost between that point of pressuring the people at the top of the university to divest once all the other steps have been denied, like the scaling between that and looking at, say, for instance, the US government and pressuring them…I kind of just get lost in the clouds at that point. I’m like, well, the US government is going to want to continue business as usual as much as it can, in part because of its investors, much like Colombia, but also because it’s sustaining a more “holistic” system. How does the anecdote of Colombia and the resistance there fit into a wider scope of looking at governments and the ecological destruction that they’re involved with?
AM: Yeah, that’s a great question. And I think one of the biggest challenges of the climate justice movement is the way that climate change and fossil fuel emissions, it all just feel so overwhelming and so diffuse, it’s hard to figure out, where should we actually focus our energy. But I think that many, or most movements in history, at some point, faced a similar problem, right? I mean, the anti-apartheid movement that Colombia was was a part of and were supporting. That was a movement that lasted for generations, the African National Congress was founded in 1912. And certainly at different points it was very unclear what people should do, you know, what was actually going to work against such a violently repressive regime. And so for me, I think there are a bunch of things that we can and should do to help address problems that seem really overwhelming or diffuse. And one of them, of course, is just to keep building our movements and to keep building our capacity and our connections. Because as long as we feel like we’re kind of isolated individuals or isolated pockets of resistance, it’s hard for us to see how we can tackle bigger problems. And that isolation is not an accident. Any authoritarian power especially wants to keep people divided and distrustful. So it’s important that we build cultures of resistance, that we build real connections with each other, and that we celebrate movements in the past that have won, so that we can kind of build up our capacity.
And I think it’s also important to look for areas where we can have early wins or kind of low hanging fruit. Areas where the problem is not as diffuse, but where the problem is more, is much more concrete or much more tangible. And so a great example of both of those things that work would be some of the mobilization against fossil fuel that has happened in so-called Canada in this year, and in recent years. So I don’t know if all of your listeners have been following this, but in February and March of this year of 2020, we saw some of the biggest Indigenous solidarity mobilizations in Canadian history. And those were kind of provoked by a particular flashpoint on the west coast. So there’s a settlement called Unist’ot’en which is on a pipeline route, there’s a site where the Canadian government and a variety of oil companies have been trying to build a series of pipelines to the west coast so that oil and fracked natural gas can be exported. And the Indigenous people who live there, the Wet’suwet’en, the traditional hereditary leaders have been very committed for many years to stop that from happening, and have essentially built this community on the pipeline route to assert their traditional rights and to assert their Indigenous sovereignty.
And in February at the beginning of February 2020, the government sent in really large armed force of RCMP officers and other officers, to try to kind of smash through different checkpoints that Indigenous communities had set up on the route leading to this site on the road, and also to destroy the gate that was keeping oil workers from going in and working on the construction of this pipeline. And the community there had been really good at building a culture of resistance over years, not just amongst Indigenous people, but among settler allies across the country. And so when that raid began, there was a really powerful response from many different communities. So a Mohawk community located just west of me, Tyendinaga, they decided to blockade the major east-west rail line that runs through Ontario, and that is kind of a bottleneck for the entire country. And other Indigenous communities started to do this as well, to set up rail blockades. And essentially, the entire rail network of Canada was shut down for weeks. You know, there were massive transportation backlogs.
And there were other disruptive actions as well, things like blockades of bridges – including international bridges – blockades and slowdowns of highways. And there was all of this mobilization that a year or two ago seemed inconceivable, it seemed impossible that any kind of disruption would be able to happen on that scale because nothing like that had happened before. And it was a really powerful movement that did cause the government to back off and cause the police to back off and start these new negotiations. And you know the COVID pandemic was declared at the same time as a lot of this organizing was still happening, so it’s kind of unclear what might have happened if that action had continued without a pandemic. But the rallying cry for a lot of organizers at that point was “shut down Canada”, which the pandemic did on a much larger kind of unanticipated scale.
But I think that example of the Wet’suwet’en solidarity and the disruption around it really points the way to potential successes and potentially more effective styles of organizing for the climate justice movement. And I think they have done a lot of things, right. They built that culture of resistance. So they didn’t just wait around for kind of a spontaneous uprising to happen, which I think almost never happens. They had built these connections over many years and build capacity and people had trained each other and trained themselves. And they had a particular location that they were trying to protect, right? So it wasn’t just “let’s go out and protect the entire world and protect all people.” You know, it’s hard to mobilize movements around something that’s so vague, but there is a particular community of a particular group of Indigenous people on a particular spot. And I think it’s much easier to mobilize folks around tangible sites of conflict like that.
The last thing that they did that was really effective, and that I think we can learn from, is that they turned the weakness of having the fight against this diffuse industrial infrastructure into a strength. So instead of just saying, “Oh, well, there’s so many pipelines, there’s so many rail lines, there’s so many highways, nothing we can do is going to make any difference.” The movement kind of said “Hey, there are all of these pipelines and rail lines and highways that are basically undefended, and that we can go and disrupt – even if it’s only for a day or two – and then move to another site. This actually gives us the potential to be incredibly effective, and to cost oil companies a lot of money and to cost the Canadian economy a lot of money.” Because that’s often what it boils down to right is “can we cost a corporation or a government more than they’re getting from doing this bad thing?” And I think that the Wet’suwet’en struggle has been an example and a demonstration of how to do that.
TFSR: Yeah, absolutely. And I think that that points to a really cogent point in terms of how to think about this sort of resistance. There were, what, 200 years for the Canadian government to think about its relationship to Indigenous communities and the sovereignty of like…them just pushing through sovereign territories to get what they want to extract, to run railways, to put pipelines in or whatever. And so appealing to the logic or the “reasonability”, or the sense of justice of the people that were representing the bodies that were sitting in the chairs in the suits in government – who were enacting the logic of capitalist settler colonial government – was not working.
But what did work was showing that if you do not see this point, we will shut down your ability to do this, or we will escalate to the point that you will have to like, step up further, and push back. And I think it’s a point that often gets lost. And I think, consciously, it’s been inculcated out of us, I guess, that’s a way to say it? Like, in the United States at least, we’re educated that the example of the suffragettes, the example of Gandhi, the example of the resistance to apartheid in South Africa, all of these examples, the winning view that’s given by the power structures when they educate us is that reasonability won out because of the justice of the cause. And because people went out and put their bodies on the line, but also like their petitions were eventually heard, their voting actually was the effective measure that changed the balance of power and that forced those in power to recognize the justice of the demands. And I think that’s like pandemic offers an interesting insight into, again, how that’s BS, like marches don’t stop people in power from making decisions. The threat that marches bring with the amassing of angry people who can do damage, or who can disrupt things, is what actually makes people in power look at marches and why that specific way of engaging is considered dangerous to those in power and why they want to stop that sort of thing.
I think that there’s a parallel to be drawn between that great example with the Wet’suwet’en folks and the resistance that was given to the attack on Unist’ot’en and Gitdimt’en gate, alongside of what we’ve seen, during this pandemic, in a lot of countries, and particularly the United States – where I’ve heard this morning on the radio, which, hopefully, hopefully, it’ll be wrong by the time this gets broadcast – but the US where I’m based, has a quarter of the deaths from COVID-19, around the world, and yet we are something like 5% of the world population. Those are similar numbers to how many people are incarcerated in this country versus the rest of the world. And people in power, at this point are not representing that they have the ability, the capacity, the interest, the will to actually stop this pandemic from spreading, and killing off the people that are most marginalized – starting off with the people that are most marginalized – in our society.
And so it seems like appealing to that same wing of power, the ones that profit off of ecological destruction when it comes to scaling back ecological destruction, and trying to reverse that trend, doesn’t seem that reasonable. But the sort of like direct action instances that you’re talking about, in coordination with other methods of dialogue and culture building, feels really important and exciting to me. I don’t know if you think that seeing the reaction of governments during pandemic is comparable to the vast amount of knowledge of ecological destruction, is an apt comparison or not?
AM: Yeah, I think you make very important points. And I think that, especially under capitalism, one of our continuing challenges with those in power is that they always consider profit more important than life, right? They always consider profit more important than human safety and human wellbeing. And that applies whether we’re talking about incarceration or COVID, or climate change, or police departments. And because of that, those in power are almost never convinced or persuaded by arguments to do the right thing. And that’s the case in the examples that you’ve mentioned, as well. If we look at those historical movements, we have been given a really sanitized kind of false narrative about how things like the Civil Rights Movement worked, or the suffragettes – or the suffragists, rather – we’re told, hey, that, you know, the Civil Rights Movement, just finally convinced people because people like Martin Luther King were willing to risk getting beaten up. And that’s what changed things. But that is not primarily what changed the people who are in positions of power, right? I’m sure there were a lot of people on the sidelines, especially in the north, who saw Black people and white people being beaten up by police on the Freedom Rides, for example, and that changed their opinion about things, or that helped mobilize them to do something about racism. But the racism, especially in the Southern states, and segregation, that didn’t end because of the Civil Rights Movement, giving a good example, that was dismantled, essentially, because of different kinds of force, political force, and sometimes physical force.
So in the Civil Rights Movement, we can look at the example of the Freedom Rides, when groups of white and Black organizers rode buses through the South where they were supposed to be segregated. And those buses were attacked by police and vigilantes, violently attacked, people ended up in hospital, buses were set on fire. And that didn’t actually end until essentially the federal government intervened, the federal government sent in troops to escort those Freedom Riders around the South to kind of complete their journey. And I think that’s something that people forget often, that racist violence didn’t just end because of a good example. It ended because there was some other form of force being employed. And I think people also forget that a lot of the non-violent demonstrations, the Civil Rights Demonstrations in the south, were protected by armed groups like the Deacons for Defense. The Deacons for Defense were an armed group before the Black Panthers, that was in many cases made up of military veterans, Black military veterans, who decided that they were tired of seeing civil rights marches getting attacked by the KKK or their police, and said we’re going to use our right to bear arms, and we’re going to go down there and defend people. And so a lot of the nonviolent actions that happened, were protected by armed Civil Rights activists.
So these sorts of things get written out of the history, especially by the in power, because those in power want to seem like the good guys, right? They want to seem like, “Hey, we are the ones who are going to come down and give you the rights, if you can provide us a good example, we’re just going to gift you these rights, these human rights” and that’s almost never have things will wind they will one because people were willing to struggle and people who are willing to disrupt.
I think that ignorance of social movement struggle is a form of white privilege. I have seen this at many different workshops, and many different talks that I’ve given, that often at the start of a workshop, I’ll ask people when they’re introducing themselves to name movement that inspires you, or name a campaign that inspires you. And oftentimes, the people who are coming to that workshop who are white organizers, who are newer organizers, they don’t have such a large repertoire to draw on, right, they’re much more likely to name a movement that happened locally or a movement that’s been in the news. Whereas a lot of the organizers who are people of color or from other marginalized communities, they can list off a ton of movements that inspire them that they’re learning from. And that’s important because marginalized communities understand better how to deal with those in power, how to get rights and how to protect your rights. And that’s often through social movements and through struggle, whereas people who are used to those in power looking out for their interests, especially, you know, middle class white men, they can afford to ignore social movement history, because they haven’t really needed social movements in the same way, or they don’t appreciate them.
And so when we have situations like we have now with growing authoritarianism, much more obvious racism, the climate emergency, people who are in positions of privilege, they find themselves at a loss, because they don’t know that movement history, so they don’t know how to respond. And it’s often movements of color movements of marginalized people, those are the movements that are going to teach us how to deal with these deep systems of injustice, these deep systems of inequality.
TFSR: So I guess, shifting gears back to like questions of wider approaches towards resisting ecological change, over the last couple of years there have been a few groups that have garnered a lot of headlines, and gained some sort of recognition and interplay with mainstream media, with governments around the world. I’m wondering what your full spectrum approach towards resistance sort of use the efficacy, or the impact of groups. I’m thinking of 350.org, Sunrise Movement and Extinction Rebellion, do those feel like single issue approaches towards ecological struggle? Because I know that there was some critiques definitely in the UK about extinction rebellion, specifically, the leadership weeding out people who are wanting to bring up questions around not only ecological devastation, but also around racism and around the existence of industrial capitalism, and its impact on that.
AM: Yeah. And I think that’s a big problem. I think that you can’t really address climate change without talking about capitalism, you can’t address climate change without talking about racism. And I think that, in general, the big liberal movements against climate change, or the big liberal organizations have failed. Partly for that reason, probably, because they’re not, they’re not looking at the root problems. They’re not radical organizations, right, they’re not going to the root of the issue. And so they’re not going to be able to use the tactics that will resolve it.
I think at this point, companies like Shell Oil, and you know, a variety of petroleum companies were very aware of climate change, going back to the 1960s. I mean, they had more extensive research at that point into climate change than the general public. And when I’ve done research into organizations that have fought against offshore drilling, for example, you can see that even in the 1980’s, oil companies like Shell are already building their oil rigs with taller legs in order to compensate for the sea level rise they expect to see. So the issue is not that those in power are totally ignorant of climate change, it’s that they’re making a lot of money from climate change and they think with all of the money they are making, that they can deal with the consequences for themselves personally, although not for everyone else.
And so that’s a huge problem and in some ways it’s slightly different from COVID. You know, in Canada, I think one of the reasons that we’ve seen a much stronger national response is because very early on the prime minister’s wife tested positive for COVID. And so clearly the impacts of the Coronavirus have been disproportionately bad for communities of color and for low income communities, but there still is much more potential for affluent people to get it. Whereas something like climate change, I think those in power have felt very isolated from especially in more northern countries. So that’s a huge problem. And that’s one of the reasons that just appealing to the good sensibilities of those in power is not going to succeed.
Maybe I’ll speak mostly about Extinction Rebellion, because when I was doing my book tour last here, and traveled from coast to coast in Canada, I ended up doing workshops about direct action and movement strategy for a lot of different Extinction Rebellion groups here. And I think, you know, from what I’ve seen, the people who have participated in those events have been very committed and strongly motivated, they understand that it really is an emergency, but they don’t always have a lot of history in kind of activism, or they don’t have as much movement experience as some of the other groups that I’ve worked with. Which can be good and bad, right? I mean, I think, you know, a lot of the liberal left, the reason that groups keep failing to address the climate crisis is because there’s kind of a standard issue dogma about how we need to convince governments to change and ask politely, and so on. And that’s really a dead end. So I think for people new to a movement or getting newly active, they are potentially more open to new ideas and new ways of doing things.
But I think that the Extinction Rebellion kind of movement in general, in Canada, and definitely in the UK, has not done a very good job of, of including the needs of Indigenous communities, and has not done a good job of including the needs of communities of color. And in particular, I think we see that in the relationship between Extinction Rebellion, and the police. This was a discussion that came up in almost every XR group that I have spoken with, that that kind of official line from XR in the UK is that you’re supposed to have a good relationship with the police, you’re supposed to go to the police in advance of an action and let them know what’s going to happen. And, you know, as a direct action organizer myself, and on many different issues, that sounds absolutely ridiculous, for a lot of reasons. One of which is that you lose the element of surprise, which is one of the key strategic advantages that smaller resistance movements need to have. But also, because if you go and try to cozy up to the police, or try to expect them to give you a good treatment because you’re bringing them a cake or something, I mean, that is really kind of a white focused thing to do, right? And that ignores the long standing grievances of Black and Indigenous communities in particular, because of the violent treatment that they’ve experienced at the hands of police. And of course, that has become even more obvious in recent months, and you know, the amount of attention and mobilization is long overdue. I think that’s been a real weakness of Extinction Rebellion, and I think it’s going to need to address that, and other climate justice movements will need to address that in order to succeed.
I think another challenge to Extinction Rebellion has been that they still are kind of assuming that if they make a strong enough argument that those in power will change their behavior. Because one of their big demands has been for those in power to tell the truth. And from my perspective, as an organizer, that almost never happens, right? Well, those in power rarely tell the truth and you don’t want to give them the opportunity to dominate the messaging. Those in power, whether it’s the corporate PR officers or government PR, I mean, they almost always dominate public discourse. And so if we have an opportunity to put in our own message, we should be doing that not kind of punting it back to those in power so they can either repeat the same business as usual line, or try to co-opt or undercut what we’re saying. I think there’s a huge strategic mistake. And what it means is that even if you’re blocking bridges, you can be doing that essentially as a form of militant lobbying, because you’re putting the potential for change in the hands of other people. And I think that movements that have succeeded in overturning deeply unjust systems In the past, they have been able to build up communities of resistance, they’ve been able to build up movements that can direct the changes that need to happen, and movements that are led by the people who are affected. In climate justice, that means, you know, we really need to highlight the voices of Indigenous communities, we need to highlight the voices of communities of color in the global South. And if we don’t do that, not only is it morally wrong and a moral failing, it’s going to be a strategic failing as well, because we’re not going to have the experience and the perspective we need at the table to create movements that will win and to create strategies that will win. It’s a real dead end.
So, you know, from my perspective, the most exciting movements that I see around climate justice are being led by communities of color, are being led by Indigenous communities, and that are incorporating people from a lot of different backgrounds. But keeping in mind that it’s not an option to fail here, it’s not an option to say, “Oh, the government should reduce emissions. And if they don’t, I guess, oh, well, we’ll go back to what we’re doing”, we actually really have to commit ourselves to to winning this struggle. And I think a lot of affluent white communities, because they’re insulated from the effects of climate change, at least so far, they don’t have that same motivation. They don’t have that same drive to win, they don’t have that same genuine sense, I think maybe of desperation even. So for them, the risk of getting arrested a few times maybe feels like a bigger risk than the risk of the entire planet being destroyed. I think the calculus of risk for Indigenous communities is often different, which is why we see them taking so much leadership like in the case of the Wet’suwet’en.
TFSR: So there’s the example of the Wet’suwet’en in terms of not only a sovereignty issue, but also the ecological impacts and the solidarity that they’re offering to the world by trying to blockade the extraction and eventual burning into the atmosphere of, I believe the tar sands, right, from Alberta. And then skipping to a not specifically ecological movement, the Black leadership and leadership of color in the Movement for Black Lives and the movement against white supremacist violence and police violence that sparked off with George Floyd’s assassination, but also has spread around the world because anti-blackness is so endemic in Western civilization. I’m wondering if there’s any other examples of current movements, particularly around ecological justice, that you feel inspired by that are led by communities of color and frontline communities?
AM: Hmm, that is a great question. I think that we have seen, you know, in Canada in particular, but all over we have seen many different movements that are Indigenous lead, I think that’s often the movements that I end up working with or supporting. The Dakota Access Pipeline is another example of a movement that has been Indigenous lead and has been very successful. I think, around the world, I see a lot of hope in organizations like La Via Campesina – the international povement of peasants and small farmers – which is a very radical movement that looks to overturn not just fossil fuel emissions, but also capitalism in general, that looks to create fundamentally different relationships between people and the planet, and to create community relationships. I think that sort of thing is really exciting. And I think when you look at food and farm based movements, there’s a lot of mobilization potential there, because food, like climate, is one of those commonalities between people that’s common ground. Everyone has to eat every day. And so I’m very excited about the tangibility that movements around food like La Via Campesina have the potential to lead to. I think there are a lot of migrant worker and migrant justice movements as well that really understand the connection between climate and justice in a way that a lot of liberal movements don’t.
I also think that a lot of the really effective movements and groups that are led by people of color, they’re often more local, kind of environmental justice movements, they are not necessarily as big or as well known. And they sometimes don’t want to be, right? I mean, they’re not trying to kind of mimic the corporate structure. They’re not trying to become a gigantic NGO. And I would encourage people to look for those movements that are close to you, to look for those movements that are led by communities of color and that are led by Indigenous people, and to try to connect with them and to support them. If that’s not the work that you’re doing already, how does that work connect? And how can these movements help to support each other, and to develop a shared understanding, and a shared analysis of what’s needed for action.
TFSR: Cool, thank you for responding to that one. One thing I thought of was the Coalition for Immokalee Workers – which is an immigrant led struggle based out of Florida – they do a lot of media work, but they also are addressing like the real impacts of the epidemic on undocumented populations and farm worker populations in so called USA.
So people who are also familiar with your work are going to be familiar with the fact that you co-authored a book called Deep Green Resistance, alongside Lierre Keith and Derrick Jensen some years back. And DGR, besides being a book, is also an organization or a movement, a call out for a movement. And I know one notable thing that was mentioned around Extinction Rebellion was the idea of putting your name out publicly and saying “I’m going to be participating in this direct action”. And that was the thing that I recalled anarchist being critical of DGR, and ecological resistors, where people were asked to sign up publicly and make a pledge to participate in this movement. But I know that you’ve left DGR, you have made public statements about why you have left Deep Green Resistance, but I would wonder if you could reiterate those right here and talk about the group and like why you came to leave it?
AM: Sure. So when writing Deep Green Resistance, what I really wanted to do was help people to understand the climate emergency and to understand better some of the tactics that would be required to deal with it. I do think now versus 10 years ago there’s a much greater understanding that we are in a climate emergency, and that more effective action is called for. It wasn’t my intent for there to be a group or an organization by that name. I kind of figured well, other people who are doing work already and other organizations will hopefully incorporate this analysis, or it will help to mobilize new people as well. And when some of the people who had read the book said, “Oh, we should make an organization about this”. I said, “Well, okay, great”. And it was really a fairly short period that I was participating in that, in kind of the first few months, because unfortunately, what happened when groups started to organize and people started wanting to get together for kind of trainings and conferences, my co authors became very transphobic. There were, you know, people who are asking, very reasonably, “oh, can I use the correct bathroom when I come to this event?” And they would say no. And, you know, it reminds me a lot of what’s been happening with JK Rowling recently. Instead of kind of responding to this critique, or instead of responding to people’s concerns about this, they really doubled down in a way that made it impossible for me to keep working with them, or to keep working with that organization.
I’m someone who is fully in support of trans rights and trans inclusion. And I think that their anti-trans attitudes were really detestable and really destructive. In part, because, you know, a lot of experienced organizers who had been getting connected to the organization left after that, totally understandably. So, it was really disappointing and heartbreaking. And I think that the choice that they made, basically destroyed the potential of that organization to be effective, to be kind of a viable movement organization, because it was such a toxic attitude. And I believe that, in general, it’s good to give people a chance to change their opinions or to learn from their mistakes, because there’s no perfect organization, there’s no perfect movement, right? There has to be potential for growth and for improvement, there has to be potential for everyone to kind of take feedback and learn. But at the same time, if it’s clear that someone is not going to do that, then I’m not going to keep working with them, because it’s not a good use of my energies, and it’s not an I don’t want to be connected with an organization that’s going to be transphobic, or that’s going to endorse any other kind of oppression.
It was a very disappointing experience in a lot of ways, but I think there’s still a lot of valuable content in that book in the book, Deep Green Resistance. I think it still had an an impact and beneficial ways in that it helped to in some communities or in some sub cultures, to accelerate and understanding of the climate emergency. It’s just disappointing that that was the outcome. I think that hopefully it will be a lesson for other activists in the future and for other organizations, to really, from the very beginning of your organization, to set out so much clearer ground rules and clearer points of unity about anti-oppression that everyone will agree on. I think a lot of movements or organizations can emerge out of kind of an ad hoc approach, can kind of coalesce together. And I think it’s really important to pause and make sure that you’re on the same page about everything, before putting in too much effort before putting in too much commitment.
TFSR: So besides the transphobia, another critique that’s come to the DGR approach that that was sort of laid down in the book, was valorization. Maybe not in all instances, but in some instances of like a vanguard, or like a military command structure. Which, in a military scenario and like combat zones, I’ve heard it like I’ve heard anarchist talk about like, yes, it makes sense to have a clear lines of communication, someone who’s maybe elected into that position for a short period of time, and who is recallable, be a person that will make decisions on behalf of whatever like a group is in an activity. Is that an effective approach towards organizing ecological resistance? On what scale is that an effective or appropriate model for decision making? And is there a conflict between concepts of leadership versus vanguard command structure?
AM: Sure, I don’t think that we should be having military style command structures. Part of the critique that I was trying to create speaking for myself, was that consensus is not always the ideal decision making structure for every single situation. And I think, especially in the early 2000s, in a lot of anarchist communities, there was this idea that consensus is the only approach and if you don’t believe in always using consensus, then you’re kind of an authoritarian. And I think that’s really an oversimplification. I think consensus is very good for a lot of situations, right? It’s good for situations where you have a lot of time, it’s good for situations where people have a similar level of investment in the outcome of a decision or where people have a similar level of experience, perhaps.
But consensus has some flaws, as well. And I think one of them is that, you know, if you have a group of, say, mostly white people and a handful of people of color, who are trying to make a consensus-based decision about something that has to do with racism, then you’re not necessarily going to get the outcome that you want, because that is a system that can downplay inequalities in experience that are real, right? Some people have more experience of racism or, or systems of oppression and consensus doesn’t always incorporate that.
So we were talking a lot about the Wet’suwet’en example earlier, the Wet’suwet’en struggle. And when settler allies have gone to Wet’suwet’en territory to help, they actually have to basically sign off and say, “Yeah, I’m fine to accept Indigenous leadership for the duration of my time there. And if I don’t want to accept it any more than I can leave.” And I think there’s a place for a lot of different kinds of decision making structures. So for me, it’s like tactics, right? I mean, there are some tactics that are really good in some situations, and really not very helpful and others. And I feel like with decision making, it’s the same way. For myself, I prefer to work in consensus situations most of the time, because that’s a way of making sure that you’re incorporating a lot of different perspectives. But I think when you do have a very tight timeline, you know, it makes sense, as you mentioned, to consider electing people or to have people who are maybe on a rotating basis kind of in charge for that action. I think that there’s room for a lot of different approaches in terms of decision making. And like our tactics, our form of decision making has to be matched to our situation and to our goals.
TFSR: So it feels like when talking about ecological devastation, and like the precarity of where we’re at as a species, in particular – again in western civilization – that there’s this misanthropic approach towards looking at problems and solutions in terms of human caused ecological unbalance. It’s sort of a Manichaean approach. And people talk about there being too large of human populations, or historically, that sort of numbers game kind of leads to a eugenicism position. That puts blame on poor people or indigent people, and darker skinned people, as they tend to be more marginalized in the settler colonial societies in this parts of the world. And often, like, even just those nations are taking up more resources, those nations are developing in a way that’s inconsistent with you know, ecological balance.
It feels like that sort of approach is one that ignores the question of how populations are interacting – or the economic systems that populations are kept within – with the world with, quote unquote, “resources” with other species. And there’s often a presumption affiliated with that, that we as a species are alien to or above the rest of the world, that we’re not a part of nature, that we’re separate from it. And I think there’s some kind of like Cartesian logic in there, because we can think about ourselves to be self aware, in a way that we understand. We presume that not only is there a lack of agency to other elements, within our surroundings, with other living things…I guess it goes back to, like, in the western sense, stories of genesis. Of human beings being given control over the natural world to determine how those quote unquote “resources” are used, as opposed to being a part of that natural world, and that we have a responsibility for ourselves and for our siblings. Can you talk about why it’s important to challenge like, sort of the fundamental weaknesses of the misanthropic approach that looks as us as outside of the natural world? And how shifting that question actually allows us to make the changes that will be required for us to possibly survive this mess?
AM: Sure, yeah. I mean, I understand why people get frustrated with humanity. But I think, both from a philosophical perspective and from an organizers perspective, blaming humans in general for the problem really kind of obscures the root of the emergencies that we’re facing, and it obscures the things that we need to do. I think some of what you’ve talked about, it’s really different forms of human exceptionalism, right? There are some people who don’t care about the environment at all, who are human exceptionalist, who think humans can do whatever we want, we’re immune to the same kind of rules that other organisms follow. We’re immune from the effects of the weather or the planet or the ecology. And of course that’s ridiculous. But at the same time, we have at the other end, people who really believe a different form of human exceptionalism and believe that humans are doomed to do bad things, that we’re kind of doomed to destroy the planet. And I don’t think either of those things are true. I think, you know, if you look at that history of humanity and our immediate ancestors, for millions of years we managed not to destroy the planet, or even put the planet in peril. It’s really a fairly new phenomenon that specific societies, and especially specific people in specific societies, have been causing this level of destruction. And that destruction is not really about population, it’s about wealth.
If you look at someone like Jeff Bezos, the CEO of Amazon who’s bringing in what? $12 billion a day that he’s adding to his his fortune, $12 billion in profit every day, compared with someone living in, say, Bangladesh, who’s barely emitting any carbon dioxide at all. There’s a huge disparity. And I think that people like Jeff Bezos would probably be happy to have us say, “Oh, well, the problem is just humanity. The problem is we’re going to destroy the planet. And I guess we have to build rocket ships and go to other planets, because that’s the only way to solve this problem.” Whereas really, it’s about wealth and capitalism. It’s that people in very wealthy countries, and especially the richest people in those countries, are doing most of the ecological damage, and who also have the power to stop doing that ecological damage if they chose and if they were willing to give up some of the money that they’re making every day.
So as an organizer, one of the reasons that I avoid that misanthropic approach is because it just doesn’t give us a lot of options, right? Like, if humans inherently are the problem, then do we just wait for humans to go extinct? I mean, I’ve certainly heard people say, “Oh, well, I guess the earth is going to come back into balance.” So you know, that kind of line of thinking. But for me as an organizer who works on many different issues, from prisons to gender equality, to you know, farm worker issues, that’s not a good enough solution. It’s not good enough to just throw your hands up and say, “oh, what can we do? It’s human nature,” because it doesn’t address the root power imbalances. And it also doesn’t give us any models for how to live better. Because that’s also what the misanthropy kind of obscures. It obscures the fact that the majority of Indigenous societies for the majority of history have lived in a way that has been beneficial for the land around them. And there are still many traditional communities and many societies that managed to live without destroying their environment and destroying the land.
And so I think, you know, if we say, “Oh, well, humans are just the problem”, then that kind of frees us up that burden of of learning more and actually changing our lifestyle, maybe, or changing our approach. I think it’s really important we look at the root of the problems that we’re facing, which in terms of climate, and many other things, is really about capitalism, colonialism, white supremacy, patriarchy, these overlapping systems of inequality. And I think, again, the solutions that we need to find have to do with looking to those communities that have been living in a better way, whether that’s Indigenous communities or communities that have struggled for genuine equality, genuine racial equality, gender equality, all of these things. And those are the kinds of communities that can help us to not just survive this climate emergency, but after that, and now to have communities to have societies that are actually worth living in. That are fair and inclusive, and where people aren’t constantly in this competitive struggle, and on the edge of precarity in this, you know, doggy dog situation. I think it’s a very good news story to look past that misanthropy and to look at societies that are worth living in.
TFSR: So your two books, in a lot of ways – just at least by the titles and by what we’ve been talking about – a lot of what they map out is strategies for resistance and strategies for challenging the current system. And I’m not sure if there’s a strong focus on what you’re talking about right now the like, “what are people doing in other places, what have people been doing?” Are there any examples, or any good roads towards gaining that knowledge that you can suggest? You mentioned just listening to people that have been living in other ways and to the people that have been most affected by the impacts of climate change and racialized capitalism? Are there any authors or any movements in addition to the Wet’suwet’en for instance, that you would suggest listening to or looking to?
AM: Sure, well, in closer to me, I think the Indigenous Environmental Network is a movement I look at a lot, the Migrant Rights Alliance is an organization that I’ve been paying a lot of attention to. So a slightly older book that I think is important is called Igniting a Revolution: Voices in Defense of the Earth, which is edited by Steven Best and Anthony J Nochella, and that’s a compilation of writings from many different people that kind of brings together anti-racism, anti-colonialism, anti-capitalism. I think that book is a really great place to start. And I think also, for me, a lot of the case studies that I talked about, a lot of movements that I talked about, are examples of people who’ve tried to kind of bring this intersectionality together in the past; Black Panther Fred Hampton was an incredibly powerful organizer who brought together, you know, this anti-racist, anti-capitalist approach. People like Judi Bari, the environmental activist who put forward a philosophy she called “revolutionary ecology”, that synthesized feminism and Earth First! and kind of working class analysis of capitalism.
I think people like that are really important to listen to. And I think, you know, it’s no coincidence that Fred Hampton was assassinated by the police, or that Judi Bari was bombed by the police. Those in power are really terrified by movements that take this intersectional approach and by people who do this, because, you know, when we start moving in this direction we can be incredibly effective and bring together a lot of different groups and movements, and have a really powerful transformative impact.
TFSR: Thank you so much for having this conversation. Aric, could you tell listeners how they can get ahold of any of your books or where they can find your writings or follow your ongoing journalism?
AM: Yeah, so you can find out more about Full Spectrum Resistance by visiting fullspectrumresistance.org. And you can also download some additional resources and read or listen to the first chapter there. If you want to look at some of my other work, you can visit aricmcbay.org, A-R-I-C-M-C-B-A-Y dot org. And I also have a Facebook page, Aric McBay author.
TFSR: Thank you again, so much, for taking the time to have this conversation. And yeah, I appreciate your work.
AM: Thanks so much. Likewise, it’s been a pleasure.
This week we are getting the chance to air a conversation that we had with writer, anarchist, and agitator Vicky Osterweil about her recently published book In Defense of Looting, a Riotous History of Uncivil Action published (Bold Type Press, August 2020). We get to talk about a lot of different topics in this interview, how the book emerged from a zine written in the middle of the Ferguson Uprising of the summer of 2014, its reception by the far right and by comrades, her process in deciding what to include in this book, the etymology of the word “loot” and ensuing implications thereof, why you should totally transition if that’s the right thing for you to do, and many more topics!
Dimitris Koufontinas, a political prisoner of about 30 years in Greece and member of the Novemeber 17 movement that struggled against the Greek capitalist state for decades has been on hunger strike for roughly 53 days and is in danger of dying. His hunger strike is in part in protest over being transferred to a more intense prison, Domokos, despite reforms in the penal code stating he should be sent to Korydallos prison in Athens. No doubt this decision is based in part on the grudge of the reactionary current Greek regime, New Democracy, which suffered the 1989 assassination of then-Prime Minister Bakoyannis at the hands of N17. Solidarity actions have spread across the world. An easy place to keep up and get some inspiration in English is at Enough Is Enough, linked in our shownotes.
Malik rally in SF
On March 7 from 12-2pm at 111 Taylor St in San Francisco, there’ll be a rally in support of SF Bay View National Black Newspaper Editor Comrade Malik. Malik is currently suffering punishment at the hands of the private prison corporation, Geo Group, which runs the half-way house he’s remanded to at the end of his federal sentence. Geo Group has silenced Malik not only as a human speaking out about an outbreak of Covid-19 at the halfway house, but also as a journalist who has had his work phone taken away and threatened him with a return to prison. You can make donations and learn more at linktr.ee/FreeMalik
Political Prisoner Letter Writing
Sunday, March 7th in West Asheville Park, Blue Ridge ABC will be hosting a political prisoner letter writing event from 5-6:30pm. They’ll provide postage, names and addresses as well as stationary for those who want to come by and write to political prisoners with upcoming birthdays or prison rebels facing repression. A little letter goes a long way.
Thanks again to all of the folks supporting this project in various ways. We’re about to send out our second batch of zines to patreon supporters and have been building our transcriptions and zine formatting thanks to diligent work of comrades. You can learn more about supporting us monetarily by visiting TFSR.WTF/Support, we invite you to send zines of our conversations available roughly a week after broadcast at TFSR.WTF/ Zines, you can share us on social media with more info at TFSR.WTF/Social and learn about how to help spread these ideas on more radio stations by visiting TFSR.WTF/Radio.
Fire Ant T-Shirt Benefit
A quick reminder, we’re still selling Fire Ant Journal T-Shirts to benefit anarchist prisoner Michael Kimble, which can be found at thefinasltrawradio.bigcartel.com alongside our other merch.
TFSR:Thank you so much for agreeing to come onto The Final Straw. Would you introduce yourself for listeners with any information about yourself you would like them to be aware of?
Vicky Osterweil: Sure, yeah, I’m so glad to be here. I’m a listener of the show so it’s very exciting. My name is Vicky Osterweil, I’m a writer and editor and agitator. I’m based in Philly. I also run a podcast with my friend Cerise called Cerise And Vicky Rank The Movies, where we are ranking all of the movies ever made. And I also this new book that came out last year, In Defense of Looting which I know we will be talking about. So I write, I do the podcast and things, I’m around.
TFSR: That’s amazing! Is your podcast available on all of the things or a certain streaming app?
VO: It’s everywhere, we are also on Soundcloud and all the podcast apps. If you like movies and two anarchist girls talking mostly about movies with their perspective, it’s a good show for that.
TFSR: That sounds exactly like what I want to be listening to right now cause everything is so weird. But as you said before, we are here to talk about your recently published book In Defense of Looting: A Riotous History of Uncivil Action which was published by Bold Type Books in August 2020, but I’m also curious to hear about your other written work, cause you’ve written pretty extensively before that. Could you talk about some of your other works, topics of interest to you, and what initially got you into writing and eventually being an author?
VO: Totally. I’ve written a lot about movement politics, anarchist politics, I’ve done a lot of organizing with an eye toward street movements, I’ve done a lot of writing, reportage, but not like a journalist, I don’t have training for that, so it’s a combination of theory and activist report back. I also do a lot of culture writing – about movies, video games. I was writing pretty extensively for a few years in Real Life magazine, it’s a great magazine about a sort of tech critique, about the political economy of video games, and how that played in the Trumpism, this resurgent fascism and stuff. So I’m all over the place in terms of writing, I’ve done some art writing as well, but I think mostly it’s culture and movement politics.
In terms of what got me into writing, I was a big reader growing up, I thought I’d be a writer of novels and poetry, but I also liked reading movie reviews and that was how I stumbled into getting paid to write. I eventually was part of the early editorial board of the magazine The New Inquiry, an online magazine based in New York, and I was an editor there for many years. I still help out when I can. That shaped my writing into a non-fiction direction, and that also had to do with why becoming an author was an adaption of an essay I wrote during the uprising in Ferguson. Writing is a muscle and at this point, my fiction and poetry muscles a little atrophied. I sort of wish I could have some of them back honestly, but at this point, I write history and non-fiction, it’s where I’m most comfortable. This is how I ended up here.
TFSR: That’s amazing. You mentioned you are an anarchist. I personally love that. Would you speak about your process of radicalization?
VO: Totally. I think I’m a middle millennial, like a lot of white kids who are anarchists now. At that point, I got introduced to this politics through punk, but I was always a big reader and a big nerd, so I was also reading books about punk, that was also how I got introduced into this politics, also through movies. I was lucky and I didn’t have to have really horrible life experiences that forced me to radicalize early, so I think about it as being activated rather than radicalized. I was already identifying as a radical and then in 2011 I happened to be in Barcelona during the movement of the squares that was there. I’ve done some activism back home, I’ve been involved in housing struggles in 2008-09 in New York, but that experience of encampment movement in 2011 in Spain also coincided with my first professional writinggig. I got paid 50 dollars to write five paragraphs about it. So it was a funny moment. Then I came back to the US pretty convinced that it was going to happen here and threw myself into organizing what ended up being the beginning of what would be Occupy Wall Street.
And since then, everywhere I lived, I’ve been part of a variety of different movements, often with a focus on police and prison abolition. I’m less of a formal or formalist organizer, I tended to be more street action-oriented in my thinking and organizing. The movement often shaped what I’m working on as well. So when I say I’m an anarchist, for me that means anti-state all the way, anti-capitalist all the time, anti-oppression of all kinds. Also, I don’t like organizing that imagines that we have to capture the state on our way to change, I’m really against that. Also, anarchist is just a descriptor that has come around to be the people who I most often find affinity and solidarity with. That is not everyone in my life by any means. I just think that other than anti-state and obviously anti-racist and all the variety of anti-oppression politics, for me the question is about who I find sympathetic to move with, talk with, think with and fight with. What I have found over time is that it has tended to be anarchists, but certainly not exclusively, and there’s been a lot of anarchists I don’t like either, so it’s more about a sense of sensibility that I recognize in anarchism at its best that I vibe with than a really strong sectarian commitment. As we talk about the book, for me, the most important historical body of theory and practice has come out of the black radical tradition in the United States and the Caribbean, and that often overlaps with anarchistic principles and ideas, but not always, and I think that combined with increasingly thinking through indigenous resistance. For me, so then to go again and circle back, a different claim. I also think that one of the ways that had really influenced me very early to think about was to think through and with movement as it happens or has happened. And to start from the principle that the people fighting for liberation know what they are doing and to try and learn from that, to study and move with the way that movement happens and has happened, and to learn those lessons. Again, I consider that a somewhat anarchistic tradition, but there are a lot of Marxists who have followed that as well and a lot of non-sectarian people who have followed these dreams as well. That’s in a nutshell.
TFSR: Thank you so much for going through that. It’s really interesting to hear how you talk about how it initially happened for you and how you were in Barcelona and the movement of the squares moment and your political progression over the years. And you said you were super convinced that that kind of thing was going to happen here. I hate the phrase ‘the moment we are in right now’ because sometimes I think that this phrase particularly is a little bit missing the point of seeing a political and historical continuity of what we are experiencing right now, to say like “Oh, this aberrant moment we are in”, no, it’s actually a pretty logical conclusion of a series of all the shit sandwiches that we’ve eaten for many generations, some of us. But I’m wondering, as somebody who was in Barcelona that particular time, did you see any similarities to what has happened or what is happening now?
VO: Yeah, I think it does inform my perspective to some degree with a sense that we are in the middle of – and I think most people would agree with this on its face but don’t actuallycenter it – in the middle of an international moment of upheaval and revolt that is largely unprecedented, it has been centuries since we’ve seen anything like it. I think the period of the beginning of an anti-colonial uprising in the 50s through the long 60s into the 70s, in the wake of that there has been a long period of retrenchment and of course there have been powerful and important movements in that gap, but I think since the collapse of 2008 and more specifically at the beginning of uprisings in 2011, we have been in a decade of a really increased and intensifying struggle. In terms of where we are now, I’m a bit of an optimist when I say this, but I think we are at the beginning of the middle of a historical period. Something started in 2008 that I think the wave of neofascism that is still ongoing but hasn’t quite succeeded in either precipitating a total world war or totally capturing the globe. There is obviously Modi in India, there are really powerful people, powerful fascists all over the world, obviously in Brazil as well. So it’s not just to downplay it, but that fascist moment globally was the back-swing of a decade of struggle and change. I think capitalism is in a really deep crisis that is going to involve a transformation of the nation-state as it exists, labor as it exists, and the ecological moment is utterly unsustainable and disastrous, to say nothing of the pandemic. All of which is to say I think we are at the beginning of the middle of what could be a revolutionary process, there is certainly going to be an evolutionary process for society. Society in 20 years I think will look very different from how it does now or how it did 20 years ago. That’s not necessarily for the better, but it is going to be very different in some ways. There are also continuities and a way to hold both of these things in tension, that there are these long continuities that we are also just a shadow of 1492. We are still living through the apocalypse of Settler-Colonial genocide on this hemisphere. That moment is one historical moment that has built to this point of total ecological destruction and the role of anti-blackness and slavery in the plantation in that is so important.
I think another way we could think about where we’re at right now, particularly in America, is a third reconstruction we are in. So, obviously, the first reconstruction is the period of the Civil War. The general strike of the slaves, as Du Bois called it, that really lasted from the 1850s through the 1870s. As Saidiya Hartman has pointed out, tragically failed to truly upend race relations, but threatened to for this thirty-year period of revolutionary upheaval, driven by formerly enslaved people almost exclusively. And then, of course, the second reconstruction is often the civil rights movement, which extends from 1945 up through 1975 and the repression of the movement that happens then. So, again, speaking optimistically, I think we’re in a third reconstruction, the George Floyd uprisings last year were, by some measures, the biggest in American history. Certainly the largest uprising since the long hot summers of of the 60s. 1964-68, but probably were on par in the United States with a historical shift of that magnitude of the civil rights movement, of the Civil War. And I think that that is exciting and frightening and necessary and is also in response to ends combined with global trends in ecology and capital that we’re witnessing.
TFSR: Yeah. I think that that’s a very interesting take on “the moment that we’re in” and based in history and very well-considered, I thought. So, you brought up the summer of 2020 with the George Floyd uprisings and the uprising in defense of black life and black lives and the timing of the book’s publication was smack-dab in the middle of that summer. I know that the book was in the works for quite a number of years before that, ever since the Ferguson uprising when the pigs killed Mike Brown. Could you talk about the timing of the book, the book’s evolution, and what initially led you to write and research the book?
VO: I started working on a book in 2015. I was actually approached by a publisher to turn the essay that I wrote during the Ferguson uprising, also called In Defense of Looting that you can see in New Inquiry. I was approached to turn it into a book-length study which I did over about 18 months and then for a variety of reasons, the original publisher who I was supposed to be with didn’t do a very good job handling the manuscript, they didn’t get at it for a long time, they didn’t do it ever. It sat on the shelf for a few years until I got frustrated and moved it to the wonderful people at Bold Type. An editor there has since left, but Katy is really great. So we had it scheduled actually for October of 2020, it was its original pub date, and when things hopped off in May, the publishers decided to push it up as far as they could, which, with production schedules in the way that works, ended up being mid-August. So that’s why the timing of it was very fortuitous. There’s a footnote in the book, where I say that I’m doing final edits on this. I say the Third Precinct is on fire, it was like that at that point. Literally, the book had been basically finalized, and all I could do was get this little note in there and there’s an error in it because I was literally doing it that night, with the live stream open on my screen.
In some ways, the timing of the book ended up being quite good because of this delay that happened and it ended up matching with the movement. It was very gratifying. In the book’s conclusion, I talk about how there is going to be another one of these uprisings like Black Lives Matter against the police and the carceral state and white supremacy. It’s very dangerous to make claims like that. As a writer, one is always very worried to do that, so it was good to have that happen. But obviously, that analysis just emerges from the experience of movement over the last ten years, I was not alone in thinking that and feeling that it was certainly going to happen.
TFSR: That’s so interesting, that you are very emblematic of where we were all at when the Third Precinct was on fire. You’re rushing to get this out and you’re experiencing all of these things, and while this very prescient book you have is being rushed to publication, it’s very dramatic in a way. So, the reception of the book itself has been something that has gone all over the place and, for instance, when I was researching your topics of conversation for this interview, I came across a lot of really inflammatory, right-wing screeds related to your book. Would you talk about this and why they might have been galvanized in this way and also what the reception end of the book has been by non-enemies, comrades?
VO: Obviously, in the immediate aftermath, it was pretty intense. There were a bunch of doxing attempts, my family got harassed. My parents got harassed…
TFSR: That’s awful.
VO: Yeah, there was a lot of transphobic and antisemitic harassment that I don’t want to downplay, it was very upsetting. But also, it was very instructive. So the book came out in August. The movement was really at its height, the last week of May, the first two weeks of June. By August, it had started to peter out of the streets, the election was beginning to take on the anti-political power, to recapture the narrative, and I think what happened with my book was that it actually offered an opportunity for a lot of people who otherwise didn’t want to be seen, to be talking down about this really powerful and very popular movement. My book provided an opportunity for a lot of leftists and liberals who wanted to distance themselves from the uprising because I was a white girl writing a book that meant that they could attack it without their actual racist… I’m not trying to say that people who attacked, who don’t like my book are racists. That is not what I’m saying. What I’m saying is the way it functioned in August of 2020 exclusively was as an object of hate for the movement that had just happened. My book became a very safe way to attack the movement, and so it had nothing to do with the actual content of the book in some ways, except that I think that the liberals who attacked it and the leftists who attacked it assumed that it was hot-take-ey, vacuous garbage of the kind they put out. They said it was dangerous, that it hadn’t been carefully researched, that it hardly was in the process of years of activist experience and an amateur researcher, non-academic. I think they felt it was a target worthy of their disdain, which ended up, I think, really spreading the book. My favorite was a lot of right-wingers would share it on Twitter being like “Oh, she copyrighted it. Here’s a link to download it for free”. I was like “Oh, no, don’t read my book, it is terrible”. It also was very pleasurable in a certain way. I said that from the left to the far far right, within two weeks all of them had condemned it. From some socialist organizations all the way to like Newt Gingrich, all the way toV-Dare, Brian Schatz in Hawaii, literal politicians. And the way they unified and demonstrated what I consider a unified class fragment. I mean not to be too Marxist about it or whatever, but this class interest in private property was revealed very quickly by all these people condemning this book, and that was very instructive and interesting. So that was the enemies. Basically, I had one NPR interview and all of my enemies in the entire country drop their trousers and showed us what they wore, that was incredible.
TFSR:[laughs] I read about that, it’s amazing!
VO: Very powerful, but honestly that was really the movement, that wasn’t really me, right? I’m being cute, but as a result, a lot of reaction I’ve had from comrades was being like “No, this book is cool, it’s interesting”. I’ve been very gratified I’ve had a lot of great conversations like this one with people who read at. With the quarantine, I didn’t get to do a book tour, so I didn’t get to go to infoshops all over the country and talk to people which I had been looking forward to. Getting to have some of those experiences even digitally has been very pleasurable.
I’m excited to start seeing real, engaged critique, people pushing against and through the book and the work in it. I’m excited to start seeing some of that emerge now. I think we’re starting to get to that period. So I’ve been very gratified and received a lot of positive feedback from comrades, and it’s allowed me to meet and talk to a lot of people all over the country, and that’s been really exciting.
TFSR: I really loved the interviews that you andZoe Samudzi did about the book, in the earlier days.
VO: Oh my god, I was so excited to get her to talk with her and it was such an honor. As I said, I’m a Final Straw fan, suddenly all these people, thinkers I’m so excited of want to talk to me and with me, and that’s so gratifying. That really makes it all worth it.
TFSR: Anybody who looks even slightly closely at the right-wing push back, especially after moments of popular uprising or insurrection, or even in moments after horrifying disasters like Hurricane Katrina. You can see this focus on looting and the looter and in many ways, it’s wrapped up into this really horrific property worship and also equally, if not more so horrific anti-black racism. So I think that that is like something that we can’t early understate. And we can’t really overstate it, rather.
VO: Totally. The final chapter of my book is about how in the wake of the 60s and in particular with Katrina, but also the blackout rioting and looting in New York in 1977 and in the LA uprising in 1992, how looting became the perfect dog-whistle for precisely tracing and, more broadly, historically, it has functioned as a tracing of the relationship between property, whiteness, white supremacy and anti-blackness. I think, in the wake of particularly George Floyd, but even Black Lives Matter, a lot of what white Liberals even used to use as dog whistles about crime urban what have you... A lot of those dog whistles have been proven to be what they are, which is dog whistles, right? Which is a way of saying racism without being racist. Looting has remained as a final dog whistle that’s available to people, even people “within the movement”, to express anti-blackness and ended as a defense of property.
TFSR: Yes – and that’s maybe a perfect segway into this next question I have – which is: because words have meaning and power and also legacies and things that we can point to that are true about them, would you talk about the origins of the word “loot” and “looting”?
VO: Yeah, absolutely. Loot is taken from a Hindi word, the word “lut”, which first appears in a handbook for Indian vocabulary for English colonial officers. The word literally enters through colonizing police, basically, photo police. There’s this really telling word, the first recorded appearance of it in English. I’m is gonna quote here: “He always found the talismanic gathering-word loot, plunder, a sufficient bond of union in any part of India”. What that quote is saying is that the word “loot”, the idea of the relationship to property allows colonial officers to unify what would otherwise not be a unified people. The Indian subcontinent was not India when England got there. I mean, obviously, it emerges out of some historical conceptions but the state of India and the nationality Indian, which embraces a billion people and hundreds of languages and religious practices and cultures was imposed colonially. What is so interesting is that the word “loot” was already recognized from its very roots as a word that could describe a relationship to property that produced racialization, racialized Indian people, it was a sufficient bond of union in any part of India. So this idea of a deviant relationship to property that is projected onto racialized others by settler-colonial and anti-black society is present from the very first appearance of the word.
The earliest appearance of the word “looting” features racial epithets in it. The first time it appears refers to “Chinese blackhearts” and “hirsute Sikhs”. From the very beginnings of this word, it has meant a deviant relationship to property, which is visible among racialized people. That’s what this word has always been. It has always been this word that lives at the intersection of white supremacy, colonialist violence, anti-blackness, and the imposition of property and property law. It makes sense to me. I mean that’s also just etymology but it makes sense that as a tactic as well, this tactic of attacking property has been given this word that has such a racialized and colonial history.
TFSR: Totally. When I read that in In Defense of Looting, it blew my mind because there’s another word that is in the common lexicon of coded racist language, which also comes from the Hindi and has direct ties to resistance to colonial violence in India. That word is “thug”. That was so interesting to me because I didn’t know about the etymology of the word “loot”, and it just shows to me as somebody who’s Desimyself, who is part of the Indian diaspora, it just called back to me how influential the British colonization of India is still, and is still worldwide. It’s very interesting to me. So thank you for bringing that to light and for talking about it.
VO: Yeah, doing research for a book is not often like super exciting, but when I encountered that in the OED, I did freak out a little, I was like, “Oh my god, this is so much cleaner than I thought it would be”. Sometimes you think you’re gonna have to pull something out, that’s really subtle. It’s going to be really complicated and you open the history books – that’s one thing studying history has really taught me – it was actually much more open and naked than you think, we just haven’t been taught it. [laugh]
TFSR: Yes, the through-line is so simple that it’s almost a little bit suspicious. How can something be so simply presented or rendered in language and society as these two figures of the “looter” and the “thug”? You touched on this somewhat before in the interview and also elsewhere extensively, but you write about the radical reclamation of the figure of the looter. Would you expand on this topic?
VO: One of the things that was, I think, really powerful about the original essay that I then developed into this book was the claim that the first image in America of a black looter was an enslaved person freeing herself. That was informed by Saidiya Hartman’s work Scenes of Subjection, where she talks about how the enslaved saw themselves as stealing away or even just having a meeting they refer to as stealing the meeting, which was the coy and ironic, but also deeply subversive way of understanding that once a person has become property, then any action that they take necessarily absurdly violates the very principle of property on which it’s based. I just had a whole talk about this recently that people can see on YouTube called Against Non-Violence. One of the major ways in the last 60 years especially that movements have been managed and repression has functioned, is through this myth of non-violence, which I think crucially doesn’t mean less violence, but is a specific ideology about a certain kind of controlled form of action that doesn’t really violate the law. And one of the things that that has done has been to narrative-ize, in particular, the civil rights movement. In the 50s, there is the good non-violent thing in the South and in the late 60s, there was this bad, violent, militant black power thing in the North. That was mistaken, and that was too extreme. That’s the narrative that we have, which is based on a few selective historical truths but is really just totally mythical. It’s a totally made-up narrative and one of the ways it functions is to exile the looter from that movement and to say, when you talk about the civil rights movement and people who fought for freedom in the black freedom movement in the 50s and 60s, the image that comes to mind is the March on Washington or the freedom riders, or the lunch counter sit-in folks, all of whom were incredibly brave and powerful and who aredueas much respect as they receive, I think, probably more, but part of giving them more respect is recognizing that many of those people would then go on to participate in urban rebellions. Many of those people would protect themselves with guns and would fight back with KKK Night Riders in the South, as they were organizing to recognize that, for the vast majority of people in that movement, non-violence was a tactic that was effective sometimes or ineffective other times. It wasn’t a philosophy and it wasn’t a way of being.
So, if we recognize that and if we bring the looter back into the image of the movement, then I think we start to see, so the history I just sketched – good in the South, bad in the North. What that tends to do is actually skip over the years 1964 to 1968 very often, and the reason those years get skipped over, I think, is because they’re a period in which there are 750 black anti-police riots and civil rights riots in the country, 750 in a five-year period. It’s incredible: it’s a mass uprising that in 1968 had brought the country so to the brink of a revolution that you then get the emergence of the Black Panther Party, DRUM in Detroit. But then also the American Indian Movement gets really militant, the antiwar movement gets really militant. We have this explosion of militant revolutionary struggle explicitly as such, and the reason that that happens, because they’ve been pushed by four years of increasingly large and common rioting and fighting and looting that has grown directly out of the civil rights movement. And there is another important point to make here: in 1963, Martin Luther King’s Birmingham campaign starts non-violent, but it ends with days of rioting, torching police cars, throwing rocks back at Bull Connor, and it makes sense to consider Birmingham, Alabama in 1963 as perhaps the first large urban riot of the period. That history is totally forgotten and ignored.
So, if we talk about – and I think we should – the activists in Birmingham, the black folks in act in Birmingham fighting for freedom as this important pivotal moment in American history – which it was – we have to embrace the rioter and the looter who was there and who was this core part of that movement. If we jump forward in history now, during Ferguson, during Black Lives Matter 2014, 2015, that wave of movement, people really disavowed rioters, they said rioters and looters aren’t part of the movement, they are not acting politically, they are not really activists or protesters, when in fact, it was precisely rioting and looting that had brought the movement into existence. It was the basis of the movement. That tactic spread the movement and made it happen. So when I talk about reclaiming the looter or thinking through the figure of the looter, I am trying to trace a history of a form of resistance that goes back to the earliest days of the plantation, where black folks rejected property law, rejected white supremacy and the rules of whiteness by looting themselves by organizedly and openly stealing white property, namely themselves, and then attempting to imagine to live otherwise. And having that act of theft and looting as this first moment of possibility, this necessary first moment starts to really change the way that I think I learned to think about struggle and history. And if we see that that continues into the present of the looter, both in the slanders that reactionaries used to attack looting and in the figure of the looter herself and what she represents, then I think we can begin to genuinely embrace and learn from the revolutionary tradition in this country and this world.
TFSR: Yes, absolutely. We’re all probably familiar with it, just through osmosis or passively consuming mainstream or right-wing media, but what are some examples of reactionary push-back against the looter and maybe some responses that you might have to those?
VO: Totally. I think, there are some common ones, like rioters are destroying their own neighborhoods. It’s really common which I think is based on really misunderstanding how power works in the United States, but also anywhere, that geography is equal to power, people who don’t own anything live in neighborhoods they don’t own, those neighborhoods exploit them, they’re not their neighborhoods, and there’s this idea that, like OK, if the people who own those businesses aren’t super-rich, then somehow they’re also part of the community and then, when looters attacked them, they’re destroying this community institution, whereas like what the research shows – and I think a lot of people experience the summer – both that black, indigenous and proletarian neighborhoods in America have a much higher concentration of chain stores, pawnshops, really exploitative businesses. But also that looters and rioters know what they’re doing, the targets they’re hitting. I mean, if people remember in Minneapolis, where a huge swath of the section of the city was totally basically looted and burned to the ground. There was an independent bookstore that just stayed standing through all of that. And we saw that in the 60s, too – some local businesses will be protected, others will be attacked. And that’s because probably, if you live in that neighborhood, you go into that store where the prices are too high and you get followed around by the manager, and you know that one of the managers sexually harasses the employees, some of whom are your friends. It’s this really backward way of thinking about what community and neighborhood look like.
Another really common one is: they are opportunists, they’re criminals, they’re not protesters, they don’t know what they’re doing, they’ve nothing to do with a struggle. I hope that has been proven… Just the sheer size and widespreadness of the George Floyd uprisings, I think, really put that one to rest a bit, but there is still the idea that the looters are “not activists”, are “not left”. And I have a dual response. On the one hand, it’s true, they’re actually not the left. The left in the United States, which didn’t really exist when I was coming up but certainly exists now, is like these very organized projects, mostly focused on electoralism and recruitment. And the people who were rising up over the summer weren’t the left. They weren’t the organizers, they were poor, black people and their friends and comrades across the country. And the left was often trailing behind things. But that is different from them having nothing to do with the struggle or them not knowing what they’re doing or they’re just like apolitical or they’re criminal.
All of these ideas, I think, are just belied by the fact of the way that, over and over again, movements are borne by those actions. Movements are like the entire political nexus of the country is shifted by people looting and rioting, in a way that to think of Bill McKibben had Earth 360 thing in New York in 2015 or something, where millions of people came out, no one remembers it. It had no effect. Not to disrespect the organizers and what happened there, but if we’re talking about real effective change which is whatthat claims to talk about then looting, rioting needs be considered. But also, by talking about criminality, talking about good protesters vs. bad rioters, we also do the work of the state of reproducing a label of some people are disposable. Some people are real political subjects and some people are disposable, and some people should be ostracized, and some people don’t have a voice. And that’s obviously a structurally anti-black and racist procedure.
The one that I think we actually will have to worry about now, though. So the outside agitator troop again George Floyd revolt, it didn’t really hold up because it was happening everywhere. People are joking, what is there, some Antifa HQ somewhere in Iowa sending out thousand of troops? It obviously doesn’t make sense, but what has, in fact, the state has flipped the script successfully, with the help of a lot of activists with the idea of the inside agitator, the white supremacist who has started the riot secretly, the police provocateur. This image became a very powerful counter-insurgent tactic over the summer. And I think what the “white supremacist started the riot myth” comes from is the exact same place as the like “They’re opportunists and criminals, they don’t know what they’re doing”, which is that it starts from the presumption that there is no way someone could start a fire and also believe in freedom. And then it figures out a way to justify that presumption by saying “Okay, therefore, the people who started the fire must have been nazis”. It’s really backward.
Maybe this is gonna sound flippant, but it makes me think of there was this big movement, like a conspiracy theory to imagine that William Shakespeare didn’t write his plays, and if you look into this whole range of academic work about that… It actually just comes from a conservative commentator being like “Well, William Shakespeare was a poor, uneducated, queer guy. There’s no way this poor, uneducated weirdo wrote these books” and then, from there finding a way to explain how in fact he didn’t write it. That’s the nicest version of what I hear when I hear people saying that looters were white supremacists. You start from the premise that they’re not part of the movement, and then you figure out a way to explain that, and the state has really manipulated that. In September, there was this press release that came out from Minneapolis saying: “Oh we’ve arrested this guy. He was a white supremacist biker. He started the movement”. There hasn’t been a trial. There hasn’t been any more evidence given. I followed up on it a week ago, I couldn’t find anything. There is no truth to that, but it’s circulated. This idea is circulated that the movement was started by a racist, by a white supremacist. This is very effective for the state and it’s a struggle that we’re gonna face in all of our movements to come.
TFSR: Thank you for giving voice to this topic, because I felt a little hesitant to ask the question just because I don’t want to define the praxis and analysis of this topic by reactionary right-wing push back against it, but it’s obviously something that’s important to be informed of and be knowledgeable about and why people say what they say. And also the whole conspiracy theory-like universe that we are in right now that is very much aided and abetted by the internet. It is one which probably warrants several episodes of any radio show or podcast, but that’s very interesting how these conspiracy theories get started. Holocaust deniers, for example, or anti-vaxer stuff, for example, or anti-masker stuff, for example, is all has really troubling right-wing roots.
VO: I think if it was only right-wing people doing it, it would be easier to argue with that. But part of the reason it’s so important to talk about it now, if people remember during over the summer, in mid-June, Richard Brooks a twenty-five- year old black man was murdered in the parking lot of a Wendy’s drive-through, and there were riots in response and Wendy’s was burnt down and a bunch of “movement people”, activists on the internet said: “Oh, my god, it’s so suspicious, there was this white girl there, they combed through these videos, they identified this woman. They said like “She is an agitator. She’s a cop, she’s deep state”, whatever they said about it. And then she was arrested with all the evidence provided by people on the internet and it turned out she was Richard Brooks’s partner and she’s facing decades in prison because internet sleuths decided that no one could genuinely want to burn down a Wendy’s. It’s so dangerous to think this way. Her partner was stolen from her and she was filled with a rage and a tragedy, and a frustration, and a desire for change that brings all of us into the street. But it was so direct and lived for her. And to then have “the movement” work for the police and put her in jail, and now everyone stopped talking about it. Everyone who’s part of that stopped talking about it. They went silent, it hasn’t been brought up again because they were working as police. And when you think this way, you are thinking as police. It’s so important to understand that it’s not just right-wing, that there is this big left strain of this stuff, and that this paranoid conspiracy stuff is fundamentally antisemitic, but also anti-black and is fundamentally about distrusting poor people and black people for knowing how to rise up or knowing what they’re doing. And it’s so important that we fight against that if we want to have a chance of not reproducing these violences.
TFSR: Just to reiterate something that you said, making a really clear distinction between a cop infiltrating movements, which is something that does happen, and people within movements doing the work of the state is, I think, just crucial and a cornerstone to having any movement that is approaching a state of health or healthiness.
VO: One thing that is valuable to learn from revolutionary history is that there are gonna be infiltrators and snitches at every level and behind every form of tactic, unfortunately. The 1905 revolution in Russia, not to be too nerdy about this, but Father Gapon and the head of the left-wing SR terrorist organization were both Okhrana secret police plants. They were both secret police, but they lead this massive revolutionary movement that eventually led to the Bolshevik uprising 12 years later. It turns out now we found out that people very high up in the Black Panthers, all key were snitches. There are certainly police operating within our movements. It is necessary to understand that, but you cannot accuse people of it because, for example, the American Indian Movement, one of the ways that AIM got taken down was that infiltrator just started accusing everyone of being an infiltrator. That’s one of the ways that infiltrators work as they sow the suspicion that other people are infiltrators and it leads to splits and violence. Unfortunately, we don’t know who is going to prove or going to get flipped because they get arrested for a drug crime or a personal crime and do time or whatever, there’s plenty of different people. But what we do know is that they won’t necessarily destroy the movement nearly as solidly as paranoia about them will. They’re just one tool the police have, they’re not our most dire enemy. I don’t know where to where to go from that really, except to say that in my lifetime, in this decade of organizing I’ve, never seen people successfully identify a snitch, but I have seen people blow up groups and movements and now put people in prison on the basis where they thought someone was being one who turned out not to be.
TFSR: It’s hard to know where to go from that, but just to state that this is a thing that the state does and a thing that we also do to each other and not to say that anyone’s a bad person or place a value judgment on any person or whatever. But just to be aware of it, this is a tactic that is extremely destabilizing is very important.
So the book itself goes through various points and moments and tendencies and tangents in history to support a logical reformation of how we think about uprising, riot, and various tactics associated with those events. Would you go through your process of choosing these historical moments in defense of looting?
VO: When I started out, I really was focused on the Civil War, the general strike of the slaves from Du Bois’s Black Reconstruction, and then thinking through reconstruction after that, and the civil rights movement. They seemed to me the most relevant and important moments. When I started out, I was actually asked by an editor to include stuff about the labor movement at the turn of the 20th century, which I’m not sure… I mean I’m glad, I’m proud of the research I did, I liked the chapter that’s there. I don’t know that it necessarily fits fully cleanly in the rest of the book, even though I like that chapter on its own. I was trying to focus on looting as a tactic, the context in which it emerged, rather than just jumping from an instance of looting to looting. I think one of the things people who read my book have said to me was like “This book doesn’t really like talk about looting even so much”. And I think that’s because the defense of looting is not describing looting. The defense of looting is describing how property and the law and anti-blackness and white supremacy are villainous, and that looting makes sense in that context to transform and attack those systems, rather than just saying like “Here’s one place where looting happened, and it was good, and here’s another place where looting happened and it was good”, which of course, I do as well. But as a result, I ended up thinking through the 60s a lot, but to some extent, the book turned into kind of the history of the last 200 years. The last 200 years of United States history. That’s what the book ends up being, for better and for worse. I think there’s some strengths to that, and that means that I’ve glossed over a lot of stuff in, and for people who are well-versed in this history there’s probably a lot of repetition that they’re familiar with my book.
In terms of making those choices though, it also just happened somewhat naturally as I was doing the research. I would just find stuff that seemed really important to include, and then that would expand a section, and then suddenly that section would be a whole chapter. So I came very organically through the process of writing. One of the things that was really interesting was I thought I had read a lot of books, that I was pretty well-informed about history already before I set out to write this book. Discovering how little I knew was really beautiful and humbling and interesting. We don’t learn very much about history in this country for good reason. So part of what informed me when I was writing about was that I was learning. I was learning so much during this research. I was learning so much. I knew so little of this, and everything that I learned, that I felt really changed the way I understood a period or a topic, I tried to put in the book.
TFSR: I love that, it’s beautiful and also frustrating. Beautiful, on the one hand, because you are able to do this, but also frustrating because all of this stuff is so buried and you really have to hunt for it, but I think it’s through books like yours and books like so many other folks that we can have access to all of this historical knowledge, which is so vitally important for understanding why we do the things we do, and why things are the way they are.
VO: Exactly. And these books are available. I hope my book functions as bibliography as much as anything. Other people have done such incredible, important work and it’s a cliché, but standing on the shoulder of giants, not just the intellectual giants, but also the rioters and the looters and the maroons and the indigenous fighters. All of them have given us this beautiful body of knowledge and possibility that the state and capital have failed to fully suppress, and we can access it, and people are working to do that.
TFSR: Absolutely. The book came out last year and you began it’s in the midst of the Ferguson uprising of late summer 2014. Since the publication of the essay and then the book, have you had your thinking supported or shifted by anything you’ve seen unfold in the world?
VO: Absolutely. My thinking was so deepened because of the movement in Ferguson. I started on this practice of research, which led me to all of this history and this black radical tradition. Before I had read Du Bois and a few other things, but really diving into this body of work, discovering really carefully, reading through some people like Christina Sharpe, Saidiya Hartman Sylvia Wynter, Ida B. Wells’s work – all of these people from the 60s, Rosa Parks and Gloria Richardson, there’s so many people in America and abroad, like Paul Gilroy and Sylvia Wynter obviously is Caribbean. But there is this huge deepening of knowledge that I was spurred onto because of Black Lives Matter in 2014-2015, because of the rebels of Ferguson, it has totally changed me. Since then also I’ve been involved in a lot of prison abolitionist and police abolitionist work, again often driven by the families of the people who are incarcerated, and that has deepened my understanding and my knowledge. Standing Rock and the various indigenous fights, particularly in so-called Canada, they’ve been so powerful of the last few years have also forced me to really reckon with the indigenous roots of all European philosophy and the way in which so much of leftism and European enlightenment thought is built on indigenous theorizing and black theorizing that has been captured and made invisible through the white academy. So in many ways, I’ve engaged over these years with such a huge body of work. In that period I’ve also transitioned and have really taken a lot of revolutionary gender thinkingand trans thought more to heart as well. I don’t even know how to begin to describe the deep change that has happened, but I think what I’ve really learned, if I were the summarize it as briefly as possible, is to trust movement, to study and look at movement, to try and take it as seriously as possible as it’s going, and to see what people are saying and to listen, and that the basis of any learning about revolutionary process starts there.
TFSR: Absolutely, and you said at the comment about transitioning, speaking from my own experiences, also a trans person, there is nothing that will shape your view and solidify your view of the world more than being the actual embodied person that you are and not having I an embodied personhood that is gifted or foisted onto you by the state and the medical-industrial complex. That really warms my heart to hear that… I wanna like push a lot of love in the direction of people being their actual full embodied selves as much as is humanly possible.
VO: Totally and that discourse can be very frustrating sometimes, but the basics are that finding your gender and your sexuality, having those experiences be in line with your internal experience, I don’t know how to describe it exactly, is incredibly liberating and is the basis for so much.
TFSR: Yeah, so huge plug for transitioning if that’s what you need to do.
VO: It’s never too late to stop being straight.
TFSR: Definitely! Yes, it is never too late to stop being straight. So are you working on any next project you’d like to tell listeners about?
VO: At the moment, I’m keeping it a little close to the chest cause, I’m a pretty lazy person. I love to not work. I’m trying to write a book about anti-work, but it’s proving very slow, so maybe there will be another book at some point, hopefully in the next few years, but I’m not super concrete right now. I do a podcast and a bunch of writing, and I freelance a lot. So, stuff comes out pretty regularly, and I do amazing interviews like this.
VO: That’s all stuff that I love and am working on that, but nothing more direct to plug.
TFSR: I think that we’re so driven to work all the time and the myth of productive individual is something that is having poked more holes into, but I think for myself as also somebody who would identify strongly as being workphobic or a lazy, I so support it when people take breaks, I so support it when people just be, do fun things or do nothing or all the good stuff. So it’s cool to hear you talk about that too.
VO: We think of it as like the puritan work ethic, but it’s also the like Settler Colonial and anti-Black work ethic. Work-shy is like a famously racist phrase that applied to indigenous and Black people. All these concepts are interlinked, the way that we think about this world of work and productivity and property is all connected.
TFSR: Absolutely, I think it was maybe in In Defense of Looting, but I read a synopsis of modern day of working-class work conditions. It can be summed up in the phrase “if you have time to lean, you have time to clean”, which is a lot of us who work in the restaurant industry have heard this phrase thrown at us by managers and how that whole ethic of like “you need to be respectable and standing all the time and smiling, and all that stuff, has direct ties to what was enforced upon people who were being forced to work on plantations for free.
VO: Exactly. A lot of the early what we think of as modern management stuff like you’re saying “if you have time to lean, you have time to clean”, employee surveillance, all these things that we think of as like part of the neoliberal, whatever revolution in labor conditions, actually are traced back to the plantation, and you can see that it was precisely under those conditions that these “modern management techniques” were developed and they just have reemerged with this techno gleam that makes them seem new. There is also this continuity.
TFSR: It’s so evil, I don’t know.
VO: Yeah, it is exhausting, it obviously does make one want to take a nap.
TFSR: It does! Absolutely, and I think that is a perfect reaction to something like that, like “No, fuck you, I’m going to take a nap now”. Where can people see your past body of writing and learn more about, keep up with you? Do you have a social media presence that you want to shout out or anything like that?
VO: Yeah, totally. You can follow me on Twitter. I’m @Vicky_ACAB because all cats are beautiful, obviously, and I like movies a lot, so you can find me on Letterboxd I’m @nocopszoneand then @ceriseandvicky on Twitter. That’s the podcast if you’re interested in the movie side of things.
TFSR: I’m gonna be looking at that podcast, so then thank you so much for your time. This was such a delight and a pleasure to get to connect with you digitally. Is there anything that we missed on this interview that you’d like to give voice to in closing?
VO: No, just to thank you for having me in, and it’s been such a pleasure and I look forward to meeting and talking to many more people. I guess I would just say people like me who write books, we’re just people, just reach out, I’m really excited to talk to you, comrades, just talk to me, I’m friendly, I promise. I’m just some random person, too. Anyone can do it. Anyone can do this work and there’s a lot of cool and social status that gets built up and intimidation. Don’t be intimidated. We can do this ourselves, we can make the world we want to see.
TFSR: Thank you so much. I really appreciate you taking the time out of your day, and this was such a delightful conversation. I can’t wait for people to hear it.
adrienne maree brown is the writer-in-residence at the Emergent Strategy Ideation Institute, and author of Pleasure Activism: The Politics of Feeling Good, Emergent Strategy: Shaping Change, Changing Worlds and the co-editor of Octavia’s Brood: Science Fiction from Social Justice Movements and How to Get Stupid White Men Out of Office. She is the cohost of the How to Survive the End of the World and Octavia’s Parables podcasts. adrienne is rooted in Detroit. More of their work can be found at adriennemareebrown.net
If you like Scott’s interview style, check out their interviews with Kristian Williams on Oscar Wilde and Eli Meyerhoff on higher education and recuperation. Also, to hear an interview with Walidah Imarisha, who co-authored “Octavia’s Brood” with adrienne.
So much heartfelt thanks to the folks continuing to send us donations or pick up our merch. We’re almost at our goal of sustainability, but still not quite there, but the one-time donations have definitely cushioned that need. If you’ve got extra dough, check out our Donate/Merch page.
As an update on the transcription side of things, we’re still rolling forward, comrades have gotten each episode so far this year out and we’ve imported the text into our blog posts and imported links into our podcast after the fact about a week after the audio release! Also kind soul has done the immense work of making zines and downloadable pdf’s of almost all of our already transcribed interviews up until last week! Those posts are updated and linked up to the text and you can find more by checking out the zine category on our site.
The Final Straw Radio: Thank you for coming and talking to us in the Final Straw. Do you mind introducing yourself with a pronoun and relevant information you want to give?
adrienne maree brown: Yeah, so, my name is adrienne maree brown, I use she and they pronoun. I am a writer based in Detroit and I’m the author of Emergent Strategy, Pleasure Activism, co-editor of Octavia’s Brood, and most recently, and I think what we are going to talk about today, the author of a book called We Will Not Cancel Us and Other Dreams of Transformative Justice. I have been a movement facilitator and mediator for over 20 years, close to 25 years now. And most of the writing work that I do is rooted in the experiences and questions that have come from those places. That’s who I am for people who are meeting me here.
TFSR: Thanks! I’m so excited to get to talk to you and I wanted to dive into your most recent published book because it offers a lot of food for thought, especially for people who are engaged in different kinds of community processes and accountability and larger projects of abolition and transformative justice.
amb: Oh, one thing you should know and it may show up for your listeners, too. I have neighbors upstairs and today is the day that they host the preschool pot, so if you hear big thumps and bumps and things like that, just know it’s kids playing and everyone’s all good.
TFSR: That’s a good [chuckle]. I also have a sleeping cat that may awake and attempt to hang out on the computer.
amb: Real life continues happening even during Zoom calls, so…
TFSR: I kind of wanted to just jump in into the stuff thinking about listeners have a basic concept for abolition and transformative justice. The first thing I started thinking about when preparing to talk to you was that way that cancel culture which you, you know, you reverting in the title, it’s become a kind of meme at this point. And there is plenty of critiques from the radical liberatory side which is the one that you are offering, but also right-wing conservative perspectives, like I’m thinking of Trump getting kicked out of Twitter, or the J.K. Rowling transphobic stuff that prompted this all of these rich and powerful people to talk about cancel culture, so I was wondering what you think… How do we differentiate those critiques from the liberatory side vs. the powerful side?
amb: Yeah, I feel like I’ve had to explore this a lot more since the book came out than I ever did before. I’m really not following what right-wing conservative people are up to or saying or doing. It’s literally not a part of my world, my conversation. So when I wrote the initial piece and people were like “Trump uses this language”, I felt like “What?” I don’t follow him, so for me, it was interesting. I can totally see the right-wing using the critique of cancel culture to dodge accountability and to me, the major distinction is what is the impetus of the critique. For me, it is a love-based, abolition-based impetus. I do believe that as people who are fighting for abolition, there are conversations we need to have, questions we need to be asking and practices we need to get good at that are related to how we practice being in deeper accountability with each other and starting to develop an expectation that accountability is possible when harm happens. Because I believe that those twin expectations are what lay the foundation for a truly post-prison, post-policing coexistence. So that to me feels like the primary thing is that when someone like J.K. Rowling is being like “No, cancel culture is being no good”, what she is fundamentally fighting for is like “I want to protect my right to be oppressive, to basically cancel or deny the existence of other people”. And what I think we are fighting for is the right to protect as many people as we can from being harmed, denied, erased. So there is a call, you know, to me, the difference is also people talk about call-out vs. call-in and this kind of things, I think a lot of what we are doing is that we want to actually pull ourselves into more interdependence, relationality, accountability. And that feels like a huge distinction.
TFSR: That’s a good point, cause the words can become slippery, especially as they get co-opted by people who don’t have those horizons that we have.
amb: When I was trying to figure out which words were are going to fight for, and how we do that fighting for. It’s hard, but I do think it’s worthwhile in some places. Abolition is actually still ours, transformative justice is still ours. I don’t think cancel culture necessarily is the one that is ours. For me, We Will Not Cancel Us is about the activity, like we are not going to cancel people we need to be accountable for. How do we do that?
TFSR: Yeah, this is a very important distinction, because cancel culture is already a mainstream critique of this thing, probably they see it as a youth phenomenon on social media. And canceling is a thing that people do, but it’s not a whole culture necessarily.
amb: It’s not, and what I think is interesting is that there is a culture of disposability, and there is a culture of conflict avoidance, but I think the cancelation… So much of it is rooted in social media culture, so social media culture is a shallow engagement, clickbait headlines, very surface-level arguments, and then canceling people. It all goes together: trolls-gone-wild, then we are trying to build a movement and how do we navigate and organize around social media as a part of building movement, and how do we harness it as a tool? I think what’s been happening is that it’s been harnessing us. We’ve got drown into the way social media works as if that’s how a community works and changes.
TFSR: There are two different levels that we can use social media as a tool for things that we’ve done historically to protect ourselves, but then there is this other level where it takes on another meaning. One thing I was thinking about reading your book is that probably also the most notable mainstream version of this that gets discussed is the #metoo. It’s called a movement, but from what you discuss in your book I don’t see it as a movement, cause it’s an isolated ax of naming something. It’s not necessarily a struggle in the streets. And I’m not saying this as a judgment, I’m reserving judgment of like it’s effective or should people do this, but I’m interested in thinking about that, not having a basis in a tangible community.
amb: It’s interesting, I think it depends on where and when you enter the MeToo conversation. If people enter the conversation as like this happened related to Harry Weinstein, a year and a half ago now, then I think that’s the case. But if you take it all the way back to the work that Tarana Burke has been doing for years, that was very tangible and the work that she has continued to do is very much tangible, happening in real-time, in real space, in real relationships and calling for changes that happened in the offline world, and using social media to help push that along, to spread that. But I just did an event with them recently and I was blown away by how much they are inviting people into offline practices. And I think ‘movement’ is a kind of slippery and tricky term. I see people telling like “We are starting a movement”, I don’t think that is how movement works, how things take off or people get called into something and like what is actually moving. And I look at, like, is policy moving? Is our sense of identity moving, is our sense of capacity moving? And in that sense, I would say that to me MeToo is absolutely a movement because it has moved and transformed how people negotiate the intimate relationship, intimate harm, how people negotiate being public or non-public about the harm that happened to them. So I would see it that way.
TFSR: I like that idea. I was thinking, bell hooks distinguishes between political representation and pop culture that doesn’t get grounded in grassroots. But the way you mention it makes sense, and the thing I admire about the call-outs that happen, cause though we could read from a lens of canceling or even carceral sort of minds, but it also is demanding accountability and giving voices to people.
amb: Absolutely, and that’s what I think is interesting is who do we listen to, so if we listen to Cherana and Nikita and so many people who are now working in that space, one of the things they talk about all the time is… this is actually not about destruction, it’s not about trying to bring people down and destroy them. We are trying to heal trauma, to end cycles of harm, and end trauma that has come from that harm. And I think this is one of the most interesting pieces about the distinction between what I had actually an issue writing about and the larger culture of cancellation and call-out, cause call-outs are rooted in the communities I come from – brown, queer, trans communities. And the reason why we initially needed the strategy was because the power differentials between us and the folks who were causing harm were so vast that we couldn’t be heard as equal parts of the story-telling, we couldn’t be heard in our survival. That’s still the case in so many scenarios where “Oh, these workers need to call someone out, or call out an institution, a corporate entity because the power dynamics are so vast. And with Harvey Weinstein, with R. Kelly, with some of these big public cases, I hundred percent support those, I’ve tweeted that, those make sense to me because the power differentials are so big that the only way to potentially stop this harm is by making this huge call. I think the difference is then how do we handle it when the harm is much more horizontal, within a community, where there might be slightly more positional power, slightly more social media cachet or something, but no one is wealthy, no one actually owns anything, no one has long-standing security in any kind of way, and a lot of time we are talking about survivors, where everyone is in a situation of survival or something.
And that to me, as I’ve stressed, has got much more complex, and again, that still doesn’t mean that we take it off the table. It might still need to be. I’ve witnessed, I’ve held, I’ve supported the situations where we have tried a million other things to get this person to stop causing harm and this is not the move. And I think that is the case… A lot of the push-back I got from people when I published the original essay, they were like “Hold on, in a lot of these cases, we have tried everything”. Don’t take the power out of the move that we do need the capacity to make. And that was not my intention in writing and it’s not my intention now is to say “How do we make sure that we are using the tactic precisely when it needs to be used and how do we make sure we have other options when we need other options, right? This is not the first thing people jump to.
TFSR: I guess that’s the thing with social media, and we have so many examples of it, especially because being harmed is a really isolating experience and being able to voice it really scary…
amb: It’s so hard.
TFSR: We see the representation of that on social media that can give you the ability to do something even if you wouldn’t reach out to your pod or whatever. That’s a distinction that, I don’t know, I don’t know…
amb: Well, just briefly on that point, that’s also part of what I’m fighting for. As someone who is a survivor myself and who really has to battle like “Would taking this public be healing for me? Who would I share this with that it would be healing for me? How would I actually be able to heal the pattern that happened here? What do I want for the person – multiple people in my life – who have caused harm?” And it’s a very intimate reckoning. I can’t outsource like “Here is what I landed on, and that’s what everyone got to do too”. Because it’s very intimate. What I do know is that I want the result to be satisfying. If people are taking this huge risk to tell these stories, I want them to be satisfied that they are not able to get justice, but they are able to get healing. I think it is often what happens with the way the call-outs play out right now. A lot of what happens is people take this huge risk, tell a story and now they are associated with that story. It’s now they become a public face of the worst thing that ever happened to them, and sometimes there is some accountability, but often there is not, sometimes the person who caused them harm just disappears and goes somewhere else and keeps causing harm. For me, I’m just like “Hold on, let’s examine this strategy and figure out how do we actually make sure survivors are having a satisfying experience or healing and being held, and getting room to process and not having to be responsible for managing anything to do with the person who caused them harm.
My vision is where we live inside of communities, that have the capacity and the skill to be like “That harm happened to you – we are flanking you, we’ve got you, you are being held, we are attending to your healing. And that there is also enough community to go to the person who caused the harm and hold them in a process of accountability and also healing”. Because fundamentally, we know something’s wrong if someone is causing that kind of harm, if someone commits sexual assault, if someone commits rape, steals resources, abusing power. We know that actually some healing is also needed there. Not that the survivor needs to guide the healing, but the community does need to be responsible for it. I think we are a long way from that. Where we need to be heading if we call ourselves abolitionists is we have to develop a capacity to hold all of that in the community, so that we are not outsourcing it to a prison, to the police.
TFSR: Yeah, it’s interesting in this transitional period, we are not there, it that vision just discussed, we are trying to reach that. There is that experience that so many people have and you’ve probably seen and had it yourself where accountability processes go wrong or a call-out isolates someone and the person who caused harm gets scrutinized and their process doesn’t happen or even I feel like processes can be used to wheel power within subcultural communities, whether that is anarchist or queer, and exclude people. So there is a high level of burnout or disillusionment with these processes, and I just wonder what you think about how we counteract that. That’s another form of healing that is needed.
amb: Yeah. I keep pointing people to these two resources, they just came out last year, which to me says so much about how early we are in the transformative justice experiment. And to place ourselves in a context of time, helps me to drop my shoulders. Be like “Of course we don’t know what the fuck we doing, these processes are fucking hard and everything” because we are so early and we have been… Mariame Kaba talks about this, that we had 250 years of the carceral experiment, of well-funded policing and prison systems rooted in enslavement practices, had a long time of those being well-funded and we have never had a period of experimentation in what we are talking about – transformative justice and abolition practices – have been well-funded. Of course, we don’t have the resources to do it.
So one book is Beyond Survival by Ejeris Dixon and Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha which gives a history of transformative justice, which talks about the people who were doing it before they knew that they were doing it, maybe they didn’t call it that, but just different kind of case studies and models and experiments so people can see that we have been innovating and adapting and trying to figure this out. That feels like one resource for people to say “Go look, we are not the first people to fuck up”. We still don’t know how to hold this, we are learning. The other resource is Mariame Kaba and Shira Hassan put out this workbook called Fumbling Towards Repair, and I’m in love with this workbook because it’s very tangible as a resource. Here is how you can do a community accountability process in your community when something happens. It’s rooted in the idea that Mariame talks about which is it’s not going to be a one-to-one shift from the carceral state to a perfect transformative justice system that someone else still holds outside of us. It’s going to be a system where we want to defund the police and the state and redistribute resources into a million different options in our community including that many of muscle up our capacity to do community accountability processes. And if we are doing one for the first time – I remember the first time I did one – I went in with a big dream of healing and I came out mid-level satisfying, like I said my piece, and this person agreed not to do whatever.
So I just think it’s important to be humble on a grand scale about the fact that we are still learning these things and there is a lot of people in our community who actually are developing some expertise around this, but you are developing an expertise in something that is very often a private process, so it’s not something you are writing out like “Honey, let me tell what I just did with this horrific person”, a lot of it is very private and quiet, and I think that also skews the sense of this moment because a lot of times the initial call-outs, initial accountability moves are much more public, and social media takes them very far, but then we don’t see what happens behind the scenes, we don’t see what was happening behind the scenes to lead up to that moment, all the things that are behind. So if we were able to be like “Ha! We don’t know how to do this yet, we have to learn how to do this. And learning happens mostly through failure. We learn by trying something, it doesn’t quite work, then we make the adjustment. We have so much to learn. We have to learn what roles work best for different people, who are the mediators, who are the people who can hold these processes, who are the people who are like “I’m a healer, I can hold a role in a community”. Do you have to experience these accountability processes yourself, can you just read about it and hold it? There is so much to figure out, and to me, it’s actually exciting. We are in an exciting place potentially for transformative justice and abolition. But not if we stay committed to outsourcing those we deem as bad or the processes themselves. It’s more like how do we turn to be like “Yeah, we don’t know how to do this, let’s learn”.
TFSR: Right. I actually had an opportunity to teach a queer and transformative justice class, it was very well-funded, it was right when those books came out, I was so excited, look at all these new books on this. Teaching this stuff to young people seems important, but also familiarizing them with the fact that it’s not a one-to-one replacement or solution. I use a lot Walidah Imarisha’s Angels with Dirty Faces because she talks about it not being a resolution we are used to within a Capitalist society…
amb: Exactly, and looking at those three stories, cause I think that’s the stuff, looking at these different real-life scenarios and being with the complexity of each of these human beings, I think it is such a great book. I also point people a lot to Mia Mingus’s work, particularly the work around apology, because so much of it is, you know, you are trying to get water out of the stone, it feels like “When I really need is an acknowledgment of the harm you did and an apology for that. Few people know how to give a good apology. There is a myriad of resources that we’re building and generating and slowly bringing into a relationship with each other. I think in ten years, it’s going to look very different.
TFSR: There is something interesting I was starting to think about. You talked about the privacy of the intimacy of situations that need this kind of handling. If we start having people specializing in training and that stuff that go around doing the work, we can run the risk of professionalizing it.
amb: I hope this is not the… To me, that’s why the workbook model is so exciting. And I say this is someone who has worked as a facilitator for the last 20 years. I recognize what happened for me was I had the skill, those I used in my community, and then it became a professionalized skill. Suddenly people started “We’ll fly you to all different places to do this”. For a while, it worked for me and allowed me to work with very exciting movements, but it also has the impact in the long run of making people think that they have to fly me in rather than looking around and see who in their community has this capacity and strength. I wrote Emergent Strategy to help with spreading those tools and I have a book coming out this spring called Holding Change: The Way of Emergent Strategy. Facilitation and Mediation. And for me, the idea is similar, the workbook is like “Pick this up, integrate the skill-set, find the facilitators, the people who are like this in your community and do mediation, who are drawn to it, and let’s start to have more capacity for local reliance in these different systems and needs. I think the professionalization and the sense of bringing someone from afar to do this – we can do this, it’s possible on the level of the community.
TFSR: I know since you post so much from Octavia Butler that maybe you are kind of seeding the communities, then figure it out themselves.
TFSR: And thinking about Emergent Strategy and the new book you’ve just mentioned, OK, in We Will Not Cancel Us, you talk about the sort of supremacy within us and connect it to the diagnosis that the Oankali make in Octavia Butler’s book about the problem with humans is like…
amb: Hierarchy and intelligence…
TFSR: Yeah. I see that work that you do, the writing that you do as part of the process, the internal process that we need to do to unlearn supremacy, the hierarchy within us… And that would work on so many different levels – power, masculinity, and all these things.
TFSR: Do you see this as a sort of thing that takes place in culture, is it internal… It seems like you’re initiating a new genre to have an “anti-authoritarian help book” or something.
amb: [laughs] Thank you. The other day I was interviewed and they said that my new genre was “facila-writing”, writing stuff that facilitates people through a process, so I’ll accept this too, “anti-authoritarian help books” I do think that is something that happens at both ends and I say this like one of my great teachers, mentors, was Grace Lee Boggs who is an Asian-American freedom fighter based here in Detroit, part of the Black Power movement. And she said we must transform ourselves to transform the world. And when I first heard it, I was like “No, we have to go out and transform all the fucked-up people who are doing bad things, we are good”. It took me such a long time to understand what she meant, which is any of the systems that we are swimming in have also rooted inside of us, and as we un-root them, uproot them, we unlearn things inside of us, then we become both models for what it looks like to be post-capitalist, post-nationalist, post-patriarchal, post-white supremacy, we become models of that, we become practitioners and scholars. We actually understand what it takes to do that unlearning. That feels like such a crucial part of this.
In We Will Not Cancel Us, I reference my friend Prentis Hemphill’s essay Letting Go of Innocence because that feels connected to this. First, we have to recognize we are not above the people who have caused harm. They may have had different circumstances, they have let us to moving our harm in different ways or processing our traumas in different ways. I think it’s such a blessing, you know I have a life of trauma, but early in my life I was given tools around therapy and healers, I had a loving household, a loving jumping off board from which to process the trauma of being alive in this time, which I think everyone actually is experiencing at some level. I interact with people and they didn’t come across the idea of therapy or they thought that’s not an option or a healer – that’s private, that’s something you don’t do. And that energy is going to move somewhere. So I don’t look at myself as above anyone who ends up in the prison system or anyone who ends up canceled. I just had different circumstances and they allowed me to process the trauma in a different way. That’s internal work that allows me to be present with the fact that capitalism is in me, petty jealous behavior is in me, judgmental behavior is in me, and that I have to examine what is white supremacy, what is patriarchy, what are those things that live in me. I keep uprooting that.
At the same time, I do believe it is cultural work and that is why I write books instead of just having these thoughts in my head or only doing the work with a small group of friends, as I am interested in dropping seeds into the culture to see if other things can bloom. And my experiment with that, with Emergent Strategy, was so exciting to me because I released the book, didn’t really promote it, I was just like “Look, if there are other people hungry for these ideas, this will spread, if they are not, I will know that I’m alone in Detroit looking at ends and that’s fucked. I felt kind of OK either way cause the Earth is still offering its amazing lessons regardless of people see it through my book or not, but now I know that that strategy can really work. And We Will Not Cancel Us similarly, we did a couple of events that just felt like important conversations to have with Charlene Carruthers, with Cindy Weisner, with Shira Hassan, and with Malkia Devich-Cyril who wrote the Afterword. But mostly it was like the book is out and people are either reading that or not. And I have a lot of people who were like “I’m reading this”. I got a lot of messages from people who are like “I’m really surprised based on the first essay to what happened in the book, I’m surprised. I see what you did, I see the growth”. That’s still not the perfect book, it was a quick process, but to me, it feels important that people are reading it in their own groups and talking about their own local culture. Because social media is not the whole world, and so much is happening in our local movement circles, and how at a local level we are integrating these questions of “Well, how do we handle harm? How do we handle conflict when it arises? What are our case studies? Are there people who we have canceled or tried to dispose of? What happened with them? Where are they now? Did they stop causing harm? Did that work? If not, what else could work? Are we putting people in the line of the state, in the eyes of the state?” Just having it as a local conversation.
The thing I’m interested in is a culture of discernment, a culture of mature, generative conflict, and I think that’s so important on this journey towards an abolitionist future is it’s not just a policy change that will make that possible, it has to be an entire cultural shift, and culture shifts because lots of individuals shift.
TFSR: That’s a good way of thinking, cause the internal work, we are sort of taught to think of the internal work as of the work you do for yourself, your goals and your profession, but actually the internal work and this stuff, it turns you into a potential facilitator. I’m not perfect obviously, but I’ve done a lot of work, and the work that I do allows me to enter the situations from a different place, that I can help facilitate them. It’s not because I’m better or to be above them or avoid them completely, cause that’s impossible.
amb: Yes, and I think right now the culture that is being produced is one where people have a lot of fear around making mistakes which limits how honest people are, because if we are being honest, we are making mistakes all the time, and we have fucked-up thoughts all the time. One thing that I appreciate about my best friendships is that I can say something that is wild and my friend will go like “That’s wild, girl, you can’t say that, and let’s examine where that thought came from”. I grew up in a military household, in a capitalist family. I have to know that that shaped me that by the time – I went to an Ivy League University – all those things shaped me. And so as I’m unlearning this, a lot unpack there, and if I’m above that unpacking or I’m hiding from ever making a mistake, then I can’t do that learning. We want to move from a culture where people are terrified to show up to a culture where people are excited to be able to be like “Here is all of me and I know I have work to do”. And if it’s a culture of belonging, where even if you are fucked up, which you definitely are, you still belong to your species and you still belong to your community. And belonging means you are in a constant state of growth.
I’m rereading bell hooks’ It’s All About Love, and she uses this definition of love which is that you have the willful extension of yourself towards the nurturance of another’s growth or your growth. I want love-based communities, to me, that’s what it looks like when you see that someone has fucked up or failed, you are like “I’m going to willfully extend myself towards your growth” so that there is room to come back. That doesn’t mean people are ready for that. I held space for people who were like “I am a flamethrower, I’m in a flamethrower phase of mine, I’m just going to throw flames and everything, and then I was like “OK, this community just needs to set some clear boundaries, so that you know it’s not OK for you to be burning down everybody’s everything.
And that’s a particular move that says “You have a space here when you are ready to come back, and until you are ready to come back, we have to set this boundary. And again, there is no public shaming needed for that, there is no public humiliation, we don’t get pleasure from boundary setting, it’s just a boundary that needs to be set. So that is a kind of cultural shift that to me feels important.
TFSR: That’s an interesting way of putting it, to try and talk about it without shaming. In a relationship, I try to say “If I fuck up, tell me, cause that’s a learning experience for me, it’s an opportunity for me to hear your thoughts and know something else and also not do that again if I can avoid it.” It’s surprising that so many people don’t expect that, you have to normalize that.
amb: Right, because people don’t even realize that this concept of perfectionism is one of the ways capitalism plays out within us and within our community. That there can be some perfect and we can buy our way there or fake our way there or botox-or-plastic-surgery our way there or something. But actually, no one is perfect, people are making mistakes all the time, and I love how you said that, Scott, that a mistake is a place where an aliveness becomes possible, and learning becomes possible. There is also something really important. Just that piece around boundaries. I want boundaries from other people around me. I want to know what the boundaries are that I need to uphold and honor, even if it hurts. I think about it, in my most intimate relationship, when someone’s like “No, adrienne, you can’t cross this line”. And I’m like “Me? For real?” and them “Oh yeah, let me integrate that”. Because it actually isn’t personal, that’s that don Miguel Ruiz shit. Don’t take it personally, when you stop taking it personally, you recognize that people’s boundaries are about them, taking care of themselves, and you can love them by upholding those boundaries. Even that is part of learning.
I know a few people who have been through big call-outs and now they are sitting outside of a boundary, outside of a community that they once felt so at home in, and it fucking sucks. And I’m holding the boundary and I’m learning what I need to learn out here in order to be able to make my return. Even if I think there are other ways to do it, fundamentally, what we are trying to do is to develop a culture where we can set boundaries, the boundaries actually create growth and space for actual authentic love to be possible.
TFSR: It’s so funny, I always thought about the thing I liked about hanging out with anarchists is that I can leave any situation and people don’t need an explanation for it. I’m just like “I’m done”, with that ability to… there is not the same kind of expectation to participate beyond your limits.
amb: Because there is a practice of non-attachment, a practice of really being free around other free people, which is very uncomfortable for people who are… Ursula Le Guin wrote about it in The Dispossessed, that’s I really still identify as an anarchist, is that what it really means to be free is so at odds with how our culture is currently structured. We don’t realize all the ways we are weaving ourselves into a self-policed, self-controlled state, and we are making all kinds of agreements – control me, control me, police me, correct me, control me. I’ve just noticed that in the past year my visibility has gone up to a whole different level, which means that a lot more people think they should have control over me, and really staying free within that context is like “Oh, I’m glad I have developed the muscles before this visibility, that I am free and I deserve to fuck up and make mistakes and I can handle being in public, and someone is like “Yeah, I fuck up”. I am a human being, visibility doesn’t make me less human, but it is a muscle that I wish more people were thinking about even developing, much less practicing.
TFSR: Yeah, you have your podcast, but also your book model is a process. We Will Not Cancel Us is presented not as a finished…
amb: Yeah, it’s a process and I made uncomfortable decisions in it. It would be much easier for me on some level to just pull down the original piece and be like “That’s embarrassing. I made mistakes and people can see that”. But again, if I step outside of it, if I don’t think about it so personally, then I can imagine some young organizer being able to read a book and go back and see the piece and make a connection and be like “Oh, this was what you learned and improved, you still have room to grow, this could be better, sharper, clearer”. And I’m like “Great, you write the next book”. Keep this process going.
I recently got to be in a conversation with Angela Davis which is wild, she is someone who I really look up to, but I also love how I see her handle critique in her life. People come to her and are like “Why are you like this, whatever?” And she’s like ” Yes, exactly. Those questions are real questions that I’m in”. That she keeps herself a living, breathing, growing being who is learning and changing all the time. And she’s like “I’m not the same person I was when I was being pursued by the government when I was arrested and all that, when you campaigned to Free Angela Davis, now I’m this Angela Davis and I will continue to grow”. And I’m like “That feels like a great model for those of us who hope to be elder organizers, elder activists, elder radicals. Grace continued to be curious and grow, Angela continues to be curious and grow, and I want to be that. If I have the blessing of being old, I want to be that kind of an elder.
TFSR: I got what you mean, to have a continuation and the inter-generational connection for a diversity of people coming in now, stuff that is happening and just sharing our knowledge and experience and also getting theirs, cause they have a different perspective.
TFSR: I’ve seen this tactic used when there is a serial abuser in a community, someone who the community doesn’t believe can be accountable, they do a general call, flyering, posters whatever. There is also in science fiction like Woman on the Edge of Time, there’s this idea that eventually, if you keep harming, you get killed, right?
amb: In Woman on the Edge of Time, you get one chance. You mess up one time, they give you the tattoo, if you mess up again, they say “We are not doing prisons”.
TFSR: I have an organizer friend who says that part of abolition is maybe the community decides that that’s it for you, that’s the vision of it. I’m not saying that everyone everyone needs to adopt that, but there is also revenge and stuff like that, and I was wondering what your thoughts are on this.
amb: I think it’s complicated because I will admit that I have one response – here is my theoretical, philosophical higher-self response, which is that we have to keep building our capacity to hold even the most harmful people, somehow we have to figure it out. But then a part of me is in communities regularly and has had to hold and set those boundaries and has seen that person, I’m like “You literally don’t care, you must work for the Feds, you are just… when they are passing out fives of happiness and joy, you miss the entire bucket, you don’t know what happened”. I’ve seen this side and I’ve definitely been in a place where it felt like there was no other option. What I mean inside of this is I am not actually judging what communities have to do to survive and I don’t think that any of us can do that for other communities. At least I’m not trying to judge, I’m not trying to be like “You all are weak, cause you need to do whatever”. My thing is, there is something around how we feel inside of it. Any of those times when I finally had to be like “Look, they are not willing to stop causing harm, we have to set this boundary”, for me, it’s been a move of grief and relief. Like we just have to make this call and prayer, cause I know us holding this does not mean that the harm is going to stop and they are going to find someone else to hurt. And at an individual level, this is always a thing, someone has been abusive to you, do you call the person they start dating next and say “Look, this person is going to fuck you up” or you just like “Well, I hope it goes better for them”? People make different calls about that. The things that helped me through this: one is I do believe that people change. They may not change at the pace that we want them to. I do believe that sometimes a hard boundary is the only way to get people to change. I’ve seen it happen before, I’ve seen it happen to people who had that positional power, that they were abusing and abusing, and finally were like “You don’t have it anymore”. And that’s where they actually were able to turn inward.
So I do believe that hard boundaries sometimes can be the most powerful thing. I do think it’s difficult with the flyers and revenge. I’ve said it before – that person just needs to get their ass kicked. That what needs to happen. I struggle inside of the same complexities. I think it’s the important piece here. What I want us to get good at as a community is feeling like we have as many options as we do actually have and practicing all the options. A lot of what my writing is in this time is let’s not just above all the options that help keep this person in our community or help this person to heal from the harm that clearly has happened to them, or help this scenario play out differently. Let’s not leap over all of that to have the very first thing we do is, say, plaster this person’s face and name and the intimate stories of the worst moments of their lives all over the internet and then anyone can see. For me, that’s the move that I’m trying to keep us from. To be like “First, let’s understand the history of that person. What do we know? How do we protect the survivor from any further harm? Is the person actually open to mediation or any other process? If they are, who are the right people to hold that, we need multiple people to hold that?” And so on and so forth.
Now, I think we need a boundaries school. If I were creating a school that everyone in the movement had to go through for the next year, it’s the pandemic, and we are like “OK, you can’t be on the streets, let’s all go to boundary school, let’s all go to abolition visioning school and figure out when we say ‘Defund the police’, what responsibility are we taking on in that scenario?” I would have us be in some real serious schools. I think Prentice Hemphill could run a boundary school. I have visions on this step. And Sendolo Diaminah could run the school on abolitionist visions and on practicing it at the local level. Andrea Ritchie could do that, Mia Mingus, Mariame Kaba, there are so many people. There is a lot of learning and political education and practice education that we could do because there is pleasure in revenge, there is pleasure in being able to finally say “This asshole is an asshole”, there is pleasure in all those things. But I think it’s a temporary pleasure that doesn’t actually change the conditions that will lead to more harm happening. I want us to get the pleasure mostly from healing and knowing that we have a chance from the conditions that the harm will not happen anymore.
TFSR: That’s a really good way of putting it. I was thinking about glorifying Fanon sort of violence that cleanses things. Going back to Butler, she explores violence in terms of community, but she holds it in complexity. She doesn’t endorse it, she shows detriments to it.
amb: Yeah, and there is something fascinating. In one of my favorite explorations that she has, which is The Wild Seed and Mind of My Mind, those are two books inside the Patternist series, there is this character Doro, who is a straight-up body snatcher. I remember doing a series of reading groups around this where eventually, a whole huge interconnected network has to take him out because he just cannot stop causing harm. He literally can’t survive if he stops causing harm. But I was sitting in one of the reading groups one time, and someone turned to me and was like “Did she ever try to heal him?” The lead character is one of the most amazing outstanding healers that’s ever existed. And the person said, “Did she ever try to heal him?” I went back and read the book and I couldn’t really see it, cause she tried to argue, she tried to demand, she tried to shame, to run away, she tried a million things to hold him accountable and ask for him to change, but there is not really a moment that she laid her hands on him the way she did with others, and reached into that place where he was a child, his entire family had been killed, and this was the strategy that emerged for him to survive. I always come back to that, it moves me to tears each time, cause if we look at each person causing harm as a child who has been harmed, it changes the conversation, and I think it can change what’s possible. I keep wanting to make this distinction, but that to me is not the work of the person surviving their harm, for me as someone who had been and is being abused, it’s not my job to be like “Oh, I can see the child in you”. But I think in the community, we need to grow that capacity. We have to help, to figure out getting this person to therapy. That might be the mandate. I do feel there are things like that, like if you want to be here, we have to know you are getting support, if you want to be here, we have to see this commitment to your healing. And that would be a sophisticated future if that was happening.
TFSR: That’s a really good point. I was really intrigued in the book about this idea of how we feed intp surveillance and sort of a counter-surveillance. I just wanted to hear more about that idea. Is it airing dirty laundry, is it leaks that get turned against us? Again, it’s like, I’m thinking COINTELPRO and we are bringing all this stuff back to black queer organizers who use call-outs as self-defense. How do you conceive this kind of surveillance?
amb: I think it’s an interesting conversation and it’s part of why I was really excited to have Malkia write the afterword because Malkia grew up as a child of a Black Panther who has really done a lot of scholarship around COINTELPRO and surveillance and who has been fighting around facial recognition and surveillance and all these things. I feel I learned a lot about what Malkia thinks about these things. I wanted to bring this conversation into the larger conversation that we are having which is I don’t think we’ve ever healed from COINTELPRO and I don’t think we’ve ever really figured it out. There are people who are doing really interesting work around how do we relate to living in a completely overwhelming surveillance state, how do we relate to the fact that infiltration is very common and expected. And we can see the patterns of it play out, that is very hard at an interpersonal level to ever know who you can trust and who you can’t trust.
I just saw a screening of Judas and the Black Messiah which talks about the infiltration of Fred Hampton in the Black Panthers in Chicago, and it’s just devastating to know that people show up inside movement spaces with the intention to cause dissent, harm, and to keep us from justice and liberation. But that is definitely happening. And at meetings, I’m like “Hmm, I think that person is here for the wrong reasons. My response to this is mostly like “Let’s be overwhelmingly on point with what it is we are up to and hope that we sway them and they become a turncoat to the government, whatever. But that is very unrealistic. And much more realistic, since we have to be thinking how are we building trust with each other… For me, it’s all of the above, that is airing the dirty laundry piece that harms us mostly in the eyes of our opposition. They are like “Hey, they don’t actually have unity and solidarity, they are everyone at each other’s necks. And even if it’s true, I don’t think it serves us to have that be public and transparent. And I don’t think it feeds to generative conflict, if the move is that we put people on blast rather than sitting down and having a face-to-face conversation, I’m concerned about that. Zoom, face-to-face, whatever it is.
But then I also think there is something around how we isolate people. If we are taking someone and we are like “This person caused harm in our community” and we are putting that on the internet, then that person is now isolated out of the community and if someone who is surveilling and is looking for like “Who could we turn into an infiltrator, who could we reach in those ways, who could we take out, who could we disappear”. To me, it’s saying “Here are our weakest links, here are the weakest points of our movement. Come get us”. And I think right now, because the movement has grown so fast and because social media is such a bizarre space where people think they have a relationship with people they never met, they don’t know anything about, they don’t have any sense of an actual history for, we are in a really endangered species’ zone, when it comes to our movement work right now. That was a big impetus for the writing that I did, cause I was being asked to do these call-outs, and then I would go look who was asking me to do this call-out, it was almost people I didn’t know and there was nothing to show me that this person’s ever done any other community work. I can see that they’ve done other call-outs, but I don’t see anything like “Here is what they’ve built”.
I said this in many places: I’m much more moved by people who are creating, building, growing the movement, rather than people who are like “My job is to destroy this institute or organization, or turn down this activist, whatever”. That’s not organizing work. And we definitely have people in movement right now where I’m like “They may not be on the State’s payroll, but they might as well be based on how they spend their time, how impactful is it growing efforts of actually being able to advance a united front, something that is complex organizing strategy. So I just think we have to be more mindful around it. To me, even if you don’t agree with me, even if you are just like “Fuck that, it’s more important to be able to call these people out”, I’m like “That’s fine”. And at all times, let’s not pretend we didn’t live through COINTELPRO and not pretend that infiltration and subterfuge and undermining and sabotaging our efforts is not a possibility for what’s happening right now. To me, it’s not learning from our history and be able to transform the future, which is what our job is.
TFSR: That’s such an important point. That we can be serving the state in ways that are unintentional and holding up a purity…
amb: If we are already embedded in philanthropy, we already have so many compromises. We can’t also be throwing our people into those hands.
TFSR: Exactly, we need to accept that we are not pure and not expect other people to be pure. That was a really helpful way of way of packaging it, thank you.
amb: Thank you for this conversation. You have really good questions and I hope that it serves us all.
This week, I spoke with John from the Working Class History collective and host of their WCH podcast. We spoke about the new book, “Working Class History: Everyday Acts of Resistance“, that WCH has published through PM Press, their archives, methodology, the project of popularizing working class, movement and human-sized history and a bunch more. [00:05:53]
If you thirst for more conversation with John, you’re in luck as Firestorm Books will be hosting a presentation with him about the book on February 25 from 7-8:30pm eastern or UTC – 5. You can find out more at Firestorm.Coop/Calendar.
A transcription, downloadable pdf and imposed zine should be up in about a week here!
Transcription & Support
As an update on our transcription project, we’ve sent our first batch of zines to patreon subscribers over $10. Much thanks to everyone who is contributing at whatever level. We are still $75 short of covering our minimums for the transcription and podcasting fees, so if you think you can become a sustainer consider visiting patreon.com/TFSR. If you don’t like patreon, we can receive ongoing donations from liberapay or paypal, as well as one-time donations via paypal and have merch for sale in our big cartel store.
If you don’t have cash but want to help out our project, that’s great! Reach out with show ideas, tell some friends in meet space or on social media, rep our content, print out some zines and send them into prisoners, rate us on podcasting sites, translate our work, or if you have a community radio station in your area you want to hear us on, get in touch and we’ll help you. We have some notes on our site under the broadcasting tab as well, for our weekly, 58 minute FCC friendly episodes.
Letters for Sean Swain
Our comrades continues to be denied access to regular communication with the outside by the Department of Corrections in Ohio as well as Virginia where he’s being held. It’s also notable that his website is currently down. Sean has a complaint pending before the Inter-American Human Rights Commission for the torture he suffered at the hands of the state of Ohio. He is also collecting support letters for his bid for clemency. You can find more details on instagram by following Swainiac1969, SwainRocks.Org, our Swain tab or by checking out the script up at https://cutt.ly/Hkph3KY.
Thanks to Linda from Subversion1312 for reading this week’s Sean script. [01:18:02]
BAD News #42
The latest episode of BAD News: Angry Voices from around the world by the A-Radio network has just been released. You can find find past BadNews episodes at the A-Radio site. This month, you’ll hear calls for support for the evicted ROG squat in Ljubljana, Slovenia, prisoner and prisoner solidarity updates from Greece, excerpts from a discussion of Russian anarchists about the current protests across that country and Alexei Nawalny, and a short piece highlighting the 100th anniversary of the death of Piotr Kropotkin.
FREE OUR COMRADE & RELATIVE STEVE MARTINEZ! Thank you for the birthday wishes, let’s use this energy to Free & Support Steve! He resisted a Grand Jury for the second time in regards to alleged events from the NO DAPL struggle in Standing Rock, is currently NOT cooperating with authorities, & is awaiting federal extradition! Steve needs our support! Steve helped save our friend Sophia Wilansky’s arm from gettin blown off by military weapons, & he is a solid & brave Indigenous warrior! We are asking our comrades to call the jail to DEMAND they release Steve who is wrongfully in custody at: 701-255-3113, & PLEASE WRITE STEVE in Burleigh Morton Cty Jail at:
Po Box 2499
money orders can also be sent to him in his name at that address, as well as to his government name above on jail.atm.com
We’re sharing a short rap by imprisoned indigenous, emo man, Loren Reed. Loren is facing years in prison for poorly chosen words in a private message on facebook during last summer’s uprising. We’ve mentioned his situation before. You can learn more by following Tucson Anti-Repression Crew and you can hear a great interview on Loren’s case done by fellow CZN member, the ItsGoingDown podcast. You can donate to his support by cashapp’ing TARC ($TucsonARC) or paypal’ing to paypal.me/prisonsupport, don’t forget a note saying “For Loren”.
Daniel Alan Baker
In the run-up to the January 20th presidential inauguration, the far right around the US was threatening large, armed and violent rallies at US state capitols across the country. Daniel Alan Baker, a US army vet, former YPG volunteer combat medic, yoga instructor and leftist activist called for people to counter what could have been seen as the deadly sequel to January 6th events in DC. He was pre-emptively arrested by the FBI and is currently being held at Tallahassee’s Federal Detention Center. Like Loren Reed, he is facing years in prison for statements made on social media. For more information, check out this article in Jacobin Magazine, or a great chat with supporters of Daniel’s from CZN member-show Coffee With Comrades. Updates can be found at Instagram by following GuerillaGalleryTLH.
A-Radio Network Live Show
Join the A-Radio Network on Saturday, February 13thof 2021 from 14:00 till at least 20:00 o‘clock central European time, that’s 8am to 2pm eastern or New York time for our 6th transnational live broadcast of anti-authoritarian and anarchist radios from deep within where anarchy reigns.
Since 2016 this is an important part of our yearly gathering of the A Radio network. Due to the pandemic and strong restrictions given by Governments all over the world, this year’s gathering was forced online. But don’t worry, against all odds we will nonetheless join together online on February 14thto broadcast an international show full of interesting contributions and discussions with/from comrades based in different parts all over the world. And you, dear listeners are also invited!
So far, our topics will include international experiences of: prison resistance; anarchy in the time of covid; Far Rightwing threats; and experiences organizing mutual aid!
The show will be carried by (a) transnational and militant spirit which hopefully is highly infectious.We promise our bad anarchist jokes aren’t lethal.
You will find a more detailed schedule, a player for the show and a link to the livestream soon onwww.a-radio-network.organd if you’d like to participate, you can also reach out to member projects that can be found on that same site!
TFSR: Would you please introduce yourself with your name pronouns and any projects you affiliate with for the purpose of this conversation?
WCH: Hi, I’m WCH:, he, and I’m the host of the Working Class History podcast.
TFSR: Would you tell us a bit about the Working Class History project, how it got started, who was involved, and why you started it?
WCH: Basically it came out of some discussions that I have with some friends a few years ago. We’d been involved in lots of different activist groups over the years and publishing projects, and involved in different campaigns. Myself, I spent most of my time organizing at work. And social media, it’s obviously a really powerful tool, and we were thinking about how could we try and put out information—radical sort of information—on social media in a way that would go viral. And we’d also got very interested in reading about the history and learning about past struggles, because the more we did organizing ourselves and were involved in social movements and such, the more it gets a bit sort of frustrating on one level seeing in general, mainstream society, that there’s so little connection that most people have—especially people of our generation and younger—have with mass working class oppositional counterculture which used to exist. Especially in the UK, where I’m from. Most of us we don’t have that organic link with the past anymore where there’d be generations of union families in certain communities. We wanted to think how can we try and not bring that back immediately, but draw that link with the past and at the same time on the (you want to call it the Left or whatever or the workers movement or whatever term you call for it) thinking that so many people get involved in stuff each new generation gets involved in stuff, and they repeat the mistakes of the people that came before them. So all sorts of thinking about how can we try and learn from these struggles in the past and try and help get these lessons to new generations of workers and activists that crop up every generation. And then we thought people seem to like anniversaries, so let’s do that. We started doing that on social media. And we were hoping that it would be viral and it was a lot more successful than we thought, in that. Because I guess for people who are, like, a bit lefty or whatever, seeing a post on social media about something happened on this day, it gives them an opportunity to share something with friends, colleagues in a way that doesn’t seem random, because it is about something that happened today. So now I’m not just lecturing all my work colleagues and family about the Paris Commune of 1871 or whatever, it’s like, “Oh, this is a historical thing that happened today, this is interesting and you might find it interesting, too.” And I think it worked in that way. Because it does give an organic and nice way of sharing information without being a bit fun and without being preachy, or lecture-y, or whatever. So that’s where it came out of, and then as the project’s got bigger we just started trying to do other things like a podcast to look into a bit more detail. Because sometimes we get comments on the on post being like, “Oh, this doesn’t have a lot of background in it, or this should really have a bit more detail.” It’s a social media post. It’s not a PhD thesis or something. We recognize that. We wanted to look into stuff into a bit more detail so we can do it in a podcast. And for people who don’t like looking at stuff online and want to have more of a reference work, we’ve done a book now.
TFSR: I’d like to talk about the book. One thing that you described in there is not a thing that I’ve ever experienced growing up in, I guess, middle class community in the United States, is a knowledge or an expectation or an experience of what a multi-generational working class feeling is. I have tons of friends growing up who were working class. But I think that a thing that you’re describing and that your project is building towards is a little bit different and a little bit something that I’d love to hear if you have any more like insights into how it’s been described to you the sort of like edges that you’ve danced around in trying to create it and what a working class culture in the UK where you grew up, for instance, felt like. What delineates that from just the experience of people who are poor and working and trying to get by?
WCH: I grew up in the southeast of England which is one of the places where the erosion of sense of working class identity has really been very successful especially with policies brought in by Margaret Thatcher’s Conservative government and onwards. The major industries where workers were best organized and most militant were systematically divided up and then defeated one after another, first with the mine workers, then with the print workers, also around the same time period steel workers, and shipping workers were defeated as well, and then later dock workers. So that was one side of it. And then another side of it was around housing, where social housing was attacked and instead ‘Right to Buy’ was introduced, which gave working class people the ability to buy their own council house, which was—especially in the southeast of England where I’m from—massively successful at converting what was a relatively large group of working class people who mostly were Labor voters and identified in that line of things. It was very successful at turning that collective sense of identity into a massive atomized individuals who can do better for them. Because buying your own council house was a move which did help those individual people who did it significantly. And that was the area that I sort of grew up in amongst a lot of people where that had happened. So their families had bought their own home and then had a sense of themselves as very middle class, mostly conservative individuals striving to do the best for themselves that they could. I’m one of the people from that generation that had no connection with these working class oppositional cultures that I just learned about later when I got into lefty ideas and radical politics.
TFSR: Would you mind talking a bit about the book that y’all just published through PM Press and sort of the process that you went through of compiling it? And what do you hope, as a project, that this book will spark or will bring out and people
WCH: The idea for the book came out of our discussions with our publishers, PM Press, who are a great independent, radical publisher, and who contacted us to see if we’d be interested in doing a book, because we hadn’t really thought about it. We were doing social media posts, and then a podcast, and we’d been involved in some print publishing in the past, but it was a huge amount of work and that put us off the whole-put us off the whole thing. PM talked us into it. And we were excited to do it because on a personal level, like, I love books. Books are great and doing one is great. Even, say, for people who follow us on social media, because of the large amount of other people are putting up posts and algorithms, people won’t see everything that we put out most the time only a fraction of a percent see anything that we put out. And also, because of algorithms, certain posts get much more prominent than others. So especially things that are more about countries where more of our followers live, like the US, that stuff gets a lot more engagement and then a lot more people see it. So people who even do follow us on social media might get a very narrow view of the historical events that we have in our archive. And also, of course, a whole bunch of stuff there aren’t photos of. And in this book we do have a lot of photos, we’ve got over 100 photos. We’ve also been able to feature a lot of stories from our archive where there are no images that exist, so we can’t put them on social media.
We wanted to put something out for people who enjoy consuming content in a different medium. And also to have more as a reference that you can flip through without having to look at a screen or whatever. And it was exciting to be able to think of putting together in terms of a whole, creating as a whole thing. So taking a random selection of everything that we post over a whole year, instead of what we normally do, which is every day we post a couple of things. It was good to think “we’ve got 366 days out of the year and these are the countries that we’ve got events about and we want to feature them the biggest amount of countries and have the most diverse range of stories possible with respect to gender, gender identity, and sexual orientation, race, ethnicity,” and that sort of thing. And with the idea of the book being as diverse as our classes—we acknowledge in the introduction to the book that we have made a lot of efforts in this regard but we still have a long way to go due to the nature of the bias of the sources available to us, which are disproportionately about white guys in more developed Western countries. Most of our research over the past few years has been trying to find out and uncover stories about different parts of the world. But even that is tricky because of language stuff and even knowing what you can Google and such. So, while we’ve still got a way to go, we are still pleased at the range of different types of stories that we feature.
TFSR: It’s quite the tome. And it’s been remarked upon before, like, how much of it—so like, two events out of every date out of the year, including the February 29—which, “thank you” from leap your babies. And I appreciate the fact that there’s an index in the back because there’s a thing to be said about the way that we think about information and that we categorize it if your main impetus is, like, “what is the day today?” “What else has happened on this registered day in history?” That can be, in some happy ways, a bit lackadaisical. You’re not going to be flipping from one page to the next and saying, “Well, then what happened after the workers rose up or after the Soviet tanks came in or after, like, the British military massacred people in Kenya?” It’s interesting to just sort of get these little bite-sized morsels of history. And it seems to invite the reader to embark on a journey of research on their own afterwards, and sort of build the context for themselves as to why this is like important—build an understanding and maybe build wider networks with folks that were more directly affected by those historical events.
WCH: Yeah, that’s what we hope it will do. Like, we list all the sources that we use for each of the posts in the back. So that we do hope that if people see something that is interesting to them, they will go and look into it further. Because in our stories, we don’t try and tell people what they should take from them or what they should think because of them. We don’t want to tell people what to think or anything like that. Obviously we have a perspective, there’s a reason that we’ve put these stories in here. We want people to be able to read these stories and then look into them further if they want and figure out for themselves what the relevance is for them, their lives, and any struggles that they’re involved in.
TFSR: Class has a lot of meanings when it comes from different voices. And we’ve talked a little bit about your experience and basically with how class had been experienced by some people in the part of the world that you had grown up in. Can you talk a bit, for the purpose of this project, which I think was started by people in various parts of the world and not just in, like, the UK, for instance. Can you talk about the standards you used to determine something in the book or in the social media posts or in the podcast, or someone that falls within the parameters of what working class is? And why is it important to view it as a position of agency?
WCH: I think there’s so many different ways that you can talk about class. And they all have some validity. But for us, what’s important is we don’t use it as a system for classifying individuals. Our interest in it is as a political tool which is, how can we best understand society? And how can we then use that understanding in order to change it? And we think that class is a really essential tool in understanding that, especially living as we do in capitalist society. So capitalist society is based on the dispossession of the majority of the world’s population. We are dispossessed of means of production. So land, factories, workplaces, etc., we’re dispossessed of that. So that either by enclosures in European countries, and by colonialism pretty much everywhere else, were dispossessed of that, and therefore, we have to work for a wage for people who do own the means of production, who do own land, factories, blah, blah, blah. And that’s the defining feature of capitalist society. And that’s our broad understanding of class and how we use it. The defining feature of working class for us is this dispossession and then the requirement to either work for another or if you can scrape by on state benefits, if your government provides benefits, or petty crime, or whatever else you have to do. Some people use it—and I think in everyday parlance in the UK, it’s much more of a cultural thing. So what class someone says they have is often more to do with someone’s accent than anything else. The kind of British version of Donald Trump, the guy who hosts the Apprentice TV show, he’s, uh— I don’t know, if he’s a—he’s probably not a billionaire. He’s a very rich business owner called Alan Sugar. He sees himself as working class because his background is—that’s his background and that’s like his accent. And he can think that and that’s, that’s fine. That’s one sort of interpretation of it, but for our perspective, he’s an employer. And his wealth is from exploiting the people that have to work for him because we don’t own businesses.
So obviously in the US there’s even different —there’s all kinds of different ways we’ll have a talk about class. Like, in the US, unions mostly talk about the middle class, talk about being middle class. Because of struggles over the past 100 plus years, a good number of people in blue collar jobs have been able to improve their conditions to the point where they can have a decent standard of living because of the struggles they’ve had. So that there’s a lot of union talk in the US of unions defending the middle class, blah, blah, blah, which is funny, really, especially from a UK perspective where middle class normally means kind of like posh people that like films with subtitles and stuff. So we use it as, not about classifying individuals, but about understanding and changing society. So for example, in our archive we have stories about Oscar Wilde, the author and poet and libertarian socialist. And sometimes people will say things like, “He wasn’t working class.” And it’s like, yeah, fair enough. But his political ideas and the kind of world that he wanted to create was one in which working class people were in control of society and were really able to make the most of our lives and live vibrant, free, beautiful lives. That’s the thing that interests us the most, that for us is the key thing.
TFSR: There are examples in the book that do not take place directly within the framework of the means of production and employment—you point to the intersections between the dispossession and the wielding of state, religious, or social power against populations that are marginalized, whether by ethnicity, religion, gender, sexuality, place of birth. Can you can you talk a little bit about that widening too of the framework of working class? Because I’m sure there’s some people that are some pretty strict Marxists or workerists out there who are of the perspective that, “Well, that’s all fine and good, but that is not working class.”
WCH: And that was one of the reasons that we specifically chose the name that we did, as opposed to something more populist like “People’s History” ala Howard Zinn, a historian who is a big influence on us. Because those vulgar— want to call themselves Marxists or workerists or whatever, are a problem. People who, while they talk progressive talk about overhauling society and building a new type of world, what they often mean in a lot of ways is that they mean that for white male factory worker-type people, and everyone else like women, or Black people, or Indigenous peoples should pretty much be quiet and stop being “divisive” until the revolution, and then all the other problems can be sorted out and hunky dory. And we think that is pretty terrible, in short, not only from a moral perspective, but also it’s completely counterproductive. And it’s a misunderstanding of what class is. While these people may often criticize what they see as identity politics, which is, in most cases, just people in oppressed groups fighting for their own self-interests. They, in fact, are adopting a crude identity politics of their own on the identity of being working class, which they normally also see as excluding other types of identities. And class doesn’t exclude other identities, it overlaps and intersects with all other identities. Obviously, most trans people are working class, most other LGBT people are working class, and the vast majority of the world’s working class are people of color. And they’re located primarily in the global south. And every other type of oppression and exploitation overlaps and intersects with class. For example, things like abortion: wherever you are in the world, whatever the laws are, generally, if you’re rich, you can get an abortion if you need one. Whereas if you are poor, you may not be able to get one, even if it’s nominally legal where you are.
So things like abortion rights are inherently part of a class conflict, class struggle. Abortion rights is just one example—all other types of oppression, racism, homophobia, transphobia, all that sort of thing is very much linked to class, and any single part of our class, fighting for our own interests, benefits all of us because these workerist-type people who would say that struggles of women workers against the pay gap is a section— is a sectional thing, not in the interest of a class of a whole, say, they don’t have that same perspective when workers in one industry go on strike, or one employer go on strike for a pay increase, because they rightly recognized in that case that a victory for one group is a victory for all. And it’s exactly the same with different sections of the working class divided up by any other arbitrary characteristic.
Things like the super-exploitation of migrant workers, or particularly oppressed racial groups, the low pay for black workers in many countries, fighting against that specific racism, exploitation, raises the bar for everyone. So there’s not the constant race to the bottom, in terms of paying conditions where employers can use us to undercut one another. So we thought that was really important to get across. And also point to, historically, that often it has been the most oppressed and the most underpaid workers who have been at the forefront of organizing for better pay and conditions. Not like some populist lefty is trying to say about migrant workers being used to undercut good union jobs or what have you. But more often than not, migrant workers are really at the forefront of workers struggle fighting for better paying conditions and have been. And through history, whether it’s people like agricultural laborers in the United States, or whether it’s people like cleaners in London, England right now, leading so many struggles. Obviously, historically, in the US, women textile workers were often forgotten about. But women textile workers were the first group of workers who properly organized in factories and took strike action. And in the (US) South, black agricultural workers and workers in industries like logging and mining were central and leading in organizing and fighting for better paying conditions, which benefited everyone, including white male workers who often tried to exclude women or black people from their unions.
TFSR: So I’ll totally admit that I haven’t read the book cover to cover and the intro says that I don’t have to so I can just pick it up whenever and say, like, I wonder what happened on June 15. But I am looking forward to continually reading portions as the days passed. I’m noticing a libertarian bent to the stories that are told, for example, I haven’t seen any acts of state by so-called worker states represented as working class events in the book. Could you talk about that a little bit?
WCH: Yeah, well, our approach is summed up in our slogan which is on the back of the book and on our social media accounts, and that’s, “history is not made by kings, politicians, or a few rich individuals, it’s made by all of us.” So that’s the perspective we’re coming from. So the act of politicians and governments isn’t particularly interesting to us because we’re believers in the principle that the emancipation of the working class is the task of the working class itself. And that was one of the rules of the First International—the first big international socialist organization. And that’s our view of things, that the thing that drives history is not the actions of governments, politicians, or the powerful, it’s the everyday actions, often really small and unnoticeable, by millions, hundreds of millions, billions of us. So that’s what we focus on.
Although we do feature some events which have been done in our name. That have been done by governments which call themselves representatives of the working class. Because we think that as well as learning from successful struggles in the past, we should also learn from our mistakes where terrible crimes have been committed in the name of the working class. So some of the things we include are things like the Soviet Union re-criminalizing homosexuality, which was decriminalized during the 1917 revolution and then in the 1930s was re-criminalized. And that led to the huge numbers of gay and bisexual men being sent to the gulags, to labor camps, to suffer horribly. And that was done in the name of the working class and fighting fascism. We think it’s important to remind ourselves of these things that while those of us who say we want a new world, our ideas are beautiful ideas in a lot of ways. And that we want to create a great world where there’s a lot more happiness and joy than we have now, and a lot less suffering. It’s important to bear in mind that having these lofty ideas in our heads doesn’t always mean that that’s how they work out in practice. And we should be constantly vigilant not to think that the ends justify the means when it comes to certain things.
TFSR: You talked about the limitations of the project in the introduction, such as the limit to two events represented for each day. You also mentioned where you’re starting from, the types of events that you’re aware of, linguistic factors that determine the scope of what you could include. But can you talk about this work in your project in the social media, or in the archives, the work of translating your social media posts on the days of history? Or if you’ve had success through translation to bringing histories that were formerly out of your reach into that wider fold of your project?
WCH: Can I check? Do you mean translating stuff from other languages into English? Or do you mean vice versa?
TFSR: Into English is what I meant, to bring it to your existing audiences. But also, I would imagine that there’s a give and take when it comes to the fact that you’re now doing translations into Arabic and other languages and it seems like you’re trying to expand that framework. Is that right?
WCH: We are very fortunate in that a number of people have got in touch and have launched sister pages, essentially, of Working Class History in other languages. So at the moment there’s WCH sister pages in Arabic, Farsi, Portuguese, Spanish, French, Norwegian, Swedish, and the latest one is Romanian, which is really cool and really exciting to see. Some of those groups also are researching their own events and writing up their own history more about their part of the world. So the Farsi page has a lot of stuff about Iranian radical history, which is really fascinating. And the Arabic page as well about the Middle East. And that’s great, because that’s teaching us a bunch of stuff that we didn’t know. And the Portuguese lot as well are writing a load of great stuff, not just about Portugal but about—especially about struggles in former colonies like Brazil, Angola, Mozambique, and Bissau. So that’s really great for us. And in terms of us finding out things because, as I said, when we first started the social media page, we got a few radical history calendar-type-things and went through and wrote some stuff up, but the ones that we found were massively US and Western Europe and male-centric.
So like I said, the majority of the time we spent looking up new things have been to try and diversify that and correct the bias and imbalance that was in it right from the beginning. And for doing that—not that I want to give any big corporations any praise—but I love Google Translate so much. It’s such an amazing tool that it can do pretty decent, pass-able translations from so many languages into English. So we do use that a fair bit to find out about things. The problem with it being that if writing about something is only available in a language that you don’t speak, you wouldn’t even necessarily know to look something up there unless you had knowledge of it in the first place, which you might not have if it wasn’t in English, if you see what I mean. So it’s a bit—it’s a bit chicken and egg. Basically, when we find out about something in a country or a place that we haven’t heard of, we can use that as an entry point and then read things about it and use Google Translate. And then that references other things which we can then look up. We go down rabbit holes. It’s quite a fun way to—like, nerdy, but a fun way to spend an afternoon like going down a rabbit hole. I did that recently just reading up various things about struggles by Japanese students and things in the 1960s and 70s. I’m sure that there’s lots of stuff that has been written about kinds of stuff by people in academia at some point or by students at different universities or whatever. That’s not the background that we at WCH come from. We wouldn’t even know if any of that stuff exists because most stuff that’s written for academia is then just never heard from again by anyone outside of it, which is a shame I think.
TFSR: Or it’s just behind a paywall so you have to have the JSTOR—shout out to Aaron Schwartz, but most people don’t have that sort of access.
WCH: Exactly. So problems remain where, in the availability of information around the world, but at least on a positive, things do seem to be getting better in that regard. And I think a lot of the time just driven by ordinary people researching stuff and writing it up and then sharing on social media, and then you can find out about it, look into more and what have you, and find more kinds of things that have been digitized around the place. And the more of everything that’s made available online and translated, eventually, the more that we get to find out about all of it. But so it is exciting seeing new things get to get digitized and put online. Yeah, it’s a slow process.
TFSR: Like off topic a little bit, but to the Google Translate thing? Yeah, Google is a terrible company in its application. But also, like, six years ago I was in Istanbul and I remember—like, I don’t speak any Turkish—but I remember sitting in a cafe and one of the workers came up to talk to me because I was sitting in reading, and they asked me what I was reading in Turkish. And I was like, showed them my phone and, like, typed in to Google Translate to translate into Turkish, like, “I don’t speak Turkish, sorry.” And they just put up their phone and they were like, “Okay, well, I was wondering what you were reading—” We just had this conversation showing screens to each other and eventually got to see this, like, barista’s artwork that they wanted to show me that they had drawn and it was just neat to be able to have this conversation that would have been excluded if not for the fact that we had this intermediary technology standing between us. It’s Utopic if not for the fact that it’s owned by a terrible Skynet corporation that is trying to control all the library books.
WCH: I guess you could say at least their business model is more to let people use stuff for free and then just make money off our data in private information, rather than—don’t know if it’s better or worse. Certainly we can make use of it more than, like, the other companies that buy up historical images and then their model is to try and own all the images and then make people pay to use them. Those terrible, terrible things. Capitalism is like, it’s bad?
TFSR: It’s like it’s enclosing everything. So have you considered making a Working Class History page in Esperanto?
WCH: If someone would like to take that on and do that they are very welcome to.
TFSR: Very diplomatic.
WCH: We’ve got a bunch of stuff about that. Esperanto has a really exciting and interesting radical history. And, sadly, a guy that we are planning on doing an interview about him—a guy called Eduardo Vivancos, just died a few days ago, aged 100. He was a guy who, he fought in the Spanish Civil War in the Durutti Column Militia and survived the war, obviously, but he was also a very prominent Esperantist who wrote and did a lot of stuff spreading anarchist and working class ideas in Esperanto, and was able to communicate with lots of people in China and Japan, in particular, at that time. So I think certainly that Esperanto was a really exciting Utopian project at the time. It has a really interesting history.
TFSR: It’s really easy to point to the limitations of it being such a Euro-centric language and what have you. Like, it’s definitely an imperfect thing, but the approach and the desire to have some sort of universal tongue among peoples, it’s a really beautiful idea. A universal tongue that’s not distinctly just English or German or French or Spanish or whatever else. I know that Radio Libertaire in Paris has a weekly Esperanto show that tries to teach listeners how to speak it, which I think is pretty cool to see that still alive. I don’t know.
WCH: Just you saying that and I think that is—the idea is really cool and really Utopian. But what popped into my mind as well is also—also recently what is also about things like Indigenous languages. And so many languages are dying out. I say “dying.” Have been eradicated essentially by colonialism and neocolonialism, particularly with the spread of English. So it is heartening to see, it seems like there’s been a real like growth in interest in trying to—particularly by indigenous peoples—to re-popularize things like indigenous languages and other languages are dying out, which I think is also really important because on the flip side of universal communication there’s also that, like, because of how our brains work, so much of the language we speak shapes how we can imagine things and how our minds work and having languages die is—those whole ways of thinking die out along with them and which is really sad.
TFSR: So in the US, the last national regime was pushing a program of patriotic education, attempting to reform and shape the inculcation of public school students away from influences of critical race theory and projects like the New York Times 1619 projects, as well as “People’s History” ala Howard Zinn, who you mentioned before. States in the US have, with various levels of success, attempted to bar ethnic studies programs and to ban books like Zinn’s. Can you talk about the approach of “People’s History,” which you mentioned as being—or at least in name, at least a bit populist—and it’s maybe like, Zinn’s work or Studs Terkel or other documentarians of working class experiences, how it’s, like, influenced y’all in working class history and why you think the reactionaries find it so threatening, like that sort of approach to popular history?
WCH: Some of the stuff especially being pushed by the last government was extremely worrying with their very blatant attempts to rewrite history, especially for, like, right wing people who like to complain about Black Lives Matter activists trying to rewrite history by removing some statues, and they actually try to rewrite history by making a lot of shit up and lying about it. It’s ironic at the least, especially as it’s also so completely nonsensical that—yeah it is good that there has been a real growth recently in more people-based history, more grassroots history, more Black history, more Indigenous history more history told from the perspective of Black people, Indigenous peoples, and so on. And that is great, and that so many people are out there doing that. But at the same time, that idea in the right wing that these ideas are, like, Marxist indoctrination of schoolchildren is predominant in any public education system is to such a complete joke that. I mean, it’s obviously not funny because it’s extremely disturbed. The fact that a lot of educational institutions pay at least a bit of lip service to teaching about slavery or the civil rights movement, I think a lot of teachers and educators are doing really great work. In a lot of ways, the way that history is still taught for the most part is still very much top down, Euro-centric, colonial, blah, blah, blah.
So anyway, that’s a bit of an aside. People like Howard Zinn was really a big influence. Reading his book for the first time was very exciting. And I think on a personal level, I don’t think I really realized it at the time— I read “War and Peace” as a teenager by like Leo Tolstoy who was an anarchist, but I also didn’t realize that at the time. And intersperse—because the books about the sort of war and all these countesses and counts and whatever. And it’s really fucking long. For anyone who has or hasn’t read or whatever, interspersed through this really long story is a kind an essay about the nature of history. And the thrust of it being that, like, history is not—obviously Napoleon or whatever is a great man of history, but Napoleon is not what has made this history happen. What’s far more important is the infinitesimally small actions of tens of millions of people every single day that goes to create what history is. And I think when I read that, at the time, I thought that was a bit random that this essay was in here amongst all this sort of stories of aristocratic love and intrigue and everything. That actually stuck with me way more than the rest of the book. I think that probably had a real impact on how I think about things later. So obviously it did have an influence on me personally and on WCH in general.
And for reactionaries, yeah, it is threatening because the idea that we as ordinary people have the power to make history and change society is the most threatening thing for the people who are in power now. Because what is in their interests is the fatalistic idea which I think—I don’t know about most people, but probably most people have at least at some time—is that things are the way they are because that’s the way they have to be, and there’s nothing we can do about it. And things will never change, blah, blah, blah. Which is obviously what people thought under Feudalism that the divine right of kings was something which could never be—which was, it was in the natural order of things and it could never be question never be changed. But then when people realize that, actually—Ursula LeGuin was a legendary anarchist, feminist scifi author, who sadly died a couple of years ago, said, I can’t be the exact words, I am paraphrasing. It’s not the right quote, so don’t quote me on it. “Any society that’s made by humans, however, can be changed by humans” which is, of course, true.
TFSR: I think there is some truth to the argument that they’re rewriting history. Like when we push different narratives, it doesn’t mean that people are making up facts. But history is a narrative that—or a series of narratives that we choose to accept or that are accepted by institutions and that shape the way that we view ourselves and we view the society in which we live. And a fundamental shift in that way of adopting, funnily this view that two pacifist at least anarchist-adjacent individuals like Tolstoy and Zinn had of the world…I wouldn’t call it Cultural Marxism like a lot of people on the right do. I think that it does pose a threat to the way that the world is constructed. And we can think outside of the Feudal bounds that we’re stuck in now even.
WCH: Yes. Yes, I concur.
TFSR: Along those lines there is the rewriting of history. But this isn’t even necessarily part of it, this is a byproduct of the fact that people are rethinking their relationship to historical figures who are in primacy in the historical framework—the historiographies that most of us have grown up in the US under in mainstream society. It’s been the history of great men, to paraphrase Gang of Four.
And the breaking down of that, the rethinking of these public figures who do have statues around, whether it be Christopher Columbus, or Thomas Jefferson, or General Robert E. Lee, or Conquistadors or missionaries on the west coast—they’re not even just in the West Coast of the United States. Cecil Rhodes, or whoever—like, statues have been toppled. Statues were at the center of Unite the Tight number one in Charlottesville in 2017, August 12. It was a fight over statues and public representation. And similarly, throughout the United States south there have been the toppling of other statues and monuments, either to individuals or to symbolic ideas of the southern soldier, like, facing north ready to, like, fight back the siege and re-impose—continually impose white supremacy. Symbols like this mean a lot to people. Enough for people to fight over or to like struggle to destroy to build something else. Like, I’d be interested in hearing how Working Class History members felt during this last couple of years, but in particular, this summer during the uprising that took place in so many places around the world.
WCH: It was an exciting time. Not to play down obviously, it came out of horrific events the brutal on-camera murders of unarmed Black men around the US—not to downplay the horror of it. The upsurge in Black-led, self-organized protest and militancy, not just around the US, but that also had an impact, partly because of US cultural dominance of the planet in large part, that also saw similar protests breakout all over the world, and as well as parallel movements in Nigeria—again about police brutality by the colonial era police force. So on the one hand, there was the Black Lives Matter movement. And then at the same time, from our perspective, it looked like a real surge of interest from people in radical history, people’s history, the history of past movements and colonialism and social movements. We had a massive growth in new followers and interactions with our content that was unprecedented, which was exciting for us as a history project, but then also seeing how many of the kinds of discussions happening were about history and the nature of history and the telling of it was interesting and inspiring as well.
Talking about the negative impacts of colonialism that’s not something which I can recall being on the public agenda in my lifetime which is tremendously significant. And then seeing the physical manifestations of that top down—bourgeois if you want to call it right wing, colonialist, capitalist history in the statues of right wing, rich, enslaving, genocidal monuments have been built to these—I think (that) these statues that—they say what our civilization is supposed to be about. That’s what we acknowledge and revere is wealth, genocide, racism, colonialism, and all that. And seeing those symbols being toppled, or damaged, or just graffitied and denigrated. And my favorite one was the Colston statue in Bristol, of an enslaver in Bristol, just being thrown in the river. Chefs kiss! That was really sort of inspiring to see.
Then for some people on the right to complain about, oh, this is rewriting history. These things are happening because people have studied history and a lot of cases, their bodies and their selves, they’ve experienced and lived this history through their ancestors, the trauma and they’ve possessed that and they know their history and the history has been studied and it’s being talked about and this is happening because of the actual history of things. The statute is not the history, the statue is a piece of metal put up by some rich person. This is being done by people who actually know the history, not just whoever Tucker Carlson or some other right wing [beep] spews out about whatever—and especially because so many of these statues as well were erected in in the US south were erected by pro-Confederate, pro-slavery groups like the Daughters of the Confederacy, literally in an effort to rewrite history and change the narrative about what the Civil War was about. About state’s rights as opposed to the enslavement of human beings. So, it’s an interesting time to be a People’s Historian.
TFSR: Some of the stuff that happened over the summer really, like, reminiscent of that, like—and this is like an old, I don’t know how old it is, like the two examples I can think of are—as flawed as the invasion of Iraq was, it’s very flawed—as much as I wish that it had not happened—like, the toppling of the statue of Saddam Hussein was a pretty powerful public image. At least, I’m not sure how much it was organic and how much it was put together by the invading forces—or the like decapitation of the statue of Stalin in Budapest in 1956. That’s a, there’s some really cool photos of that. But people like their symbols and also people like destroying their symbols.
WCH: And also all the right wing hysteria about them is like absolute nonsense. Like I don’t know if it was seen over here in the US, but in the UK there was this right wing counter protest to Black Lives Matter that happened by these mostly fascists, and mostly fascist Nazi racist types. And from having been crying about, “Oh, they defaced he statue of Churchill,” or whatever. Obviously you can say a lot of bad things about Churchill or whatever. But also, Churchill did—was involved in a big war against Nazis. So I’m not really sure that he is your boy as much as you think. I mean, yeah, he was a racist, genocidal anti-Semite pro-fascist, whatever. So they had this big protest but they got caught on camera like pissing on statues because they’re just drunk Muppets pissing on the statues that a couple of weeks before they were like, “Oh, look at these thugs,” crying like Churchill was a racist on [inaudible] or whatever. Being like, “Oh, that’s outrageous,” and then they just go piss on them. So, how real is the outrage, huh?
TFSR: Yeah. Yeah, here, I don’t know. There was—I remember seeing footage of like a certain neighborhood in Philadelphia where just a bunch of Italian American people were out in this park defending a statue of Columbus because they were afraid that someone that Antifa was gonna come and topple it or something.
WCH: (There) could be a few less statues of Christopher Columbus and some more statues of like Sacco and Vanzetti and Carlo Tresca and if you want to tie in American statues.
TFSR: Yeah totally. A statue the Galleani. I would appreciate that more than, like, a statute of Frank Rizzo. I think they took that one down at least but it was like a racist reactionary. Police Chief in—
WCH: Yeah, in Philly. I think that got blown up at least once or twice didn’t it?
I don’t know about that. The—maybe? The ones that I remember being—or the one that I remember being blown up that was to the police was the—
WCH: Haymarket one.
TFSR: Yeah, the Haymarket one. I think that’s great. That’s maybe the best thing the Weather Underground ever did.
WCH: Yeah, it was similar to a statue of Margaret Thatcher was decapitated by a man with a cricket bat when it was unveiled in England a few years ago that was a fun day.
TFSR: That’s awesome. Back to the interview…
WCH: Yep. Yep. Yeah.
TFSR: So I’ve been a fan of the Working Class History podcast for a while now. Would you talk about the work there and what you choose to cover in it? And do you have any favorite episodes that stand out?
WCH: Well, as I said, we started doing the podcast to try and look some more into some of these stories, and in particular, capture the voices of participants who took part in some of these movements and struggles, to learn from their experiences. We’ve been doing that for a while now. And in terms of what we choose to cover, we’ve got a massive list of episodes that we want to work on. It’s like 160 episodes or something and constantly growing. What we’re trying to do right now is prioritize producing episodes about social movements where the participants are at risk of, because of age, not being able to— And sadly a couple of people that we had lined up to interview about things have died recently before we were able to speak with them. So we’re trying to do a fair bit of stuff about struggles in the 40s, 50s, 60s, and 70s right now, for the most part. Again, as with the rest of project, we tried to have a diverse selection of different types of stories and movements.
We’ve got a couple of series that we’re working through. They’re kind of intermittent series on themed things. We’ve pretty much wrapped up now our series about the Vietnam War where we had a lot of episodes about that, including possibly—I don’t know if it’s my favorite one, but certainly one of—it’s a miniseries about the Columbia Eagle Mutiny where we speak with a guy called Alvin Glatkowski. He was a merchant sailor during the Vietnam War. He was working on a ship with a friend of his, called Clyde McKay, that was carrying 10,000 tons of napalm to be used by US forces in Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos. He and Clyde hijacked a ship at gunpoint and sailed it to Cambodia, which was neutral, and his story is incredible. He hadn’t been recorded telling that story before. Hearing him tell it and then being able to put it out was something that personally I’m really proud of. And it’s a great story and a crazy story as well. So that’s a favorite, for sure.
Also, on the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall Rebellion in New York, where LGBT people rose up against police harassment, was able to get in touch with few people who participated in the rebellion and were involved in the organizing afterwards, where people set up the Gay Liberation Front, which revolutionized the LGBT rights movement. That was really inspiring to talk to these people as well.
Another occasional series we’ve got is about the British Empire. And we did an episode on the—it was quite timely actually because it was while a recent wave of riots were happening in Hong Kong. I met with a bunch of people who were involved in the Hong Kong riots in 1967 against British occupation, British colonialism. And that was super interesting because I knew almost nothing about that before starting doing the research for that episode. So it was super interesting just to learn about their experiences growing up in British colonial Hong Kong. Especially because it’s always spoken about quite widely is an example of British colonialism done well, and getting to the meat of that. Because up until these riots took place, Hong Kong was a trading post, obviously, but also had a large number of super-exploited factory workers working in like really appalling conditions, making things like—the factory where it was started was a plastic flower factory, and things like that. And it was these riots in 1967 that were successful in substantially changing the nature of British colonialism in the country from a more openly violent and repressive, racist colonialism to, I guess you call it, I don’t know, a more kind of—more friendly Hillary Clinton-style of colonialism, if you want to call it that. So even these examples, people choose of colonialist capitalism being not so bad or what have you, it’s not due to any—it’s not due to the benevolence or the generosity of the oppressors or exploiters or the business owners or whatever. It was due to the self-organized struggle of the workers and the people in the area. So that was really interesting chatting to them as well. And also, in that one of the people I was talking … During the riots there was like a really high profile murder of a right wing talk show personality and that murder was a notorious unsolved murder in Hong Kong history. One of the participants in the interview basically told me who did it. Enough time had passed. And not the name of the person, because obviously they have descendants who could essentially the reasons behind it. I’m kind of a true crime buff, like in my personal life—it doesn’t accord with my political views at all. Other than that I do—
TFSR: Everybody gets their your guilty pleasures, that’s fine.
WCH: No, exactly. And a lot of stuff I listen to is about miscarriages of justice and stuff like that. There’s too many. A really great chat I had as well was a guy called Tariq Mehmood who is a member of the Asian Youth movements in Britain, who fought against racism in the 70s and 80s. Those are the first ones that jump into my mind right now. I’m sure I’m forgetting… I could keep going but I won’t.
TFSR: I know y’all had taken a break at some point. And so I dropped off and restarted it. But the ones for me that really stuck out—and I had to like do a little searching because it’s been a while—are the anti-Zionism movement in Israel I thought was a really fascinating multi-part episode. There was the League of Revolutionary Black Workers in Detroit, and sort of contextualizing that. And just the Angry Brigade episode I thought was really fascinating to hear voices affiliated with that. And the Grunwick Strike in 1976 I had no context for, that just sort of, like, opened up a lot of conversation for me of experience of, like, workers struggle in the UK among immigrant populations. And there’s just a lot in each of those discussions. And it’s really easy to talk about the context that you can grab out of that that explains where we’re at right now. It explains little snippets of these struggles that people have had that resonate with experiences that others have had. I really enjoyed those ones.
WCH: Cool, thanks. Some of those early ones, apologies for anyone who listen. The quality of them isn’t so great, but we have got better since then from a quality point of view as we’ve learned. And there was a reason that we did the Grumwick Strike episode first. Because we thought that was important just from the things that we’ve spoken about today, because that was an example where this was a group of—they were East African Asian women workers who self-organized a massive and militant struggle that lasted two years. And were unfortunately defeated in the end because the forces against them were just too powerful. Up until that point, the British trade union movement was chauvinist, essentially. The overarching thrust of the movement was towards excluding Black and Asian—Asian, meaning South Asian, primarily anyway—workers and trying to protect privileged conditions for their white members, as opposed to organizing all workers and fighting collectively for better conditions. And the women in the Grumwick Strike pretty successfully exploded that (myth). Obviously there’s still that chauvinist, nationalist current within the work, but it’s much more minor now. Worrying it seems to be getting a bit bigger with—it’s unclear how really it is, and maybe more Twitter-type personalities, villains like Paul Embry who are trying to resurrect this pro-nationalist idea of a traditional working class of white blokes—as opposed to workers uniting together in our class interests. That strike really successfully changed the general atmosphere of the workers movement in a way that made working people stronger, because of course we’re stronger when we’re united fighting against employers, when we’re not fighting amongst ourselves over scraps.
TFSR: So are you all seeking more help with the project? You’ve talked about sister pages coming up and translation work. If you are looking for more help in providing historical insights or translation work, I guess, like video editing, what sort of ways can people participate?
There’s all kinds of ways people can help out. The primary things that we need help with at the moment are things around fact checking research and translation. So if anyone is up for helping with that, that would be amazing. Just get in touch. Email us on firstname.lastname@example.org.
TFSR: And where can listeners find out more about your work and grab the book?
WCH: Well, you can follow us on social media, just search whatever platform you’re on for Working Class History. You can listen to our podcast on every major podcast app like Apple, Spotify, whatever, just search Working Class History. There’s links to all of our information on our website, workingclasshistory.com. And you can get the book on our online store, which is at shop.workingclasshistory.com. And all of our work is funded through our readers and listeners on Patreon where you can also get the book for free depending on your patron level and access exclusive content at patreon.com/workingclasshistory.
TFSR: John, it’s been a pleasure speaking with you Thanks a lot for taking the time.
WCH: It was really fun, thanks for having me. And I hope that for the theme music for this you can get the rights to a Gang of Four “Not Great Men,” because I think that would be very appropriate.
We also talk about Jalil Muntaqim’s release from prison after almost 50 years. Well, he’s been re-arrested by a politically motivated warrant from Monroe County DA Sandra Doorley’s office for allegedly attempting to register to vote and is being accused of voter fraud! There is an article and a petition and more information available on the SFBayView National Black Newspaper’s website.
More information on the case and support for Eric King can be found at SupportEricKing.Org. To hear our chat with Eric from last year, take a listen to this interview. Also, the recent interview by the Solecast of Robcat of Fire Ant Journal (to which Eric contributes) was quite lovely.
We’ll close out now with a track entitled “Back To You” and performed by The Hills The Rivers. You can find it and more on the album Burning Down: The Songs of Anarchist Prisoner Sean Swain.
“Hannah was also the creator of the documentary “Shelter: A Squatumentary”. We talk about squatting in the U.S., homesteading, market values, views on squat resistance in other countries from the U.S. and more. The latter half of the show features a musical selection from the metal and gothy end of the spectrum.”