Category Archives: Capitalism

Earthbound Farmers Almanac and Food Autonomy in Bulbancha

Earthbound Farmers Almanac and Food Autonomy in Bulbancha

Earthbound Farmers Almanac
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We’re joined this week by some of the folks behind the Earthbound Farmer’s Almanac, a self-published annual collection of art, comics, facts, articles and incitements to challenge us to thicken our relationship to the land and grow autonomy against state, colonialism and capitalism. You are welcome to  read the almanac for free in portions on the Lobelia Commons social media (fedbook or instascam). We also talk about spreading food forests and building neighborly food resilience with Lobelia Commons and a little about Ndn Bayou Food Forest (formerly the L’eau Et La Vie anti-pipeline camp) which can be found on fedbook or instascam.

A few acronyms come up in the chat, and here’s a breakdown: MADR is the Mutual Aid Disaster Relief network; Zeta & Ida were hurricanes that damaged the south east of Turtle Island, landfalling near to so-called New Orleans; NOMAG is the New Orleans Mutual Aid Group.

You can hear a 2018 interview from L’eau Et La Vie against the Bayou Bridge Pipeline: https://thefinalstrawradio.noblogs.org/post/2018/01/14/no-bayou-bridge-pipeline-an-interview-from-leu-est-la-vie-camp/

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Featured Track:

  • Instrumental #2 (waltz) by Elliott Smith from Grand Mal: Studio Rarities disc 8

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Transcription

TFSR: Could you all please introduce yourselves with any relevant information that you’d like to share: who you are or where you are, preferred pronouns, etc.?

M: I am M., I use he/him, and I am in southwestern Mississippi at the moment, but I bounced between southwest Mississippi and New Orleans, aka Bulbancha.

B: I am B., they/them are my pronouns. I’m also bouncing back and forth between Mississippi and New Orleans.

Hadley: And I’m Hadley and I use they/them pronouns. I’m also bouncing in and out of New Orleans. But I’m located west of New Orleans, I live in a project called the Ndn Bayou Food Forest. That is a propagation and free plant nursery.

TFSR: Cool. Do you mind if I ask a couple of clarifying questions? Can you talk about that food propagation project a little bit, Hadley, anything you’d want to share, any way that people can learn more about that? Sounds pretty cool.

H: Yeah, totally. It actually grew out of the campaign against the Bayou Bridge Pipeline. And folks may be familiar with its earlier incarnation, the L’eau Est La Vie camp. In that same location, basically, after the pipeline was finished, which was rerouted around the camp to avoid the conflict, but currently runs next door to the Food Forest. This is the fourth year of it as a farm project, basically, and the goal was to take this land that had started as a point of conflict against petrochemical infrastructure in the Gulf South and then pivot from that point to looking towards some regenerative future. We found that the strategy that we could do with this place was to just use it as a little base to propagate as many fruit trees to give away as possible. So a lot of the trees that Lobelia Commons, which we’ll also be talking about, plants in New Orleans, are propagated here, or another rural space that we’ll probably talk about also.

TFSR: There’s obviously, depending on how close you are, blowouts from pipelines are a danger that’s one of the things that has brought people into the streets or into the swamps, in this case, to block the construction of these large pipelines. And also, they tend to leak. Are there any fears of that? Or have you been trying to work around that in terms of propagating food plants in that area?

H: Oh, yeah, it’s definitely a concern. Thankfully, we aren’t particularly near to a valve station, or a pump station, which is where the majority of smaller pipeline leaks happen. If there were to be a major blowout all we can do is hope that it’s not in the little section of the 165-mile pipeline that we’re at. But we do also understand that we’re surrounded by a lot of other pipelines too that definitely are a lot older, and probably are leaking a little bit in different places. But that’s the nice thing about having a propagation nursery, too, is we’re sending out trees, and then hopefully, I think we do have good soil, but even if we sent out a tree that had grown up with a little bit of oil on its soil, it’s gonna get hopefully put into a healthier habitat later.

TFSR: Cool. And for listeners who maybe aren’t familiar with the geography of the Gulf Southeast, can you all who are traveling back and forth between Mississippi and New Orleans say a little bit about— Is there much distance between those two places? Are they pretty similar biomes?

M: Part of the reason why we’re there is the geographic proximity, but the difference in terms of drainage and elevation. And especially just generally in the Gulf South, any amount of elevation really matters in terms of the type of storms that you experience, what flooding looks like, just the general potential inclement scenarios you could find yourself in.

Where we are is about an hour and a half north of New Orleans, and New Orleans is between 10 feet above sea level and 10 feet below sea level, and where we are is around 300 to 400 depending on where you are. So it’s a pretty, pretty dramatic shift even though 300 feet about sea level is not really obvious that much, but ecologically, it’s quite different. And that’s largely because of that elevation. So the forest types is, like, pine, oak, hickory/piney woods area. We’re in the very southern and what’s called the Pineville, historically was like long-leaf, pine forests, pitch pine. So harvesting turpentine and growing pine for lumber and that continues on today. So historically, it is quite poor soil, very acidic, as opposed to New Orleans being a lot more flat, not having a ton of agricultural space in the area immediately surrounding it. And largely because of the logistics that go into literally just reclaiming that space for development.

TFSR: Yeah, we’re here, among other things, to talk about the Earthbound Farmers Almanac. Can you talk a bit about the project, and how it got started? And what people can find in it?

M: The Farmers Almanac started a little over two years ago, I think, this is our second printing. And we finally started as a little bit of a haha joke, “Wouldn’t it be funny if we type thing”, but then we liked the idea. A lot of the projects that we’d come up with in Lobelia Commons have been experimental “what if” ideas that then we took seriously and saw what we could do with them. That’s the story of the almanac at least for me. What I’ve been inspired by is just how it’s grown and other people have taken to it and it’s an open-ended thing that people can obviously submit to, but also has been a way of meeting people through— We put out on social media that if people want to distribute it, they can and just basically pay at cost, sometimes we just give them away, and they pay shipping. Then they can use it as a fundraiser if they have some food sovereignty project or local neighborhood initiative like that. Sometimes there’s a rural garden center, book club thing, or just giving out to a bunch of rural friends or what have you. So we’ve made a lot of connections, and I think other people have made connections through distributing it, which is definitely something— I think that we thought there was potential for that but I don’t think that we expected to have the impact that it has.

TFSR: How has it grown from issue to issue? You can only see that scale, I guess, because you said it’s a second issue. How has it changed? And can you talk a bit about the content of it?

M: I would say it’s more robust this time around, I think there are so many things that you can put into an almanac. If you look at the ones you would find at a grocery store, there’s everything from like horoscope to recipes to the moon calendar, maybe growing tips, and some weird Christian stuff, and some weird funny stuff. It’s all over the board. So, as a project, the possibility sometimes can be very overwhelming. I think the first issue, we did a good job of trying a bunch of stuff and trying to be like “Oh, we should do this, we should do this, we should do this.” But we’re all doing this as volunteers and definitely not making any money off this. So we were stretched pretty thin. But what’s nice about this most recent issue, the second issue is that I think other people took to that and started submitting things that are elaborating on that idea of what reference material can you include, what’s like a comic that can be done for it, different ways of writing for it. I think it’s more filled out. It’s maybe even a little bit longer, maybe 15-20 pages longer than the last one, but less in terms of that — It feels denser or richer. And we also printed a lot more of them and are hoping to distribute them more widely, both regionally — regionally, we distribute in garden centers and some friendly nurseries, various local businesses throughout the Gulf South, — and to friends around the country and actually even outside of the country.

H: Just to add on to that a little bit. I think one of the things that are really clearly grown in to the second issue and I’m excited to see how it develops into later issues is that the reference section is just getting more and more filled out. And we’re reprinting things from the previous year, there was a really nice comic strip from last year that explains fruit tree propagation with nice little diagrams of how to cut the branches and everything like that. And we reprinted that and a comic on banana propagation and also have a lot of just new resources like maps that show some of the shifting hardiness zones are growing zones throughout the US of where the coldest minimum temperature is and how climate changes change that and things like that. For me, doing stuff around the garden, I’m actually starting to have the Almanac around to reach for it because it’s like “Oh, the seed germination temperature chart is going to be really useful for this, the soil chart is going to be really useful for that.” Another thing that we filled out a lot more this year was historic dates and things like that, and the calendar section to add more reference points of a global radical history of struggle around food and land and stuff, which is obviously an incredibly huge topic that covers struggles literally all over the world, but we tried to at least have more little entry points or just citations of things for people to get excited about and then do more research.

TFSR: It says in the editorial statement that not all the contributors and editors are a part of Lobelia Commons. But for those who are involved with that project, can you tell us a bit about that collective and its relationship to the so-called New Orleans? And could you repeat the indigenous name for the territory that somebody referenced, I think it was M.?

M: Bulbancha. Lobelia started pretty much right when the pandemic hit. It came out of the swelling of interest and mutual aid. A number of us had started in the New Orleans mutual aid group. And that grew out of this pre-existing food share. Basically, there wasn’t food coming in from the port that was providing the excess with which that food share existed. Then the project basically was buying bulk from Costco as many mutual aid projects around the country were doing. NOMAG, as it became known, really just got a ton of volunteers, so many people lined up for that. A number of us who were involved in starting also, we’re gardening and doing weird stuff with mushrooms and whatever, just nerding out about plants and the logistics of what allows New Orleans to exist in its contemporary state. So we just started like “Oh, let’s just do our own thing about focusing on food autonomy.” Because we’re clearly missing something,

if a pandemic hits or if some severe crisis hits, the experience of New Orleans tells us a lot about FEMA and that the state is really not coming. If the state does come it looks like huge lines, like a food bank like that, or just these poultry things. So how can we start to chip away? What does experimentation look like in terms of really fundamentally relating to food and place differently than we are raised or taught to? We’ve done a number of projects, and a lot of things have just not stayed the test of time’s had failed. But we started with a plant delivery service, basically. So, when people were delivering groceries, we were delivering plant starts, then when we no longer felt as necessary to do the delivery thing — also, that was a ton of labor for no real reason — we basically just started promoting what we call the decentralized nursery, which is a newfangled name for something that people already do throughout the world. Basically, if you’re starting some plants for your garden, just start a few extra and put them out in front of your house and give them out for free to your neighbors. So we tried to encourage people to do that a lot. A lot of people started meeting their neighbors and maybe a punk house, living in a Black neighborhood, some white punks who had never had good relationships with their neighbors for a number of reasons suddenly are talking to their neighbors. And there’s starting to be this breaking down of a colonial line over this meeting point of plants.

And we went on to start a number of other projects, maybe one of which that’s still going on is this mycology club which started as we call it the Mushroom Collaborative, but upcoming this week we’re doing an inoculation. But the idea is basically just to learn with each other about how to produce mushrooms, learn how to identify mushrooms, and just do foraging walks. We meet every now and then and we’re open to people joining. It’s a very caring space, people bring coffee and doughnuts. Usually, someone brings some critical reading about mushrooms, or fungi generally. It’s been a great space and the project I’m most excited about within that group is to form what we’re calling a mushroom commons and to basically inoculate logs with shiitake, or lion’s mane or reishi, and basically hide them around some of the parks in the city, and that people could then start to forage in the urban setting. Hadley, maybe you want to take it on?

H: Yeah. There are definitely a bunch of other little projects or initiatives that I could speak to that are more of the things I’ve been involved in. Because one of the things that are really nice about Lobelia is we always intended it to be a very decentralized thing that doesn’t feel tied to one particular space within the city, it’s not tied to one particular activity or even gardening, specifically. We want to imagine it being a much larger range of whatever people are excited about doing. For example, I haven’t participated in as much as I’d because I’m out of the city. I missed their public days sometimes, the Herb Commons group has been really cool, where it’s a bunch of people with a lot of skills around herbalism, who gather different things, or they’ll put the call to the larger group, and those of us who are growing herbs can contribute some of what we have or some of what we’re harvesting wild and send it to the folks working on the Herb Commons stuff. And then they go and do a pop-up tent in a public park or along a walking path, and have informational materials and lots of different herbs for people to try and take home and learn about, including fun activities. I went one day, and they were teaching people how to dye clothes with mulberry dye, and also just giving away all these herbs and everything. And that one’s really cool, because it’s also a nice way, if people don’t want to go do the public herb commons thing, they can engage with it more on the level of being a gardener who grows many herbs and sends it to the Herb Commons. Or they can have that more active communal interaction with them.

The one that I put a lot of my time into maybe, as I already mentioned, is called the Front Yard Orchard Initiative. That is basically just the goal to propagate and, if we can fundraise, to buy cheaply as many fruit trees as possible and give them away to people, and help people plant them if they want that help. Ideally in the front yard, but we aren’t actually strict about that, if people have a better spot for the tree in their backyard and we know that they’re going to share it with their family and their neighbors. It’s still a contribution to the overall food commons that we’re trying to create. Through that, we’ve been propagating and giving away and planting well over 100 fig and mulberry trees. And then lots and lots of other trees that are a little easier to come by — banana, moringa, things like that. And also trees that we have to fundraise and buy, we’ve also been giving away a bunch of citrus and pecans. What’s been also really nice about that has been just getting connected with other young farmers in the city who were excited to also help give stuff away. Because it’s one thing to grow 200 trees, but then try to go out and find spots for them all— We’ve just been handing them off to people and they’ve planted well over 50 in neutral grounds. For folks who aren’t familiar with New Orleans, the neutral ground is what you refer to as the green, grassy strip between two one-way streets, which are really common, they’re all over the city. People are walking along them and a lot of time it’s where you park your car if the water is going to be high. We’ve just been planting a lot of fruit trees through that project.

The last one I’ll mention right now is just a little informal, harvest crew or a harvest group where we just let each other know and keep track of different things that are just already growing in the city that don’t get utilized. There are just so many fruit trees that are sometimes in wild and cramped spaces, or sometimes they are in front of businesses and they don’t get utilized. So we just go out and pick a lot of figs and loquats, and mulberries and try to have some collective processing of those things, to save them or give them away in some way. That one has also just been really great to get people noticing the place that they’re living in a little bit more and developing a relationship with the place.

There’s this one particular park near the place I stay at in New Orleans that they just recently clear-cut all these beautiful elderberries and mulberries that we used to go harvest from. Now we’re starting to think whether or not we need to start paying a little bit more attention to the local neighborhood association politics over other terrible stuff that is happening in that realm.

B: I wanted to bring up a project that we’ve been involved in, which is working with our friend who is a neighbor and a Black elder community member, she’s a Black mama, her name’s Miss Althea. Her roof and her house got very damaged in [Hurricane] Zeta and then continued to get pretty severely damaged during [Hurricane] Ida. We’ve just been working with her and MADR and NOMAG to get a roof on her house and to try to eventually get solar panels and just see how far we can go with getting her set up so that she continues to be able to support her community in the ways that she has been for many, many years. We’ve just been talking about the cyclical nature of disaster relief, and how short-term it can be and spring up immediately after a disaster, but the longevity of that is just pretty short-lived. We are trying to sustain that because we’re living in a disaster, and we’re going to be constantly coming up against these things. So, creating situations and supporting people who are already doing the thing to be able to continue that so that we’re not constantly one foot in one foot out, we’re firmly facing each thing as it comes along. And we’re prepared for it.

TFSR: Concerning that work that you’re mentioning and also the example earlier that was given of the white punk house that started relating better to Black neighbors by sharing plants and having a thing in common and literally sharing the means of survival in a lot of ways… New Orleans, like a lot of other places around the country that particularly have large populations of color, have a lot of history of gentrification. And I’ve heard lots of stories of white punks, for instance, moving into— I grew up in the outer Bay Area, a lot of my friends decided to move to Oakland because housing costs were inexpensive. While they were not personally responsible, they definitely contributed to the displacement of Black and brown populations that have been living there generationally. Building those sorts of connections sounds really important. It’s awesome that you all are working with that elder. And I guess another part of that, too. These are thoughts that will lead into a question…

I’ve seen and talked to people who have done mutual aid projects. And I don’t know the ethnic and racial makeup of your group. But in a lot of instances, it’s a lot of white folks who have some extra time and maybe a few resources and can do mutual aid, often distributing stuff into Black and brown communities and poor communities. And while it’s a cool project that sustains people and takes off some of the pressure of racialized capitalism from folks, it isn’t necessarily able to bridge the gap between charity and mutual aid. It doesn’t bring folks in and also allows itself to be shaped by the people who these folks are living beside, and who are taking advantage of the project.

You’ve already given one good example right now with your neighbor who you’re helping with her roof, which is great. But I wonder how Lobelia deal with, for instance… Is it mostly white people that are coming and picking up the plants, are they putting them in their yards and increasing the property value of their neighborhood? And I don’t know if y’all are from New Orleans, even. Have you had any insights or experience of making that branch between moving from charity into a mutual aid project that can not only help sustain people but also contribute to an oppositional force, strengthening the communities against capitalism and gentrification?

M: Yeah, I think there’s a lot of obviously really good stuff there. Lobelia itself was definitely started by people who fit that description, largely white, younger, mostly transplant and have a little bit of extra time because almost all the projects were funded basically with unemployment and stuff. So that definitely fits that bill. And I think that where we’ve put our focus is moving away from that charity thing. A lot of people say this and don’t actually mean it. Probably everyone who’s been in Lobelia, it’s a “funny thing” because people come and go all the time, so there’s not really a membership per se. But the people who do stuff that gets called Lobelia, we’ve all probably done mutual aid that is effectively charity. And we all know that that feels terrible. It’s super draining. Honestly, most people that are involved with doing Lobelia activities are pretty generally over activism, or at least critical of activism in some way.

So most of our energy is localized, it’s where we are pretty much. The decentralized nursery is an example, that’s something that just relates to your neighbors, we’re not meeting up and being like “Okay, where’s the most marginalized group that we can go support?”. If there’s a group that reaches out to us that’s maybe doing that work and wants a bunch of plants for whatever reason, wants a garden — that has happened in the past, and the Louisiana Seafood Worker Alliance, the past two years, we’ve given them between 50 and 200 Roselle hibiscus plants, but we’re not like organizing in that way. We need to eat and our neighbors need to eat. And we want to talk to our neighbors and have strong connections with our neighbors. That comes from not this idealistic or selfless thing. In some ways, it’s “I want to have fun when I’m doing this.” And oftentimes, it’s very joyless to just seek out how we can do the most good. That’s largely why we’ve been rooted in specifically where we are. The relationship with Althea is probably the greatest articulation. Some of us have known Althea for seven or eight years. Some of us were eventually pushed out of that neighborhood. But they still keep up very strong relationships with a lot of people that continue to live there, or were forced out of that neighborhood as well.

TFSR: This isn’t so much meaning to be directed at you all individually. Because I know there’s a decolonial lens that shows up frequently in the book. And I think that it’s important to talk about that and the difficulty of navigating being a part of a settler-colonial society and that settler colonialism is an ongoing project and not one that’s passed, which is the thing that the book points to. So I am wondering when people talk about infrastructure projects, if you have thoughts about how that relates to settler-colonial society?

H: Yeah, I might have a rambly answer to it.

TFSR: It’ll match my rambly questions.

H: I think there are a lot of different aspects to how to approach it. A big part of it just has to do with history and getting acquainted with the history of the places that we’re in and making sure we keep those things present in a way. Here at Ndn Bayou, we grow some sugarcane. And I feel like there’s no way to grow sugarcane and have people here and give them the tour here and talk to them about the sugar cane that we grow, we have it as a visual barrier. But you can’t grow sugarcane without talking about the history of slavery and the way that plant was so integral to the whole colonial project in so many ways in this region, and sometimes people talk about New Orleans as the northernmost Caribbean city. We’re very close to all of that history. So when I talk about growing sugarcane, I try to teach people, if they don’t know about it already, people who are visiting the farm, talk about the Haitian Revolution and talk about CLR James’ The Black Jacobins, which I try to recommend to people, we have it in the library here. And I tried to get people to read from it or talk about the history of the way James describes the enslaved people in the northern plains of Haiti at that time, who were, in some sense, one of the earliest industrial proletariats in the world, because they lived in these huge camps with hundreds of people working these huge body-destroying mills. As soon as they had the opportunity, they chased all the slave owners into the cane fields and lit the cane fields alight, and burned them alive there. I think we need to come at it from a sense of we are coming from a settler-colonial society, some of us, but we just need to be clear about which side we’re on to some extent, and in this space, in particular, because of our having been rooted in this struggle against this pipeline that was led by indigenous people, we have a bunch of very direct relationships. So we can actually very easily be sending stuff here to our friends on the rez in the southwest, not to be specific about that place.

There are various forms of support that we can give having this place, and just as a refuge for people to come through lots of different things like that. It’s definitely not that easy for people who are just trying to have a relationship to land and a land project or inside a city like that. They don’t already have those connections. It can feel weird to be “Okay, well, I don’t want to be a settler here doing my garden project. So I need to go out and find the most public-facing, Indigenous organization to go meet those people.” It just has a top-down looking at the world, like a map colonial viewpoint almost even to just approaching things from that way sometimes. So I don’t have clear answers for people in other contexts.

M: I think that’s why our focus on the connection between these rural farms in the city is so important, because, aside from obviously just doing an isolated thing, having that connection is what literally makes, say, a farm in the rural south or anywhere, for that matter. That’s what makes it having that connection is what makes it actually become counter-infrastructure, something that can be used more widely and for partisan ends. So, having those places and the connections and having it be social is what allows for establishing these flows. I think it’s important to encourage familiarity with the place as people come and visit these various farm or rural spaces from the city and vice versa, to encourage familiarity while maintaining an openness to potential discomfort that could come there.

And there’s actually a piece in the Almanac called “Beyond the Levee”. It talks a lot about this historical counter infrastructure or maybe infrastructure against the state in the colony. That obviously took place in the form of maroons most famously, but also in other forms of desertion and fugitive city and at times insurrection. The piece ends with this imagining of a not-so-distant future where state infrastructure has collapsed to a further degree than we already currently experience and how those histories can be honored and lived as a means of survival and preserving dignity. I think it’s important to consider the potentials that developing these types of counter-infrastructure and the social world that they create and are a part of can aid and abet some future fugitivity and other types of movement that might become necessary as the state infrastructure continues to literally collapse, especially in the form of levees and floodgates. So, I think with respect to food autonomy and its relationship with those infrastructural projects, it’s just completely necessary. It’s absolutely critical to the functioning of those projects, to the point that it’s no longer an activisty activity. It’s the lifeblood and provides many avenues for imagination and experimentation inside those projects.

B: I feel like, in some ways, it relates to your question about “mutual aid” or what is often charity in certain capacities, but I guess, for someone who’s a white settler to know the answer to that question, I feel like is problematic. For myself, in these projects, there needs to be an acknowledgment of not knowing and not decide that this is like the way it needs to be. Or in this position where we’re isolated and we’re going out into these areas, and we know what’s best, and this is how we’re going to plug in, but being in community, I think, is one of the best ways to dissolve that, or to challenge that and to challenge oneself. Because you’re opening yourself up to asking people “What is it? What is it the community needs? Are the ways that we’re able to plug in?” Based on, for example, asking Miss Althea what she needs or what she wants, rather than deciding for her. That extends itself to like indigenous communities where it’s like “okay, there’s no way that I could know if I’m not in a community with indigenous comrades.” I think the first step is to be connected and also to be receptive to criticism and change. Being open to that, I think, is the biggest part of that.

M: Yeah. I’d add a little bit that being guided by humbleness and willingness to learn is critical, because a lot of the stuff that we’re doing, say, here in southwestern Mississippi, we’re largely producing mushrooms, raising tree crops, and have a prep plant nursery. And these aren’t novel ideas by any means. We’re just doing the means of both subsistence and survival for countless people for basically since humanity has been around, in all sorts of different forms. To pretend like we have some excellent idea that you see in some more permaculture circles, for example, that we need to proselytize or bring to the poor people who can’t figure it out. It’s just a totally backward way of thinking. Just being innocuous in a way, or doing your thing quietly. And then when it’s time to show up and support, if you’re a settler, Indigenous comrades, or Black comrades or worker comrades, or just your neighbors or your friends, show up with the capacities that you’ve built. Because there’s nothing that you can do that will make you not a settler, but your relationship with the land can change based on how you choose to live in relation to it.

H: Also, just while we’re on this topic, I wanted to clarify that our collective at Indian Bayou includes several Indigenous people, it’s a combination of Black and Indigenous and white folks here.

TFSR: Cool. Those are all really good answers. I appreciate you responding.

Living in Asheville, as I do, over the years I’ve seen a lot of like little shops pop up that are homestead-themed, they play with this settler concept of going back to the land— I am wondering if you have any ideas about how projects like yours can contribute to a countering to things like cottage core, or another niche, capitalist re-visioning of what it means to live in relation to the land?

H: We are definitely very anti-cottagecore. There’s a lot there. I’m not sure quite where to start.

M: We were just laughing about it a second ago, because I feel like we go back into the city and we’re constantly labeled cottagecore.

B: Like bringing baskets of mushrooms into the city people are like “Yeah, that’s what you are.”

M: I guess we can address the question with respect to some back-to-the-land thing. I actually also don’t exactly know what #cottagecore is.

B: Yeah.

TFSR: Me neither. I was hoping that someone else could describe it… [laughs]

Do you think that your project or that it’s an interesting thing for your project to engage with the idea of going back to the land in the American imaginary of homesteading and independence and individuality, that gets reproduced in things that I’ve experienced as being part of cottagecore? If I look at the hashtag on twitter.com, mostly, there are a lot of images there, and there’s a lot of focus on aesthetics. And, again, aesthetics are not bad. But when people prioritize aesthetics over actual engagement and the relationship between themselves and the land, or their health, or their autonomy, or their neighbors, that falls into a trap that capitalism provides. How do you think food autonomy projects can sharpen their teeth? Because I think that food autonomy is a really important challenge to capitalism, as well as to the individualized alienation of capitalist existence.

H: Well, I do think that the aesthetic of cottagecore is definitely something that needs to be attacked. I have been thinking about it a lot recently, about the ways that this really polished, “everything must look beautiful,” everything is presented for Instagram? It does tie into this weird obsession with purity and cleanliness, and this traditional whatever the fuck. I feel like there has always been this undercurrent and a lot of hippie counter-culture. But since the pandemic, I feel like its potentially fascist qualities of that obsession with purity are really becoming clear or clarified to me in a way.

I don’t want to veer too much into talking about the pandemic instead of talking about food. But I’m hearing the same sorts of people talk about how they’re not going to get the vaccine, not that I would tell anybody to trust the vaccine or the pharmaceutical companies in particular, but saying they’re not going to get the vaccine because it’s going to make them sterile, and it’s going to make their body impure. You hear that from a lot of the same hippie types, who would also say things like “Oh, we can’t grow a garden in the city, the city is dirty, the city is contaminated. There’s lead and all these toxins everywhere.” It’s true, there are a lot of toxins in the city. There are also a lot of toxins in rural areas, and people end up turning it into this moralizing thing, which is also obviously coming from a completely inaccurate place, whether you’re talking about the vaccine, the soil, or anything, everything is contaminated. We are contaminated. Contamination is a good part of our lives, we’re full of bacteria that are not ourselves, or they are ourselves.

So obviously, the purity thing is a fantasy, but it is just scary, honestly, the way it’s coming up to the surface in some ways now. I don’t have a clear answer of how to address it but I do think that in some ways, the Almanac is intended as something that somebody who’s in that mindset can pick up and not be immediately turned off to, but that can start to complicate and challenge some of those views.

M: I think being on the mushroom farm, I think we probably have lots of thoughts about contamination. And a lot of the gourmet and medicinal mushrooms that you would buy at a grocery store or farmers’ market are produced in these super sterile environments indoors. And definitely not going to knock them that since some people were involved in our project who grow like that, but there’s this constant policing of the space and disciplining of the space that is absolutely related to aesthetic. Any disturbance is really noticed, there’s a conflict anytime anything is entering that space, and our attitude here is quite a bit different because we produce mushrooms outdoors on logs. There are molds everywhere, sometimes there are molds on our mushroom logs that we want in the soil, and the trees are growing. It’s always contradictory. And the way out of that is through it, you need to promote diversity from the perspective of someone who is a fungal partisan is to, in some ways, increase contamination, different kinds of contamination, and create more fungal competition and more fungal communion. Again, not to come at these indoor mushroom facilities, we hope to one day also be able to have those kinds of facilities, because they definitely have their place. But there’s a definite distinction between the laboratory and the home space, and the laboratory and the school and any other public space, and a lot of that policing have been gendered labor. That comes through with a lot of stuff that Hadley was talking about, in respect to that being very appealing towards a politics of purity or white supremacy, fascism, hetero-misogyny, and, on forth.

B: Yeah, I used to go back to some of what you’re saying about the commodification of the image of nature. As it relates to back-to-the-land mentality, or cottagecore, whatever, homesteading aesthetic, and I guess something I’m noticing in this conversation is just the constant thread of connection and trying to break down the severing that happens when a commodity is created or is maintained in the public eye, through social media, as a representation of what it’s supposed to be based on what is the most marketable.

It’s difficult, right? Because if you’re trying to run a mushroom farm as a way to sustain yourself, there isn’t a certain element of having to play into that, where you still have to sell the mushrooms at the end of the day. So I think that we all have to still participate in these systems that exist. I’m new to Lobelia as a project, but I feel like part of what I’m seeing in Lobelia, and part of what I want to continue to see is a continued connection between the city and rural areas. That’s what Lobelia seeks to do in a lot of ways, I guess, maybe that’s one of the main pitfalls of the idea of back to the land is that it feels very isolating, and it also feels in line with prepping or individualistic or the new version of having a nuclear family and moving to the suburbs where it’s severed. So trying to reverse that severing, to continue those connections.

H: Yeah. Just to piggyback on that idea is that a distinction between food autonomy and isolated food production. And I think food autonomy is inherently a very social thing and something that’s directed towards a communing or commenting or sharing that a lot of the back-to-the-land thing or this macho “I’m going to move to this cabin and produce everything that I need to sustain”, which is just totally ahistorical, sounds extremely lonely and not at all what should be considered food autonomy. That’s as a solo project.

TFSR: Yeah. And I think it would probably have less inherent adherents, or followers online if it looked a little less like Tom of Finland a little more like Ted Kaczynski because that’s probably what you’d look like if you were sitting in a cabin by yourself for 20 years.

M: Exactly.

H: When we’re talking about the pitfalls of the homesteader mentality or the back-to-the-land movement, I think what M said about self-sufficiency being this ahistorical myth that never existed on the household or family level, in any agrarian land-based society, I think that’s a good place to start. And obviously, also, there are a lot of things that need to be addressed with settler nostalgia or the nostalgia for American settler culture that seems to be a part of the homesteading that some people are trying to do. Those things are very present and are a huge problem that needs to be addressed in the larger movement or the larger wave of new interest in growing food and getting more connected to the land.

But at the same time, I don’t think that they’re really new or surprising concerns for anarchists or people who listen to this show. We aren’t trying to have just a bunch of self-sufficient nuclear families. We don’t have any reverence for settler culture. In fact, for those of us who are white, if we find any inspiration or affinity with white people in early colonial history, it is only those people who were fully defecting from settler society and were welcomed into Native society or who were otherwise complicit in the struggle of Native people against colonization and were assisting that in really material ways.

And similarly, I don’t think that we really suffer from the same strategic delusions or missteps of the back-to-the-land movement in the 60’s and 70’s, in which case, a lot of people were trying to just drop out, and their projects became isolated and weird in different ways. There is a general understanding now, certainly, among anarchists that our projects need to be conflictual, they need to be part of these larger struggles, we can’t escape climate change, it’s coming for us wherever we are.

So there’s like a lot of really material things I think people should be thinking about to try to avoid that isolation. Because it can happen even with the best of intentions if you get just too involved in projects that keep you facing inward and you’re just biting off more than you can chew with the land itself, or what you’re trying to do with it. Distance and gas prices and the jobs being nearby or not — all of these things are factors that matter when we’re trying to figure out and cultivate the flows in and out of these spaces. The flows of people and resources that are needed to sustain a project and the people involved emotionally, physically, financially, socially, etc.

That’s going to look really different in every context. But just a general framework or an idea that I found useful is this concept of the “captured garden.” The standard example of a captured garden is from the height of the coal era in Appalachia when people are living in company towns, where the coal company controls everything. In a lot of cases, people were actually required to have a garden so that the mine owners didn’t have to pay people as much because they knew they were growing their own food. This stands in sharp contrast to just a generation or two before that, when growing food was something that gave people more freedom and autonomy and bargaining power when it came to dealing with the coal companies. If the wages were too low, you could just go back to the holler and grow food on your little plot of land and also have this large ecological base to draw from around, this forest and hills that everyone was using as a commons to graze their animals and hunt and things like that. And by the time of the company towns and the captured garden, a lot of that had been destroyed and taken from people. And so the captured garden is this example in which growing our own food has become this thing that is no longer contributing to our autonomy, but it’s contributing to our subjugation.

I find that to be a really useful framework, if we try to transpose it a little bit onto the modern era, just ask ourselves: “Is my community garden contributing to autonomy and giving people more ability to live their lives and have successful struggles against their bosses and the state? Or is it a captured garden?” With a rural land project, if an uprising comes along, and you’re too tied down, taking care of the chickens every day to be able to go into the city, maybe in some ways that is functioning as a captured garden for you. Obviously, there are lots of other ways that a well-positioned project could have really useful interactions with those conflicts.

TFSR: Thank you. Those are really insightful answers to a totally convoluted question, but you got what I was trying to communicate.

How can people get a hold of the Earthbound Farmers Almanac? How can they learn more about Lobelia Commons and maybe get involved or contribute to either the projects?

M: The 2022 Almanac is finally out, it was late three months because of a paper shortage. People can get it, if they’re trying to buy an individual copy, or a couple of copies, they can support the project. All the money goes back into the printing of the Almanac, which we’re still very far in the red, it all just gets paid out of pocket and we owe a bunch of people a bunch of money. So they can buy that at emergentgoods.com. They can also find us at @LobeliaCommons, on both Twitter and Instagram. There we have more information about stuff we’re up to. We’re also posting the Almanac, pretty much the entire thing, in like social media posts over the course of the year. And if anyone is interested in distributing it, or starting a book club, or maybe selling it at wholesale, or sticking it in the free little libraries, coming up with some way to use it or use it as a fundraiser, they can contact us on social media or lobeliacommons@protonmail.com. And we’re definitely looking for folks to contribute to next year’s issue, we are going to have the deadline for that is July 31 of this year. Feel free to reach out, and send us pitches, you don’t need to come up with a whole piece, you can send us an idea, and we will answer as soon as we get it. You can just put the “2023 Almanac” in the subject.

TFSR: Thanks again for having this chat. I look forward to putting in an order myself for a physical copy of it. I’m sure that Firestorm will carry it. So I will just grab one from over there.

M: Yeah, we actually had to send some, I don’t know if we did last year,

B: To FireStorm.

M: Oh, wait, you probably dropped it off.

B: No, I just put it in the Tranzmission Prison Project book stack. So it went out to folks at TPP but not Firestorm.

TFSR: I bet people’d really appreciate receiving some of that stuff on the inside. That’s awesome.

B: It was so cute. Because immediately after I dropped them off, someone texted me and was like “I was just reading a letter that had a request for an Almanac.” It was like perfect timing. Super cute.

M: Yeah. I have many pen pals in Angola in Louisiana. And we sent them to a few buddies in there. There’s this crew of guys who meet now and then and they talk about gardening and stuff and apparently, they’re super hype on it. That made my year last year.

B: That’s the best.

Strategies For Ecological Revolution From Below with Peter Gelderloos

Strategies For Ecological Revolution From Below with Peter Gelderloos

"The Solutions are Already Here Strategies of Ecological Revolution from Below" book cover featuring a green shovel
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This week on The Final Straw, we’re featuring a recent conversation with anarchist author and activist, Peter Gelderloos about his latest book, “The Solutions Are Already Here: Strategies For Ecological Revolution From Below”, published by Pluto Press in 2022. For the hour we speak about critiques of science and Western Civilization that Peter levels, as well as the centrality of struggling on the ground we stand on, creating autonomous infrastructure, resisting colonial extractivism and the need for imagination and care as we tear down this ecocidal system.

Peter has prior authored such books as “Anarchy Works”, “How Non-Violence Protects The State”, and “Worshiping Power”, and you can find a number of his essays up on TheAnarchistLibrary.Org. You can also hear your interviews with Peter here: https://thefinalstrawradio.noblogs.org/post/category/peter-gelderloos/

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Announcements

Call In For Eric King continues

Anarchist and antifascist political prisoner, Eric King, has been transferred from Grady County Jail (where we spoke to him from for our April 3rd episode) to USP Lee in southwestern Virginia where he and his loved ones are afraid he will be put into solitary and attacked where there will be no witnesses. This comes directly after he won a trial against the federal Bureau of Prisons showing that he had been set up and punished for false reasons, subjected to obvious acts of petty and not so petty vengeance by the corrections officers, and in spite of the fact that his security level should have him at a medium security facility rather than a high security like Lee. There is a continued call-in campaign that his supporters are asking y’all to participate in. You can find more information in the show notes or at SupperEricKing.org as well as on the twitter, facebook and instagram pages for the under the name @SupportEricKing.

May Day

May Day is coming up real quick, y’all. The first of May has been known as a festival of spring bounty from pagan times in Europe, and has been celebrated by anarchists, socialists, communists and labor activists to commemorate the 1886 struggle for the power of workers against the capitalists and state and the remember the Haymarket Martyrs. We have a couple of episodes featuring content about May Day that we’ll link here, but this is just a quick note to find other comrades and fellow travelers this May Day, there may be something going on in your area. And if there isn’t, maybe you can organize an event with you friends!

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Featured Track

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Transcription

TFSR: So I’m very happy to be speaking with anarchist author Peter Gelderloos. Peter’s latest book, The Solutions are Already Here: Strategies for Ecological Revolution from Below is just out from Pluto Press, I just got my copy in the mail. Super stoked to get it. But welcome back to the show, Peter.

Peter Gelderloos: Thanks for inviting me, again.

TFSR: Facing the challenges of increasing climate chaos and its impact on life on Earth, feels really, really fucking daunting. Without thinking through the idea of like some centralized grand and technocratic response – which is kind of how I feel like I’ve been trained to think about big problems as big solutions – and not that that seems likely when countries at the industrial core aren’t even able to hold themselves to, you know, self imposed limits of cutting back on producing greenhouse gases, or even coordinating and distributing free vaccines to stop a pandemic.

So I’m sure I’m not the only one that’s head is kind of spinning when I try to think about the looming and existent climate disaster. How does this book kind of help to challenge that framework and mindset of expecting big centralized solutions to the problems that we face?

PG: Well, when you look at the history of how states have been dealing with ecological crisis, first of all, they’re very reductionist. They reduce a complex, multifaceted ecological crisis, which ties into so many problems – social and environmental – they tend to reduce it to emissions, greenhouse gas emissions, only to climate change. And they do that in large part not only because they don’t want to recognize many of these other problems, but also because technocrats need to simplify problems in order to reduce it to data that can be plugged into their machine, right?

So even though they’re they’re reducing it just to climate and they’ve been aware of the danger of climate change – like the US government recognized it as a national security problem already back in the 1960’s – their responses have been militarizing borders and increasing the deployment of militaries for, you know, so called disasters, natural disasters, and things of that nature. And then also making big agreements that have done exactly nothing to slow down greenhouse gas emissions.

So even within their reductionism, they don’t do a good job of dealing with the one part of the problem. And the other part of the problem that they recognize is actually bad for us: increasing militaries, militarizing borders and all that. So they are viewing the problem with interests that are diametrically opposed to the interests of living beings like ourselves. The larger part of it they have to ignore, and then of the part that they look at, half of it they don’t get right, and the other half they deal with in a way that that actively harms us.

We’ve also seen in a lot of these so called “natural disasters”, that the most effective responses for saving lives are responses that happen on the ground. It’s not the militaries, its neighbors, its regular people organizing themselves spontaneously with the logic of mutual aid. That’s what saves the most lives, we’ve seen that time and time and time again.

And absolutely, we are totally conditioned to rely on on the government to solve things for us, or, you know, major corporations, techno wizards like Elon Musk, or whatever. And that’s in large part because we’re forced into a situation of dependency and passivity and immobilization. Which is a very depressing position to be in normally, and it’s an even more depressing position to be in when we see the world dying around us. And so it’s completely coherent and consistent with that forced dependency and forced immobility to just either look the other way, or cross your fingers and hope and pray that, you know, some big godlike figure will come along and solve it for us. But it’s this big godlike figure that caused the problem and that is continuing to aggravate the problem.

So, actually, you get more intelligent solutions to problems from people who have on the ground knowledge, from people who are familiar with their territory, know that the resources they have. And it’s equally global, it’s just coming from the territory, it’s coming from below, rather than coming from either you know, boardrooms or situation rooms, where they’re not looking at the territory, they’re looking at maps. And they’re above all looking at their own interests of maintaining control. Because their ability to do anything in response to the problem is, in fact, predicated on our immobility, on our dependence, and our enforced passivity.

TFSR: So there’s almost like a sort of Stockholm syndrome that a lot of us – through the socialization from the state – have where we identify the the methods and the impulses of government in scary situations as being somehow salvatory, as opposed to sort of counterinsurgency constantly being operated for the continued extraction of resources.

PG: Absolutely. And I’m glad that you brought up counterinsurgency because that is one of the most important theoretical lenses to use to understand both ecological crisis and government, corporate and NGO responses to that crisis.

TFSR: A thing that kind of refreshing about this book is the radical critique of Western civilization as the vehicle for many of the woes that we experienced today. I appreciate that you attempted to undercut the misconception, right off the bat, that human nature is the cause for the destruction that we’re experiencing around us, or that there are too many of us or too many of certain kinds of us on the planet. Can you talk about the ideas of the Anthropocene or arguments around overpopulation, and why they present kind of a misdirection when seeking causes of anthropogenic climate change and resolutions of finding balance with the world?

PG: Yeah. Human beings have been around for a really long time, depending on you know, when exactly you identify the beginning of anatomically-modern human beings, tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands of years. Hominids with similar capabilities for longer. And the problems of destroying the ecological basis for life on this planet, for a great many species is a recent problem. And even the problem of causing ecological collapse in just one bio region is, in the broader timeline, a recent problem with maybe like four thousand years old, some of the earliest examples. And, again, some people – because we’re taught to view human history in this way that ends up being very white supremacist but focusing on the history of States – some people take that to mean “Oh, well, for the last four thousand years human beings have been destroying the environment. So you know, that’s what’s relevant.” No, for the last four thousand years humans have not been destroying the environment. A very small number of human beings have been doing that in a very small part of our overall territory until much more recently. And all across the world people fought against getting forcibly included in this new western model of being human. We do have examples of non-western cultures also destroying their soil or destroying their forests, destroying their ecosystem, but they weren’t nearly as good at it as Western civilization is, and that’s the dominant model, that’s the most relevant one to talk about.

So you know, that other question is relevant for the theoretical exercise of like, “okay, what exactly are the more destructive, or the healthier, forms of social organization?” but in the current media environment most people will bring up this kind of somewhat trivial fact at this point that maybe two thousand years ago, or one thousand years ago on another continent, a completely non-western society also caused major erosion. And that’s just an instance of deflection away from the fact that the problem that’s currently killing us is Western civilization.

So, you know, there are works that, for example: Fredy Perlman’s Against Leviathan that try to define what the problem is more broadly, but in the situation where we’re in right now, where species are going extinct at an accelerating rate, where millions of of humans are already dying every year because of the effects of this ecological crisis, and so many people are losing their homes, losing their land, losing their access to healthy food. The problem is the civilization, the modern state, the capitalist system that arose – centered in Europe – but also simultaneous to this process of mass enslavement in Africa and mass invasion, colonization and genocide in the Americas, in Africa and in Asia and Australia. That’s the problem.

If you take any criteria beyond just greenhouse gas emissions, it becomes very clear what’s the social model that is putting us all at danger. And even if you reduce it just to greenhouse gas emissions, you kind of avoid looking at the historical roots of the social machine that’s causing so much death and destruction. But it’s still very clear that Western civilization and the economic model that it forcibly imposed on the rest of the globe is the problem.

TFSR: So, one thing in the book you also say is that it’s necessary for us to critique science because it’s so shaped by those institutions who wield it, fund it and command it. Can you talk about this and how it differs from an anti-rational rejections of science for the sake of faith structures, or antimodernist frames of some anti-civ perspectives? And maybe speak about how you’ve observed our movements, or movements that you find inspiring in this framework, how they’ve been making and imagining their own science?

PG: Yeah, I mean, first off, maybe this is more semantical but like, I do think a critique of rationalism as a worldview is important. But then again, different people would mean very different things with that.

So just to focus on your question: in practice, in the real world, the scientific method cannot be divorced from the scientific institutions that currently control or manage the vast majority of knowledge production via the scientific method in this world that we inhabit. You know, I love science fiction, we can imagine other worlds but that’s the case in the one that we inhabit.

One thing that I think is important to recognize is that the scientific method is a very valid method for knowledge production, for falsifiable objective data. I think it’s also important to recognize that that’s not the only kind of knowledge. That there are many other kinds of knowledge that cannot be produced by the scientific method and that we run into… First of all there’s been no social system in the history of the world that I’m aware of that has ever relied only on that kind of knowledge. And our current “rationalist” society – speaking about rationalism as a sort of mythical worldview – uses a great deal of like non-falsifiable and subjective information, but they pretend that they don’t as part of this mythology. Which is very, very important to certain people, academics and whatnot.

So it’s important recognize, I think, that that’s not the only form of knowledge. And like, so a brief example of this: we can even see this when we get beyond the importance of, for example, emotional knowledge. How to deal with people, with other people in groups, how to take care of people, you know, this is something that’s actually incredibly important. And it’s amazing how easily it can be dropped by the wayside because it’s not reduced to numbers.

But for example we can look at health care. So there are forms of healthcare that are much easier to evaluate using the scientific method. And there are forms of healthcare that are much harder to evaluate using the scientific method. Finding out what happens when you dump some drug in a human body is much easier to evaluate, because the person who’s administering the drug doesn’t need to know anything about it. And they don’t need to know anything, or barely anything, about the person that they’re administering it’s to. And that’s sort of like the point of that whole methodology of treatment. Whereas other forms of treatment require much more subjective approach, a much more modeled approach, to the specifics of the person who’s being treated and they require a much more developed skill set to be able to deliver the therapy in an effective way.

So that’s not the fault of the therapy, that it can’t be evaluated as well by the scientific method. That’s a limitation or fault in scientific method. But we live in a society that’s so mechanized and that loves to be able to have – it’s in fact built up on – knowledge forums that can be plugged into the machine, and spit out the numbers. So it’s a society very much based on mechanical reproduction. That kind of society is going to favor the treatments that can be evaluated by the scientific method, and it’s going to disfavor or discourage or hide the treatments that can’t. And a year does not go by without us finding out about how damaging some form of medication was, or how damaging this blindness towards certain forms of therapy and care were.

And that doesn’t that doesn’t invalidate scientific knowledge production, but it does certainly speak to the question of social machinery. That it goes beyond just the question of, like, “Can we test this? Is it valid or not?” It’s that in fact, in practice, we can’t separate it from the question of social machinery.

What does that have to do with the ecological crisis? I already mentioned the reductionism of a multifaceted, very broad, very complex ecological crisis to climate change. That’s symptomatic of what I’m talking about. Climate change is something that’s more easy to quantify. We can measure it in temperature, we can measure it in parts per million carbon dioxide, we can measure it in emissions. Whereas things like what I know about the place where I live, what I know about the health of the soil in the place where I’ve lived for the past seven or eight years, is not something that I can quantify. But I know it, I think much better than someone who might come by and take a sample from a laboratory and test it but then not have any further relationship with the land. Someone who’s not out there taking care of these olive trees or planting a garden, year after year, and wondering when the rain is going to come and feeling it in their bones how this territory is desiccating. And how we actually need to start doing things now and fast as this climate becomes more of a desert. Because there are dead deserts, and they’re living deserts. And this land right here, where I live is going to become one or the other depending on what we do.

And the people in the laboratories are way behind the game and they have a lot less to offer. They do have things to offer, like there are certainly moments in which my gardening and other people’s gardening can be complemented by having access to that chemical test from the laboratory. And you know, that would be great to have that kind of complementarity, to have even solidarity at that level. But usually you don’t have that because our systems of knowledge are gaslit, we’re excluded from the resources that we would need to be able to access that and the people in laboratories generally have no idea what they’re talking about and think that they have access to some absolute, an all encompassing truth. And that’s problematic.

So yeah, there’s absolutely a possibility – I mean there should be a great deal of dialogue between different kinds of knowledge, including knowledge that’s produced through the scientific method – but we don’t have a lot of that now. And when you we look at how history has actually unfolding, the data produced by powerful scientific institutions regarding climate change has not been wrong, per se – the broad strokes of it have been correct, like for a while now they’ve been predicting what’s going to be happening, and it’s been happening – but it’s been quite conservative. Time and time again they’ve been way too optimistic in their predictions, and the kind of red lines or warning marks or benchmarks or whatever that they set are getting exceeded, they’re getting past years and decades in advance of their particular predictions.

So in terms of the precision of their predictions, they have high precision predictions. Like, me looking at the soil and the rain clouds or you know, someone who’s actually lived there their whole life and has access a lot more ancestral knowledge that I don’t have access to, they’re not going to be able to come up with like a high precise prediction of like “Okay in 20 years this is going to happen” but I think they will get a much more accurate prediction. Whereas the scientific institutions have had high precision and low accuracy. So they’ve actually been wrong in a dangerous way again and again and again. And I don’t think it’s a coincidence, given their proximity to and affinity with the institutions that are most directly responsible for the destruction of the current global ecosystem.

TFSR: So yeah, I guess that’s a good clarification is like systems of knowledge rather than sciences. And as you say that seems like the need from the Western civilization, or the organizations that are working within it, to have crunch-able numbers and quantities that they can put into their figures. Seems like it would also not only would it limit the output information but it probably blinds the people that are making the measurements, even if they’re trying to make the right measurements to see the actual outcomes.

The approach of looking systemically and trying to say that, in fact, all of these systems and how they correlate to each other can fall under one umbrella that we call “Civilization” and its colonial impulse, or “Western Civilization” and its colonial impulse, when people see a critique that is that large, oftentimes people will say, “Ah, but there are things that we have gotten from this system”, they will say that. They will say that capitalism has driven innovation and the creation of certain kinds of knowledge or certain kinds of technology that have benefited human life in a lot of ways. For instance one thing that they can point to is around medical science. And as you said, there are some treatments that have proven to be not so much treatments as poisons. It’s not a like an assured thing that medical science will resolve issues, but there are a lot of technologies that have been developed and applied over the centuries that are positive. And I could see someone saying, “well do I choose between the current structure and like small reforms within it, or supporting a sort of revolutionary alteration in the productive models, the distribution of resources and capacity to produce these technologies that are saving my life, or making it so that I can be mobile, or extending life” for folks that have very serious medical issues for instance?

There has been critique, for instance, of criticisms of modern civilization that came out of Earth First at its beginnings, or other pro-ecological movements that look at not human beings as the problem necessarily, but technological development as being – and the sciences and the knowledges that come out of that, not to say that they’re just produced from that, but that are applied there. Saying “if the government fails, for instance, or if the economy scales back, I’m not going to be able to get my medication and I may die”. Can you talk a little bit about the sort of reticence that someone would have of trying to approach a degrowth of the economy and the government, because they’re afraid that what safety nets exist for them currently would no longer be there, and they wouldn’t survive it?

PG: Yeah, that’s definitely a very legitimate way to address questions of social change. And I think it’s actually super important when we inhabit our own bodies, our own experiences and needs when we’re talking about proposals of widespread social transformation, and struggle, generally.

I think it helps to primarily consider two different things. One is that if we break out of an individual’s framework – which, like I said, that concern that you’re posing is very important, there’s also an iteration of that concern which is very dangerous. Because if we make a critique of Western Civilization on the basis of how many people it’s killing, how many millions of people are starving to death because of this model, all of the forests and ecosystems that are getting destroyed, it can be dangerous. You definitely don’t want to go into a framework of “it’s us or them, someone has to die in this situation”.

So first off, I think we need to break out of any kind of individualist or competitive conception of this problem. And if we look more systemically, or if we look at health as a collective good, the healthiest possibilities for human society are ones in which people have a healthy reciprocal relationship with their environment. They have access to the commons, they have access to a very diverse and healthy diet that is locally adapted. And that is, in fact, based on brilliant technologies that were thousands of years in the making, that existed in every territory before colonialism, which is a technology without whirring gadgets and lights and bells and whistles but it’s the technology of how we build up our survival mutually with the other organisms around us, with the other living beings around us. Many of those technologies still exist. And so without colonialism, with access to that commons, with access to that kind of rooted, territorial, popular and ecological technology, that is the best hope that a human community has for health. For the healthiest lives possible for all their members. So that’s one thing that I think is really necessary to acknowledge. That we live in a system that produces a disease, that produces death and that’s a huge problem that we can’t sweep under the carpet.

The other good thing is that when we destroy governments and capitalism, everything that they own, everything that they think is theirs, everything that they blackmail us with – because they control access to it and we have to spend our lives working to try to get a small piece of it – it’ll be ours. And so once all the rich people are gone, and once all the cops and all the politicians are gone, all of that will be ours. And we can decide to get rid of it, we can decide to keep it, we can decide to make it ourselves in under much better circumstances. So things like medicine we’ll obviously keep making and we’ll find ways to make it that are healthier, we’ll find productive processes that are less damaging for the environment. And we’ll also be changing our living conditions so as few people as possible need access to those technologies, but those who do need that access will get it.

And then we’re also forced to deal with other other technologies, like nuclear reactors and nuclear bombs that the state has saddled us sadly with the necessity to mediate those in the best way possible, because they’re not going away for, you know, forever. Some of those radioactive substances will be around for billions of years, so “thank you, government!” But we will do a better job of handling that than they do. Because we care about us. And because we’re actually good at organization when we get the chance. In the US every single nuclear waste storage facility has leaked at one time or another. So they’re crap at it and they’re also to blame for it. On my worst days, I definitely fantasize about, you know, locking them all in the nuclear storage facility, there’d be certain poetic justice to that.

But thinking about it more realistically, and in the question of our needs, all of it will belong to us for better and for worse, and we’ll figure out how to take care of us. And we’ll do a much better. Even though lately in our movements, it’s pretty depressing, because we’re I think learning a bit too much from the system we live in, and we’re doing, frankly, often a pretty terrible job of taking care of us. But we can do much better than the state or capitalism ever could.

TFSR: Yeah, and they’ve had the opportunity to prove that already. And there’s tons of people that, you know, in as far as distribution of treatment methods for things, or COVID vaccines, or whatever, like, they have proven that it is not in their interest, it is actually in their interest to deny large swaths of the population any number of these things so that they can mark up the price and make more money off of less.

PG: Yes.

TFSR: So some of the most inspiring parts of the book, for me, were the examples of resistance to mega projects, to the expansion of colonial extractivism as well as to some of the alternative movement experiments and infrastructures that you highlight and that you get voices from, which is great. Were there any that you wanted to include but you just didn’t have time to fit that you might share with the audience?

PG: Um, there are definitely some. There are some cases where I was looking for interviews and I wasn’t able to get in touch with the comrades who would be able to speak from personal experience about those struggles, or I was able to get in touch but they were in the end too busy to do interviews, because things are pretty difficult. And so I can name some of those, maybe for people to look at the more, but I won’t go into them precisely because I wasn’t able to learn enough about them.

So, for example, in the movement in Kurdistan, an ecological focus is a large part of the analysis. And it’s a territory that’s been very damaged by war, by desertification, by forced impoverishment coming from the various countries, the various states, that control Kurdistan. And so I know, in fact yeah some friends helped put out a book about some of the experiences in trying to helped make that desert bloom. But yeah, the comrades, it’s been, of course, a rough time over there so the comrades weren’t able to give an interview about that. So that didn’t make it into the book.

Let’s see… There are many, many very interesting struggles in India. I mentioned some of them on the basis of already published research, but I wasn’t able to arrange any interviews with comrades there. India’s interesting because there are very, very different experiences of reforestation, that demonstrates, again, just how we can’t really trust the media, how we can’t trust governments when they talk about this. Because reforestation means completely different things depending on on who’s saying it, and a lot of forms of reforestation are very, very bad for the environment. They’re basically things that, say, like a government like Chile will do to be able to get counted as like a negative carbon emission country, so then they can make money with carbon trading. When, like, in Chile the reforestation is very much an industrial activity which is which is bad for the environment, very bad for the soil, bad for the water table. And it’s very much a colonial activity, because it’s taking place on the lands of Indigenous peoples who are in the process of trying to recover their lands. And a huge part of that process is trying to win back their food autonomy.

So forests are important. And forests can also be edible forests. These pine plantations, these mono-crop pine and eucalyptus plantations that are being planted by the official institutions, are definitely not food forests. No one can feed themselves off of them. But also agricultural fields are important for a lot of people’s to feed them selves. And the official reforestation happening in Chile is often used as a weapon against Indigenous struggle, against the struggle, for example, of the Mapuche for food autonomy, for getting their land back and being able to feed themselves off of their land using traditional technologies and whatever modern or Western technologies that they feel like adapting. That’s up to them. And to the extent that they can do that, to the extent that they have food autonomy, they have a vastly increased ability to fight back against the colonizing state because they’re no longer dependent on global capitalism. And they’re no longer dependent on the state that they colonizes them.

And so in India there’s some really great examples that really contrast how ineffective and also how damaging state-led efforts for mass reforestation are, how they just respond to this technocratic impulse to produce numbers on paper – when on the ground it’s a completely different story – versus communities, many of them Indigenous communities, that have been undergoing very, very effective, large scale forms of reforestation that improve soil health, that increase the possibilities for food autonomy, the increased quality of living, and that, you know, helped create more robust ecosystems with habitat for other species and in addition to just humans. So I would love to one day meet comrades who are participating in that because there’s some really powerful struggles happening there.

TFSR: Well, you do put the invite in the book for a longer extended, like, sequel if folks had more stuff inspired along those lines. So if any listeners are out there and want to write that book, I would love to read it.

Over the years, we conducted a couple of interviews with Anne Peterman from a group called “No GE Trees”, who was talking about that struggle in Wallmapu and – because they were similarly trying to build solidarity with resistance to that sort of mono crop forestation that damages the soil, that depletes the water tables, that denudes the landscape of the vitality and the variation that’s required for native species to exist in it throughout actually the US South – so people were protesting in the Asheville area in solidarity with not only resisting GE Tree plantations in the southeast, but also in Chile.

And a lot of those trees, they’re not good for a lot of things, they’re not good for making lumber out of, especially eucalyptus. Growing up on the West Coast…they’re not good for windbreaks, they got planted for windbreaks, they’re not good for railroad ties, that’s what they got planted for at one point, but they get chopped up after a couple of years of growing, so not even creating a mature forest, and processed down into wood pellets, and then sent to Europe so that European governments can claim that they’re using a renewable source of energy production. It’s just this game of shells with carbon and basically pollution and degradation. It’s a continuation of the extractivism of neocolonialism.

PG: Absolutely.

TFSR: We’ve already seen a measurable connection between climate change, the disruption of food production, exacerbating conflicts, and being used as a weapon against Indigenous communities as you’ve noted, and resulting in increased refugee movements and displacement. As a result, right wing tendencies have welcomed an escalation of conflict and inequality, the building and buttressing of physical and metaphorical walls, and the acceleration of fossil fuel extraction to suck out every drop of profit that can be withdrawn before it’s too late. And to be fair, I say, “right wing”, this also goes for centrist neoliberal regimes as well but the rhetoric looks more actively genocidal oftentimes, and facilitates extraparliamentary violence when it comes from the far right, usually.

Would you talk a bit about the importance of the increasingly, in some ways, difficult project of fostering internationalism and inner communalism against this, nationalist tendency as the climate heats up?

PG: Yeah, obviously the far right, and neoliberal centrist more so, have a lot of advantages because they have access to resources, they get a lot more attention. They’re taken seriously. So even a lot of centrist media that pay attention to the far right in a disapproving way still help them out more than the way that they treat like truly radical transformative revolutionary movements by just ignoring them. Because we’re kept in this in this permanent place of either not existing or being infantilized and we have, as you pointed out, we have a lot of work to do on this front.

And we can also talk about forms of internationalism that are very damaging. This is a kind of internationalism, which is completely under the thumb of, you know, colonial or neocolonial institutions. It’s this worldwide recruitment that takes place, largely through universities of – sometimes in a limited fashion it’s been analyzed as a Brain Drain, but I think it goes beyond that. Basically training and recruiting people from all over the world to participate in this system – whether it’s under the auspices of the United Nations, or under the auspices of some prestigious university in the Global North – to create an internationalism which is a completely monistic, technocratic, simplified worldview that builds consensus about what the world looks like, what the problems look like, and what the solutions are, within elite institutions that are completely cut off from all of the various territories of the world, even as those institutions increase their recruitment to a global scale. So that they have representatives or spokespeople from all the different continents from all over the world but they’re brought together in a sort of epistemological, technocratic space, which is completely a reproduction of colonialism, and makes it flexible but furthers the dominance of Western civilization, of white supremacist civilization.

And so that’s the kind of internationalism, which is very, very present, and it has access to a great deal of resources. And on the other hand, in the Global North, we’re not doing a nearly good enough job to create a very, very different and subversive kind of internationalism. And the comrades who are doing the best job of that tends to be migrant comrades, comrades who have who have migrated, who have crossed borders. I think a lot of folks who grow up with the privilege of citizenship in the Global North, if they do travel, if they do try to get like a more global perspective, it’s often still done in this individualist way that has a lot more to do with tourist vacations than with the needs of revolutionary struggle. And so we don’t have – I mean we don’t really have communities in the Global North, because the triumph of capitalism is so complete – but we don’t have radical groups that are attempting to be communities that pool resources in order to intentionally create global relationships of solidarity with communities and with struggles in the Global South that they could actually be supporting, and that they could actually be creating dialogue with to develop the rich, detailed, global perspectives that we actually need, as well as the possibility for global solidarity.

So, yeah, in the book, towards the end, I do this exercise of imagining what if we’re actually able to do what I’m talking about. Or what I’m trying to argue in the book is like a real model for a revolutionary transformative response to the ecological crisis. And so since I’m talking about the need to root ourselves in our territory, I imagine “Okay, here we are in Catalunya, what does this look like over the next few decades?” And one of the first things is in Barcelona and Tarragona we have these big ports with these big old ships that are currently moving merchandise all around the world. And that’s something that on the one hand it needs to stop because of how much that’s based on fossil fuels and on unnecessary consumption and all the rest. And the later timeline, in that chapter of the book is, you know, maybe much more beautiful and romantic, imagining there’s no more borders and people can traverse the world in sailboats, which are sailboats that have been expropriated from from the wealthy, who of course no longer exist. And and I think that’s a beautiful thing to imagine.

It’s really nice to think about a world that we’re actually allowed to live in, and that people all over the world can travel and go where they want. But right now we have the ugliness to deal with. And so in those ports, there are fuel reserves that have already been dredged up from the earth and there are these big ocean-going cargo ships. So there’s a part that talks about expropriating those cargo ships, getting in touch with revolutionary comrades in the Global South that we already have a relationship with and finding out what they need.

There’s the example of early on in the pandemic, both in Catalunya and another territories, workers taking the initiative to re-purpose their factories to make parts for respirators in a way that was faster and more agile than the capitalist were able to do. So kind of taking a cue from that I imagine this process of, okay, instead of sending merchandise, which is just furthering a relationship of dependency – I was speaking with this one comrade from Venezuela, other comrades from from Brazil, like a major thing is their economies and their material environments have been intentionally structured in a way so they don’t have a lot of very basic things that they need, that in Europe or North America would be easier to find. So for example, like basic machine parts for the machines that would be needed to process food. Not even talking about some hyper industrial and unnecessary endeavor, but basic things like harvesting, threshing, and milling grains, for example. So instead of, you know, a relationship of dependence, where this really fertile territory, like Venezuela, gets grain imports of European grains that Indigenous and Afro Indigenous populations have not been traditionally consuming and that are certainly less healthy – so, basically supermarket food. Instead of importing supermarket food, this short term process of exporting those cargo ships, re-purposing factories from the automotive industry to make some of these simple machine parts, and then using the existing fuel reserves to send off these cargo expropriated cargo ships, so that in these other territories that are colonized, neocolonized territories, that we have a relationship and solidarity with, they can create their own material autonomy and break that dependence once and for all. And then we’re also not just navel gazing and thinking “how are we going to survive the climate apocalypse and making sure that our bunkers are well stocked?” But we’re actually thinking about collective survival in a way that is solidaristic, in a way that is realistic, in a way that is global, and in a way that recognizes our responsibilities, given the past and present of colonialism and white supremacy.

TFSR: Yeah and I would say that the one group that I’m familiar with that really has continued doing a good job on the subject of building or continuing solidarity across the borders is Zapatista structures. In the US there is still, despite the fact that the Zapatista revolution happened 30 years ago, and there are still active, six declaration Otra Compaña groups or whatever that are around all sorts of parts of Anglo dominated North America, Turtle Island. Like, it’s just astounding, and I wish – but people did it really well during that period of time. And I think that that’s something that’s been lost is these clear lines of communication, and the building of inspiration, the sharing of knowledge, of experience across that border to the south of the nation state that I live within the borders of. There’s so many overlaps, and labor struggles that happen. There’s so much cross border transit of goods and I have so much more in common with people across that border than I do who fucking run those corporations here.

PG: Yup.

TFSR: Another point that I really liked in the book – and you approach this in a number of different ways, or I read this in a number of different places – talking about the importance of territorialization. And maybe that’s the wrong term, but being rooted in the land base that you’re in, listening to it, trying to understand what it teaches and how to live with it. Recognize how other people have done that, and like rooting your struggle in a sense of place. And this is one of the reasons that some of these anticolonial and anticapitalist resistance movements in different places around the world look so different is because they’re rooted in different legacies and practices, religions, languages, and experiences of colonization. And I really appreciate the fact that you point this out and you say, “Look, don’t expect everyone around the world to circle their A’s, or to use the term ‘autonomy’ necessarily for what they’re doing. But just recognize similar traits among people that you can have solidarity with in the struggle against global capitalism and colonization”. Can you talk a little bit about some of these similar traits, how you kind of identify these like versatile strategies?

PG: Yeah. So yeah, I think I do use the word “territorialization” or “territorialized” and that’s largely coming from Catalan and Spanish. In English “territorial” tends to be an ugly word because it’s associated with possessiveness, with drawing borders. I find it a very useful concept that’s used here so I just started using it in English. I would just encourage people to look at the roots of that word, “terra” or “tierra”, like the earth. A relationship with the earth not as like this big, abstract blue planet floating in the void but the earth under our feet.

So it’s interesting because you’re asking about similarities – oh god this is gonna sound like some cliched bumper sticker or something like that – but my first response is to say that the similarity is in the difference. Because in an act of war against this world of supermarkets and Amazon and smartphone screens which impose this secretly white supremacist homogeneity, when you territorialize you are becoming part of a long historical tradition that is so so so specific to the exact place where you live and nowhere else. So that means eating different food, cooking it in a different way, pruning different trees, it means speaking a different dialect of a different language. It means things that at first glance are maybe more defined or marked by their difference, but when you when you see like gatherings of peasants from different countries around the world, or gatherings of gardeners, gatherings of revolutionaries who very much believe in being territorial in this sense that I’m trying to talk about it, who believe in having their roots in the ground beneath their feet, and fighting from that relationship and understanding themselves within that relationship…

One thing that strikes me is how much pleasure there is in sharing “This is how you do it? This is how we do it. Oh, this is what you eat? This is what we eat.” And so even on the face of it, the color of that, the texture of that seems to be bringing out differences but I think that really what’s the conversation that happens there – and it feels this way to me like insofar as I’m this alienated exsuburbanite who is engaging in relatively later in my life, to a limited extent has felt this way – that like, beneath the words, there’s the sort of language of love which is completely an exercise in sameness. Not the sameness of homogeneity, but the sameness of “We’re living beings in this earth and we love the Earth, it gives us our lives, we love the other living beings around us.” And so really people all across the world who are living in autonomy and calling it different things and using very, very different technologies and eating very different foods, and all the rest, are on a deeper level doing the same thing, and I think can often recognize ourselves in one another.

TFSR: I guess jumping back to a reference that you made a little bit ago, I was very moved by your chapter, A Very Different Future, where you were describing – this isn’t the primary part of it, the first part of it at least you were describing – an alternative view of where we might be if we go down this path and sort of a best case scenario of how reframing and healing the world could look. I feel like though there is a lot, lot of doing needed to change the course that we as a species are on – or that we who live under the civilization, are forced to live another civilization live in… One of the primary challenges that we face is one of imagination. Because imagination feeds the soul, it’s a playful creativity, it’s a necessary part of, I think, what it is to be alive. Can you speak about this, and sort of point to any projects or movements or people that you think listeners might appreciate in terms of having a radical imagination, and being brave enough to share that out with other people?

PG: Huh. Yeah, I’d start off underscoring how important I think imagination is, like you said. I think it’s, I don’t know, maybe I think it’s more important than hope. Sometimes it’s just really not possible to access hope. But it’s nice, even in those moments, to be able to look out your window or look at the street and see a completely different world filling up that space, even if you don’t think you’ll ever live to see it. So that I think is extremely important. And I don’t think that we can, I mean, obviously the world that we create is going to surprise us. It’ll be born and dialogue with us and it will also insist on certain things and impose itself in certain ways. But at the same time, I don’t think we can create a society that we’re unable to imagine. Even though the caveat that I was trying to trying to communicate is that it will still be different from how we imagine in, but the imagining it is a hugely important part of creating it.

And I think it’s extremely, extremely important to make a very, very clear analytical and strategic distinction between imaginings and blueprints. Creating blueprints is just a furtherance of the war against the planet. It is an extremely colonial act to impose a blueprint on the world. And actually, this reticence towards imagination is probably the biggest criticism I’ve ever had of insurrectionary anarchism. Like this general refusal to imagine. Which isn’t even really well supported by the theoretical bases of insurrectionary anarchism. I think it’s just more often manifests as a fear, like an insistence of focusing on the present, which has some important strategic elements to that insistence. Like we’re gonna focus on the present. But then there’s also I think this fear of actually going beyond that.

Who is doing a good job of sharing these imaginings, these imaginations? So okay, there’s this one group that I interviewed in the US for the book. I keep their location anonymous, but basically they get funds and divert theirs, or they take advantage of some financing that’s intended for other purposes. Basically it’s intended to help large scale industrial farmers buy trees for windbreaks and whatnot. And this is a radical anticapitalist group that buys massive amounts of trees, like tens of thousands of trees in order to help neighborhoods move towards food autonomy. And I haven’t seen them do anything that’s explicitly propagandistic works of imagination. Like “we can imagine this area that we live in being an abundant orchard, where you can grow our own healthly food and not rely on wage labor to get low quality food”. But I think on the material level, there’s a great deal of imagination in what they do.

And I think also a lot of it refers back to peasant and Indigenous imagination from Latin America, because a lot of the neighborhoods where what they do is most effective are neighborhoods with with a large number of Central American migrants who have a lot of experience with growing their own food and with combining residential and agricultural spaces in a way that is generally not done in the Global North. And so if not on the level of like written propaganda, at the very least on the material level, there is a thriving imaginary in that project of neighborhoods, poor neighborhoods, working class neighborhoods that increase their quality of life by growing healthy food. And this is one small group that’s doing this, if this were done across the US, then you’d be creating like an atmospherically significant amount of carbon reduction, of carbon being brought down from the air by reforestation. It’s done in a complex healthy way and not in like a mono cropping, genetically engineered way, and it also gives working class neighborhoods access to healthy food.

Also, most of the trees that they’re planning are autochthonous, how do you say that in English? They’re native, they’re native species, most of which have been neglected by industrial agriculture because industrial agriculture imposes a lot of needs, that are divorced from the needs of human and environmental health. Like transportability: apples are great because they can be they can be hard, they can be harvested early, and then they can be shipped around the world. Pawpaws, for example, are a very, very important native tree food from North America they’re kind of too mushy, they don’t work so well being transported so they don’t work so well as a supermarket food. And so it’s a very healthy food, which is a part of Indigenous cultures, Indigenous histories, Indigenous technology, which is just removed from the equation by how it’s done. And so it’s it’s really awesome to see a group that’s bringing back a lot of those native species and increasing biodiversity and increasing human health in working class neighborhoods.

Aside from more material projects, there’s something very, very important that anarchists have actually been doing for a long time, and that is experiencing a very, very exciting rebirth, which is anarchists speculative fiction. Whether science fiction or fantasy, there is increasing attention being being paid to some of the greats from the recent past, like Octavia Butler who’s a radical, not an anarchist but someone I’ve learned a lot from, someone that, it doesn’t matter that she’s not an anarchist, she’s a really great writer and really great thinker. So yeah, Octavia Butler, Ursula K Le Guin, over here [in Spain and Catalunya], for example, they’ve even been republishing and reprinting some of the anarchists who are engaging in some speculative fiction from out of the workers movement in the late 19th century. And then you also have a lot of current writers who are putting out anarchist speculative fiction, and that’s something that we really need to support and we need to try to spread beyond just the movement. Get it into our libraries, get it into our local bookstores, because that’s generally more effective in spreading anarchist ideas and anarchist imaginaries then, you know, then a lot of our nonfiction writing.

TFSR: Yeah, plus, it’s fun.

PG: Oh, yeah.

TFSR: [giggles] I’ve seen warnings on social media and in some recently published books such as Climate Leviathan – which honestly, I have not finished yet, just haven’t had time – but of ideas of eco-Leninism, or eco-Maoism, an ostensibly leftist authoritarian state response to climate destabilization, then I’ve got a feeling that it’s not just about Derek Jensen anymore. Can you talk a little bit about this tendency, and if you see this as an actual threat with actual adherence, like an actual threat to liberty?

PG: Yeah. Probably most significantly Andreas Malm took it into a new territory, well beyond, for example, like Derek Jensen, with that group. And so this is something that is getting us lot of attention in anticapitalist academic circles. I’ve never seen anywhere where it has any implantation on the ground, like directly in real struggles or in social movements. So from that perspective, it would seem just like a very out of touch, elite, making kind of wild arguments that are fairly ridiculous and irrelevant. Except I think we’ve seen dynamics before, where when the official centrist practices and ideologies flounder, and are unable to produce solutions that the system needs in order to correct and survive – and that’s definitely, we are entering that that period of history right now- where authoritarian elements in social movements that seem to be very, very tiny and not very relevant, all of a sudden go really big, really fast.

That happened in a huge way in the Spanish Civil War, where the authoritarian Communists were completely irrelevant and tiny, and the anarchists had so much influence in the revolutionary movement. And then in less than a year, because of outside funding and because of elite power structures making alliances of convenience, all of a sudden authoritarian revolution – supposedly revolutionary methodology because in fact the Stalinist were quite explicit in saying that they weren’t trying to fight the revolution in Spain – where those authoritarian currents gain ground really, really, really rapidly. And so we need to learn from history, we need to prepare ourselves for that eventuality or inevitability, and we need to be making the arguments now about how these authoritarian ways of looking at the problem are completely detached from people’s needs and the needs of actual ecosystems, and how they are completely unrealistic given the nature of the problem.

That also means being more vociferous about talking about our methodologies, our solutions, and the victories or partial victories that we have. In the case of Andreas Malm, he made it a little bit easier to beginning with some pretty obviously racist, anti-Indigenous statements that he made. I mean he’s very much… he has trouble seeing past the needs of the reproduction of Global North white supremacist society. But I think later iterations of that kind of authoritarian, Eco-Leninist thinking are going to be more sophisticated and they’re going to do a better job at hiding their colonial and white supremacist dynamics. And so I think we need to, yeah, we need to be conscious of that danger while it’s still small.

TFSR: Does it seems strange to you that AK Press just published a book by him last year? How to Blow up a Pipeline.

PG: Um I mean, yeah. There are anarchists publishers that take the approach of only publishing books that they feel affinity with, and I think some really, really important literature that is not commercially viable has gotten circulated that way and that’s really important. And then there are other other radical publishers, like AK that take the approach of being a very broad platform. And there’s some things that AK publishes that I wouldn’t have found out about or gotten access to that both have a broader appeal or like a less radical appeal, and that are also exactly the things that anarchist, especially in North America, need to be thinking about that address things that we historically ignore and do a terrible job of. And then there are things that AK or similar publishers have published that I wouldn’t touch with a 10 foot pole, or that I would touch to burn maybe?

TFSR: [chuckles] Yeah, and I’m not meaning to put AK Press on the spot specifically, but like, that book, and then like, Nick Estes-

PG: The same thing applies, like PM, like all these larger platform publishers. I think I as a person would tend more – just because of I don’t know, my personality, or whatever – would tend more to the sort of small affinity kind of oriented model. But I’m also able to recognize that the way a broader publisher does things has advantages, and it puts us in contact with texts and ideas that we really need to be in dialogue with, and that if we’re just focusing on affinity we’ll never get out of our little echo chamber.

So, yeah, and then some of the Marxists who I respect who are closer to anarchism, say that Andreas Malm’s earlier, big seminal book was important and useful. Like about climate capitalism, about looking at the intersections between climate change and capitalisms earlier development. So, you know, evidently he’s put out things that are theoretically useful, but I think he’s kind of a clown when it comes to direct action. Like he’s coming from this highly privileged, Scandinavian social democratic vantage point where he can talk about his flirtation with direct action from a few years ago without the risk of going into prison, which is [laughing] another planet for the rest of us. And then he, with How to Blow Up a Pipeline, it just seems so like vapid and fatuous. Like this highly privileged academic talking really tough about “yeah, we’re gonna take this thing down” when he really has no idea what he’s talking about and he tends to talk about it in very irresponsible and unrealistic ways.

TFSR: Available at a bookstore near you…

PG: [laughs]

TFSR: [laughing] So, one of my favorite answers to the question of “How can listeners offer solidarity from where they’re at?” that I’ve asked guests in the past, one of the best answers that I’ve gotten consistently from people that are doing anti-megaproject work, or blocking pipelines – megaproject I guess – anticolonial struggles, is to do that work where we’re at, against the oppressive dynamics here to destabilize the capitalist core, so that autonomy can flourish here, as well as at the peripheries. And I feel like that was really echoed in the conclusion of your book. What would you tell people a good next step is after reading the book? [laughs] Leading question?

PG: I mean, in tandem with developing a global perspective, that’s real, that’s based in actual relationships of solidarity with the people and with struggles in other parts of the world, I would say that taking steps, at least baby steps towards food autonomy, is something that can be done anywhere, needs to be done anywhere. And that it’s also an interesting exercise or an interesting line of attack, because it can kind of give us new perspectives on what are the structures that get in the way of our survival? You know, what are the structures that really need to be identified as enemies? And sharing food is is a really powerful activity on every level. And so moving beyond more superficial practices of affinity, towards practices of solidarity with people who are, you know, don’t think the same way as us, as a step towards actually creating like a community worthy of the name, food is extremely important. Being able to share food, being able to decrease dependence on capitalism, that aspect. If I had to give a shorter answer I would highlight that for special attention.

TFSR: So start a garden. You heard it here first.

[both crack up together]

PG: Housing! Housing is really important.

TFSR: Totally.

PG: Taking over housing, anyways, yeah. To answer properly you’d have to talk about so many different things.

TFSR: I guess intervene where you can and have some imagination. I really liked the fact that a couple times in the book that you challenged the the readership to “no, really, stop reading. Please take a moment, close your eyes or look out the window and just do some thinking”. Yeah, that’s good.

Peter, are you working on anything else right now or just kind of like, taking care of business between between books?

PG: Uhhhhh, right now just trying to stay alive and yeah. I think we’re doing a very bad job generally in our movements of taking care of ourselves and taking care of each other. And so I’m trying to look at that more. Yeah, trying to get off my ass to actually plant my garden once it’s spring. And yeah, we’re still working on the infrastructures gatherings, anarchists infrastructures gatherings here in Catalunya. Whenever I find the motivation to start working on the next book, the next one will probably be a critique of democracy, both representative and direct. And then I’d also love to get to this research project about the invention of whiteness in the Spanish colonial experience, since it’s been mostly studied in the English experience of the invention of whiteness through through colonialism.

TFSR: Cool. Well, thanks for this lovely book. I really enjoyed the read and thank you for taking the time to talk.

PG: Thank you. Thank you for taking the time to talk and thanks for, thanks for reading, thanks for the conversation and, yeah. Thanks for being in touch.

TFSR: Of course.

The Interregnum: Roundtable with Vicky Osterweil

The Interregnum: Roundtable with Vicky Osterweil

Download Episode Here

This week we are pleased to present something a little bit new for TFS listeners. This is a kind of informal round table discussion that co host Scott and I had alongside Vicky Osterweil, who has been on the show before to speak on her book In Defense of Looting; A Riotous History of Uncivil Action. We all sat down to talk about a short and thought provoking article which was published in January of 2022 called “The Interregnum: The George Floyd Uprising, the coronavirus pandemic, and the emerging social revolution” which was published on the Haters Cafe and we will link to it in the show notes for anyone interested in reading it.

An interregnum is defined as being a period of discontinuity in a government, organization, or social order, and it typically points to time frames at which there isn’t a clear monarch or reigning body in a given place. This article points to the many ways the George Floyd uprising, the covid 19 pandemic, the rise of anti-work, and what the article calls the Great Refusal (a pivot from the ‘Great Resignation’ nomenclature of some mass media) have all created the conditions for a possible broadscale social revolution. Also stay tuned to the end of this episode where we chat briefly about what books we’re reading right now. We hope you enjoy this chat!

((note to listeners, I’m now using the name I use in real life for this radio project, which is Amar. It’s become more and more important to me to be as fully acknowledging of my culture and ethnicity as possible, and this is one way I’m choosing to do that))

A note on the audio, I messed up recording on my side – my bad – but Scott saved the audio by doing their own back up recording!

In Defense of Looting interview with TFSR!

Announcements:

Disrupt Stone Mountain

In the south eastern US state of Georgia, there is a call-out for anti-racists and anti-fascists to show up and counter and stop the yearly demonstration organized by the buffoonish Sons of Confederate Veterans at Stone Mountain Park for April 30th, 2022. Stone Mountain was intended by “lost cause” supporters as a confederate Mount Rushmore, including a large bas-relief carving and was maybe the site of the birth of the second KKK in 1915. More info on the twitter for Atlanta Justice Alliance and some background can be found in a prior TFSR interview

Eric King

A call-in campaign continues until we hear otherwise for Eric King, the anarchist prisoner who recently won a court case against his jailers at the federal Bureau of Prisons. After that case, they decided to transfer him to a higher security facility across the country. The BOP has a history of setting Eric up to get jumped by white supremacist prisoners at other facilities and the worry is that not only is this move an obvious act of vengeance by the BOP but that he’ll be isolated and targeted at USP Lee or whatever facility they stick him in. You can find notes about the call in at SupportEricKing.org, in our chat with Eric on our April 3rd, 2022 episode and in the recent IGD This Is America interview on the subject.

Libre Flot

Libre Flot, a French anarchist and former volunteer alongside the YPG in Rojava, has ended his hunger strike after a judge released him for medical reasons but he’ll be electronically monitored by the state pending a future court case, as reported by Abolition Media. Likely future updates and ways to support Libre Flot can be found at SolidarityToDecember8.WordPress.Com.

Mountain Valley Pipeline Resistor Needs Support

Max is facing a bunch of legal fees for locking down to block the delivery of pipeline to the MVP construction project and is looking for support in covering costs. More info can be found at https://tinyurl.com/MadMaxFines

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Featured Track

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Transcription

Amar: Three of us are sitting down, me and Scott and Vicky Osterweil, who has been on the show before and who has written a bunch of really amazing stuff. In Defense of Looting; A Riotous History of Uncivil Action, primarily, we had her on the show to talk about that book. We are all here to talk about this article on Haters Cafe, which is a blog run by primarily black and brown proletarian folks. This article is called the The Interregnum: The George Floyd Uprising, the Coronavirus Pandemic, and The Emerging Social Revolution.

And we’re just all here to talk about it a little bit. It’s not an interview, it’s sort of a departure from the you know, format The Final Straw has gone in so far and I’m excited to talk with y’all about this really thought provoking piece.

Scott: Yeah, this is Scott and I thought I’d start by giving a quick little summary overview of the piece. The pieces written in points, but I’m going to kind of bring them all together. I thought this piece was really helpful and interesting because it ties together a bunch of different important phenomena, especially like recent ones. Not just the pandemic, the George Floyd uprisings and the great resignation, which this piece says we should rename the great refusal, but also the longer arc of rebellion over the last 10 years. Basically, there’s this claim in the piece that the insurrection that we saw from George Floyd uprisings has been translated into daily life. So the struggle has left the realm of the political and now is possibly moving towards a social revolution. I think that’s good to kind of set us up for a conversation.

Vicky: Yeah, totally. First of all, thank you so much. It’s so nice to be back here with y’all, on one of my favorite shows. It’s such a pleasure just to chat, especially under these circumstances. When we scheduled this… things have changed globally. So it’s exciting to sit and think, reground ourselves in thinking through our local contexts and what that looks like. It’s really valuable. So I appreciate you and appreciate the audience, too.

I think one of the things about this piece that I found really sort of activating I guess is the way in which it talks about the great resignation, which has been this wave of quitting. Mass wave of quitting jobs that has gone on now, basically, since the beginning of the pandemic, but it accelerated really dramatically in 2021. I haven’t seen January numbers, but I know that even through December, it continued to accelerate, people are quitting their jobs more and more. Some of that is almost certainly due to the pandemic and the conditions of work that that produces. Some people have, when I’ve talked to comrades about this piece some of them have sort of said, “oh, well, you know, I think the quitting is just about the conditions getting worse or people having to care for each other.” That might be true, but that’s also still a recognition that it’s not possible to do work under those circumstances.

I think it’s really interesting because I think we have gotten into this habit over the last 10 years that this piece talks about, sort of these movement waves where this big movement blows up in the streets. In 2009 there’s Oscar Grant and you have the student strikes, but it was really occupy in 2011 that really sort of starts the cycle. Those sort of would be defined by tactical innovation: the squares, or the riot in the case of Ferguson in Baltimore, holding a space with with rioting. Once that tactic was outflanked or defeated by a combination of the left/liberals and the police then we would sort of go back into a moment of waiting.

I think what’s been really interesting about the last year and a half that this piece sort of points out, really sharpened for me, is that in fact 2020 was so big and so consequential, the George Floyd rebellion, that we have this explosion of basically autonomous but not fully disorganized job-leaving. We’ve seen memes about it, people sharing those signs of a Burger King, “we’re all closed, sorry, everyone quit” but also the explosion of the Reddit r/antiwork which became such a thing that they ended up on Fox News and Reddit shut them down. They splintered into all these more reformist subreddits. But it was the fastest growing subreddit in years. There were 1000s of people posting about how much they hated work.

I spent a lot of time watching it as well. It had a very anti-recuperative tendency that was really strong. People tried to bring it into democratic politics or party politics and they would get shot down. It was really like, “No, no, no, the focus is on how our jobs suck and how our labor conditions suck and we have to destroy work.” That was really interesting that that space sort of developed spontaneously in this way that’s very similar to what the movement looks like, which is just people quitting their jobs and then millions. This piece brings that as like an attack, as opposed to a sort of tactical defense, which all those other sort of moments where, as opposed to like a political moment.

These are all interesting questions. This distinction between the political and the social and the attack versus the reactive or defensive movement I think is the stuff that’s really interesting for me.

Scott: Those are the two really important overarching points that I think I would love to dive into. “What does it mean to enter a social revolution or to move our sights beyond the political?” And then that question that always comes up because often a lot of anarchist organizing or anarchist action comes in spontaneous waves in reaction to things and then we’re always left scratching our heads, “how do we move ahead of the things that get thrown at us?” But yeah, Amar, I’ll pass to you.

Amar: Oh, Amar is fine. The whole Reddit /antiwork phenomenon is really interesting. I heard a little bit about it, because like I’m not a redditor. I know of it sort of nominally. But I gather that it was started by two anarchists. I gather that those two anarchists are also trans people. I don’t know if either of those folks are still involved in it. But for me and as an older millennial, the role of the internet and all of this is just fascinating. It’s just fascinating to see how this sort of not truly global because it’s still not yet accessible in all corners of the world, but this more global platform than I’ve actually seen in my lifetime has really furthered the anti-work sentiment, the great refusal sentiments, and it’s just super fascinating to see that.

Vicky: Yeah, exactly. And the other thing that happened last year, I mean, obviously most of the news attention went to the far right or right wing anti-Vax protests and obviously the more recent up in so-called Canada, the caravan. They were doing occupy again, like 10 years later. We couldn’t do occupy if we wanted. We would need 10,000 people rioting to hold a square. We needed that in 2020 to hold the square for a few days, but they needed like 100 people in trucks and they go to do occupy again. Whatever. It’s still scary, obviously, but the State is giving them a lot of tactical latitude. Anyway, that’s been where all the attention has been. That has been the “politics of resistance” during this period after the rebellion.

But there were also those moments of spontaneous looting, and the student walkouts. I think one of the things that the piece tries to pull towards is that a lot of these things that have been happening have been less visible. I write about this in my book about how during the Great Depression, there was this mass wave of looting that store owners wouldn’t even report it to the police for fear of it entering the news and people getting ideas. So we have no idea historically how much it was, except that it was widespread enough that we know that many people didn’t want to talk about it. That’s all we know about it and that’s from contemporaneous reports.

The collapse of like school grading… I know a bunch of teachers, both at the university and primary and high school level. School discipline has completely collapsed. Work discipline has largely collapsed. One of the things about all these people quitting their jobs is that the bad jobs… nominal wages, and again wages are very hard to determine, there’s debate about this, but nominal wages have gone up year over year in 2021. Faster than they had anytime since the 70’s. It led to this immediate wage increase. I think that that stuff is really interesting in this period when there’s a lot of demand from the left that we focus on organizing the workplace. Like, “Oh, you gotta organize the workplace.” Actually, we’re seeing all this workers struggle, but it’s not really being seen as that because it’s not taking this visible political form.

Amar: Do you think that… because I’ve seen that too. I used to drive to work every day and there was a McDonald’s on my drive and one week it was “now hiring $15 and up” and then it just went up and up every single week. Like 16, 17, 18 and now it’s a $21 an hour, which is just incredible. I wonder too, with the public perception of the refusal or anti-work generally, is that you see a lot of it coalescing in lower wage or fast food or jobs that are seen as unskilled or disposable. Do y’all think that that’s affecting how folks are thinking about it a little bit? Because I’ve definitely seen that. It’s not really seen as a general strike. It’s not really seen as workers organizing each other and I wonder if there’s some endemic classism in there?

Scott: Oh, yeah. Well, I mean when the pandemic first hit the hierarchy of jobs, I feel, became so apparent based on who was able to work from home and then who was an essential worker, which was unless you are a nurse or doctor, a devalued worker, right? Typically in the service industry or in the supermarket or something like that. So I think that stuff became kind of pretty clear right away. And listening to what you were just saying, I was thinking about how the people forced to work in service industry during the pandemic were also being forced to risk their health in ways that other people were removed from if they had these other options. That continues even now with the people in service industry being put into these positions that they can’t really say no to.

I think that one of the things that’s interesting about thinking about the wages going up is that this happened without workers making demands, and this piece really talks about how there’s a nostalgia on the Left for the traditional workers movement, for like labor organizing. Which is this kind of organized way to go in this particular workplace typically, not in a general way, and make specific demands within that instance. This is spreading in a very different way, not through the typical ways of organizing. I think that is another interesting phenomenon of social media and internet.

I think it’s interesting how this piece ties that together, also with the way that the discourse around police abolition and prison abolition sort of spread all of a sudden through the George Floyd uprisings. It shows us something like that we can’t go and lecture people to believe these things and hope that they’ll just take them on. There’s something else that is causing this spread. It’s not the Vanguard party going and doing political lessons for people.

Vicky: Totally. I think one of the things that’s really valuable for me, to sort of historicize this moment and think about it, is that there are these other incredibly successful general strikes in American history that are never seen that way. Increasingly, as people read Dubois’ Black Reconstruction, they’re starting to see the general strike of the enslaved as a real thing, as a thing that happened as he as he describes it. But every year, even before the Civil War, 50,000 enslaved people, obviously, most of them illiterate, in many ways, facing incredibly difficult modes of communication between separate plantations, even within plantations, although, as more and more scholars are demonstrating, they were very good at communicating and there was a very dense communication network that famously Harriet Tubman used to spy on Confederate soldiers.

In any case there was also in response to Jim Crow in the fascist regime in the South, the post-slavery fascist regime in the South or post reconstruction, you have the great migrations. Which I think don’t get talked about as labor action in the same way. Even though people like Ida B. Wells at the time understood them as such. The nostalgia for the classical workers movement isn’t just a Marxist, although it is often sort of worshipping of a particular industrial proletariat, which again lots of Marxist don’t do, but a lot of them do as well. It’s not just that. It’s also a refusal to recognize Black and indigenous forms of resistance historically in the country.

So I think it’s not surprising that in the wake of a Black uprising that spreads so widely to all of society that then we would be seeing these tactics that have a more historical echo with practices of maroonage, migration, mass networked action that aren’t necessarily organized into the “solidarity fist” of the union in exactly the same way. I don’t want to get all talking about Deleuze or whatever the hell… But I think there’s a real opportunity here. And the reason that I want to have this conversation, and I think we all did is because we are actually in a moment when things really feel like they’re at stake. Obviously, the war, and the murder, and all the events of the last few weeks have have increased that feeling that there’s high stakes. I also think what the piece says and I agree with is the proletariat, the class is on the attack. It’s on the offensive right now. I hate we have to formulation shit like that.

But it is a valuable opportunity to rethink how we think about struggle, because I think it was so vital over the last 10 years that we have all of these political struggles. It was so important and the piece sort of argues that without those struggles there was no way that the George Floyd rebellion could have emerged. But now, there’s this temptation to see things and patterns or as repetitions, to fail to recognize when things have changed especially under the conditions that we understand them of what politics looks like. Which is like unions, demands, parties, or even anarchists. Even uprisings, insurrections, I think we really need to move past that as well.

We, those of us who think of ourselves as insurrectionary types, or whatever. I think that all of these questions are really up in the air right now and if they were to merge with a street movement, it would provide a really serious opportunity for total, significant transformation. I think that’s the first time in my life I feel really comfortable saying that on the radio and feeling like that’s real. You know what I mean?

Amar: Absolutely. This is the first time in my life that I’ve seen a lot of these things happen. It’s incredible, not to parrot myself a little bit, but it’s incredible to see the things that are happening right now. And thank you also for bringing a historical context to the point of the general strike and all of that stuff. Because I think that that’s history that people are speaking of, but is a parallel that, I think is very well drawn, and needs to be drawn now.

Scott: I think, and there’s something in the piece and then the history that you just brought up, Vicky, too, there’s something about what gets seen and understood and what doesn’t get seen or comprehended in various ways. There’s a particular racialized and colonial history to that, that we know when we talk about US history in particular, there’s a uniform narrative that’s given that tries to fit things into progress, or sort of like a immiseration of particular groups of people as part of our collective history that leaves out all of these multifarious ways that people have resisted. If we don’t tell those stories we can’t learn that that happened. First of all, which is inspiring for today, but also learn that there’s flexible ways to do it.

So the most visible things that are also whitened, right? Or like the the labor strikes. I think for us as anarchists recently, it’s a certain kind of uprising. Those things are interesting because I think maybe one of the reasons that they get so much play and are so compelling is because they do play, like the piece says, into the spectacle, the image of politics. They also tend to have an end. I think sometimes in my anarchist thinking, I really get into this idea of the eruption of moments of liberation that we formed that are temporary and then they dissolve. But there’s something else in this piece that’s gesturing towards, “how do we not just wait for those untimely moments to come and echo across the years or whatever,” but like, “how do we sustain things in the meantime.” There’s these threads of sustained resistance throughout history that fly under the radar.

One of the things that the piece talks about, which I would love to hear what you all think, to what extent do we want things to be like clandestine and not talked about so that they can keep happening in a way that allows for spaces of freedom? And not either recuperation or violence from the State? And to what extent is that just a failure from the analyst or whatever to see that there’s really strong resistance going on?

Vicky: So for that final question, I think one of the things I’ve heard, a close comrade, a friend of mine when I was tweeting about this piece who has slightly different politics from me was sort of saying, “Oh, well, I think this movement of quitting will lead to mass repression.” I think that’s sort of the question you’re saying, when we make a struggle like this legible do we risk damaging it? First of all, yes, of course. I think that’s really important and that’s true. Also, though, particularly the great resignation is and anti-work is a trend that the right and the capitalists have noticed. They brought it to many of our attention, because this is happening at a scale that none of us can necessarily really see beyond sort of a meme of an image or whatever. But when millions of people are quitting the capitalists are scared, and that’s how we know it’s happening because they’re talking about it in Business Insider and the Economist or whatever.

So like on that level, the question I think is right. I think it’s right to think about, “do we try to wrench these things into politics?” When we do so we do so at great grave danger to their potential. But also, we do want to be able to speak to each other, and to have a context in which we can sort of organize and start to answer some of these questions. To speak to the first half of your point, though, if that’s okay. Unless you have something you want to sort of jump on on that?

Amar: No, no, go ahead.

Vicky: This is to veer away from the piece of it and get a little personal, but I’ve now been organizing in various capacities and writing and fighting for like 12, 13 years now. Maybe since 2009. What time is it? 2008? So yeah, for ages now, right? It’s been a long time. One of the things that has happened is that I have grown really dissatisfied with the waiting for the change to come and happen spontaneously. At the same time that I recognize that over the last decade none of us have really been able to predict how this stuff was going to break down and it hasn’t really been driven by political radicals either. I don’t think that’s going to suddenly start happening either. But we have these one lives. These one precious, increasingly threatened life.

I’ve always loved the anarchists tendency to say we have to try and build that world in the present in our own worlds to the extent that we can. I think we can apply that to bigger scales without it being dangerous to our goals. Do you know what I mean by that? There’s this really hard line to thread and we haven’t come up with the answers. I certainly and anyone who tells you they have is full of shit. Myself, even, I don’t have the answer I’m also full of shit.

But I think there is this tension right now with this real desire to have enough power, for lack of a better word, to act in a really in a way that increases those possibilities and opportunities, while recognizing what’s going on right now. Which is that on a sort of spontaneous, which isn’t a great concept, but on a class wide scale some of these attacks are happening now. They’re happening and can we intervene? Because I think there’s also a desire and the piece does talk to this. Sorry, I’m just rambling now. I guess that’s the point, right? We’re having a conversation.

But the piece speaks to the leftist desire to get out and be the leaders to be the vanguard. We saw that in the uprising where revolutionary organizations, I heard about this in every city with there were big things, would get to the front of a march and lead it in a circle, or lead it directly into trap. Or all these terrible things, all the swooping and stuff. So I think without wanting to be a vanguard and being satisfied to be participants in events, and nothing more than participants in events, how can we be the most effective participants in events possible? In a way that both makes our lives better and increases the chances for other people to reach for those things. That’s such a hard question because it’s about power and organization, but our terms for those are so limited.

Amar: Yeah, yeah, I think about this, too. And we saw, I think anybody who had two eyes and was paying attention saw the orgs get out in front of stuff in the George Floyd uprisings. I think that it was just such a typical tactic on the part of the orgs as a part of power accumulation and optics and all of these things. How do we not do that? And how do we participate as anarchists in a way that is anti-authoritarian, or anti-vanguardist, or anti-optics or whatever, if we can say that. I think that’s such an important question. I think that to answer that would maybe be to do something of a disservice to the scope of the question itself. Because it’s so important and it’s less of a question and more of a provocation for me. Just challenging folks to be like, “this is a moment, this is happening.” I remember back in the day people were really invested in this idea of a revolution and I’m just like, “Y’all, it’s here and what do we do with it?”

Scott: That’s like the thing that I really loved about this piece, because I’ve been reading other interesting pieces that are pessimistic or nihilistic. This one is saying we’re in the midst of at least a proto-revolution, if not a revolution. In thinking about this question about how we can be participants within it without trying to get out in front, which is so important. Thinking about the last decade and the anarchists involvement in all these uprisings, not to credit it to anarchists, and I don’t even mean a particular person who says they’re an anarchist, but tactics learned from anarchist uprisings or uprisings that have elements of anarchism within it. They’ve been accumulating over over this time. I think the anarchism, more than in my lifetime, you can talk about it and people are like, “oh, yeah, I have some ideas about this.” It’s less unheard of. It gets mentioned even in mainstream aspects.

I feel like, again, some of this spreading of knowledge or information, some of the ways that anarchists have shown up in the streets or organized mutual aid is becoming more baseline knowledge for people about how to defend yourself in this situation. I think that that might be a way to think about it. Again, this is to say that anarchists aren’t leading things, anarchists are showing up and doing things and those things are getting innovated over and over again throughout all these events.

Vicky: Yeah, I think that’s that’s exactly right. I mean, as someone who has been doing police in prison abolition stuff for almost a decade now, I remember having a conversation with a friend and we were talking about how for years it just felt like bashing your head against a brick wall. Then suddenly in 2020 you were just nodding and everyone was nodding along with you like, “yeah, abolish the police, abolish prisons!” I think there’s probably a tendency among people who identify as anarchists, especially who sort of form online to want sectarian identification as anarchist to be really present and stuff. There’s this counter tendency that I think, Scott, you just really well summed up, which is that, in fact, the tactics and the ideas are spreading.

I think that that’s also valuable in terms of attempting to the best of our ability to decolonize and abolish the whiteness of the ways and the Europeanness of the ways that we think about this stuff. Maybe the movement has gotten anarchist enough that we no longer need anarchists. I don’t know. I’m in a weird place now. But I guess what the piece has me asking myself and questioning and what the last 10 years have as well is this great refusal moment, in some ways, the George Floyd rebellion was a summation, and intensifying, and generalizing of all of the struggles that had come before. We saw all those tactics repeated. It was incredible and beautiful, and really, really important. And now something has shifted and we have to move away from our dogmas in a real way that is scary.

Part of the reason I feel is partially scared, and I mean not just the state of the world, but because I don’t see my comrades, all of whom I love dearly in my local area, I don’t see any of us moving in a way that makes me feel like it’s the answer. Even during the uprising my comrades, who I really love and who I was in the street with and who I would do a lot in the street for, I didn’t see us moving in a way that I was like, “Okay, wow.” Myself included. I was among this we, right? We were participating, and that’s cool. But I want to think about, because it matters so much, I want to think about what we can do and how we can we distinguish sectarian tactical, ideological things that we rely on from things that are really important actually and it’s really good that they become core.

I think there can be a tendency that I think is actually kind of creepy and proto-right wing to be like, “we must reject all of our previous knowledge.” Absolutely not. We have learned so much. We have to stay queer liberationists, trans liberationists, anti racist, these are all so crucial. But yeah, I don’t know. It’s a question. We’re in a moment where we can really start cutting back some of the stuff that isn’t serving us. As the piece says, in the spirit of the great refusal, you should think about how to leave those formations, whether they’re tactical or ideological, or just groups or whatever, that aren’t serving us right now in this moment.

Amar: I love that part of the article so much. The whole, “let’s think about how to translate a, not anti-work as sort of a hardline definition, but a refusal on to our anarchist politics and praxis.” I thought that that was such a cool provocation. And Scott, I wonder if you have anything to say about that. I was just super sparked by it. I don’t really have a lot to say about it. I mean, seeing folk and seeing how folk were moving in the streets, or like moving in the midst of the uprising, I didn’t see a whole hell of a lot of it, but I definitely was just like, “Hmm, we did that,” or like, “that happened.” There’s a question there, too.

Scott: Yeah, I’m thinking in current anarchists discourse that I’m finding most interesting right now is the stuff that Amar: C, Anderson’s Nation on no Map, where he’s been elaborating a Black anarchism that isn’t about self identification as an anarchist. He looks at the history of Black people in the US and sees anarchist, or anarchistic, or whatever, aspects of community self defense and mutual aid and says that there’s conditions that create this. and that there’s histories and knowledge of these ways of being and doing that sort of exceed the limited definition of anarchism that can be tied back to a particular European historical context.

That kind of stuff, alongside a lot of care work, accountability transformative justice, and disability justice work that I read that’s in an abolitionist vein tends to me to do this kind of loosening up of anarchism into something that’s not like who you are, but it’s the things that you do and the way that you do them. It can be in all these moments. I think when we take this into struggle, we get so caught up in being a thing and showing up to do thing as a kind of person all the time. I think protest is often, because it’s captured by the political, this is where I want to get right? Back to the idea of moving out of the political into the social. When it remains in the realm of the politics and we’re just announcing we’re anarchists and we’re here to fuck shit up or whatever.

One of the things reading this, it made me think. I had been translating Guy Hocquenghem and his writings on gay liberation after ’68 people. And the May ‘68 people were saying a similar thing about the social, they were calling a cultural revolution, because they were still a little bit enthralled by Mao. But they were like, “the revolution has to touch every part of life.” It’s not just the realm of politics. It’s not the labor movement. This is where you get the beginnings of gay liberation in France too. I think that’s really an interesting thing. In that moment, in the 60’s, late 60’s and early 70’s, that dovetailed with the hippies and a counterculture that wasn’t really politicized. I think the material conditions for a lot of the people who were involved in that were such that they could do a kind of subversive thing and still kind of be part of the system. So it didn’t translate into this social revolution that they were calling for.

But I think we’re in a totally different scenario. We don’t have the opportunities and all the kinds of props that were holding up the state and the market at that time have been thrown away at this point. The pandemic has just made it even starker. So to me, that explains a little bit why a political thing can translate more generally and pervasively through all the strands of life the way that this piece is arguing that it is or is starting to or can continue to do.

Just one more thought… So when the pandemic hit, this was my thinking, and this is almost accelerationist or something, I guess, but I was like, “oh my god, everyone is gonna just suddenly become a revolutionary because we’re just faced with the contradictions of you can’t work but you need to pay for rent and you need to pay for food, but you can’t get any of these things.” I was trying to do organizing just being like, “look like we have to do something! We can’t… this is ridiculous.” I got caught up in my organizing with people who are really stuck on old models for me. A lot of going back to, “we need to be clandestine, and we can’t say anything to anyone because then we will be known.” But I was like, at some point we just need to act right and do something. But in the immediate lockdown, those conditions did not create the kind of uprising that I had hoped for, at least, and didn’t really expect.

This piece says something really interesting that I would like to parse out about this. It says “the novel Coronavirus pandemic was a necessary but insufficient condition for the George Floyd rebellion and the great refusal.” So I was like this is going to do it. This piece is saying that this set some things up but then something else happened. Then the next line is “Anti-Blackness, ableism, and xenophobia were also necessary, but they are not novel, though the pandemic’s deepening of these societal codes.” In that kind of weird Interplay that something new happen that we weren’t expecting. I think that’s really interesting. Because again, it scrambles our ability and even our desire to predict things which is I think, where we fall into traps, often.

Vicky: Yeah. God, there’s so much there. There’s so many different things. I’m all over the place.

Scott: Sorry I rambled.

Vicky: No, no, it’s literally my favorite feeling. Too much to respond to is the best. But yeah, I think there’s this question of the Coronavirus and the pandemic. One of the things that actually I think is so scary, not to shift too much about the Ukraine situation is that, the Democrats seem malicious and out of touch enough to me to want to go to war to distract from the virus, right? The handling of the virus has been so bad internationally that I do think a lot of state leaders see, and it’s working as far as I can tell, in a public opinion way. There’s not a sort of 2001 Old Glory flags everywhere fascism coming back, exactly, but people have stopped talking about the pandemic, largely. This is the thing that is on people’s minds. I think the failure of the Biden administration’s response to the pandemic, should be understood in terms of the Great Refusal and the Great Resignation.

One thing that happened was that Trump gave us a bunch of money, and clearly the $600 for unemployment a week was like the Arrested Development meme: “It’s one banana, Michael, how much could it cost? $10?” Clearly a bunch of rich people were like, “how much do poor people make a week? $600?” And everyone got this crazy raise. We didn’t have to work, got on this huge raise, and an eviction moratorium. So there’s all this cash on hand and what people did with that extra space as well as the extra anger, alienation, the mass death, it’s not a silver lining. There’s no silver lining to the pandemic. These are just the conditions, and we can’t describe it that way. This is a this is an absolute utter catastrophe of a global scale that will never be forgotten, at least not for generations. It’s an utter disaster. But it produced both negative and positive conditions that gave people space to rise up, right? And people were like, “Okay, I don’t have to go to work. I can’t go party, I don’t have to pay my rent, I’ve got nothing to do. Fuck it, let’s get rid of these pigs!” That was this spontaneous feeling and tactic and desire that emerged.

I think part of what the Democrats have been doing is like, “Oh God, we can’t reproduce those conditions.” We can’t reproduce the conditions where people aren’t struggling enough that they can fight us. They also, I think, to some extent think that the uprising was all about Trump. What they classically failed to do is to recognize that the uprising happened. So many of us participated and we all remember. We all remember what it felt like and we were all changed by it. You can’t put that back into a bag with punishment, although they are trying.

I don’t know if that’s happening in y’all’s cities, but here in Philly rents have gone up way faster than housing costs. They’ve started instituting credit checks to even get a rental, which I’ve never seen anywhere. Not even in New York when I lived there. It’s wild. And that seems to me an at least slightly coordinated punishment of the working class. Not just for the uprising, but also for the Great Resignation. There’s all this repression happening and now the war is a piece of that as well.

But to be a sort of classic, “whatever,” as I am, all of this repression is in response to real movement that’s happening on the ground now and real fight that we’re giving. We’re on the offensive. I don’t know, I keep just circling back to that. Because Scott, as you pointed out, in the 60’s, even in the 30’s, the insurrectionary movement got kind of bought off by the New Deal. Then the depression got funneled into war production. It’s not clear how anyone can do that. In fact, the financial collapse still hasn’t quite happened. We’ve never recovered from 2009, the stock market has fully divested itself from our daily lives. It doesn’t feel like they have carrot to give us and it doesn’t feel like they can wield the stick well enough. So it feels like we’re chomping at the bit to overextend the metaphor. We have some capacity right now to move.

Scott: There’s another part of this piece to build off of that, that I find interesting. Thinking about how the Democrats have failed to play their historical role of siphoning off the energy of movements and recuperating them in electoral politics. You’re kind of talking about that. But it seems like such a an opportunity for the Democratic Party to take stuff. They keep having things thrown at them that they can totally wrapped up into their shtick and use it. But they’re not doing it. I mean, maybe it’s like you’re saying that they’re scared of the threat that they’ve seen and therefore grasping at straws. But I wonder if either of you had thoughts about why are they so doggedly going in this other direction than what they’ve typically done, which is to try to water down our movements with tokenism and naming policies that don’t do anything?

Amar: And recuperation.

Vicky: Do you want to join take a swing at it?

Amar: I’m uniquely ill-equipped to talk about party politics.

Scott: That’s a good trait.

Vicky: Alas, alas, I have some ideas. Bernie Sanders was was a slam dunk for them. Medicare For All. I mean, if they weren’t good historians they would know that in 1945 in the UK when the Labour Party, the NHS, ran the government for 30 years. The Dems could do it. They’ve got a bunch of slam dunks that are pretty easy. The ball is in the air. Why am I choosing all these bad metaphors? They have these opportunities. I think part of it is that they just are genuinely an imperial court. DC is truly divided from reality on the ground. The pandemic has somehow made that worse. They don’t even get in cabs anymore to talk to cabbies or whatever they do in their op eds.

So I think it’s that and also they are increasingly happy to be the left wing to the extent that they are the left to the Republicans, not as the recuperators of social movement. So I think that now that the Republicans are like, “you know what? We should be fascist because otherwise we’ll never win an election again.” The Democrats can just be like, “yeah, we’re just like utterly greedy, right wing capitalists, like, that’s all we are.” So I don’t know. I think it’s some combination of those things and fear of the uprising. I think in their heart of hearts, Democrats, liberals in general, not just Democrats, if you ask them “which is scarier a fascist uprising or an anarchistic/communist one?”, they think it’s scarier from the left. Because the fascists, maybe they kill them or their friends but probably they get to keep all their property and their nation. Whereas the anarchists, they lose their whole worldview. Like, that’s a lot scarier.

Amar: Yeah, indeed. I really likes this part in the article, and it’s skipping to the end a little bit. The article is written somewhat chronologically, but there’s a lot to sort of unpack in it. And it talks about sort of the right and the coup. This is bullet point 24:

“The lesson they seem to have learned from the coup is that increased calls for secession and the independence notwithstanding, their best chance for power is the 2024 election of Donald Trump. There is therefore something of a three way race between the proletarian movement, the 2024 election cycle, and Donald Trump’s physical death. The death or incapacitation of Donald Trump would represent a blow to the American fascist movement as currently constituted that would require at least another election cycle for them to recover from.”

I really liked this bullet point. I think that it relates somewhat to perceptions and fear and the anxieties of the Democrat institution. I wonder if you’ll have thoughts on this point.

Scott: So, I’m actively frightened by the far right and everything they’re doing. And maybe we can talk a little bit about all the kinds of State policies that are being proposed and passed that are incredibly frightening. But while there is a street movement and January 6 was a thing. It was a debacle. It’s kind of confusing and hard to really, totally understand. This point is saying that in the end, the far right is still attached to an election of a particular person. So, in a way that that gives me a little bit of a feeling of optimism that it’s so narrowly focused on this one thing that just seemed to limit it in a way or help contain it from me. Because in my mind all the time I’m surrounded constantly by Nazis, basically. Like walking down the street in my neighborhood, you know? And so thinking about how they’re still grasping at the old orders of power, and obviously that power still kills and hurts and degrades us all. But something about that was interesting to me.

Amar: Yeah. I mean, there’s been just an immense amount of things that have at least hit the newsstands. I had a text from a person that I hadn’t heard from in a while, and the text was just like, “I’m thinking of you. I hope you’re okay.” And I like genuinely didn’t know what they were referring to because there’s been so many things that have happened. It turns out that they were referencing the anti-trans stuff that was happening in the news with parents of trans kids now being liable for child abuse or some horrifying shit in Texas.

But yeah, there was a point on our notes that we were talking about fear and talking about anxiety and being like, “Am I coming out of left field being fearful right now?” I don’t think that anybody is. I think that there are a lot of oppression fantasies that are spinning themselves out. I’m thinking specifically of like QAnon, and COVID-denialism, and stuff that’s on the far right, that I like obviously have no sympathy for. I do name it as like an oppression or colonization fantasy, basically, that people are like, “Oh, I’m being genocided. I’m being colonized.” It’s just like, guys, I don’t know. It bears no spinning out here. There’s no reason we need to debunk that shit.

But I do think that we’re seeing sort of a creep into various things. I mean, we saw it in fucking September 11, back back back in the day. Maybe some listeners were not alive in 2001. But we saw that precipitated the formations of two extremely fascist institutions and those were the Department of Homeland Security and ICE. Ever since then, in my consciousness, it’s been an ever encroaching upon fascist creep or whatever. We’re seeing that really explicitly, and I think to react to that with fear and anxiety is really normal. And to react to it in a way that’s just like, “oh, I need to not have fear about this,” is to react in a way that’s maybe a bit rooted in survival. That is something we should honor, or one could honor. But I think its really healthy to acknowledge that kind of thing.

Vicky: Yeah, I really appreciate that point from both of y’all. I think two years into this pandemic when all of our forms of comfortable social reproduction and making ourselves feel better and hanging out… all of them have been disrupted for years now and we have watched as world governments have utterly refused to try and fix that. The thing they claim to be good for is something like a pandemic or whatever, right? And they just have literally no interest in helping us at all. Some countries are more brazen in that than others and that has to do with their internal political and domestic stuff.

But in any case, I think even without that 2015 to 2020 the rise of street fascism was traumatic. I don’t know if y’all had this experience, but there was a lot of movement, but also everyone was hyper-vigilant all the time. Everyone was in a fight or flight constantly. That was utterly unsustainable and we didn’t get to rest from that because the pandemic dovetailed with that perfectly. I think we have not had an opportunity to grieve. One of the things that I think about a lot with regard to what you were saying a while ago, Scott, about this classical Workers Movement is that I actually think that there has been a real repression of grief among revolutionaries for the 20th century in general, the experience of that in general.

I hate “Don’t Mourn, Organize!”, which was a thing Joe Hill said about his own death, it was not a slogan. When someone asked him what they should do to honor him. He said, “Don’t mourn, organize.” That is an individual’s request and the fact that’s been turned into a slogan, I think, is disgusting. Don’t organize, mourn, y’all know those really weird squishy stress toys? They have the bulgy eyes if you squeeze them. They all squeeze out or whatever. The way I, and I’ve had to experience a lot of it unfortunately, grief and rage… If we just tried to repress it, like those toys, it just pops out from in between your fingers. It comes out in other ways and if we just like try to organize through it, or fight through it, the grief is going to shape and the pain is going to shape the stuff that we do, or the fear is going to shape the stuff that we do. It’s such a crucial gift from the queer movement and the feminist movement to be like, “no, stop, take care of yourself, take it seriously.” Everyone rolls their eyes at the idea of self-care. Okay, fine, whatever. That term is probably useless now, but like we need to take care of each other.

I do think that like the mutual aid in its less formal ways that it has appeared, which I think has been cool, but have looked a lot like charity or social services to me. The spreading of the concept of mutual aid among everyone as an organizing principle for people’s lives has seemed really powerful to me. We’re all at such low capacity. We tend to think everyone’s going through it, “Well, that’s just life, buddy.” If you have a very specific tragedy, “oh, that’s really sad” but if everyone’s going through it, “Buck up!” No! When everyone’s going through it, it’s so much harder because no one has capacity to help each other. That stuff’s all really, really important and serious. As we talked about tactics and what can we do to move forward we also do need to be able to hold each other in this horrible, horrible time. It’s been seven years of this. There have been these glimpses of hope that have been beautiful, but for the most part it’s just been awful.

Scott: I love that you brought that up, in terms of feeling the feelings. In the last two years during the pandemic, it’s been really hard to know, because of so much isolation, you don’t have the same kind of benchmarks to know how off you’re feeling in relation to any kind of normalcy. So it’s just like, “oh, there’s something wrong with me, but I don’t quite understand it.” Just like losing your kind of orientation has been hard. I’m also thinking, and maybe this is like my psychoanalytic… or just the fact that I’ve read Hamlet so many times, but thinking about how mourning is also a refusal, right? If you let yourself mourn, you’re refusing to do the things of a productive life, right? You’re like, “I’m not going to play the role. I’m like so immersed in my grief that I refuse to work.” I think it would be interesting to kind of think about some of those emotions and affects and feelings that we have, and how they could relate to this social revolution of how they withdraw us, or allow us to refuse the wages that we are bribed with.

Amar: Which are just paltry. Not even scraping the bottom edge of inadequate for maintaining any kind of life.

For me, in relation to the government and in relation to sort of political power systems at large, what the COVID pandemic really showed me was how little those structures think of the populace. They hold us in such deep, abiding disdain and that to me, is one of the reasons why people are like, “No, fuck this, anti-work, I’m gonna walk out of my job.” It’s amazing to me, too, that a lot of folks who are entrenched, to call back to the Arrested Development meme and those fuckers who think that a banana cost $10, they still think that people are quitting their jobs because of the pandemic money. Which is incredible. Because that was not all that much money really, right? I mean, prices have gone up. Every single time I go to the grocery store, I’m like, Oh, this should be $25 and comes out to like, $55 or $70. That’s maybe a whole other conversation but perhaps related. I don’t know, I kind of lost my thread.

Vicky: But I think you didn’t lose the thread. I think the thread is right there. This is in the piece too. The pandemic demonstrated this total disregard for us, even at a basic “we are necessary for the economy to function” it’s better if we’re healthy. Even at that level, even just using us as workers, they’re not even willing to do. They’re like, “well, maybe we could force you back to work and some of you will die, whatever.” There’s just the total disdain and hatred. And the way that that reflects on the future of ecological catastrophe, obviously, and war…

I don’t know about you two, but I have found it absolutely horrifying to see the world governments, and media, and politicians, and leadership, and Economy act as one so decisively against Russia. Not because I want to defend Russia, but because they had this power all along. They could have been doing this to the pandemic, they had operated so fast and so thoroughly against Russia, and whatever, Russia is literally engaging in an imperialist war of aggression, fuck them. But they could have done this two years ago against Coronavirus and they’ve shown us all that. And they’ve shown us that what they’ve done for us instead is told us to get COVID and die. And that is horrible, but it also is really ‘mask off’ no pun intended. I think things are really clear right now and the clarity is gained at to great expense, and it’s not worth it, but I think we might be able to make use of that clarity.

Scott: You know, it’s interesting, because I teach young people, mostly late teens and early 20’s, and this maybe connects back also to the grief but I have found over the last two years of teaching that students are just in crisis after crisis after crisis of their own health, they’re caring for a family member, they’re losing their housing or losing their job, they’re working too much. All the time, I’m just making space for them to just have the crisis and not worry about repercussions from me. But I’m just thinking about how that generalized panic and scramble and care work and grief that is happening, how that’s going to affect a mass population moving forward.

To me that is what I was expecting to happen when the pandemic hit, which is the contradictions become clear and everyone refuses. But we’re being put through it in this horrible, torturous way. I think that’s going to change people’s outlooks. Obviously, when I come and talk to these students I’m saying a lot of these kinds of things. This is happening to you and you don’t deserve it. But just thinking about that, I don’t know what we’re coming out of this or what that would even look like at this point. But people are carrying along with them this experience of unprecedented struggle in their “personal lives” is going to have a strange ripple effect, I think. Hopefully one that allows more people that keep unplugging from this system.

Vicky: Yeah. And I think, not to be too pessimistic, but one of the things that gave me a little bit of strength and historical analysis under the Trump regime was thinking about how the historical fascist regimes and indeed the regime in India right now and in Turkey to a large extent, they drew on a huge body of traumatized war veterans for whom life had become cheap and meaningless right, in the trenches. There was no commensurate experience in the United States until the pandemic. So we have this now, this population that I think is going to be capable of accepting very radical answers, and I don’t necessarily think that those are going to be good. Because trauma, as anyone who knows, doesn’t make you a better person. It’s about how you respond to it. Which is part of why it’s so vital right now that we respond to that trauma seriously, and that grief seriously. It’s so funny that we’ve ended up here from starting in this conversation about like the social revolution. It feels telling also, you know?

Amar: I think that’s such an important point, Vicky. Traumatized populaces are more readily accepting of increasingly radical or fringey or whatever solutions to stuff. I think that that’s something I’m gonna be sitting with for a while.

Scott: I’m thinking about more news recently about how much worse than expected climate catastrophe is going to be, and how much quicker. We get something like that every year, I guess, or more frequently. That’s the stuff that we’re facing in the next decade. We get inundated with the narratives of ‘lone wolf’ survivalist competition over resources stuff to steal us for this horrible catastrophe that we’re facing and you put that with the kind of trauma… It almost stacks the deck for just a horrific response. I’m hoping that somewhere in there, the caring for each other that people are doing will create some other possibilities.

The caring, not just like intimately or in kinship and family and whatever… I do agree that mutual aid stuff has been not necessarily as radical or politicized or however you want to call it as it could be, but the knowledge of that that’s something that you do that you’re that you have resources and spread them rather than hoard them and save up for the future that’s not going to happen, or whatever. I hope that that is something that will hopefully stave off a really violent trauma response.

Vicky: Yeah. And one thing that’s been weirdly giving me a lot of hope lately, I’ve been reading David Graeber, rest in peace, and David Wengrow, The Dawn of Everything. Which is a book about prehistory. It’s a book about an anthropological overview of prehistory. Just the extent to which so few societies have ever been organized on these bases of exclusion and then private property and hierarchy, like exclusively on those things. Those things have all existed, but they’ve rarely been coalesced in authority like in the way that this current social system has, is sort of what that book is about. So I think that, well, I obviously brought up the specter of mass fascist movement. It’s already happening, it’s already here. Obviously, it’s not at the specter anymore. Alas.

I also do think that the reason I bring it up is because that’s a possible future. But I do also think that that’s precisely why it’s so important to think about how to care for each other now, and how to start moving in these other directions, because we can see this other thing that is perhaps further in our history for many of us, for all of us, in fact, who have been forced to live under this white supremacist, settler, colonialist, European regime for as long as we have.

There are deep, deep roots to the extent in our history, and I want to call it our history, not our nature, or whatever, in our history that are very different. I think as things start to break down, or continue to break down, rather, as this stuff all breaks down, we can make gestures and movements together to take care of one another, that push against that, and that can radiate out, in much the same way that the sort of political tactics of struggle were imitated and radiated out over our movements over the last 10 years.

Amar: One great thing about the mutual aid sphere that’s been being fostered through institutions at this point, like Food Not Bombs, and Prison Books and related stuff, I think it has provided a really, not gentle, but easily accessible entry point for people who are just getting radicalized. There are just a lot of people who are getting radicalized in all sorts of different directions right now. I’ve seen the mutual aid be really… anarchism historically not the greatest or most accessible thing to come to.

I can remember being a baby anarchist and being like, “can I hang out with you guys?” People were just like, “actually, no. Keep coming to prison books for about a year and then maybe we’ll invite you to the potluck as well.” In a way that was really nice to hear, because I love rules, I love parameters. So there’s a parameter here, “okay, I’ll come to the prison books for a year.” But it’s been nice to see that people can go do the mutual aid and then have society through that and have like anarchist community through that and it’s just wonderful. That’s giving me a lot of hope right now.

Scott: One thing that’s been in the back of my mind during this conversation, so a lot of people will say, “why did the anarchists or the left or whatever allow the fascist and right wing people to come out in front in this anti state demonstration against mandates, when we could have like articulated a different version of that that wasn’t about business and people dying?” I’m talking about anti-vaccine and anti-mask stuff. For a while I was hitting my head against that this was an opportunity and what is the anarchists response. Maybe that’s the wrong question and picking apart this piece is kind of helping me think that a very visible left/anarchists movement around State control and surveillance through the pandemic, I don’t think would have been the right direction anyway.

What we see with the right wing demonstrations and the fascist demonstrations around this, we see them making their own beds in a way and we don’t need to participate in and then the anarchist stuff that’s happening is more clandestine, right? It’s like these relationships that are being formed through mutual aid, it’s the relationships that are being formed in the streets that I think do a lot more. If you really need to be convinced that wearing a mask is not a big deal and that it helps people, that just doesn’t seem to be the place that we should be putting our effort and time into.

This was just helping me think about that, because it’s something I’ve been wondering about for a while. Why did that space go to the right when it’s typically an anti-state stance?

Amar: This is reminding me of… did y’all read that piece Against the Liberal Creep?

Scott: I did.

Vicky: I flipped through it. I didn’t read the whole thing.

Amar: I couldn’t really tell like how much of it was a shitpost. Like, really couldn’t tell, but I feel like, Scott, it was really going in that direction of being like, “the right got this anti-state mandate thing and we should have jumped on that and pivoted the narrative.” Among many other things I’m not doing really doing this piece justice. I’m like honestly not sure if I would recommend it. But it’s interesting as a thought exercise. I guess.

Scott: I actually read this piece and and the Interregnum piece around the same time, and I really didn’t like Against the Liberal Creep and what it was trying to say and then and then I think I went to Interregnum and I was like, “oh, okay, here’s a more helpful analysis” for me at least, than the Against the Liberal Creep one.

Vicky: Yeah. One of the things that happens, and that really infuriates me, as someone who tends to think historically is how much people are happy to forget our very, very immediate recent history. In 2016, 2017, 2018, a lot of people said, “we got to try and pull out from the right, we got to try and organize, we got to get in front of their talking points, or whatever.” Most of those people have gone to the right. Most of those people are now on the right. They didn’t pull anyone to the left, they’re on the right now. I think people will have their own particular example of who I’m talking about because there were a lot of them. They were mostly grifters.

I think there’s this idea that we have to convince people, [that] it’s our job as revolutionaries who are enlightened to convince people and obviously I’m here on a radio show. I think education and discussion and ideas are really important. I write not quite for a living, but I get paid to write sometimes. I do not make a living doing it. So I think that stuff is important. But also, it’s the wrong idea of the relationship to it. The thing that Marxists have often gotten right historically is the conditions of people’s exploitation and lives is sufficient to educate them about what’s wrong. Anarchists are good at that too, often. People know, and yes, there will be edge cases where someone gets radicalized the wrong way. Maybe you encounter them in your life and it’s worth arguing with them and trying to flip them. Definitely.

But as an organizing principle, I think what this moment is really showing us is that since 2020, since the George Floyd uprising is that a lot more people spontaneously are on our side, just numbers wise. There’s just a lot more people under these conditions. And that really matters, because liberals will do everything they can, as we’ve seen both in the rises with both Mussolini, and Hitler, and Trump frankly. Liberals will do everything they can to hand power to the fascists to keep it out of the hands of the left or the revolutionaries or whatever you want to call it. But we don’t have to convert those liberals because they are enemies. People get confused between people who are just spontaneously humanitarian liberal because they haven’t really thought about it, versus people who are Atlantic subscribers or whatever. They’re 15 or however many there are left.

Scott: Yeah, I think there’s a difference between them. People want answers often and there’s a liberal position that seems to offer answers through electoralism and slight reforms on the status quo. It’s the same thing, though, with authoritarian communists. They seem to have the answer. I think they draw in certain kinds of people who aren’t okay with the unknown, with embracing the unknown. I think also, we want to know the right way to act and I think that’s commendable, really. So I don’t know about convincing people of other things, but maybe just like opening the door for more complexities and unknowns.

Actually, this is something I’ve been thinking about a lot is how much people are motivated by being afraid of showing that they don’t know something, and how much damage that causes in every kind of situation that you could think of. Just leaving more room for that. That is another thing about this piece that I think it is calling on people who want to contribute to a revolution to do, is to not know it, not get in front of it, be part of it, open up for it, be honest about what’s happening. Not try to frame it or theorize it or whatever. Just be like this is happening, this is really happening right now.

Vicky: Yeah, it’s really happening and it doesn’t fit any of our theories very deeply. That doesn’t mean that we therefore have to jettison every previous theory, but it means we have to think and act differently in some ways. That means being unknowing. I always get into trouble with that literally with my friends and relationships. I’m always getting into trouble pretending to know shit. Then people are like, “you’re bullshitting.” You are right. It’s a real problem. It’s such a problem for everyone. It’s really hard to embrace unknowing. It’s really, really hard. But as your expert guest here on this podcast I would like to give my expertise to say, “I don’t know shit, and you don’t either and that’s kind of a beautiful place to start.”

Amar: Yeah, I love that. And I think the popular narrative is very slowly skewing toward that. So that’s also really nice to see.

Scott: I feel like this could be a place to wrap it up. I keep thinking about going into the horrible policy stuff that’s going on. But I’m like, “No, let’s not bring that back in.”

Vicky: Yeah, I mean, I’m really loving talking to you both. So it’s tempting to just keep going. But I think probably. Yeah.

Amar: This is so lovely. It’s really lovely to get to talk to y’all two.

Scott: I love doing this. It’s really helpful to me as a person who who likes to think in dialogue in real time. Dialogue is really nice.

Vicky: That’s a really nice thing in the Graber book, actually, they talk about that as a critique of Descartes.

Scott: I have it. I haven’t cracked yet.

Vicky: Sorry. I’m literally reading it to my partner because they just never think spontaneously to read books by men. So whenever there’s one that I think is going to be interesting, I’m like, “Okay, I’m gonna read this one to you.” Otherwise, it’s never gonna happen.

Scott: I love that. It seems appropriate.

Amar: Having distance for books by man is really reasonable.

Vicky: It’s not even conscious. I don’t think they’re even aware of it.

Amar: That’s even better.

Vicky: It’s incredibly charming. I’m obsessed. Honestly.

Scott: I’m actually reading a book by man and I’m regretting it, so.

Vicky: Often the case.

Amar: I’m now I’m reading a book by a man, but it’s about it’s about the Amazon strikes, and it’s mostly interviews. At least I think this person’s a man. I’m actually not sure. We’ll see how it goes. It’s good so far. What are you reading Scott?

Scott: I just started reading the most recent Jeff VanderMeer science fiction novel for reading at night and I don’t like it. I might not finish it, I don’t know. I was just reading a bunch of really awesome queer and trans stuff. Then Jeff VanderMeer. Like why did I do that?

Vicky: I had that experiences in 2021. I think it’s literally the first year in my entire life since I’ve been able to read. I didn’t finish a single book. It was so intense, like, I could not read. N.K. Jemisin cured that for me this year. I just read her trilogy in the weekend. But it’s been wild. I found the pandemic so antithetical to that kind of sustained, quiet, focused dialogue with with a voice that’s not my own. But that’s also alone.

Amar: I can relate to that Vicky. I also was having trouble finishing anything. Finishing movies or TV shows or just not having this sort of sustained focus. That’s so interesting. I don’t think I’ve ever heard folk talk about that much.

Vicky: That’s so funny because I bring it up and then I hear very similar. I hear something like, “oh, yeah, actually I couldn’t do that either and I haven’t really thought about that.” I think it was a collective condition.

Scott: Yeah. I’m in this queer book club and people have said that in the book club. That last year they didn’t read books at all. It’s that was exceptional for them.

Vicky: What a time we’ve been living through.

Scott: Yeah, it’s fucked.

Vicky: Jeez! I mean, personally, I think 2016 year six is the worst one yet. The worst 2016 yet.

Scott: Yeah, I feel that. I’m sorry that you’ve been bearing all that in. But thank you for also talking with us now.

Vicky: Oh, my God. Literally I have to keep marking that for myself. But it’s been such a pleasure. I wasn’t sure. I had this long day. But this has been so delightful and given me so much life and I feel so held and among friends and comrades and it’s beautiful. Thank you both so much for organizing this and having it happen.

Scott: Yeah, thanks for being willing.

Amar: Thanks for being willing. This was definitely medicinal for me as well. It just feels like it’s getting to talk to y’all. Sometimes I think that anarchists fall into this trap where we don’t really talk about politics, as weird as that might sound, delving down into sort of nitty gritty and I really love that that happened here.

Vicky: You just made me realize when saying that how often my interlocutors on that call themselves communists. Like when I want to talk about politics with someone it’s mostly with people who call themselves communists. I mean like anti-State, Left-Communists or whatever, but it’s interesting how few anarchists comrades I have who I get into that broad strategic political questions because that has so often been associated with such bad left politics, obviously. So it was a real delight.

Scott: Sometimes I feel like I want so bad to be around people that I just assume we know and share something. So with anarchists, there’s a version of that. Same with queer/trans people or punks or whatever. Yeah, we know something. We don’t have to say it. But then, I want my anarchist friends to like, I want to hear what they have to say and think about something because they have really good ways of thinking about stuff. I need to parse it out with them. That piece was a nugget in my head and so talking it through is really helpful and bringing things together and I appreciate it.

Monarchy In The UK

Monarchy In The UK

A crown crossed out
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This week, you’ll hear my chat with Jon Bigger about the status of the monarchy in the UK, the power it wields, the interventions it makes into parliamentary procedure and where we might see hopes of challenging it from an anarchist approach. Jon is an anarchist who is involved with the Anarchism Research Group, writes a column on UK politics at Freedom News and has been involved in the project Class War. You can find him online at twitter and at his website, jonbigger.uk

Further reading:

If you’re interested in some more commentary from politics in the UK, check out Red and Black’s bite sized opinion pieces on youtube: https://www.youtube.com/user/RedAndBlackTelly/

Announcements

Updates from Ukraine

If you missed our conversation from 2/25/22 with Ilya, a Russian anarchist in Ukraine, you should check it out. Crimethinc’s Ex Worker podcast just recently two episodes (part 1 or part 2) with perspectives from the region on the war that’s worth a listen. We shared a link tree site that contained ways to send international solidarity and keep up with viewpoints of anarchists involved in mutual aid on the ground that can be found at linktr.ee/operation.solidarity .

Since that broadcast, an anarchist and anti-authoritarian formation has announced itself and is seeking defensive and offensive support in the form of equipment and volunteers, an important improvement to the situation where fascists and nationalists will find fertile soil for recruitment and have already used the war in the Donbass to train our enemies abroad. You can learn more about the anarchist grouping and follow updates from the ground by checking out linktr.ee/TheBlackHeadquarter

Eric King’s Trial Begins Soon

Anarchist and antifascist prisoner, Eric King, is facing a jury trial beginning on March 14th in Denver, Colorado. His defense crew is headed by the Civil Liberties Defense Center and will be arguing that employees at the US Bureau of Prisons manufactured a scenario to add 20 years to Eric’s almost completed term as well as consciously endangered him from facility to facility by putting him in harms way of known white supremacist prisoners. You can learn more about his case and how to support his defense at SupportEricKing.Org and we hope to bring some updates with his legal support in the near future.

Bad News February 2022

Members of the A-Radio Network released the Feburary 2022 installment of our monthly, international, English-language podcast roundup with features from Brazil (via Slovenia), repression in Siberia by the Russian security forces, voices from Thessaloniki in Greece on recent police actions against anarchists, and from Poland on the struggle for legal abortion access. Check it out at A-Radio-Network.org or in our show notes.

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Featured Tracks:

  • God Save The Queen (Instrumental) by The Sex Pistols from The Complete Sex Pistols Sessions ’76-’77
  • Anarchy In The UK by Wild Billy Childish & The Blackhands from Play: Capt’n Calypso’s Hoodoo Party

. …. . ..

Transcription

TFSR: Would you please introduce yourself to the audience with any name, preferred gender pronouns, affiliations and location info that could help the audience?

Jon Bigger: Sure, I am Jon Bigger, I write about anarchism and British politics for Freedom News — the world’s longest-running anarchist newspaper. I think I might be the only person writing a regular column on British politics from an anarchist perspective. Not much of a boast, but that is my boast, at least. I’m part of the British anarchist group Class War. I’m also a member of the Anarchism Research Group, which is based at Loughborough University in central England, and I also live in that town. I’ve got a collection of my writing at the website jonbigger.uk. And I’m talking today in a personal capacity about my absolute hatred of the British monarchy.

TFSR: Thanks a lot for taking the time to do this interview. You mentioned that Freedom is the longest-running English-language anarchist publication. As well, it runs a bookstore and a publishing house. Kropotkin participated in it, among many others, Colin Ward, and tons of other amazing luminaries over the years. Could you say a few things about that?

JB: It’s something that I found out about when I was a teenager, I was born in a place called Lincoln in England, and I went off to university in London, and found out that my university building was right around the corner from where the book shop’s based. And at that stage, I probably thought of myself as a Marxist, I think, and I wasn’t quite sure about my politics, my politics were still developing. But I used to go in there and think what it would be like to be a bit more involved and whether I could write for them and things like that. I was interested in being a writer even then. But actually, what I ended up doing, after leaving university, was becoming a civil servant and working for the British government. And my political involvement with anything obviously had to go down, I couldn’t be quite so politically active. In the UK, people working for the government are supposed to be politically neutral. And so it wasn’t until I got sacked from that for organizing strikes that I started to get a bit more political. That was around 2013 and shortly after that, I started thinking, maybe I could write for them. I started getting interested in that. I did a few pieces, I think, in 2014. And then this idea of a regular column came upon me. Because I thought in the past, Freedom used to comment much more on politics and the events that were going on in the country and it stopped doing that to a certain extent. I thought maybe I could offer this as an idea. If people like it, they like it, if they don’t, they don’t. That’s how I got involved, I’m really proud of it. Under its current editor, it just goes from strength to strength: it’s fact-based, it’s really good reporting and I think it’s fantastic. And the fact that it covers the fullest range of anarchism is really, really important. I think a lot of us are involved because we’re Class Struggle anarchists, but it doesn’t shy away from the idea that it should be covering anarchism in its broadest sense, which I think is fantastic.

TFSR: Yeah, that’s awesome. I do want to ask about Class War for a little bit, which you’ve done some speaking and did a recent interview on Dissident Island Radio about. But were there any specific moments or experiences that brought you from that Marxism that you were experiencing when you were in college to identifying as an anarchist?

JB: I think I slowly began to realize that. Let me go further back to why I liked Marxism to begin with. I was studying sociology, and there’s an awful lot of Marxism in that. When I was 18, and discovering Marx had this critique of capitalism, I thought, “Oh, right, okay, someone’s done this work, and they can explain why capitalism is so terrible”. I have always had this hunch that it was awful. And suddenly, there’s this ready-made framework, and it’s nice, it’s lovely, that you’ve got this framework to go to, and everything is nicely ordered. There’s going to be modes of production, and there’s a view of history and we know exactly what’s inevitably going to happen. It’s almost like it’s a religion, right? So it appealed to me because it gave me the answers.

And then, as I was growing up a little bit more… A lot of Marxists like to think that anarchism is for immature people. I absolutely reject that. Marxism is for the immature. Anarchism is for people who have grown up a little bit and aren’t naive about the world. And what I realized was that one of the naiveties of Marxism is this idea of the Dictatorship of the Proletariat. I thought this is horrific. What an absolutely terrible idea. And I suppose I was in my mid-20s when I found out that, I’m now in my mid-40s. So at that stage, I thought, “No, I don’t favor a dictatorship, I don’t care what you call it, I’m not favoring a dictatorship,” I realized that my socialism was in a different direction. And at that point, all of the glances that I’d had at anarchism, turned into proper looks at anarchism. And it really appealed to me.

Then we fast forward to me getting sacked from the British government. When I was a little bit older, back in 2013, it coincided just a few weeks after that, with one of the founders of Class War called Ian Bone— I don’t know if you’ve heard of Ian over the years. He put on his blog that they wanted candidates to stand in the general election of 2015. I’d heard about Class War at the same time that I’d learned Marxism way back when I was in my late teens. And I’d always wondered where they’d gone in a way because I’d looked for their newspapers and never really found them. After all, they’d gone into a bit of a decline in the 1990s when I reached London, and suddenly there they were wanting to stand candidates. I thought, well, when someone’s worked for the government for 13 years, and they’ve got sacked for their trade union activities, what’s the next thing to do with your life? Stand for Parliament as an anarchist candidate? Why the hell not? Well, there are lots of reasons why not, obviously. But I decided to embrace that idea and see what I could do with it. So that’s how I got involved with them. And as that developed and my involvement developed, I managed to turn that into a research project and turn it into a Ph.D. Which is basically how I spent my time and how I came to Loughborough was researching that from the inside and writing about it, and interviewing everybody who was involved with it. It was a really interesting project to stand anarchist candidates not to get elected, but to subvert the system, to get into spaces where anarchists aren’t normally allowed to get to. And just to cause a little bit of trouble, really.

TFSR: So at this time, there were a lot of anarchists that were— Listeners in the United States are going to be familiar with the Anarchists for Bernie phenomenon from 2016. There were the Anarchists for Corbyn that were happening around a similar time in the UK. I know that there were a lot of debates about whether anarchy should participate in electoral politics, how they should participate, and what efficacy they could have. You mentioned that you weren’t standing for the point of actually getting into office, but to trouble the waters a bit and get anarchist perspectives a little bit further into people’s minds. Can you talk about how that was received in the anarchist community, the participation, and also what effects of it, whether it was you or other people that were standing for parliament?

JB: There was a block of people who would simply say, “This is not what anarchists do. This is wrong. We shouldn’t be part of that”. And I perfectly respect that purity of position. I don’t agree with it. But I respect it. I understand where it’s coming from. What I’m not saying is everybody should suddenly start trying to get elected. If you feel comfortable in standing for the office and using it to your advantage, then fine, but if you don’t, I perfectly get that. So there were people who I would call anarcho-purists who perhaps reject it out of hand. What we actually found, though, in Class War was a staggering amount of people who’ve got behind it.

Now, it’s worth bearing in mind, you mentioned the Anarchists for Bernie and Jeremy Corbyn, there was an impact for Jeremy Corbyn, but Jeremy Corbyn became leader of the Labour Party after the 2015 general election. So it occurred after the period that I’m talking about and I was standing in. And certainly, we have seen a lot of people move towards the Labour Party since he became leader, he’s now not the leader. And it’s not clear that those people have drifted back, but of course, we’ve had COVID and everything’s been affected by that. So it’s difficult to tell exactly where British anarchism is right now. I get the sense that anarchism around the world is declined in some ways. I don’t know. National activity seems to have depleted in the UK. And it might be the same around the world, particularly when we go back just a couple of decades and we see the mobilization around the environment and the global order and all the rest of it was really, really high. And people thought this is going to be the anarchist century. It’s not proving to be like that at the moment, despite all the movements, like the Occupy Movement or whatever, providing hope. That seems like a long time ago now, doesn’t it?

But what we got out of it was a sudden influx of people that rallied behind the idea. And what that allowed us to do was have people attend events. There were debates between candidates standing, so we got to actually meet the opposition, the Conservative Party and the Labour Party. And we had a far-right party called the UK Independence Party, we had to meet those head-on and have debates with them in front of real citizens and talk about what anarchism was. And that also provided media opportunities, I ended up writing for a website that was based in the area where I was standing, they gave me a regular platform to espouse anarchist ideas. It was a really exciting time. And it offered up surprising things, actually.

TFSR: Yeah, for what it’s worth, I think that there’s a huge difference in political debate culture between the UK and the US.

JB: Ours is a very entertaining Parliament, and largely distracting as well. There is some serious work that goes on there too, where they actually listen to one another. But on the whole, the bits that get televised, are the bits that are not where people are listening to one another, they are shouting at each other, it’s like a bear pit. And to be honest, we used that culture to our advantage, we turned our debates into confrontational spaces, really. This is the state’s Big Day Out on election. This is where they prove their worth and say, “This is why we’re valid”. And certainly, my Class War supporters at my debate just started shouting murderer at the Conservative candidate, because austerity policies at the time were ripping through public services, and people were dying as a result. And he found that really difficult, he wasn’t expecting to turn up and have that barrage of-

TFSR: And there’s an expectation of respectability from the other standing candidates, right? I mean, they’re mostly of the same class…

JB: Well, that’s true. But also, if you go back further in time, back to the time when working-class people didn’t have the vote. These kinds of debates were like that. Working-class people were allowed in to shout stuff like that. Candidates were judged on how well they handled it. We’ve lost that now, because politics is largely polite, although what you’ve highlighted about the House of Commons is correct. But on the whole, politics is a polite event, where people are respectful because they’re all trying to run the country. And we’ve lost that edge in the UK. But we tried to bring it back. And I think we succeeded in some ways.

TFSR: Could you also describe a little bit more about Class War as a group? You mentioned Ian Bone, back in the 80s, there was a newspaper that was published regularly. There are the Poor Doors as the other thing that I can think of about the group. Where’s it at, and what sort of things does it do?

JB: Poor Doors is wonderful, I can talk about that a lot because I went to a lot of those demonstrations. Back in the 1980s. When I was a child, I wasn’t involved in Class War, obviously. It was started by Ian and some others, really, they were a bunch of punk rockers who were fed up with the non-combative nature of British anarchism at the time. And what I think they wanted was to bring that anger back to anarchism in the UK and to build a social movement based on that, based on working-class people rising up as much as they possibly could. And the newspaper was a big part of that, it was a propaganda tool, it was darkly humorous, it used violent language. It was confrontational. It was designed to horrify certain types of people and for others to embrace it. And it was very, very divisive in that way and in that way, they attracted the people that they wanted. So they took the newspaper to peace rallies and sold it to people at peace rallies and disrupted those sorts of events to get people to do things differently. There’s an argument to be said here that by the end of the 1990’s, Class War had achieved or helped to achieve exactly what it set out to do, that there was an angry anarchist culture out there. The anti-globalization movement was a big thing around the end of the 90’s. It was really engaging in an awful lot of Class War tactics. Class War got involved with theatrical protests as well, which leads me to Poor Doors.

Poor doors was this idea of socially segregated housing that rich people get their own door into a building, a block of flats, and the poor people in the block of flats get a separate entrance around the corner, with separate provisions, and so on and so forth. I think it first emerged in New York from memory. And it was publicized quite a lot in the summer of 2014, I’m thinking was about right. And immediately Class War hit upon this and wanted to do a regular protest. We were looking for a regular protest anyway because we wanted to meet up and build on this momentum running up to the election. So there was an idea here that we could get involved with something weekly, that would draw people together and we could do some election planning at the same time. We started a protest outside this building in London that was doing Poor Doors. And we made it our focus, very symbolic because it wasn’t the only building doing it. But we targeted that building week on week. As we did so, the protest grew, everybody knew what time it was going to start, what day of the week it was going to start. We got a lot of press coverage. We had occasional events like the London Anarchist Bookfair that took place in the October of 2014. We encouraged people to go from that to the building to have a protest there.

It was absolutely glorious times, to be honest. We got close to actually getting that building rearranged. We entered into negotiations, which I’m not sure it’s a good idea, to be honest. But we did enter into negotiations with the management of that building. And ultimately, we didn’t succeed, but we managed to highlight the issue. And for that, I’m pleased. It became quite a spectacle. Each week, we had musicians coming to it. It was something performative about those protests, there were few arrests as well. At times there was a heavy police presence, at times, there was no police presence. I remember an occasion where we actually got into the building. And Ian managed to knock over a vase with his walking stick, he’s got a walking stick these days. And he ended up being arrested for that. There are just all sorts of fun and games, it was really enjoyable. To be honest, it was just a really good time. Felt like we were getting somewhere.

TFSR: That’s awesome. Because you mentioned it, I’d love to hear a few words about the Anarchist Research Group and the work that you do. This is a very long introduction, and I hope that that’s okay for your timeframe, because I do want to talk about the royalty in the UK and everything.

JB: It is the Anarchism Research Group, because you don’t need to be an anarchist to be researching anarchism. Basically, it is a group of academics, scholars researching different parts of anarchism, and people can search for them online, there’s podcast series, there are videos out there. And it just is really a way of promoting anarchism in the academic world. And it’s just amazing, the number of different interests that anarchist scholars have. It’s the full range. Exactly what you’d expect, I guess, but it never ceases to amaze me how much is going on and how much it differs, once you get to that level of research at a university and universities. What you’ve got is people delving into such a niche subject, their own little area, and that can only be a good thing in terms of understanding anarchism, promoting it. I think what’s great about the Anarchism Research Group is that the people making sure that it all takes along and are really active on social media, getting some of this stuff out there as well in really good forms in terms of podcasts and videos.

TFSR: News over the last few months, possibly longer, has been peppered with concerns about Elizabeth Alexandra Mary aka Elizabeth II Queen of the United Kingdom and 14 other Commonwealth realms, following in the regal footsteps of her late husband, Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh, or stories about payouts that princes and other royals have made about sexual assaults on minors in relation to Jeffrey Epstein’s network, or biopics on the long-dead Princess Diana, or pomp of a state wedding or funeral, or slow-motion train wrecks of the public discussion of how anti-black the Windsor house is in relation to Meghan, Duchess of Sussex. Racism, the abuse of young people or people in general by the wealthy, the borders between classes are all interesting topics and I don’t mean to minimize them by making a slight joke about their presentation. They’re worthy of discussion and action, but they grab the headline in the mainstream media as a soap opera of the Windsor house that focuses on individuals rather than systemic harms. So I was hoping that we could speak about the monarchy, the political and economic power that it wields, what sorts of opposition there is to it in the UK, the way that Royals are consumed under capitalism, and challenges that anarchists might pose to it. Thank you for being willing to be in this chat with me about it. I’m excited.

Well, first off, do you have any reactions to that?

JB: Yeah, I’m thinking, how long have we got here? Because that’s a hell of a lot, isn’t it, to think about? It’s amazing. You could do a whole podcast series about how horrific the idea of monarchy is, and this actual family is as well.

TFSR: It extends, obviously, beyond the realities of the royal family in the UK or other countries that still have monarchies. In the West, there’s not a lot of celebration of monarchies in Saudi Arabia, for instance, yet we support them with arms [weapons].

JB: Absolutely, yeah. Isn’t that ironic? Certainly in the UK, Elizabeth Windsor is called The Queen, not just a queen, she’s The Queen. That tells us a lot about the mindset of the nation that I’ve grown up in. It is a mindset that doesn’t often question its own faults and failures, I’m afraid, and that historically, it’s not a country that has accounted for or even begun to question in any real sense the legacy of empire and what happened in the name of the monarch, of course. So I sometimes think I’m living in a place where you can scratch the surface and there’s a lot underneath really.

TFSR: I feel you there for sure. Being from the US, everywhere has its own legacy of terror and mythos that they carry, that is not to say that they’re all the same.

Can you give us something of grounding details about the position of the monarchy in the UK, its history and its role, and how it shifted over the years?

JB: Yeah, sure. We could go all the way back to 1215 here and the Magna Carta, how about that? That’s a document that a lot of people around the world will have at least heard of, as well. That is where things started to shift. So a long way back, it was an absolute monarchy, and in 1215, the Magna Carta pegged the power of the monarch back a little bit. But the history of the monarch’s power being pegged back is not a history of the people rising up to stop the monarchy from being powerful. It is a history of other aristocrats and other elites taking power, and putting up with the monarchy, on the basis that they will not interfere with politics. That starts in 1215 and the monarchy becomes a constitutional monarchy more in the 1600s and the 1700s, where its power is really pegged back by Parliament. And then we reach a period where Britain becomes more democratic.

Incidentally, we still have a second chamber in parliament that is not elected. There are some hereditary Lords born into the position, and the others are appointed. So our parliament is not entirely democratic. Also, I think the only other country to do this is Iran. We have clerics in our House of Lords — Church of England bishops — because we have an official church, because of course, God has decided that the monarch is in power, or is on the throne or whatever. So we have this strange hybrid between a fully feudal country and a modern liberal democracy. It’s taken a long time to get here, but it’s happened, it’s happened gradually because the Constitution isn’t fixed. It’s not written down in one document. It’s not entrenched in— not the one that you’ve got. It can be changed with the Act of Parliament. Any government can come along and change the constitutional framework of the UK. But what we’ve settled on is the idea that the monarch can stay in power — and power is perhaps the wrong word — as long as they do not interfere in politics. That is the basic principle, that parliament is sovereign, we have what we call the Sovereignty of Parliament. That suggests that the monarch isn’t the sovereign, and that Parliament is. There is an interesting relationship between the two.

What you end up with in a constitutional monarchy is the idea that the nation is embodied by this family. So there is a unifying aspect to this, it’s designed for us to get behind and be satisfied with. And obviously, we’re now in a situation where Elizabeth Windsor has been on the throne for 70 years. We’re encouraged to applaud that and “isn’t she a nice old lady who’s being devoted to her duty” and all that stuff? It’s just a really odd situation. But that makes her quite a powerful figure, really, in terms of the psyche of the country. Because if you attack the monarchy, or you attack things she’s done, you’re attacking an old lady. That’s quite powerful. Why would anyone do that? It makes it quite, quite tricky. I don’t think me coming on you is treasonable. I don’t think I’m gonna be dragged to the Tower [of London] or anything. But people listening to this will be horrified, I’m sure, some people, if they hear it, will be horrified. Others will think, “Well, thank God someone’s saying it”.

TFSR: I think a little iconoclasm is required in an anarchist discussion?

I listened to this pretty in-depth and amazing podcast called Revolutions. And they did this 30-part series on the English Civil War. And one of the characters — and I’ve seen this covered in British publications, I think in the 80s and 90s mostly — the Levellers, they seem like one example of a commoner movement to undo the concept of the monarchy and bring about direct democracy, get rid of aristocratic titles. But they also seem like a splinter fringe Anabaptist movement that split out of the New Model Army. Could you talk a little bit about them?

JB: I’m certainly not an expert in them. We’re going back hundreds of years as well again. We’re going back to pre-anarchism, really, but we’re talking about peasants, largely. And also it might coincide or combine with a discussion about the Peasants’ Revolt, which was brutally struck down, as well. There is a rich history of revolt. And in the UK, from what we might call ordinary people, not from elites. But actually, at every stage, what happens is that the elite takes over eventually, and it brutally crushes things. These events, perhaps aren’t as significant as they now appear because what they have never managed, of course, is a full-on revolution.

We can get a little bit misty-eyed about these things as well. Oh, wasn’t this amazing? It was happening hundreds of years ago, what people were saying. Yeah, people were talking about direct democracy thousands of years ago. It’s tricky. We can’t avoid the fact that monarchy is, bizarrely, an idea that has persevered and I regularly think to myself, “My goodness, it’s amazing. I actually live in a monarchy”. I think that’s astonishing that that is even possible in the 21st century. It just amazes me and when I look back to growing up and knowing the problems that the monarchy has had, I’m surprised that it survived because right now it looks really solid.

Elizabeth Windsor is very popular. There is no real movement to get rid of her. There is some reformist organization called Republic, which is arguing for a democratically elected head of state that has the same powers as the current monarch. And therefore it’s not a great big change, to be honest. It would be an improvement to have someone elected doing it, but it’s not the change that I really want. And they’re also interested in doing things like making sure that the finances of the monarchy are more transparent and things like that because they know that their campaign to actually get rid of the monarchy is stalling and not really getting anywhere. So there isn’t a groundswell of opinion that is against the monarchy. If I go back to the 1990’s, it was very different. Before the death of Diana in 1997, you had a period during which Charles and Diana got divorced. Andrew and Sarah Ferguson got divorced, nobody knew what Edward was going to do with his life. It came across as shambolic. The newspapers were after them. They were doing secret recordings of things they were saying. And the monarchy was at an all-time low. And people were saying, “How is it going to continue? How is it going to survive this?” There was a fire at Windsor Castle and John Major, the prime minister at the time, announced that the British public was going to fund the refurbishment, and the British public was up in arms. And suddenly, the money had to come from the royal family themselves. We’ve changed a lot since then.

I would say that the turning point in the popularity of the monarchy came after the death of Diana. As you can probably tell from the outpouring of emotion from people at the time, large sections of the population absolutely loved her. And they suddenly saw a monarchy, and particularly a monarch, who couldn’t show emotion, because that’s not what the monarchy does, or historically, and they requested change. And actually, the savior of the monarchy at that moment was the then Prime Minister Tony Blair, who encouraged Elizabeth Windsor to do a live TV speech where she did show some emotion. From that moment on, the British public forgave her for that. Things moved on quite dramatically. And now the monarchy just seems like it will always be there. I don’t believe that’s the case. I think, actually, what this shows us is that it’s a house of cards. I think it could blow over any moment if the circumstances are right. There’s an obligation on anarchists to try to get ready for that moment, if it comes, and try to influence such a moment. Because whilst it might look permanent secure, I’m not buying it, I don’t think so. There’s no justification for it that makes any sense whatsoever. It’s just wrong in principle, to have a monarchy. It’s just dead-easy to argue against. When you look at the arguments for it taking place and existing, most monarchists rely on the idea that it brings tourists to the UK. That is pretty much their argument.

TFSR: Not the unifying cultural principle?

JB: No! People might rely on that, but the one that comes to the fore nearly every single time, that’s really prominent is just how much money comes to the UK. As if we can’t open those palaces to the tourists anyway. Other countries have royal palaces that are raking in a lot more actually. It’s a ridiculous argument. They could be making me 1 million pounds sterling year for myself, and I’d still say as well.

TFSR: Yeah, couldn’t they just replace them with some animatronics, which is moved from room to room and do their waves and just have the House open? That seems amazing. Seems like you’ve saved a lot of money.

JB: How do we know that’s not happening already?

TFSR: That’s true… Clones…

You’ve mentioned the House of Lords and appointments. And you’ve talked about the deep pockets of the House of Windsor. Can you talk a little bit about what political and economic position— What power does the family actually wield within the kingdom and also within the Commonwealth?

JB: Let’s talk about political power, first of all, because it’s easiest, as I found out trying to do a little bit of research for this today. Finding out where they get their money from is really hard. But we’ll come to that in a moment. Pretty much everything politically happens in the monarch’s name. But that does not mean that they wield the power directly. There are an awful lot of powers that the Prime Minister and the Cabinet have in this country that are called royal prerogative powers. And they are powers that have passed from the absolute monarchy days to a more democratic situation. Whoever gets to be Prime Minister gets to wield those sorts of powers. An example of it would be the ability to move armed forces and wage war. It’s passed on the monitor to the Prime Minister.

So the constitutional arrangement is that they can be the figurehead of the country, but they cannot affect politics. This is really interesting because once you scratch the surface, there are lots of examples where they are trying to influence politics, and actually, some where they are succeeding in really serious ways, that a lot of people in the UK don’t even know about.

First of all, let’s talk about Charles Windsor, heir to the throne. He has a large piece of land in Cornwall, the Duchy of Cornwall. He is, of course, the Duke of Cornwall. He’s got a series of farmlands and all sorts of estates going on there. And he has a real vested interest in making sure that he can make money out of that duchy. And there is evidence of him writing regularly to government departments, to senior officials, and members of the Cabinet to press forward the regulations that he wants or doesn’t want to affect his financial status. What influence he’s had is difficult to tell, because… To be honest, people have been requesting the memos that he’s written, which are called the “spider memos”, because his handwriting is so terrible, apparently. The Guardian newspaper took a court case out asking for the “spider memos” to be released, and a few were, but not all of them. Her Majesty’s courts have hidden the information from the public. So we don’t actually know what influence he has had. But we know that he’s tried to influence politics. And of course, he’s the heir to the throne so he’s supposed to not be doing that. He’s not supposed to do it before he becomes the monarch and he is certainly not supposed to do it afterwards.

However, let’s move to his mother because she has been up to her neck in interfering all of her working life — which is the wrong phrase, as she hasn’t actually got a job, it’s a role. There is this little-known procedure called Queen’s Consent. And very few people have looked into it. Again, The Guardian newspaper has done some really good work on this to find out what it is. And what it amounts to, is a provision in government, whereby possible draft legislation has to be passed by the monarch first before it reaches parliament, if there’s a chance that legislation will impact the royal family and its interests. That’s a broad description. There is evidence to show — now that they’ve done some digging — that Elizabeth Windsor has raised a number of objections over her reign. At legislation that could potentially harm her interest or legislation that she just doesn’t like. Now, what Buckingham Palace says about this, is that at no stages, she blocked legislation. Well, that could be true. Let’s take them at face value. So she’s never blocked legislation. What they haven’t told us is what bits of legislation she’s asked to be changed. Remember, this is happening before it ever reaches parliament, so she’s not interfering with things once they’ve gone through Parliament or while they’re going through Parliament. This is before anybody’s ever read it. This is stuff that has been sent to her for approval, because she might have an interest and she might well have said, “No, I don’t like that bit, or I don’t like that bit”. And it turns out she has been doing this. There’s a whole section on the Guardian website of things they think she’s been interfering with.

That suggests to me that if you go down the line of argument that the current monarch is fantastic because she’s devoted to duty, I say, no! What she’s devoted to, is increasing her own assets at the expense of everybody else. This is the most corrupt, hierarchical practice you can imagine. Monarchy is essentially a form of abuse against the rest of us. And here she is actively doing it all the time. And she’s been doing it from the moment she had the opportunity. It’s disgraceful. It’s disgusting.

TFSR: The Guardian newspaper does have exactly some examples of what they think that she’s been applying. But because there’s a lack of transparency, they might not actually know. But in the UK libel laws are very heavy. If they’re making a claim, they likely feel that they can back it up in court, and it’s not just hearsay.

JB: Absolutely. So some of the examples would seem quite minor. The one that I can think of off the top of my head is that the Queen objected to an introduction of ensuring that everybody should wear seatbelts, and she had it so written into law, that that did not apply to the royal estates. It gives us a hint about her view of freedom. We could say, “Well, so what big deal?”, but that’s the information they aren’t willing to give out to us. What are they hiding from us? Are notes even being taken of what she’s objected to? What has she been objecting to financially? Most of that is hidden.

Buckingham Palace has accepted that Queen’s Consent exists? And what they have gone down the line of is saying that she’s never opposed an entire bill. Well, I say, put up the information, show us what she has opposed, let’s have this out in the open. Let’s have a proper public debate about it. Let’s see if some MP’s might be interested in this. Because she’s doing this against Parliament. If the constitutional arrangement is that Parliament is sovereign, then what is this one person doing by stopping things being debated by Parliament?

TFSR: That’s a very good point and the devils in the detail, and if they’re not going to give out the details, then what does that say about that devil?

You alluded that the sovereign or that the royal family might have been making some of these Queen’s Consent decisions concerning economic investments of the royal family of the Queen. Can you talk a bit about what economic power the family wields -or what’s known — either in terms of what stipend they get from the British government, in terms of what holdings they have domestically? And also, indigenous activists and so-called Canada that we’ve had on the show before have described the Canadian government as an extractive corporation serving the pleasure of the Crown. Does that hold more than a symbolic resonance in the situation?

JB: I love the description. I think that’s right. It alludes to the fact that we’ve got a hierarchy. And every bit of taxation that we pay in the UK, and indeed, 14 other Commonwealth countries, a portion of it will go to this family. Anything happening within the capitalist system, within those countries is contributing to this system. All of the horrors of capitalism and the Empire can be connected in some way to the monarchy and this particular family.

In terms of the finances, that pressure group Republic that I mentioned earlier, estimates that the royal family is getting something like 350 million pounds a year from the public. I’m not sure how they’re making their figures. And one of the problems they have — and I have — is that it’s incredibly difficult to find out. The information is hidden. What I found was actually this is true across all of the countries where Elizabeth Windsor is the Head of State. They’re all incredibly secretive about what money she actually gets. So in the UK, though, what I can say is that Windsor is paid what they call a Sovereign Grant by the government. And last year, this was around 86 million pounds. That money is made through the land that the monarchy owns. That’s known as the Crown Estate. And when I say the monarchy owns it, I mean, the monarchy as an institution owns it. It is not owned by her personally. What she’s getting at the moment amounts to something like 25% of the revenue that that estate earns. What happens with the rest of the money I’ve no idea.

It is a really confusing situation. Let me tell you what the UK Government website says about the sovereign grant. Because this is an interesting set of words. So this is a quote: “The profit of the Crown Estate is a reference point for the calculation of sovereign grant. The Crown Estate does not pay the sovereign grant to the monarch directly, it makes a payment each year to the consolidated fund. And Her Majesty’s Treasury pays the sovereign grant to the monarch”. It’s wonderful bureaucratic language to say. Does anybody know where this money is coming from? It’s just some civil servant had fun writing that circular nonsense. But it shows you that this is a smoke and mirrors operation, it’s magic. This money appears, and it could be yours, or it could be theirs, who cares, it’s going to them anyway.

On top of the sovereign grant, the monarch does own land, and lots of it. So one such example is the Duchy of Lancaster. That is worth around 22 million pounds a year for Elizabeth Windsor at the moment. That is money she’s making from that estate — 22 million pounds a year. But this is just in the UK that she’s doing this. Then on top of that — this makes it even more complex and difficult — the security bill for the royal family is picked up by the Metropolitan Police in London, and no figures around that are made available on the pretense that it could risk the security being given to them. We don’t know how much that is costing, that is obviously going to be money coming directly from the taxpayer. I don’t know whether that will be just taxpayers in London or wherever that’s across the UK. I’m not sure.

You mentioned so-called Canada. Elizabeth Windsor is head of state there represented by an appointed governor general who serves for five-year terms. And the governor general is also the commander-in-chief of the armed forces there. Figures I got for Canada from the Business Insider website suggested 50.5 million Canadian dollars a year, figures for New Zealand — 18.6 million New Zealand dollars per year. And they only tried to do a few countries because they found it so difficult to find accurate figures. We are talking about an insanely wealthy woman with an insanely wealthy family, not just from one country, but from 15.

TFSR: Yeah, and I remember her name coming up in the Pandora Papers too. There have been these large exposes where private real estate deals that haven’t been listed on the official receipts in the UK have come up and it turns out they’re doing real estate deals with the Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliev that landed a $42 million profit. There’s so much obfuscation, it seems, as you pointed too, with all of this, as you say, abusive-

JB: Yeah, it is abusive. That legacy of Empire isn’t something that we just need to look back on, we can also see it’s stretching into the future of this arrangement, can’t we? It is something that we have to oppose. I would say that there’s a chance here for struggles across borders and across countries because this is something that is affecting multiple groups of people. That gives a glimmer of hope that we can oppose it collectively, in some way. We don’t have to all accept that— We’re not all facing it in the same way. We’re not all facing the same past from it or future from it but we can all at least, perhaps work together to try to end it.

TFSR: Like radical disinvestment from the monarchy and redistribution of what’s been skimmed off the top back to the former colonies or existing colonies of the monarchy might be a good discussion. I’m sure that there are tons of people, especially in those countries, or people who are from those countries or have heritages from those countries in the UK that are probably pushing for that thing.

JB: Yeah, absolutely. The figure that I got regarding the sovereign grant for last year was 86 million pounds. Well, the 70 million people in this country. It’s a sizable amount of money when you think about how those resources could be divided up and how they could be used and what causes they could be used for, rather than just one person’s satisfaction that they’ve been born.

TFSR: We talked about this already a little bit. But in terms of the symbolic power of the “sovereign”, I imagine that folks will throw punches or insults over party membership or which football club they support or what class they were born into and identify with, but that the role filled by the Windsors, it seems to really help to create this umbrella that can act to subsume those other conflicts. Would you talk a bit more about the role of unifying the domain spiritually and symbolically under the House of Windsor?

JB: Yeah, it’s difficult to know exactly how powerful this is. I don’t know what to say about it, to be honest, because I’ve already presented them as a house of cards, it could blow over at any moment. But there is something in the idea that they are a unifying force. And I think it probably ebbs and flows. And I think it probably depends on the circumstance.

During COVID times, there was a moment where the monarchy was focused on and at the moment, actually, she has COVID-19. And so there will be people who think, “Well, she’s got it, it can happen to anybody. She’s old, and we got to look after her.” She’s one of us, along with 86 million quid a year. At least, who knows how much it is really. There will be a sense of that —

Spiritually, that’s a tricky word, isn’t it? We’ve got a Church of England, nobody pays that any attention whatsoever. Even the people who are Church of England, go to such churches every week, are doing it more for social reasons, I think, rather than spiritual ones. If she genuinely believes that she’s been put here by the gift of some god, I feel sorry for her in a way, because that’s obviously not what’s happening. But it’s difficult to say how much of that really matters. Symbolically, occasionally, but again, part of it is about her, I think, the fact that she’s well respected, the fact that she’s loved by large sections of the population is part of this story. She isn’t going to be there for long, she’s probably not going to be there for much longer, to be honest. The person coming along behind her is not that popular. In a way, there are a lot of people who love the monarchy were hoping it might skip a generation and just go to William and Kate next because Charles is not popular. That again offers up some opportunities for building alliances and trying to achieve something new.

Also, I just wanted to mention, because I’m not sure how much people are aware of this, but we’ve also had a situation where the monarchy has actually lost some power recently because Barbados recently ditched the monarchy, peacefully, and moved towards a republic and is now a republic. I am taking the opinion that this house of cards will have some more people take their card away, as it were, if I can stretch the metaphor to beyond meaningfulness. But I have a feeling that when Charles comes along, there will be other countries that take a look at their relationship and think, “Actually, we’re going to change this now”.

Back in the 1990s, Australia was always talked about as a potential country to become a republic. That seems to have died down a little bit. At least, that’s my impression of it in the UK. It might be that there are people there who can tell you much more about that. But the fact that we’ve now got one country that has left in the last few months and ditched the monarchy gives me some hope.

TFSR: You’ve talked about a little bit of the opposition to the monarchy, that’s been coming from a Republican aim. But can you talk about just the opposition to the monarchy more widely, not just necessarily in one moment when the sovereign or the royal family is coming under fire in the media, but more generally, ideologically? What are some anarchist approaches? What do they look like? Or does the opposition all fall under this more Republican representative democracy-type umbrella?

JB: Yeah, I would say most of it goes under trying to get a republic. And the arguments around that are really complex. Do you have an elected president who does exactly the same as the current monarch? Or do you have an elected president with some power that transforms the British political system in a completely different direction? The former seems to be the easier of the options, so that is what people tend to campaign for. Like I said earlier, I think that would be progress in a way but we’re not really anywhere near that at the moment.

In terms of anarchist approaches, there have been a few over the years. It all comes down from the principle that this is wrong. Monarchical power is wrong. I think there’s a link to capitalism there. Because actually, although we might not have people formally born into positions of power and wealth, widespread in society, we do, people are inheriting huge amounts of wealth and using it to their advantage. There have been some interesting campaigns over the year. I might be going back at least 20 years, there was one called Moon Against the Monarchy, where people went outside Buckingham Palace and dropped their trousers and wave their bums in the air. Some of that has been performative and interesting in that way. But we’re not talking about huge amounts of people here, we’re talking about fringe elements, people that can be easily dismissed as freaks on the television news, like most of us are, really. This isn’t really sustained and serious. Part of that might be that a lot of anarchist action is about what’s happening locally, what’s happening in your workplace, what’s happening in your community. Anarchism doesn’t necessarily have to be a national movement, does it? So it might be connected to that.

It’s ripe for change, I think there is something here that can get going really and improved upon. But of course, it doesn’t require the time and the inclination to do something about it. When you see a really popular family, it becomes a little bit tricky. Where do you start? How do you build momentum when you know most people aren’t gonna listen to you? Maybe the time and the conditions will come around where it’s easier?

TFSR: Yeah, it’s hard to ask people to take part in large-scale politics when they’re just being extracted from all the time by capitalism, let alone living during a pandemic when they’re trying to just figure out how to live day to day.

JB: Also, this can look nasty, this can look personal. Because you’ve got this institution, which is made up of real people who have been there, and been there all their lives, and it seems that it can be presented very easily as a nasty thing to do and an unpleasant thing to do. “How can you hate these people, they’re only doing their job?” You can find yourself in a situation, which is quite tricky like that.

But the way that institution works is very interesting because we’re talking about an institution that is supported when the people involved in it are liked. It ebbs and flows. It’s not like the political cycle, the electoral cycle, where the moment somebody gets elected, they become the most unpopular president ever. Then election time comes along, they’re the incumbent and they get elected again. It doesn’t ever flow in that way, ebbs and flows along decades. It takes a long time to pan out this stuff. And that is what gives it that air of permanence and that feeling that you are helpless against it.

TFSR: That seems like the root of the problem right there, is that it’s the emotional response to it is, “But we’ve seen whoever grow up since they were a child. Can you look at this baby photo? Look at how cute they are in their golden bassinet. Isn’t that perfect? They look like baby Jesus.” That’s not the question at hand here. The question is their bassinets made of gold while there are still colonies, and people are being extracted more and more day to day under austerity measures and the government? They still have their huge palace over there and they get to own countries and islands. It’s not about them as people, that needs to be extracted from them as being people.

JB: First of all, babies, the cute babies always looked like Churchill, no matter what.

TFSR: All the babies look like Churchill.

JB: But in terms of thinking about what change might look like, what you end up with is people saying, “If we had a republic, then we’d be like America”. Do you want Trump to be elected here as president? Would you want that?” It doesn’t matter who it is. They will say, “Would you want Obama? Would you want Bush? Would you want Biden?” Because that is automatically seen as worse than someone born into position, which is odd, at least you’ve got the chance of getting rid of those people at some point. I’m not advocating Representative Democracy. But I am saying it’s an improvement on someone being born into a position, that ordinary people do at least have some say over it.

I nearly started to debate about the Electoral College there. But I’ll stop with that.

TFSR: I don’t think there would be a debate here.

JB: People dead against it.

TFSR: No, there are a lot of people, anyone who believes that more democracy is better rather than representatives choosing representatives choosing representatives. It’s actually been a big point, it’s been brought up in the last five years, more than it has been in my lifetime, although, even around the 2000 election, I remember that being a major sticking point when Gore, (actually it was the Supreme Court that gave the presidency to Bush) but people more and more have been recognizing and talking at least in liberal and progressive media circles, and pushing towards abolition.

JB: I think some states have moved to have legislation that would abolish it if a certain number of states take on the same legislation, and therefore, you don’t need a constitutional amendment, which would obviously fail because the Constitution is incredibly hard to change, isn’t it? So it’d be interesting to see if that threshold of States is ever reached, and then people can stop worrying about what number of Electoral College votes the President is going to get. And it will just come down to the popular vote. I guess that will be progress. I hope people will like it if it happens. It won’t solve the world’s problems, will it?

TFSR: No. And maybe it doesn’t have to, but I think this last few years, it was able to be brought up along with the surge of discussion around abolition, as a holdover from slave ownership and slave owners having a certain higher percentage of votes per them. Interestingly, it was in that context, and for years, it was being pushed as being removed because it is such an impediment to even an indirect representative democracy. So maybe it takes more emotional discourse around the historical implications of that and then tying that to the taking away of the vote of populations of color and other populations that are disenfranchised in the US system. I’m not sure.

JB: It’s incredibly difficult as well, isn’t it? Because you’ve got two parties that are drifting further apart. The idea of some consensus developing on this is pretty slim, I would say.

TFSR: I’d say the Democrats are drifting around the center. And the Republicans are going WAY over here…

JB: So if we see them as being fixed, we are getting further away, but not necessarily moving to the left themselves.

TFSR: Do you have any suggestions for what might be good moves towards an anti-monarchist class-based, anti-authoritarian, anti-nationalist struggle against the Royal family? Are there any things in the past that have specifically piqued your interest towards a material struggle in that way?

JB: I certainly can’t speak for anybody else. And I can’t say that this action or this lack of action is happening because anybody else is at fault. We’ve got to take responsibility. And just as an anarchist in Britain. I’m just as responsible for the lack of activity on all of this. But I am certainly not going to going to speak for anarchists or groups in other countries. Definitely. The things that I’m attracted to are performative actions that get attention and force people to think, and sometimes that means repelling people. I don’t think we should shy away from that. I think we should do elaborate, interesting performative actions that are confrontational, if necessary, mildly confrontational, I don’t mind how confrontational it is, at least challenging. It should be led by action. What that action should be, I haven’t got a list. But there are so many issues to do and so many failings to do with the monarchy, that you pick something and run with it. I’d encourage people to think creatively really, and that should be with everything they do. I think everything anarchists should do should be creative in some way. And it will be difficult to build up a movement, but I remain positive about this. I think that the monarchy’s popularity is transitory, it’s not set in stone, it is going to ebb and flow, there will be moments of extreme dislike amongst the people of the monarchy.

They’re going to be really important, but it’s also important to stand up and be counted at times when they are enjoying popularity. In fact, I went to a Republic event, I went to an event they organized in London on the day that William and Kate got married. They organized their own alternative street party because people were encouraged to have street parties across the country. Things like that are important alternatives. That was actually quite a mild event and frustratingly so. It still had the Union Flag bunting and flags out. It was basically “We’re going to do the same thing but we’re not doing it in support of the monarchy” kind of thing. I think you need to be more creative than that. But that action isn’t worthless, i think how you pitch it is important. We need to build something up, I think, and that will take time, but there will be opportunities. Absolutely. You know at some of the figures in this family, and the things that they’ve done and the things that they will do. I know that that’s going to produce opportunities. Definitely.

TFSR: And if power corrupts, and such absolutist power corrupts so absolutely, divest some of that power, and let them be regular folks who can’t wield quite as much power over other people.

JB: Is it absolute power? It is absolute comfort, isn’t it? She’s got absolute comfort. And she’s and that is perhaps something that she can feel secure in. But actually, she won’t be that comfortable forever. And whoever comes along after her, whether it’s Charles or William, they won’t feel comfortable all their lives either.

TFSR: Jon, thank you so much for this conversation. Are there any things that I didn’t ask about that you wanted to put in?

JB: No, I don’t think so. I think it’s been a really interesting discussion. I wish I could announce to the world that there was more happening to oppose this institution. But I think it’s important to have discussions like this when you want more to be happening as well. And maybe one day we can discuss it again and talk about it in a different light. That’d be great.

TFSR: In the past tense. Once the UK has been abolished and the US has been abolished.

So people can find your writing at jonbigger.uk. You’ve got a Twitter account. Are there any other places that people can find you? Freedom?

JB: Yeah. They can search for me at Freedom News, and see what I’ve written about in the past. That is primarily about British politics. But I’m currently thinking, what on earth am I going to write about Ukraine? Because that is obviously going to— it has already impacted British politics. What a devastating situation that is. I haven’t quite formulated all my thoughts yet. I try to broaden things out a little bit when I can onto other issues, too.

TFSR: Thank you so much, again, for this conversation and for the research that you put in.

JB: Thank you.

Cory Doctorow on “Walkaway” and Post-Scarcity (rebroadcast)

Cory Doctorow on “Walkaway” and Post-Scarcity (rebroadcast)

Book cover of "Walkaway" by Cory Doctorow featuring a house on fire in black, mirrored below by someoen walking away from the house
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This week, we are re-broadcasting an inteview with the sci-fi and picture book author, technologist and social critic Cory DoctorowCory is an editor of the blog BoingBoing, a fellow at the Electronic Frontier Foundation and the book we spoke of on this episode was Walkaway (you get a 10% discount and support for us when you order from the above link from Firestorm Books in Asheville), out from Head of Zeus and TOR books.  The novel plays with themes of open source technologies, class society, post-scarcity economics, ecological remediation, drop-out culture and liberatory social models. It was released a few days ago in paperback, along with matching re-issues of his other adult sci-fi novels.

For the hour, we spoke about themes from the book, sharing, trans-humanism, imagination and monsters.  To find more work by Cory, check out his blog craphound.com.  You can also find him on twitter, free writings on Project Gutenberg, his content on archive.org, or his podcast. In 2019 he released Radicalized, a collection of four novellas, and in 2020 he released Attack Surface, a novel in the universe of his prior works, Little Brother and it’s sequel, Homeland.

We hope you enjoy!

Upcoming Anti-Repression Workshops

This week, the second free, online workshop in the Anti-Repression series hosted by Firestorm Books is happening. You can find out more (plus supplemental info) at the Blue Ridge Anarchist Black Cross website, and sign up for the zoom event on Digital Security coming up at 7pm on Tuesday, February 15th at 7pm EST (UTC – 5) here: https://us02web.zoom.us/webinar/register/WN__ACzJRGGSpKS3rDeQnJ9ZQ!

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Transcription

TFSR: This week we’re presenting an interview that I conducted with sci-fi and picture book author, technologist, and social critic Cory Doctorow. Cory is an editor of the blog BoingBoing.net, a fellow at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, and his most recent book is entitled Walkaway, and it’s out from Head of Zeus and Tor Books. The novel plays with themes of open-source technologies, class society, post-scarcity economics, ecological remediation, dropout culture, and liberatory social models. It was released a few days ago also in paperback, along with matching reissues of his other adult sci-fi novels.

For the hour, we chat about themes from the book, about sharing, imagination, privilege, and monsters. To find more work by Cory, check out his blog craphound.com. You can also find him on Twitter. You can find free versions of his writing at Project Gutenberg, as well as interviews and recordings that he’s done at archive.org or his podcast. Links will be found in the show notes for this episode.

Cory, thank you very much for taking the time to chat.

Cory Doctorow: Oh, it’s my pleasure. Thanks for your interest in the book.

TFSR: It was a really pleasurable read. One thing I love about speculative fiction is finding the roots in the current world looking at the divergences between the story and the IRL and playing with those imaginary threads, tying them together. Walkaway mentions Idle No More, the Arab Spring, it alludes to Occupy and even old back-to-the-landers in Vermont. From this history-of-the-future view, what agency is given to resistance movements of today or just yesterday?

Cory: That’s a really good question. My theory of change is that we get to a better place not by laying out a plan that takes us from A to Z, but by taking immediate steps that in some way materially improve the circumstances for resistance or change, that then creates a more favorable landscape from which the next volley can be launched. So it’s a lot more like a software hill-climbing algorithm, where you don’t know the terrain and but all you do is you always try to move up to more favorable terrain, rather than this idea of a knowable world. Maybe this is where I break with Marxism and its so-called scientific theory of history that has this deceptive and seductive inevitability about how we can chart a course. And instead of charting a course, I advocate for a unified heuristic. We all use the same rule of thumb to try to make things better. And the material improvements that we make just in some way benefit the people that come in the future, in some unknowable and unguessable situation. So rather than try to lay in the material needed for a battle whose contours we can’t predict, we just try to make things as versatile and usable as possible for whoever comes next. And so in this future, I think the people who are on the vanguard, are people who are picking up the stuff that we left lying around, without knowing exactly how it would be used. And some of it turns out to be useful in unexpected ways. And some of the stuff that maybe we predicted would be most useful turns out to have no earthly use.

TFSR: That’s really well-said. Actually, that reminds me— I had mentioned in one of the emails that I was interested in and had been looking into Cooperation Jackson recently as a project happening in the deep south of the US. It’s an initiative to grow a tech industry and manufacturing and fabricating belt, employing the mostly black and working-class populations in a democratic, almost permacultural approach. It doesn’t seem perfect, obviously. But they’ve really laid out their plan, really open-source style in this book called Jackson Rising. They’re influenced by Rojava, by the Mondragon cooperative, by Black Liberation struggles, by the Zapatistas, and many other diverse movements. Are there any current anti-capitalist projects or movements around the world that are hacking and making that inspire you or that you’re keeping close tabs on?

Cory: It’s a really good question. Again, I know I keep saying that, but these are good thought-provoking meaty questions.

I’m sure that there are explicitly anti-capitalist projects. I mean, Dmitry Kleiner and the Telekommunisten in Berlin sprang to mind. But I’m interested in the way that projects that don’t have an explicitly anti-capitalist agenda, nevertheless can serve the cause of a post-capitalist or even a mixed-market technological future. So things free and open-source software, the movement for net neutrality, cognitive radio technologies, things like end-to-end encrypted messenger clients. And also, not incidentally, that the tools for evaluating all of these that— We’re getting into better trainer training tools and better critical frameworks for understanding them. So EFF, with whom I work, sometimes the Electronic Frontier Foundation, has historically published scorecards of different kinds of security tools. And they’ve stopped doing it for end-to-end encrypted messengers because they realize that there isn’t a dimension on which an encrypted messaging tool is best. Instead, there are different kinds of threat models for different kinds of users. Now they’re publishing plain-language, easy-to-understand models, or frameworks for evaluating what encrypted messenger you should use and understanding whether any given encrypted messenger is one that you should trust and that you would find useful.

And to me, in terms of aiding insurgency, which I guess is what all these things have in common, they don’t have an explicit political valence, but they have an anti-authoritarian valence, that these tools are really useful. And I think that the place where, again, if I break with the Marxist left on the inevitability of history, maybe the place where I break with the intersectional left, is on whether a tool can be made to benefit insurgents that doesn’t benefit insurgents, we don’t like. The alt-right is an insurgent movement as well. And when I look at movements to throttle the alt-right, I always concern myself with the extent to which that will also throttle anti-authoritarian left-wing movements. For example, any framework in which it becomes easier to remove content from the web-based on the politics of its speech, I think, has to be viewed with extreme caution, not because there isn’t a speech that is bad speech, or that the world would be better without, but because the ease with which speech can be removed based on its content is a threat to anyone who wants to say anything unpopular.

TFSR: Yeah, it’s funny, now becoming personally old enough, I’m almost 40 to have seen this trajectory a couple of times. For instance, I’m in the US, seeing Democrats be in office and then seeing Democrats allowed to push certain boundaries or increase incarceration rates, or deport more people, or do drone strikes without any sort of repercussions to the executive branch. And then a Republican administration follows directly after, it’s terrible when it’s happening when the Democrats are doing it, but there seems to be a lack of understanding to some people that the tool is going to be wielded by someone and you don’t get to choose necessarily who wields that tool. Whether or not it’s positive or “positive” for your goal.

Cory: Yeah, I think that’s right. American liberals were pretty sanguine about the extension of really extreme executive power to Obama when he was using it to fight the hardline TGOP Republican Congress. And now they’re about to have their past sins visited upon them, not least because there’s now the power of the president to create secret assassination lists that a certain liberal defended in the last administration. But also, as you say, mass incarceration, the failure to close Gitmo, and so on. A lot of that triangulation Clintonian political stuff is how they went from convenient instrumental doctrines into pluripotent immortal weapons that now get to be wielded by whoever sits in the President’s chair. And we have a maniac with a lot less discretion sitting in the President’s chair. I’m not going to stick up for Obama, but I do think that if nothing else, he was circumspect and premeditated in a way that Trump isn’t capable of, which at least allowed us to have a threat model. I always like to distinguish, when I think about threat models, between the cat burglar who plans a robbery of your house because they know what jewels you have hidden in your wall safe. And that time I parked my car in Gastown in Vancouver, which is the principal part of heroin ingress into the Americas. I left a quarter sitting on the dashboard and someone broke into the rental car to steal a quarter. It’s possible to think about that jewel thief in a way that rationally defends against it. Like if the jewel thief’s expected return on selling your jewels is less than the cost of breaking into your house, you can secure your house from the jewel thief because they don’t want to waste money. Whereas the junkie is acting without any premeditation, and it’s very hard to defend against. And when we think about political threat models, Obama at least was predictable. We knew where he would squander capital and where he wouldn’t in the political sense. Whereas Trump picks dumb fights. And a loose cannon on deck is much scarier when it’s a really big scary cannon than when it’s a small constrained cannon. And Obama made the president into a much bigger cannon.

TFSR: Yeah. With the aid of the American people.

You mentioned that you’re a fellow at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, and a lot of your writing focuses on tech tools, for more secure organizing and knowledge sharing, and resisting tyranny. For instance, Little Brother, as a novel focused largely on ubiquitous surveillance and the socialization of resistance via, for instance, parties where people shared encryption face-to-face. The book was both the commentary as well as a spur to get folks thinking about resistance with actual models of going about it. Can you talk about your views of the cultural and activist interventions that you engage with? How do they overlap?

Cory: Culturally, there is an anti-authoritarian streak that is built into the internet. It’s not determinative, it’s not like using the internet makes you anti-authoritarian. But if you have anti-authoritarian tendencies, there’s a lot that the internet has to offer you. And much of what gave us the internet, as we understand it today, was anti-authoritarian. It may have had its roots and things BBN and the RAND Corporation, building command and control networks for the US military. But its early users and the people who sketched out its contours and built a lot of its infrastructure and a lot of its norms and embedded technological assumptions did so out of a posture of anti-authoritarianism. And so culturally, anti-authoritarianism is not an end in itself. Because anti-authoritarianism can lead to like, “What do you mean, I’m not allowed to say racist things and rape people. You’re not the boss of me!” But anti-authoritarianism is an axis on which to plot other politics, I think good politics are better when they’re anti-authoritarian. That the people who are suspicious of their ability to tell other people what to do, and the likelihood that they’ll get it right produce better outcomes than people who are convinced of their infallibility and the right to dictate to other people.

One of the places where the politics and the culture of the internet overlap, is in that anti-authoritarianism. Going back to Marxism, Marx had this idea that being alienated from your labor made you susceptible to being talked to about the problems of labor alienation. And I think making your friends and enjoying the world through systems that are intrinsically anti-authoritarian, or that have anti-authoritarian roots, makes you a good candidate to talk to about anti-authoritarianism.

You know “there are no atheists in a foxhole”?, it’s harder to be an authoritarian on the internet. It’s not impossible, clearly, but as compared to other systems, the internet, because there’s the coercion on the internet is hard. And not only that, but people who have benefited from the inability of others to coerce them, have then gone on to build other systems on the internet that make coercion hard. Again, it’s not impossible, I’m not pretending that shitty Twitter mobs aren’t coercive. I’m just saying that the shitty Twitter mobs are an aberration, as compared to many other systems that exist to evade coercion. One of the things that I concern myself with a lot is what I think of it as historic revisionism in which we say that early internet optimists were naive about the power of the Internet to be a force for bad, and I happened to know those people really personally and I’m extremely I’m aware of what they had in mind. I was there when they were doing that, I was talking to them about what are we trying to do here, I was working for them and drawing a paycheck from them. And their view was not “the internet is automatically going to be great”. It’s raining soup, let’s fill up our boots. Their view was that the internet could be unbelievably terrible. let’s make sure that that doesn’t happen. And so, when John Gilmore said the internet interprets censorship and rights around it, he specifically meant that people who operate the most anti-authoritarian parts of the internet, which at the time were old Usenet feeds, whenever someone tries to censor Usenet, do these specific things with the protocols that underpin it, and with their own human effort to make it harder to censor, and those tools might have been developed to ride around damage, to ride around drop nodes and an unreliable network. But they work extremely well to fight censorship. And the people who develop them are ready and willing to do so because they view censorship as illegitimate.

That’s a powerful force. And it’s one that the story of the internet’s early proponents being naive fools. One of the things we have on our side, as we work to make the internet safe for human habitation, a force for good and human thriving is the ethos that the internet should be that, and when you turn your firing squad in a circle and say that the people who fought all along for a free, fair and open Internet just didn’t understand how the internet would go wrong and shouldn’t be listened to, then you make it harder to achieve the free, fair and open Internet that we want. And you do so out of petty personal satisfaction that you get from telling other people that they’re idiots.

TFSR: This reminds me of a part of the book that I keep thinking about, and that keeps resonating with me as a very interesting way of engaging with some of these ideas. So just to bring up a couple of characters. There was Limpopo and Jimmy. Limpopo had put in a hell of a lot of work, designing and building and doing upkeep on a way station and home for people who had started walking away for what was called Default or mainstream society in this dystopia. And people collaborated there to create a new life with others. Jimmy comes in as an intelligent, brash, proud young man who believes in meritocracy and wants to leverage a position of power at the compound called the B&B for himself by riding the coattails of Limpopo. There are also some gender norm dynamics that one could unpack from the way that it goes down in the story.

Can you talk about what inspired you to write this out? And what do you hope readers will get from the debates and battles like these that happen in Walkaway?

Cory: In some respects, that is me correcting a sin of my own, which was that I wrote this novel Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom about the ambiguous utopia of meritocracy that like reputation economies, where I posed reputation economies as a not unalloyed good, but as something that can be actually pretty terrible. And people took it as a manual for how to build the future, not as a cautionary tale about how things could go wrong if you use that as your starting point. I wanted to make it less ambiguous, the ambiguous utopia of a reputation economy, I wanted to make it more explicitly dystopic to heighten that, make it visible, make it harder to miss. I think I did that. I hope I did. And I also want people to think a little bit about this starting-life-on-third-base business that when you say someone has done very well objectively, and that something that you’ve measured is bigger for one person than it is for another, that there’s a false quantitativeness that misses out on some qualitative elements, which are all the social stuff that goes into that person’s life, all the reasons that they’re over-performing relative to their peers.

TFSR: Can you break that down a little bit? I saw you had responded to a Q&A from a big bookstore in Portland naming your memoirs, something about like, “I’m a privileged white dude, who’s-” I’m misstating that… Can you unpack that a little bit more about where people start from? Why do they perform in certain ways and the invisibility of privilege?

Cory: Yeah, I mean, I expected anyone listening to this to be familiar with the story, but I’ll tell you, from my perspective.

My grandparents did not come from a place where they had a lot of privilege or power. My grandfather was raised on a farm in a part of Belarus that later became Poland. My grandmother was raised in Leningrad, and my grandmother was a child soldier who was inducted into the Civil Defense Corps during the siege of Leningrad at the age of 12. And she served for nearly three years, and then they evacuated the women and children over the winter ice. And she met my grandfather in Siberia when she was inducted into the Red Army. And then the two of them deserted and went to a displaced persons’ camp in Azerbaijan. And that’s where my dad was born. And they came to Canada as displaced people. But Canada had, at the time, a pretty well-developed social welfare network. And it made sure that my dad got a first-class education. There were also relatively few large businesses that dominated the sectors that they operated in. And so my grandmother’s second husband was able to start and operate a successful scrapyard, that gave him the power to go to university, which was also publicly underwritten. And as a result, even though both of my dad’s parents were functionally illiterate, he has a Ph.D. in Education. And that’s why I grew up in a household where in 1979, we got an Apple 2+, because, by that point, he was head of computer science for a large high school. And Apple came along and gave all those heads of computer sciences Apple computers to take home for the summer, to convince them to not have mainframes, to not do time-sharing on mainframes and their computer science courses. My dad had been teaching with PDPs that they time-shared on and punch cards. And as a result, I had a modem in 1980, I was active on bulletin board systems, I was on the ground floor when the internet came along, I was able to drop out of university and walk straight into a job in a new tech sector, I did very well by it. By the time I was in my mid-20s, I was earning as much as my unionized parents were, without a university degree. All of that arises out of privilege.

I got incredibly lucky by being born when I was born, I got incredibly lucky by being born to who I was born. And some of that luck was not just about the great forces of society, but about explicit redistributive practices that were intended to ensure not just equality of opportunity, but to a certain extent, equality of outcome. That was enormously beneficial to me. And so here, I sit in Southern California, having previously emigrated to the United Kingdom and attained citizenship, and then moving to the US and getting a Green Card through a relatively simple process, because I qualified for an alien of extraordinary ability visa that transitions very easily to a Green Card, and we’ve just bought a house and we can afford that house. And we’ve spent a bunch of money on a remodel and all of that. And some of that is because I write good books and work hard. But the reason I got to write good books and work hard and earn enough money to do all those things is that a bunch of forces that are way beyond my control, and that are not well-distributed bored down on my progenitors.

And this is how we went from my grandfather whose mother was kicked to death by a cow on a dirt farm, to me living in a renovated mid-century modern bungalow in Burbank, California in two generations. It wasn’t by pulling ourselves up by our bootstraps. It was because I got to start life on second base. When I look around at other people who are trying to do what I did, who are trying to become successful writers, who want to become activists, who want to get involved in other activities that require a relatively high degree of technical specialized knowledge, as well as the comfort from which to take risks. The reason those people don’t have that is not because of an innate failing of theirs. It’s because I am a privileged white dude who got incredibly lucky to be born who I was, and they weren’t.

TFSR: Do you read a lot of sci-fi yourself?

Cory: I do. Although, I think a lot of people who read a lot for pleasure in their 20s, by the time I got to my 30s and 40s and became a dad and had a career and so on, my reading for pleasure, or even reading for professional purposes, plummeted. I do a lot less reading now than I used to. But I have a chronic back pain problem. And so I swim for an hour every day, and I have an underwater mp3 player. So I listened to about two novels a month through my swimming. And then I probably read two more a month, or two more books a month. Sometimes novels, sometimes not. If they’re novels, they’re usually science fiction, as well as a few graphic novels. And I get sent a lot because I write young adult novels and also I’ve got a picture book coming out, I get sent a lot of kids’ books for review or quotes. And I have a 10-year-old, so I just throw them in her room. And if she reads them, then I read them and review them. She’s my first approximation sorting function. I read reasonably broadly, but when I worked in a science fiction bookstore, I read a lot. And I know exactly how much I’m not reading because I know how much I read back then.

TFSR: Does your daughter ever contribute to the quotes that go on the covers of books?

Cory: Yeah, funnily enough, one time, I got asked to write a quote for the sequel to a book that she liked a lot called Giants Beware! The sequel’s called Dragons Beware! And they sent it to me as a PDF, so we read it together off my screen. And I told her I’m going to make a quote for this. And they’re going to put it on the cover of the book. And she said, “I want to send one in too”. So just for yucks, I sent it to the editor, and the editor cut my quote in half to make room for hers.

TFSR: It sounds she has a feature in writing or at least reviewing. I really like political sci-fi, I’m a one-trick pony. I just gravitate towards reading about ideas around politics and around social engagement and social organizing. But a novel that I was reminded of at some point with Walkaway was March Pierce’s Woman on the Edge of Time. Have you read that before?

Cory: Sure.

TFSR: Especially for its [27:28] of a utopia and a dystopia in a struggle with each other, although her vision definitely had tech serving a visibly more ecologically healing role, rather than what I saw in Walkaway as a sort of mitigating during this hardcore struggle between default and walkaway worlds. I saw more people creating livable structures and the tools that they needed for immediate survival, as opposed to in Pierce’s book, maybe it would have been a little bit further on where people were trying to heal landscapes, for instance. Also, it contained more non-human animals than I found in Walkaway. Maybe I missed it, but was there an ecological bent in Walkaway? Or was it more focused on just this is the destruction, this is us needing to survive and create something new?

Cory: If we’ve been warned about disaster capitalism by the likes of Naomi Klein, Walkaway is, in some ways, a pain to the possibilities of disaster communism. One of the things that walkaways are doing is they’re using the catastrophic remnants of environmental collapse as the raw material for a better world. One of the great challenges to a transitional program towards a more broadly distributed future is property relations and the difficulties of expropriation.

I was just on a panel in Australia at a literary festival with an African woman, a white African journalist who had risked her life to report on authoritarianism in Zimbabwe and had been exiled. I think she was actually born there. Maybe it was another regional country. I think it was Zimbabwe. And she was talking about the ANC’s proposal to expropriate white farmers and redistribute their lands and about how that had been a real disaster in Zimbabwe for lots of reasons, partly because sophisticated agricultural knowledge wasn’t widely distributed, and partly because of the lingering resentments and the difficulty for reconciliation and so on.

And so we talked about it, and I said, “Let’s talk about some other decolonization efforts that had land reform in them. You have the Cubans who after the revolution bought land at market rates. And it’s not like the exiled elites of Cuba in Miami therefore forgave them and didn’t harbor inter-generational grudges against the Cuban Republic for having taken away the family farm. You have American whites in the South who still nurse these horrible grievances about the antebellum period and land changes after that and so on. Or the post-war period and land changes after that. It’s very hard to get people to feel okay about these changes in land ownership. Moreover, it’s very easy to activate grievances. So even if people seem to have forgotten about them for a generation, they can be reactivated by reactionary political actors who want to use those grievances to raise a political movement to pursue some reactionary program. Think about the Balcans, where by exploiting these old grievances, it was possible to create a civil war that still has a reactionary neofascist, nationalist element, who never fully lost the power that they gained by exploiting those old divisions.

I think that one of the things that the book proposes is that when life gives you SARS, you might try and make Sarsaparilla. The fact that environmental catastrophe has basically rendered a bunch of land to be uninhabitable and undesired by anyone means that walkaways can, with relatively low risk, just show up there and take this blighted no man’s land and turn it back into something worthwhile. But of course, the thing that they discover is that as soon as you rehabilitate something that no one wants, all of a sudden they rediscover their property interest in it. But the thing that they exploited in it is that there’s so much blighted land, and remediating it is so easy if you don’t care about profits, that as soon as they build something viable on some blighted land, and some oligarch comes along and says, “Hey, that’s my patch of blighted dirt and I want it back now that you made it attractive again,” they just move on to another patch of blighted dirt and do it all over again. And in fact, each one of these is an opportunity to overcome their previous mistakes and do more ambitious things and just refactor things. They’re in some way benefiting from not having that status quo bias that normally happens in things like free software projects where no one wants to start over and refactor things from go because it’s just so much work. And you’ve got so much sunk cost in the status quo. But if someone comes along and just wipes out all your source code every six months, provided that you really still need the thing, shelter is not optional. So they have to go build shelter somewhere. And they just make a virtue out of that vice.

TFSR: It’s a pretty awesome set up in the novel, and it’s really inspirational, the scope of the book and all the different social conundrums that you’re trying to at least touch on and play with how different elements of, for instance, the Free University that’s developed, that is escalating people’s knowledge and technologies and trying to improve on things all the time. Because you’ve got people that are disenfranchised from mainstream society, and they choose to leave, but they bring this knowledge and this ability with them and put it towards a collective good. There are just so many examples in the novel. I can’t I can’t stop gushing about it.

Cory: Oh, well, thank you. Science fiction does have this tradition of stories about someone wielding an enormous technological power because of their special knowledge, who nevertheless doesn’t have political power, and how the people with political power coerce the people with the technical knowledge into working for them. After civilization collapses, how does Master Blaster and Thunderdome get the mining engineers who actually know how to convert methane to useful source of power to work for them, or how does the technical staff of Immortan Joe get incentivized to work for Immortan Joe, instead of just walking over to the next Arroyo and living without this tyrant?

Telling it from the perspective of people who did have this rare, not widely distributed, extremely powerful technical knowledge, finding solidarity with the people rather than the oligarchs, and taking that technical knowledge and spreading it around, that’s actually a thing that happens. That’s the story of CryptoParty and it’s the story of lots of people who can just work for big tech companies, and instead, or in addition, devote their lives to social justice causes and to widely distributing their specialized knowledge. In this case, you have this scientist class that reaches a breaking point with their paymasters, where they realize that the practical immortality technology they’re developing has the potential to speciate the human race and make their bosses not just powerful, but immortal, and to deprive everyone else of immortality, and that once everyone else is immortal, once everyone else can’t be killed, then the ability of the wealthy and powerful 1% to coerce them becomes significantly reduced, because how do you coerce someone who’s not afraid to die? As these people start to defect to the side of the 99%, it becomes more and more obvious to the ones who remained, that what they’re engaged in is something morally indefensible and that not only is it morally indefensible, it’s morally indefensible and there’s an alternative.

TFSR: That’s a thing in the book that I found really interesting, too, is that I don’t hear many people talk about post-scarcity economics. And I’d to talk about the technologies of immortality that are talked about in the book. Hierarchies are based on the withholding of something from people. People build hierarchies, but social hierarchies that exist in society, whether it be the class-based ones, or the way that gender power is appropriated throughout society, or racial castes, or whatever, is about privileges being withheld from other people, people being disprivileged. And one of the very basic and from time immemorial ways that happens is the withholding of the means towards one’s own ability to have shelter, ability to have food, ability to take care of one’s loved ones. Can you talk about what made you start thinking about post-scarcity economics and maybe some influences on your thinking around it?

Cory: Well, going back to this idea about the cultural and political nexus on the internet, one of the things that the internet does is challenge — at the same time it supercharges it — it challenges rentierism, because the ultimate in rentierism is the idea of so-called intellectual property, which is the idea that you have a thing that has no tangible existence, and that, through its creation, generates passive income. And all you have to do is just sit there and wait for it to roll in. This is one of the ways that this fight that I’m engaged in on the policy side about DRM, I think has this wider significance. When you go back to the early literature of intellectual property in the Chicago school, you find this metastatic choice theory where this idea that someone who owns a piece of intellectual property could use some magic technology dust to infinitely divide that intellectual property into a series of products that are ever more tailored to different audiences.

So like, maybe you don’t want to spend the full freight to read a book anytime you want. Maybe you just want the right to read the book on Wednesdays while standing on one leg, and the market can produce this standing on one leg Wednesday price through some price discovery mechanism. And then the technology somehow sees to it, that having acquired the book you can only read it on Wednesdays while you’re standing on one leg. And it’s one of those things where, in a lot of technology policy fights, the answer is in part wanting it badly is not enough. So we don’t know how to make the technology that only lets you read a book on Wednesdays while standing on one leg, even if we stipulate that that’s a good idea. But once you swallow a spider to catch the fly, you have to swallow a bird to catch the spider.

So once we accepted that that would be this market in the future, and that the way that we would have these passive incomes in a post-manufacturing society where the WTO allowed all the manufacturing jobs to be offshore to China, and the West would remain wealthy through exporting the intellectual property to China that would then be turned into physical objects and then brought back into the West, and that it would be rent-seeking on the people making the things by owning the rights to the plans to make the things, or the images that are embodied by the things or whatever that the West would remain economically dominant, it became politically impossible to say, “We don’t know how to make a technology that stops you from reading books, unless it’s Wednesday, and you’re standing on one leg.” And so instead, we started trying to approximate it. And the way that we ended up approximating it is with technology that just spies on you all the time. Computers that are designed to not take orders from their owners, but instead to take orders from third parties without even informing the owner what the order is, or allowing them to rescind it or terminate it.

This has wider implications for information security, which is, in some ways, the single most important technological question we have to answer: how do we make computers more secure, as we start putting our bodies inside of them and start putting them inside of our bodies? There’s arguably nothing more important for us to answer authoritatively than that question. But the elevation to virtue of it being hard to make as many copies as you want of something is the outcome of this policy, consensus that emerged that we would just someday have this rentier economy. In that rentier economy, the fact that you can take something valuable and make as many copies as you need, without any incremental cost becomes a problem. Historically, that would have been a utopian scenario.

There’s a thing that everyone needs, and we can make as much of it as anyone needs for free? That’s not a problem historically. But we elevated scarcity to a virtue. And so thinking about post-scarcity is in that regard, a subversive act, because it challenges the whole consensus about what a neoliberal future looks like, a rentier future looks like. The first time I really encountered post-scarcity, I’d encountered it in dribs and drabs in the fights about software piracy in the 80s. There was some ambiguity there and there were still a lot of small independent software companies that made this reasonably convincing case that like, “I’m just some dude who made some accounting software, please don’t make me go broke by refusing to pay for it.” But as this turned into the music question, and as Napster came along and became the fastest adopted technology in the history of the world, and as it took the 80% of commercial music that wasn’t available for sale anywhere, at any price, and put it in the hands of everyone who wanted it at any time, night or day, and also automatically started to create communities of interest around music that were not in the mainstream because you would find someone’s collection that you thought was interesting, and you’d open a chat window to them, and you plunder their collection for things that you’d never heard of, but based on them having things that you liked that few other people you could assume that that the rest of it would be interesting to listen to. This thing that was so clearly just good was turned into a vise and became further the rubric for mass internet surveillance and takedown regime where material could remove from the internet without any checks or balances. It became really clear to me that the people who viewed scarcity as a virtue were an existential threat to a free, fair, and open Internet. For whatever reason that that scarcity had become a virtue to them. And so post-scarcity and thinking about it and singing its praises and describing ways in which it could be great, became a cultural project in the service of economic and political projects.

TFSR: I was wondering about this actually because you bring up Napster. And that’s about the time when I was graduating from high school and started paying attention to— I’d been playing on computers for a few years at that point. The things that Gnutella and Napster were providing, the connectivity, the ways of exploring other people’s knowledge and art were just fascinating. And those seem to go away in the early 2000s, because of all this pressure from industries and the FCC, and what have you. Soulseek is still around, but I don’t think people really use it, I mess with it from time to time, and it’s got the same abilities. Do you think it’s just not used as much or talked about because it’s a snake eating its tail, people don’t talk about it, so it doesn’t get used as much. And because people aren’t using it, people don’t talk about it, or just because technologies have maybe the social acceptability of sharing music or sharing art in that way, has now just developed onto a different platform?

Cory: It’s definitely on different platforms. It’s streaming now. Ironically, we lost a bunch of things that would have been very helpful to the industry. We lost a lot of the social elements. It’s much harder to have a community where you post links to music that you might like, that is infringing. You can still point to YouTube, but increasingly, there are risks of communities facing legal sanctions, being shut down because of the preponderance of links to stuff. And so what that means is that the recommendation and the concentration of people who might be interested in your music as a product in one easy-to-advertise-to place, that has been very eroded through these anti-infringement anti-piracy programs, but the infringement hasn’t been eroded. The people who will tell you that there’s more infringement than ever are the people who claimed that this would be what they needed to stop infringement. The record industry, their own stats show that their efforts were worse than useless, that they ended up with more infringement, not less. But of course, their argument is, “well, it would be even more if we hadn’t done all of this.” We swallow the spider to catch the fly, now give us some birds to catch the spider. Once we accepted that any cost is bearable in the service of defending music from copyright infringement, then the sky’s the limit. It turns out that shutting down services didn’t do it, disconnecting people from the Internet didn’t do it, all these other things didn’t do it. So just give us more extreme measures, just keep ramping up our power to be judge, jury, and executioner of people on the internet and the things that they say, and eventually, we’ll be able to get rid of copyright infringement.

The other thing that forcing this decentralization did was it made it harder to charge rent. Napster had a business model that was “we will go to the record labels, we’ll get a license from them, and we’ll charge five bucks a month to be a Napster customer. And then we’ll measure what people are downloading and we will pay out the money in that, according to who downloaded what, whose stuff got downloaded.” It was literally a model where the more people pirated, the more money you got paid. And now what we have is this fragmented underground system that, because of court decisions like Grokster, that said that companies have liability if they know and can measure what’s going on, the systems are deliberately designed so that no one can audit them and figure out which musicians to pay. So they just really shot themselves in the head. They still make tons of money from things like streaming services, the legit streaming services like Spotify. Musicians don’t make any money from them, but the labels make gobs of money from them. And that’s because they have these super abusive contracts. And those contracts have become more common, not less, because there are fewer alternative places to bandy your music about because the copyright enforcement has basically made it very expensive top-rate alternatives to the traditional music industry. And so now we’re down to four giant record labels that all have the same shitty contracts. And they all have the same abusive terms for any musician who signs with them. Even though Spotify is throwing billions of dollars at the labels, the labels contractually have to give only infinitesimal fractions of a penny to musicians out of those billions. You’ve just ended up with a system where it’s hard for them to harness real growth, the anemic growth that there is, they get the windfall from, and musicians are trapped in a sharecropping model.

TFSR: You mentioned that you had a children’s book coming out soon.

Cory: Yeah, I have a picture book. It’s called Poesy the Monster Slayer. And it’s about a little girl who’s obsessed with monsters. And one night when the monsters break into her bedroom, she tears apart all the girly toys in her bedroom and repurposed them as field-expedient monster-killing weapons. When the beholder leaps off of her bookcase and hovers in front of her with its millions of riding eyes, she takes her Barbie bubblegum-scented perfume and mace it. After each monster battle, her parents come in and put her back to bed and say “I’m going to be a zombie tomorrow morning if you don’t let me get a good night’s sleep and stop horsing around in your room.” And then the punchline is that they turn into zombies that she can’t defeat, but the zombie that they can’t defeat just tucks her into bed. Its attack mode is that tucks her into bed and doesn’t let her get out again. And the penultimate monster that she fights is Frankenstein’s monster. And she topples it over and then uses her sewing kit seam ripper to take its head off. And they tuck its head into bed with her and the two of them share a wry glance, the Frankenstein’s head, and the little girl as her parents tuck them in and turn the lights out. That’s the cute little story. Yeah, spoiler. It’s only about 100 words long, so it wouldn’t take you long to get to that spoiler. Just don’t tell your little children before you read it to them and you’ll be fine.

TFSR: That sounds like a story that only a parent could write.

Cory: Yeah, certainly. And the part of the running joke is the name of the kid is very long, and it’s my daughter’s name. So my daughter has a crazy long name. She’s Poesy Emmeline Fibonacci Nautilus Taylor Doctorow. That’s the name of this character. And every time the parents come in, they call her by more of her name. So like, “Poesy has to go back to bed. Poesy Taylor Doctorow, go back to bed. Poesy Emmeline Taylor Doctorow, go back to bed.” And eventually, it turns into the whole name. It’s fun in a kid’s book where there’s a cumulative call and response.

TFSR: That’s funny, too, that reminds me of Etc from Walkaway. What inspired that? Your daughter?

Cory: Well, one of the things about the immigrant experience I come from — it’s different for different people — is that we have a lot of names. My grandfathers had their birth names, which were usually Russian or Eastern European names. And then they had a Hebrew name. And then they had a Yiddish nickname. And then they had an anglicized name, and sometimes more than one anglicized name. And they used different names depending on who they talked to. And I played with this before. I wrote a novel called Someone Comes to Town, Someone Leaves Town where the characters have a different name every time they are referred to. It has a specific salience in this technological moment, because of the name wars, where Google Plus and Facebook had this insistence on everyone having one canonical name that they use to face the world, which produced all kinds of shitty problems. But it also sparked a bunch of really good arguments about names. And there’s a beautiful essay called “False things programmers believe about names.” It includes things like everyone has a name, everyone has one name, everyone has a name that can be written down. Everyone has a unique name. Everyone has a name that’s unique when you factor in their date of birth, and so on and so on. This is actually also become the subject of a Supreme Court case over voter suppression because one of the heuristics that the voter-roll-purging software used was that it assumed that it was very unlikely that two people would share the same name and the same birthday. And it turns out that for a lot of reasons, that’s not true. Among them is the fact that a lot of databases, when they don’t have a birthday, default to January 1. There are tons of people who share that birthday. But also guess what month people named June tend to be born in *laughs*. Or people named Carol, guess what day of the year they tend to be born — December 25. There are a lot more collisions than you’d expect. I wanted to play with this idea that you could have a character that had lots and lots of names that would break a database.

There’s a joke that got picked up in XKCD about a kid named Timmy Drop Tables, that is whose name is a MySQL code injection attack, that if you try to enter the kid into the school rolls, the school rolls fall apart. That database-breaking function of names is a really interesting thing. And names, of course, have this resonance in storytelling, where if you know Rumplestiltskin’s name, you can make him do your bidding. If you know the Demon’s name, you can conjure him or banish him, and so on. So the true names of things have always held power. And one of the things that the internet has been really good for, and that has made the name wars so important, is that the internet has always been a place where people could have a new name. And it’s enabled people, because of those new names, to experiment with new identities. And those new identities are part of why we have things like gender fluidity, as a thing that has always existed but has come into prominence, because it gives people a space in which they can be fluid in their identity, without exposing themselves to risk, by budding off a new identity to play with. And then when they feel comfortable about reintegrating it into the main branch of their identity if they ever do. And that has created a real social revolution that’s playing out all over the world.

It’s also a force for evil, the Twitter is full of Nazis who don’t use their real names to avoid reprisals. We now live in an age in which one of the great sins that you can commit that violates the terms of service of almost everything is disclosing the real name of someone, we call it doxxing. Disclosure of someone’s real name, when they operate under a pseudonym has become grounds for online execution, which I’m not saying that’s wrong and I’m not saying it’s right either. I’m saying that it just tells a lot about the right to the name. Giving a character a lot of names, I thought had a currency to it, a Zeitgeist-iness.

TFSR: You could almost write a whole novel, just probably telling the stories behind each of those names.

Cory: Sure. Well, in his case, they’re the 20 most popular names from the 1890 census in order. One of my writing techniques is that when I want to name a character I use, at least as a placeholder, I often use the census. I go like “I want a name that’s really common.” Because the census produces popularity-ranked names. So I pick a first name and a surname from the top of the census, or I want a very uncommon name, so I pick it from the bottom. It’s a cheap and easy way to do it.

TFSR: I’m personally a little uncomfortable with transhumanism as an idea because I fear that— because the people who tend to wield technology, tend to be the powerful people and that sort of scenario that you were breaking down and Walkaway around the elite class becoming gods and then denying everyone else the ability to reach that point seemed like what my cynical mind would actually see happening in the world. But can you talk a little bit about immortality, about technology as a means of escaping the mortal coil, and maybe what values you see in the mortal coil that got troubled by some of the different characters like Tam, for instance?

Cory: There’s a really good book about this, and I nod to it in the book [Walkaway] called Citizen Cyborg by James Hughes, who’s a humanist transhumanist. He has a humanist transhuman program. And he argues that the problem with this kind of tanshumanism is fairly-distributed access to the technologies, not the technologies themselves. So I’m of the view that science-fiction rarely predicts specific technological innovation well, but what it does predict with incredible accuracy is our widespread social fears and aspirations for technology. I think the science fiction stories that we tell that are very current, that are very resonant are a diagnostic tool for what it is we worry about and what it is we hope for, not for what’s actually going to happen, except to the extent that, of course, the things that you hope for me may happen because you might work towards them. But it’s not like it’s got a predictive value. We’re not fortune-tellers.

And I think that the idea that technology will change what it means to be human has a pretty obvious corollary in what’s going on in our world. A lot of the institutions that we define our humanity by, be it family or names or, or nationality, or what have you, are challenged by network communications. And I think the fear of a transhuman rift between the wealthy and the rest of us feel like there might be a rift between the life circumstances of the wealthy and the rest of us, that would make it impossible for the wealthy to understand or empathize or even really be said properly to be in the same species or circumstances the rest of us. If the rich never see the poor, if mating means that the rich never marry the poor, if the rich live a life circumstance that is completely different from the poor, then they are in some way speciating, even if it’s not biological, even if transhumanism isn’t doing it for them. Moreover, if we live in a world in which market logic dictates healthcare, and so poor people die of preventable diseases and rich people get to live very long lives, then that transhumanist idea of some of us being medically privileged and the rest of us being medically deprived is, again, not a difficult thing to understand. But it doesn’t require that we be literally headed into transhumanism for it to be relevant. And I think that’s good because transhumanism is a great science fiction MacGuffin, it has very little connection with technological reality in the biotech realm.

TFSR: Okay. Cory, thank you so much for having this chat. I’ve really enjoyed it. And I think listeners are going to get a real kick out of it. You said some really awesome things.

Cory: Oh, well, thank you.

TFSR: Where can people in the audience find your writing and keep up on the books that you’re publishing?

Cory: I’m pretty easy to find. Let me check if I am still the top query in Google today. I usually am. I’m the sixth Cory on Google this morning. So I’m pretty easy to find, Cory Doctorow. I am one of the editors of a website called BoingBoing at boingboing.net. Craphound.com — it’s my personal site. You can get on my mailing list and get on my podcast, I podcast short stories and articles there. And I have a Twitter feed @Doctorow. My books are available wherever fine books are sold. I should mention that if you want a Fairtrade ebook or audiobook, I actually retail my ebooks and audiobooks, even though they’re published by traditional publishers, I’ve convinced them to let me set up a store. So I sell them at the same price as Amazon, but I get the cut that Amazon would normally take and then I send the rest back to my publisher, and then they give me my royalties. So it’s a way of effectively doubling my royalties. So if you want to indulge in some electronic media purchasing, that’s a way to do it. One of the things that are out there right now is the audiobook of Walkaway, which I self-produced, and which has some really astoundingly good readers. Amber Benson from Buffy and Wil Wheaton from Star Trek and Amanda Palmer, who was in the Dresden Dolls, all read on it, along with several other very talented ebook readers. So I’m extremely happy with how that worked out. I should mention it’s all DRM-free, and there’s no license agreement. You don’t need to give up any rights to buy those books.

TFSR: So thanks for sharing, Cory.

Cory: Well, thank you. Thanks for your interest.

TFSR: This week we’re presenting an interview that I conducted with sci-fi and picture book author, technologist, and social critic Cory Doctorow. Cory is an editor of the blog BoingBoing.net, a fellow at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, and his most recent book is entitled Walkaway, and it’s out from Head of Zeus and Tor Books. The novel plays with themes of open-source technologies, class society, post-scarcity economics, ecological remediation, dropout culture, and liberatory social models. It was released a few days ago also in paperback, along with matching reissues of his other adult sci-fi novels.

For the hour, we chat about themes from the book, about sharing, imagination, privilege, and monsters. To find more work by Cory, check out his blog craphound.com. You can also find him on Twitter. You can find free versions of his writing at Project Gutenberg, as well as interviews and recordings that he’s done at archive.org or his podcast. Links will be found in the show notes for this episode.

Cory, thank you very much for taking the time to chat.

Cory Doctorow: Oh, it’s my pleasure. Thanks for your interest in the book.

TFSR: It was a really pleasurable read. One thing I love about speculative fiction is finding the roots in the current world looking at the divergences between the story and the IRL and playing with those imaginary threads, tying them together. Walkaway mentions Idle No More, the Arab Spring, it alludes to Occupy and even old back-to-the-landers in Vermont. From this history-of-the-future view, what agency is given to resistance movements of today or just yesterday?

Cory: That’s a really good question. My theory of change is that we get to a better place not by laying out a plan that takes us from A to Z, but by taking immediate steps that in some way materially improve the circumstances for resistance or change, that then creates a more favorable landscape from which the next volley can be launched. So it’s a lot more like a software hill-climbing algorithm, where you don’t know the terrain and but all you do is you always try to move up to more favorable terrain, rather than this idea of a knowable world. Maybe this is where I break with Marxism and its so-called scientific theory of history that has this deceptive and seductive inevitability about how we can chart a course. And instead of charting a course, I advocate for a unified heuristic. We all use the same rule of thumb to try to make things better. And the material improvements that we make just in some way benefit the people that come in the future, in some unknowable and unguessable situation. So rather than try to lay in the material needed for a battle whose contours we can’t predict, we just try to make things as versatile and usable as possible for whoever comes next. And so in this future, I think the people who are on the vanguard, are people who are picking up the stuff that we left lying around, without knowing exactly how it would be used. And some of it turns out to be useful in unexpected ways. And some of the stuff that maybe we predicted would be most useful turns out to have no earthly use.

TFSR: That’s really well-said. Actually, that reminds me— I had mentioned in one of the emails that I was interested in and had been looking into Cooperation Jackson recently as a project happening in the deep south of the US. It’s an initiative to grow a tech industry and manufacturing and fabricating belt, employing the mostly black and working-class populations in a democratic, almost permacultural approach. It doesn’t seem perfect, obviously. But they’ve really laid out their plan, really open-source style in this book called Jackson Rising. They’re influenced by Rojava, by the Mondragon cooperative, by Black Liberation struggles, by the Zapatistas, and many other diverse movements. Are there any current anti-capitalist projects or movements around the world that are hacking and making that inspire you or that you’re keeping close tabs on?

Cory: It’s a really good question. Again, I know I keep saying that, but these are good thought-provoking meaty questions.

I’m sure that there are explicitly anti-capitalist projects. I mean, Dmitry Kleiner and the Telekommunisten in Berlin sprang to mind. But I’m interested in the way that projects that don’t have an explicitly anti-capitalist agenda, nevertheless can serve the cause of a post-capitalist or even a mixed-market technological future. So things free and open-source software, the movement for net neutrality, cognitive radio technologies, things like end-to-end encrypted messenger clients. And also, not incidentally, that the tools for evaluating all of these that— We’re getting into better trainer training tools and better critical frameworks for understanding them. So EFF, with whom I work, sometimes the Electronic Frontier Foundation, has historically published scorecards of different kinds of security tools. And they’ve stopped doing it for end-to-end encrypted messengers because they realize that there isn’t a dimension on which an encrypted messaging tool is best. Instead, there are different kinds of threat models for different kinds of users. Now they’re publishing plain-language, easy-to-understand models, or frameworks for evaluating what encrypted messenger you should use and understanding whether any given encrypted messenger is one that you should trust and that you would find useful.

And to me, in terms of aiding insurgency, which I guess is what all these things have in common, they don’t have an explicit political valence, but they have an anti-authoritarian valence, that these tools are really useful. And I think that the place where, again, if I break with the Marxist left on the inevitability of history, maybe the place where I break with the intersectional left, is on whether a tool can be made to benefit insurgents that doesn’t benefit insurgents, we don’t like. The alt-right is an insurgent movement as well. And when I look at movements to throttle the alt-right, I always concern myself with the extent to which that will also throttle anti-authoritarian left-wing movements. For example, any framework in which it becomes easier to remove content from the web-based on the politics of its speech, I think, has to be viewed with extreme caution, not because there isn’t a speech that is bad speech, or that the world would be better without, but because the ease with which speech can be removed based on its content is a threat to anyone who wants to say anything unpopular.

TFSR: Yeah, it’s funny, now becoming personally old enough, I’m almost 40 to have seen this trajectory a couple of times. For instance, I’m in the US, seeing Democrats be in office and then seeing Democrats allowed to push certain boundaries or increase incarceration rates, or deport more people, or do drone strikes without any sort of repercussions to the executive branch. And then a Republican administration follows directly after, it’s terrible when it’s happening when the Democrats are doing it, but there seems to be a lack of understanding to some people that the tool is going to be wielded by someone and you don’t get to choose necessarily who wields that tool. Whether or not it’s positive or “positive” for your goal.

Cory: Yeah, I think that’s right. American liberals were pretty sanguine about the extension of really extreme executive power to Obama when he was using it to fight the hardline TGOP Republican Congress. And now they’re about to have their past sins visited upon them, not least because there’s now the power of the president to create secret assassination lists that a certain liberal defended in the last administration. But also, as you say, mass incarceration, the failure to close Gitmo, and so on. A lot of that triangulation Clintonian political stuff is how they went from convenient instrumental doctrines into pluripotent immortal weapons that now get to be wielded by whoever sits in the President’s chair. And we have a maniac with a lot less discretion sitting in the President’s chair. I’m not going to stick up for Obama, but I do think that if nothing else, he was circumspect and premeditated in a way that Trump isn’t capable of, which at least allowed us to have a threat model. I always like to distinguish, when I think about threat models, between the cat burglar who plans a robbery of your house because they know what jewels you have hidden in your wall safe. And that time I parked my car in Gastown in Vancouver, which is the principal part of heroin ingress into the Americas. I left a quarter sitting on the dashboard and someone broke into the rental car to steal a quarter. It’s possible to think about that jewel thief in a way that rationally defends against it. Like if the jewel thief’s expected return on selling your jewels is less than the cost of breaking into your house, you can secure your house from the jewel thief because they don’t want to waste money. Whereas the junkie is acting without any premeditation, and it’s very hard to defend against. And when we think about political threat models, Obama at least was predictable. We knew where he would squander capital and where he wouldn’t in the political sense. Whereas Trump picks dumb fights. And a loose cannon on deck is much scarier when it’s a really big scary cannon than when it’s a small constrained cannon. And Obama made the president into a much bigger cannon.

TFSR: Yeah. With the aid of the American people.

You mentioned that you’re a fellow at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, and a lot of your writing focuses on tech tools, for more secure organizing and knowledge sharing, and resisting tyranny. For instance, Little Brother, as a novel focused largely on ubiquitous surveillance and the socialization of resistance via, for instance, parties where people shared encryption face-to-face. The book was both the commentary as well as a spur to get folks thinking about resistance with actual models of going about it. Can you talk about your views of the cultural and activist interventions that you engage with? How do they overlap?

Cory: Culturally, there is an anti-authoritarian streak that is built into the internet. It’s not determinative, it’s not like using the internet makes you anti-authoritarian. But if you have anti-authoritarian tendencies, there’s a lot that the internet has to offer you. And much of what gave us the internet, as we understand it today, was anti-authoritarian. It may have had its roots and things BBN and the RAND Corporation, building command and control networks for the US military. But its early users and the people who sketched out its contours and built a lot of its infrastructure and a lot of its norms and embedded technological assumptions did so out of a posture of anti-authoritarianism. And so culturally, anti-authoritarianism is not an end in itself. Because anti-authoritarianism can lead to like, “What do you mean, I’m not allowed to say racist things and rape people. You’re not the boss of me!” But anti-authoritarianism is an axis on which to plot other politics, I think good politics are better when they’re anti-authoritarian. That the people who are suspicious of their ability to tell other people what to do, and the likelihood that they’ll get it right produce better outcomes than people who are convinced of their infallibility and the right to dictate to other people.

One of the places where the politics and the culture of the internet overlap, is in that anti-authoritarianism. Going back to Marxism, Marx had this idea that being alienated from your labor made you susceptible to being talked to about the problems of labor alienation. And I think making your friends and enjoying the world through systems that are intrinsically anti-authoritarian, or that have anti-authoritarian roots, makes you a good candidate to talk to about anti-authoritarianism.

You know “there are no atheists in a foxhole”?, it’s harder to be an authoritarian on the internet. It’s not impossible, clearly, but as compared to other systems, the internet, because there’s the coercion on the internet is hard. And not only that, but people who have benefited from the inability of others to coerce them, have then gone on to build other systems on the internet that make coercion hard. Again, it’s not impossible, I’m not pretending that shitty Twitter mobs aren’t coercive. I’m just saying that the shitty Twitter mobs are an aberration, as compared to many other systems that exist to evade coercion. One of the things that I concern myself with a lot is what I think of it as historic revisionism in which we say that early internet optimists were naive about the power of the Internet to be a force for bad, and I happened to know those people really personally and I’m extremely I’m aware of what they had in mind. I was there when they were doing that, I was talking to them about what are we trying to do here, I was working for them and drawing a paycheck from them. And their view was not “the internet is automatically going to be great”. It’s raining soup, let’s fill up our boots. Their view was that the internet could be unbelievably terrible. let’s make sure that that doesn’t happen. And so, when John Gilmore said the internet interprets censorship and rights around it, he specifically meant that people who operate the most anti-authoritarian parts of the internet, which at the time were old Usenet feeds, whenever someone tries to censor Usenet, do these specific things with the protocols that underpin it, and with their own human effort to make it harder to censor, and those tools might have been developed to ride around damage, to ride around drop nodes and an unreliable network. But they work extremely well to fight censorship. And the people who develop them are ready and willing to do so because they view censorship as illegitimate.

That’s a powerful force. And it’s one that the story of the internet’s early proponents being naive fools. One of the things we have on our side, as we work to make the internet safe for human habitation, a force for good and human thriving is the ethos that the internet should be that, and when you turn your firing squad in a circle and say that the people who fought all along for a free, fair and open Internet just didn’t understand how the internet would go wrong and shouldn’t be listened to, then you make it harder to achieve the free, fair and open Internet that we want. And you do so out of petty personal satisfaction that you get from telling other people that they’re idiots.

TFSR: This reminds me of a part of the book that I keep thinking about, and that keeps resonating with me as a very interesting way of engaging with some of these ideas. So just to bring up a couple of characters. There was Limpopo and Jimmy. Limpopo had put in a hell of a lot of work, designing and building and doing upkeep on a way station and home for people who had started walking away for what was called Default or mainstream society in this dystopia. And people collaborated there to create a new life with others. Jimmy comes in as an intelligent, brash, proud young man who believes in meritocracy and wants to leverage a position of power at the compound called the B&B for himself by riding the coattails of Limpopo. There are also some gender norm dynamics that one could unpack from the way that it goes down in the story.

Can you talk about what inspired you to write this out? And what do you hope readers will get from the debates and battles like these that happen in Walkaway?

Cory: In some respects, that is me correcting a sin of my own, which was that I wrote this novel Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom about the ambiguous utopia of meritocracy that like reputation economies, where I posed reputation economies as a not unalloyed good, but as something that can be actually pretty terrible. And people took it as a manual for how to build the future, not as a cautionary tale about how things could go wrong if you use that as your starting point. I wanted to make it less ambiguous, the ambiguous utopia of a reputation economy, I wanted to make it more explicitly dystopic to heighten that, make it visible, make it harder to miss. I think I did that. I hope I did. And I also want people to think a little bit about this starting-life-on-third-base business that when you say someone has done very well objectively, and that something that you’ve measured is bigger for one person than it is for another, that there’s a false quantitativeness that misses out on some qualitative elements, which are all the social stuff that goes into that person’s life, all the reasons that they’re over-performing relative to their peers.

TFSR: Can you break that down a little bit? I saw you had responded to a Q&A from a big bookstore in Portland naming your memoirs, something about like, “I’m a privileged white dude, who’s-” I’m misstating that… Can you unpack that a little bit more about where people start from? Why do they perform in certain ways and the invisibility of privilege?

Cory: Yeah, I mean, I expected anyone listening to this to be familiar with the story, but I’ll tell you, from my perspective.

My grandparents did not come from a place where they had a lot of privilege or power. My grandfather was raised on a farm in a part of Belarus that later became Poland. My grandmother was raised in Leningrad, and my grandmother was a child soldier who was inducted into the Civil Defense Corps during the siege of Leningrad at the age of 12. And she served for nearly three years, and then they evacuated the women and children over the winter ice. And she met my grandfather in Siberia when she was inducted into the Red Army. And then the two of them deserted and went to a displaced persons’ camp in Azerbaijan. And that’s where my dad was born. And they came to Canada as displaced people. But Canada had, at the time, a pretty well-developed social welfare network. And it made sure that my dad got a first-class education. There were also relatively few large businesses that dominated the sectors that they operated in. And so my grandmother’s second husband was able to start and operate a successful scrapyard, that gave him the power to go to university, which was also publicly underwritten. And as a result, even though both of my dad’s parents were functionally illiterate, he has a Ph.D. in Education. And that’s why I grew up in a household where in 1979, we got an Apple 2+, because, by that point, he was head of computer science for a large high school. And Apple came along and gave all those heads of computer sciences Apple computers to take home for the summer, to convince them to not have mainframes, to not do time-sharing on mainframes and their computer science courses. My dad had been teaching with PDPs that they time-shared on and punch cards. And as a result, I had a modem in 1980, I was active on bulletin board systems, I was on the ground floor when the internet came along, I was able to drop out of university and walk straight into a job in a new tech sector, I did very well by it. By the time I was in my mid-20s, I was earning as much as my unionized parents were, without a university degree. All of that arises out of privilege.

I got incredibly lucky by being born when I was born, I got incredibly lucky by being born to who I was born. And some of that luck was not just about the great forces of society, but about explicit redistributive practices that were intended to ensure not just equality of opportunity, but to a certain extent, equality of outcome. That was enormously beneficial to me. And so here, I sit in Southern California, having previously emigrated to the United Kingdom and attained citizenship, and then moving to the US and getting a Green Card through a relatively simple process, because I qualified for an alien of extraordinary ability visa that transitions very easily to a Green Card, and we’ve just bought a house and we can afford that house. And we’ve spent a bunch of money on a remodel and all of that. And some of that is because I write good books and work hard. But the reason I got to write good books and work hard and earn enough money to do all those things is that a bunch of forces that are way beyond my control, and that are not well-distributed bored down on my progenitors.

And this is how we went from my grandfather whose mother was kicked to death by a cow on a dirt farm, to me living in a renovated mid-century modern bungalow in Burbank, California in two generations. It wasn’t by pulling ourselves up by our bootstraps. It was because I got to start life on second base. When I look around at other people who are trying to do what I did, who are trying to become successful writers, who want to become activists, who want to get involved in other activities that require a relatively high degree of technical specialized knowledge, as well as the comfort from which to take risks. The reason those people don’t have that is not because of an innate failing of theirs. It’s because I am a privileged white dude who got incredibly lucky to be born who I was, and they weren’t.

TFSR: Do you read a lot of sci-fi yourself?

Cory: I do. Although, I think a lot of people who read a lot for pleasure in their 20s, by the time I got to my 30s and 40s and became a dad and had a career and so on, my reading for pleasure, or even reading for professional purposes, plummeted. I do a lot less reading now than I used to. But I have a chronic back pain problem. And so I swim for an hour every day, and I have an underwater mp3 player. So I listened to about two novels a month through my swimming. And then I probably read two more a month, or two more books a month. Sometimes novels, sometimes not. If they’re novels, they’re usually science fiction, as well as a few graphic novels. And I get sent a lot because I write young adult novels and also I’ve got a picture book coming out, I get sent a lot of kids’ books for review or quotes. And I have a 10-year-old, so I just throw them in her room. And if she reads them, then I read them and review them. She’s my first approximation sorting function. I read reasonably broadly, but when I worked in a science fiction bookstore, I read a lot. And I know exactly how much I’m not reading because I know how much I read back then.

TFSR: Does your daughter ever contribute to the quotes that go on the covers of books?

Cory: Yeah, funnily enough, one time, I got asked to write a quote for the sequel to a book that she liked a lot called Giants Beware! The sequel’s called Dragons Beware! And they sent it to me as a PDF, so we read it together off my screen. And I told her I’m going to make a quote for this. And they’re going to put it on the cover of the book. And she said, “I want to send one in too”. So just for yucks, I sent it to the editor, and the editor cut my quote in half to make room for hers.

TFSR: It sounds she has a feature in writing or at least reviewing. I really like political sci-fi, I’m a one-trick pony. I just gravitate towards reading about ideas around politics and around social engagement and social organizing. But a novel that I was reminded of at some point with Walkaway was March Pierce’s Woman on the Edge of Time. Have you read that before?

Cory: Sure.

TFSR: Especially for its [27:28] of a utopia and a dystopia in a struggle with each other, although her vision definitely had tech serving a visibly more ecologically healing role, rather than what I saw in Walkaway as a sort of mitigating during this hardcore struggle between default and walkaway worlds. I saw more people creating livable structures and the tools that they needed for immediate survival, as opposed to in Pierce’s book, maybe it would have been a little bit further on where people were trying to heal landscapes, for instance. Also, it contained more non-human animals than I found in Walkaway. Maybe I missed it, but was there an ecological bent in Walkaway? Or was it more focused on just this is the destruction, this is us needing to survive and create something new?

Cory: If we’ve been warned about disaster capitalism by the likes of Naomi Klein, Walkaway is, in some ways, a pain to the possibilities of disaster communism. One of the things that walkaways are doing is they’re using the catastrophic remnants of environmental collapse as the raw material for a better world. One of the great challenges to a transitional program towards a more broadly distributed future is property relations and the difficulties of expropriation.

I was just on a panel in Australia at a literary festival with an African woman, a white African journalist who had risked her life to report on authoritarianism in Zimbabwe and had been exiled. I think she was actually born there. Maybe it was another regional country. I think it was Zimbabwe. And she was talking about the ANC’s proposal to expropriate white farmers and redistribute their lands and about how that had been a real disaster in Zimbabwe for lots of reasons, partly because sophisticated agricultural knowledge wasn’t widely distributed, and partly because of the lingering resentments and the difficulty for reconciliation and so on.

And so we talked about it, and I said, “Let’s talk about some other decolonization efforts that had land reform in them. You have the Cubans who after the revolution bought land at market rates. And it’s not like the exiled elites of Cuba in Miami therefore forgave them and didn’t harbor inter-generational grudges against the Cuban Republic for having taken away the family farm. You have American whites in the South who still nurse these horrible grievances about the antebellum period and land changes after that and so on. Or the post-war period and land changes after that. It’s very hard to get people to feel okay about these changes in land ownership. Moreover, it’s very easy to activate grievances. So even if people seem to have forgotten about them for a generation, they can be reactivated by reactionary political actors who want to use those grievances to raise a political movement to pursue some reactionary program. Think about the Balcans, where by exploiting these old grievances, it was possible to create a civil war that still has a reactionary neofascist, nationalist element, who never fully lost the power that they gained by exploiting those old divisions.

I think that one of the things that the book proposes is that when life gives you SARS, you might try and make Sarsaparilla. The fact that environmental catastrophe has basically rendered a bunch of land to be uninhabitable and undesired by anyone means that walkaways can, with relatively low risk, just show up there and take this blighted no man’s land and turn it back into something worthwhile. But of course, the thing that they discover is that as soon as you rehabilitate something that no one wants, all of a sudden they rediscover their property interest in it. But the thing that they exploited in it is that there’s so much blighted land, and remediating it is so easy if you don’t care about profits, that as soon as they build something viable on some blighted land, and some oligarch comes along and says, “Hey, that’s my patch of blighted dirt and I want it back now that you made it attractive again,” they just move on to another patch of blighted dirt and do it all over again. And in fact, each one of these is an opportunity to overcome their previous mistakes and do more ambitious things and just refactor things. They’re in some way benefiting from not having that status quo bias that normally happens in things like free software projects where no one wants to start over and refactor things from go because it’s just so much work. And you’ve got so much sunk cost in the status quo. But if someone comes along and just wipes out all your source code every six months, provided that you really still need the thing, shelter is not optional. So they have to go build shelter somewhere. And they just make a virtue out of that vice.

TFSR: It’s a pretty awesome set up in the novel, and it’s really inspirational, the scope of the book and all the different social conundrums that you’re trying to at least touch on and play with how different elements of, for instance, the Free University that’s developed, that is escalating people’s knowledge and technologies and trying to improve on things all the time. Because you’ve got people that are disenfranchised from mainstream society, and they choose to leave, but they bring this knowledge and this ability with them and put it towards a collective good. There are just so many examples in the novel. I can’t I can’t stop gushing about it.

Cory: Oh, well, thank you. Science fiction does have this tradition of stories about someone wielding an enormous technological power because of their special knowledge, who nevertheless doesn’t have political power, and how the people with political power coerce the people with the technical knowledge into working for them. After civilization collapses, how does Master Blaster and Thunderdome get the mining engineers who actually know how to convert methane to useful source of power to work for them, or how does the technical staff of Immortan Joe get incentivized to work for Immortan Joe, instead of just walking over to the next Arroyo and living without this tyrant?

Telling it from the perspective of people who did have this rare, not widely distributed, extremely powerful technical knowledge, finding solidarity with the people rather than the oligarchs, and taking that technical knowledge and spreading it around, that’s actually a thing that happens. That’s the story of CryptoParty and it’s the story of lots of people who can just work for big tech companies, and instead, or in addition, devote their lives to social justice causes and to widely distributing their specialized knowledge. In this case, you have this scientist class that reaches a breaking point with their paymasters, where they realize that the practical immortality technology they’re developing has the potential to speciate the human race and make their bosses not just powerful, but immortal, and to deprive everyone else of immortality, and that once everyone else is immortal, once everyone else can’t be killed, then the ability of the wealthy and powerful 1% to coerce them becomes significantly reduced, because how do you coerce someone who’s not afraid to die? As these people start to defect to the side of the 99%, it becomes more and more obvious to the ones who remained, that what they’re engaged in is something morally indefensible and that not only is it morally indefensible, it’s morally indefensible and there’s an alternative.

TFSR: That’s a thing in the book that I found really interesting, too, is that I don’t hear many people talk about post-scarcity economics. And I’d to talk about the technologies of immortality that are talked about in the book. Hierarchies are based on the withholding of something from people. People build hierarchies, but social hierarchies that exist in society, whether it be the class-based ones, or the way that gender power is appropriated throughout society, or racial castes, or whatever, is about privileges being withheld from other people, people being disprivileged. And one of the very basic and from time immemorial ways that happens is the withholding of the means towards one’s own ability to have shelter, ability to have food, ability to take care of one’s loved ones. Can you talk about what made you start thinking about post-scarcity economics and maybe some influences on your thinking around it?

Cory: Well, going back to this idea about the cultural and political nexus on the internet, one of the things that the internet does is challenge — at the same time it supercharges it — it challenges rentierism, because the ultimate in rentierism is the idea of so-called intellectual property, which is the idea that you have a thing that has no tangible existence, and that, through its creation, generates passive income. And all you have to do is just sit there and wait for it to roll in. This is one of the ways that this fight that I’m engaged in on the policy side about DRM, I think has this wider significance. When you go back to the early literature of intellectual property in the Chicago school, you find this metastatic choice theory where this idea that someone who owns a piece of intellectual property could use some magic technology dust to infinitely divide that intellectual property into a series of products that are ever more tailored to different audiences.

So like, maybe you don’t want to spend the full freight to read a book anytime you want. Maybe you just want the right to read the book on Wednesdays while standing on one leg, and the market can produce this standing on one leg Wednesday price through some price discovery mechanism. And then the technology somehow sees to it, that having acquired the book you can only read it on Wednesdays while you’re standing on one leg. And it’s one of those things where, in a lot of technology policy fights, the answer is in part wanting it badly is not enough. So we don’t know how to make the technology that only lets you read a book on Wednesdays while standing on one leg, even if we stipulate that that’s a good idea. But once you swallow a spider to catch the fly, you have to swallow a bird to catch the spider.

So once we accepted that that would be this market in the future, and that the way that we would have these passive incomes in a post-manufacturing society where the WTO allowed all the manufacturing jobs to be offshore to China, and the West would remain wealthy through exporting the intellectual property to China that would then be turned into physical objects and then brought back into the West, and that it would be rent-seeking on the people making the things by owning the rights to the plans to make the things, or the images that are embodied by the things or whatever that the West would remain economically dominant, it became politically impossible to say, “We don’t know how to make a technology that stops you from reading books, unless it’s Wednesday, and you’re standing on one leg.” And so instead, we started trying to approximate it. And the way that we ended up approximating it is with technology that just spies on you all the time. Computers that are designed to not take orders from their owners, but instead to take orders from third parties without even informing the owner what the order is, or allowing them to rescind it or terminate it.

This has wider implications for information security, which is, in some ways, the single most important technological question we have to answer: how do we make computers more secure, as we start putting our bodies inside of them and start putting them inside of our bodies? There’s arguably nothing more important for us to answer authoritatively than that question. But the elevation to virtue of it being hard to make as many copies as you want of something is the outcome of this policy, consensus that emerged that we would just someday have this rentier economy. In that rentier economy, the fact that you can take something valuable and make as many copies as you need, without any incremental cost becomes a problem. Historically, that would have been a utopian scenario.

There’s a thing that everyone needs, and we can make as much of it as anyone needs for free? That’s not a problem historically. But we elevated scarcity to a virtue. And so thinking about post-scarcity is in that regard, a subversive act, because it challenges the whole consensus about what a neoliberal future looks like, a rentier future looks like. The first time I really encountered post-scarcity, I’d encountered it in dribs and drabs in the fights about software piracy in the 80s. There was some ambiguity there and there were still a lot of small independent software companies that made this reasonably convincing case that like, “I’m just some dude who made some accounting software, please don’t make me go broke by refusing to pay for it.” But as this turned into the music question, and as Napster came along and became the fastest adopted technology in the history of the world, and as it took the 80% of commercial music that wasn’t available for sale anywhere, at any price, and put it in the hands of everyone who wanted it at any time, night or day, and also automatically started to create communities of interest around music that were not in the mainstream because you would find someone’s collection that you thought was interesting, and you’d open a chat window to them, and you plunder their collection for things that you’d never heard of, but based on them having things that you liked that few other people you could assume that that the rest of it would be interesting to listen to. This thing that was so clearly just good was turned into a vise and became further the rubric for mass internet surveillance and takedown regime where material could remove from the internet without any checks or balances. It became really clear to me that the people who viewed scarcity as a virtue were an existential threat to a free, fair, and open Internet. For whatever reason that that scarcity had become a virtue to them. And so post-scarcity and thinking about it and singing its praises and describing ways in which it could be great, became a cultural project in the service of economic and political projects.

TFSR: I was wondering about this actually because you bring up Napster. And that’s about the time when I was graduating from high school and started paying attention to— I’d been playing on computers for a few years at that point. The things that Gnutella and Napster were providing, the connectivity, the ways of exploring other people’s knowledge and art were just fascinating. And those seem to go away in the early 2000s, because of all this pressure from industries and the FCC, and what have you. Soulseek is still around, but I don’t think people really use it, I mess with it from time to time, and it’s got the same abilities. Do you think it’s just not used as much or talked about because it’s a snake eating its tail, people don’t talk about it, so it doesn’t get used as much. And because people aren’t using it, people don’t talk about it, or just because technologies have maybe the social acceptability of sharing music or sharing art in that way, has now just developed onto a different platform?

Cory: It’s definitely on different platforms. It’s streaming now. Ironically, we lost a bunch of things that would have been very helpful to the industry. We lost a lot of the social elements. It’s much harder to have a community where you post links to music that you might like, that is infringing. You can still point to YouTube, but increasingly, there are risks of communities facing legal sanctions, being shut down because of the preponderance of links to stuff. And so what that means is that the recommendation and the concentration of people who might be interested in your music as a product in one easy-to-advertise-to place, that has been very eroded through these anti-infringement anti-piracy programs, but the infringement hasn’t been eroded. The people who will tell you that there’s more infringement than ever are the people who claimed that this would be what they needed to stop infringement. The record industry, their own stats show that their efforts were worse than useless, that they ended up with more infringement, not less. But of course, their argument is, “well, it would be even more if we hadn’t done all of this.” We swallow the spider to catch the fly, now give us some birds to catch the spider. Once we accepted that any cost is bearable in the service of defending music from copyright infringement, then the sky’s the limit. It turns out that shutting down services didn’t do it, disconnecting people from the Internet didn’t do it, all these other things didn’t do it. So just give us more extreme measures, just keep ramping up our power to be judge, jury, and executioner of people on the internet and the things that they say, and eventually, we’ll be able to get rid of copyright infringement.

The other thing that forcing this decentralization did was it made it harder to charge rent. Napster had a business model that was “we will go to the record labels, we’ll get a license from them, and we’ll charge five bucks a month to be a Napster customer. And then we’ll measure what people are downloading and we will pay out the money in that, according to who downloaded what, whose stuff got downloaded.” It was literally a model where the more people pirated, the more money you got paid. And now what we have is this fragmented underground system that, because of court decisions like Grokster, that said that companies have liability if they know and can measure what’s going on, the systems are deliberately designed so that no one can audit them and figure out which musicians to pay. So they just really shot themselves in the head. They still make tons of money from things like streaming services, the legit streaming services like Spotify. Musicians don’t make any money from them, but the labels make gobs of money from them. And that’s because they have these super abusive contracts. And those contracts have become more common, not less, because there are fewer alternative places to bandy your music about because the copyright enforcement has basically made it very expensive top-rate alternatives to the traditional music industry. And so now we’re down to four giant record labels that all have the same shitty contracts. And they all have the same abusive terms for any musician who signs with them. Even though Spotify is throwing billions of dollars at the labels, the labels contractually have to give only infinitesimal fractions of a penny to musicians out of those billions. You’ve just ended up with a system where it’s hard for them to harness real growth, the anemic growth that there is, they get the windfall from, and musicians are trapped in a sharecropping model.

TFSR: You mentioned that you had a children’s book coming out soon.

Cory: Yeah, I have a picture book. It’s called Poesy the Monster Slayer. And it’s about a little girl who’s obsessed with monsters. And one night when the monsters break into her bedroom, she tears apart all the girly toys in her bedroom and repurposed them as field-expedient monster-killing weapons. When the beholder leaps off of her bookcase and hovers in front of her with its millions of riding eyes, she takes her Barbie bubblegum-scented perfume and mace it. After each monster battle, her parents come in and put her back to bed and say “I’m going to be a zombie tomorrow morning if you don’t let me get a good night’s sleep and stop horsing around in your room.” And then the punchline is that they turn into zombies that she can’t defeat, but the zombie that they can’t defeat just tucks her into bed. Its attack mode is that tucks her into bed and doesn’t let her get out again. And the penultimate monster that she fights is Frankenstein’s monster. And she topples it over and then uses her sewing kit seam ripper to take its head off. And they tuck its head into bed with her and the two of them share a wry glance, the Frankenstein’s head, and the little girl as her parents tuck them in and turn the lights out. That’s the cute little story. Yeah, spoiler. It’s only about 100 words long, so it wouldn’t take you long to get to that spoiler. Just don’t tell your little children before you read it to them and you’ll be fine.

TFSR: That sounds like a story that only a parent could write.

Cory: Yeah, certainly. And the part of the running joke is the name of the kid is very long, and it’s my daughter’s name. So my daughter has a crazy long name. She’s Poesy Emmeline Fibonacci Nautilus Taylor Doctorow. That’s the name of this character. And every time the parents come in, they call her by more of her name. So like, “Poesy has to go back to bed. Poesy Taylor Doctorow, go back to bed. Poesy Emmeline Taylor Doctorow, go back to bed.” And eventually, it turns into the whole name. It’s fun in a kid’s book where there’s a cumulative call and response.

TFSR: That’s funny, too, that reminds me of Etc from Walkaway. What inspired that? Your daughter?

Cory: Well, one of the things about the immigrant experience I come from — it’s different for different people — is that we have a lot of names. My grandfathers had their birth names, which were usually Russian or Eastern European names. And then they had a Hebrew name. And then they had a Yiddish nickname. And then they had an anglicized name, and sometimes more than one anglicized name. And they used different names depending on who they talked to. And I played with this before. I wrote a novel called Someone Comes to Town, Someone Leaves Town where the characters have a different name every time they are referred to. It has a specific salience in this technological moment, because of the name wars, where Google Plus and Facebook had this insistence on everyone having one canonical name that they use to face the world, which produced all kinds of shitty problems. But it also sparked a bunch of really good arguments about names. And there’s a beautiful essay called “False things programmers believe about names.” It includes things like everyone has a name, everyone has one name, everyone has a name that can be written down. Everyone has a unique name. Everyone has a name that’s unique when you factor in their date of birth, and so on and so on. This is actually also become the subject of a Supreme Court case over voter suppression because one of the heuristics that the voter-roll-purging software used was that it assumed that it was very unlikely that two people would share the same name and the same birthday. And it turns out that for a lot of reasons, that’s not true. Among them is the fact that a lot of databases, when they don’t have a birthday, default to January 1. There are tons of people who share that birthday. But also guess what month people named June tend to be born in *laughs*. Or people named Carol, guess what day of the year they tend to be born — December 25. There are a lot more collisions than you’d expect. I wanted to play with this idea that you could have a character that had lots and lots of names that would break a database.

There’s a joke that got picked up in XKCD about a kid named Timmy Drop Tables, that is whose name is a MySQL code injection attack, that if you try to enter the kid into the school rolls, the school rolls fall apart. That database-breaking function of names is a really interesting thing. And names, of course, have this resonance in storytelling, where if you know Rumplestiltskin’s name, you can make him do your bidding. If you know the Demon’s name, you can conjure him or banish him, and so on. So the true names of things have always held power. And one of the things that the internet has been really good for, and that has made the name wars so important, is that the internet has always been a place where people could have a new name. And it’s enabled people, because of those new names, to experiment with new identities. And those new identities are part of why we have things like gender fluidity, as a thing that has always existed but has come into prominence, because it gives people a space in which they can be fluid in their identity, without exposing themselves to risk, by budding off a new identity to play with. And then when they feel comfortable about reintegrating it into the main branch of their identity if they ever do. And that has created a real social revolution that’s playing out all over the world.

It’s also a force for evil, the Twitter is full of Nazis who don’t use their real names to avoid reprisals. We now live in an age in which one of the great sins that you can commit that violates the terms of service of almost everything is disclosing the real name of someone, we call it doxxing. Disclosure of someone’s real name, when they operate under a pseudonym has become grounds for online execution, which I’m not saying that’s wrong and I’m not saying it’s right either. I’m saying that it just tells a lot about the right to the name. Giving a character a lot of names, I thought had a currency to it, a Zeitgeist-iness.

TFSR: You could almost write a whole novel, just probably telling the stories behind each of those names.

Cory: Sure. Well, in his case, they’re the 20 most popular names from the 1890 census in order. One of my writing techniques is that when I want to name a character I use, at least as a placeholder, I often use the census. I go like “I want a name that’s really common.” Because the census produces popularity-ranked names. So I pick a first name and a surname from the top of the census, or I want a very uncommon name, so I pick it from the bottom. It’s a cheap and easy way to do it.

TFSR: I’m personally a little uncomfortable with transhumanism as an idea because I fear that— because the people who tend to wield technology, tend to be the powerful people and that sort of scenario that you were breaking down and Walkaway around the elite class becoming gods and then denying everyone else the ability to reach that point seemed like what my cynical mind would actually see happening in the world. But can you talk a little bit about immortality, about technology as a means of escaping the mortal coil, and maybe what values you see in the mortal coil that got troubled by some of the different characters like Tam, for instance?

Cory: There’s a really good book about this, and I nod to it in the book [Walkaway] called Citizen Cyborg by James Hughes, who’s a humanist transhumanist. He has a humanist transhuman program. And he argues that the problem with this kind of tanshumanism is fairly-distributed access to the technologies, not the technologies themselves. So I’m of the view that science-fiction rarely predicts specific technological innovation well, but what it does predict with incredible accuracy is our widespread social fears and aspirations for technology. I think the science fiction stories that we tell that are very current, that are very resonant are a diagnostic tool for what it is we worry about and what it is we hope for, not for what’s actually going to happen, except to the extent that, of course, the things that you hope for me may happen because you might work towards them. But it’s not like it’s got a predictive value. We’re not fortune-tellers.

And I think that the idea that technology will change what it means to be human has a pretty obvious corollary in what’s going on in our world. A lot of the institutions that we define our humanity by, be it family or names or, or nationality, or what have you, are challenged by network communications. And I think the fear of a transhuman rift between the wealthy and the rest of us feel like there might be a rift between the life circumstances of the wealthy and the rest of us, that would make it impossible for the wealthy to understand or empathize or even really be said properly to be in the same species or circumstances the rest of us. If the rich never see the poor, if mating means that the rich never marry the poor, if the rich live a life circumstance that is completely different from the poor, then they are in some way speciating, even if it’s not biological, even if transhumanism isn’t doing it for them. Moreover, if we live in a world in which market logic dictates healthcare, and so poor people die of preventable diseases and rich people get to live very long lives, then that transhumanist idea of some of us being medically privileged and the rest of us being medically deprived is, again, not a difficult thing to understand. But it doesn’t require that we be literally headed into transhumanism for it to be relevant. And I think that’s good because transhumanism is a great science fiction MacGuffin, it has very little connection with technological reality in the biotech realm.

TFSR: Okay. Cory, thank you so much for having this chat. I’ve really enjoyed it. And I think listeners are going to get a real kick out of it. You said some really awesome things.

Cory: Oh, well, thank you.

TFSR: Where can people in the audience find your writing and keep up on the books that you’re publishing?

Cory: I’m pretty easy to find. Let me check if I am still the top query in Google today. I usually am. I’m the sixth Cory on Google this morning. So I’m pretty easy to find, Cory Doctorow. I am one of the editors of a website called BoingBoing at boingboing.net. Craphound.com — it’s my personal site. You can get on my mailing list and get on my podcast, I podcast short stories and articles there. And I have a Twitter feed @Doctorow. My books are available wherever fine books are sold. I should mention that if you want a Fairtrade ebook or audiobook, I actually retail my ebooks and audiobooks, even though they’re published by traditional publishers, I’ve convinced them to let me set up a store. So I sell them at the same price as Amazon, but I get the cut that Amazon would normally take and then I send the rest back to my publisher, and then they give me my royalties. So it’s a way of effectively doubling my royalties. So if you want to indulge in some electronic media purchasing, that’s a way to do it. One of the things that are out there right now is the audiobook of Walkaway, which I self-produced, and which has some really astoundingly good readers. Amber Benson from Buffy and Wil Wheaton from Star Trek and Amanda Palmer, who was in the Dresden Dolls, all read on it, along with several other very talented ebook readers. So I’m extremely happy with how that worked out. I should mention it’s all DRM-free, and there’s no license agreement. You don’t need to give up any rights to buy those books.

TFSR: So thanks for sharing, Cory.

Cory: Well, thank you. Thanks for your interest.

TFSR: This week we’re presenting an interview that I conducted with sci-fi and picture book author, technologist, and social critic Cory Doctorow. Cory is an editor of the blog BoingBoing.net, a fellow at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, and his most recent book is entitled Walkaway, and it’s out from Head of Zeus and Tor Books. The novel plays with themes of open-source technologies, class society, post-scarcity economics, ecological remediation, dropout culture, and liberatory social models. It was released a few days ago also in paperback, along with matching reissues of his other adult sci-fi novels.

For the hour, we chat about themes from the book, about sharing, imagination, privilege, and monsters. To find more work by Cory, check out his blog craphound.com. You can also find him on Twitter. You can find free versions of his writing at Project Gutenberg, as well as interviews and recordings that he’s done at archive.org or his podcast. Links will be found in the show notes for this episode.

Cory, thank you very much for taking the time to chat.

Cory Doctorow: Oh, it’s my pleasure. Thanks for your interest in the book.

TFSR: It was a really pleasurable read. One thing I love about speculative fiction is finding the roots in the current world looking at the divergences between the story and the IRL and playing with those imaginary threads, tying them together. Walkaway mentions Idle No More, the Arab Spring, it alludes to Occupy and even old back-to-the-landers in Vermont. From this history-of-the-future view, what agency is given to resistance movements of today or just yesterday?

Cory: That’s a really good question. My theory of change is that we get to a better place not by laying out a plan that takes us from A to Z, but by taking immediate steps that in some way materially improve the circumstances for resistance or change, that then creates a more favorable landscape from which the next volley can be launched. So it’s a lot more like a software hill-climbing algorithm, where you don’t know the terrain and but all you do is you always try to move up to more favorable terrain, rather than this idea of a knowable world. Maybe this is where I break with Marxism and its so-called scientific theory of history that has this deceptive and seductive inevitability about how we can chart a course. And instead of charting a course, I advocate for a unified heuristic. We all use the same rule of thumb to try to make things better. And the material improvements that we make just in some way benefit the people that come in the future, in some unknowable and unguessable situation. So rather than try to lay in the material needed for a battle whose contours we can’t predict, we just try to make things as versatile and usable as possible for whoever comes next. And so in this future, I think the people who are on the vanguard, are people who are picking up the stuff that we left lying around, without knowing exactly how it would be used. And some of it turns out to be useful in unexpected ways. And some of the stuff that maybe we predicted would be most useful turns out to have no earthly use.

TFSR: That’s really well-said. Actually, that reminds me— I had mentioned in one of the emails that I was interested in and had been looking into Cooperation Jackson recently as a project happening in the deep south of the US. It’s an initiative to grow a tech industry and manufacturing and fabricating belt, employing the mostly black and working-class populations in a democratic, almost permacultural approach. It doesn’t seem perfect, obviously. But they’ve really laid out their plan, really open-source style in this book called Jackson Rising. They’re influenced by Rojava, by the Mondragon cooperative, by Black Liberation struggles, by the Zapatistas, and many other diverse movements. Are there any current anti-capitalist projects or movements around the world that are hacking and making that inspire you or that you’re keeping close tabs on?

Cory: It’s a really good question. Again, I know I keep saying that, but these are good thought-provoking meaty questions.

I’m sure that there are explicitly anti-capitalist projects. I mean, Dmitry Kleiner and the Telekommunisten in Berlin sprang to mind. But I’m interested in the way that projects that don’t have an explicitly anti-capitalist agenda, nevertheless can serve the cause of a post-capitalist or even a mixed-market technological future. So things free and open-source software, the movement for net neutrality, cognitive radio technologies, things like end-to-end encrypted messenger clients. And also, not incidentally, that the tools for evaluating all of these that— We’re getting into better trainer training tools and better critical frameworks for understanding them. So EFF, with whom I work, sometimes the Electronic Frontier Foundation, has historically published scorecards of different kinds of security tools. And they’ve stopped doing it for end-to-end encrypted messengers because they realize that there isn’t a dimension on which an encrypted messaging tool is best. Instead, there are different kinds of threat models for different kinds of users. Now they’re publishing plain-language, easy-to-understand models, or frameworks for evaluating what encrypted messenger you should use and understanding whether any given encrypted messenger is one that you should trust and that you would find useful.

And to me, in terms of aiding insurgency, which I guess is what all these things have in common, they don’t have an explicit political valence, but they have an anti-authoritarian valence, that these tools are really useful. And I think that the place where, again, if I break with the Marxist left on the inevitability of history, maybe the place where I break with the intersectional left, is on whether a tool can be made to benefit insurgents that doesn’t benefit insurgents, we don’t like. The alt-right is an insurgent movement as well. And when I look at movements to throttle the alt-right, I always concern myself with the extent to which that will also throttle anti-authoritarian left-wing movements. For example, any framework in which it becomes easier to remove content from the web-based on the politics of its speech, I think, has to be viewed with extreme caution, not because there isn’t a speech that is bad speech, or that the world would be better without, but because the ease with which speech can be removed based on its content is a threat to anyone who wants to say anything unpopular.

TFSR: Yeah, it’s funny, now becoming personally old enough, I’m almost 40 to have seen this trajectory a couple of times. For instance, I’m in the US, seeing Democrats be in office and then seeing Democrats allowed to push certain boundaries or increase incarceration rates, or deport more people, or do drone strikes without any sort of repercussions to the executive branch. And then a Republican administration follows directly after, it’s terrible when it’s happening when the Democrats are doing it, but there seems to be a lack of understanding to some people that the tool is going to be wielded by someone and you don’t get to choose necessarily who wields that tool. Whether or not it’s positive or “positive” for your goal.

Cory: Yeah, I think that’s right. American liberals were pretty sanguine about the extension of really extreme executive power to Obama when he was using it to fight the hardline TGOP Republican Congress. And now they’re about to have their past sins visited upon them, not least because there’s now the power of the president to create secret assassination lists that a certain liberal defended in the last administration. But also, as you say, mass incarceration, the failure to close Gitmo, and so on. A lot of that triangulation Clintonian political stuff is how they went from convenient instrumental doctrines into pluripotent immortal weapons that now get to be wielded by whoever sits in the President’s chair. And we have a maniac with a lot less discretion sitting in the President’s chair. I’m not going to stick up for Obama, but I do think that if nothing else, he was circumspect and premeditated in a way that Trump isn’t capable of, which at least allowed us to have a threat model. I always like to distinguish, when I think about threat models, between the cat burglar who plans a robbery of your house because they know what jewels you have hidden in your wall safe. And that time I parked my car in Gastown in Vancouver, which is the principal part of heroin ingress into the Americas. I left a quarter sitting on the dashboard and someone broke into the rental car to steal a quarter. It’s possible to think about that jewel thief in a way that rationally defends against it. Like if the jewel thief’s expected return on selling your jewels is less than the cost of breaking into your house, you can secure your house from the jewel thief because they don’t want to waste money. Whereas the junkie is acting without any premeditation, and it’s very hard to defend against. And when we think about political threat models, Obama at least was predictable. We knew where he would squander capital and where he wouldn’t in the political sense. Whereas Trump picks dumb fights. And a loose cannon on deck is much scarier when it’s a really big scary cannon than when it’s a small constrained cannon. And Obama made the president into a much bigger cannon.

TFSR: Yeah. With the aid of the American people.

You mentioned that you’re a fellow at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, and a lot of your writing focuses on tech tools, for more secure organizing and knowledge sharing, and resisting tyranny. For instance, Little Brother, as a novel focused largely on ubiquitous surveillance and the socialization of resistance via, for instance, parties where people shared encryption face-to-face. The book was both the commentary as well as a spur to get folks thinking about resistance with actual models of going about it. Can you talk about your views of the cultural and activist interventions that you engage with? How do they overlap?

Cory: Culturally, there is an anti-authoritarian streak that is built into the internet. It’s not determinative, it’s not like using the internet makes you anti-authoritarian. But if you have anti-authoritarian tendencies, there’s a lot that the internet has to offer you. And much of what gave us the internet, as we understand it today, was anti-authoritarian. It may have had its roots and things BBN and the RAND Corporation, building command and control networks for the US military. But its early users and the people who sketched out its contours and built a lot of its infrastructure and a lot of its norms and embedded technological assumptions did so out of a posture of anti-authoritarianism. And so culturally, anti-authoritarianism is not an end in itself. Because anti-authoritarianism can lead to like, “What do you mean, I’m not allowed to say racist things and rape people. You’re not the boss of me!” But anti-authoritarianism is an axis on which to plot other politics, I think good politics are better when they’re anti-authoritarian. That the people who are suspicious of their ability to tell other people what to do, and the likelihood that they’ll get it right produce better outcomes than people who are convinced of their infallibility and the right to dictate to other people.

One of the places where the politics and the culture of the internet overlap, is in that anti-authoritarianism. Going back to Marxism, Marx had this idea that being alienated from your labor made you susceptible to being talked to about the problems of labor alienation. And I think making your friends and enjoying the world through systems that are intrinsically anti-authoritarian, or that have anti-authoritarian roots, makes you a good candidate to talk to about anti-authoritarianism.

You know “there are no atheists in a foxhole”?, it’s harder to be an authoritarian on the internet. It’s not impossible, clearly, but as compared to other systems, the internet, because there’s the coercion on the internet is hard. And not only that, but people who have benefited from the inability of others to coerce them, have then gone on to build other systems on the internet that make coercion hard. Again, it’s not impossible, I’m not pretending that shitty Twitter mobs aren’t coercive. I’m just saying that the shitty Twitter mobs are an aberration, as compared to many other systems that exist to evade coercion. One of the things that I concern myself with a lot is what I think of it as historic revisionism in which we say that early internet optimists were naive about the power of the Internet to be a force for bad, and I happened to know those people really personally and I’m extremely I’m aware of what they had in mind. I was there when they were doing that, I was talking to them about what are we trying to do here, I was working for them and drawing a paycheck from them. And their view was not “the internet is automatically going to be great”. It’s raining soup, let’s fill up our boots. Their view was that the internet could be unbelievably terrible. let’s make sure that that doesn’t happen. And so, when John Gilmore said the internet interprets censorship and rights around it, he specifically meant that people who operate the most anti-authoritarian parts of the internet, which at the time were old Usenet feeds, whenever someone tries to censor Usenet, do these specific things with the protocols that underpin it, and with their own human effort to make it harder to censor, and those tools might have been developed to ride around damage, to ride around drop nodes and an unreliable network. But they work extremely well to fight censorship. And the people who develop them are ready and willing to do so because they view censorship as illegitimate.

That’s a powerful force. And it’s one that the story of the internet’s early proponents being naive fools. One of the things we have on our side, as we work to make the internet safe for human habitation, a force for good and human thriving is the ethos that the internet should be that, and when you turn your firing squad in a circle and say that the people who fought all along for a free, fair and open Internet just didn’t understand how the internet would go wrong and shouldn’t be listened to, then you make it harder to achieve the free, fair and open Internet that we want. And you do so out of petty personal satisfaction that you get from telling other people that they’re idiots.

TFSR: This reminds me of a part of the book that I keep thinking about, and that keeps resonating with me as a very interesting way of engaging with some of these ideas. So just to bring up a couple of characters. There was Limpopo and Jimmy. Limpopo had put in a hell of a lot of work, designing and building and doing upkeep on a way station and home for people who had started walking away for what was called Default or mainstream society in this dystopia. And people collaborated there to create a new life with others. Jimmy comes in as an intelligent, brash, proud young man who believes in meritocracy and wants to leverage a position of power at the compound called the B&B for himself by riding the coattails of Limpopo. There are also some gender norm dynamics that one could unpack from the way that it goes down in the story.

Can you talk about what inspired you to write this out? And what do you hope readers will get from the debates and battles like these that happen in Walkaway?

Cory: In some respects, that is me correcting a sin of my own, which was that I wrote this novel Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom about the ambiguous utopia of meritocracy that like reputation economies, where I posed reputation economies as a not unalloyed good, but as something that can be actually pretty terrible. And people took it as a manual for how to build the future, not as a cautionary tale about how things could go wrong if you use that as your starting point. I wanted to make it less ambiguous, the ambiguous utopia of a reputation economy, I wanted to make it more explicitly dystopic to heighten that, make it visible, make it harder to miss. I think I did that. I hope I did. And I also want people to think a little bit about this starting-life-on-third-base business that when you say someone has done very well objectively, and that something that you’ve measured is bigger for one person than it is for another, that there’s a false quantitativeness that misses out on some qualitative elements, which are all the social stuff that goes into that person’s life, all the reasons that they’re over-performing relative to their peers.

TFSR: Can you break that down a little bit? I saw you had responded to a Q&A from a big bookstore in Portland naming your memoirs, something about like, “I’m a privileged white dude, who’s-” I’m misstating that… Can you unpack that a little bit more about where people start from? Why do they perform in certain ways and the invisibility of privilege?

Cory: Yeah, I mean, I expected anyone listening to this to be familiar with the story, but I’ll tell you, from my perspective.

My grandparents did not come from a place where they had a lot of privilege or power. My grandfather was raised on a farm in a part of Belarus that later became Poland. My grandmother was raised in Leningrad, and my grandmother was a child soldier who was inducted into the Civil Defense Corps during the siege of Leningrad at the age of 12. And she served for nearly three years, and then they evacuated the women and children over the winter ice. And she met my grandfather in Siberia when she was inducted into the Red Army. And then the two of them deserted and went to a displaced persons’ camp in Azerbaijan. And that’s where my dad was born. And they came to Canada as displaced people. But Canada had, at the time, a pretty well-developed social welfare network. And it made sure that my dad got a first-class education. There were also relatively few large businesses that dominated the sectors that they operated in. And so my grandmother’s second husband was able to start and operate a successful scrapyard, that gave him the power to go to university, which was also publicly underwritten. And as a result, even though both of my dad’s parents were functionally illiterate, he has a Ph.D. in Education. And that’s why I grew up in a household where in 1979, we got an Apple 2+, because, by that point, he was head of computer science for a large high school. And Apple came along and gave all those heads of computer sciences Apple computers to take home for the summer, to convince them to not have mainframes, to not do time-sharing on mainframes and their computer science courses. My dad had been teaching with PDPs that they time-shared on and punch cards. And as a result, I had a modem in 1980, I was active on bulletin board systems, I was on the ground floor when the internet came along, I was able to drop out of university and walk straight into a job in a new tech sector, I did very well by it. By the time I was in my mid-20s, I was earning as much as my unionized parents were, without a university degree. All of that arises out of privilege.

I got incredibly lucky by being born when I was born, I got incredibly lucky by being born to who I was born. And some of that luck was not just about the great forces of society, but about explicit redistributive practices that were intended to ensure not just equality of opportunity, but to a certain extent, equality of outcome. That was enormously beneficial to me. And so here, I sit in Southern California, having previously emigrated to the United Kingdom and attained citizenship, and then moving to the US and getting a Green Card through a relatively simple process, because I qualified for an alien of extraordinary ability visa that transitions very easily to a Green Card, and we’ve just bought a house and we can afford that house. And we’ve spent a bunch of money on a remodel and all of that. And some of that is because I write good books and work hard. But the reason I got to write good books and work hard and earn enough money to do all those things is that a bunch of forces that are way beyond my control, and that are not well-distributed bored down on my progenitors.

And this is how we went from my grandfather whose mother was kicked to death by a cow on a dirt farm, to me living in a renovated mid-century modern bungalow in Burbank, California in two generations. It wasn’t by pulling ourselves up by our bootstraps. It was because I got to start life on second base. When I look around at other people who are trying to do what I did, who are trying to become successful writers, who want to become activists, who want to get involved in other activities that require a relatively high degree of technical specialized knowledge, as well as the comfort from which to take risks. The reason those people don’t have that is not because of an innate failing of theirs. It’s because I am a privileged white dude who got incredibly lucky to be born who I was, and they weren’t.

TFSR: Do you read a lot of sci-fi yourself?

Cory: I do. Although, I think a lot of people who read a lot for pleasure in their 20s, by the time I got to my 30s and 40s and became a dad and had a career and so on, my reading for pleasure, or even reading for professional purposes, plummeted. I do a lot less reading now than I used to. But I have a chronic back pain problem. And so I swim for an hour every day, and I have an underwater mp3 player. So I listened to about two novels a month through my swimming. And then I probably read two more a month, or two more books a month. Sometimes novels, sometimes not. If they’re novels, they’re usually science fiction, as well as a few graphic novels. And I get sent a lot because I write young adult novels and also I’ve got a picture book coming out, I get sent a lot of kids’ books for review or quotes. And I have a 10-year-old, so I just throw them in her room. And if she reads them, then I read them and review them. She’s my first approximation sorting function. I read reasonably broadly, but when I worked in a science fiction bookstore, I read a lot. And I know exactly how much I’m not reading because I know how much I read back then.

TFSR: Does your daughter ever contribute to the quotes that go on the covers of books?

Cory: Yeah, funnily enough, one time, I got asked to write a quote for the sequel to a book that she liked a lot called Giants Beware! The sequel’s called Dragons Beware! And they sent it to me as a PDF, so we read it together off my screen. And I told her I’m going to make a quote for this. And they’re going to put it on the cover of the book. And she said, “I want to send one in too”. So just for yucks, I sent it to the editor, and the editor cut my quote in half to make room for hers.

TFSR: It sounds she has a feature in writing or at least reviewing. I really like political sci-fi, I’m a one-trick pony. I just gravitate towards reading about ideas around politics and around social engagement and social organizing. But a novel that I was reminded of at some point with Walkaway was March Pierce’s Woman on the Edge of Time. Have you read that before?

Cory: Sure.

TFSR: Especially for its [27:28] of a utopia and a dystopia in a struggle with each other, although her vision definitely had tech serving a visibly more ecologically healing role, rather than what I saw in Walkaway as a sort of mitigating during this hardcore struggle between default and walkaway worlds. I saw more people creating livable structures and the tools that they needed for immediate survival, as opposed to in Pierce’s book, maybe it would have been a little bit further on where people were trying to heal landscapes, for instance. Also, it contained more non-human animals than I found in Walkaway. Maybe I missed it, but was there an ecological bent in Walkaway? Or was it more focused on just this is the destruction, this is us needing to survive and create something new?

Cory: If we’ve been warned about disaster capitalism by the likes of Naomi Klein, Walkaway is, in some ways, a pain to the possibilities of disaster communism. One of the things that walkaways are doing is they’re using the catastrophic remnants of environmental collapse as the raw material for a better world. One of the great challenges to a transitional program towards a more broadly distributed future is property relations and the difficulties of expropriation.

I was just on a panel in Australia at a literary festival with an African woman, a white African journalist who had risked her life to report on authoritarianism in Zimbabwe and had been exiled. I think she was actually born there. Maybe it was another regional country. I think it was Zimbabwe. And she was talking about the ANC’s proposal to expropriate white farmers and redistribute their lands and about how that had been a real disaster in Zimbabwe for lots of reasons, partly because sophisticated agricultural knowledge wasn’t widely distributed, and partly because of the lingering resentments and the difficulty for reconciliation and so on.

And so we talked about it, and I said, “Let’s talk about some other decolonization efforts that had land reform in them. You have the Cubans who after the revolution bought land at market rates. And it’s not like the exiled elites of Cuba in Miami therefore forgave them and didn’t harbor inter-generational grudges against the Cuban Republic for having taken away the family farm. You have American whites in the South who still nurse these horrible grievances about the antebellum period and land changes after that and so on. Or the post-war period and land changes after that. It’s very hard to get people to feel okay about these changes in land ownership. Moreover, it’s very easy to activate grievances. So even if people seem to have forgotten about them for a generation, they can be reactivated by reactionary political actors who want to use those grievances to raise a political movement to pursue some reactionary program. Think about the Balcans, where by exploiting these old grievances, it was possible to create a civil war that still has a reactionary neofascist, nationalist element, who never fully lost the power that they gained by exploiting those old divisions.

I think that one of the things that the book proposes is that when life gives you SARS, you might try and make Sarsaparilla. The fact that environmental catastrophe has basically rendered a bunch of land to be uninhabitable and undesired by anyone means that walkaways can, with relatively low risk, just show up there and take this blighted no man’s land and turn it back into something worthwhile. But of course, the thing that they discover is that as soon as you rehabilitate something that no one wants, all of a sudden they rediscover their property interest in it. But the thing that they exploited in it is that there’s so much blighted land, and remediating it is so easy if you don’t care about profits, that as soon as they build something viable on some blighted land, and some oligarch comes along and says, “Hey, that’s my patch of blighted dirt and I want it back now that you made it attractive again,” they just move on to another patch of blighted dirt and do it all over again. And in fact, each one of these is an opportunity to overcome their previous mistakes and do more ambitious things and just refactor things. They’re in some way benefiting from not having that status quo bias that normally happens in things like free software projects where no one wants to start over and refactor things from go because it’s just so much work. And you’ve got so much sunk cost in the status quo. But if someone comes along and just wipes out all your source code every six months, provided that you really still need the thing, shelter is not optional. So they have to go build shelter somewhere. And they just make a virtue out of that vice.

TFSR: It’s a pretty awesome set up in the novel, and it’s really inspirational, the scope of the book and all the different social conundrums that you’re trying to at least touch on and play with how different elements of, for instance, the Free University that’s developed, that is escalating people’s knowledge and technologies and trying to improve on things all the time. Because you’ve got people that are disenfranchised from mainstream society, and they choose to leave, but they bring this knowledge and this ability with them and put it towards a collective good. There are just so many examples in the novel. I can’t I can’t stop gushing about it.

Cory: Oh, well, thank you. Science fiction does have this tradition of stories about someone wielding an enormous technological power because of their special knowledge, who nevertheless doesn’t have political power, and how the people with political power coerce the people with the technical knowledge into working for them. After civilization collapses, how does Master Blaster and Thunderdome get the mining engineers who actually know how to convert methane to useful source of power to work for them, or how does the technical staff of Immortan Joe get incentivized to work for Immortan Joe, instead of just walking over to the next Arroyo and living without this tyrant?

Telling it from the perspective of people who did have this rare, not widely distributed, extremely powerful technical knowledge, finding solidarity with the people rather than the oligarchs, and taking that technical knowledge and spreading it around, that’s actually a thing that happens. That’s the story of CryptoParty and it’s the story of lots of people who can just work for big tech companies, and instead, or in addition, devote their lives to social justice causes and to widely distributing their specialized knowledge. In this case, you have this scientist class that reaches a breaking point with their paymasters, where they realize that the practical immortality technology they’re developing has the potential to speciate the human race and make their bosses not just powerful, but immortal, and to deprive everyone else of immortality, and that once everyone else is immortal, once everyone else can’t be killed, then the ability of the wealthy and powerful 1% to coerce them becomes significantly reduced, because how do you coerce someone who’s not afraid to die? As these people start to defect to the side of the 99%, it becomes more and more obvious to the ones who remained, that what they’re engaged in is something morally indefensible and that not only is it morally indefensible, it’s morally indefensible and there’s an alternative.

TFSR: That’s a thing in the book that I found really interesting, too, is that I don’t hear many people talk about post-scarcity economics. And I’d to talk about the technologies of immortality that are talked about in the book. Hierarchies are based on the withholding of something from people. People build hierarchies, but social hierarchies that exist in society, whether it be the class-based ones, or the way that gender power is appropriated throughout society, or racial castes, or whatever, is about privileges being withheld from other people, people being disprivileged. And one of the very basic and from time immemorial ways that happens is the withholding of the means towards one’s own ability to have shelter, ability to have food, ability to take care of one’s loved ones. Can you talk about what made you start thinking about post-scarcity economics and maybe some influences on your thinking around it?

Cory: Well, going back to this idea about the cultural and political nexus on the internet, one of the things that the internet does is challenge — at the same time it supercharges it — it challenges rentierism, because the ultimate in rentierism is the idea of so-called intellectual property, which is the idea that you have a thing that has no tangible existence, and that, through its creation, generates passive income. And all you have to do is just sit there and wait for it to roll in. This is one of the ways that this fight that I’m engaged in on the policy side about DRM, I think has this wider significance. When you go back to the early literature of intellectual property in the Chicago school, you find this metastatic choice theory where this idea that someone who owns a piece of intellectual property could use some magic technology dust to infinitely divide that intellectual property into a series of products that are ever more tailored to different audiences.

So like, maybe you don’t want to spend the full freight to read a book anytime you want. Maybe you just want the right to read the book on Wednesdays while standing on one leg, and the market can produce this standing on one leg Wednesday price through some price discovery mechanism. And then the technology somehow sees to it, that having acquired the book you can only read it on Wednesdays while you’re standing on one leg. And it’s one of those things where, in a lot of technology policy fights, the answer is in part wanting it badly is not enough. So we don’t know how to make the technology that only lets you read a book on Wednesdays while standing on one leg, even if we stipulate that that’s a good idea. But once you swallow a spider to catch the fly, you have to swallow a bird to catch the spider.

So once we accepted that that would be this market in the future, and that the way that we would have these passive incomes in a post-manufacturing society where the WTO allowed all the manufacturing jobs to be offshore to China, and the West would remain wealthy through exporting the intellectual property to China that would then be turned into physical objects and then brought back into the West, and that it would be rent-seeking on the people making the things by owning the rights to the plans to make the things, or the images that are embodied by the things or whatever that the West would remain economically dominant, it became politically impossible to say, “We don’t know how to make a technology that stops you from reading books, unless it’s Wednesday, and you’re standing on one leg.” And so instead, we started trying to approximate it. And the way that we ended up approximating it is with technology that just spies on you all the time. Computers that are designed to not take orders from their owners, but instead to take orders from third parties without even informing the owner what the order is, or allowing them to rescind it or terminate it.

This has wider implications for information security, which is, in some ways, the single most important technological question we have to answer: how do we make computers more secure, as we start putting our bodies inside of them and start putting them inside of our bodies? There’s arguably nothing more important for us to answer authoritatively than that question. But the elevation to virtue of it being hard to make as many copies as you want of something is the outcome of this policy, consensus that emerged that we would just someday have this rentier economy. In that rentier economy, the fact that you can take something valuable and make as many copies as you need, without any incremental cost becomes a problem. Historically, that would have been a utopian scenario.

There’s a thing that everyone needs, and we can make as much of it as anyone needs for free? That’s not a problem historically. But we elevated scarcity to a virtue. And so thinking about post-scarcity is in that regard, a subversive act, because it challenges the whole consensus about what a neoliberal future looks like, a rentier future looks like. The first time I really encountered post-scarcity, I’d encountered it in dribs and drabs in the fights about software piracy in the 80s. There was some ambiguity there and there were still a lot of small independent software companies that made this reasonably convincing case that like, “I’m just some dude who made some accounting software, please don’t make me go broke by refusing to pay for it.” But as this turned into the music question, and as Napster came along and became the fastest adopted technology in the history of the world, and as it took the 80% of commercial music that wasn’t available for sale anywhere, at any price, and put it in the hands of everyone who wanted it at any time, night or day, and also automatically started to create communities of interest around music that were not in the mainstream because you would find someone’s collection that you thought was interesting, and you’d open a chat window to them, and you plunder their collection for things that you’d never heard of, but based on them having things that you liked that few other people you could assume that that the rest of it would be interesting to listen to. This thing that was so clearly just good was turned into a vise and became further the rubric for mass internet surveillance and takedown regime where material could remove from the internet without any checks or balances. It became really clear to me that the people who viewed scarcity as a virtue were an existential threat to a free, fair, and open Internet. For whatever reason that that scarcity had become a virtue to them. And so post-scarcity and thinking about it and singing its praises and describing ways in which it could be great, became a cultural project in the service of economic and political projects.

TFSR: I was wondering about this actually because you bring up Napster. And that’s about the time when I was graduating from high school and started paying attention to— I’d been playing on computers for a few years at that point. The things that Gnutella and Napster were providing, the connectivity, the ways of exploring other people’s knowledge and art were just fascinating. And those seem to go away in the early 2000s, because of all this pressure from industries and the FCC, and what have you. Soulseek is still around, but I don’t think people really use it, I mess with it from time to time, and it’s got the same abilities. Do you think it’s just not used as much or talked about because it’s a snake eating its tail, people don’t talk about it, so it doesn’t get used as much. And because people aren’t using it, people don’t talk about it, or just because technologies have maybe the social acceptability of sharing music or sharing art in that way, has now just developed onto a different platform?

Cory: It’s definitely on different platforms. It’s streaming now. Ironically, we lost a bunch of things that would have been very helpful to the industry. We lost a lot of the social elements. It’s much harder to have a community where you post links to music that you might like, that is infringing. You can still point to YouTube, but increasingly, there are risks of communities facing legal sanctions, being shut down because of the preponderance of links to stuff. And so what that means is that the recommendation and the concentration of people who might be interested in your music as a product in one easy-to-advertise-to place, that has been very eroded through these anti-infringement anti-piracy programs, but the infringement hasn’t been eroded. The people who will tell you that there’s more infringement than ever are the people who claimed that this would be what they needed to stop infringement. The record industry, their own stats show that their efforts were worse than useless, that they ended up with more infringement, not less. But of course, their argument is, “well, it would be even more if we hadn’t done all of this.” We swallow the spider to catch the fly, now give us some birds to catch the spider. Once we accepted that any cost is bearable in the service of defending music from copyright infringement, then the sky’s the limit. It turns out that shutting down services didn’t do it, disconnecting people from the Internet didn’t do it, all these other things didn’t do it. So just give us more extreme measures, just keep ramping up our power to be judge, jury, and executioner of people on the internet and the things that they say, and eventually, we’ll be able to get rid of copyright infringement.

The other thing that forcing this decentralization did was it made it harder to charge rent. Napster had a business model that was “we will go to the record labels, we’ll get a license from them, and we’ll charge five bucks a month to be a Napster customer. And then we’ll measure what people are downloading and we will pay out the money in that, according to who downloaded what, whose stuff got downloaded.” It was literally a model where the more people pirated, the more money you got paid. And now what we have is this fragmented underground system that, because of court decisions like Grokster, that said that companies have liability if they know and can measure what’s going on, the systems are deliberately designed so that no one can audit them and figure out which musicians to pay. So they just really shot themselves in the head. They still make tons of money from things like streaming services, the legit streaming services like Spotify. Musicians don’t make any money from them, but the labels make gobs of money from them. And that’s because they have these super abusive contracts. And those contracts have become more common, not less, because there are fewer alternative places to bandy your music about because the copyright enforcement has basically made it very expensive top-rate alternatives to the traditional music industry. And so now we’re down to four giant record labels that all have the same shitty contracts. And they all have the same abusive terms for any musician who signs with them. Even though Spotify is throwing billions of dollars at the labels, the labels contractually have to give only infinitesimal fractions of a penny to musicians out of those billions. You’ve just ended up with a system where it’s hard for them to harness real growth, the anemic growth that there is, they get the windfall from, and musicians are trapped in a sharecropping model.

TFSR: You mentioned that you had a children’s book coming out soon.

Cory: Yeah, I have a picture book. It’s called Poesy the Monster Slayer. And it’s about a little girl who’s obsessed with monsters. And one night when the monsters break into her bedroom, she tears apart all the girly toys in her bedroom and repurposed them as field-expedient monster-killing weapons. When the beholder leaps off of her bookcase and hovers in front of her with its millions of riding eyes, she takes her Barbie bubblegum-scented perfume and mace it. After each monster battle, her parents come in and put her back to bed and say “I’m going to be a zombie tomorrow morning if you don’t let me get a good night’s sleep and stop horsing around in your room.” And then the punchline is that they turn into zombies that she can’t defeat, but the zombie that they can’t defeat just tucks her into bed. Its attack mode is that tucks her into bed and doesn’t let her get out again. And the penultimate monster that she fights is Frankenstein’s monster. And she topples it over and then uses her sewing kit seam ripper to take its head off. And they tuck its head into bed with her and the two of them share a wry glance, the Frankenstein’s head, and the little girl as her parents tuck them in and turn the lights out. That’s the cute little story. Yeah, spoiler. It’s only about 100 words long, so it wouldn’t take you long to get to that spoiler. Just don’t tell your little children before you read it to them and you’ll be fine.

TFSR: That sounds like a story that only a parent could write.

Cory: Yeah, certainly. And the part of the running joke is the name of the kid is very long, and it’s my daughter’s name. So my daughter has a crazy long name. She’s Poesy Emmeline Fibonacci Nautilus Taylor Doctorow. That’s the name of this character. And every time the parents come in, they call her by more of her name. So like, “Poesy has to go back to bed. Poesy Taylor Doctorow, go back to bed. Poesy Emmeline Taylor Doctorow, go back to bed.” And eventually, it turns into the whole name. It’s fun in a kid’s book where there’s a cumulative call and response.

TFSR: That’s funny, too, that reminds me of Etc from Walkaway. What inspired that? Your daughter?

Cory: Well, one of the things about the immigrant experience I come from — it’s different for different people — is that we have a lot of names. My grandfathers had their birth names, which were usually Russian or Eastern European names. And then they had a Hebrew name. And then they had a Yiddish nickname. And then they had an anglicized name, and sometimes more than one anglicized name. And they used different names depending on who they talked to. And I played with this before. I wrote a novel called Someone Comes to Town, Someone Leaves Town where the characters have a different name every time they are referred to. It has a specific salience in this technological moment, because of the name wars, where Google Plus and Facebook had this insistence on everyone having one canonical name that they use to face the world, which produced all kinds of shitty problems. But it also sparked a bunch of really good arguments about names. And there’s a beautiful essay called “False things programmers believe about names.” It includes things like everyone has a name, everyone has one name, everyone has a name that can be written down. Everyone has a unique name. Everyone has a name that’s unique when you factor in their date of birth, and so on and so on. This is actually also become the subject of a Supreme Court case over voter suppression because one of the heuristics that the voter-roll-purging software used was that it assumed that it was very unlikely that two people would share the same name and the same birthday. And it turns out that for a lot of reasons, that’s not true. Among them is the fact that a lot of databases, when they don’t have a birthday, default to January 1. There are tons of people who share that birthday. But also guess what month people named June tend to be born in *laughs*. Or people named Carol, guess what day of the year they tend to be born — December 25. There are a lot more collisions than you’d expect. I wanted to play with this idea that you could have a character that had lots and lots of names that would break a database.

There’s a joke that got picked up in XKCD about a kid named Timmy Drop Tables, that is whose name is a MySQL code injection attack, that if you try to enter the kid into the school rolls, the school rolls fall apart. That database-breaking function of names is a really interesting thing. And names, of course, have this resonance in storytelling, where if you know Rumplestiltskin’s name, you can make him do your bidding. If you know the Demon’s name, you can conjure him or banish him, and so on. So the true names of things have always held power. And one of the things that the internet has been really good for, and that has made the name wars so important, is that the internet has always been a place where people could have a new name. And it’s enabled people, because of those new names, to experiment with new identities. And those new identities are part of why we have things like gender fluidity, as a thing that has always existed but has come into prominence, because it gives people a space in which they can be fluid in their identity, without exposing themselves to risk, by budding off a new identity to play with. And then when they feel comfortable about reintegrating it into the main branch of their identity if they ever do. And that has created a real social revolution that’s playing out all over the world.

It’s also a force for evil, the Twitter is full of Nazis who don’t use their real names to avoid reprisals. We now live in an age in which one of the great sins that you can commit that violates the terms of service of almost everything is disclosing the real name of someone, we call it doxxing. Disclosure of someone’s real name, when they operate under a pseudonym has become grounds for online execution, which I’m not saying that’s wrong and I’m not saying it’s right either. I’m saying that it just tells a lot about the right to the name. Giving a character a lot of names, I thought had a currency to it, a Zeitgeist-iness.

TFSR: You could almost write a whole novel, just probably telling the stories behind each of those names.

Cory: Sure. Well, in his case, they’re the 20 most popular names from the 1890 census in order. One of my writing techniques is that when I want to name a character I use, at least as a placeholder, I often use the census. I go like “I want a name that’s really common.” Because the census produces popularity-ranked names. So I pick a first name and a surname from the top of the census, or I want a very uncommon name, so I pick it from the bottom. It’s a cheap and easy way to do it.

TFSR: I’m personally a little uncomfortable with transhumanism as an idea because I fear that— because the people who tend to wield technology, tend to be the powerful people and that sort of scenario that you were breaking down and Walkaway around the elite class becoming gods and then denying everyone else the ability to reach that point seemed like what my cynical mind would actually see happening in the world. But can you talk a little bit about immortality, about technology as a means of escaping the mortal coil, and maybe what values you see in the mortal coil that got troubled by some of the different characters like Tam, for instance?

Cory: There’s a really good book about this, and I nod to it in the book [Walkaway] called Citizen Cyborg by James Hughes, who’s a humanist transhumanist. He has a humanist transhuman program. And he argues that the problem with this kind of tanshumanism is fairly-distributed access to the technologies, not the technologies themselves. So I’m of the view that science-fiction rarely predicts specific technological innovation well, but what it does predict with incredible accuracy is our widespread social fears and aspirations for technology. I think the science fiction stories that we tell that are very current, that are very resonant are a diagnostic tool for what it is we worry about and what it is we hope for, not for what’s actually going to happen, except to the extent that, of course, the things that you hope for me may happen because you might work towards them. But it’s not like it’s got a predictive value. We’re not fortune-tellers.

And I think that the idea that technology will change what it means to be human has a pretty obvious corollary in what’s going on in our world. A lot of the institutions that we define our humanity by, be it family or names or, or nationality, or what have you, are challenged by network communications. And I think the fear of a transhuman rift between the wealthy and the rest of us feel like there might be a rift between the life circumstances of the wealthy and the rest of us, that would make it impossible for the wealthy to understand or empathize or even really be said properly to be in the same species or circumstances the rest of us. If the rich never see the poor, if mating means that the rich never marry the poor, if the rich live a life circumstance that is completely different from the poor, then they are in some way speciating, even if it’s not biological, even if transhumanism isn’t doing it for them. Moreover, if we live in a world in which market logic dictates healthcare, and so poor people die of preventable diseases and rich people get to live very long lives, then that transhumanist idea of some of us being medically privileged and the rest of us being medically deprived is, again, not a difficult thing to understand. But it doesn’t require that we be literally headed into transhumanism for it to be relevant. And I think that’s good because transhumanism is a great science fiction MacGuffin, it has very little connection with technological reality in the biotech realm.

TFSR: Okay. Cory, thank you so much for having this chat. I’ve really enjoyed it. And I think listeners are going to get a real kick out of it. You said some really awesome things.

Cory: Oh, well, thank you.

TFSR: Where can people in the audience find your writing and keep up on the books that you’re publishing?

Cory: I’m pretty easy to find. Let me check if I am still the top query in Google today. I usually am. I’m the sixth Cory on Google this morning. So I’m pretty easy to find, Cory Doctorow. I am one of the editors of a website called BoingBoing at boingboing.net. Craphound.com — it’s my personal site. You can get on my mailing list and get on my podcast, I podcast short stories and articles there. And I have a Twitter feed @Doctorow. My books are available wherever fine books are sold. I should mention that if you want a Fairtrade ebook or audiobook, I actually retail my ebooks and audiobooks, even though they’re published by traditional publishers, I’ve convinced them to let me set up a store. So I sell them at the same price as Amazon, but I get the cut that Amazon would normally take and then I send the rest back to my publisher, and then they give me my royalties. So it’s a way of effectively doubling my royalties. So if you want to indulge in some electronic media purchasing, that’s a way to do it. One of the things that are out there right now is the audiobook of Walkaway, which I self-produced, and which has some really astoundingly good readers. Amber Benson from Buffy and Wil Wheaton from Star Trek and Amanda Palmer, who was in the Dresden Dolls, all read on it, along with several other very talented ebook readers. So I’m extremely happy with how that worked out. I should mention it’s all DRM-free, and there’s no license agreement. You don’t need to give up any rights to buy those books.

TFSR: So thanks for sharing, Cory.

Cory: Well, thank you. Thanks for your interest.

The Battle for Abortion and Reproductive Autonomy with Bay Ostrach

The Battle for Abortion and Reproductive Autonomy with Bay Ostrach

A pregnant person in blue with a red womb, held up by red tinted small people, red tinted flowers growing behid them (by Marne Grahlman)
Download this episode

This week on the show, we sat down with Bayla Ostrach, an activist, anarchist, longtime defender, provider of and researcher around issues of reproductive healthcare. We speak about experiences researching and working on the issue in Catalunya, the battle for abortion and reproductive autonomy in the so-called US, the challenges faced by independent clinics against the business model of clinic chains like Planned Parenthood, legal and material pressure and attacks by anti-abortion extremists as well as the cultural and political struggle to defend and expand the ability for people to get safe, affordable, full spectrum and stigma-free abortion and reproductive care more broadly.

Illustration by Marne Grahlman

** Content warning, because we are discussing a stigmatized series of medical procedures adjacent to sexual, social and political violence, listeners should be advised and we’ll put warnings in a few places during the episode. If you are hearing the radio version and want to hear a longer version of this show, and to listen at your own pace, check out our full podcast at our website, to be followed in about a week by a transcript for easy reading & a zine for printing. **

A list of people, works, and resources mentioned by our guest:

Good sites:

Citations for two shared documents co/authored by Bay:

Another document we can’t easily share:

  • Singer, E., (Elyse Ona), and Bayla Ostrach. “The End of Feminist Abortion Counseling? Examining Threats to Women’s Health.” In Transcending Borders, 255–70. Palgrave-MacMillan (Springer imprint), 2017. http://link.springer.com/.

Announcements

Anti-Abortion & Fascist Over in DC

Fascism must be opposed, Reproductive Autonomy must be defeneded and there are many ways to do this. As the interview mentions, the neo-fascist masculinist dance troupe known as Patriot Front (or the Blue & Khaki Man Group) joined the anti-abortion “March For Life” in Chicago on January 8th and were heckled from within the march and surrounding Chicagoans. According to leaked audio, they may appear in Washington DC at the “March For Life” on January 22nd. A little info is available at PatriotFrontMarchForLife.NoBlogs.Org or by checking out sites for local anti-racist, anti-fascist & pro-choice and feminist groups in the DC area.

Sean Swain Support

So far as we know, Sean still isn’t out of the woods on an inter-state transfer despite the hearing board recommending him not be transferred out of state. 2 years ago he was transferred to Virginia with no hearing or warning and lots a bunch of his property in the shuffle. Now he’s back in Ohio and wants to stay near his spouse, his lawyer and many supporters. You can contact Interstate Compact Coordinator Earlena Shepherd at earlena.shepherd@odrc.state.oh.us or

Earlena Shepherd
Interstate Compact Coordinator
ODRC
4545 Fisher Road, Suite D
Columbus, OH 43228

More contacts at SeanSwain.Org

Supporting TFSR

If you appreciate the work that we do at the final straw, there’re a few ways to support us. The following links are all https…:

You can rate, review & subscribe to us on your favorite streaming source like spotify, youtube, google, audbile, stitcher, apple or our podcast feed. You can follow us and share our content on social media. You can also reach out to us with feedback or interview ideas. More at https://TFSR.WTF/links

We’re now over a year into transcribing each weekly episode, which you can find alongside select older shows at https://TFSR.WTF/zines for easier reading if that’s your spead. You can print out zines and mail them to prisoners you support or distro or share them where you are. If you translate an interview, let us know and we’ll promote it.

Finally, anarchist radio isn’t much of a thing in the so-called USA, but we air on about a dozen stations weekly. You can find out more and how to get us on local airwaves by contacting us and reaching out to a local community station and proposing us. More info is available at https://TFSR.WTF/Radio

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Transcription

William – TFSR: To begin, would you just say your name, if desired, your pronouns and any affiliations you have, either politically or socially?

Bayla Ostrach: Sure. Thank you so much for having me. The name that I write under and do research under is Bayla Ostrach. In activist spaces, most people know me as Bay and my pronouns are they/them. And affiliations… I was thinking about this when I saw your email. These days, my affiliations are pretty hyper local. So I think for the purposes of the show, I’ll just leave it at that.

William – TFSR: Cool, so we’re here to talk about the overarching topic of abortion and abortion access. And I know you’ve written a bunch about this. How did you come to be doing the work you’re doing around this topic?

Bayla: Right. I had written up some notes about the work that I have done in abortion care and abortion research. But the way you framed that… I had to think back of how I actually ended up working in my first clinic, and I was trying to remember. I started working in abortion care in 1999. I think it was because a friend that I had grown up with was working at the clinic, it was a feminist clinic. Way back then there was a whole network of what were explicitly called “feminist women’s health centers.” It did unfortunately have the name women in it at the time, we weren’t as aware of language around gender in those days, but it had been founded by something called the Federation of Feminist Women’s Health Centers. And there were a bunch of these clinics. There’s only one left, it’s in Atlanta. But this was in Eugene, Oregon, and a friend was working there and they needed somebody bilingual. And she called me up and she said “Hey, do you want to come work at this clinic with me? We need somebody bilingual.” I think I didn’t think very much about what the work would be, I just was in a job that I didn’t love and I thought, sure that sounds great. And I went to the interview, and they asked me a lot of questions about what I thought about abortion. To be honest, I hadn’t thought very much about it. I was a feminist, I considered myself pro-choice and I just hadn’t thought that much about it. And I started working in an abortion clinic. Then the rest is history.

I’ve worked directly in abortion care starting in 1999. And since then, I’ve worked in – I was doing this math – I’ve worked in seven clinics in two states in two countries. That first clinic that I worked at very abruptly closed in 2002. Pretty much we were not even told that it was going to close. We just came to work one day and the clinic was shut down. And so those of us who worked at the clinic started a fund and hotline, and that still exists. It’s now called the Northwest Access Fund. And then I went on to work at another clinic and nine years into working in abortion care and funding advocacy, I was recruited to start doing research as an applied medical anthropologist. And so since then, I’ve been doing that research., mostly about how migrant and low income pregnant people access abortion through state funded systems in the US and in Catalunya. And I was doing that as my primary research focus until I moved to North Carolina in 2017. I’m still analyzing some of the data that I’d already collected in Catalunya. And I’m also developing a book based on interviews that I did with people that worked at feminist and independent clinics from the 80s, up until 2012, about experiences that they’ve had with anti abortion violence.

Bursts – TFSR: Cool. We totally would like to ask a little bit more about some of those experiences and definitions of terms like “independent and feminist clinics”. I had sort of a big overarching question to begin with, though. So the US white supremacist settler colonial state has a history of on the one hand denying people of marginalized communities reproductive autonomy through forced sterilization, lack of access to resources, forced separation of families and youth. And, on the other hand, by being able to use the state to withhold access to birth control. To the degree your experience allows, can you talk about abortion and birth control access currently, how it’s weaponized either rhetorically or materially around marginalization in this context?

Bayla: Yeah, this is a really important question. I’m glad you asked it. And I will speak to how I think about this. I can’t talk about it very much in terms of my own work other than specific pieces that have touched on it, but I want to lift up the work of other people who do this work and are thinking and talking about it in ways that should guide all of our work on it. And specifically, what I want to mention is what you’re talking about and how we should all think about it, which is Reproductive Justice. The framework that was founded by Loretta Ross and is being championed by Loretta Ross and a lot of other women of color. An organization that I hope people are aware of it’s based in the south and it continually works on this topic: Sister Song. They do this work and they challenge other social justice movements to expand their work to include Reproductive Justice.

I imagine that y’all have talked about it and I think your listeners probably have heard of this. But I think these days, a lot of other important terms, “Reproductive Justice” and “Intersectionality” kind of get thrown in without people necessarily having thought through all the things that it means. So if you’ll indulge me, I wanted to give a definition of Reproductive Justice, because I think that starts to answer a lot of different pieces of what you brought up.

So there’s the general definition from Loretta Ross and from Sister Song. But I found a kind of a longer explanation from the Illinois Caucus of Adolescent Health website that I can share with you all to post up in the show notes. But I really liked how they spelled more of it out, and I think it speaks to what you’re asking. And so Reproductive Justice broadly, is a framework to address how race, gender, class, ability, nationality, and sexuality intersect. But this website also defines it as “a movement guided by the belief that real choice and control over ourselves in our bodies is achieved when we have the power and resources to make our own decisions. RJ seeks to build space in which individuals have access to the rights and resources they need to create the families they want. Furthermore, recognizes that the fight for reproductive freedom is linked to the struggles for immigrant, worker, and queer rights, economic and environmental justice, an end to violence against women and girls, and access to health care and education that affirms our identities and our bodies.” And the three basic tenets include: the right to have children, and to decide how many and under what conditions you could birth”; ”The right to not have children”; “And the right to parent one’s own children in safe and healthy environments.” And again, that was from the Illinois Caucus of Adolescent Health.

I think that’s directly linked to abortion access and access to safe and effective contraception. Because for any of us that are physically biologically capable of getting pregnant, until we’re assured of universal housing, universal health care, universal basic income, freedom from state surveillance, etc, I could go on and on… there are always going to be people that because of structurally produced poverty, because of state sanctioned disproportionately racist violence, then it’s enacted by agencies like Department of Social Services, Child Protective Services, there are always going to be people that would like to parent but know that they’re at increased risk of having their children taken away. And just generally not being able to parent the way that they wish to. So as long as there are people that would like to parent now, or at some point in the future, but know that there are all of these forms of state violence, that are going to make it so they can’t parent the way that they want to or can’t parent safely, there has to be the option of safe, effective and accessible contraception, and the option of safe high quality abortion, whether it’s legal or not. And I would add to that, not just safe high quality abortion, but safe high quality abortion especially beyond the first trimester, that has to exist. AND for anyone that just doesn’t want to parent. So it can be that you don’t want to parent now it can be that you don’t want to parent at all, and that’s fundamental to Reproductive Justice.

I was thinking about this, it and it reminded me of a thing that has come up over and over in my research in Catalunya has been pregnant people that will say the same thing over and over. And this is the context of the global recession. I was doing my research there initially, after what’s being called the global recession there people kept calling it “la crisis” – the crisis – the economic crisis. And people would say to me, while they were seeking a publicly funded abortion, often people already had one child would almost verbatim over and over many different people would say, “I’d rather have one child and care for it well then have two that suffer.” And I was hearing that through five years of data collection, in a setting that has one of the better social safety nets that we could even imagine. Theses are folks that have universal health care, right? There’s national health care. There’s a national health care system, that’s part of what I was studying. This is a place where free public education starts at age three. So people aren’t having to pay for preschool, they’re not having to pay for kindergarten, there’s much more subsidies for childcare, there’s much more subsidies for housing. It’s a much better situation, arguably, in which to parent and yet people were still saying that they didn’t feel that they could economically afford to have another child.

I mentioned that it’s a different situation than the US but I think I was hearing so much from people about economic reasons why they didn’t feel that they could parent or parent another child. And so whether it’s abortion, whether it’s contraception, whatever it might be, if people are in a situation where because of the circumstances of the state, it is not safe or appropriate, or you just don’t want to parent there has to be a way to avoid doing that. Either before you’re pregnant or once you’re pregnant.

William – TFSR: Thank you so much for that answer to that question. I think that there’s so much there. And obviously this has been a topic of discussion for a long time in anarchist and Reproductive Justice communities.

One thing that comes up immediately to mind, at least for a lot of folks when thinking about abortion access is the issue of clinics. But sometimes I find for lots of folks, the thinking begins and ends with Planned Parenthood and clinic protests. Would you talk about why clinics are important as a public space of encounter and symbolic presentation of the audacious sharing of reproductive autonomy?

Bayla: Thank you for asking that. Absolutely. And I put together some stats on independent clinics. Because you’re right, so often for liberals, and for antis, right? Planned Parenthood, it’s like Kleenex, right? It’s the name brand. An important corollary to that, I will say, one of the clinics that I worked at the longest, one of my favorite clinics that I ever worked at, we referred to Planned Parenthood as Walmart. It’s the Walmart of reproductive health care. Most people that I work with in the United States that do abortion work, that’s how we talk about Planned Parenthood. It’s everywhere. It’s the thing that people know. You can go there. You can get reproductive health care there. It is going to be low quality. You’re not going to get good care. It’s a business, it’s a corporate chain. That’s what Planned Parenthood is. It’s the corporate chain of reproductive health care.

Similar to Walmart workers are not necessarily treated well. They’re not necessarily trained well, you’re not going to get the highest quality product. And much like Walmart, it tends to put the local small business independent clinics out of business. And so this is kind of like a two part answer. This is tricky, right? Because abortion clinics are absolutely important, because without abortion clinics we don’t have access to safe high quality abortion, especially beyond the first trimester. But not all clinics are created equal. Not all clinics are the same. They need to be protected, they need to be defended. Because if we don’t have clinics, we don’t have abortion, it’s that simple. If all we have is Planned Parenthood, we don’t have access to safe, high quality abortion beyond the first trimester, because that’s not what Planned Parenthood is.

And clinics, I think people aren’t aware of them. They don’t know that they’re there, so they don’t know to protect them. Because there’s been so much anti abortion violence. There’s been so such a threat against clinics. That it’s sort of the M.O. of clinics to fly under the radar. We don’t tend to have big banners outside that say “get your abortion here.” That’s not super safe. And so from the perspective of protecting clinic, staff, providers, and patients, an independent clinic is likely to be pretty nondescript. It’s not likely to have really obvious signage. Whereas a more corporate clinic might have more obvious branding and more obvious signage. And so the clinics that have a bigger budget, the corporate chain clinics, the clinics that have a bigger overhead and admin, they can afford to be a little bit more visible. Then that’s what people are going to know and be aware of.

So people are less likely to be aware of the feminist clinics, which is probably why they’re not around anymore. They’re less likely to be aware of an independent clinic. They’re not as many of them anymore, they’ve been closing down. But any opportunity I can take to make people aware of independent clinics… 60% of clinics in the United States that offer care beyond the first trimester are independent clinics. Independent clinics provide care to three out of five patients who have an abortion in the United States. To 79% of all clinics that provide care at or after 22 weeks of gestation are independents. And 100% of clinics that provide care after 26 weeks are independents. That being said 113 independent clinics closed between 2016 and 2021. And 34 independents were forced to close just in the past two years. 74% of those provided care after the first trimester.

So on the one hand, the majority of care and especially the majority of later care is being provided by independent clinics. But that’s also the clinics that are being forced to close down and that’s what we’re losing. So we are losing access to this incredibly important, independent, high quality care. That is also sort of the only option for care after the first trimester. When people think of Planned Parenthood, they’re thinking of the thing that is sort of most visible, but is actually not where the majority of care and especially where later care is being provided.

What Planned Parenthood primarily does is offer something called medication abortion or what I refer to as “pharmacologic abortion.” So what Planned Parenthood primarily does – 51% of their clinics only offer pharmacologic abortion. What we know, there’s research there’s published research on this, so this is not just anecdotal. There is published research that very often medication abortion is offered without adequate counseling, without adequate informed consent, without people really being told what to expect, without being told that it has higher complication rates. So the promotion of medication abortion in the United States has actually been part and parcel of losing access to later abortion care and losing access to high quality – what gets called “surgical,” but I prefer to call “instrumental” abortion care – which is the aspiration procedure that’s very quick. It’s in clinic. You walk into the clinic pregnant, you walk out of the clinic and you’re not pregnant anymore. Which is not the case with medication abortion. With medication abortion, you take two medications that induces a miscarriage, and that can go on with bleeding and cramping and other side effects, often for several weeks. And so these days, when people think of Planned Parenthood, they’re thinking of something that while visible, is actually not offering the majority of high quality safe abortion care, and especially is not where you’re going to get later care.

William – TFSR: Thank you for that framing. I was really influenced by having talks with you about Planned Parenthood and all of these distinctions between the different kinds of clinics that are out there. And I think that often in the anarchist imaginary, the response to the inaccessibility of clinics and sort of the corporate nature of Planned Parenthood itself is to employ at home or independent treatments. In your opinion, how can folks approach this topic? And how do you approach this topic? And how does it fit into the wider topic of clinic access?

Bayla: So, I want to acknowledge first of all, this is a tricky topic. And so I want to be very clear that as a feminist, as an abortion provider, as an anarchist, I absolutely support anyone listening to do whatever is best for them and their body. And I’m not here to tell anybody what to do. So if there’s somebody out there listening, who has done an at home abortion, has had a medication abortion… whatever you’ve done is great. I am super happy for anybody to do whatever is best for them in their body. And I’m not at all here to tell anybody that their experience wasn’t what it was. I have handed people the medications to do a medication abortion, I’ve been a provider for a medication abortion. I have been present for 1000s of instrumental abortions. I have assisted with all these different kinds of abortions. So what I’m speaking from is research. I’m also speaking from my experience as a provider. And I am speaking from talking with many people who’ve had both kinds of procedures. My focus in what I’m about to say, is about access for everyone. So thinking not just about one individual person making a decision, but about resources available to everyone.

The concern that I have about at home abortion, and in particular, when it gets framed as “self-managed abortion” is that if people begin to see that as a solution, whether it’s a solution to legal restrictions, which I know we’re going to talk about. Whatever it is that we see that as the solution to, in many ways that contributes to the problem that Planned Parenthood has already created, which is pressure on independent, full spectrum clinics that are providing later procedures. The pressure on them to close and the numbers of clinics that are closing. The more that we start to see medication abortion, which is what at home or “self-managed abortion” is the more that we start to see being by yourself taking pills, inducing a miscarriage, letting that pregnancy pass on your own. The more that we start to see that as the only option, then we are not fighting to keep clinics open. And this is the fear that I have.

There are still independent clinics. We still have independent clinics. There are clinics out there that are providing abortion all the way from as soon as you find out you’re pregnant, four weeks from your last mensuration, all the way up to whatever is considered the legal limit, which right now is 24 weeks and beyond. When I was talking before about clinics that provide care after 26 weeks, there are circumstances where you can get an abortion after 24 weeks, depending on different medical situations, depending on fetal death. There are situations where you can get a later procedure and you have to have somewhere to go to do that. And the more that people order pills off the internet, get a friend to get pills across the border somewhere. The more that we have that phenomenon going on and people see that as the answer. That is going to be the answer for some people. There are circumstances where that is a great option.

An example I cited when we talked before in situations of intimate partner violence, if it absolutely has to look like a miscarriage, I think that is one of the situations where I have counseled people and encourage them to consider medication abortion. If it needs to look like a miscarriage. There’s a lot of places in the world where there truly is no legal instrumental abortion available. There’s just not a clinic to go to. And so being able to get those folks pills is going to be a great option. I’ve talked to people who’ve had an instrumental abortion and they’ve had a home birth and they really know what the experience is like of going through a birth or miscarriage at home and they are 100% down to do that. I think there are situations where it’s fine. What I worry about is folks that have never been counseled on what it is actually going to be like, how long it’s going to take, the 5% chance that you’re going to have to have an instrumental abortion again afterward, because you have retained products of conception that you haven’t completely passed, the possibility that you’ll still be pregnant afterward…

I’ve had patients where they did a medication abortion at four or five weeks gestation. And then I see them at the clinic when they’re 17 or 18 weeks pregnant, because it didn’t work, and they didn’t realize it. And then they’re having a second trimester abortion, also. And so in particular, I worry about people who are having a medication abortion, because they have had medical trauma, which is a real thing. I’ve had a lot of people who when they come in for medication abortion, they say that the reason they want a medication abortion is because they want to avoid a pelvic exam, which is 100% real. I totally understand why people would not want to have a pelvic exam. But I really worry about the people that have a medication abortion, because they didn’t want to have a pelvic exam and then if that medication abortion doesn’t work, then they’ve gone through that entire process, and still are going to end up having to go through with an instrumental procedure, because you definitely can’t carry the term after a medication abortion.

So there’s all these things. And I know I’m saying a lot of things here. So let me try to back up and make a more coherent statement: My fear is that if we start to see at home “self managed abortion” as the solution, a couple of things will happen. It’ll be another reason that full spectrum clinics that provide later care won’t be able to stay open, because if a lot of people that otherwise might have gone to an independent clinic and are instead getting pills off the internet, and having an at home miscarriage… it’s a weird thing for me to say as an anarchist, but that’s losing business for clinics that we really, really need. We need independent clinics for the folks that can’t take pills and have a miscarriage at home. For somebody that isn’t just four or five weeks pregnant, for somebody that is beyond the first trimester. And that’s not an option for them.

So a little bit of this is thinking about everybody else and thinking if there’s an independent clinics that you can drive to, there’s an abortion fund available that you can call and they’ll pay for your procedure, they’ll help you get money for gas. If you can get to an independent clinic, and you can go there that is going to keep that clinic open for everyone else, for the person that’s further along, the person that can’t get those pills and take them at home because it’s not going to work.

I also just feel like there’s a lot of people who don’t know what it’s going to be like. I think there’s a little bit of language around it right now where it gets romanticize as this empowering thing that you can have this abortion by yourself on your own. I would love for people to also think about how empowering it can be to be in an independent clinic, where there’s somebody there with you, letting you know that, “this is what’s happening, do you want it to be this way or this way?” And you’re getting to make a lot of decisions about what that looks like. And also, there’s somebody there telling you “hey, that’s completely normal. This is okay, that amount of bleeding is normal. This is what you can expect to happen next.” As opposed to being at home where you may not know what to expect. You may not know how much bleeding is normal, you may not know how to recognize if there’s a complication. And so I think there’s this little bit of, I would say, even sort of neoliberal framing of saying self managed and the idea that Why is it only empowering if it’s something that you do by yourself?

Bursts – TFSR: Yeah, I think that’s really well put and I really appreciate the framing of using the term neoliberalism in there and how just how alienating that can be. And for you giving space to say that people should be able to access this how they want to. but as you say, if the infrastructure isn’t there to access, if somebody does want the counseling, does want the support and the in-person interaction, then we need to support that infrastructure existing.

Because you’ve brought up the terms “feminist clinic” and “independent clinic,” can you talk about the distinction between these, and why it’s an important line to draw? And also, just because I like really complicated questions… What’s the relevance of these models to keeping workers a part of the discourse of their safety in their work environment? How do these shape the clinic’s operations? And can you talk about the importance of leaving space for patients to decide what type of specific procedure or be supported coming out of the clinic environment with the decision to actually not get an abortion if that’s what’s right for them?

Bayla: Absolutely. And I feel incredibly privileged and lucky. I think my timing was just lucky that I happen to have gotten to work in both feminist and independent clinics. I want to be clear, too. Not all Planned Parenthood’s are the same. I think there actually happens to be a really good Planned Parenthood affiliate in Asheville. We’re lucky that way. And I think that’s because there have been now two clinic managers in a row there that have been really committed to having that clinic be different than other Planned Parenthood’s. And they’ve really invested in a lot of time and staff training and thinking a lot about how to run a truly patient-centered clinic. How to not have it be so focused on the business model. So, I also want to say Planned Parenthood as a corporation is what I have a problem with, not necessarily a specific individual, Planned Parenthood clinic or particular staff. And so also, if there’s people out there who’ve had a good experience out of Planned Parenthood, I’m so glad for you. I’m really glad for you. And if you have been to Planned Parenthood, where you feel like the staff treated you well, and you’ve had a good experience, and it was high quality care, let people know. Spread the word! Same thing, if you’ve been to an independent abortion clinic, and it wasn’t good, complain. Contact the management, also let your friends know about that.

So just because there are these kind of generalizations and terms that overall, in my experience as a researcher and working in clinics that broadly, I believe better care is provided at independent clinics and broadly, I believe that Planned Parenthood’s business practices are terrible and that broadly, I believe that Planned Parenthood as a corporation, is reducing the quality of reproductive health care… That doesn’t mean that someone individually hasn’t had a good experience, right? What these terms mean to me…

Feminist clinics: that was a very explicit movement. It was a very specific, intentional movement that started in the late 70s, through something that is sometimes referred to as the self health movement. HEALTH not self help, but self health. And there’s an excellent book about this by Sandra Morgan, it’s called Into Our Own Hands. And again, gendered language, it was called the women’s self help movement. But you know, folks weren’t thinking as much as they should have been about it. I will also say the first place that I ever learned anything about gender-affirming care, or transgender health, or really the first place I ever heard anything about trans anything was in a feminist clinic. Some of the first places I ever heard about, like, queer-affirming health care was at a feminist clinic. The feminist clinic that I worked at in the late 90s, there was something called the lesbian friendly provider list that was literally a Word doc with a list of providers that somebody could call us and be like “hey, I want to go to a provider that’s not going to be super homophobic. Who should I go to?” Then we would pull out this list and say “are you looking for primary care? What kind of care are you looking for?” And we vetted these providers to make sure they weren’t going to be homophobic.

So, feminist clinics came out of this movement in the 70s, where folks got really tired of not being believed about their bodies and not being trusted about their bodies. And having mostly cis men physicians, tell them that they were wrong or that they were crazy. And so a bunch of folks across the United States, there’s a few kind of like, well known names (Carol Downer was one of the founders of this movement) got together, and we’re like “we’re going to start our own clinics.” And they brought in physicians, and they basically treated the physicians as hired techs. So it was mostly women running their own clinics and being lay health workers. They called themselves lay health workers, they didn’t necessarily have any medical certifications, but they kind of learned everything they could about how bodies work. And they decided what were the things they needed physicians for and what were the things they didn’t need physicians for. And when they needed a physician, they told the physician “we’re in charge, you do what we tell you to. You are not the boss.” And they would bring in the the physicians as hired techs, really.

And so to me a major distinction of the feminist clinic is that it’s a different power relationship. It’s a different hierarchy. The physician doesn’t run the show, and the patient is in charge. I mean, I think that’s really what’s very different. And it feels different in a feminist clinic. The patient is always given a lot of options, the patient is told, sometimes, in too much detail, everything that’s going to happen and asked a lot of questions about it. I mean, that is one thing that looking back, what I’ve interviewed a bunch of my former co-workers who worked at feminist clinics in independent clinics, and one of the things that people have said, looking back is “Wow, we took up so much of people’s time. We assumed that everybody wanted to know everything about everything. And maybe one of the choices we could have given people is “do you want to know absolutely everything about everything? Or like how much information do you want.”” Because often would take hours to do just a pretty like basic appointment.

I think one of the tenants of the feminist clinic is that it might be what we now gets referred to as patient-centered, that now is a basic expectation in healthcare, but back then was pretty unusual. There didn’t used to be a lot of explaining of medications or procedures or what was going to happen. And so I think in the 70’s and 80’s, and even into the 90’s, to have a healthcare provider talk to a patient and say “This is what we think is going on. Here are the options for treatments. We could do this, we could do this, we could do this, here are the side effects, what would you prefer?” That was not typical. So that was feminist clinics, and there were many of them across the United States. And there was a whole Federation of them.

And another thing about the the Federation of Feminist Women’s Health Centers, they didn’t just provide care, they also did a lot of advocacy. So they taught things like cervical self-exam. There was a slideshow that used to travel all over the United States showing people pictures of a whole bunch of different cervixes. The biggest diversity of people you can imagine to just kind of normalize different bodies and normalize people seeing their own cervix. I think it’s become very stereotypical thing in a lot of TV shows and movies about cervical self-exam, but that’s where it came from. And it also taught people a lot of alternatives to hormonal contraception. It taught people about kind of learning their own cycles, and alternatives to, especially for people of color that felt like there had been a lot of coercive sterilization, and coercive contraception, and perhaps were very leery of mainstream contraception, what were some alternative contraceptive practices that didn’t rely on hormones. A lot of that came out of feminist clinics. And I think of independent clinics in some ways as being kind of the offshoot of that. When the feminist clinic business model didn’t survive the 90’s, and largely didn’t survive because of the anti abortion violence. Because the costs of securing clinics against bombing and arson and attacks and killings of doctors, when it became so expensive to do everything that needed to be done to keep clinics safe, and feminist clinics kind of couldn’t stay open, many independent clinics were started by doctors who had been trained in feminist clinics.

So, independent clinic just means… it’s what it sounds like, it’s not a chain, or it’s a small number of clinics, maybe owned by the same person. But independent clinics more often tend to be either physician run, or managed by a smaller group of people. But it’s not. It’s not like Planned Parenthood, it’s not corporate. When is it independent and when is it a chain? Like, if you own more than a certain number of clinics are you still independent? But I guess partly I know it when I see it. I don’t know if that’s fair to say.

There’s something called the Abortion Care Network, which is the National Association of Independent Clinics. So I’m sure they have specific criteria by which they define independent, but I tend to think of independent clinics as there’s still a large degree of informed consent, patient decision making. It’s more about the quality of the care and not as much about the revenue that’s generated. It’s much more about the care that’s provided. That it’s full-spectrum, that includes second trimester. Often independent clinics also offer other care. Often independent clinics have gender-affirming care, often have other reproductive health services, some independent clinics also do prenatal care and sometimes they’ll also have like birthing services available.

Bursts – TFSR: Yeah, that’s all super helpful information. And I’m glad that you brought up the term informed-consent. That feels like a total game changer between some of the different models and how healthcare was administered to people, as opposed to the shift that people pushed really hard for the 60’s and 70’s and 80’s, for actually having a say in how medicine was practiced on their bodies.

So the area that we live in is really interesting, interesting is pretty terrible, in some ways. We may have pretty good administration of the local Planned Parenthood at the moment. But also in the 90’s this was an area that had Eric Rudolph, who bombed the Olympics in Atlanta, also had been conducting violence against clinics throughout this part of Appalachia, before finally being caught by authorities. That’s a story that can be told all across America, the violence that occurs by right-wing extremists against clinics, and as you said, against clinic doctors and employees, and just intimidating people on the way in. Not to say that there is not a difference between someone who actually engages the violence versus someone who intimidates but I think that’s a spectrum. Can you talk a little bit about what clinic defense to your understanding looks like right now either around here around the US and how it’s changed its appearance?

Bayla: Yeah. Thank you for that. And I have this very strong memory of…. If people know what a fax machine looks like, the faxes that would come in from the National Abortion Federation that were our security alerts of the clinic. I remember the fax that came through with the picture of Rudolph reminding us probably daily that he hadn’t been caught yet. That picture is very clear in my mind, letting us know that he was still on the loose. So it was very interesting to me when I moved here and realized how close I was to where he had been caught. And just these moments of my life that connected. I remember standing there in the clinic reception area, getting the faxes off the fax machine, looking for somebody’s insurance verification form being like oop… “there’s Rudolph again, he’s still on the loose.” Yeah, if that tells you anything about what it’s like to work in a clinic, you’re just kind of going about your daily patient care, and then also getting these constant reminders that there’s somebody out there that would try to kill you.

And that’s part of what motivated the project that I was speaking about before where I’ve been interviewing people that worked in feminist and independent clinics over a 30 year period about anti-abortion violence. And really the question I’ve been asking people is, “how do we do this? What is it like to go to work every day? How do you make sense of it?” That was really my question. “How did you, how did we make sense of this kind of constant threat of violence and harassment? And how did we keep doing this work? What was it that allowed us to continue doing this work, knowing that there were this constant waves of violence, constant threats, and knowing that there was always this potential for violence directed at us because of this work that we do?” And so that’s what I was really interested in. Because I sort of knew how I was doing it. But I didn’t know if that was the same for my co workers. And so this is a really interesting question. I think. Is it different? Has it changed? Or does it just kind of come in waves and sometimes it dies down sometimes spikes again. I don’t know that a lot does change. I think it’s just sometimes we pay more or less attention to it.

What I tend to think is that we pay less attention to the anti-abortion violence, when there’s more legislative attacks in the news. And then when there’s not as much of a legislative focus, then maybe there’s more energy to pay attention to the anti-abortion violence, I think there’s a lot more attention when there is an actual, you know, act of violence. And then we kind of get lulled into a false sense of security, when there hasn’t been a clinic attack for a little while. But I don’t I don’t know that actually has changed a lot. It’s been a little while since I’ve updated it, but I sort of have this timeline, going back to the 80’s of kind of some of the major attacks, and where, and when, and who. And it feels more like it’s just kind of this ongoing pattern that rises and falls and rises and falls.

One interesting thing, that it makes sense when you think about it, is that anti-abortion violence, the targets clinics, the waves tend to follow Democratic and Republican presidential administrations, so they tend to increase under a Democratic presidential administration in decrease under a Republican administration. The one exception to that is that anti abortion violence didn’t actually decline under Trump, which is not surprising. And so in terms of how we defend clinics, a lot of what happened, as I alluded to before, is that in the 80’s, and 90’fss, clinics had to spend a lot of money responding to these attacks. So you would hear of another clinic that was attacked in a particular way, it would make you realize a gap that you had in your security. So, an example that a lot of people mentioned to me in interviews was, there was a particular attack that made a lot of clinics realize that they didn’t have bulletproof glass around the reception area. And I think this was the attack in Boston where receptionist was killed. So that’s when a bunch of clinics were like “Oh shit, we have to have bulletproof glass on the reception area.” And so it was this very reactive thing. Okay, this thing happens, and someone is hurt in this way. And a bunch of other clinics realize “oh, well, we need to be prepared for that thing that we hadn’t thought about.” And so it was sort of this constant whack-a-mole.

Well, every time you’re having to spend a bunch of money on cameras, or fencing, or bulletproof glass or a buzzer system, or you decide that you need to have one of your staff people specifically checking IDs, that is suddenly resources that are being devoted to that piece of the work, to that kind of addressing staff and patient safety, that is money that you might otherwise have been spending on going out into the community and doing sexual and reproductive health education in a particular community that hadn’t had access to that that might have been money that you’d have been spending on having a fund to subsidize procedures for survivors of assault. It might have been money that you had been providing transportation grants for patients that were coming from further away. It might have been money that you had been paying your employees more or you might have been able to pay your employees more so you might have had less turnover. So you might have had staff that were less burnt out and more resilient. It might have been money that you could offer services other than just abortion, you might have been able to add gender-affirming care, right? So I think it’s kind of this calculus, especially for feminist clinics, where there was a point for some clinics where they’re like “We just can’t do this anymore. Like we’re having to think so much and spend so much money on security, that we’re not able to continue operating in the way that we want to and provide the care that we want to provide.”

And that was something that I heard a lot from people who’d been there kind of towards the end of a lot of feminist clinics was, it just felt unsustainable. Because we never knew what was going to be the next thing that would happen that would either be a direct attack on our clinic, or that would happen to someone else that meant we would have to then think about how we would prevent that happening to us. And we weren’t getting to provide care that we wanted. And I think this is also another way that for independent clinics, they never know where the next attack is going to come from, is it going to be anti-abortion violence? Is it going to be a legislative restriction? Is it going to be Planned Parenthood moving in down the street and starting to offer medication abortion, and then that full spectrum independent clinic can’t stay open. And so kind of never knowing what the next thing is going to be is another form of stress. Then at the same time, you have protesters outside harassing your patients, and so then every patient that walks in the door, you have to spend the first 10 minutes of their appointment deprogramming all the things that the protester just told them is going to happen to them in that appointment.

So what I’m saying altogether, is I don’t think clinic defense is necessarily different. I think every clinic having to figure out what are they dealing with in that exact moment, and it’s a lot of reaction, and that just becomes very exhausting. It can become very expensive, it’s very time consuming. What clinic’s defense might look like, wherever a person is at any given moment, it can vary in the moment, but I think the constant is that it just is incredibly time consuming and exhausting for clinic staff. It’s very hard to plan for. I know part of how we started talking about doing this interview is there has been an undercurrent locally of very, very well intended, radical folks wanting to support the local clinic when there had been an escalation in protest activity. And there was some talk of people wanting to show up and counter protest and I was chiming in saying “please don’t do that. That is actually very stressful for clinic staff. It often escalates things. That is what you don’t want to do”, because then that’s another unknown. That’s another “oh no, now we have to figure out what this is.”

In terms of clinics, events, the things that we know actually are helpful is something that is a very organized, coordinated escorting effort. In places where I’ve seen this work really well, it’s often a group that’s “Medical Students for Choice” in a place where there’s a medical school. It’s like a formal national organization called Medical Students for Choice. And one of the primary things that they do is advocate for medical school training and abortion practices. Then they’ll also go and escort at local clinics. They’ll organize medical students to escort. I’ve seen other places where there’s an organization approach was clergy. I kind of doubt we would get that here, but you never know. If people really are wanting to do something about anti-abortion protesters harassing a local clinic, the first thing to do would be to contact the clinic where you notice protesters and ask clinic leadership what they would like in terms of support, ask them if they are interested in having escorts, ask them if there’s any kind of existing organization that is coordinating that. Think about whether there’s an existing local organization that you could work with, but definitely don’t just show up because then you’re kind of one more unanticipated entity, one more wildcard that the clinic is having to figure out “who are you,” otherwise, it can just kind of escalate things. I can think of plenty of other things that people can do that might be helpful.

One of the hardest things, every clinic I’ve ever worked at as a staff person, is figuring out where to park. You don’t want to park at the clinic, because then the protesters are gonna see your license plates, they’re gonna see you coming and going every day. If they get your license plate, they can get your home address. So we were constantly trying to figure out somewhere nearby that we could park and walk to the clinic that was a short enough distance that we weren’t leaving ourselves vulnerable for a long time walking back and forth, but where our car was kind of out of sight. So honestly, if you live near a clinic that’s getting a lot of protests activity, if you’ve got a spot where clinic workers could park next to your house, in your driveway, somewhere that’s less visible to the protesters but near the clinic, that would be something to offer the clinic. And then beyond that, one simple thing that people can absolutely do, if they’re in an economic situation to do it is to donate to abortion funds. Because you have to assume that any independent clinic near you is having to put a lot of money into security. And that means they aren’t able to discount procedures for people that absolutely need to come for care but can’t afford it. So the more that you can support abortion funds that can offset some of the money that clinics are having to spend on security.

William – TFSR: Thank you so much for going into how people can support or engaged this issue. We did have a question that was a follow up to what you were talking about about clinic defense but I think that you answered that question really well and we’ll post those suggestions in the show notes too.

Is there anything to say about… well maybe not… when you were talking me and Bursts we’re going back and forth in notes to each other about how reproductive issues are being hyper focused on by the burgeoning modern fascist formations. It’s easy to inflate how much influence those formations have, but they do tend to dovetail somewhat with the religious far-right. And also there was that Patriot Front leaked audio that they were going to show up at the anti abortion march in Chicago yesterday and next week in DC. And also there was recently a fire at a clinic in Knoxville that I don’t know if they ruled as arson, but do you have anything to say about how the focus on anti-choice, forced-birthers or whatever, how that is changing right now given current political context? And it’s okay if not.

Bayla: No, I appreciate that. Thank you. Yeah. I’m glad that you mentioned Knoxville, because I’d meant to bring that up. And I forgot that. I think it has been determined that it was. I don’t know if it’s been determined arson, but I think it was determined that it was not accidental. It seems like it was it was a fire that was set. And that is a clinic that’s been a target of a lot of harassment for years. I was trying to think back. I know there was some point in the past few years, around the same time that there had also been a lot of harassment here locally at Firestorm… I’m losing track of years because of COVID. But it feels like it was maybe late 2019, or that summer that there had been a lot of Proud Boys that were showing up in Asheville, and there seemed to be some link between some of the Proud Boys and then some other militia groups. Some specific Christian militia group that had been seen in both Asheville and Knoxville. And there was some thought that that had been part of who had been harassing that same clinic previously.

So, I do think there’s something to this. But there’s also a long history of this, right? Like a very, very, very long history. Like if we want to go way back. Part of the Third Reich was they had awards that were given to Aryan women that had more than a certain number of children. There was a specific emphasis and monetary award for German women who had more than a certain number of children, I forget how many. But this is in the same era, as the very sort of earliest days of the Holocaust was this rewarding the right kind of childbearing. And then if we go back, not as far, some of the largest, most violent anti-abortion organizations in the 90s were things like “the Army of God,” where people were showing up at huge anti abortion protests with all of their children and people with many, many, many children would put all of their very young kids in the very front lines of these anti-abortion protests, and have small children standing in front of law enforcement vehicles and stuff.

Again, we can talk all day long about how we feel about law enforcement being involved in clinic defense, which is a thing I have complicated feelings about. But you know, this is not a new thing for the sort of… I don’t even know what you call them, but the kind of Christian fundamentalist pro birth people to be anti abortion, and to have that kind of link up with the scary, violent militia element. I don’t have a really well articulated analysis of where the ideology lines up, other than it meets in some pretty obvious misogynistic, white supremacist, not wanting to be outnumbered, wanting the right kind of people to have more babies sort of rhetoric.

We can think of things like the Quiverfull movement. There’s a very far right Christian fundamentalists who think that it is a sin to have an opportunity for pregnancy that does not result in pregnancy. So I’m sure there’s something there. I don’t know of it specifically, but it would not surprise me if there’s some links being made.

Bursts – TFSR: Yeah, and I think that group that you were thinking about in the Knoxville area is the Legion of St. Ambrose, which is a Romanian Orthodox influenced far-right group that kind of splintered off of the Traditionalist Workers Party that was based in eastern Tennessee for a bit. And yeah, this is generationally, even from back in the 70’s or 80’s, when David Lane of the white nationalist terrorist group The Order coined those “14 words.” It’s about territory. And it’s about… I’m not gonna repeat them… But it’s about gaining territory, that the sovereignty is in the hands, specifically of white folks, and reproducing, more and more white folks. A thing that’s been getting more traction throughout the global far-right has been this idea of the great replacement. Which is a French New Right idea that’s been influencing all sorts of groups from Atomwaffen and The Base and League of the South. It’s all across there.

Yeah. Anyway, reproductive feature-ism. It’s all freaky, I don’t know…

Bayla: And it fits in really well with all the very anti immigrant stuff, too. I always think about what are the parallels in Catalunya and in Europe, generally. And this is Vox’s whole thing, right? This is another conversation I would love to have another day is how the terms Fascist and Neofascist are very relative, depending on where you are, because people try to refer to Vox as Neofascist, and I’m like “no, they’re just Fascists.” I don’t know why you bother with Neo in front of that. But Vox is this extremely far right party in Spain that’s been gaining in popularity. They’re incredibly anti-immigrant. People that are at Vox rallies will be doing the full on Fascist salute. They’re wandering around in Falangist outfits and have the old Falangist flag. There’s some wild stuff there. They’re very into Franco, and they hang out with the old school pro-Franco folks. And they’re super anti immigrant, and also very anti-abortion. They’ve been trying to get the law that liberalized abortion access overturned. And they’re working closely with the traditional far right party to do that. Nothing ever stays within borders. We often think that these trends are specific only to one country, or to one continent, or whatever, and really should probably be paying more attention to trends globally.

Bursts – TFSR: Thank you for that on-the-spot question.

So, the last 50 years has seen the growing of a strange amalgam of the religious far right, which we’ve been speaking about, in particular in the so-called US formulating of a culture war against a gambit of other issues including: sexuality, bodily autonomy and gender parity. That right wing movement has heaved huge amounts of money and political power to stymie access to reproductive choice through local state and federal law, to reverse Roe v. Wade, or disentangle access to abortion or birth control, even from international humanitarian aid that the US provides. Can you talk about the impact of things like clinics zonings law, heartbeat bills, trigger laws, and the stacking of the Supreme Court. All these like legal issues that feel well beyond the scope of in some ways, a direct action approach towards things? How might an anarchist approach to these issues look?

Bayla: That’s such a hard question. I’m struggling with this. Because when y’all first reached out about this, it was in the midst of some of the Supreme Court stuff that was going on. And I was like “I don’t want to talk about the legal stuff.” Because this is hard for me, right? So much of my work has been about access in places where there aren’t legal restrictions. I’ve been doing research in two settings where there were basically no legal restrictions and where abortion was paid for in a public health system or the equivalent thereof.

I did research in Oregon, where Oregon is one of… I’m not going to get the number right now, but at the time it was one of 36 states where the state Medicaid program covered abortion. And there were no legal restrictions. There was no waiting period, there was no counseling, there’s no nothing. If you could get to a clinic, you could get an abortion. And in Catalunya, the law had just been liberalized. So, it was much more accessible, it was legal under many more circumstances. And it had just been included in the public health system. I was doing research into different settings where it was as easy as it should be, as it could be and yet, I still documented a lot of obstacles and people having to wait long periods of time and make a bunch of different visits to social services offices to get the paperwork that would get that public funding.

And so, it’s very hard for me sometimes. A lot of the conversation around abortion is about legal restrictions. And then I stepped back and I think there’s a lot of times where legal kind of doesn’t matter. Legal doesn’t matter if it’s not accessible. Then also, sometimes access doesn’t matter if it’s going to take a long time, right? Especially if you’re somewhere where the legal restriction is about how far along you are. As an anarchist, it’s funny to me to spend time thinking about legal restrictions, when it’s so much about the practicality and I don’t know what the answer is practically, if it isn’t “self managed at home abortion.” Because what I want to do is say “we’ll just open our own clinics.” Because I know that clinics are what we need. I know that what we need is a place where people can get full spectrum abortion, including in the second trimester. I know we can’t give up clinics, and I don’t know what it looks like to have our own clinics, and to maintain high quality full spectrum abortion outside of a legal framework, and without the state interfering. This is a constant point of confusion for me. So, I don’t have like a clear or good answer.

I do know that everywhere I’ve ever worked with people in an abortion setting. We’ve talked a lot about wanting to open our own clinic. That’s an ongoing conversation that I have with people all the time, “How are we gonna open our own clinic? If Roe falls, how do we open our own clinic? What does that look like?” And I don’t know the answer. I think it is important for people to keep in mind that if the Supreme Court decision goes the way that people are afraid it will and the way it looks like it will there still going to be 24 states that will protect abortion rights, at least for now at the state level. And then it’ll be even more important, then, to protect abortion rights in those states and not let them be further undermined, either legally or practically. Then it’ll be even more important to keep those clinics open in whatever way that looks like. By defending those clinics physically. By not letting them go out of business by having a whole bunch of Planned Parenthood’s offering medication abortion down the street. But I think we’ve lost a lot of ground by focusing just on legal rights for so long. I don’t know what the answer to that is. Because it’s really hard in this country, when most of us have not had an experience of being somewhere that has a different political system to imagine what that would look like. Right?

William – TFSR: Yeah, indeed. I think that’s such an important perspective, though. Hyper focusing on legality… I think you don’t really have to look very far to see legal structures which don’t really serve anyone, because you can’t put them into practice, because it just materially doesn’t work that way often.

I did want to talk about this sort of cultural shift that’s been happening, or that we’ve located within the last little while, and I do want to give a **content warning**, I’m going to be just mentioning the unfortunate realities of rape and incest in this in this question.

Would you speak on the shift, which has occurred from sort of the goal being so called Free and Legal access 100% of the time, to quote, access only after certain processes, such as counseling, or after certain circumstances, such as rape or incest? What is happening here? And what does it mean in the context of access and how we as a culture are thinking about abortion?

Bayla: Thank you. Yeah, that’s super important. What is happening here? I think part of what’s happening here is, again, having lost a lot of ground by focusing on the kind of chipping away at access. It feels like there’s been this very gradual giving up ground by buying into a hope that “well, if we let them get this, then we can keep this.” So the calculus of “well the waiting period is maybe the necessary evil to still be able to have abortion be legal, maybe this counseling thing is the necessary evil” and sort of not seeing the encroachment that is happening over time. I don’t want to second guess, in any given state, in any given legislative fight, in each of these moments, I am sure that people were fighting really hard to not have to let that happen and that at the end of the day in whatever backroom, whatever lobbying was happening, whatever calculating the likely votes, that in that moment, it felt like that was what had to happen and the alternative was that there would be no legal abortion at all. And that’s really hard to say. I wasn’t there. It’s really hard for me to make that call of “Would it be better to have legal abortion with all of these contingencies and all these hoops? Or to have stood ground and been willing to give up legal abortion and then figure out what we do without it being legal and the thing we keep putting off.”

But I think you’re absolutely right, that we’ve now backed ourselves into a corner like there’s so many places where there’s so many hoops to jump through. And there’s so much that has to be done. That it’s effectively as though were not legal because it’s not accessible. And so it kind of doesn’t matter. These things that people have to go through. And I think that that’s done a larger thing, which is to reinforce so much abortion stigma that now people who are getting an abortion, believe that they’re doing something that’s wrong. There’s so much internalized abortion stigma. Abortion stigma has become so culturally normalized. Because the way that it’s talked about in the media, the way that it’s covered in the news, so much of what happens, makes it appear as though you have to be having the right kind of abortion, for one. So there’s this sense that the only persons that are okay, are the ones that meet all these criteria. There’s the idea that you have to tell the right kind of story to get an abortion. And I think in particular, some of what happens is that when people have to go through this mandated counseling, that almost always consists of completely inaccurate, biased information. When people are forced to see an ultrasound, obviously, that is reinforcing all kinds of ideas about “fetal personhood.” What someone then has to go through to get that abortion by the time they’re actually getting that abortion, rather than it reinforcing an idea of autonomy or empowerment, it is many times probably just reinforcing a lot of internalized stigma.

And so I wonder, if we now have a generation or a couple generations of people who were able to get an abortion. Most people in the United States that are able to get pregnant will have at least one abortion in their lifetime. That has been true since at least the 70’s. For as long as we’ve been keeping abortion statistics. Every clinic that performs abortions, has to report abortion statistics every year. And so we know at least since 1973, that everyone in the United States who’s able to get pregnant has at least one abortion in their lifetime. And half of those people have more than one. Those numbers have not changed. Those numbers are really not changing.

What I think probably is changing is how people feel about that experience. I want to be clear, I’m like not quoting research right now. I’m going completely off the cuff. And I don’t want to say that people regret their abortion, there’s very clear research on that. The primary feeling that people feel after an abortion, 99% of the time is relief. The small percentage of people that feel anything other than relief, it’s largely because they were either dealing with a ton of harassment from a partner or family member or protesters. So most the time when people feel something other than relief, it’s because they were not supported in their decision. But I do wonder if the experience of what people have to go through to get the abortion changes what that experience is like. Where we may have had a generation soon after Roe, where it felt more empowering, where it felt like “Oh, I’m able to do this thing. Now it’s legal. Now it’s a choice.” Which is also problematic, I’m saying choice in quotes. If it’s something I can do now, and I have the ability to do it, and I wonder now if you’re somebody that’s having to go to the clinic three different times, you’re having to go through mandatory counseling, you’re having to look at the ultrasound, you’re having to be told all these things that are not true.

I have not worked in a clinic where I’ve had to put someone through that, because I’ve only worked in settings where there aren’t all those restrictions. But I know what it’s like to sit with someone do informed consent for them to have the opportunity to make a lot of decisions for them to tell me what they want certain things to be like, to be able to tell them what’s going to happen. And to see the look on someone’s face when the experience is not as bad as they thought it was going to be. When they assume that it’s going to be awful and then they say to me at the moment they’re leaving “Wow, that was way better than I thought it was going to be. I actually feel pretty good about this.” And then I’m imagining what it would be like to have to put someone through all of these things that happen in a lot of states. And I wouldn’t want to have to put a patient through that. And I can’t imagine that it makes it a very positive experience.

So I do think we’ve given up a lot of ground. And again, like the last question, I don’t know what the answer to that is. And it feels like that’s something that isn’t just coming from the right it feels like some of that is the responsibility of a liberal, left giving up ground and and bear with me because I’m thinking this through out loud. It feels a little bit like gay marriage. It feels a little bit like taking what we can get that’s like the lowest common denominator, instead of actually fighting for what everybody needs and deserves. We still have legal abortion, but for who? And who actually is able to access it? And who benefits from it? People were so excited about gay marriage, but who did it primarily benefit? White gay cis men. There’s a lot of people for whom that doesn’t do as much good. I think there’s some interesting economic parallels of like, who do you have to be to be able to jump through all those hoops and actually benefit from legal abortion in the state that still has a ton of restrictions?

Bursts – TFSR: Yeah, and maybe to unpack just a tiny bit. I know critiques about the push for gay marriage, such as the publishing project Against Equality was making was that a lot of people are making the argument that “look if we have gay marriage, we can have access to visitation rights for people that we care about. We can have easier access to children that we are co parenting that are not maybe our biological own, but our partner’s, or access to a means for citizenship, or better being able to share money and pass on money after we pass, or to make medical decisions about the person we care about.” And yeah, gay marriage doesn’t answer those things or share health care access that somebody has in their job, that the HMOs offer to spouses. Sure that works if you are someone who has a job that gives you access to health care that can be shared with your family members. But for everyone else, that doesn’t help with immigration issues, it doesn’t help with access to health care, and these other things. Is that right, what you’re pointing to?

Bayla: Yeah, and I think actually that helps me draw a clearer conclusion than I even had before, which is great. So gay marriage does that, why can’t everyone have that without gay marriage? That shouldn’t be something that is reliant on marriage. Why can’t everyone have those things? And I think that’s part of what I’m thinking too about abortion is if the only way that someone can get an abortion is by going through all of these hoops. Is that really the kind of abortion that we want to have be legal? And I’m not saying that I would prefer illegal abortion. Let me be very clear. I’m not saying I’d rather that it not be legal so that we have to figure out what to do, because I still don’t have an answer to that. But I think it is really troubling. If we keep giving up more and more ground, and we keep… Again, this is not a perfect parallel, but if the only way that you can decide who visits you in the hospital is by being married, is that what we want? And if the only way someone can get an abortion is by having to jump through all of these hoops of waiting periods, and mandatory counseling, a mandatory ultrasound, I should say mandatory viewing of ultrasound. So that’s another way that that’s twisted as though we don’t do an ultrasound otherwise. But we’re sort of allowing there to be an idea that you can only have something in a certain way rather than demanding that everyone have access to it, no matter what.

Bursts – TFSR: And also, just to add in, I really appreciate the fact when you can say “I don’t have an answer to this.” Because you’re doing so much to enrich my personal knowledge on this, and you’re making really interesting arguments and bringing up really interesting things that I think is super fruitful. So I just want to say on record that not having the answer is a great thing to be able to say. It’s complex.

One thing that we were talking about the impacts that shame has on people and the experience that they have out of getting an abortion and maybe if they have feels about it afterwards and and having to jump through the hoops. There’s a concept, I think it’s called “syndemics” that talks about the actual biological effects in addition to or in connection to the psychological impacts of having to go through stressful situations, such as jumping through a bunch of hoops, being overly scrutinized, having to face people going through the door of a clinic, pelting you with stuff or yelling terrible things at you or whatever. Can you talk a bit about the sort of biological outcome of the social state that people who want to get an abortion, what they’re put through?

Bayla: Yeah, this might take a minute because it is part of a larger theoretical framework that was developed by my doctoral advisor and mentor, and continuing co author and friend, and then I extended upon it with another colleague. So I all kind of want to back up and like define the framework and then talk more about it. And for folks listening, this is also probably going to be the most sort of researchy part of this. So if you’re not into explanations of biological interactions caused by structural conditions you can can fast forward. But what you’re referring to is some work that I shared with y’all on abortion stigma syndemics. So syndemics, broadly, is a theoretical framework developed by Merrill Singer, who’s a critical medical anthropologist. And he’s founded several theoretical frameworks going back to the 80’s that are explicitly Marxist. He was well known for developing theoretical approaches within medical anthropology that explicitly examine power relationships within healthcare, and that affect health through power inequality. So within that, he developed a concept in the late 80’s, or early 90’s, called syndemics, which is it’s a blend of the words “synergy” and “epidemic.” He framed this to give us a way to look at times when multiple diseases or biological conditions interact in a way that makes both worse. And that that is caused by a structural or social condition.

And generally, those occur in circumstances of inequality, as you can imagine. There have been hundreds that have been identified. This is now a huge body of work in anthropology and public health and other fields. It’s complex and it’s not always done accurately. I would say that there’s a lot of things out there that are referred to as syndemics that actually don’t meet the definition. There’s some examples on the CDC website, because they’re so good at everything lately… But this particular syndemic, I’ve worked with him quite a bit in this area. And this particular one is one that I identified with my colleague, Roula AbiSamra, who’s in Atlanta, and actually does excellent work with an abortion fund there. I’ll make sure to share the website with y’all.

Roula and I both worked in abortion clinics for a long time. And she also worked with the National Abortion Federation for a while. And so she and I were talking a lot over the years, it’s been decades now, about abortion stigma and some of the effects that it has that we had noticed. Then we started talking about why some people do or don’t come back for follow up care. Many clinics will encourage everyone to come back for a follow up appointment, or people can come back for a follow up appointment if they’re concerned that they have any complications or anything that’s not resolving. This, to me, is one of the hallmarks of a feminist or independent clinic is telling people here are all the things you can expect “this is what would be a normal amount of bleeding or cramping after a procedure. If it lasts longer than this amount of time, or if it’s more than this amount, if we would like you to call us. This is when it would probably be a good idea to come back…” And then essentially trusting the person to know their body enough to know whether or not they feel like they want or need to come back.

So one of the things that Roula and I talked a lot about was like what seems to determine when somebody is pretty clearly having a complication that is outside the range of what we have indicated would be typical, and when they do or don’t come back. And it was very clear to us that stigma had a lot to do with that. So for example, somebody who had not gotten a lot of support, or had actively been being pressured by a partner or friends or family beforehand, somebody had not wanted them to have the abortion, we were noticing a trend in our clinics and with our patients that if somebody hadn’t gotten enough support for their decision in the first place, it seemed like they were less likely to come back for follow up if they were having complications. And then some other things that we would notice is if there were a lot of protesters and someone had had to walk by a ton of protesters the first time they came in… are you gonna want to go through that again to come back for follow up? Maybe, maybe not.

And the way that that fits into a syndemic, what we started thinking through is: for something to be a syndemic, there has to be at least two biological factors that are interacting in some way. And that has to be occurring because of a larger structural condition. And so where we propose this as an abortion stigmas syndemic is that I was working with Merrill Singer and another colleague. Cher Lerman and I, we were putting together a collection of chapters about different stigma caused syndemics, basically different disease interactions that were caused by stigma as the structural condition. And so I went to Roula and I said, “Hey, do you want to dig deeper into this? Let’s think about what are some ways that there are biological interactions that are caused by abortion stigma?”

And the first thing we had to reckon with was: is pregnancy itself a disease? It’s not, right? Feminist scholars have fought for a long time to de-pathologize pregnancy and to say that pregnancy in and of itself is not a disease. And so we had to first kind of like revise the definition of syndemics a little bit and say “it doesn’t just have to be a disease it can be a biological condition.” So we can talk about how pregnancy as a biological condition, interacts with possible abortion complications. Which also want to say from the get go are very rare. Abortion when performed in a safe setting, when it’s high quality care is extremely safe. Complications are very rare. But when they do occur, the types of complications that are most common are: an infection which is easily treated with antibiotics. or continue bleeding. Typical and I should probably have done a content warning for talking about abortion complications and bleeding. So if you’re squeamish, this is maybe also not for you.

But pretty typically after a high quality, safe abortion, it would be pretty typical to have some cramping and bleeding. Cramping for a couple days, and typically bleeding similar to a menstrual cycle for a week or two weeks, depending on how far along you were. But more than that would be not very typical. And that, again, is speaking about instrumental abortion. Medication abortion is a totally different story. People tend to have much more cramping and bleeding for a pretty long time and it’s much harder to give people an idea of what’s normal, because it varies a lot. But I’m talking specifically about instrumental abortion.

So we started talking about what are the specific interactions between pregnancy and any of these complications that we think are caused by abortion stigma. And what we started realizing is that there’s something specific that happens to pregnancy because of abortion stigma that the pregnancy itself becomes pathologized. That’s kind of the first piece of this. In the context of abortion stigma, even the pregnancy itself is pathologized. That unplanned or ill timed or unintended pregnancy itself, from the get go is already pathologized. So somebody who might otherwise go to the emergency room for care, for example, or go to their regular doctor for care. Often, people who’ve had an abortion, don’t ever tell their primary care doctor that they had an abortion. They’re not going to seek care in regular circumstances. They’re not going to go the places they would normally go for care, because there’s such pervasive abortion stigma in our culture and in society, that they don’t want anyone to know that they had an abortion. And so if someone is having abortion complications, if they’re in that very rare category, where they have continued bleeding, or they have an infection, or something is going on., they’re much less likely to seek care in the usual venues. So in that way, that complication might get worse, or it might not resolve, they might not be able to get the care that they need, because the pregnancy itself has already been pathologized by the stigma. That’s one of the ways that this works.

Another way that it can work is abortion stigma itself can mean that people are further along by the time they get care, because it can take longer for them to figure out where to go because information about where to go is not easily available. Like we talked about before, there are fewer clinics that offer later care, so it can take longer to raise money for transportation to get there, you have to take time off work, you have to figure out childcare. So because of abortion stigma, somebody might be further along, and they’re going to be fewer places for them to go and though the risk of complications is very low, it does increase in later weeks of pregnancy. And so someone is slightly more likely to have complications in a second trimester procedure. There’s this catch 22, where, because of stigma, you’re more likely to be further along, because of stigma, you’re more likely to then need a procedure that has a slightly higher risk of complications. And so in that way, also, there’s this interaction between the gestation of pregnancy and the risk of complications.

And then finally, another way that this works… what I’m speaking from here is a whole chapter that we wrote about this that’s a 30 page long chapter where we walk people through kind of each of these dynamics. Another way that this operates, is kind of specifically what I’ve been talking about what this Planned Parenthood phenomenon where, in some ways abortion stigma has contributed, I think a little bit to this promotion of medication abortion, to the exclusion of instrumental abortion, because of the idea that medication abortion is something you can do privately by yourself, no one will know. So then you’re doing something because you think it can be made more concealable, fewer people, maybe will find out, nobody will see you walking into the clinic, but then you’re also doing a procedure that has a higher risk of complications. And then if you need follow up care, it might be harder to find somewhere to go because more clinics are closing, because of the emphasis on medication abortion. So I know that’s complicated, and I’m happy to explain more about it. But it’s also this very specific kind of academic description of something. So I’m happy to talk more about it, but we also don’t have to.

William – TFSR: Thank you so much for going into it. Super, super fascinating work and I am really stoked personally just to read more about it and understand it further because it’s just such an undeniable fact that these things have such a profound impact on people’s bodies, people’s minds, which is a part of their body and all of that stuff.

Those are all the the like pre-scripted questions that we had. And I really just want to thank you so much for taking the time out of your day to speak with us about this topic. Can you tell folks how they can read your writing? Are there any resources you would recommend for further reading and research? And are there any projects or networks you would recommend folks getting involved in?

Bayla: Totally, thank you. Yeah, this has been super fun. This is not an area of my work that I have gotten to talk about as much lately, so I really enjoyed it. I’m kind of doing other work here and so I always love the opportunity to come back into this part of my work. I’ll start with the resources and other things that I’d recommend related to this. And then I think, as far as my work, we can talk more about that I don’t know what your capabilities are of how much you can post or share things. There are things I can share that you could just directly post and then otherwise, some of it is on websites that are not entirely accessible, because they’re academic types of sites. But I can also probably make some things more accessible that are the specific pieces of work I talked about here.

The sites that I would recommend are the Abortion Care Network. Absolutely. It’s just AbortionCareNetwork.org. That’s the National Association of Independent Clinics. And that’s where they have a lot of information of what I was describing about the role of independent clinics, how much and what type of care they provide, and how threatened they are, how many clinics have been closing. It’s kind of like a good reality check, and a good picture of the actual landscape of care and full spectrum care in the United States. Another site that I recommend is AbortionFunds.org. Just practically speaking, in terms of if you or anyone you know is looking to get an abortion now or at any point in the future, that’s a great resource for finding funding. And I should back up and say Abortion Care Network also has a listing of all of their clinics. So if you need to find a clinic, Abortion Care Network is a great resource. I mentioned Sister Song before their website is SisterSong.net. They’re fantastic. And then locally for people that are listening in North Carolina or this part of the country. We have the Carolina Abortion Fund, which is our specific local fund, and that’s just CarolinaAbortionFund.org And then kind of more regionally, there’s the Access Reproductive Care Southeast Fund, which does not include North Carolina, but I think it’s South Carolina, Georgia, Tennessee, Louisiana, and I might be forgetting another state. But that is a fund that the person I was just speaking about, Roula AbiSamra, who co-wrote the chapter on abortion stigmas syndemics with me. She co-founded that fund and does a lot of work with them. They’re fantastic. And their website is ARC-southeast.org.

And then otherwise, I have links that I can share for y’all to put in the show notes. There’s a summary from the Guttmacher foundation – that is an assessment of what would happen in different states if Roe falls. With the caveat that the Guttmacher Institute has excellent and very accessible summaries of different research on abortion and sexual and reproductive health but their employment practices are garbage as an organization, they’re very problematic. I’ll share a link, kind of an exposé of what’s been going on with their toxic work culture for a long time. So I feel very complicated about recommending them. They’re an important resource for information, but they are treating a lot of workers there very badly. So I never quite know what to do with that. And then I can also share links for the website where I have those quotes about Reproductive Justice, and also link for the book that I mentioned about the history of the self health movement.

And then I’d also say in general avoid just Googling abortion because most of what is on the internet is bad and stigmatizing and inaccurate and scary. Like when I was talking before about having to deprogram patients from things that protesters say… the other thing that happens a lot is people coming into the clinic have been googling. If this does not illustrate what people go through to get an abortion, I cannot tell you how many patients I’ve had who I am literally doing their intake for them to have an abortion and then they asked me questions that are like, “so is it true that…” and then they say something that they’ve read on the internet that they believe is going to happen to them that has permanent lasting effects. And they think it’s going to happen to them and they’re there in the clinic anyway. Luckily they asked and so I have the opportunity to debunk it and say “absolutely not.” We would never do that to you. That this is not going to have that permanent effect and then I can give them the accurate information. But the amount of stuff on the internet about abortion that’s just not true and super horrifying. I encourage people, just don’t even go down that road. I think that answered that question.

Bursts – TFSR: Yeah, very well. And we can host files, either between our archive.org account or on the website, depending on the size. Are there any topics that we missed, which you wanted to cover just in closing?

Bayla: I think this was great. No, this was great. Thank you so much. Awesome

Bursts – TFSR: Bay, thank you so much for having this conversation and all the work that you do. I think is going to be a really good resource for folks.

William – TFSR: I have such a deep appreciation for you taking the time and for you doing the work that you do on such a culturally sensitive topic, and I want to recognize that and thank you so much.

Housing Struggles in Asheville

Housing Struggles in Asheville

Housing activists occupying the lobby of Downtown Asheville's AC Hotel - Photo by Elliot Patterson (permission of Asheville Free Press)
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This week on the show, you’ll hear from Doug, Onion and Papi, three folks involved in the Aston Park Build, a daily event to hold space in Aston Park in downtown Asheville, creating art, sharing food and music and a wider part of organizing here to demand safer space & redistribution of wealth to care for houseless folks and relieve the incredible strains on housing affordability in Asheville. We talk about the park actions, the housing crisis and service industry wage woes, local government coddling of business owners and police repression of folks on the margins.

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Sean Swain’s Transfer

This week’s segment is Sean’s statement given to the Interstate Compact Hearing he was to face before the foregone conclusion of his transfer far from his spouse & support base. If you want to write to Sean, for the moment it’s a good idea to send to his Youngstown address until his support site says otherwise, but also to hold on to a copy of your letter in case he’s been moved and ODRC doesn’t send back your original. You can find info on how to support his legal campaign (Donations can be made via CashApp to $Swainiac1969), his books and past writings at SeanSwain.org or find updates on Swainiac1969 on instagram or SwainRocks on twitter.

We got an update that the Interstate Compact Committee, during their hearing this week, recommended that Sean stay in Ohio (but they didn’t quit their jobs).

Feel free to reach out to the following public officials to express your concern at the moving of Sean Swain out of Ohio based on the word of a former ODRC because Sean spoke out about torture he suffered in Ohio prisons. More details in the statement at [01:04:19] in the episode…

Biologica Squat in Thessaloniki

The Biologica Squat at the School of Biology at the Aristotle University of Thessaloniki, Greece, has been open for 34 years and is now under threat of attack by the New Democracy government and their new campus police. There are calls for solidarity at Greek Embassies, businesses and other places around the world during the up til and through January 10th & 17th of January 2022. The original post can be found in Greek on Athens Indymedia or in English at EnoughIsEnough14.org

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Featured Track:

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Transcription

Doug: Hey, my name is Doug. I used to be homeless, now I am not. I have an apartment. And yeah, that’s pretty much it.

Onion: I’m Onion. I use they/them pronouns.

Papi: I’m Papi. I also use they/them pronouns.

TFSR: Would y’all maybe talk about what brings you to talk about the housing crisis in Asheville and the way that the city and the police are dealing with homelessness. Some might think that, Doug, if you’re in a place right now… that since you got yours, you could just kind of chill and wouldn’t be worried about the stuff that the city is doing?

Doug: I could, but that’s not me. I worry about people that I know out there. I worry about if I was homeless again. I would want things to be fixed better, you know? I don’t want to be treated bad like we used to be – when you’re homeless getting kicked in the head by cops. I think if I was not to care, or just to give up to be in my apartment, or whatever, I wouldn’t feel right. Because there’s a lot of things wrong in this scene that have to be fixed.

Onion: I’ve been evicted twice myself. I’m a single parent. It’s kind of a miracle that I’m still able to live in Asheville. So I feel that it’s personal for me. But it’s also a collective issue that if we don’t push hard on right now, it’s gonna get extremely worse.

Papi: I’ve lived in western North Carolina all my life. This is my first time being on my own, can’t afford it… can’t do it. I’m actually living with… well, my family’s living with me now. My family can’t really own places on their own because of documentation status and being immigrants here. So that’s like a whole thing on its own. That’s where I’m at right now.

TFSR: Could someone give a definition or a description of what’s happening right now in Aston Park in downtown Asheville? During the summer Asheville police, for instance, evicted of a bunch of camps around town. And that was during milder weather, despite the fact that it was also amidst a pandemic. Also, could someone give a definition of what Code Purple means?

Doug: Yes, Asheville did. They did a lot of people earlier this year. They put some people in hotels, and if you weren’t on the list, you were just basically stuck out in streets. I was on the first list of people to be in the hotels, and I still haven’t gotten a hotel. All the hotel stuff that happened when COVID first hit was because Buncombe county got money to put to put us in housing, hotels, or create tent cities for us that were safe with toilets and washing. That never came. Came and went, we never had any of that. So we’re still stuck in the woods. Some people are in hotels now. The Ramada, I guess. But it’s institutional living, it’s not happy there. So scratch that.

Code Purple is when it’s gonna be 32 degrees or below freezing. They say it’s unsafe for people. So they provide emergency shelters – a men’s one and a women’s one. Usually we go out, pick people up at night or have a ride to get you there. Last year we got dinner in the evening and breakfast in the morning. I don’t know what they are getting this year. But I haven’t heard anybody complaining. So Code Purple is basically just to keep people alive – from freezing.

Papi: This year was different. Last year, and I guess 2020 shelters didn’t want to open for Code Purple because of the pandemic. So the city decided after a minute to open one up in the civic center. It was a more centralized bigger space. And this year, they didn’t do any of that. No one opened. So there was Code Purple happening. The city calls it when the weather hits. They call Code Purple, but there’s still nowhere to go at the beginning of the winter this year. So it lasted for a bit of time. People can die or lose their limbs or all of that. We decided to start pressuring the city to create and find Code Purple shelter so that we wouldn’t see loss of life.

Doug: Code Purple is weird because if it was 33 degrees and raining or drizzling or just wet outside. There’s no Code Purple. There’s no shelter. But 32? You are in there. Last year the VRQ did it – which is the Veterans Administration Quarters. But they kind of hate homeless people. And I get it because some of my comrades out here are just rude, crude, and they have no respect. But if you offered a service, like VRQ did, no matter what people come into the door you still have to keep your composure and put your hat on and say “Come on in. How are you today?” Yeah, I was gonna go off on a tangent there.

I wasn’t done answering your question, but I got to thinking about the way that we don’t hold ourselves accountable for our own actions out here. People just do what they want and screw people over. Rob and steal, some call it survival. Survival would be like stealing a rabbit or some meat from the store, not my backpack. And we act obnoxious, and we do drugs in places where we probably shouldn’t do them. And people don’t like that. So they hate us, and they don’t help us anymore. And that’s not cool.

Papi: Another thing with the Code Purple is that the city might put some funding into it. But oftentimes they wait. And this year they waited and so the only Code Purple for a minute when it was super cold around Thanksgiving, or before that, was volunteer run, and they had no funding. So there’s a bunch of people running it that are just signing up for shifts overnight and everything. It’s totally inappropriate. It’s not well done or safe, or careful. So, the city is sitting on $26 million of federal funding that they got for relief, specifically this year. They still haven’t, to my knowledge, apportioned it. So they’re just sitting there on piles of money. And people are dying. Right now. They’re dying around us in the streets, like… currently.

Doug: Yeah, not just from the cold. Other things, too. COVID and sicknesses, illnesses. It’s just like, are you gonna wait till there’s five of us left and then help people? Or are we gonna put this thing in action now? I know things cost money but it’s not really hard to say to a bunch of people “come line up and get your shots or get a checkup. Here’s a house.” There’s plenty of abandoned buildings out here. I know a lot of people, even myself, who has taken over abandoned houses. Go inside, black out all the windows, and some have electricity, just live in there. It’s kind of scary, because you’re trapped. But it’s a nice place, but still it’s illegal. The city could take this house and offer the person money.

We need shelter for everybody. So this house is not being used or your family is not using it? Why can’t we? Require us to keep it clean, and to keep it up, just to not be like, disgusting pigs. I myself have been a disgusting pig. And I recommend people to do this stuff. Because as homeless we already got a bad look and then we’ll just do this other stuff. Sorry, I went off again.

Papi: Well, Asheville is full of money, there’s no lack of money. You know, there’s a lot of money moving through this town via tourism. And it’s just that we don’t see any of the money it’s ported. The Tourism Development Authority has a budget of I think it’s $15 million a year for advertising to bring people, tourists, to Asheville. We don’t see any of that.

Doug: Yeah, that’s why a lot of crime doesn’t get reported. Or a lot of cases get dropped. I believe this. If it was all be reported and everybody’s get charged the tourism would stop coming. They would be like “this place really sucks, I don’t want to go there.” We need to get some of our people off the street because they walk around, not in their head, they’re out somewhere. Just go one day to Pritchard Park. Sit down in the corners and just watch the show. You can just see why we need help. If they got the money they gotta take that money and if you want to budget it? Get a bunch of military tents. Make a tent city for us. They were supposed to do that two years ago. That’s not asking for much. I mean I’m asking for a house and walls. I mean, I am. I want that. But we’ll be happy with a canvas tent and a cook. I’ll cook for them!

TFSR: It seems like a lot of those things are intertwined with each other. Like if someone has easy access to privacy, they’re not going to be doing drugs and public. Plenty of people with houses do drugs. You know, if you’ve got a shower and a place to wash dishes, you’re not going to stink as much you’re not going to be walking around. You can do your own laundry. And you’re not going to probably be suffering from as many mental health crises. If you have a place to lay your head and you’re not going to get rousted in the middle of the night or get your backpack stolen or whatever else. It just contributes to this problem.

But the city as Onion said, and as both of you have said – has the money to spend on it, but it’s just choosing to hold that back. It would rather use a bludgeon against people that are on the street than actually help them out of that situation.

Doug: Yeah, they make it worse. I don’t understand why they don’t do anything. They can still keep a lot of money and still help us out. We’re not going to go anywhere. We’re not gonna die off. And quite frankly, a lot of people here do have mental illnesses. That’s why they’re here. They need medications, they need a good safe place. Not necessarily a hospital, or a house. A house, but like a maybe halfway house type situation, where there’s somebody there to give them their meds every day to help them clean their self or their whatever. Some people need to be retrained into life.

TFSR: Or assistance with addiction issues or counseling or access to medication or… right. There’s solutions out there. Folks’ camps have been getting broken up by the city. I wonder if ya’ll could talk about that and what’s been going on in Aston Park and some of the solutions that people are calling for immediately that we could do to resolve the unsafe situations that folks are in right now. If they want to find shelter, what could the city or mutual aid be doing to provide some sort of alternative to what’s going on now.

Papi: So the city of Asheville has gotten some flack this year for sweeps. But the thing is, most of the sweeps that they do aren’t public knowledge. It’s a policy that the city has, to do them constantly. So we’ll hear about one every once in a while if it makes the news for some reason, or if it’s in a prominent place. But it’s kind of ongoing all the time. So it could be in any weather. If enough people call in, in a neighborhood or whatever to complain – they’ll sweep.

There was an encampment underneath the overpass, and one tourist made a complaint through this complaint website to the city. And they decided to sweep right then, right before a cold snap in February. With extremely cold temperatures that day. The larger city found out about that one because people were witnessing people having to walk away from that site and having their tents destroyed by the Department of Transportation and Asheville Police Department. They were bulldozing all their possessions and people were walking away without shoes with nowhere to go. And so that is obviously violent and deadly. The city caught a lot of flack for that. But the thing that most people don’t know is that it’s customary. It’s their policy.

Doug: Yeah. Not to be on the side of the city. What they’re doing is very wrong and very bad. But they are doing it a lot better now than they were two years ago. Like two years ago, they would just come in and slice your tent up and throw all your stuff everywhere and make you go. Now they’re not giving us enough time but they are giving us some time. Tents aren’t being slashed, but they don’t let you take it.

When they closed down the camp by Haywood Street Church. They got people and their bags and put them in cars and took off. I went by there later that night and it was like a free for all with everybody’s left over belongings. It was like a free flea market. I collected lots of it. Everybody was pilfering all the stuff. Why would you kick them out of there and say they can’t take their stuff and leave the stuff there. When they kick us out they don’t have a contingency plan. I don’t know if they’re supposed to but they should because they have to take care of the people. They say they do. But they don’t.

“You have to move. You can’t be here. We’re gonna put you here. You have to go, We don’t know where you are gonna go.” And that’s that. There’s a lot of land out here. This is western North Carolina. I know BeLoved got a big donation a couple years ago. They were going to build a tiny home village and Buncombe County didn’t want to have it in Buncombe County. So they had to go outside of Buncombe County somewhere. I don’t see why that would be the problem. I would live in a tiny home homeless village. But that’s cool. Like, we want more of those. That’s a whole ‘nother story.

Papi: Yeah. So what we’re trying to do now is open up space that’s safer and that’s sanctioned by us. So that’s why we decided to start holding space in Aston Park, which is south of downtown in Asheville. It’s a central location that’s convenient for people and it’s good for camping. We’ve got a lot of flat space and it’s accessible. So we are focusing on that space to create sanctuary camping which a lot of other cities have done in the so called United States. It should be a done deal. It’s very easy to do. It’s been done. It’s not complicated, but the city is holding out because they would rather basically enact social cleansing.

Doug: All they have to do is put in some hand washing stations it’s important out there. And garbage pickup. They will not pick up people’s garbage. Their job is sanitation, to keep the place clean. Every time there’s a homeless encampment, the garbage sits there for weeks. I’m like “well, you guys complain that we look bad but you’re leaving the garbage here after we’re gone.” People know it’s us, but it’s like the tongue to a wall. They’re complaining and complaining but they don’t do anything about it. Like they’re just showing up, shut them down and take off. Couple weeks later, same thing happens again. Who’s door do we gotta go knock on to get this done. All they have to do is put tents in Aston Park… it’s flat. Just throw some Port-a-Johns, a hand wash station, and a dumpster.

Onion: I feel like we kind of skipped where we were saying, why we’re doing this or something about what brought us to this.

Papi: I think a lot about what Doug said about what the city could be bringing, and how the city is not going to do shit. So it’s like, “okay, just let us do it.” Because we’re capable of resourcing and finding things. And if it’s so bothering… just get the fuck out of our way. City don’t bother us. Cops don’t bother us. We’ll put hand washing things there. We’ll put Port-a-Johns there. We’ll put things there and we’ll take care of it. And I mean, people have been showing up every weekend to Aston and been doing that. So we’re capable, we’re very capable, the community is capable of coming in and taking care of each other. and continuing that.

Doug: They are coming in and make us look bad. Like they come in to throw their shovel in there. We’ve done all the work. But they take all the credit and make us look bad. But you know what? Ya’ll know where Hopey’s was? You know it’s empty now. There’s a nice building where people sleep. I don’t know they have plans for it. But that could be a shelter, a temporary shelter.

Papi: We could make plans for it.

Doug: We could just go in there and claim it. But we gotta do it right, though.

TFSR: Well, if you plan on doing that, I can cut that portion out of the radio broadcast. One of the ways that this has been framed recently: the taking space in Ashton Park despite the police evictions has been under the name of Aston Art Build. And I’m wondering if ya’ll could talk about how there’s public invitations for people to gather and create art and to make it a multi generational space.

Papi: Yeah. So when the invites went out… by the way the invites are so cute! I love them! They’re very fun to me. We should make some more. We started Sunday. It’s been pretty fucking cool. I think before we even had donations come in, everyone’s been able to resource around, calls out. Before calls out to social media we were just asking friends and people that we see “bring anything and everything that you can.” It’s pretty cool how quickly people can find furnitures everywhere. I want to bring a bed. There’s been multiple beds brought and built. And a house to put it in. And there’s lots of art. There’s lots of art and very large banners. And so far it’s been very cool. Just yesterday, there was music finally, because we were really lacking in the music area because it’s kind of awkward.

Doug: There wasn’t just music, there was a DJ there.

Papi: It was really nice.

Doug: They were spinning records. I don’t know if this will help Asheville or the conversation but online a while back I saw in other countries. They have homeless issues too, right? So they take a dumpster. And it’s a small living area. It’s clean and they put a little bench or something in there. And it’s like a little home for a person. But they have these little boxes. More than just tents. We should look….

TFSR: Like storage containers?

Doug: Something like that. Yeah, smaller ones. And I mean, some of them were small as a coffin. But I wouldn’t want to sleep in there. But we want to problem to go away. We want housing, we want things in the meantime, we can’t housing like that. So we need shelter till we wait for housing. What are we doing for that? Are we just protesting? Are we actually trying to get some shelters going?

Papi: Yeah, this is a direct action. So we’re creating this solution. I mean, it’s gradual, because of the way the cops are enforcing the issue right now. They’re fudging the law or their own policy that they have been doing which is giving seven days notice to vacate. They decided to stop doing that. And they changed their policy internally in a quasi probably illegal way. Now they’re saying they have the right to just evict people from from camps immediately and arrest if people don’t leave.

Also the issue with it being an art build is pertinent to the culture of the city, because Asheville likes to pride itself on being a creative zone for people to come and listen to music on the street and art festivals and all these sorts of things. Yeah. But that is accessible for some people as a way to be in a city and it’s not accessible for other people. So we decided to make art central in what we’re doing to sort of make that point that it’s important for everyone to have the ability to live creatively. And that’s part of direct action too.

Also the fact that we are prioritizing this being an intergenerational space, because that people suffering right now they don’t have a particular age. It’s from elders to babies. So we need to include everybody in our solutions. That’s how we’ve been organizing, we have childcare for all our meetings, and children are extremely welcome in all our spaces, and parents, and so on and so forth. We try to make the most accommodation for everybody that’s around.

Doug: That’s for sure. You talking about ASP? Or just us in general. Yeah, we definitely help make everybody stay comfortable, more comfortable. I’m very grateful for that. Because when COVID hit it was bone dry. There was nothing. You couldn’t get a cup of coffee. And then one day, in comes —- and I think it was — and —-, —— was there. And here we are today. We are doing big things. So do they have a problem with the art because we can go to beer because it’s also the beer city. We can star making beer! We could make a homeless ale. [laughter]

Papi: If art is controversial…

Doug: Yeah, bring out the little… What do you call that? A still?

Papi: We could just call it a hotel and then they would let us do it.

Doug: Right? Do we have people going to these meetings where they vote? Like zoning meetings? If nobody ever goes to the meeting then zoning gets passed.

Onion: I think the zoning meetings aren’t necessarily up for a vote all the time, like they are a council that kind of like rubber stamps.

Doug: But these policy changes, they should be open to the public. So we have to get a team to go in there and suit up in their best Under Armor hoodie and jump in there.

Papi: I think it’s been interesting to see people going to like the mayor’s lawn and stuff here and just kind of skipping meetings.

Doug: There’s no “No Trespassing” signs on the courthouse. We can camp there. But it’s concrete.

Papi: And I know people have gone to city council meetings. They give you so many restrictions in order to talk. And it’s because they know that they don’t want to hear us. Like I remember people would sign up and they would cut you off after a certain time.

Doug: You have to beat them at their own game, we have to get our words in a certain time. It shouldn’t have to be like that. But we’re stepping up to the plate. So we are doing a lot anyways. I’m not trying to sound bad, because we do a lot.

Papi: I think it’s a question of who calls the shots. And you know, this is our city and we can call the shots and they can listen to us, right? We don’t always have to fit into their framework, they can fit into ours.

Onion: It shouldn’t be the other way around. Right? This is our city. We live here. They’re the ones who should be listening to us. But they don’t they just care about all of our money.

Doug: I mean, if we had guns and cars, we can make them listen, but we’re not doing that. [laughter]

Papi: They will listen.

Doug: Yeah, they will. They will. I see the future of ASP changing a lot of things for homeless people. Not just in Asheville, but like we’re gonna set up in Asheville. It’s gonna be city to city to city. We literally can set the standard to better the homeless all over the United States. And then the world, I guess.

TFSR: Y’all were mentioning calling the shots. And it’s one thing to demand and say “yeah, we’re the people that live here.” Can you talk a little bit about some of the pressures that maybe people from the outside like Onion mentioned the amount of money that the county and the city budget towards advertising towards the tourist industry? But can you talk about some of the motivations on city council and on the county commissioners that are keeping forward motion on actual solutions with public funds to solve the crisis for houseless folks, as well as the cost of housing for regular folks.

Onion: So the city of Asheville is run by a gang and the gang is not publicly accountable. That’s what I mentioned before, the agency called the Tourism Development Authority. They’re not elected or anything like that. It’s a private agency. And so, for example, they have this thing that they call “Heads in Beds.” And it’s their way of saying, of all the hotel rooms, because I don’t know how many 1000s of actual hotel rooms and beds in Asheville, but their push is to get all the beds full.

Their way of measuring that is “Heads in Beds.” And so this is to say, they are completely focused on housing tourists in this town and making accommodations for certain people. If they want to put our heads in beds, there’s no resources for that. But all of a sudden, they have millions and millions of dollars to fill the other beds and build other hotels for all these thousands and thousands. Basically, they have a huge priority of creating space for white wealthy people to come in and visit and social cleansing and hyper gentrification for the poor and the struggling.

So the thing is, is this agency runs the city. City council rubber stamps whatever the TDA wants. They might debate it publicly, or there might be a little bit of dissent. But eventually, they just agree to whatever it is. City council is not calling the shot. They are agreeing with a larger entity, a more powerful entity. So the city manager and the planning and zoning office and other city staff work very, very closely with the tourism development entity. And then you have the Biltmore on top of it, which everyone kind of like forgets about, but it’s like a huge piece of land in the middle of town that’s being privately used for huge amount of profit. That’s basically a feudal type of situation. I mean, I’m saying, let’s take the Biltmore. You know? It’s literally a castle in the middle of Asheville.

Papi: And it’s boring!

Onion: It’s super bad. Yeah.

TFSR: Yeah. So for folks that maybe haven’t heard of the Biltmore Estate, the Vanderbilt family built a huge mansion. It’s the largest private residence in North America. It’s run by a foundation now, so that they can, you know, siphon money through a nonprofit, I think it’s like 60 or 70 bucks to get a visit to the actual house. I’ve never been there. I hear the land is really beautiful. There’s like a dairy farm. There’s a winery. There’s the gardens. It’s also apparently got a really, really intense biometric surveillance system, through the cameras that they have there. I just heard about that.

Papi: It’s a lot of money, and they don’t even pay their employees well.

Onion: Exactly.

TFSR: There was an article that was published a few days ago by Barbara Durr of the Asheville Watchdog. It’s based on a 2021 Bowen national research piece that was commissioned by the Dogwood Health Trust. And I’ll put a link in the show notes to it. But the numbers are not pretty in terms of how much people spend on housing here and the availability of “affordable housing.” Would you all talk about your experience? Papi already mentioned rooming with family now because it’s gotten so expensive And because buying property is so difficult and Onion mentioned being evicted twice. So what does it kind of look like? How does how does housing actually pan out for the people that live in work in the city where the tourists kind of take over the rest of the time?

Papi: Well, just from my experience with housing, and the people that I work around and live around, people kind of have been stuck where they’re at. Working three part time jobs, just to make it as is. Also, it’s now very common to just depend on community which is not bad. Which is what we should be doing. But always it’s like “oh, it’s the first of the month, let’s ask for mutual aid. Let’s ask for some rent assistance. Let’s get some money in our hands that we can afford to survive and live here in this apartment for the next month.”

I know that’s the thing with housing. And then I just see that and hear that a lot. I’ve had friends who try to game with roommates or things like that, but they don’t work. There’s just so many things. Because if you can’t work or live where you’re at, then how are you going to get transportation and then the bus pass.

Doug: Right now my rent is free for a year, because that’s the program I’m in. But after that it goes up to like $895 for a two bedroom, one bathroom in the projects. You know, it is what it is. That ended the median in Asheville is $350,000 per house. That’s the average cost. I couldn’t work two full time jobs and my girlfriend were two full time jobs and sell anything on the side and afford that!

Onion: Yeah, it’s like turbo gentrification up in here we are one of the most gentrified cities in all of the United States. And we’re also in a region that is historically under organized. There’s no housing advocacy organization in Asheville. It’s just us. There’s no resource center for renters. There’s no pushback against the landlord’s. City council and other entities don’t do anything. So the City manages to get away with really intense gaslighting, even when they describe what their idea is of affordable housing. What they call that is not really affordable to people that are working class, it’s kind of more accessible to the middle class.

So you have a situation in Asheville, where the conditions here and their decision making on the city level. In name, it’s progressive people on city council, they’re liberals and Democrats. But it’s not in line with that. It’s more in line with the city in California about the same size that had a bunch of wildfires, and half the houses were destroyed. And after people felt generous for a few months, they started to get irritated that there were so many displaced people around them. And so their city council went from progressive, got voted out, and it was a bunch of Trump supporters that got up in there. But their policy that they’re enacting over there, in their city where there’s really immense amounts of people that are completely precarious and have absolutely no resources. Their policy is the same. The same exact policy that our city council is doing every day. So you know, essentially, we have a right wing city government that calls itself liberal somehow.

Papi: I was just thinking about how, in this past year alone, I moved to Asheville last year around this time, and how right now, for a two bedroom apartment where I’m at, when we first started, it was like about 1,000 – 1,200 for a two bedroom apartment. That’s not including all the utilities and everything. Now I’d looked again after six months, for a one bedroom apartment. It’s at 1,400 right now. 1,400 to almost 2,000 for a one bedroom apartment. And no one’s gotten pay raises at all.

All the jobs I’ve worked at are like… what was it called? What did they call people who worked at grocery? Essential? I’ve been working in essential working jobs for all the entire pandemic. And no, I have never gotten a hazard pay or anything like that. Working at one of the hottest tourist restaurants downtown who caters to tourists, and they came around maskless and everything. I have no more money, not gotten more money. Rent has skyrocketed, and they’re like stealing from us practically. That’s all my money right there.

It just fucking sucks. And then eating here also kind of sucks. I always remember going to Walmart and it kind of sucks seeing a lot of the shelves really empty. And then you go to Earth Fare or something like that, and shits three times as much. And it’s like “oh my gosh, I can’t even eat healthy” or whatever that is. I don’t know, everything is already so much and it’s getting worse.

Doug: A loaf of bread is almost five dollars.

Onion: It’s totally getting worse. Especially I feel like since like the summer, it was like August, maybe July. I don’t know, it was like every week. How many friends are getting pushed out their housing? Their landlords are selling the house from under them. They’re living in their cars. They don’t have a new place to go. There’s literally like 20 slots on Craigslist for 300 people looking.

So there’s just absolutely no housing and nowhere to go. And more and more people getting displaced because the market is just benefiting selling right now, so much. And selling to people that are coming from other places in the country are also converting to Airbnb market. So they can make like $300 a night and city council has just kind of let that go wild. So, you know, it’s basically mass hysteria around money.

TFSR: So the last decade or so that I’ve lived here, it’s been consistently getting harder and harder to find housing. There was a 2014 study that showed that the vacancy rate was less than 1% for Asheville. And that’s not even talking about the cost of that housing and my ability to afford it or anyone else’s. But yeah, it’s kind of interesting because the hotels have been such a power player in terms of Tourism and in terms of pushing the city manager to make decisions that are going to be taxable income for the city.

With more and more of these “short term rentals” like Airbnb…There’s a couple of other companies just gobbling up all of the, in a neoliberal style, just further privatizing all these little spaces that some of us could have long term rental in. So much that it makes sense economically for the owners to hold them off the market and leave the house the room empty for a couple nights so they can charge that $300 A night. It’s weird to see how the city council has bent, instead of how they would have before protected the interests of the big moneymakers in the hotels, and now they’re feeling the pressure of all the little individual bourgeoisie that own the little mini feudal spots. Ah, it’s so frustrating.

Papi: Yeah, it really is a petty bourgeois situation with that. By the same token, I feel our struggle is becoming something more like the landless struggle in other countries where it’s about land, the bottom line is. With so many people without access to a place and without access to resources, we just have to do what we’re doing, which is go where there is land and take it and sit there and do our thing.

Onion: It makes me really angry to have the cops and DOT come around and evict people while saying things like “Y’all can’t be on city property. Y’all can’t be on this.” When it’s like “okay, well, first off, fuck city property. This isn’t city property.” This is land that’s first off stolen. We’re all living on fucking stolen land. And it’s not the city’s. This is new, no one can own land. I’m still learning a lot about land stewardship and what it would look like to… not not buy land necessary, but to literally give land back to indigenous people. To have indigenous stewardship.

Hearing about how there are people coming in to Asheville. I don’t know if ya’ll have ever been on *beeped out*. Which is just a housing thing that people post that they need housing or looking for something on Facebook, and it’s so irritating to be on there. Because a lot of people are like “Oh, my gosh, I’m moving from Atlanta to Asheville. I’m moving from California or something.” And they are a bunch of white couples who aren’t even from here who are making like three times more than what we all are making.

And then it’s funny when they post because then people are like “yeah, so this thread… this thing right here is for people who who can’t pay more than like 1300 for rent.” And all these people are like “Oh, I can do like $2,000 a month for a two bedroom apartment” and all this shit. And I love watching them get torn up in the comments. I do

Doug: There are people who pay $2,000 a week to come stay in Asheville for business or for a doctor’s appointment. They pay, I don’t know, maybe anywhere from like 500 to $1,000 for the week, they’re here for two or three days, probably sits empty.

Papi: Exactly. Exactly. And how many second homes are here? I have a job where I work for homeowners doing land care and I have a lot of clients that don’t live in their houses. They’re sitting there. There’s a huge number of properties that are under or un-utilized in this area.

Doug: And we need each other. We need the tourists because they provide jobs for us. And the tourists need us too because we got to wipe their butts and cater to them.

TFSR: It’s interesting, that report talks about how y’all are saying about 48 and a half percent of the population of Buncombe County pays 30% or more on their rent every month, something like a third of the population pays 50 or more percent of their income on rent. What’s recognized as being an affordable amount is a quarter of your income, tops on housing. So that you can pay for food. So you can save money. So you can pay for medical bills. So that you can pay for education for yourself or for your kids or whatever. All these things. It’s not budgeted in.

And what they’re doing is they’re creating a circumstance where in a couple of years and they’re already seeing it, there’s so many employment signs up all around town. Places can’t hire people and won’t pay them a wage that will actually allow them to live here. And I think like Papa said… they’re not going to have anyone that’s going to be able to actually work the jobs are willing to work the jobs. They’re digging their own grave in terms of an economy.

Doug: So you can only get a fast food job or a restaurant job. You’re gonna max out maybe $300 a week take home. So that’s 1200 dollars a month when your rent is 1100. I mean, how do you pay your electricity? How do you pay?

Papi: The actual condition of housing that people are in, too, is really, really messed up around here. Because of the climate so many people are dealing with intense mold issues and suffering from black mold. Their kids are living in that and they can’t get repairs because landlords just won’t do anything and there’s no one making them do anything.

Because City Council’s is, this is not on their radar. It’s not something they care to talk about. But at least half of us are living in that situation. And you know, we’re all like doubled up and tripled up and 10 people to a house, and we’re still paying $400 a month. So it’s getting to a point where the living conditions aren’t livable, even when we’re housed.

Doug: And when it breaks, it’s gonna be not good.

Onion: Something’s got to give.

TFSR: It has to stop being us.

Doug: I’m 45 years old. I got an apartment with my girlfriend who… she got some issues going on there and I love her to death, but she can’t really work. But even even with her, if I got an $1,100 security check, and she got a little $1100 security check. It’s 2200 bucks, that’s really not much. We get over $500 a month in food stamps. And usually about five days, six days at the end of the month, we’re not shopping. That’s plenty of money to be a lot of food. I have no day of the month that we don’t have any food.

If I get a job, it’s gonna be part time. All these places are hiring. They say they’re hiring, but you fill out an application online. somebody like me who didn’t graduate high school doesn’t have no really real education on paper it just gets tossed out. It’s just deleted right away. So if I went and sold myself to the company, got the job, still would only be &350 a week.

Papi: Yeah, it’s like they want it both ways. They want to own their restaurants and pay you a pittance and still make their big profits. The result from their decision making, which is that we don’t have housing, and we are on the streets. They won’t accept us on the streets. And so they sweep us. So they want to have their cake and eat it too. And they don’t understand that this is something that they’ve manufactured.

Papi: Oh, and also with COVID with a lot of places hiring, as well as not being paid enough. People are getting long haul COVID. People are getting sick and employees are not letting us have time off. They don’t care about us. And what are we supposed to do? I remember seeing these things and hearing things of like “oh, like nobody wants to come to work or anything like that”. It’s like, “No, it’s because you don’t pay enough. You don’t give us sick time. You don’t give us time off.” And it’s like we have to be there constantly like 45-50 plus hours of our lives working and giving your time and energy. And then once we have the money, it goes right away to rent or living necessities. We don’t have the energy to do anything else. We don’t have the energy to come out and into the park and make art. We don’t have that energy.

Doug: You can’t even go to the Chic-Fil-A and get yourself a chicken sandwich because you earned it.

TFSR: There’s been a push, it’s a North Carolina wide push. And I think it’s backed by the SEIU. But the NC Essential Worker Movement and the Fight For 15 has really been pushing around North Carolina. I think the Burnsville Bojangles has been striking because of the conditions around people getting infected with COVID and not being given time off. And the managers not paying attention to safety standards inside of the place in terms of customers coming in without masks and co workers without masks.

Plus people tell their stories on the social media of like people working 80 hours a week between two jobs and having a kid and not being able to afford to make ends meet. But these little franchise fast food shops make hella money. And it’s not even like the fancy restaurant that Papi works in downtown. That’s that’s one end of the scale, but even places you don’t have to go in a white shirt or whatever. It’s yeah.

Doug: The Chocolate Shops downtown. I don’t have clothes nice enough to go in that damn shop. Like they must make a million dollars off of chocolate. That’s crazy.

Onion: Yeah, that’s another thing because that place got off to its start by having the community kind of sponsor them. They were like we pay a living wage. We’re community supported business. And what? Two years later? They changed that to where they were not paying a living wage. And they put all the money that they made into capital resources to build a factory so that they can manufacture their own chocolate and they’re paying worse than they used to.

And that’s really familiar in Asheville to have businesses start out as like, “Oh, we’re socially responsible, small businesses” and then they become these engines of pure exploitation. And so everyone that I know that has worked at that place is like “it’s the worst place to work in town. It’s so exploitive, it’s transphobic it’s disrespectful, the clientele is horrible. It’s it’s a terrible work environment.”

Papi: Or stuff like a decade ago was claiming to paying a living wage or whatever. They were claiming that a part of their, they were paying medical to people by giving them kombucha for free. Yeah, their own product.

Onion: Pay a living wage with parking space. They consider that part of the wage.

TFSR: Or like when you consider the tips getting figured into it.

Papi: Exactly. Yeah. And then there’s no enforcement. So it’s not really a thing. It’s not a real thing.

Onion: I love riots. I’m tired of being like, palatable. I don’t care to be looking nice, being pretty and telling people like “Oh, can you give us this pretty please?” No, I’m gonna scream. I’m gonna yell until you give me what I want. Like, give me more money, stop having rent like this. Stop killing our friends in the streets. I’m ready. I’m already screaming.

Doug: We’ve ain’t even gotta get more money. We just got to stop your price of things going up.

Onion: I mean, all of it. You know? It’s time for us to call the shots. I remember during the uprising here, when downtown was full of anger and we took downtown and the cops couldn’t handle. You were there? Well, there’s a lot of video. And so it was pretty amazing. Because downtown, which is always full of tourists, like completely dominated. Like 95% of people from South Carolina or Atlanta or Knoxville or some shit. Well they were gone. It was just us. And you would never see the surface of the… what’s that hotel called the IRIS? It’s a big fancy new hotel in the center of downtown that spared no expense. That shit was covered. It was covered in tags and people were having a time of their lives. Windows did get broken.

TFSR: So much anti ICE graffiti.

Onion: It was a happy group of people until we got tear gassed.

Doug: I would have been helping y’all smash things and loot and carry stuff out. (laughing)

TFSR: in Minecraft.

Doug: Our buddy got caught in that riot and he ended up dying in Buncombe County Jail. Yeah, shout out to Jacob Biggs. He was a good guy. He just gets lost like most of us. We fall. Some of us stumble and we get back up. Some of us fall and we’re like, “I’m still falling. I can’t get up.” And we don’t need much. Just like hope, like a job, paycheck or something to look forward to. Like the promising of a house. I finally maced somebody at AHOPE because he was threatening me, he attacked me. And that same day is when they told me I had an apartment.

Because if you go through floating like regular “Hey everything is cool” you’re not in danger, your life is not at risk. But if you go in there stressed out every day, and you’re suicidal, and you want to kill the dog you want to kill and you start being irate they will move you up faster. And I don’t see how one person’s life is more or less than another one’s. Some people just lose their minds in the streets because they’re waiting for housing.

Papi: For housing. Yeah. For years.

Doug: I just want a roof over my head.

Onion: That’s the thing at this point. The city doesn’t understand where we’re coming from, which is that we’re not leaving the park. We’re not stopping. You’re not going to push us out. We’re not budging. So, you know, they’re going to have to find some way to compensate and open up their wallets and deal with us because we are here to stay. We have nowhere else to go.

TFSR: Yeah. And the “not in my backyard” approach doesn’t work anymore when people won’t stop being pushed away. Yeah. So y’all are holding space, you’re doing direct action by holding space publicly. You’re inviting families. You’re making art, taking the opportunity to make public art and make statements about it. We’ve already talked about how city council and county commissioners will do their best. People are trying to engage it, but they’ll do their best at silencing people actually making any changes and the city manager calls the shots anyways who is an unelected official. Do you want more people to show up at the park? What do you want people to bring? How long do we expect y’all are going to be out there? What’s the next stepping stone that y’all are reaching for?

Onion: We’re out here, you know. So by the time this airs, Friday will probably be over but it’ll be after Christmas. We’re going to have a big Christmas party and with lots of music and stuff like that. So this is ongoing. And yeah, I think that by the time people hear this on the air, they can just come on out at any time. We’re oftentimes picking up the festivities around four o’clock.

Doug: Yeah, if they don’t have anything… They can come with nothing. They can come with themselves or something, but just as support. They don’t have to bring sodas. A lot of people bring donations. Great. Because we can use them, but if you don’t have anything still show up. A big crowd is better than a little one.

Papi: It’s a nice big park. So there’s space for really a lot of people.

Doug: You play pickle-ball and tennis. They took the tables out. So we need a picnic table.

Papi: We got to bring tables in. But yeah, like anybody’s Welcome. Come over. You don’t have to bring anything. Everyone brings a little bit something. If you have the means and the money, yes, bring something, bring furniture. We people like to sit. We like to be cozy. Bring that. Drinks are always appreciated. Hot warm food. Very appreciated. Of different varieties, please, not all of us can eat everything.

Doug: Bring your Christmas tree.

Onion: Yeah, we like to like build things too, we get really crafty. And so we usually build structures every day. Engineering and stuff like that. And so we go high up in the trees, and we make our art and it’s really a cool scene.

Doug: Yeah, we want to make a birdhouse.

Papi/Onion: Ladders, you want to donate a ladder? Give us a ladder.

Papi: Bring a ladder, bring your client climbing gear!

Doug: We can go get a ladder tonight. I got a big one. Well, I think it stretches. Tools! Bring ingenuity. Bring a good attitude. Just be genuine and sincere to be there helping some people that need housing. Don’t just come for the show. Cuz you’re gonna love that.

TFSR: Musicians bring their instruments DJs bring their setups. It seems like a lot of the more inspiring things that I’ve seen in town around housing… I feel excited having conversations like this with people, because it’s just real that living in the city is much more difficult than it needs to be. And there’s people on the top that are skimming off. And then there’s tons of bureaucrats and cops and whatever and middle management in the middle that make their money off of keeping us out of empty buildings and keeping us from getting the food that we deserve.

And not only that, but also because this city sometimes feels like it doesn’t have actual community. It’s got the drum circle on Fridays, maybe. Especially during pandemic, the uprising felt to me, like the first time for a bit in that year that I felt a real sense of community and inviting people out to a space to share music to share food to be inspired by each other. That’s amazing. Personally, I feed off of that.

Doug: Yeah, and it’s not just in Asheville, it’s a lot of cities. A lot of big cities, small cities, it’s happening everywhere. People need to pull together and get it right. And because if we don’t, then not just us, we’re all gonna be a load of crap. I don’t know how people don’t see it. It’s totally gotta be flipped. Put us in power and power underneath us. I love people that want to challenge people to come out here with us for an undisclosed amount of time. Depending on their attitude they can leave tomorrow go home, are they can leave in 30 days.

You have an undisclosed amount of time of how long you are going to be in the streets like we are. You’re stripped of your whole life and put on the streets and you’re homeless. And then what? Anybody can survive if they know they are going home within a week. Like I can last all week. But if there’s no hope for tomorrow, no, stale sandwiches or nothing. You really get down and hate life. And I would challenge them to come see how we do it. We don’t want to live like this. To see how hard it is to survive some situations.

It’s cold. I don’t know if any of y’all have been outside all day in the winter, but I hated it. I was warming my tent. Because I don’t like the cold. I moved from New England, because I thought it was cheaper here. And when I came from Connecticut here, the only thing that was cheaper was cigarettes. Meat was the same price. It was terrible. I had $1,000 month rent up there, it was a two bedroom. Everything was $1000 month, pay utilities, all your bills to come here and be homeless.

Onion: We also want to make the explicit invitation of people that have nowhere to go to come and visit if they can and see if there’s anything there for them that they want to build with us. So it’s hopefully a space that welcomes people that really don’t have anywhere else to go right now.

Doug: You see our community. See how we shoot, we love each other. How we try to look out for each other. I’ve given people the shirt off my back out here. The food off my plate.

TFSR: Well, I guess if you’re new to town and having difficulty keeping up on stuff. It’s a good place to come and meet people and also to find out about resources that are available. And Doug mentioned ASP before, that seems like a cool place to interface with that with the street side of ASP or the Free-store.

Doug: They talk to us with sincerity, not condescending. I love this group. Like, I’ve never met anybody like that, the people from ASP. I guess that would be me too, I volunteer to help. They’ve taught me a lot. I learned a lot. They keep me in check. I’m grateful for them. Grateful for everything that we do,

TFSR: Where can people keep up on this if they’re not in the area and they want to apply pressure. Or if they want to get involved, but maybe don’t want to show up immediately? I know there’s some Instagram accounts that have been broadcasting news about when police have been coming in or the really cute flyers that have been being made. Yeah, how can people find out more?

Papi: It’s kind of an autonomous group that is forming this project, but it’s being supported by a coalition of collectives and groups. And so you could go to any of those pages to find out about what’s going on. Those could be Asheville Solidarity Network that has a Facebook and an Instagram. There’s Asheville Survival Program. Same thing Asheville For Justice. DefundAVLPD – the movement to defend the police here. So yeah, check those out. And that’s a really good way to get in touch and plug in and find out what we’re doing.

TFSR: Cool. Is there anything that I didn’t ask about that y’all want to bring up and mention?

Papi: I do have something. I remember asking some folk because I’m pretty new to just a lot of stuff. So I was like, anybody want anything to be said, and someone brought up about just what happens when when sweeps happen, and friends and family are displaced Is that you no longer know where your friends are. You no longer know where your family’s at. And it just makes it a shit ton harder to get yourself okay. And shit around you okay. If you’re constantly being removed from your area, and you can no longer make appointments, and you can no longer take care of your dog or go to doctor’s appointments, or go to school or anything like that. And the main thing that someone had told me that they were really thinking about was how you can no longer find your friends and family. And that’s very scary. Fuck sweeps. Fuck DOT.

Onion: I think I wanted to say Fuck them all. Yeah, definitely echoing that. I wanted to say that, to city council, we see you. We see what you say and how what you do doesn’t match up with it. And so we’re coming for you. There is not anybody that’s safe sitting on the city council, because the furthest left member of city council on the first day of Code Purple, when there was no shelter, put up a Facebook post saying “it’s my birthday. Oh, it happens to be Code Purple. What you can do is donate to this tiny nonprofit who doesn’t even do emergency housing support. Give them money, because the city can’t handle our shit.”

And basically, that’s the furthest left that it gets in Asheville is like passing the buck. And so we see you passing the buck. Kim Roney. We’re here watching what you do every day. And you haven’t shown up at Aston Park yet. And we see you. So there’s an invitation for city council to open up your wallet of the city coffers, and give us what we need. Or we will come for you.

Papi: For city council to come down and to shut up and not say anything and hear houses folks and hear them at every single thing they have to fucking say. Everything.

Doug: We want your routing numbers! To your bank accounts,

TFSR: And do a damn thing about it, not just show up and listen and go back to their heated offices, right?

Doug: No, I want them to just come and listen. They’ll hear something but they just come and they’re not listening.

Onion: They hate having to listen to us. They hate it.

Doug: When you’re able to put up a tent and be homeless. That means you’re comfortable there, it’s feel like a safe spot. And then when the police come and sweep it or tell you to move, it’s like you’re being evicted from your home back to first time being homeless. Every single time. I went through 18 tents in two years. That’s ridiculous. You know, police take them down or weather. it just sucked. Fuck the police.

Onion: Yeah, and how many campsites have been burned down in the past couple of years. People need a safe place to go where we have folks watching out. There’s just been a lot of danger for people living outside in every every kind of way.

Doug: Unfortunately when there happens to be like an OD or something. And they shut it down. Like take the OD and deal with it, and not police it but support. Not just beat us down and make us want to go get high. Iv’e been clean for a couple weeks now. It’s a struggle. When they get on me and bad days, I’m gonna want to go out there and you know, do that bad thing. Stay warm.

When I was homeless, I ain’t gonna lie I got high everyday. Because I needed that to get through to get up and get my food for the day, my clothes, my shelter for the night. Take care of my girlfriend’s dog. God they don’t understand. Sometimes you wait 4 hours for a shower at AHOPE. And for lunch, more time. We’re not just sitting around doing nothing with our time, twiddling our thumbs. So this is the south and we are in the Bible Belt, right? This is the holiday season. We need some love like Jesus from these people. I hate to bring religion into it, but show us where your hearts are.

TFSR: Congratulations on keeping sober.

Doug: It’s a little easier with an apartment I can just stay in there and eat and not have to go outside. But I hate it for people who don’t have housing. I was just there not too long ago. And I could be there again. If things were bad, but I’m gonna do my best not too.

TFSR: I guess any of us could. It’s kind of the point, right?

Doug: Most of us are one paycheck away from it. me. Me and my ex-wife we we’re doing fine, two jobs, kids in schools, both the cars, and then both cars died. We were off the bus ramp. But then, here we are. Yeah. Well, she’s not here anymore. She’s here but not here.

Papi: Yeah, I was living outside to after leaving an unsafe relationship. And I had an infant. And so I was in a really precarious situation. And so I was living in a vehicle for a while and you know, it can happen to any of us.

Doug: People lived in a tent with their children. It was okay.

TFSR: Yeah, thank you all for the work that you’re doing and for being willing to come on this and talk about it. And I really hope that it it gets more folks out there. And yeah, thanks for sharing your perspectives.

Papi: Thanks for having us.

Doug: Yeah. Thanks, man.

Onion: Thank you.

The Perils of Prison Mail Digitization

The Perils of Prison Mail Digitization

"The Perils of Prison ail Digitalization with Prison Books Collective" showing bird cage broken free & bird escaping, "TFSR 12-12-21"
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Leigh Lassiter from prison books collective in Durham, North Carolina, a nonprofit project that sends zines and books to prisoners in Alabama in North Carolina prisons and jails comes on this week to tell us about recent changes by the NCDPS to use the private company TextBehind to scan all incoming and outgoing mail track, their contents surveil the outside users and mailers, and to make a profit on an already indigent population. We also talk about the work of sending literature, to incarcerated folks privatization and digitization of other services, and what literature gets rejected. More about the press books collective at PrisonBooks.Info or check out their linktr.ee

You can also check out local books to prisoners projects in your area that you could get involved with by visiting PrisonBooks.Org/PrisonBooksNetwork. There’re also a couple of really good articles from The Intercept about this and related surveillance services topics within you as prisons and jails.

Or check out the following resources:

Zine Updates

Just a reminder, a comrade’s been compiling our zines into a catalog, for easy mailing into prisons. You can check out the latest, December 2021 list at the top of https://TFSR.WTF/Zines as a pdf.

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Featured Track:

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Transcription

TFSR: Could you please introduce yourself with whatever name, pronoun, and affiliations you want to share?

Leigh Lassiter: Yeah, my name is Leigh Lassiter. I am fine with any pronouns. I work with Prison Books Collective publishing distribution, based out of Durham and North Carolina. However, I speak on my own behalf as an activist and an individual rather than a representative of Prison Books.

TFSR: Cool. And could you talk a little bit about Prison Books? How long has it been around and what y’all do?

LL: Yeah, we started in 2006. I was not there then. But we have gotten in touch with some of the people who were involved in the original starting of it. It started in someone’s garage. And it has grown, although we’re kind of in the equivalent of a garage still. But as I said, in 2006, it wasn’t recognized as a nonprofit until about a decade later. But we have been able to keep it going. We’ve just been sending books to North Carolina and Alabama, and zines across the country for all that time. We meet every week to answer the letter requests and send packages out to people and talk to each other. It’s not as anarchist as it once was at its roots, more service-based space now, there is a variety of political opinions. But as a group, we still share the vision of alleviating the tremendous cruel pressures of the prison industrial complex on the incarcerated people that we serve, and generally feel that incarceration in this country is done poorly and has overkill. If we weren’t needed, if our mission was served either by prisons or there weren’t prisons to incarcerate people, we would prefer that. But while people are locked up, we get them all the books that we can.

TFSR: And what kind of requests do you get? Is it for technical manuals, dictionaries, religious texts? There’s a lot of religious groups, for instance, that do outreach into prisons and send in materials that tend to have their specific religious bent and view on the world, because they’re missionizing? What does the normal packaging party or packaging event look like for Prison Books?

LL: In regards to what the event looks like, we just pick up the individual letters and start reading for what they request. Sometimes we do get requests for specific books and specific authors that we have in donated stocks. So it’s rare that we can answer someone’s specific request with the exact book that they want. Sometimes it happens, though. We just look around to find something usually, under 2 pounds, two books that we send, print off some zines and staple them. Fill in an invoice, send our information, write a little note, and pack it up neatly and tape it up to be taken to the post office later on.

People request all sorts of books. The most common being a dictionary or legal dictionary, and DIY sort of things and career books are often very frequently requested. A lot of people want to start food trucks or build their own houses, or learn to weld or repair cars, do plumbing and carpentry, that sort of thing. Which is extremely understandable for both jobs inside of prison and outside for whenever they get out. Those, of course, are very hard to find. We often get a lot of requests for coloring books and drawing books, lots of thrillers, biographies, and autobiographies of, particularly, African-American activists. We have everything. So we try to send everything from classics, to how to start your own business, or histories about things, rock stars’ biographies. It’s whatever we can get. As I said, this specificity of requests can vary from “please send me some books” or people misunderstanding our mission and just saying, “I’d like to sign up for your book club, just send me books every month”. Then we have to say, “Oh, you have to write it every time, we have a limit of how many books we can send, but you can request them”. We have some publishers that we dealt with who would occasionally give us a whole box of books that they want to donate for a cause. Usually, because the subject matter has to do with prison or social justice. We’ll try to send those to the people who seem interested. But a lot of it is volunteers trying to read what fits their needs most. Because we can only send so many so quickly to people. And of course, usually prisons only allow them to have so many at a time. So there’s a little bit of art to figuring out how to get them what they want. I believe in the questions you sent over, you also asked what wasn’t allowed, if you want me to talk about that?

TFSR: Yeah, that’d be super helpful.

LL: We mostly send to North Carolina state prisons. And this is true for Alabama prisons, too. However, for the state prisons, anything that can do with tattooing is not allowed. Nudity is not allowed. They say “artful” nudity like Michelangelo or something would be allowed in, but in my experience, any nudity is not allowed, because that line is gray enough that they just err on the side of “No, we’re not going to let that in”. Things that are gang-related or could enable crime in whatever way they interpret are not allowed in. Hardcovers are occasionally allowed in, but it depends on the prison, so we just don’t carry them because trying to keep track of where we can send certain books is just a real time-drain. Spiral-bound books usually aren’t because they could take the spirals out and use them for whatever. Those are the main restrictions, but we still get occasionally weird bannings and rejections very often from jails more so than state prisons. Federal prisons are at the level of state prisons in terms of what they allow. Jails have the worst policies, generally speaking, it’s just sort of determined by the warden in charge there. If you want to talk later about some of the rejections that we’ve gotten over the last couple of years, I can speak to that, because I usually handle the appeals process as it exists.

TFSR: Yeah, I would like to hear about that.

I’d also like to hear though, you’re filling a need. I get a picture that at a certain point, maybe in the 1950s or 60s or 70s, that prisons maybe didn’t always have – it is dependent on the prison – but prisons had a more robust legal library for people to research their cases, or for writing appeals, or more literature, that at some point, education as a part of the “rehabilitation” part of prisons was a bit more funded and a bit more focused. And so a project like yours may be – unless a group had a specific ideological mission of like, “we want to get more Muslim books in the prison, or we don’t want to get more pagan books in the prison” – maybe there wouldn’t be as much of a demand. But that’s changed. And I wonder if you could give a sense, as you understand it, of what prisons libraries look like, and what prisoners’ access to educational resources or reading for pleasure looks like in North Carolina prisons.

LL: I will try to the best of my abilities. I have not seen a prison library, but we hear about them pretty frequently. I should mention that doing the COVID pandemic, which is still ongoing, libraries have often been shut down. We’ve heard that across the state many state prisons have shut down their libraries, or that sometimes they shut down visiting the libraries and then had a cart they took around, but maybe the person who took the cart around died of COVID. And then no one is there to take the cart around. So some people told us we are the only access point for getting new literature right now. So right now it is in a particularly dire state in North Carolina.

However, in general prison libraries, I can’t speak to the 1950s. But given the boom of the incarcerated population, I’m not surprised by the amount of need that is not being addressed by libraries in prisons, particularly legal needs. We get a lot of requests where people are either suing the state or trying to appeal their own case or going through other cases, and they have access to almost no legal help. They can’t communicate effectively or to their satisfaction with their attorneys, if they even have one yet, they don’t understand all the terminology or what they have to do. We have an extremely limited stock, as you might imagine, and paperback up-to-date specific accessible law books are not widely provided and easily accessible by us. We try our best and the number one thing on our wish list is always the intro to criminal law and defending yourself. If anyone looks at the Prison Books wishlist that we have up, but we go through those extremely quickly. People are very poorly informed by the system about their rights and the ways that they can appeal or sue and try to protect themselves. So that’s, unfortunately, something we see a lot of, but that we, as just a small group of volunteers sending books for education, entertainment don’t really have to resources for, and there’s a huge need for legal help within the prisons.

It’s something that you mentioned before that I had forgotten, the religious outreach. I’ll say that we do get not a huge amount of requests for spiritual and religious literature. As you said, there are lots of organizations willing to provide that, and no other kinds of books but literature about that. We do get requests often for religions that do not have as many groups, who are less represented inside of prison, like Rastafarianism, paganism, satanism, that sort of thing. There’s often a pastor inside of a jail or prison, and you’re not going to have that for Rastafarianism or something.

TFSR: Can you talk a little bit about the stuff that that gets rejected? I’ve spoken with other folks that do books to prisoners and hear about books by Franz Fanon, or George Jackson, or Angela Davis getting denied because the content relates to prison and is critical of prisons. What stuff gets kicked back to you and why?

LL: I wanted to add a little bit of perspective on rejections that we had gotten. Firstly, zines, because we send zines all across the country, just as a glimpse into the reasons that institutions all over the country might reject things. One of the most recent rejections that we got was of a literary magazine Words of Fire which has publications of art and literature from incarcerated people across the country. And therefore, we think it’s very important that they also have access to read it all across the country, whether they are authors or might want to be authors. We had a rejection in Connecticut of it, because it was on printed paper and was not considered a real publication. And we’ve been doing several weeks of phone calls and some letter-writing to try to appeal this. Because they are worried that “having anything beyond what looks to be easily printed or copied paper will have inmates calling their families to send them copied paper, or printed paper, straight out of books”. And the mail then will be flooded, and they won’t be able to deal with all of the rejections and appeals of rejections. We’ve had it also rejected before, from Florida when I was trying to get it to an author we’d published because it supposedly contained commercial content, which is incorrect. Because we don’t get paid for any of our services. And they also supposedly continue to quote “disallowed content” with no description of what that would mean. That was in 2019.

Some of the other things that we’ve gotten rejected across the country include the GURPS, the General Universal Role Playing System, which we sent out, it was rejected from Texas for having fighting styles in it, which, by the pages given, was referring to rolling dice for hitting another character or doing damage or having a bomb go off as an example for this role-playing system’s damage. We’ve also had rejections for supposedly promoting insurrection or posing a threat to safety and security for things like The Lectures On Liberation by Angela Davis. Florida is definitely one state where it’s very bad to try to get things in. And we’ve had things like Tai Chi being lumped into martial arts, for example, over this. Some of the other bannings: The Art of War has been consistently requested and consistently banned in North Carolina. It’s not currently on the banned list, but we’ve still had so much trouble sending in the past that we haven’t challenged it this year, because of the number of rejections we’ve gotten over the years in the past. The New Jim Crow was banned but that was overturned in 2018 because it was a national outcry about it. And that being overturned actually got them to redo their system of how they banned books. So they looked at that list again every year, and it actually overturned, a lot of other things being banned. Although you can tell from the banned list, including Twelve Years of Slave and Malcolm X books and things like that, that they have not fully fixed the system, which some might argue shouldn’t exist.

A lot of our rejections, as I said, aren’t bannings, they are actually just blanket blocks that do not care about the content that you are trying to send. For example, we had a jail recently write that we do not accept books on a package, despite having talked to them within a month about them accepting our books, and having word given to us that they did still. Sometimes it just depends on who’s in the mailroom. There was a federal institution in the state that just rejected something and then I called them, I was just told that was probably the other post and “I understand what your packages are, we’ll take them in”. One instance, in particular, it’s really been an odyssey over something like three or four months this summer and the fall was that there was a state institution that was allegedly having issues with drugs being smuggled in in packages. So they cut off all outside packages and then re-approved vendors and distributors like ourselves on a case by case basis. And we had not yet been re-approved, so I called the captain and we had a few discussions. And he said, he went up the chain and got us re-approved after a little less than a month. And then when we sent books to the people who had written to us from there, half of them were rejected, because those inmates, in particular, hadn’t filled out a form and been approved to receive books. So we had to set up a system where every time we got a request, I called them after that person was approved to receive books or not, and sent them. Except for the two packages that we initially got in to people, every time I called the person was not on the approved list. And I asked whether maybe, since they heard from us that we have requested them and they want to receive books, maybe they could get that form to the people that I was calling about, but they told me that’s their initiative and they should know.

So that’s been a pretty frustrating time. I’ve just had a lot of detention centers and jails in particular not consider us to be legitimate or not know what zines are, or give us differing statements about whether we can get things in or not. As I mentioned, Durham jail hasn’t given us issues about us as a publisher but was just blocking books for several months because of the amount of, apparently, extra material that was built up and was a fire hazard in the cell. So there’s a lot of obstacles to face in bannings and rejections that can’t really be predicted and can apparently only be solved by weeks of phone calls. I hope this helps. Thank you.

TFSR: Do facilities ever have an approved book list that’s the inversion of the banned list?

LL: No, I have not seen an approved books list except in the case of one jail that went back and forth on a policy where I was initially told that they were going to have reading tablets and not allowing any books, any books besides the Bible or Quran, but then they said that was incorrect. And they would be allowing in certain books, but only new books, no used books, and also have e-readers. The E-Reader thing is a thing that we are extremely worried about, I say we, in this case, for all Books to Prisons groups across the country, because that is an approved list of books, that is what that is functionally because they have a catalog of books that they said, “No, these are okay for them to read. And they will pay per minute to use these expensive, breakable e-readers and not have access to any other literature”. So you can imagine people looking for specific legal help or niche interests, for example, someone looking for Rastafarianism, there’s probably not going to be a book about that listed inside of this e-tablet that they also have to pay to use.

So that’s very concerning to us because usually, in the case of prisons, digitization and technological advancements, which can look like progress in the outside world, is not progress inside of the prison. For example, changing from having in-person visitation to having a digital video visitation is not an improvement. Changing from having books sent in for free, that you can request on any topic, and having that be disallowed in favor of e-readers, is not an improvement. Or as we’ll talk about in a second, having your letters be scanned and reprinted is not an improvement of what we’re seeing with the letter. So a lot of times people will think, “Oh, things are going more digital, they’re going more virtual and online, this is advancement, this is progress.” And in the case of prisons, it isn’t.

TFSR: Yeah, and each of these steps basically shifts the whatever it be: the medical treatment, or the books, or the mail, or the phone calls, or the commissary, it shifts them into monopolies by specific corporations, that are prison industry corporations, that not only are they siphoning money out of the prisoners and of whatever supporters they have on the outside… In North Carolina, they changed the law about three years ago where people can only get money added, at least on their Jpay accounts, for spending inside of prison, they can only have people on their visiting list. Therefore people who have not, for instance, been convicted in some cases of felonies in the past. A bunch of limitations. Anyway, back on topic, as you say, you and I got in touch to talk about the changes to the North Carolina prison system that we’re snuck in a couple of months ago, we got a letter from a prisoner in the middle of the state, just sort of being like “Heads up. I can’t hear your radio but I have heard of your project and this change is coming”. Can you talk a little bit more about the privatization and digitization of prison mail in North Carolina and how it’ll affect prisoners’ communication with loved ones on the outside?

LL: Yes. On October 18, North Carolina state prisons switched for all personal mail – that’s letters, photos, and art and cards – they switched to having those be sent to the people who intended for incarcerated in state prisons, to having to send them to Maryland to be scanned by a company called TextBehind and then have copies reprinted by the prisons and redelivered. The announcement of this was subtle, I only found it because that was on the state prisons homepage looking for something else and notice the little pop-up that said: “Mail policy changing on October 18” and I happened to click on it. Otherwise, we would not have known. I should admit this doesn’t affect prison books operations so far. Although we are worried about the possible ban on physical books being sent in. Now it affects the loved ones of incarcerated people who are trying to communicate to them.

TextBehind is not alone in this. There are a couple of companies who are trying to exploit this very captive market of people who are trying to sustain relationships across the miles and across the bars and charging their money to either get their physical letters back if they send physical mail hundreds of miles away because otherwise, they’ll just be shredded. So you have to pay to get that back. Or if you want to do it easier, of course, they have an app. For using their app on TextBehind, letters are 99 cents, you can add photos to 25 cents each, greeting cards are 99 cents, and Doodle for kids. So you can draw on your computer and send that at 99 cents. And that’s only for partner facilities, it’s more expensive if the facility is not partnered with them. And you may not think that sounds like a lot but if you are trying to keep up a relationship with someone or start a relationship with someone inside, then 99 cents a letter, 99 cents a card, 25 cents for a photo – that’s very expensive. If you are sending physical mail, it’s a flat rate to get it back, I believe at around $3 or higher to get that sent back to you. So this could add up really quickly, even if you just sent one letter a week or a couple of letters a month or something like that. People don’t really have a choice in the matter if they want something that feels personal to be sent behind bars. And we just find this immensely worrying and honestly also unjustified. Because there’s really almost no data provided for why this switch is being made. But we can talk about that in a second with drug policies.

As a prison book volunteer, I have received countless letters telling us how important it is to have a lifeline to the outside where they can hold on to that letter that someone else wrote and see the signature and look at this and say it someone out there wrote this for me and intended it for me. Not to mention if it’s a kid’s drawing or something like that, it’s going to mean so much more if you’re holding the crayon drawing that your son or your daughter, your child drew for you. And it’s one of the things that sort of keep them sane in there. If correctional facilities, as they’re titled, were truly invested in making people more connected to humanity, kinder and more willing to invest in society, they would absolutely not be supporting this cut off from the people who are trying to keep relationships going across the bars, because it’s incredibly dehumanizing. Not to mention probably riddled with errors. Wisconsin also just announced that they are using TextBehind as of December 1. They put in their announcement that they’ve experimented a lot with TextBehind and there have been errors, they admitted cut-off letters where you can’t read the whole thing.

I know from my own experience of keeping records in prison books, that a lot of things don’t scan so great if someone wrote in blue pen, or on white paper with pencil, it just doesn’t scan correctly. The number of letters that TextBehind must be handling, I don’t think that it’s going to be 100% accuracy rate, which looks fine on their numbers, but for the person who gets a messed up, cut off or barely scanned letter or drawing, it’s going to be devastating because that matters so much. The people who wait for the mail, there’s a huge emotional investment in it. And it’s just really saddening to think about that being taken away from them. Not surprising, but extremely saddening. And unfortunately, it looks like North Carolina is going to be continuing that policy for the foreseeable future, despite so many people protesting it.

TFSR: TextBehind is a new project to me, but for the last few years, I’ve noticed that Pennsylvania prisons use a company in Florida called Smart Communications to scan and email their letters to print on-site at the facility. The Federal Bureau of Prisons, according to an article recently by Lauren Gill of The Intercept, appears to be moving forward from just scanning mail in-house to having a company called Mailed Guard do the same service for them. We’ve already mentioned this trend generally in the proliferation of private companies that are profiting from incarceration. This seems to be a rather frightening and growing pattern to capture that data and increase the costs.

LL: Smart communications is another one. And I just want to mention that the Pennsylvania ban initially also banned physical books, but there were enough protests that they changed that. So it’s only mail right now. And so there was some worry from Books to Prisoners groups that the ban on mail is going to continue to try to ban books as well.

TFSR: That’s quite frightening. I have to admit that I’m not very knowledgeable about drugs in prisons. I’ve heard that you can get many things if you have money and resources inside of prisons, especially depending on what state you’re in. But most ellicit items I’ve heard about prisoners getting a hold of have come through corrupt guards and other staff as they shore up their personal accounts because they don’t get as much scrutiny as generally incoming mail or visitors and loved ones who are coming in. When PA started using Smart Communications, it was after mail staff, screws on the inside, basically, were supposedly dosed by letters containing the drug K2 in the paper. But then again, this other Intercept article about the privatization of prison mail references talking to a director of toxicology at a major medical institution in Pennsylvania. And that person saying basically, you can’t get high off of that, it’s not like Angel Dust where it’s going to just go into your skin by touching it, you have to increase the temperature, and you have to inhale smoke, basically, for that K2 to get into your system. So it seems like an unrealistic expectation that was a major source of drugs coming in.

LL: Yes. North Carolina, in their announcement about TextBehind included a couple of sentences saying “the new mail process will also prevent drugs from entering the prisons in the form of paper coated in Fentanyl, K2, Suboxone or other dangerous drugs, these are harmful to breathe or even touch. This is something you would expect to have a citation. It doesn’t. The only spot of data that is mentioned in the announcement of this switch to TextBehind is the sentence “In the year following use of TextBehind in North Carolina’s four women’s facilities infractions for drug use, and possession dropped by 50%. Now, 50% is a pretty round and impressive number but there’s a lot of missing context here. They say the number of infractions for drug use and possession dropped. They don’t mention actual numbers, for example. This was also taking place during the pandemic for most of that year. Because most of that was 2020, so the number of people in prisons across North Carolina went down by a lot, you might think that would potentially affect the numbers of infractions, not to mention the staff being able to investigate that sort of thing. And they also did not provide any numbers for cases of drugs causing any hazards to the people inspecting the mail. There was no citation for that. And as you said, there’s been medical pushback from people saying that K2 and Fentanyl don’t come into the skin. I looked this up a little before the interview, and the American College of Medical Toxicology and American Academy of Clinical Toxicology agreed in a 2017 statement that you can’t inhale and get high from Fentanyl without really high, really long exposure to it, and that you can’t just absorb it through small unintentional skin exposure, it would not affect people. So I am almost impressed by the boldness of NCDPS just stating that flat out as a reason without citations in the announcement.

We have a Freedom of Information request that is making its way through the bureaucracy right now in trying to get any information about the hazards to people in the mail-room and how many drugs have come in through the mail. But, like you, I am skeptical about that being the way that most drugs make their way in. Texas saw a ban on mail for the same reasons, but their drug infractions didn’t go down because, as it turned out, they were mostly coming in through guards still. Some people say there’s a connection between that and guards having lower pay and they can make a lot on the side by carrying in drugs. When I went to a prison in person and got the tour when I was in college, I was told by a Captain that they mostly have to be careful about the guards bringing in contraband, that was just stated outright to the group. So this policy seems to be not only dehumanizing, but also not based on fact, and to make this huge of a change, there’s a burden of proof that they should make. But this wasn’t a law. This was simply a new departmental policy. People started commenting on our social media posts, when they put this out, like let’s call the lawmakers or something, but this was just something that was handed down and decided. The fact that privatizing prisons and prison services is just getting more and more popular, is very concerning to me. Because they can’t negotiate. And also the poverty of incarcerated people and their loved ones on the outside is statistically much higher than the general population. So they don’t really have alternatives other than to go to these services.

That’s my thoughts on that, but there are plenty of things to read about, particularly, the drug claims, investigating whether Fentanyl can actually give you an overdose just from touching it, or where drugs come through. There are lots you can read online, I suggest at least starting with the Prison Policy Initiative because they’re a good resource to keep track of the different policies going on around the country and their factual bases.

TFSR: That’s super helpful. Thank you. I do have another question about the implications of the privatization and tracking of mail coming in and out. But you did mention that when people started commenting on your social media page saying, “Hey, call politicians chant, challenge it,” the NCDPS is a part of the executive branch. So I guess you could put pressure on the Governor and Lieutenant Governor, but how do you suggest that people try to apply pressure, whether they’re in North Carolina or in any of these other states that are being affected by similar policies and some of the same corporations across the country?

LL: Well, we haven’t had success yet, it is my addendum. But I would find at least one phone number, one email, and one physical address to call or to write to to express your opinion, I’ve usually heard that phone calls are the best political weapon out of those three. But I know from personal experience that trying to get through the phone trees and the various extensions you have to press and voicemails you have to leave can be extremely confusing. So an email or a letter could also work.

Prison Books is not as an organization calling for people to do this push because we have to keep our services separate from this. However, I can say as an activist, that I would love it if people started writing to, for example, the Commissioner of Prisons, Todd Ishee, who is quoted in a lot of articles about the digitization policy change, to express your opinion, or writing to the general NCDPS mailbox, the address of which is at the bottom of every page of the NCDPS website, in Raleigh. What you basically want to do is make it obvious that it’s a lie to say people don’t care about this or that this is fine, this doesn’t affect people. You want to get the voices that are shouting out individually to be able to unify and be heard together. And we’re still working on that. But anyone who wants to be involved in the Free the Mail movement that has started forming between Wisconsin and North Carolina activists, because we’re both being affected by TextBehind in these most recent months, then they should, first of all, start looking through the hashtag of #FreeTheMail, and second of all, potentially email just to get the information where to go prisonbooks@gmail.com. Prison Books is not organizing this, but has information of people that you can get connected with to try to organize something against this,

TFSR: I have to say that a hashtag is confusing and also very catchy, since a lot of us use the #FreeThemAll. And those two look very similar.

LL: Yeah, I would suggest even for screen readers, you should be capitalizing letters for hashtags because otherwise, it’s gonna be a jumble of letters. It does look like that, but I looked it up on Twitter to do a little research about it, it was used for the Pennsylvania issue as well. There were some ideas thrown around of “don’t jail the mail”, but it’s prisons, not jails, that’s incorrect. Hashtags are going to leave some meanings out, unfortunately.

TFSR: We’ve been talking about the limitations that people on the inside experience with their mail getting scanned and sent to them and not being able to physically touch a picture that your child or that your sibling or whatever drew, getting an actual picture, these sorts of things, very sentimental, very charged with emotional energy and feeling, smelling a piece of paper that someone else has touched… Prisons are all about cutting people off from the outside and making money off of them.

The other side of this, as you say, the majority of people that are inside of prisons, or that are inside of a part of the carceral system, tend to be poor. And whether that’s because of survival crime, or because people have less access to lawyers or bail to be able to get themselves out, to be able to make a better argument to avoid charges, or because police tend to hang out in poor people’s neighborhoods – all sorts of reasons. And these industries, like Smart Communications or TextBehind are literally siphoning money out of poor people’s families when they’re trying to keep those connections.

And surveillance inside of prison, the panopticon idea, that’s a pretty common idea. But when you download an app on your phone that you’re paying for, and there’s the chance in this Lauren Gill article on the Federal Bureau of Prisons talking about them switching over to this privatized scanning and emailing of letters, talks about the amount of metadata that gets also put into the database of that private corporations so that they can market more stuff or sell that information if they want to to another third party that provides other “services to prisoners”, or that information is also available to the BOP or to whatever prison administration there is for tracking and surveilling the person on the outside that’s keeping track. Suddenly, there’s a permanent digital copy of this letter that somebody wrote to someone that could be used in some case in the future or to build a case or something like that. Can you talk a bit about the concerns of surveillance when people aren’t even necessarily committing crimes, but just trying to stay in communication with friends behind bars?

LL: Well, I think the article writers are probably more informed about that than I am, but I do know that TextBehind on their Services page does advertise a variety of their investigative tools and that includes communications, monitoring and looking for gang connections, and they keep the records. Not just the pictures, but the scanned text and the addresses and names of those who sent mail in their system for years, to possibly give away to other prison systems, the federal system, things like that. Yeah, they are using the people that they already have under their thumb and can watch with this panopticon set up to extend surveillance outside and try to make connections and look for patterns in a way that they probably think is very efficient, but which is frightening to any of us who are concerned about our right to privacy. But because it’s a human connection to people who are incarcerated being held hostage, people are going to have to make the choice about do I want to be able to talk to this person or do I not want to be put on a list of possible contacts to a third or fourth party to something that they think exists within the prison system. Having to choose between those two, that’s our choice that should exist, that should not be something that writing a letter to someone starts for you. That’s very concerning.

I’m always concerned about the privacy of people incarcerated as well. But I think a lot of people maybe aren’t aware of this extension of surveillance to those who were just in contact with and care about the people who are incarcerated. As you mentioned, Jpay’s changes, now you can’t send money unless you’re in the visitation approval. That requires getting approved, but also giving them information about you. This data harvesting and surveillance is really getting hooked on people on the outside as well.

TFSR: Well, is there anything that I didn’t ask about that you want to mention, or that you want to broach as a subject, Leigh?

LL: I would like to mention, for people who are looking for what they can do, that jails are often where a lot of bad policies will be implemented first because they have far less oversight. They are county institutions, so they don’t even have the state looking out at them. So if you’re concerned about privacy, education, cruel and unusual punishment, pay attention to a local jail, the sheriff, the warden, their policies, and if they make changes like “no one can send books here anymore,” or a lot of jails in North Carolina now have to send your letters to Texas to get scanned, call them, and deluge them because they have even fewer resources to dedicate to supporting what I suspect to be a lie of the danger that letters and books pose. In your elections, vote for a sheriff who has concern to incarcerated people, if that’s possible. And keep an eye on your local jail. And then also keep an eye on state policies. But if you want to start somewhere local, that’s where to start.

TFSR: And if you’re not much of a voter, you can still apply pressure during the period when there’s more scrutiny on what sheriff is running for office. Or if they’re working with ICE are just a couple of the potential…

LL: Yeah, that’s a big one. Everyone who’s closer is easier to reach. Make some noise when you can, when these policies get implemented near you.

TFSR: In my understanding, a lot of the Books to Prisoners projects are pretty independent and they keep in touch with each other and share news and resources from time to time. The project that you’re involved with covers North Carolina and Alabama, the prison books here actually, I can’t even speak to what APBP covers… But for the most part, don’t cover national stuff. And they pass off things in other states to people that are closer to them. Tranzmission Prison Project covers a lot of the US but mostly is in the southeast, as I understand. How can people find a prison books project where they’re at if they want to start getting involved in this sort of way?

LL: People can find local Books to Prisoners groups by looking at https://prisonbookprogram.org/prisonbooknetwork/ and searching for their state. If there isn’t one serving their state, then perhaps they can start their own. It’s not that difficult. Contacting really any of those listed on the directory will get you some advice on how to start up. Luckily, books are something that a lot of people want to donate. It takes not as much effort as you might think, I would say particularly X Books in Georgia started up about a year ago and have been doing very well and probably have a lot of advice for newcomers. For supporting us and particularly for Prison Books Collective, I have to say probably what a lot of nonprofits say, which is that money is our first need. Postage, in particular, is what costs us money, sending those packages out and every year the rate goes up. So if you have money to donate, donate it. If you don’t have money, then give us your time, if you can. We just started accepting volunteers again, as long as everyone is vaccinated and masked and we are still limiting the number of people that can come in.

And if you can’t do either of those, there’s probably online work that you could do if you got involved, whether it’s social media, applying for grants, reaching out to bookstores for partnership, helping with email. There is a lot of activism that you can do remotely, that isn’t just discourse on Twitter, necessarily, but actively working behind an organization to help them enhance their capabilities and do reaching out and things like that for them. Of course, we also take books for Prison Books Collective. You can email us if you have books to donate. However, I have to say we’re doing pretty well in terms of books right now. And we have most genres pretty well stocked. But as usual, law and DIY stuff is always in demand. If you have any books on homesteading, farming, fishing, or trying to appeal your case in court, then send them our way. We have a PO Box:

Prison Books
PO Box 625
Carrboro, NC 27510

You’re welcome to reach out to us on our Facebook or Instagram or Twitter, or through our email prisonbooks@gmail.com to ask us for more things you can do. A lot of people have come in with new ideas that have been very exciting to us. We hope that people can engage remotely or in person again, because we are an organization that works as a collective and we’re only as strong as the collective is. So we’re excited to have new people join us. And of course, I personally would advocate for everyone to just keep their ears and eyes to the news and look for a variety of news sources, not just the mainstream news sources about what’s going on, and to advocate for the destruction of the prison industrial complex as we know it. Thank you.

Fat Liberation for Revolutionary Leftists with Autumn

Fat Liberation for Revolutionary Leftists with Autumn

Fat Liberation cover with fist & roses by Tali
Download Episode Here

This week I am very excited to present an interview with Autumn (she/her/hers), who is an anarchist and scholar-activist, on Fat Liberation in all its many nuances, the pervasive, classist, racist, and colonial nature of fatphobia both in mainstream society and in far left spaces and thought, and the roots of Fat Liberation as a structure which originates and lives with Black, Indigenous, and brown, trans and disabled people. We also speak about Autumn’s syllabus entitled “Fat Liberation Syllabus for Revolutionary Leftists: Confronting Fatphobia on the Left AND Liberalism within the Fat Liberation Movement”. In this document, she compiles writings on the many aspects of fatphobia and gives her own analysis in bulleted form. This document is available for public use, and you can find it at https://tinyurl.com/FatLiberation!

To get in touch with Autumn, you can @abolishtheusa on Instagram.

People, works, and resources named by our guest in this episode:

Da’Shaun L. Harrison book “Belly of the Beast: The Politics of Anti-Fatness as Anti-Blackness”

Dr. Sabrina Strings book “Fearing the Black Body: The Racial Origins of Fat Phobia”

Hunter A. Shackleford “Hunter Ashleigh Shackelford (they/she) is a Black fat cultural producer, multidisciplinary artist, nonbinary shapeshifter, and data futurist based in Atlanta, Georgia … They are the creator and director of a Southern body liberation organization, Free Figure Revolution, which focuses on decolonizing antiblack body violence … Hunter illustrates the relationship between Blackness, fatness, desire, queerness, and popular culture.” (Instagram: @huntythelion)

Jervae (Instagram: @jervae)

Dr. Dorothy Roberts’ work on CPS and how anti-Black racism and fatphobia infect this institution.

Health At Every Size, evidence based medical paradigm that heavily critiques the social constructions of “obesity” and diet culture, and aims to present folks with a compassionate and inclusive framework for taking care of themselves.

Books by Dr. Lindo Bacon (founder of Health At Every Size)

– podcast Food Psych with Christy Harrison

Marquisele Mercedes article “How to Recenter Equity and Decenter Thinness in the Fight for Food Justice”

Caleb Luna (Instagram: @chairbreaker Twitter: @chairbreaker_) “Caleb Luna (they/them) is a fat queer (of color) critical theorist, performer, poet, essayist, cultural critic, and performance scholar. As a Ph.D. candidate in Performance Studies at UC Berkeley, their research focuses on performances of eating, and historicizing cultural representations of fat embodiment within the ongoing settler colonization of Turtle Island.

Sonalee Rashatwar (Instagram: @thefatsextherapist)

– podcast Maintenance Phase with Aubrey Gordon (Instagram: @yrfatfriend Twitter: @yrfatfriend)

Fat Rose Collective (Instagram: @fatlibink)

Announcement

2022 Certain Days Freedom for Political Prisoner Calendars

Just a heads up that the pre-orders for the 2022 Certain Days has begun. You can bulk order copies to distribute, you can order individual ones from Kersplebedeb (Canada) or Burning Books (USA), and you can order them for prisoners through the site, CertainDays.org. Check out our past interviews on the calendar: https://thefinalstrawradio.noblogs.org/post/category/certain-days/

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Featured Track:

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Transcription

Autumn: Thank you so much for having me. So, Hello! My name is Autumn I use she / her pronouns. I’m really honored to be here and appreciate you taking the time to have me on air. Some background about myself, I am an anarchist scholar-activist who focuses on abolishing racial capitalism, through a Fat Liberation and Disability Justice lens. I am a white, Jewish, anti-Zionist, queer person. I’m a longtime organizer around mutual aid, present and border abolition and anti-fascism Palestine solidarity as well as some direct action. So, some of my work has focused on bringing a fat liberation lens to revolutionary anti-State left movements and looking at how we can create dialogue and, more importantly, coalition between our movements.

TFSR: That’s awesome. Do you have any more words to say about the like, scholar activist aspect to your work?

Autumn: Totally. So I think that scholar activism is basically a way of how can we reclaim or liberate intellectual work that is kind of sometimes held captive or gate-kept by like academic institutions and by this very capitalist idea of production and producing knowledge within academia. So scholar-activism, one way it works is through taking resources from academia and giving them back to on the ground organizers. Or sometimes it works. And it’s a form of, you know, creating knowledge by and for our movement, and creating kind of collective knowledge as opposed to this sort of like, again, capitalist colonial model of like the brilliant academic or the brilliant individual.

William: I love that. Thank you so much for going into that. So we’re here to talk about fat liberation. And like I said, before we started rolling the tape. This is a topic that I have wanted to cover on the final straw for some time now. So thank you, thank you. Thank you so much for being willing to speak on this. How did you come to be working toward fat liberation?

Autumn: Yeah, that’s a good question. So firstly, my life as a fat person, also as a disabled person, as a queer person, as a working class person is deeply effected by anti-Blackness. So if I want my life and the lives of folks in my community and my loved ones to improve, I really have no choice but to invest in Fat Liberation on as a revolutionary struggle. On a more macro level, I have a strong background in community organizing, as well as some anti-capitalist organizing. And, you know, when I first started organizing, I began to notice that when I would enter radical spaces or organizing spaces, there would be zero analysis around factors other than shallow and incorrect ideas, that top audience were simply the tragic result of State and Capitalist violence, like food deserts, and that really like bewildered and upset me because so many of the struggles that I faced in my life were connected to anti fatness. Specifically, you know, getting denied health care that I needed, not being seen as a survivor of sexual violence. And, you know, seeing fat liberation being used as a tool of white supremacy, particularly anti-blackness. One of the breaking points for both my class consciousness and my fat liberation politics was when I was at one of my former workplaces and a co worker was sexually harassing me and I reported it to my manager. And my manager basically looked at me up and down and laughed and told me that I wasn’t “pretty enough to be harassed.” And so then slowly, you know, kind of, I developed a concept like a consciousness around about activism, and I was introduced to the works of activists and scholars like Jervae, Hunter A. Shackleford, Dr. Sabrina Strings, Marquisele Mercedes, Caleb Luna, Da’Shaun L. Harrison, and others. And that really inspired me to understand liberation is not only connected to other revolutionary organizing struggles that I was a part of, but like integral to them. So we cannot have other revolutionary struggles for collective liberation without fat liberation.

William: Definitely. Yeah. And we’re gonna get into some more of what you just mentioned, I think, later in the interview. So, you and I believe another person have compiled a syllabus, entitled “fat liberation syllabus for revolutionary leftists.” And it has as a stated objective to confront fatphobia within radical spaces and also the entrenched liberalism within the more mainstream fat liberation movement. To just begin though, for any listeners who haven’t heard this term, will you just begin by saying what is meant by “fat liberation” and where it came from?

Autumn: Yeah, absolutely. That’s a great question. So fat liberation is a radical, anti-capitalist, anti-colonial, anti-State movement that was started by fat, Black and brown, disabled, queer and trans people. It locates fatphobia / sizesism as a tool of capitalism, the state, white supremacy, colonialism, and specifically a tool of anti-Black, State violence. Bodies, especially body is commonly thought of as “deviant” or “unhealthy”, are often sites for state and capitalist violence of how we should offer as a lens to revolutionary transform how we think about bodies, how we think about medicine, how we think about healing. Which is really crucial for us as revolutionary leftists and how we organize to take care of one another outside of the state and outside of capitalism, as well as our work to abolish capitalism and all, you know, all settler colonial states. I think it’s really important to think about that liberation is not just another box to check off for the sake of like, liberal “diversity” or “inclusion” quotas. But instead, it’s a necessary framework that we should always be operating within our activist spaces.

William: Totally. So you mentioned fat phobia’s roots in colonialism and anti-Blackness, and anti-Black racism and not to put you in a corner or make you talk about stuff from a subjectivity that isn’t yours, but would you just talk a little bit about that, from your perspective, and what you’ve learned so far?

Autumn: Yeah, absolutely. So I first want to say that some of the really amazing scholar-activists who have done that work, I just want to shout them out and give credit where credit is due. And you know, if any listeners have financial resources, and can support these people, pay these people’s Patreon or donate to them, I really strongly encourage that. So there are folks like the Da’Shaun L. Harrison, who just recently published a book called I think it was just published in August. It’s called “Belly of the Beast: anti-fatness as anti-Blackness.” Dr. Sabrina Strings, who wrote a book about I think two years ago now called “Fearing the Black Body: The Racial Origins of Fat Phobia”. Hunter Shackleford, who is a really amazing, fat, Black, academic, educator, artist, and activist. And basically, they’ve explained that the origins of fatphobia are very intertwined with the rise of colonialism and racial capitalism. And unlike other systems of oppression, we only have to go back about 300 or 400 years to kind of find the origins of fatphobia. And so if we think back to the original colonization of Turtle Island, or the so called so-called North America and the inception of the violence settler colonial nation on whose land we said, the so-called US. That original colonization was from Puritan European colonizers and one of the kind of ideas that they brought with them was the Protestant work ethic, which basically says that individuals who are”godly”, if they are disciplined if they’re hardworking, if they’re able to restrict themselves, whereas it is, quote, unquote, sinful to be lazy, you’re overindulgent. So this was a way of basically looking at the body and understanding that “Okay, so thin bodies, especially thin white bodies are hardworking and are disciplined and they’re able to restrict themselves. Whereas fat bodies are lazy, they’re overindulgent. Those are sinful, quote unquote, bodies.”

And so kind of the origin of anti-fatness in anti-Blackness is, we see it very much arising in the era of like 19th century eugenics. And this idea that white European scientists were trying to basically look at, look at like, physical characteristics and use that as a justification for the superiority of European white people, especially like Western European white people. So in that the used the idea that “okay, Black people tend to be larger than white people. So that means inherently that Black people are more ‘primitive,’ and they’re not able to control themselves as more they need to be controlled and restrained. Whereas like white people are able to have discipline and they’re more intelligent and their political more advanced.” And then, in the era of 19th century eugenics, that was when body mass index or BMI was like developed as a concept, and it was very much used to label white bodies, especially white men’s bodies as, normative or healthy and label Black people’s bodies as obese and unhealthy. And so this continues to this day, where we see the entanglements of fatphobia and anti black violence continuing medical establishments, again, we’re fat Black patients are less likely to receive care that they need. I mean, fat bodies in general are less likely to receive the care that they need, they’re often just told to just lose weight. The state, when they surveil and target Black, brown and indigenous communities for having “high rates of obesity” and then using that as a justification to have Child Protective Services come in and remove fat children. There’s a lot of work done by Dr. Dorothy Roberts on the child welfare system not actually being about child welfare just being another way for the state to like control and monitor Black families or indigenous families or brown families. And disproportionately, Black and indigenous children are removed from their homes for non-justifiable reasons and because there’s this… It’s hard to find the racial statistics of children who are removed from their homes, but because oftentimes “obesity” is used as a justification for that,, I think it’s pretty like easy to infer that that’s oftentimes a justification for removing Black and indigenous children from their homes.

You know, in terms of state violence, fat Black people like Kayla Moore and Eric Garner, and recently Ma’Khia Bryant were murdered by the police and then the police in the general public, blamed their murders on their fatness. Da’Shaun L. Harrison, who I mentioned before, discusses this justification for the state murders of black people in their book “Belly of the Beast: The Politics of Anti-Fatness as Anti-Blackness.” Does that kind of answer the question?

TFSR: Oh, yeah, totally. And it’s such a like, vast top pet topic that, you know, I think that you like, shout it out some really amazing resources. Sabrina strings is the one who I’m most familiar with. And her book “Fearing the Black Body: The Racial Origins of Fat Phobia,” which is a fantastic breakdown by era: she looks at art history, she looks at the developing trade routes built on the back of enslaved people. She does all of this stuff. And it’s a really amazing, amazing resource.

Autumn: Absolutely. I really recommend that folks read that book and look into it.

TFSR: I also just want to like, name the… You know, you mentioned like treatment by your former manager, when you like brought concerns about your co-worker, and then saying that vile shit to you. That is like, completely unacceptable. And I’m so sorry that happened.

Autumn: Thank you. Yeah, no, thank you for sharing that. Yeah. And I think that that kind of highlights… I talked about it a little bit in the fat liberation syllabus, but there’s a really kind of disturbing intersection between fatphobia and rape culture that I don’t see getting talked about enough. And I’m hoping that those conversations can get started more.

TFSR: Absolutely. Hopefully this will like help start that conversation a bit. So, we talked about a little bit: in order to talk about how fat phobia and fatmisia, which is… Would you give a definition of fatmisia really quick?

Autumn: This is one of the first times that I’ve heard it, but I would say that it’s more kind of ideological understanding of this idea that fatness is something to be avoided or pathologized.

TFSR: And it’s like distinct from fatphobia in that like phobia is like a fear.

Autumn: Yeah, I’m not exactly sure how it’s… I think fat phobia is similar. I think sometimes fat phobia is used more in terms of thinking about how we internalize like anti fatness, and how that’s enacted in interpersonal interactions, or in communal interactions, whereas fatmisia is more like on a broader kind of ideological lens?

TFSR: That’s really helpful. Thank you. So, in order to talk about both of these things, and how they emerge in radical spaces, firstly, we could probably talk a lot about how it emerges in broader society. Since fatphobia, infects so much of the structures we are forced to contend with, like you mentioned, the medical industrial complex and the state for starters.. Not to like, start too big. This is a topic whose completeness may like be beyond the scope of a single podcast episode, but nevertheless, could you speak on this in a general sense, and the roots of fat phobia and fatmisia specifically, I know you touched on this a little bit before but do you have anything else you want to say about it?

Autumn: No, absolutely. So, and like any other system of oppression, there’s nothing natural about fatphobia or hating larger bodies. As humans, there’s nothing that’s like natural about us that says, oh, thinness is better. That’s completely socially constructed. Just you know, and this is a common disclaimer that I have to give or that a lot of like fat activists have to give. Anytime that we talk about fatphobia, one of the most common forms of backlash that I see is the claim that like, “Oh, it’s unhealthy to be fat, and there’s an obesity epidemic. And don’t you think that we should focus on health?” So, you know, I really wish that I didn’t have to give this kind of disclaimer, but you know, I won’t in this interview won’t be addressing the question of is it healthy to be fat, because health is multi dimensional, it’s not a measure of our worth, and nobody is obligated to be healthy. There are many people of all sizes, who have disabilities and chronic illnesses, who will never be “healthy” by normative standards. That said, it’s actually not unhealthy to be fat. And there’s a lot of scientific research and evidence that supports that conclusion. There’s a really valuable, evidence-based medical paradigm called Health at Every Size, which is readily available online, there’s a Health at Every science website, there’s a book by Lindo Bacon, called “Health at Every Size,” which, you know, people are interested in that you can go look at that.

And historically, you know, and before 300 to 400 years ago, fat bodies were actually kind of like revered and celebrated. I kind of mentioned earlier that the rise of fat phobia and the rise of the idea of the thin ideal is very rooted in the Protestant work ethic as well as this kind of neoliberal, bootstraps idea that weight loss is simply the result of hard work and discipline rather than the result of.. Most people who lose a significant amount of weight, gain it back within five years, and we have a lot less control over our weight over our bodies, than we’d like to believe. And, you know, importantly, our ideas about health and medicine are not objective or neutral. Black feminists, especially, have done a really good job at explaining how what’s often cast is supposed “objective medical facts” as actually completely socially constructed. There’s no evidence to support that. And again, as I mentioned before, in the age of 19th century eugenics, that was really the era that emerged that fatness was inherently unhealthy, and that people should be instructed to lose weight. You know, before that we don’t really see a lot of emphasis on weight loss is the key to health. People were really concerned about, like dying of dysentery. So, you know, if you were fat, you were considered like robust and healthy, because we’re less likely to die of all the infectious diseases. And so, as I mentioned, before, fitness became a marker of weight, especially Western European bodies being disciplined “intelligent, well controlled bodies” and Black bodies became seen as uncontrollable, and inferior political primitive. And, again, the fact that white scientists noticed that Black people were larger than white people that was used as a justification for the supposed inferiority of Black people.

And then in terms of the connection between fatphobia and capitalism… So there’s an at-least $2 billion weight loss industry. And as the center of the weight loss industry is this kind of myth of critical personal responsibility that you can have what is called the ultimate fantasy of corporeal malleability that is just like “if you just work hard enough, and if you’re just disciplined enough, and if you just, you know restrict… you just eat the right things, if you just eat like healthy organic food, and you just force yourself to eat that, that thinness can be achieved through that.” So and, importantly, there’s this kind of these two models of fatphobia that tend to emerge. This one of conservative contempt and this one of liberal pity or liberal fatphobia. So for example, conservatives believe that our people are simply lazy, that, you know, we just need to go to the gym or put down the cheeseburger. And then I mean, I wouldn’t even call the flip side cuz it’s not the polar opposite of this. But liberal fatphobia in this kind of liberal pity model looks down about people as objects of pity and views us as abject and diseased. And as the result of, you know, structural problems like GMOs and food deserts. And oftentimes, this is very racialized, like this is oftentimes, white liberals looking down at fat Black and brown people and just thinking “Oh, they just need to be taught to like, eat better, basically,” through a very kind of like paternalistic forms of intervention. And I just really want to touch on that, you know, conservative contempt and liberal pity, are not polar opposites, right? They’re kind of different sides of the same coin. Like they both result from this idea that fatness is pathological and that it needs to be eliminated.

William: That’s a really amazing breakdown. They like as a sort of like the double prong not even like dualistic because like you said, it’s not it’s not polar opposite like the conservative and liberal like lenses through which this is, you know, largely viewed in society is like really interesting to think about. And also the neoliberalism inherent in the weight loss industry to is I think we’re totally remarkable, like the whole like individual focus on like your individual effort or whatever it’s, it’s like tantamount to being “oh, all y’all who are like buying a new toothbrush every year, you’re, you’re causing climate change,” or whatever. You know, it’s totally ridiculous. But, at the same time, it just rules so much of how this is viewed.

Autumn: Absolutely. And I would say that that really shows how we think about health, and just how we think about wellness. Because I think that there’s this really great podcast that I maybe will mentioned in some of the…, I don’t know if maybe we don’t mention that later, but it’s called, it’s called Food Psych. And the person who like is the host, her name is Christy Harrison, she’s an anti-diet dietitian. And she talks a lot about the social determinants of health and how only about 30% of health outcomes are determined by individual health behaviors, including things like smoking, or having unprotected sex. Which are, you know, but no judgement, of course, it just causally linked to health risks. But I think that just goes to show that the real threats to our health are not necessarily like what we eat, or how much we exercise, but stress caused by racial capitalism, caused by poverty, caused by state violence. And I sort of wonder when we’re so focused on “how can I personally restrict my consumption? So I don’t cause global warming?” or “How can I eat as healthy as possible so I will have good health outcomes?” Rather than, like, “how has racial capitalism and how is the state making us sick, and basically having a really detrimental effect on our bodies and minds.” And it’s kind of like a distraction from the important questions.

TFSR: Absolutely. And just to support that, briefly, I have a friend who’s an ER nurse who says that about 95% of everything he sees is a direct result of racialized capitalism.

Autumn: Absolutely, just like, stress, especially stress that’s directly caused by racial capitalism is probably one of the worst things for our bodies and our minds.

TFSR: To touch also briefly on the liberalism in the fat liberation movement aspect of your work, specifically, you write and compile resources about the interaction of the “body positivity,” and “diversity” aspects to capitalism and toxic diet and culture. Would you expand on this and say a few words about how this also influences more left radical spaces?

Autumn: No, for sure. So the term “body positivity,” to me, it’s pretty meaningless and I feel like it’s basically become this kind of individualistic self help movement, which locates the solution to fatphobia in individuals loving their bodies, and, you know, separate from anything that’s political. There’s nothing wrong with with self love, I think it can be really helpful. But as activists, we need to be invested in a political revolutionary movement, rather than focusing on self help. And so I think that there’s just a lot of ways that, especially now, you will see capitalism really kind of co-opting body positivity. Like if you go on Instagram, like you’ll see so many companies like trying to sell you something by proclaiming how “inclusive” or “diverse” they are. I think what is especially harmful about that is when companies like do try and showcase fat people, or when celebrities try and showcase fat people in their music videos. It’s like fat people are like treated as props to show how diverse and inclusive a celebrity or a corporation is. For example, I think there’s like two years ago now, Miley Cyrus had a video, I think it’s called “Mother’s Daughter” and in the video… It’s supposed to be representation of… they show a fat person and they show someone who uses a wheelchair and they show someone breastfeeding. But then, you know, thin, white Miley Cyrus, able bodied Miley Cyrus is still the center of the music video. And so in that instance, it’s you know, that’s just an example I would say of fat people or disabled people becoming these props to just like prove, how invested Miley Cyrus’s and like diversity and inclusivity.

And so my theory is that there hasn’t really been a lot of conversation, at least in my experience, it’s changing some which is great, between fat activists and revolutionary and anti-state leftists. I think a lot of that is definitely due to fatphobia on the left. But more broadly, I think fat liberation tends to get siphoned off into these kinds of specific fields such as, at best being about like public health and at worst being on this kind of individualistic like self help movement that’s led by Instagram influencers with clothing companies. And so that doesn’t really allow space for us to draw connections and coalition’s between fat liberation and anti-state, anarchists or leftist movements such as, you know, abolishing racial capitalism, and abolishing prisons and borders, and why fat liberation as a part of that. And if there was that coalition, if those conversations were happening, we wouldn’t have people who have been really active in the body positive or the health of every size movement, being for example, Zionists, or endorsing Elizabeth Warren. One glaring example without naming names is there’s this person who has been a central figure in some “body positive” or “fat spaces,” is a fat person and has written some like influential books about health and advertising. And that person is a zionist, and has literally publicly claimed that fat activists need to support the State of Israel. And so a radical intervention into that line of thought would be to understand how colonial states like the so-called US and Israel often use the logic of diet culture and fatphobia to uphold genocidal violence and occupation. So, for example, Israel literally restricts the amount of calories and food that goes into Palestine. I want to be really clear here that I’m in no way equating being a fat person or being someone targeted by diet culture in the US with being a Palestinian living under Israeli apartheid or Israeli occupation. But I think understanding how diet culture and fatphobia is used as a tool of colonialism and occupation… I think that’s really important for thinking about fat liberation as an internationalist, an anti-colonial project and I think that that leads the way for some really exciting potential coalition between fat activists and, you know, those of us fighting for the Liberation of Palestine.

TFSR: Absolutely, I had no idea that the State of Israel was doing that bullshit. That is really Stark and very, very troubling. I’m wondering, too, so just to narrow the focus perhaps onto like radical and anarchist spaces. There’s many, many, many ways that fatphobia and fatmisia, like spin out in anarchist spaces and rad spaces. But one of those that you mentioned in your syllabus, is that people sometimes exhibit the unfortunate tendency to equate fatness with capitalism. Can you expand on how you see this happening?

Autumn: 100% Yeah, so I never want to see another anarchist, or another leftist graphic that uses fat bodies as a metaphor for capitalism, or bosses or the police. So I feel like I’ve seen a lot of graphics that show like workers tearing down the big fat boss. And I just want to facepalm whenever I see that, because that’s a great way to alienate fat comrades. That imagery is especially ironic because, like other marginalized groups, statistically fat people are more likely to be paid less, and they’re more and more likely to live in poverty. You know, and I think, obviously, gender and race play into that, but it’s unlikely that the CEO of a big company would be a fat person, even if it is like a white cis-het man. And again, I see this a lot of in leftist spaces, a lot of repeating diet, culture logic around fat being unhealthy and fat being something that needs to be eliminated. Particularly I see it come up in conversations around food deserts. And playing into the liberal pity idea that, fat bodies are this tragic result of food deserts, or food apartheid.

Autumn: Marquisele Mercedes, who’s a really wonderful critical Public Health Studies, scholar and activist and also a fat studies scholar, has a really wonderful article called How to recenter equity in decent or fitness in the fight for food justice. And she talks about understanding food apartheid, or differential access to food across racial and capital, and class lines as an intentional form of racial capitalist violence. But then the problem with a lot of liberal so-called food justice movements is that they use fatphobia and diet culture to distract from the real problem of racial capitalism with the focus being on again “obesity prevention” and trying to paternalistically “fix the eating habits of poor Black and brown people that don’t fall into a fat phobic, white-middle-class-centric standard of healthy.” This great article by Marquisele Mercedes also talks about how true food justice is not about what one person or organization believes that marginalized communities should be eating, it’s about supporting the community’s autonomy and control over their food. It’s about supporting people to be less stressed, well fed and nourished, however that may it look like.

On a side note, I found it telling how there is so much focus on trying to get poor working class people to eat more vegetables or eat less processed food. And you know, this idea that that’s going to be some kind of remedy for racial capitalism and state violence. Of course there’s nothing wrong with building a community garden but I encourage us to think critically about why we as a culture are so obsessed with food and exercise as the ultimate you know remedy when we know that there are more important issues that we need to address. Also I think there’s something to be said about the way that and this is gonna be an unpopular opinion maybe, with some people but… This kind of hatred and disgust of fast food and the way that I see sometimes in leftist spaces fast food being singled out as this really abomination disgusting abomination that nobody should be eating, but I think it’s important to think about “why do we think that and why are we singling out McDonald’s” when you know Whole Foods or the United Fruit Company or Sabra hummus are like active participants or causers of gentrification? Or the United Fruit Company literally supported the US military installing right wing military coups and Central America and the Caribbean or, you know, Sabra hummus is profiting off of the occupation of Palestine. And why do we single out fast food or food corporations that we see as unhealthy when there’s some very pervasive, racist, fat phobic and classist stereotypes about who is presumed to eat fast food. Let’s really think about when we think about people who eat fast food, who do we who are we thinking of? And why are we singling out fast food and that’s not necessarily accurate but it’s a very it’s a very unfortunately pervasive cultural trope about who is presumed to eat fast food.

I guess other areas of fatphobia that I see in leftist spaces in anarchist spaces… I feel like I hear it more from Marxist-Leninists with this argument that we need to get the proletariat fit and healthy so they can fight Nazis that makes me pretty angry because that’s just literally eugenics and diet culture disguised as a poor interpretation of anti fascism. You can kill Nazis on a moped! You know? There have been a lot of really kick ass fat and disabled anti fascists who are literally doing that work. I guess on the maybe on the more anarchist side I guess I see about phobia kind of coming up sometimes in lifestyle politics and this idea about in order to be a devoted anarchists, we need to be vegan, and we need to be dumpster diving and living in a squat. And I think we need to really kind of abandon those lifestyle politics. Um, you know, there’s nothing wrong with being vegan or dumpster diving, but it doesn’t make someone more of a comrade if they’re not if they don’t want to do that. And just like our politics are not defined by the food we eat or by, you know, why do we choose to live in a decaying squat?

TFSR: Yeah, thank you so much for talking about fast food and exercise. I definitely see that meme and anti fascist spaces that really fetishize this exercise the like “a fascist worked out today, did you?” or something like that. And the topic of veganism is also really interesting. There’s definitely a lot to be said about it. I think I myself have definitely noticed not all leftist vegans that I’ve come across have exhibited this tendency but sometimes I see people doing veganism in order to… And I don’t want to use judgy language and I might cut this out so like between you and me… To maybe mask some very troubled relationship with food itself.

And using politics to bury that or whatever. I mean, using politics to also bury classism and fat phobic tendencies as well. Be vegan, that’s fine, but do so for reasons that aren’t contributing to the oppression of people around you.

Autumn: Absolutely. Yeah. Thank you for saying that I agree with that 100% and I guess I just have trouble. I have no problem with people being vegan, if you want to be vegan, go for it. And that’s completely your prerogative. But I think just have trouble with this any kind of ideology that attaches moral values, the foods that we eat, and I think that there are and this is maybe it’s a longer conversation… But I think that there are, important things to be said about a decolonial or in or an indigenous worldview developing a more symbiotic relationship with animals and nature as opposed to this late very exploitative worldview coming from capitalism and colonialism. But I just have a lot of issues when people try to integrate speciesism into an intersectionality framework and claim that veganism is somehow anti-oppressive.

TFSR: Yeah, I mean, Capitalist Veganism is just as oppressive to humans and to the earth as other things. I don’t know, there was, you know, all of this analysis about factory farming, which factory farming is traumatic, right? A lot of people are super traumatized by it. On the other hand, I’m not gonna tell somebody that they can’t eat some things they need to eat.

Autumn: Absolutely. And again, factory farming is horrific, it should be abolished with a question “Is the issue meat or animal product consumption, or is it capitalism and colonialism?”

TFSR: Totally. Yeah. And I think that the problematic common denominator is definitely capitalism and colonialism. I’m wondering your thoughts on how we as a scene, together could bring fat liberation into radical and anarchist spaces and thought, love to hear your thoughts on that.

Autumn: Yeah, I really appreciate that question. I think it kind of starts with naming and identifying fat liberation as a revolutionary struggle and actually talking about it and engaging with it. You know, thin people especially you to engage with this. I made a graphic that will soon be a zine, which I’m super excited for it to be a zine. But it should be on my friend’s Instagram, and I can send a link to that. It’s about making in-person militant actions with a diversity of tactics accessible for fat and disabled comrades. And I think sometimes it’s just a matter of whether it’s a direct action or a meeting, or community space, really asking the question of “Can we all go and everybody fit in this image space, literally?” I have been in a lot of spaces where I’m very uncomfortable because the chairs are not made for fat people or, you know, I feel like I’m the only fat person there, or the door is not wide enough. And I think that’s also really kind of hand in hand with Disability Justice and thinking about how accessibility and Disability Justice is a framework that we constantly need to be operating within. I think also, you know, it’s important to call out or confront fatphobia when we see it, whether that’s in the broader world, or whether that’s with our revolutionary or organizing circles. I think it’s really important to share and amplify the work of revolutionary fat liberation activists. So the names that I mentioned before are Da’Shaun L. Harrison, Marquisele Mercedes, Hunter Shackleford, Dr. Sabrina Springs, Jervae. Other folks who are doing really incredible work are Caleb Luna. I think that both her instagram and twitter is chair breaker. And then Sonalee Rashatwar who’s @TheFatSexTherapist on Instagram, who have some really incredible content. So I just encourage everybody to just go follow these people. Again, if you have financial resources, consider joining their Patreon, consider, you know, donating to them financially. You know, and I think beyond that, like it’s really important to reach out in fight for activists to be part of your movement and be in coalition with you. And I get excited when I hear other leftists just leaving fatphobia but I think I shouldn’t have to feel that way. Because fat liberation should be the norm.

You know, I think also again, kind of like rejecting the moralization of food and just understanding how oftentimes our hatred of fats of fast food is very in meshed with fatphobia and anti-Blackness like classism and capitalism. It just because there are a lot of like really pervasive, fat phobic, racist and classist cultural stereotypes around who eats or is presumed to eat fast food or processed food and no matter how much we try to masquerade our hatred of fast food or processed food as anti capitalist or as condemning the corporations that produce the food like that’s… No matter how much we try to mask read up, it’s still rooted in this fat phobic idea of that subject and food is better than other foods, in a post revolutionary world people will still have the options to eat hamburgers and fried foods if they want to and that’s okay. You know, I think also just, trying to hide hatred and disgust for fast food behind anger at the corporations and the exploitation of workers that doesn’t actually help fast food workers unionize it, or build power and organize. I’m a former fast food worker, and I can really attest to how that kind of attitude of being disgusted by so fast food workers.

TFSR: And I’m also a former fast food worker and definitely share that you mentioned, fat activists and fat activism, would you speak about the Fat Rose collective and how it came to be formed?

Autumn: Yes, totally. So I believe Fat Rose was formed in the summer of 2019 by fat and disabled activists who organized around the abolish ice movement to close the concentration camps. And they were specifically identifying that fat and disabled people have a specific seek in abolition because, again, our experiences are in no way the same of those incarcerated in presents or in ice detention. We do know what it’s like to be treated as disposable. And so my understanding is that fat rose really recognizes the radical potential of fat people to organize, as well as aiming to create spaces where fat people can organize without without experiencing fat phobia from other organizers. It’s not really my story to tell, but I know that there are folks in Fat Rose who have specifically sought out fat specific organizing spaces because of some really horrendous experiences with fat phobia and other lefty or progressive spaces. Fat rooms organized a really beautiful action in San Francisco at the ICE headquarters, where they demanded the abolition of ICE and the closure of the concentration camps. Caleb Luna, who I mentioned before, he was a scholar activist around for liberation read a really beautiful speech there. And this was the first time that I’d really seen anything to that magnitude that was explicitly organized from a Disability Justice and fat liberation focal point. Additionally, during the ongoing COVID pandemic Fat Rose has organized the no body is disposable coalition, which demands an end to eugenicist COVID triage policies in ICU where fat people, disabled people, elderly people, people who are HIV positive, and people who are living with other illnesses are denied life saving COVID treatment or taking off ventilator treatment. And there’s literally procedures for hospitals to take people off ventilator treatment, if the you know, fall into one of these categories. Fat Rose has been doing a lot of really cool work to organize against that. Since then, Fat Rose has put on a lot of really rad events. I know they recently did a series called busting out about fat liberation and prison abolition and transformative justice. I believe their Instagram is @FatLibInc, and their Facebook it should be fat rose. So I encourage you know also listeners to check them out on social media and follow them on social media.

TFSR: Totally, they have a really beautiful website, that’s just FatRose.Org where you can see a lot of you can see how to get involved. You can see essays that they have written you can see more about busting out. I’m looking at it right now. They have a cookbook. They have all this beautiful, beautiful material on their website. So I encourage people if they’re curious to go check, check it out.

Autumn: Thank you for showing off the website. Yeah. It’s really wonderful organization.

TFSR: Totally. You touched on this, like in previous answers, but I’m curious specifically, if you have more words on how might you encourage thin white people to show up for their fat comrades, friends and family?

Autumn: So I think you know, if you can’t just be fat people showing up for fat liberation. You know, as previously mentioned, I think it’s really important think about how you can name and show up for fat liberation struggles. Amplify the work of Fat Rose, again, if you have financial resources. Support or amplify the work of fat Black and brown activists, you know, join their Patreons, support them financially. Also, if you’re a thin white person who has a lot of social capital and visibility. Think about how you can reject the pedestal that you’re placed on and how you can pass this info onto others, especially other organizers. On a personal level, kind of interrogate who your friends or even lovers with, how you treat people in your lives, are your spaces accessible for fat people. You know, I think also it’s important to kind of unpacked desirability politics and especially unpack the idea that fatness is inherently unattractive. And I really just want to say that that’s not just about dating preferences, nobody is forcing you to date or sleep with fat people. But Caleb Luna, again, really brilliant proud scholar activist, recently wrote on their Instagram about how desirability politics affects them, way beyond just eating. It’s about how they’re able to access resources, like health care, and professional opportunities. And beyond that, I think in our radical and revolutionary movements, it’s really important to, again, make sure that we’re also talking about fat liberation and we’re naming and organizing around the intersections of fatphobia and racial capitalism or fat phobia and colonialism. So it’s about both like listening you know, doing some self reflection and introspection, as well as, materially showing up.

TFSR: Yeah, and if people are looking to start a reading or listening group, your syllabus really has just so much information in it. It’s broken down into categories, like there’s a category on anti fatness and anti blackness there’s a category on sis hetero patriarchy it’s really really really well organized and has a lot of reading resources if if reading is something that feels good to folks. How can people see this document? is it available for public use?

Autumn: Yes, thank you for asking it is available for public use. It’s available at https://tinyurl.com/FatLiberation if there are show notes you can put the link to that in the in the show notes but um that’s it available tiny URL please share it share it widely amplify it.

TFSR: There’s so much there. I really got a lot out of looking at this document and just going on these tangents and going down rabbit holes, and it’s a really, really, really well, well done document. Thank you so much for doing it.

Autumn: Well, thank you so much. And yeah, thank you so much for engaging with it. I also I do recognize that reading a long document is accessible for for everyone. If there are people who feel better listening to podcasts, there’s a really great one that I mentioned before whole Food Psych. There’s also following people on Instagram, like following @TheFatSexTherapist.

Autumn: Oh my gosh, there’s another podcast that the name of it is escaping me. But her name is Aubrey Gordon, her Instagram is @YourFatFriend, I think she has a link to the podcasts, but it talks especially about fatphobia and wellness culture and unpacking what we’ve been taught to think about wellness culture. So I just want to say that there are options that don’t necessarily like involve reading and other free resources. Jervae has also created a bunch of YouTube and TickTock videos and they’re a really incredible fat Black philosopher and artist, so they have a lot of also great resources that aren’t necessarily long documents.

TFSR: That’s awesome. And I’ll link those all of those that you mentioned in the show notes. How can people support you and your work and you’ve shouted out a lot of other folks how people can support them but how can people support you if you would like that?

Autumn: Yeah, thanks for asking. Um, I think so. I’m not on social media personally but I think just keep sharing the fat liberation syllabus, keep circulating it especially donate and amplify the works of, especially, fat Black and brown activists. You can donate to Fat Rose. One of my close friends has a Instagram and Twitter that is like I think it’s both @AbolishTheUSA on both Instagram and Twitter and they were they were the person who suggested I write the syllabus and on their platform that was where the syllabus was originally circulated from. So if anyone I guess wants to email me or get in touch with me specifically, maybe you could contact now at @AbolishTheUSA and say that you have a message for me.

TFSR: Autumn, those were all the questions that I had. Thank you so much for your time and having this conversation with me. I really appreciate your energy and the time that you spent in hashing all this stuff out. Is there anything that we missed in this interview that you want to give voice to or something that you’d like to say in closing?

Autumn: I think we got everything but I just want to thank you so much, again, for having me. And this has been just such a incredible experience. And I’m always super grateful to the Final Straw Radio and just you all are doing such amazing work and I’m really honored to be part of it.

TFSR: Thank you so much. The feeling is super mutual. I’m really happy to have gotten to meet you a little bit and it was really lovely to get to share some digital space with you for a little while and talk about this thing thatI really hope that people will take back into their spaces and like do some thinking and do some reading and stuff if they need to do that. So thank you so much.

Autumn: Yah! Oh my gosh. Thank you.

“For Trans Liberation, Capitalism Must Be Abolished”

“For Trans Liberation, Capitalism Must Be Abolished”

"Transgender Marxism" book cover with a trans flag color scheme of pink, white and blue and a transgender symbol mixing male & female iconography
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This week we’re sharing a chat that Scott Branson had about Transgender Marxism (2021, Pluto Press) with Jules Gleeson (co-Editor, Contributor) and M.E. O’Brien (contributor). Transgender Marxism brings together Transgender Studies and Marxist theory, exploring Transgender lives and movements and surviving as Trans under Capitalism. In the end, the claim of the book is that for Trans Liberation, Capitalism must be abolished. In this interview we talk about the: collective, material process of transition; trans visibility, assimilation and liberation; the history of Gay Liberation and Trans movements; being Trans in the workplace; care work and family abolition; and Trans solidarities against Capitalism and the State.

  • Jules Joanne Gleeson is a writer, comedian and historian. She has published essays in outlets including Viewpoint Magazine, Invert Journal and VICE, and performed internationally at a wide range of communist and queer cultural events. She can be found on Twitter at @SocialRepro and Patreon (QueerCom). Check out her awesome interview with Judith Butler that the GuardianUK censored due to critiques of TERFs, found in full at IllWill.Com.
  • M.E. O’Brien writes at the intersection of communist theory, trans liberation, LGBTQ social movement studies and feminism. Michelle is a co-editor of Pinko, and her writing has appeared in Social Movement Studies, Work, Employment & Society, Commune, Homintern, Endnotes and Invert. Found on Twitter at @GenderHorizon & on Patreon (MEOBrien).

Update on Sean Swain

This week, instead of words from anarchist prisoner, Sean Swain, I’d just like to share the info that Sean has been transferred back to Ohio, his state of capture, from Virginia where he was held at a Medium security facility for the last 2.5 years. It’s assumed that he’s back at the Supermax, OSP Youngstown for 2 weeks of quarantine and determination of status to decide what prison he will go to inside Ohio from there. When he was leaving Ohio for Virginia, he was close to graduating to a lower security, medium level, than where he was held and has not had any serious breeches of conduct since his transfer, so hopefully he’ll be heading to an easier and more comfortable facility.

For the moment you can write him at his old address where I’m sure he’d love some kind words or some books, posted in our shownotes and at SeanSwain.org:

Sean Swain #A243205
OSP Youngstown
878 Coitsville-Hubbard Rd
Youngstown, OH 44505

You can donate to his legal case to challenge his denied parole by sending money via cashapp to $Swainiac1969 and you can follow @Swainiac1969 for info on the upcomnig online raffle to help fundraise for Sean’s legal fees. To donate items for raffle, also contact the instagram mentioned above and keep an eye out for more info. As an update to prior mentions of Swainiac-fest, it was a success but is only a step on the way to covering his legal fees to get him the best legal defense possible. And remember, you can fundraise toward the $12,500 needed by the lawyer on your own or in community and if you want to send it to the TFSR venmo or paypal or a money order made out to us via our PO Box, feel free to do so and make sure you note Sean’s defense in the comment.

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Featured Tracks:

  • Gemini (instrumental) by Princess Nokia from Everything Is Beautiful

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Transcription

TFSR: This is The Final Straw Radio and we’re excited get to talk to an editor and a contributor to this new really, exciting volume Transgender Marxism which is published by Pluto Press. I wanted to first ask you to introduce yourself with your names, pronouns, any affiliation that you would like the listeners to know about.

Jules Gleeson: Hi. I’m Jules Gleeson, and I am one of the co-editors of Transgender Marxism, the new collection we’re here to chat about. My pronouns are she and I am only very loosely affiliated to things at the moment. I’m very happy to be joining you today.

Michelle O’Brien: Hello, my name is Michelle O’Brien and I am a contributor to the volume chapter on trans work and experiences of trans people in employment, both formal and informal. That chapter I wrote draws heavily from the New York City Trans Oral History Project that I worked with for some years. I write communist theory, teach Queer Studies at Gallatin, and work as a psychoanalyst. And my pronouns are she and her.

TFSR: Thank you so much for taking the time to talk with me today. I’m really excited, I did a deep reading of the book, it was really helped me think through my own positionality in the world. So I’m excited to dive into a lot of the ideas in there. Starting off, right away, one thing that keeps coming up in the book throughout different contributors’ pieces is the question of how transness might be useful for Capital. And this is being posed after this “transgender tipping point” where there’s more visibility, specifically, I think, for trans women and more understanding of transness, I guess, in mainstream worlds, although that might be questionable. So to start the discussion, what do you think are relative or limited, or positive gains made by trans people as a result of this increase in visibility?

JG: Yeah, I’m happy to pick up on that. So for those of you listening at home, who are not familiar with the “transgender tipping point,” was a phase around, I suppose, 2014 to 2015. Most notably, this famous Time’s cover of Laverne Cox, the star of Orange Is the New Black appearing on Time. And the transgender tipping point is pretty loosely this moment when suddenly there was an increase, a surge of popular familiarity, let’s say, with transgender culture and transgender experiences. After which – to me, the most obvious difference is – trans people seem to become a lot more numerous, which is measurable in everything from people applying to become patients of gender identity clinics to transgender-specific communities seeming to swell in size, and there are all kinds of ways we can talk about the measurement. But, clearly at this point somewhere around 2013 to 2015, things transformed pretty rapidly and seemingly permanently towards what had been a cluster of different subcultural circles, becoming something more like a mass culture. That’s my own reading. I think both myself and Michelle, this wasn’t our point of departure into transgender circles or transgender discussions, however, clearly the transgender question, I suppose, transformed thereafter. And the work of this collection is very much following on in the wake of that, and in the confusion that follows and is continuing to follow on from that.

MO: So I’ll say a bit. In the far queer and trans left in New York City, there’s a pretty well-developed critique of the trans tipping point that centers around a number of points. One is this discrepancy between popular media attention on trans people and the actual material conditions, social service infrastructure, material well-being, violence against trans people. And so there’s certainly a disjunction between the two and where there might be a lot of progress made in the symbolic popular media realm, that only occasionally corresponds to any material progress made in the lives of working-class people. And even when we’re talking about sort of material progress, I think there’s been a lot of good thinking around how, for example, anti-discrimination legislation that we recently won in New York City, a few years ago, doesn’t actually protect people very effectively against being highly marginalized in the employment market because of the dynamics of “at will” employment and the sort of broader forces of oppression and racism in society. And so we can recognize the limits of both liberal equality and liberal celebration, liberal recognition. And I think people are very right to point out and call attention to the trans liberation, trans well-being, trans life has to be something more than getting on magazine covers and having famous people mention the existence of trans people.

I will also say that I think that the increased visibility has had dramatic and substantial benefits. And one of the stark ones Jules mentioned is the increase in the numbers of trans people, that part of the dynamics of trans life is at any given time, there are probably a lot of people out there who have internally and privately a trans experience that they are not yet able to act on in the world, to come out, to transition, to find other trans people, to talk about their experience. In my work as an analyst, I certainly encounter a lot of people in this situation. And the level of increased visibility just has dramatic implications of enabling a lot more people to find each other and to build a life together in ways that I think are very powerful. And then the other is, I think there actually has been a dramatic and substantial increase in trans organizing and trans movement-building that’s happened concurrently and that has taken Black trans leadership and communities very seriously in some ways. I think the Black Lives Matter Movement is one of the most substantially trans-inclusive political struggles I’ve ever seen, more inclusive than, I would say, most LGBT rights organizations and organizing. And I think that Black Lives Matter has been very powerful in moving money, attention, and support to Black trans-led movements, and helped them a lot in gaining political grounds in a variety of ways: whether that means money or specific policy reforms, or much broader level of attention and infrastructure. Which, obviously, we have quite a long ways to go, but we’re out in the streets and then struggle together and the tipping point has been a dimension of this political process unfolding that has dangers, that has backlash, a backlash that has, in the words of one anthology, a trapdoor, but also has some really quite powerful opportunities in advances.

TFSR: Yeah, thanks for mapping that out. First, that historical moment that we’re in the wake of and then the complexities of visibility, how that can bring good things and also cause some harm. I also think it’s really important, as you noted, to talk about the Black trans leadership we see in movements – that’s a different kind of visibility than the media or TV show kind of visibility the tipping point refers to.

There’s one thing that, Jules, you and your co-editor Elle O’Rourke write in the introduction, “if trans life can’t be eradicated, it can be normalized and disciplined.” So I’m interested in this… I don’t know if you have more to say about this kind of double-edged sword where there are these gains, but there’s also maybe a risk of what we saw with gay liberation becoming a movement for marriage equality. I wondered what either or both of you had to say about this as a potential moment of capture by capital, by the state? Can we be distracted in the way that transness can be stylized and then normalized, and then sold back to us? Or is there also hope for the resistance to that capture?

JG: Yeah, I’m happy to talk about this and the introduction. Sadly, Elle couldn’t join us today, but this was the introduction that we cowrote together. I suppose just to say one more word on Black Lives Matter does: what the introduction is trying to capture is at once we have these remarkable and unpredictable breakthroughs, breakthroughs that sometimes are quite hard to keep track of and last summer, when Black Lives Matter was in full swing, was definitely one of these cases. This is one of the moments we touch upon, the cleaning-of-the-house moment that bought around the Black Trans Lives Matter rally in Brooklyn. And this is the optimistic aspect of it: all of these insurgent, intersectional connections, which are just being put into motion rather than just theorized, I think, like Michelle was saying, we’re just getting out onto the streets some of the time. But the other aspect is there needs to also be a realistic assessment of what’s standing in our way. And what you’re flagging up here as a section where we talk about the family, about private households. And this is, I think, still an intractable and still probably – I don’t know if it’s the majority of the harm that trans people encounter – but definitely any group of trans people you meet, if you talk to them about their relationships with those parents, extended families, even the friendship circles they’ve grown up with, I think maybe a minority will have had fortunate or blessed experiences, if you know what I mean.

So this is this passage which you’re flagging up that the repression and disciplining, and to drawback to what Michelle was just saying, it’s the privatization of transgender experiences where many people are allowed to furtively and secretly live out the lives they want to live, but then among the people maybe who raised them, the people who they grew up around, they have to don another face, don another attire. I think that’s something which there’s no reason to believe that is going to transform anytime soon. Maybe Michelle would want to say some more about it. Specifically, what we’re trying to do in this introduction is address the family, address private life as part of political life, which is a familiar concern for anyone, especially anyone who’s read feminist history. But we use a particular framework drawn from Angela Mitropoulos, who writes about Oikonomia / Economia, the binding and normative rules that appear in these private households. And that’s one way which we’re trying to approach this broader question, which is then returned to, in many different ways, throughout the rest of the collection. There’s basically this question of how can it be that exactly what’s supposed to be apolitical or de-political safe haven from political and capitalism – the household, our upbringings, our private lives – how can it be that those places are what any trans politics has to work through before it even exists? Before we can even take to the streets openly? That’s what this introduction is trying to cut up. I’m sure Michelle has some stuff to say as well.

MO: In the introduction, Jules’ reference substantively engages this question of the family. And you have another question, Scott, around thinking about family and family abolition. Family abolition is a very powerful way of trying to think through these pieces alongside each other, both thinking about the overall circuits of labor markets and capitalist society that the family plays a really integral role in. And then thinking about how, nested within that, the violence and tyranny and brutality that trans people face within so many structures of family. And part of the dynamics of the privacy of the family, is that it’s very difficult to make inroads in there. People are able to constitute a level of family or a form of family that’s protected against a certain kind of outside scrutiny, attention, a certain space of political struggle, and that a lot of our political movements are oriented to the state, perhaps to employers, the civil society, and it becomes much more difficult to think in political terms about what it takes to transform families. Like some of the dynamics of the workplace or some of the dynamics of the state, I think this is a real limit for contemporary social movements, that we are sort of trying to figure out how to politicize and transform these spaces that are that have deep structural dynamics in the reproduction of collective life. And it’s part of what leads a lot of trans people to be interested in science-fiction, in revolutionary politics in a more dramatic sense, in thinking about what could it mean to actually come up against and move beyond these limits.

TFSR: The experience of being trans within this bourgeois ideal of a white family that is still upheld, even though it contradicts the reality of what people are experiencing… Actually, there’s one way that you put it in the introduction, talking about how the families serves, not only in a moral sense, that is the way that is often talked about, but also in an economic sense as the project of neoliberal debt imperialism. Like allowing the state to continue to throw people into dispensable situations and somehow maintain itself while doing less and less. My question is about how this historical point we’re in, where there’s like more and more trans people, there’s still this relic of the family, but the family is not doing what it’s supposed to be doing. How does transness come in as a way to disrupt that? How can we use that increased visibility, the increased trans struggle to continue to work against that stranglehold of the family, not simply morally but also economically, politically?

JG: That’s a great question. In terms of us addressing the bourgeois family, obviously, the abolition of the bourgeois family is something that is not specific to radical trans theory or anything like that. It also appears in the Communist Manifesto, obviously, and this was something which various figures in the First International were committed to and published about in the writing in various ways. What’s being talked about at this point is the bourgeois family as in this type of household which brings up the new generation, but also transfers wealth and assets and fixed capital from one generation to the next one. So when the introduction is talking about this contemporary phase, very much what we’re drawing from is these extensive decades of work, now, that’s been done looking at the New Right where through the political framework, the New Right had envisioned was not only about the strong state but also about strong families. And this is still very much evident today. If you tune into Tucker Carlson, he’s not only talking about how the police need to be given powers to put down Black Lives Matter, last time I tuned in, he’s also complaining about how today your kid’s probably a stoner cause weed is legal, so your kid’s got bloodshot eyes over the dinner table and stuff like that. This is still a part of the Right Wing imaginary, part of the Right Wing horizon is that families need to be strengthened up and there needs to be more authority against generations and pure disruption of that. One of the things he said, though obviously, Marx didn’t really talk about white families, and I suppose this is saying which more came on to the abolitionist horizon from work like Hortense Spillers’ black feminist critique which is identifying how, specifically in the American context, what’s being transferred across generations for Black families through much of US history is not wealth and not fixed assets, but exactly legal dispossession. Being un-personed and so on is exactly what’s being transferred from one generation to the next. I’ve run out of things to say at this point. But the reason I suppose that this is the family abolitionist politics has been of relevance to me and several other people in the collection, is exactly because there is this moment where you feel like a lot of the existing left has strayed from the First International in ways which I think are a shame and ways which we consider to reunite with these questions of gender and household oppression quite easily. That’s my own project.

MO: I’m writing a book on family abolition for Pluto at the moment, and it’s in full swing, as Jules and other people know. I have just an enormous amount to say about all of this. I don’t want to take up our podcast time talking about it too much at length, but a few points… One is, in the introduction, Jules referenced the family as the site of privatized social reproduction. It’s very helpful to think about the family not just in terms of a sort of normative ideal that’s imposed through policy, that’s aspired to by people, an ideological form that exists on the right and in culturally conservative sections of the left, but also the family just concretely: who do you live with? Who do you share whatever limited resources you have available? If you’re not able to work, who are you dependent on that you actually know? Who do you cook for? Who cooks for you? These questions are really concrete social reproduction that can be done entirely in the market to some extent, could hypothetically be done in various historical times and for specific strata through a welfare structure or a state structure, but overwhelmingly are done through forming relationships of care, dependency, coercion, intimacy with specific people in our lives, and that the vast majority of children are raised in this kind of structure. People have these privatized households, and there are all sorts of political implications for that. One of those political implications is that it’s a total growing up as a queer trans youth, as a gender nonconforming child, if you are unlucky enough to end up in an extremely unsupportive household, things are bad, and there are very few opportunities for collective intervention in how to change that. It’s insulated from a certain kind of struggle and collective transformation, which is a tremendous problem for liberatory movements, and how we think about them.

In terms of race and white supremacy, Jules mentioned Hortense Spillers, I’ve been very inspired by the work of Tiffany Lethabo King, who rereads Hortense Spillers and Afro-pessimism and thinks about race and gender in terms of family abolitionism. And I think there’s a way of reading about the history of enslavement and the history of the pathologization of Black families in the United States in terms of an imposition of a white norm that demonizes and pathologizes the certain kinds of kinship structures coupled to an actual apparatus of state violence, of economic violence, of historically slavery…. really fragmenting kin relationships. And that there is a dynamic dialectic in the history of anti-racist, anti-capitalist struggle in the United States, between really seeing a white bourgeois family norm as something to aspire to and pursue versus thinking that we could do something very different and better. What would it mean to actually care for each other? And that there’s a wonderful, long legacy of people trying to form a chosen family, trying to depend on extended family, trying to depend on neighborhood and community, and that these are both inspiring and to be celebrated and defended, but also run into all these contradictions that have to do with what it means to try to constitute a household in the capitalist society. And uneven access to work, to resources, to public space, and the way it structures power dynamics internally. And we can point to the bourgeois white family as an extreme or particularly horrific example of that, or the Christian fundamentalist family. But that even in chosen family structures, the broader dynamics of trying to survive and reproduce ourselves in a capitalist society are going to torque those relationships, to distort those relationships and make it very difficult to figure out how to treat each other well. Anytime we are dependent on people, there’s an element, a dynamic of coercion that becomes a part of that, that we have to sort through and we have to sort it through politically and collectively in a way that the family as a structure ends up opposing.

TFSR: Thanks for that. And I’m also very excited to read the work on family abolition because I’m also super interested in that. Maybe we can talk about that when it comes out. Going back to Spillers, because both of you mentioned that at the end of Mama’s Baby, Papa’s Maybe, Spillers says that the violent experience of women in chattel slavery made sort of ungendered is how she ends up talking about it, and she points to it as a place for rethinking and a resistant understanding and reframing of feminism from that experience. Maybe this is what you were referring to, is the dialectic with changing the impact of the state and economic violence that creates the situation of oppression into a place where you can start framing liberation. And I see that also that gets paralleled in the 60s-70s, gay liberation movement and feminism where the places that are excluded and marginalized are also places to form a resistance. And I wonder, to what extent do you think the trans experience within these structures is also actually the threat to the social order that the right-wing would claim it to be? I guess this could get back into that question of capture because it could also be domesticated in a way. But I wonder if you have thoughts on how trans experience could be liberatory in that way.

MO: I’m most attentive to the substantial intersection between transness and poverty. This is particularly true of trans people from working-class and poor backgrounds. It’s particularly true of trans people of color. It’s particularly true of trans women. Employment discrimination is quite widespread, is quite prevalent. And one of the things I tried to do in my piece is thinking about how coming out as trans, how transitioning, if you’re not able to be very stealth and very closeted and very lucky in pulling that off – and for lots of trans people being stealth is not a realistic goal – that’s going to have a huge impact on your employment trajectory, a huge impact on how you’re able to reproduce your class position, a huge impact on your economic chances. And that that’s true across the board. So you see a downward shift in class position for lots and lots of trans people. And then there’s a huge host of trans people from poor and working-class backgrounds for whom that shift pushes you entirely out of formal employment. Getting access to formal wage labor is extremely difficult. And so you see lots and lots of trans people, trans women, particularly working-class trans women and trans women of color, but it’s actually quite a widespread experience for trans women to spend extended periods of time engaging in sex work of various sorts, engaging in criminalized economies, in hustles. And then you see these little pockets of employment niches where trans people are able to reproduce themselves with some visibility, and that is most closely tied to the world of sex work and criminalized economies. I’d put HIV services, a lot of ex-sex workers or current sex workers end up doing HIV prevention services, and trans social services tied up with the world of HIV services. So, you have all these weird dynamics in fundraising and public health administration and biopolitical surveillance and criminalization tied up with this nonprofit nexus that people might use as a way of exiting out of sex work into like a lower risk, but also much lower-paying job, often with some stability. And in the Trans Oral History Project, they interviewed several former sex workers working in HIV services now and the dynamic of that trajectory.

But you have a few other pockets and those are growing. I’m certainly attentive to social work, there’s a presence of trans women in tech. As changes open up, the spaces of employment expand, but by and large, the experience of trans life is one of significant economic precarity. And so long as that’s true, and there’s a lot of reasons to think it could be mostly true for a long time to come, that has a dramatic impact on people’s politics. Being highly economically marginalized in a situation of a disappearing welfare state, of hostility and lack of support from your families of origin, of very little safety net, puts you in a position where you are relying on friends, on your own ability to engage in criminalized hustles, and makes it very clear that the world is a nightmare that needs to be overcome and destroyed. That’s not a universal response by any means. But the economic experience of economic precarity helps me make sense of why so many trans people end up in political struggles, in organizing, end up with anti-capitalist politics of a wide variety, and helps me make sense of under what hypothetical future conditions are trans people likely to be on the left or to be far-left. The circumstances of our political inclusion – obviously, a stratum of trans people could be politically included quite quickly – but really it depends on the question of employment and economic stability.

JG: There’s a few different chapters of the book that deal with this question of work, I suppose, as you’d expect from a Marxist collection. I feel like Michelle and Kate Doyle Griffiths’ piece, both addressing this question of how trans people managed to exist as workers. I think, as Michelle was alluding to, it’s also that any understanding of trans work has to understand the experience of being out of work long-term and unemployment relying on state resources or perhaps family and friend networks and so on. There’s also Zoe Belinsky’s essay, which is called “Transgender and Disabled Bodies – Between Pain and the Imaginary” and in another way, Anja Flower’s “Cosmos Against Nature in the Class Struggle of Proletarian Trans Women”, which is more using this framework of direct market mediation and the indirect in terms of the reproductive labor. So there’s a bunch of different perspectives addressing this question of both what it means to exist and make it in a workplace as a trans person and also the very commonplace realities that a lot of the time, that’s not really where we end up. Where we end up as more in the industrial reserve army of labor. You’re proletarians insofar as you’re stripped from the means of production, but not proletarians, insofar as you actually have a source of exploited toil, which you’re reliably committed to. Like Michelle, I definitely consider us spending so much time in the underbelly of capital and its reproduction a huge part of why it’s such a commonplace to find communist trans people, or leftist, anti-capitalist, whatever you want to call it.

TSFR: Or even anarchist trans people, which is the enclave I inhabit.

I like the narrative that Michelle poses away that a trans person could become politicized in a particular way. One of the things that the book in multiple essays grapples with is the extent of trying to survive under these conditions in a way that’s at least somewhat bearable versus having even the energy or the ability to fight the conditions that create that form of deathly oppression. A lot of the essays do a really good job of trying to talk about how we can create situations to survive and then also think about where we can fight against them. One of the most important things for me reading this whole book and reading everyone’s pieces is how it intervenes within the discussion of social reproduction and thinking about trans life through care work. This is something we keep mentioning, but I want to dive more directly into that. If either of you wanted to talk a little bit about how you think the transgender Marxism wreath frames social reproduction because there’s a feminist version of that, and I think that you’re building on that in here, but doing something different with specific trans experience. And specifically also talking about the transition through this lens. Maybe we can just start with understanding what a trans analysis of social reproduction might be.

JG: Yeah, that’s an exciting question, because social reproduction comes up in this collection in a bunch of different ways. Social reproduction appears on several different registers across the course of this collection. The first one is in the very first essay by Noah Zazanis, which is called “Social Reproduction and Social Cognition”, brings that Marxist feminist framework into dialogue with some more mainstream psych kind of approaches to how people develop their identities from a very young age. I guess the different approaches taken in this collection speak to the pretty broad set of approaches that Marxist feminism has increasingly come to deploy. And it’s worth mentioning that social reproduction is not actually a framework that every Marxist theorist or even every Marxist feminist is really committed to. So it’s not exclusively an SRT collection. However, I suppose that the reason which I first came to this framework of social reproduction that is focusing on workforces, what come to the workforces in the first place, how people come to the laborers and sustain themselves as laborers… The point at which I came to this, I suppose was exactly in the wake, as I was saying before, of the tipping point, and as part of my frustration that so few people really were providing any explanation as to why this was happening. And I actually found it to be very prevalent on the right, the right-wing accounts of these things were just depicted as some mysterious degeneration, or perhaps an ideological mania. But I also was finding that a lot of social theorists didn’t really seem to provide any satisfying or even helpful attempts at working out what was going on.

So social reproduction was the thing which I personally was pretty committed to around 2016. And I would say a lot of the collection is taking that meaning of the time and that avenue of inquiry, which is specifically looking at communities and subcultures, if you will, but I would rather say these reproductive circles, in whatever form they take, which provide people collectively with the means of making themselves transgender. Which has been discussed, primarily means surviving as a transgender proletarian, although it’s not the only variation, as we all know. That’s the primary meaning which I’ve been interested in and invested in. But as I say, this isn’t a settled question. And this is an ongoing discussion within Marxist feminist theory, what are the best terms to use and the best frameworks and understanding. I’m happy to say a lot more about that. Probably both myself and Michelle could talk all day about this one.

MO: I would distinguish three registers that I think of social reproduction as having a really huge impact on trans life. And I think Jules to some extent referenced each of these. One is thinking about the mutual aid networks, communities of support, that when somebody thinks they might be trans or gender questioning or knows with confidence that they are trans, they might go out and seek connections with other people to be able to help them think through both their gender identity and way of thinking about themselves, the concrete steps around transition. And this is I think, partially why we’ve seen just a giant increase in the numbers of trans people coming out with a steadily increasing access to the internet. People on the internet are able to find these communities. And why there are have been particular pockets of trans people for many, many generations, who are demographically numerous in highly specific social settings.

Like when I came out as trans in 2000, shortly after getting out of college, I looked around, I was in a kind of queer punk scene where there were a lot of trans masculine people and very few trans feminine people. And I looked around the country and I found three or four other punk trans feminine, trans women. And then I moved to Philadelphia and met like 300 black trans women my age who were the first trans women of my age I ever met. And it’s because they had this highly developed scene around balls and houses where they really figured out how to enable each other’s transitions. That certainly wasn’t available in the Women’s Studies Department, right? In my much more privileged background on some level, I was really lacking this supportive space and community. And I had various internet-based communities to try to figure out how to do this that have since really flourished and are much bigger. So that’s one meaning of social reproduction.

Another meaning is the violence and tyranny that we might experience in our homes, the dynamics of our family of origin, household as this private space of reproduction. And so social reproduction has been really key to thinking about anti-trans violence.

And then another register of social reproduction is that, depending on how you parse it, many people identify various formal wage labor sectors as being really integral to social reproduction. Nurses, teachers, daycare workers, elder care attendants – all these different people that are reproducing humans capable of participating in the labor market and society. And I think for various reasons, you see a lot of gender-nonconforming people in these sectors. These are feminized sectors, they are sectors that historically have had lots of women and queer people of various genders. I think there are different historical dynamics that have brought a fair number of trans people into working in these realms. And that these are realms of intense labor struggle, currently, and that some of the dynamics of de-industrialization and the shift to a late service economy, that these are not sectors that are easily automated, so that the need for labor isn’t easily reduced. So you really have a growing section, in the Global North, of people working in these labor sectors, and that these labor sectors have a lot of potential for uniting and connecting different sectors, strata of the working class, and bringing people together in different and complex and rich ways as part of their struggle for working conditions.

 

JG: Oh, just one more thing, quickly on the connection, I really appreciated that three-part breakdown from Michelle. I suppose one more thing in the collection, one way it appears is there’s this primarily historical essay by Nat Raha which looks at exactly the kind of movement struggles which brought what we now call social reproduction theory into being and she looks at one of these lesser-known groups, a British collective called Wages Due Lesbians, which was a counterpart of the much better-known Wages For Housework. That was operating in the context of the British New Right. And that looks at some overlaps that she perceives between this group and the much better-known STAR (Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries) in New York City. That’s another approach that you can find in the collection. There’s at once a range of different social reproduction theory type outlooks, and also people who see social reproduction theory as a thing to talk about other terms.

TFSR: That was already helpful to think about what transgender Marxist perspective on social reproduction COULD look like in different ways. The last point that you made, Michelle, was talking about another possible place for politicization, given that trans people and non-binary people or gender non-conforming people would be working in specific situations for a potential radicalization. That was interesting to me as another reframing of that inherent liberatory perspective that sometimes gets through and around and to me, seems often like a very liberal feeling, just being trans in itself is somehow resistance. But you discuss more explicitly how that actually works through the work that trans people do in the care work that they do for other people.

One thing I might do to follow up. That visibility in the mainstream, the idea of transition often becomes individualized, like there’s a particular internal experience that needs to be brought out through transition. The liberal perspective will get brought into the nuclear family that somehow unchanged by the fact of a transgender child, when there’s a focus on a supportive family, but the thing that the book really brought out in me, a way more explicit to me that I personally experienced through transition is how much of this is done through community and, as you said, Michelle, mutual aid. We see that also in the pandemic, just like with hormones, when there’s a supply chain break, people are sharing hormones, for example. So, I wonder if you wanted to talk more about that actual work of transition, because that’s something that gets brought up a lot in this book, and I thought it was also a major contribution by a lot of the writers in here to think about the process of transition this way, rather than the transgender individual who somehow exists. I can ask more detailed questions, but if you want to, if you have something to jump in right there, I’ll leave it open to you.

MO: This is something that other contributors and other people have thought a lot more about. I said a little bit about it, in terms of thinking about mutual aid support, but I don’t have a lot more to add.

 

LG: In my essay, I guess this is one that tried to address this question. It’s called “How Do Gender Transitions Happen?” I think that simultaneously, you can’t do away with either the personal narrative, the personal process, the very self-directed, individualized labor which people go through, or the community working. But I think it’s interesting that these things appear to be at odds, or they appear as distinctive to each other and yet, from another view, they always unfold at the same time. You’re always drawing from collective resources, or at other times, as Michelle was saying, there’s a lot of parallel development, there’s a lot of different communities which are attempting much the same thing, much the same process of transition in very different contexts and with very different styles. The point which the essay is trying to address is how people will tend to switch between these different registers of approaching transition either as something which is a set of encounters that is continuously happening as you try and negotiate your way through the world or through the community rewriting and renarrativizing. Just the specific stuff which actual circles of transgender people can do together.

 

TFSR: There’s the passage in your introduction that really stuck out to me, that “transition must come to be understood by revolutionaries as a response to its own form of hunger. The longings that drive so many to reforge lives for ourselves that leave us thoroughly proletarianized, or cast out rendered surplus”. I like this statement because I think it leaves behind the gender as a social construction versus essential gender as not even something worth spending a lot of time on at this point, and focuses on the act of transition as politicized, political, and I think it gets articulated also as ethical. But one thing that came up for me reading this is how do we… I guess there’s this personal / political divide. I could see this being dismissed as a lifestylism or self-chosen marginalization. Subcultures often get dismissed, like anarchists or punks. The thing that I really want to pull out of here is the trans desire, and also how that position of surplus in capitalism and the state, which is historically needed for capitalism to function the way it does, but how that can we rethink that place as a set of insurrection?

MO: I’ll just briefly say that I think desire is really an underappreciated category in liberation movements and the far-left. Desire is both far beyond the question of individual choice or individual preference, or how we think about market options that I think in some transphobic, conservative left discourse, there’s this idea of people choosing genders in a free way, like a neoliberal subject chooses consumer items. And that, I think, is a profound trivialization of how deep, how powerful, how transformative, and how uncertain desire is. Desire is very much what sets us in motion, in unfolding processes of personal and collective transformation, desire for survival, desire for dignity, desire for recognition. These desires are not, they’re not trivial things, they are things that are not easily satisfied, they are things that set us on trajectories that we don’t know where we’re going to end up. And that brings us into alignment and into connection with each other. And that’s just a whole realm, a whole dimension of political struggle, that I think trans people, precisely because often most trans people have made a set of personal decisions around changing their gender, that was significantly at odds with major sections of our social world, our families, our jobs, whatever that is, and had some clarity that we had a certain, one could say, truth that we were trying to think through or trying to grapple with, that might not be an essential gender, or a kind of inner gender, but a certain kind of desire in the world. And that opens up some space for thinking about how the desire functions in terms of the entire working class, in terms of the struggle for the abolition of class society, in terms of the desire to destroy and remake the world. We need to spend a lot of time listening to that and thinking much harder about that, and thinking beyond these categories of individual choice versus structural determinants.

JG: So, I suppose we talked about desire and, talking about things in terms of hunger. This is a part of the introduction where we are talking about Georges Bataille, the French theorist, pornographic writer, very heterodox political economist, call him what you will. And Bataille exactly counter-poses this effort of previous anti-imperialists prior to Marx, who were trying to elevate things and talk in terms of eagles and surpassing things. This is his critique of surrealism, by the way. It’s a very eccentric essay. But his point is that Marx is more about the old mole, it’s more about the subterranean, and specifically he talks about the hunger of the proletarian bellies being central to what Marx was trying to do or the indispensable feature of that. The stuff you’re alluding to exactly, people are dismissing this stuff as questions of lifestyle, or marginalization or whatever. This is what I feel needs to be addressed. But even if they’re rarely spoken about in the political field, transitions are the consequences of cravings, breakdowns, powerful emotions that make themselves central to the decisions we make and to the things we depart on. So you use the word ethical and that’s exactly right, a transition is always going to be about reshaping your life, taking steps, and in some way engaging in activities that transform who you are, how you’re perceived, how you’re apprehended, how you apprehend yourself. Any approach to trying to do… Whatever trans theory that doesn’t include that is bound to failure. But also, I don’t necessarily see this as something we have to choose between. We know that people seem to be living lives that are filled with desperation and breakdowns and then they get hold of these endocrinological interventions, like they got a hold of sex hormones and this transforms the lives substantially, maybe doesn’t solve all their problems, of course, it never does. But it transforms the course of their life. That doesn’t mean we’re not allowed to do the political economy of sex hormones. I’ve actually been trying to look it up, but I can’t find it. Was it you, Michelle, who wrote this piece on the trajectory of sex hormones that’s going across work? I remember I was reading this in one of these trans studies collections. But this would be an essay from a long time ago, but I can’t remember if it was you or I was just reading this.

 

MO: Yes, in 2004, I wrote an essay about capitalism and pharmaceutical companies and hormones, that got reproduced many years later in the second Routledge Transgender Studies Reader. A very long time ago.

JG: So it was the second one.

MO:Tracing This Body” is its name.

JG: Yeah, a lot of it’s kind of talking about the shipping process and the way that these things move across continents. It’s 2004, so people have been working on this for a long time. This is exactly what I mean. But there’s no reason that we can’t look at these things in a way that applies an internationalist framework, which looks at how the actual ways that pharmaceutical companies interact with transition, not the conspiracy theory version where for some reason, pharmaceutical companies are trying to profit off incredibly cheap, low-cost medical treatments. There’s no reason that we have to say, “Oh there are all of these passionate sensations. And there’s been this political economy, and we have to look at one or the other”. But it’s exactly Marx’s kind of materialism that we don’t accept that as a choice, right? These are things that are continuously interacting, people are always trying to sort out their own lives on a very basic level, but then they run into this stuff, then they run into the reality of having a landlord and having a doctor. And all of these other lopsided social relations, which they have to work through. That’s what the point about hunger is, because as you say, I think this is a difficult argument to win. But also it’s like the most important one in a way.

TFSR: Thanks. Both of these are beautiful answers. What you just said, Jules, brings up for me, there’s the experience of the relationship of a trans person to the medical and pharmaceutical industry, I am trans and also chronically ill. And you’ll get leftists who will make this argument that your existence for either of these reasons could not persist post revolution, whatever vision of a revolution they have, because, in some way, you’re so reliant on these capital systems of production and shipping, etc. And I know that’s an interesting dynamic to see the ways that those genocidal ideas play out within a leftist circle. I don’t know if you have more to say about that. And maybe Michelle, that’s something that you were talking about in that earlier text.

MO: Thankfully, there are a lot of people thinking about this and speaking on it. I wrote a piece for Commune magazine called “Junkie Communism”. And I, in some ways wrote it, you wouldn’t be able to tell this reading essay, it’s a discussion of the Young Lords and them doing syringe exchange work in a detox in the South Bronx during the occupation at Lincoln hospital, and how that helped shape harm reduction today. And I wrote that essay, in my head, as a direct response to a really vicious and very ableist genocidal framework that I saw amongst Tiqqunists and some other anarchist strains in the United States, of like, “after the revolution, all these disabled people are going to die.” And like that gets referenced one way or another. I think it’s an “Introduction to Civil War” that they say that diabetics are objectively counter-revolutionary and I think that’s a current in the American far-left or in the international far-left. So it really has to be directly combated and there are various ways that we can challenge that and various ways we can critique it, and the one that I go to is a form of radical communist humanism on some level. A fundamental political principle has to be taking each other’s lives seriously and taking the profound preciousness of lives that are treated as disposable. A part of our political paths as communists or as revolutionaries, is to really cultivate an ethic of caring for each other, of defending each other’s lives, of treating the subtitle in the piece I wrote on Communism, “No One Is Disposable.” They’re really not participating in the kind of a ranking of the value of life. The trend obviously comes pretty directly out of my experience as a trans person and thinking about trans life as being treated as disposable on all these different social registers in the world.

JG: I definitely recommend people check out “Junkie Communism” as well. In the collection, there is an essay on disability, which I’ve already mentioned by Zoe Belinsky, who is also a diabetic in reference to the Tiqqun bit. This essay’s approach to this question of disability is pretty phenomenological, it’s looking at the philosophy of experience. And the main framework which Zoe was using is talking about disability in terms of this sensation of “I cannot”. Maurice Merleau-Ponty, who is this communist philosopher Zoe’s mostly responding to, talked about things in terms of experience and our way through the world in terms of “I can”, so you encounter things and you think, “Well, I can rotate this square 90 degrees”, and that lets you understand the square. So Zoe’s always a social account here, looking at exactly where disability arises, where you think, “Well, I can’t do that”. I’m really glad that this essay is in there. I’m looking forward to seeing what people think of it because needless to say, a lot of our contributors are chronically ill, I certainly am. I feel like it never quite works out, it’s not just additional to being transgender, it always overlaps and interacts with it and these things mesh in interesting ways.

But strangely, I feel like actual extended pieces about disability in my circles are unusual. There’s a lot of contributors who don’t talk about their experiences with chronic conditions, chronic illnesses in this collection, who’ve definitely been through that. So I’m hoping that between the essays we’ve talked about… I’m hoping that this stuff appears in the near future because it’s definitely a thing which is increasingly, on my mind, I felt like if you don’t really have an account of disability and the way in which it interacts with people that are preparing themselves for the workforce, then why not? This is obviously something that not only brings people into these struggles and says that people have to work through in order to survive but it’s also something that has been the site of so much organizing across so many different national contexts. It’s an ongoing point of crisis, definitely, in Britain I come from. I can’t see why people would leave this out of consideration. Other than maybe in Tiqqun’s case, I think it’s just edgy flourishes, I feel like they just don’t care very much, so they just put the stuff in to show that bad-ass insurrectionists or whatever. But I think we can do a lot better than that, an honest account of the people who become communists especially is going to include a lot of reflection on the stuff and how it impacts our lives.

TFSR: I appreciated that putting the “I can’t” as the primary experience. Other people who often make these arguments are like primitivist anarchists, and to frame that as the original experience of being a human rethinks that idea of there’s Essential or Integral Health before domestication, civilization, whatever you want to call it. I’m glad you brought that piece, too, because I think that’s really important.

I did want to go back to the question of desire and bringing us to the relationship between a trans liberation movement to the earlier gay liberation movement. One of the things I appreciate in the book is that there’s an argument against separating gender and sexuality as if there are two separate fields, which in academic discourse, became a thing for a while that gender and sexuality have to be thought of separately. But as both of you have emphasized, the desire inherent in the transgender experience, and also connecting it to these other readers like Bataille makes me think of Guy Hocqenghem talking about Fourier as a way to rethink Marx through the desire within an economy. So, we’re past the end of gay liberation and the ways that it had been co-opted. And we’re in a new era of uprising and resistance. How does the trans liberation still theorize desire as revolutionary without getting trapped in the ways that it can be enclosed into a liberal understanding of life choices as you put it, Michelle? And I had originally written some questions about earlier theorists like Guy Hocqenghem, Mario Mieli thinking about homosexuality or transsexuality as the horizon of liberation and as providing the means towards it. I’d love to hear your thoughts on these ideas and what we can inherit from that older tradition of gay liberation.

JG: Well, I actually have an essay published in the magazine, which Michelle is a founding member of, PinkoMag, which deals with Mario Mieli specifically. The essay is a sketch of what they want to work on in the future. Mieli is the Italian gay communist thinker, whose work is mostly from the early 70s. His / their work definitely uses this term transsexuality underlying the homosexual experience and specifically that what triggers homophobia, what sets it off, is that there is this base level of transsexuality, that cross-dressing, male-male desire, and so on. All these things can cause the precondition of civilization like transsexuality to peek out. I love that stuff. I think it’s 1972. By all means, check out that piece on Pinko if you want to know anything about him.

But in terms of desire, which is what you began with, I feel probably what’s the most interesting thing is why would people want to do away with desire? Why would you want to think politics without our desires and needs? That is the thing that I feel needs to justify itself. The reason I come back to Marxism all the time is that exactly what Marxism seems to provide, for me, is an account which is happy to begin with the commodity. This is what Marx begins Capital One with, what he starts with the commodity, he says, “the commodities are a strange or curious or queer thing, he says “verdächt.So the commodity is this inscrutable object. And the reason it’s so strange, and the reason you look at it, and then you look at it again, see something different, is because commodities are, on the one hand, very straightforward, very simple things. Like you want to have a snack – you buy a pack of peanuts. There we go, what could be simpler than that? And yet, when you consider them several different times, we find that it is connected to the supersensual thing which is beyond our immediate experience. Like we were saying earlier, with sex hormones, they are something you need for your satisfaction, and yet that is also something which has been shipped from another country, fabricated probably in another continent, and it’s being prescribed to you by someone in an authoritative social position.

I felt like this is sort of the way with desire. Why do we need to lose it? Why do we need to not talk about these palpable feelings that seem to drive us and lead us around? Why have we got to put those in the cupboard? I’m not going to say the closet. Why have we got to get rid of them? And that’s increasingly what I’m not convinced about, I don’t think that we need to. That’s why I was putting together a Marxist collection. I hope that the different perspectives we’ve put together mean that you don’t need to do that. You can look at things psychoanalytically at one point, and you can even look at things historically and look at different movements. Or you can try and do several things at once. Why not? Just see what works.

MO: I don’t have a lot to say. But I think this has been a really central concern at Pinko that we’re really interested in trying to think through and to think hard about the legacy of gay liberation. Gay liberationism both has some really quite extraordinary and very powerful potentials and currents and has more or less been a catastrophic failure in a lot of ways for thinking about our current moment. And to think those alongside each other in a way that really tries to draw out, to reload what could be relevant for understanding our era, for understanding sexual and gender life today, I think Jules’ pieces are a very powerful example of our efforts of trying to do that as a collective and as a journal.

I think this question of the separation of sexual orientation and gender is largely relatively unhelpful. It belongs to – even though it was pioneered in circles dominated by continental philosophy – it really kind of reeks of an analytic attempt at separating out things in[to] distinct categories that you then can isolate their divisions. While, really it wasn’t that long ago that the idea of homosexual desire abstracted from gender difference was ludicrous, it is an invention of advanced capitalist society in the 20th century and hasn’t yet permeated lots of places. You look back on the history of sodomy, and a huge amount of it involved people that were gender non-conforming in a wide variety of ways. I have some problems with it, but I think Andrea Long Chu is very interesting for talking about transitioning as being very tied up with scopic desire, with the desire of what one sees, and what one wants to become, that I think some of our efforts at avoiding some transphobic discourse around this thing prevents trans people from spending as much time talking about or thinking about as might be helpful. But the question of sexual desire and sexual yearning and gender identity has always been deeply bound up. And separating them is an elaborate artificial conceptual edifice that we should question.

TFSR: I’m glad you brought up that last thing about the ways that people try to avoid the transphobic discourse to the extent that they end up maybe repeating or leaving those distinctions in place. Winding it down, I want to ask my anarchistic question, because you’ve framed this as a Transgender Marxism and one of the classical resistance between anarchists and a version of Marxism is this historical determinism or these ideas of blueprints and stages? I’m totally open to that being a misreading of Marx, it’s played out within authoritarian communist parties. And I think historically, we could see gay liberation, the historical gay liberation movement of the 60s and 70s being a reaction to some of those versions of authoritarian communism. So I appreciated that this book didn’t play along those authoritarian lines and also made a lot of space for historical contingency. So I’m wondering how you might frame this materialist account – all of the pieces really ground their analysis from a materialist perspective – how do we bring that into relation with unknown historical contingencies, the future solidarity is that we might need to elaborate and in the particular context of trans struggle? To me, this often is a place to think of anarchism as an intervention, but I’m wondering what you have to say about that.

JG: I was really looking forward to this question, because it is a juicy one. I suppose the very short answer is that I have always found the sectarian divide between communists of the kind I get along with, communists who are my comrades and anarchists to be very flimsy, even spurious. And communism, when I use the term, and anarchist positions are remarkably similar and definitely have significantly more common ground than they have divergences. And the divergences that do exist are primarily cultural scene history stuff. That’s how I put it. That’s the very short answer.

The longer answer is, I think, Marxist communist politics of the kind I affiliate myself with, of the kind I feel connected to, have always been implacably anti-state and had a position towards the state which considers its greatest strength to also be the things that make it the most threatening and most indispensable for capitalists. The state does things that no individual capitalist is able to do and brings capitalist society into existence, one generation after the next. That’s my position. I also feel like this is becoming a much more common position among Marxist theoreticians like David Nally really recently had a series about the state, which was basically saying what I just said in a much longer way. Michel Heinrich just had an appearance on the Antifada podcast where he’s talking about how the second part of his autobiography, which is across several books, is gonna focus heavily on Bakunin and in this much misunderstood, antagonistic relationship, which Marx and Bakunin had with each other, an antagonistic relationship that exactly was over the narcissism of small differences in many cases. Increasingly, this is the turn things are taking. Obviously, there is an enormous amount of bad blood between Marxist and anarchist traditions but in many cases, I think this is overstated in its substance. Any kind of Marxist perspective which I would associate myself with is fully aware of that.

Getting back to the transgender stuff, as we must, it’s really remarkable to me how in 2013 Nevada, this novel by Imogen Binnie, it’s intuitive that the protagonist, Maria, is into anarchism. I feel like today she’d probably be a commie. I don’t know. I feel like that’s something that has changed over the past five years. And I really don’t know why. They’re obviously still a lot of transgender anarchists out there. But I feel like now the meme is that we’re all communists. So if anyone has any answers to that one, please send me a postcard.

MO: There are various ways of parsing the distinction between Marxism and anarchism, and I think most of them are silly and somewhat unhelpful. But I define and understand communism as the need to overcome class society, as the yearning, the pursuit, the real movement that abolishes the existing order of things, and Marxism is an effort to make sense of how capitalism functions. The statist Marxism, statist Communism, this idea of the consolidation of authoritarian ownership-based states that control society through violence and wage labor as somehow a transition to Communism, hopefully, it was a historical blip that we will move past and not have to deal with. And I mostly don’t spend a lot of time in an anarchist tradition, however great my hostility is towards states, just because I see the dynamics of capital and political economy as so central to driving the dynamics of human societies, state violence, state policy, police brutality, I find talking about the production of surplus populations as really an essential starting point that happens through the dynamics of capitalist wage labor markets over time. So that’s my lens of Marxism, less of statist versus anti-statist, but instead, the starting point of trying to think through the world and what we have to destroy is the dynamics of capitalism. And if an anarchist thinks that, we have a lot to talk about.

TFSR: To bring it back to the book, maybe a final question, unless you have more that you want to bring up… I appreciate the fact that this book isn’t only an academic text. It’s connected to academic work, and there are people writing in this book who are potentially employed by academic institutions, although maybe not comfortably, especially when you’re out and trans, which is something I’ve experienced, making me more and more precarious. Marxism often gets lodged in the academy in a way that’s maybe not helpful. So I just wonder about the formation of the book and how it may have come out of solidarity struggle work, or how you think it could tie back into on-the-ground movement struggle work, instead of being set off into the realms of the theory that don’t connect on the ground as much.

JG: Speaking about how academic the book is, I actually have tried to count up… it’s a bit hard to keep track off. But I think out of the 16 contributors, we’ve got 15 chapters, a total of 16 people who wrote for it, including myself and Elle. Out of those, I think about a quarter of the book [contributors] are active university lecturers. One contributor, which is Jordy Rosenberg, who wrote the afterword, has tenure. So I would say it’s primarily not an academic book. But of course, this is only part of the picture. Obviously, it’s informed by academic discourses, and a lot of academics are reading it and teaching it. That’s not especially surprising to me. The academics we do have contributing in the main body, other than the afterword, are primarily not people in the most secure or lasting positions, like come back in five years’ time…

I think that this is actually remarkably similar to the way that things look in trans healthcare, which is that there is an enormous number of people who have some relevant training, whether it’s bioresearchers, registered nurses, and so on, but very few MDs who are transgender, and this is the reason why it’s all… Who are the people with the not only the security, the partners or parents to bankroll you through down years or whatever, but also the connections that would get you through medical school, that would get you onto a tenured job, and so on. Exactly all of those connections and those healthy inter-generational bourgeois relationships are what transition is very likely to rupture. There are, of course, exceptions. There’s probably more to be said about trans studies, which is, of course, something much more expensive than this collection, and probably has a kind of uneasy relationship in some ways. But that’s what I would say. Academia has a very specific set of like demands and requirements, for people who are ready to exist for that, and that’s a very competitive environment or you’re not going to be paid reliably for quite a long time. I feel like that’s probably not going to change very quickly. And who knows if it would even be a good thing if it did.

MO: Academic life seems a deathtrap in some ways. I am one of many more or less failed academics trying to write and think in the world. If people are able to make a living there, that’s great. But it’s extremely clear that we need to create revolutionary and left spaces of thinking and study and debate and analysis, that are outside of academic spaces, academic constraints.

JG: Samuel Delany actually recounts in his shorter essays collection… he is primarily a sci-fi author, but he talks about how in the later 20th century, he got into academia on the basis that he wanted a steady income, to supplement his sci-fi career. I really struggled to imagine anyone doing that these days.

TFSR: I started teaching in the area where he was, which is also where Jordy Rosenberg is and U-Mass. He was publishing pornographic novels and at the same time… Anyway, I feel like we covered a lot and went for a long time. Is there anything that you feel like we’ve missed? There’s so much in this book, obviously, we missed a lot. But there’s anything that you would like to put on the table or bring into this discussion?

JG: I feel really satisfied. And I felt like this is gonna give a good account of the book and hopefully entice your listeners who haven’t bought a copy yet to do that title. How about you, Michelle?

MO: This is great. I already talked about far too much that extends way beyond the book. But it’s a beautiful collection and a really magnificent set of writers and authors. Jules and Elle just did an excellent job editig it. It’s a great honor to be in it. And I think I highly recommend people being interested, on the one hand, gender struggles, gender theory, trans liberation, and on the other hand, anyone wrapped up in thinking about capitalism: to buy a copy, read it and talk about it and to share about it.

TFSR: Thank both of you so much for giving so much breadth to the conversation and so much analysis of the structures. I really appreciate thinking about transness through this lens which often gets left out in the mainstream discussion of it. And even in trans studies, I find that is often disappointing, so this politicization of it is really important. And connecting it to care work and the labor experiences of trans people. I appreciate your time and the book. Is there any place that you would want to direct, beyond buying the book which you can get from Pluto press, to direct people to follow you or hear more of your work?

JG: You can follow me on Twitter @SocialRepro and I also have a https://www.patreon.com/QueerComm. That’s everything from me.

MO: I am @GenderHorizon on Twitter, https://www.patreon.com/meobrien on Patreon.