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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.

Abolition Mixtape with Chris “Time” Steel

Abolition Mixtape with Chris “Time” Steel

A mixtape audio cassette over a rainy city street background, featuring text "Time Talks, Episode 46: Prison Aboliton Mixtape Feat Bursts of TFSR"
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We are sharing a cross-over episode with the Time Talks Podcast (member of the Channel Zero Network alongside TFSR) where Chris “Time” Steel and Bursts share songs about the struggle for abolition and what they like about them.

Show Playlist:

  1. Dead Prez – Behind Enemy Lines
  2. Archie Shepp – Attica Blues
  3. Vic Mensa – Shelter feat. Wyclef Jean & Chance the Rapper
  4. Zack de la Rocha – Digging For Windows
  5. Ric Wilson – Fight Like Ida B & Marsha P
  6. Invincible – The Door
  7. Apani B. Fly feat. L.I.F.E. Long – Outasite
  8. JP Robinson – George Jackson
  9. Rocky Rivera – Headhunter feat. Bambu
  10. Blackbird Raum – Lucasville
  11. Sole & DJ Pain 1 – FTL
  12. Thin Lizzy – Jailbreak

Asheville Responses to Recent Repression

In relation to the subject matter of our late December interview about housing and homeless camp sweeps in Asheville and persecution of activists weeks later, we have this to share:

We stand in solidarity with the 7 defendants in Asheville currently facing charges brought against them in an act of blatant state repression. On Tuesday February 8th, our comrades will have their first probable cause hearing. As these proceedings continue, our comrades are asking our community to amplify their story and continue the essential, revolutionary work of mutual aid.

You can also offer financial support by checking out Firestorms fundraiser (Twitter, Instagram) and donating directly to the Blue Ridge ABC Bail & Legal Solidarity Fund (venmo: @BlueRidgeABC).

Coming weeks will see a series of online workshops featured by Firestorm Books on anti-repression subjects online for free:

  • Tues, Feb 8th, 7-8:30pm EST, Anti-Repression 101:
    • What to expect during door knocks, arrest, jail, & court.
    • Register here 
  • Tues, Feb 15th, 7-8:30pm EST, Digital Security 101:
    • How to secure phones, computers, and communications from falling into the wrong hands.
    • Register here
  • Tues, Feb 22nd, 7-8:30pm EST, Advanced Directives:
    • How to make a crisis plan when facing state repression.
    • Register here

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Additionally, featuring:

Tom Nomad on Conspiracism

Tom Nomad on Conspiracism

Conspiracy cork board in a dark room with title "Conspiarcism with Tom Nomad"
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Tom Nomad is an organizer based in the Rust Belt and the author of The Master’s Tools: Warfare and Insurgent Possibility and Toward an Army of Ghosts. You can find more of Tom’s writings on The Anarchist Library. Tom is @tom_nomad@kolektiva.social on Mastadon, and on their blog

We speak about conspiracy theories and real conspiracies, strategies of tension, the use of extremist actors to set conditions of concentrating power un-democratically and challenging conspiratorial thought patterns. You can find a past interview we did with Tom on “Insurgencies Journal” and “The Master’s Tools”.

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Featured Tracks:

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Transcription

TFSR: We’re joined by anarchist author and activist Tom Nomad. Tom Nomad is an organizer based in the Rust Belt and the author of The Master’s Tools: Warfare and Insurgent Possibility, as well as Toward An Army Of Ghosts. You can find Tom’s writings on the Anarchist Library as well. We’re going to speak a little bit about conspiracy theories and real conspiracies, strategies of tension, and the use of extremist actors to set contradictions of concentrating power undemocratically. Thank you again for agreeing to have this conversation, I am really stoked to have it.

Tom Nomad: Yeah, thanks for having me.

TFSR: Weird world, huh? *laughs*

Tom: *laughs*

TFSR: As a bit of context, I was listening to an episode of The Empire Never Ended podcast, and they mentioned this BBC documentary from 1992 — that’s in three parts, that’s available on YouTube — about Operation Gladio, which is a stay-behind army in Europe put in by NATO and the US meant to disrupt and undermine any communist anarchist organizing or Soviet invasion. This is a subject that I’ve had some awareness of for a while now, but haven’t really dug into, partially because so much of the cloak-and-dagger stuff can be really hard to pull back and to figure out what really happened. It’s like looking into COINTELPRO in the US besides where actual documentation is thorough if redacted. There’s a lot of disinformation around the edges of it. I reached out to you here because there are some important parts of strategy attention, that I know that you’ve written about and thought about, and some theorists that you’ve been studying that deal with this. And I think you’re a smart dude.

Tom: *laughs* Thank you, I’m flattered.

TFSR: I wonder if we could first talk about them— I don’t know if you want to go into — or I could touch on — a few points of the history, at least in the context of Operation Gladio and the stay-behinds after World War II, what that looked like and where the funding was, and what activities people engaged in?

Tom: Yeah, sure. Project Gladio often gets associated with what happened in Italy. And that’s definitely the area of highest concentration for operations. But it was prior to NATO, Western Union, which was the organization that led to NATO, built this program up after World War II. And the idea was that they were going to take non-communist elements of partisan forces. I think we often think of partisans during World War II as communists and anarchists, and most of them were. But in France, for example, the Christian Democratic Union had a militia. The same thing in Italy. So they took these right-wing forces and fused them together into these— they refer to them as paramilitary groups. They were essentially — as you refer to them — stay-behind forces. The stay-behind forces mean a number of different things. And in this case, there’s a wide variety of different things that happened. Most of the time, what it meant was that they were at one point training and funding and organizing a clandestine group of people whose job was to prevent communist infiltration into Western Europe and to be there in case of a Soviet invasion.

Largely, they were trained in things like sabotage operations, intelligence gathering, in the things you would do if you were a resistance fighter behind enemy lines. But a lot of those people were also really well-connected with whatever right-wing political parties existed after World War II, and many of those people rose to positions of power. Very similarly to the way that things operated with the US in Central and South America over the 20th century, where we would sponsor right-wing forces, and oftentimes, those forces would have their own agendas on top of whatever we were pushing them to do. And they would rise to power. And then we would have these allies in power. And this would lead to puppet-state governments. Similar things happened in Gladio, but not in as directive a way. There were definitely alliances that existed between, later, NATO and the offices within NATO that dealt with clandestine warfare. Some of these parties were Christian Democratic parties that existed all the way up through the late 1980s-early 1990s.

TFSR: My understanding is that the Operation Gladio name gets put on often because that was the name of the project specific to Italy, and that a bunch of these different projects in various countries had their own project names and had to some degree — although, it’s hard to document it — funding from the CIA at the time. It seems pretty normal — you’ve got these formerly militarized forces all around, in a lot of cases, forces that maybe were clandestine far-right groups in countries that were either invaded by the Soviet Union or had a socialistic government or were invaded by the Allies or aligned with the Allies that were ostensibly firming themselves up and readying themselves for a communist infiltration or communist invasion. That was their greatest fear. And so for them to just be activated to do this stuff— Or they were fascists, and they were inherently anti-communist, so they were just doing the same. There are stories about Operation Werewolf in Germany. And that meme and that idea are still being pulled up by the far Right— I wonder if you would talk about what activities that we know of, that you’re aware of that those groups ended up getting engaged in. They have affiliation with the policing structures, to some degree, they have a nod. This is the point that you make in some of your writing, in some of your speakings is that anarchists, and the people in general, often think of the state as a unitary structure, that the right hand knows what the left hand is doing in all cases. And I think that Gladio and stuff this is an example where that’s not the case…

Tom: Yeah, Gladio is actually, according to the CIA documents, a disaster for similar reasons that every other attempt to foster right-wing paramilitary forces by the CIA was a failure. William Colby, who ended up becoming the director of the CIA, during the tail-end of the Vietnam War — he was involved in a lot of the setting up of these very specifically clandestine paramilitary forces. And there’s a common pattern here, whether we’re talking central South America, or Southeast Asia or Europe — there’s this pattern. And the pattern is the following. The CIA has very specific goals, and in the case of Gladio, NATO had very specific goals. Those goals are often relatively straightforward, and they’re relatively easy to identify.

For example, in the case of Gladio, or in the case of fostering right-wing forces in Vietnam, or Korea, or trying to do the same with the Contras in Central and South America, the goal was to prevent the expansion of a Soviet sphere of influence. Now, they talked about it as preventing the Domino Effect or preventing the spread of Communism, but really it was grounded in preventing the expansion of the Soviet sphere of influence, and later, the Chinese sphere of influence, which is where a lot of that tension exists now. In all of these cases, the CIA parachutes in — or in the case of Europe was leftover from the OSS — and they start organizing these groups together, fund them, and give them a relatively straightforward mission. They say, “Okay, we need you to use your newspaper (in the case of Italy) to promote this right-wing political party, and we’re going to give you a bunch of money to continue to run your newspaper.” Or “We’re going to give the Christian Democratic Party in Italy,” for example, “all this money, and the CIA was the source of— Depending on the estimate, somewhere between 20 and 80% of all of the funding that they used in the 60s and 70s— We’re going to do this because the communists are getting popular, we need you to win the parliamentary elections.” In a place like France, a lot of that was about maintaining the power structure around de Gaulle and people like that.

Now, in all of these cases, though, these entities that were selected have their own goals. The Contras, for example, in Central and South America, were running drugs, they were aspiring to power, they had connections to all these big corporations and plantations in these countries. So they had these goals, which were economic and political. In Europe, specifically, in Italy, a lot of the people that were worked with were fascists, and they had this series of goals. The fascists in Italy were allied with the church and the business class. They had this series of goals that they could push partially through the Christian Democratic Party, but also they engaged in street actions.

Now, the question always becomes — and this is where it gets really murky — what was done at the behest of the CIA and what was not. We have a number of documents that we can rely on, and they’re not all from the CIA. Some of them are, and there are plenty of records from the CIA, that just point to the more banal, more innocuous parts of these operations. There are documents from the CIA that point to less innocuous parts as well, but most of them are centered around legal political interventions and the boosting of certain political forces. But we also have documents from Italy, we have documents from France, as socialist governments took over in those places, periodically, they would release documents about what happened with the stay-behind forces. What we really get is we get this picture of a failed CIA operation. I mean, it was successful in the sense that right-wing forces were able to keep communist parties out of power. But it was unsuccessful in the sense that the CIA was not able to keep control of the forces that they themselves were promoting. And in a place like Italy, that turned into a lot of political violence. A lot of what happened during the Years of Lead — what in the US we often talk about the Strategy of Tension— Those same forces were the forces that were carrying out attacks at the behest of the State Police. There’s no record, though, that those were being called for by the CIA. And this is where these operations get really murky. And this is where research skills become really important, and this is where understanding how conspiracy theories work becomes really critical. Because we need to be able to speak about these things realistically, and not through inference or hyperbole as they often are.

TFSR: I definitely want to get into ways of thinking about these kinds of activities that avoid those conspiratorial thinking. We should make the point that there’s a difference between a conspiracy and a conspiracy theory because people conspire all the time, this is a phrase that Robert Anton Wilson used to say that I really appreciate, that anytime you’ve got a backroom full of bankers, or you’ve got a bunch of government ministers getting together making a decision to do something, anytime you got a bake sale being planned, people are conspiring to do a thing. It doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s nefarious, it’s people agreeing to do a thing, which is why gang charges or conspiracy charges that are used against political dissidents oftentimes are like you agreed to be in a place at a time around other people, and ipso facto, you are a part of this criminal conspiracy that we can charge you with. Just blowing up— because you’ve been bringing up Latin America and Southeast Asian examples, as well – the idea that the US goes in and funds certain movements, certain groups… Again, to touch back on what I said that governments aren’t unitary — there are also other ways that intervention happens, and sometimes with the CIA’s affiliation and sometimes not.

Right now, anytime there’s some unrest in a country that has a political position that is somehow in opposition or economic position in opposition to the US government, there’s a lot of people on the far-right, as well, as I would say, tankies, oftentimes, that get drawn into this idea that this is a CIA op, that this is a thing that totally plays into— Cui bono, who does it benefit? This is the approach that people often take is to look at the event and say, “Aha, what part of the international spectrum of power would want this to occur in this way, or to undermine this group?”, and they oftentimes point to the CIA, which takes away the agency of the people that are actually involved in the complex situation. But I’ve seen that pointed to, for instance, with the Otpor movement at the end of Milosevic in former Yugoslavia, this popular movement that got Western “democratic” think-tank money to help them think through their process, and also gave them books on nonviolent theory, movement theory, and also to push them in a certain direction. You got this through a bunch of the color revolutions that happened around Europe and in parts of Asia, and Peter Gelderloos writes about this a bit. You get this today also, where, for instance, there are mass disagreements in the streets, with regimes like Nicaragua under Ortega, or in Cuba, where people are unhappy with what the government’s doing at the time and there’s a mass show of disagreement, and certain sectors of the media and I guess the tankie left say, “Aha, it’s against these administrations, these administrations can’t be doing anything wrong. Therefore, it is a CIA op.”

Tom: This kind of idea, I think, is structured around a number of things, which are important to tease out. Firstly, there’s very obviously confirmation-bias going out here. That’s the simplistic reading. There’s confirmation bias happening. We see this with tankies all the time. You see this with groups the PSL which are entirely comfortable excusing not just people’s motivation, but genocide. To be really clear about this, the PSL excuses genocide, excuses states coming in and say, “Rounding up Uyghurs in China and throwing them into reeducation camps, or they support the North Koreans murdering political dissidents em masse.” Now, of course, they can’t come forward and say “We’re genocide sympathizers,” that’s an unpopular position. So they have to come forward and say, “Oh, none of the genocides are happening. All these videos are doctored by the CIA, blah, blah, blah.”

We see similar things with the right-wing as well. We see things this with QAnon, for example. And the thing that’s fascinating about conspiracy theories now — this is a topic for a different conversation but something I think bears bringing up — is that conspiracy theories now no longer function on this level of there being a body of phenomena and then some narrative that’s constructed retroactively about this phenomenon. What’s happening now is that the narrative gets constructed as things are occurring, which is really different. And what it means is that conspiracy theories have become far more reactionary, even than they were before. That now, it is purely about choose a position, construct a conspiracy that can justify a position in the face of counter-evidence. We see this pretty consistently.

Now, the second part of this that I think is really important, is to recognize that part of the reason that conspiracies can exist in relation to, say, a political uprising in Cuba, or even Venezuela. There were many right-wing forces involved in Venezuela, but it wasn’t everybody. A lot of this falls down into simplistic narratives that are meant to describe things that are by their own nature secretive. Things which we don’t know about. In a situation where we don’t know something, there’s a tendency to want to create an explanation. If we can’t explain, for example, within our own thinking— So, say, we were a member of the PSL and we were watching… for example, there were massive riots in Shenzhen, China this past week, where people were throwing bricks at cops, a lot of them are microworkers. They were protesting COVID restrictions and things like this. Now, of course, to the PSL, that’s impossible. Just like the uprising in Hong Kong was impossible. It wasn’t that there were people that were angry because it’s a socialist utopia, that couldn’t possibly be.

We see similar things in the United States. We saw this during the uprising when Democratic mayors and police chiefs in Democratic cities were saying, “It couldn’t possibly be because of the failure of reformism. Really, this is about professional anarchists and out-of-town agitators.” It’s a very similar narrative. What happens here is that we have this zone of indiscernibility, say, CIA motives, classified information, or something like this. And then we have this phenomenon, which in reality is very complex. We look at, say, the uprising in Kazakhstan, or even the uprisings in Italy in the 70s, which even a lot of anarchists, I think, see in really unitary ways, but they’re really complex things. And so instead of diving into the complexity, instead of sitting there and saying, “Well, the CIA might have this motivation, but people on the ground might have this motivation. And some people might have this motivation. But other people have this motivation.” Instead of really diving into the nuances and complexities, we come to simple conclusions. We say things like “Okay, well, my tankie left-wing party, for whatever reason, supports the Assad regime. Therefore, every single person fighting the Assad regime has to be working for the CIA.”

TFSR: Like the White Helmets.

Tom: Yeah, I’ve even heard tankie say this about the YPG, which fly red-and-black flags and stuff. It’s pretty obvious where their politics are. Then there’s this third element here.

And the third element really has to do a lot with the fact that actually, in a lot of places, the CIA does have precedence, There’s this reality in which, say, we take Otpor, it is an interesting example because I’ve actually been to Serbia and talked to those people. This was more than 15 years ago, at this point. And some of them, interestingly enough, were in government at the time, they were members of the Social Democratic Party. And the thing that they said is, “Yeah, the Democracy Institute came here. And they trained us in things like nonviolent protest organizing and things like that. But we already had to have the motivation to get that going. And we were the ones that had to carry that through.” And so, even if funding was sometimes coming from overseas which it wasn’t always and they said that over time, that was less and less the case, the fact that millions of Serbs are willing to show up in the streets and overthrow the government is the important part. And not all of those people were “CIA stooges”. Most of these people were people who were living through a financial crisis that was spawned by a genocidal war being waged by their government, and they didn’t like living in financial desperation. And they didn’t necessarily agree with the war. We have to remember that in the former Yugoslavia, there was an incredibly cosmopolitan space prior to this rise of nationalism, which played off dynamics that had been present. But many people in the former Yugoslavia weren’t necessarily identifying with the X, Y, or Z ethnic group in the early 90s.

And so their political conditions have led those things to happen. We have these three difficulties. We have these political biases, we have the inherent lack of clarity of things that are secretive, and we have the dynamic in which there is intervention on some level. But I think what’s really important to tease out here, and to understand is where does that intervention stop as being a motivating factor? Where does it begin?

Let’s take, just as an example of something which I think most of us would rightfully reject, that is the narrative of the outside agitator. We know that that narrative was a very powerful narrative in the 1950s and 60s that was used against the Civil Rights Movement. And right-wing politicians and pro-segregationist politicians would say, “Oh, those are outside agitators. That’s communists coming in here and riling everybody up, which of course, asserts that Black activists in the South during the Civil Rights Movement were passive agents that were pushed forward by white communists outside of their own intention, and that these white communists were able to manipulate these people that didn’t really have the intelligence to understand what was happening. It’s a completely racist and absurd narrative. And yet, people on the “left” replicate that narrative all the time, literally all the time, to justify all kinds of things, and to explain away all kinds of things. There’s also the reality that these uprisings when we see them are spectacularly complex. And we often can’t see the complexity. We take something Egypt, the Tahrir Square uprising, there were many political factions on the ground there. I know people that were on the ground there. I know anarchists that were on the ground there. And there were capitalists, there were conservatives. The Muslim Brotherhood was there, anarchists were out in the streets, there are lots of communists, there was no unified political vision, except getting rid of the regime. And that was a common objective. And that’s all that was needed to push forward that uprising.

We can hear the words of the people that participated in these things. We don’t have to explain those words away, we can hear those words. And oftentimes, what those words are, are that regardless of how this thing started, regardless of what motivated its beginning, the second that people hit the streets… And in Egypt, my friends that were over there say, the veil of fear fell away. That’s when things change. And that has nothing to do with outside money, that has everything to do with people’s motivation and intent. When we’re looking at these things, we have to keep these complexities in mind and recognize that the Democracy Institute did trade activists in Egypt prior to the uprising. That’s true, they did it at American University in Cairo, we know this. April 6th Youth Movement talked about this openly.

Often, what happens in these situations is that people are looking for something really secret and hidden, when in reality, almost everything is out in the open if you’re willing to look for it. If you’re willing to dig around social media, if you’re willing to embrace complexity, if you’re willing to suspend your own preconceived conclusions, you can gather the information that you need. We live in this amazing age where I remember, I was writing my doctoral thesis in 2010, the Egyptian uprising was happening, was just getting moving, things were going down in Syria and Libya. And we could follow what was happening minute by minute on Al Jazeera, and it was the first time we could do that, that changed everything. We don’t need to rely on partial reports anymore. We don’t need to rely on what documents we get. We don’t need to rely on biased sources, we can get information straight from the streets.

When we can do that, we can start to see these complexities that exist in ways that I think were really difficult in, say, the 1970s, where a lot of these narratives about the CIA being the secret hand behind everything really built up in the American, specifically authoritarian, left but those built up at a time when there wasn’t necessarily that information. And very specifically, those built up at a time when, as we know now, Soviet disinformation campaigns were a thing. And they were laundering this information through the American left-wing media. And we know this. Actually, a wonderful example of that, if you want to get back to Gladio really quick, is what’s referred to as the Westmoreland Field Manual. The Westmoreland Field Manual is the basis that a lot of people use to connect Project Gladio to the Strategy of Tension. And the term “Strategy of Tension” appears in this document. This document was supposedly a counterinsurgency manual that was signed by General Westmoreland, supposedly, and explained how you carry out false flag attacks and blamed left-wing groups for it. That was published in a Turkish newspaper in 1975. That’s the first time anybody saw it. After the fall of the Soviet Union, we have come to find out that that was a forgery, as were many things that were passed around at that period of time, including documents from the CIA talking about AIDS in Africa. That conspiracy theory started with Soviet disinformation, too. And so when we’re getting into this world in which we’re starting to talk about intelligence agencies, information is key. And hyperbole can be the death of whatever understanding you’re trying to build because you’re starting to move outside of the realm of demonstrability. And losing the patience necessary to dig into that from an information-first perspective.

TFSR: Thank you very much for that and for pointing out the Westmorland document too. There is the confirmation bias thing where when you get information that the CIA was conducting bombings and then blaming it on left-wing groups or claiming to have been left-wing groups or infiltrating left-wing groups, then you see the document, you’re “Aha, see, well, this must be true, because this is embarrassing to the CIA.”

I want to talk a little bit more about some of the other examples of intervention and the complexity that it brings. But also, — maybe this cart before the horse moment — as you said, the information’s there, you can dig into the information, one of the things that I feel is that there is so much information out there. It used to be, I guess, at a certain point, — unless you are a “researcher,” and that doesn’t mean professionally, but what you put your passion and your time into at least — that you would dig into stuff and then interface with other people to “bake out the crumbs” into some picture that makes sense of the world. And that’s the glut of information and the glut of disinformation, that people are pulling from is, that little reference to QAnon. This is what people are trying to do, ostensibly, but they’re missing the mark. And maybe there’s a degree of knowledge for a lot of people that are doing that because it feels like a game because it feels fun because they’re upping the ante with each other. But how do people who are not engaged in that game extricate themselves or recognize when they’re starting to do that and starting to over-complexify issues that maybe Occam’s razor would nix?

Tom: A lot of it comes down to understanding how conspiracy theories are structured. And they’re all structured with a very similar epistemic architecture, if you want to put it that way. Conspiracy theories often start around something that is inexplicable or confusing or difficult to make sense of. Right now, we’re seeing this proliferation of conspiracy theories often because the categories that we used to use to make sense of the world, say, in the 90s, or the early 2000s, don’t really work anymore. Concepts like nation-states, notions like capitalism. Things like this are all getting challenged in ways that make a lot of people really uncomfortable is a very dramatic understatement. They make it really difficult for people to locate themselves in the world. And one of the responses to that is the rise of right-wing nationalism. And one of the responses that arise to conspiracy theories and that’s part of the reason why they’re deeply, deeply tied together.

The question becomes, “Okay, how do we then start to locate ourselves?” One of the things that have happened in the world is that it’s become really obvious that our understandings of the world in the past were tragically simplistic, not just on the level of categorical understanding, but on the level of how we understand how things function, how we understand communities work, how we understand that social dynamics function, or institution success. All of these things have changed as a result of the post-structuralist turn that happened in the 1970s. There’s this open field right now, in which this change of normativity, this collapse of former norms, and the process in which we’re reestablishing notions of sense tend to lead to what is often not a bad thing, but it tends to lead to this notion of self-empowerment. People are now tasked with coming up with their own understanding of the world. And they do this. Now the question becomes how and what is the epistemic structure of what that looks like.

Let’s just jump back quickly to QAnon. If you really pay attention to QAnon people, they don’t consider themselves uninformed. In fact, they consider themselves profoundly well-informed. They do what they call research, which means that they go around on a bunch of blogs that get linked to from Facebook, and they find a bunch of articles that confirm things they already think. And then they cite them. And we look at that, and we go, “That’s ridiculous and absurd and silly.” But then you can read academic papers and academics do a very similar thing a lot of the time. They find sources that agree with what they already want to conclude, and they cite them.

In conspiracy theories, this leads to something really interesting, which is what I refer to as a logical leap of conspiracy theory. Which means that you start off in a realm of observability. We can even take, say, the 2020 election conspiracy theory, just as an example. The observable fact here is Trump lost the election. That’s the observable fact, if you looked at the numbers on the television, Donald Trump lost. Then a lot of those people are combining that with a second observable fact that they’ve talked about this openly on the internet, which is that they didn’t know anybody that didn’t vote for Donald Trump. How could he have lost? Which I’m sure is the way a lot of people in cities felt about 2016. Everyone knew that voted for Clinton, or didn’t vote at all, and I literally don’t know a single Trump supporter, where I live, not a single one. And so, this is that idea that Donald Trump is deeply unpopular, and people feel that the things that he’s doing are potentially going to lead to the downfall of everything that they know and potentially their death, feels really out there for people that live in areas surrounded by Trump supporters.

Now, this observable reality leads to a huge question. And this is always the second step. We can see this with UFO conspiracy theories. People see something they can’t explain that leads to this big question of “what is that?” And then you start to try and answer the question. But when we try to answer the question, we run into what I would argue is a very simple epistemic problem. And this is an epistemic problem that goes back to the very concept that we can know something that we call “truth.” To do that, to engage in that enterprise, where we try and find something that’s true in all possible moments, not only do we have to assume a perspective, which can encompass all of these possible variables, for total information in all possible ways, in all possible moments, but we already have to assume that the universe is logical and explainable and unitary, and that therefore, there already is something true before we know what it is. Now we run into the problem of, once we’ve made that assumption, we don’t know how to find the thing that’s true. Because if we already knew how to find it, we already know what it is. We have this cloudy space. This space of thought, where there is this profoundly important question that you want to answer for yourself, and absolutely no way to begin to do so. And it deepens the sense of being lost.

Now what happens here, and you can see this with people like Alex Jones all the time, they then make the logical leap. In lieu of information, they start to fill in details between a point A and something they posit as a point B. In the election conspiracy theory, point A would be “every single person that this person knows voted for Donald Trump,” and point B is “Donald Trump lost.” What happened in the middle there?

This is where it gets really interesting. And this is where misinformation can insert itself into this discussion. This is where a lot of people’s Boomer parents on Facebook have decided that coronavirus was caused by Italian space satellites or something that. This is the realm in which people like Alex Jones and before him Bill Cooper used to operate in, and it’s this space in which you can concoct relatively elaborate narratives to explain things that then start to build on each other and start to fuse together.

Let’s take global financial cabal theories, for example, the observable fact is that you don’t have any money. And you’re really desperate, and so is everyone around you. And the conclusion is those people have a lot of money and seem to have a lot of power as a result. How do we get there? And in lieu of trying to understand what the International Monetary Fund does or trying to understand what the World Bank does, or trying to understand even what an organization like the Bilderberg Group, which is a real thing, does. People start to make these assumptions: “This is where all the rich people go, rich people have a lot of power. Therefore, they’re making these decisions that are directly controlling, not impacting, but controlling my life.” There’s no discussion about the nuances of this.

And so we see this emerge all the time. We see this with things like Gladio, we see this with even something like the JFK assassination. Back in the 1950’s and 60’s, the period of time that we’re really talking about, and with Gladio into the 70’s and 80’s, we’re really talking about a period of time in which many records that existed are lost, in which many things aren’t digitized, in which stuff that’s not even classified isn’t able to really be found, because it’s shoved in some file box in some government warehouse somewhere. And it creates this lack of information and this big open space for fiction, for stories, to fill in. Now the stories can start to connect to each other. And this is really where it gets dangerous.

This is really where the all-powerful hand of the CIA conspiracy theory really emerges. We see all these things happening in the world. And depending on your politics, you read those in different ways. In my case, I’m reading these all as various acts of the expansion of the US zone of influence, largely for economic gain, sometimes military intervention as a part of the stabilization of financial circumstances, etc. For tankies, they see this as a CIA plot to suppress the truth of Marxism-Leninism or something that. And so from there, if you don’t have information, you can start to really fill these things in and you can say, “Oh, well, there’s this uprising in Hong Kong. And there’s also this thing that’s going on in Russia, and there’s this uprising in Kazakhstan, and there’s this thing happening in Syria, and they all must be connected because the CIA controls everything.” When we hit that point, we’ve left the realm of the actual narrative. We’ve started to jump and apart from a point of assertion and hyperbole. And this is really the operative point of inflection that I want people who pay attention to conspiracy theories to start to identify for themselves. Where’s that point of inflection? Where’s the point in which we leave something that’s observable and start to enter something which is hyperbolic?

Generally, whenever someone says, “There’s a secret government program, but I know about it” and it does this, you already know, you’ve entered the realm of hyperbole for a very basic philosophical reason. If it’s a secret program, how does some random person know about it? And so when we can start to break things down epistemically like this and ask very basic questions, we can start to see where these logical leaps start to get made. And that’s the point in which we all need to step back and we need to leave Chomsky books and start to actually gather as much information from as many places as we can. Because it’s there. If you don’t have the time to do that, well, there are plenty of people that do and those people often write. It does mean at times overcoming something which I think people on the “left” suffer from just as much as the right-wing does at this point, which is an almost allergic reaction to sources that come from good information. Those sources are often what is referred to as mainstream media sources, or academic institutions.

Now, the arguments — and this falls into the realm of conspiracy theory — the reality is, obviously, every journalist has a perspective, they’re humans, they’ve lived experiences, they understand certain things from the mean words, there’s no such thing as neutral journalism as a result. And so everybody is putting forward a perspective. There’s also a reality that the vast majority of those perspectives are relatively what I would consider to be perspectives that fall within the realm of capitalist liberal democracy, not conservative or liberal, but they all reinforce a capitalist line. This is the world that we live in, this is the world we are going to continue to reform and therefore assume the legitimacy of that world. That’s all easily observable. Where it becomes a conspiracy theory is when people say “All the journalists work together, and they’re not covering XYZ story, or they’re covering XYZ story in this very specific way because they’re trying to achieve XYZ thing.” Now with some media outlets like The Post Millennial, which I would barely call media, that is true, The Gateway Pundit, which is just a conspiracy theory rag at this point, that is also very true. But for something like The New York Times, that’s not necessarily the case.

We need to really start to do a couple of things. The first is, we have to actually find information from people that have access to information. Now, sometimes that’s us, and increasingly, what’s happening is that normal users of the internet are far better at putting information out there than traditional media or academic institutions. And so you can rely on sources on the ground, but generally, resisting the attempt to always have an answer or an explanation is really critical here. Things are confusing. The world is a complicated, confusing place, we’re not always going to know what’s happening. And that is okay to say. I think we have this obsession in American political discourse of always being able to know the answer. But that isn’t necessarily, in most cases, the case. And we always have these very partial understandings. Really, it’s this question of patience and time and trust and being able to trust information. Now, sometimes when you can’t trust information from certain sources, the response is to get it from a variety of sources. These are research skills that I think many of us know, but at times are willing to suspend, especially when it starts to lead to a conclusion that we don’t like. And that’s something we have to be incredibly cautious about.

TFSR: I totally agree, I think that we need to be able to say, “I don’t know, I need to think about this or look more into it.” There’s some crossover there with toxic masculinity, which is culture-wide of just “I need to have an answer, I need to control the situation.”

A little bit of a sidebar here. When I was going to college, I was a part of Project Censored at Sonoma State University. I was never in the class, but I participated in some of the judging ceremonies. I got some funding for them to travel. I was at the beginning stages of the radio project, which got shelved for a while, but they sent us to the DNC in LA to cover it. Yeah, it’s fun, that was my first podcast.

One thing that was interesting and that broke me from Project Censored as a project was that— For listeners that aren’t aware they published a book in 1972, we would get a class in the sociology department of Sonoma State University together and they would have the students read through a bunch of different stories and just constantly be reading newspapers and magazines, print media, “legacy media,” as they call it, to pick out stories that that they’re not finding in the mainstream sources, but they were finding in the smaller sources, do some research on them, find out about the authors of them, find out about what moneyed interests are involved in that specific thing that might be critically covered, and then look at connections to mainstream publishing outlets, and those moneyed interests because— As working off of Chomsky’s idea of Manufacturing Consent, and that there’s a concentration of media ownership, and also David Barsamian and other media theorists talking about how, as media is concentrating, as there’s less voices out there, and the voices are also being influenced by the investors that own the newspapers, or whatever publishing house magazine. So, if you are getting funding from General Electric, you’re going to put pressure on your editorial boards maybe to not report stuff about arm sales, or Westinghouse, or any of these companies, since they’re so intertwined. Mapping the corporate networks and saying, “If one of our subsidiary newspapers reports on this thing, that is a giant arms sale to Turkey, or whatever, and Turkey is getting these weapons from Boeing, and Boeing is owned by this company, which also owns our newspaper, maybe have the editors suppress that story, or have it written in a way that’s not going to piss off their funding source.” I think that was an approach towards the idea that journalists may have a bias or there may be bias in the way that a journalist published, which I think makes some sense.

However, as a sidebar to the sidebar, also, the editor when I was working with a Project Censored did his doctoral thesis on Bohemian Grove, which is based in Sonoma County. Then after 9/11 happened, when I was in college and working with the project, they started going Left-Truther. And I was like “Well, maybe I don’t know.” I started reading responses by other people who were a little better-grounded in conspiracy thinking and thinking, “Actually, what you all are doing is a lot of promoting disinformation, you need to stop doing it.” That’s when I started moving away from Project Censored. I don’t know where they’re at right now. But that’s when looking at the biases in the publishing patterns, not necessarily the editorial patterns, not necessarily in the journalist patterns, jumps the shark. But I think that there is some worth in looking at what is the nature of the institution that’s publishing a thing and what biases— As you said, when I read something in The New York Times, I’m not expecting to hear — and I am sometimes surprised — an article about an anti-capitalist alternative to the poverty or a banking crisis that’s occurred in this one place that people are promoting. But it happens,

Tom: Yeah, rather than on a Chomskian level, we have to think about it more of a Foucaultian level. Manufacturing Consent is one of those books — and I feel this way about a lot of Chomsky’s work — that gets so close to heading in the right direction, and then veers into this world that’s very informed by late 60’s, early 70’s radicalism. In reality, we’re looking at structuring of what counts as knowledge, rather than the nuanced management of the individual things that are said.

Again, let’s think about this. And I want to bring forward a mathematical formula, I forget exactly what it is. But someone in the 70’s concocted this, I think, but essentially, what they said is that every single time you multiply the number of people involved in a conspiracy, you exponentially increase the chance that it gets revealed. The example I always use when talking about this is this example that a lot of former FBI people that have been interviewed for 9/11 documentaries I have talked about, but apparently it was 2002, the US government got their hands on the satellite phone number for Osama Bin Laden, meaning they could track his movements, which for the US military is probably a relatively important thing in 2002. And that information was held by an incredibly small group of people. Under a hundred people knew that information. It might be the single most important piece of intelligence data they had at the time. It took less than a day for the media to find out a report on it, less than a day for potentially the single most important intelligence secret that the US had at that point. If we were talking really about a world, which I think a lot of people on the left imagine, where there’s some evil guy in a suit stroking a cat on a black leather chair, calling up journalist going, “You should report this way. Go report this way. Don’t report this.” It’s not just people on the left, people on the right-wing feel this way about the media, too. Not only is that spectacularly work-intensive to the point of being impractical, especially with online media. But it also is one of these structures, which, with almost absolute certainty, people would be talking about on some level or another, especially now on the internet, just mathematically, that would be true.

So what we’re looking at is something a bit more insidious in this case. It’s not even that individual messages are being controlled, or stories are being censored or something that. It is more about the social construction of what counts is important and what counts is valid. Oftentimes — and this has changed in the last 3-4 years, I would say, and around where I’m at, it’s been a little bit longer than that — but in the past, journalists used to say things like “Well, if you don’t give me your name, then I can’t consider this a legitimate source.” Well, why? And I’ve asked journalists why and they’re like “Well, if you’re not willing to put your name to it, then I’m just going to assume that you’re lying,” which is a really silly understanding. But it is really tied to this notion of individuality in a capitalist liberal democratic sense and the exchange of information. And that normativity got carried over into that journalistic norm. We see this with any number of things as far as what’s considered to be “realistic”. How many times have journalists said, “A profound change in society is probably really important, but it’s not realistic. So let’s focus on reform.” That’s not because some editors sitting there going “Well, we’re gonna focus on reformism”. It is that the editor hired reformists because reformists are considered legitimate. These kinds of things, we can read through these that what’s happening here is we’re getting a portrayal of information in a specific way.

And we are able to reinterpret information, we do it all the time. In fact, I would say everyone does it constantly. But as radicals, very obviously we have chosen to do this as something that we do. We have chosen to reinterpret the things we were taught as children, we have chosen to look at the world really critically. And with that, comes a healthy dose of skepticism. And there should always be a healthy dose of skepticism. But there’s a difference between that and what I would argue is the Chomskian Claim and this Chomskian Claim carries through into other forms of inherent mistrust, in which, for example, on January 6, this happened consistently. Now, I’m sitting there watching what’s going on on January 6, and I’m saying, “Okay, well, very obviously, they underestimated how serious people were. Because it’s not they didn’t see the threats online, they were all over the place.” Anyone that was paying attention to literally any anti-fascist Twitter account at any point leading up to January 6, was seeing screenshots from Parlor of people saying things like “They are gonna storm the Capitol.” I’d been talking to people about it for weeks before that, it was really obvious it was happening. There was very clearly a sense in which that risk, that threat was underestimated, that definitely impact coverage patterns in the Capitol complex that day. But then, when it became really clear, that the police were about to get overwhelmed, they fell back and retreated back into what, as someone who’s who studied DC police tactics a lot, is a really normal pattern, which was fall back and cover points of interest, evacuate important people, and then amasse force and move decisively, which is what they did. And they did that at about 5:45 pm. 15 minutes for the curfew went to place. All of that is explainable. You can sit there and you can say, “Okay, we can see data that explains this thing, see data that explains this thing.” And you can follow the data points all the way through that explanation.

Now, what is the narrative that we got from a lot of people? “The police intentionally let people into the Capitol, because someone saw a couple of pictures of some cop shaking people’s hands. So of course, every single cop just gave up and let all these people into the Capitol. That this was part of a conspiracy by the DC police. That it was intentional, that it happened that way. And that the justification for that is that they dealt with protests really differently in the summertime.” Ok, so we can look at all the data that we have from January 6. And we can see individually when decisions were made, how they were made, what the factors were. All of that’s been documented, all that’s been released. People have talked about that. All of the different explanations corroborate each other. There’s one single outlier, which is the Pentagon report from that day. All the other sources corroborate each other. None of those sources talk about how the DC police intentionally tried to help a coup attempt. All of those sources talk about exactly the narrative that I’m talking about from that day. We can see similar things from the J20 protests. During the J20 protests during Trump’s inauguration, I kept hearing from my parents, friends who were reading on Facebook that every single person that got arrested during Trump’s inauguration was a secret white supremacist or an FBI agent trying to make the #Resistance look bad.

TFSR: Fact.

Tom: Fact, absolute fact. Alex Jones was running around the G20 in Pittsburgh yelling about how we were all feds as we were getting tear-gassed by the National Guard. Basically observable things.

We can follow narratives point by point from different data points and concoct an understanding. Where we start to fall off the realm of believability is often when we start to try and impart motives to other people. And this is a really common failure in human discourse, where we sit there and we go, “Okay, this happened. Therefore, the secret motivation of this person that I don’t know, is this other thing.” That is almost always where we run into trouble. That is where we leave observability. We can see these things play out in things like Gladio, we can see these things on the right-wing: January 6 is an FBI op, or it was done by us, or something. For some reason, we all dressed up Trumps supporters or something. Not really quite sure how that theory tracks. But all of this, all of these conspiracy theories start to add up to one thing.

And this is really the important part. They all wrap back around to the conclusion that we started with, and this is the ultimate point to really guard yourselves from, for everyone to be aware of. As the narrative progresses, we’ll see the logical leap occur. And if you’re really attentive, you’ll start to see where that happens. You take UFO conspiracy theories and the difference between early UFO conspiracy theorists and Bill Cooper. For people that don’t know, Bill Cooper wrote a book called Behold a Pale Horse. It’s probably the Penn ultimate contemporary conspiracy book. It’s the reason we have Alex Jones. Bill Cooper is the precursor to that. And he was the first person to start to say, it wasn’t just about the government hiding the fact that UFOs exist. It’s not just that they took the UFO from Roswell and they’re hiding it at area 51. It is that in reality, there’s a secret global cabal that is working with the aliens, and they’re taking this technology, and in exchange for that, they’re giving them human children to experiment with. And he concocts this whole narrative about it. Now, of course, as time goes on, “leakers” start to show up, which corroborate parts of that, retroactively. When they don’t corroborate parts of it, he changes his narrative. And so one of the things that are really unique about conspiracy theories, as opposed to other types of narratives, is the way that they will shift and change sometimes in contradictory ways to maintain their narrative arc.

I was trained in philosophy formally. And one of the things that you learn in that process is that if you have to engage in mental gymnastics, to maintain your conclusion, it’s probably because your conclusion is wrong. If you have to start to concoct alternate explanations, you have to start to leave the realm of observability or believability, if you have to start to posit things as articles of faith, you’ve already drifted away from anything that could be considered to be properly an argument for a conclusion, you’ve started to drift into fantasy.

TFSR: It makes sense at this point to just throw in the term ‘syncretism’. Just see what reaction that gets. That’s what the use of holding multiple contradictory ideas within your head at one time, within your belief structure and being able to still move forward and make a story that unites these things is considered one of the prime elements of fascism, according to certain definitions. This is not to say that everything that’s bad is fascism or that fascism is everything that’s bad or whatever.

Tom: Yeah, I think the thing that becomes really important about conspiracy theories, though, is why? I touched on this a bit, but the “why” is actually really critical for us as radicals to start to understand. Because the “why” indicates something really critical for us. Conspiracy theories arise from situations of uncertainty, necessarily. We saw huge explosions of conspiracy theories around the advent of the printing press, for example. A lot of the wars between Protestants and Catholics happened during that period of tim were being driven by conspiracy theories, were being driven by this idea that “XYZ faction was going to come steal your children and forcibly convert them and blah, blah, blah.” The stories that were told, that carried down in written text in that period of time, sound eerily very similar. They start with these vast changes and these kinds of uncertainties, and then they piggyback off of a sense of threat or disempowerment. It’s not that we have conspiracy theories right now, because everyone in America feels super politically empowered and stuff that. No, it’s that conspiracy theories arise in situations in which people can no longer explain why they feel like their lives are out of control.

We can take a really common example of a really absurd contradiction that arises in the situation. If we talk about white nationalists or white supremacists in general. White supremacy is based on this notion that there is a singular thing called the White Race, which is for some reason superior to everybody. Yet, at the same time, they’re horribly oppressed by everybody else, even though they’re the strongest, most powerful people. It makes no sense. It is an entirely illogical narrative. Yet, it carries forward. We have this notion of confusion, we have this notion of dispossession, which exists. I’m not saying that dispossession is always justified, that feeling of dispossession, but that is part of this, it is a feeling of dispossession. And the lack of information. When we combine those three things together, we get conditions that are absolutely perfect, for lack of a better term for charlatanism. For people who can “fill the gaps in”.

I know a lot of anarchists, most of us don’t do religion for a lot of reasons. And for a lot of us, it has to do with the authoritarianism of the entire concept of religion and the certain notion of this interface of the divine and how that distorts concepts of knowledge. But what is happening here, except that as well? If we take tankies, for example, it no longer is a question of what information they’re getting and repeating. It is purely a question of the source of the information at that point. If the source of the information is Sputnik, then it’s good. If the source of the information is some anarchist blog that disagrees with them, then it’s bad. For Trump supporters, if the source is CNN, then it’s bad. If the source is Fox, it might be okay. If the source is OAN, then you know it is right. What that does, though, is at the tail end of the conspiracy narrative, we go from confusion to threat. The threat really constructs this notion that there is an easy-to-identify singular adversary that’s trying to destroy you, as part of this bigger group. And that then leads to this attachment. Sometimes that attachment is a to the concept of the nation. Sometimes that attachment is to a concept of race. Sometimes it’s to a group of people, like in cults, for example. Or the religious right in the United States, for example. It’s held together entirely by the idea that every single person that is not an evangelical Christian, is some horrible heathen satanist who’s trying to destroy the world. It’s not just that those people disagree with you. It’s that they are conspiring to destroy you.

And this is where conspiracy theories stop being just epistemically damaging and start becoming genocidal. It is when we start to enter this phase in which the threats and the solidarity that threat produces ends up constructing this conflict, in which the only possibility is eliminationism. That’s what we’re seeing with the American right-wing right now. We’re seeing that narrative rising. That’s what we saw in a place like Rwanda, or in a place like Bosnia, it was a similar narrative arising. In Nazi Germany, you had a narrative this arise, in Italy, it was slightly different. But there were still a number of conspiracies that were constructed in order to justify this uniting of a mythological Italian nation, that was the core epicenter of Mussolini’s politics, the building of Italy as a unitary object. And so we run into these situations in which we take something like Gladio. Conspiracy theories about something like Gladio really distort our ability to analyze intelligence operations for what they are. To use a really practical example of that damage, we can take the Snowden leaks. The Snowden leaks were complicated for people that aren’t technical. They were very complicated for people that were technical. I can tell you that for a fact, as a technical person that does computer stuff — the Snowden leaks are complicated. The things that were happening, the things that were talked about, were complicated, but the documents were right there. What we get from those documents is a picture of the National Security Agency, which is trying to build “total information awareness” — being the term that they use, to use the term that General Michael Hayden used to use — and that they were being completely overwhelmed by the amount of data that they were picking up. That there was no way for them to analyze the amount of data that they have. In reality, what they were doing is they were writing all these filtering algorithms to filter the information based on known variables, making it impossible for them to identify unknown variables or to look at patterns that might indicate an anomaly. Because they could only filter based on known things. That’s what we really get from the Snowden leaks. We actually get a picture of the NSA as an institution that aspires to be powerful, but it’s actually really overwhelmed. But that’s not the story we got from Snowden.

TFSR: Literally biting off more than it could chew.

Tom: Right! The story we get though is the NSA is inside your phone, stealing all your contacts and your bank details. And none of us should use technology. The amount of people I know that just cut themselves off from politics as a result of the Snowden leaks is almost immeasurable. People got really freaked out. And a lot of that getting freaked out was the result of not really understanding fully what was happening, being really scared of it, justifiably, and then going online and finding sources that confirmed that fear. As opposed to gathering information, listening to cryptographers that were writing articles at the time, listening to information security people that were writing articles at the time, that were talking about how this wasn’t the sky-is-falling situation, and really, this information is good. Instead of being able to use all of that to build better operational security, what happened for a lot of people is that it became a source of paranoia, as opposed to a source of justifiable and productive fear.

We see this a lot in the 1970’s in left-wing politics, where political positions that people took became really reductionist and simplistic and able to be boiled down into slogans. And as a result of that simplicity, we’re watching the fallout from that today. If we look at organizations that started in the 70’s, that were meant to be these radical groups and have instead become reactionary nonprofits. Or where I live, there’s a neighborhood where all the SDS people move, and they moved there to start the new world in the early 70’s and instead, it’s the most gentrified neighborhood in the city. All of that was a result of the fact that they didn’t develop an analysis, which was complex. Instead, they were willing to fall into and fall back on really simplistic understandings, such as “everything the US government does in foreign policy is the CIA plot,” or “every single thing that the Soviet Union or China or Cuba, depending on what faction you were a part of, did was inherently justifiable and all bad information about that was a CIA plot.” Those narratives still absolutely infest a lot of what we do and have led to a period of time in the last 10 or 15 years where we have really had to build an understanding of what is happening in the world.

Then, when we just leave that realm of imprecision, of course, the other side effect becomes this sense of always engaging with things in a position of extreme vulnerability. Those conspiracy theories are all grouped around an idea that in reality, we’re very powerless in our lives, that when we’re engaging in something when we’re engaging in politics, we’re almost doing that from a point of futility. That this all-powerful group of people, depending on the conspiracy theory, really are the people that are running the show. And they’re able to really control the minds and actions of millions. And so really, any resistance you put forward is this futile effort that you’re only doing to bring forward the truth.

You hear this from Alex Jones people all the time. But you also hear this on left all the time. The anti-war movement was full of people like that who were coming to marches going, “Yeah, I don’t know if anything’s gonna change, but I’m going to sacrifice myself for the Truth.” And they’d have these T-shirts about how whatever thing they thought was right was some absurd thing from some weird right-wing blog that they picked up that was pretending to be anti-war. These understandings can be combated, though. And that is actually a really important task for us, not just when we’re talking about the right-wing. We have to combat that thinking in our own circles as well. And it’s really important to check people on stuff like this because it can do a lot of damage.

TFSR: There’s a fundamental difficulty with the mindset that says if I speak truth to power, I will change power. That misunderstands power and our relationship to it. As someone who participated in the anti-war movement in the 2000’s, I remember hitting that wall of “Okay, cool, there are millions of us in the streets. Oh, it’s happening around the world. Oh, this is great. They can’t possibly— Oh my gosh, they’re bombing. Okay.” They didn’t care. I wonder why.

Tom: Literally four days after the biggest marches ever happened?

TFSR: Yeah. Because literally, when we were in the streets on the day when the bombing was scheduled to start, it just continued. I think that there’s one thing that people— And this is a way that the education that we’ve gotten — not just by the institution that has incorporated and swallowed up movements of resistance into itself and made it a part of its own narrative, but also the way that the remnants of those movements have explained how they succeed and how they want and how they “stopped the war in Vietnam” and whatever else — there is a concession from power based on the righteousness of the cause, as opposed to “No, it’s because they are actually afraid that you are going to hurt them or take them out of power.” The reason that you march and are a crew of people that show up in a place is not because you have righteousness’s numbers, it’s because you can do more damage in those numbers.

I want to touch on a couple of things really quickly. I brought up Gladio and we’ve talked about US intervention internationally to support the far-right, usually and almost always in these instances to stabilize the economy for the extraction or to support some other proxy force that’ll be a bulwark against the spread of Bolshevism, whatever around the world. As you said, there is truth to that thing, but it’s more complex than that. And oftentimes saying that it’s all is CIA takes away the agency of the people that were involved in the complicated reasons for their involvement. But also, I mentioned COINTELPRO earlier, and the US does have a series of examples of domestic intervention by law enforcement and federal intelligence into social movements, in some cases to infiltrate & undermine leftist and social justice organizing, anti-racist organizing, labor organizing, and also in a lot of cases, there has been a lot of infiltration of the far-right that’s occurred in the US, there have been strings of Nazis or militia that have been taken down oftentimes because they were plotting something and it could be provable. Maybe sometimes it was an instance where the government threw the idea out to them and to Cleveland 4 or the NATO 3 case instance, where, in those two instances, anarchists were talked into and propelled. Or the Eric McDavid case where folks were propelled into this position where they say a thing and then it gets used against them. That was used against tons of Muslims in the US, during the whole war-on-terror era. But it’s also been notably used against the far-right in some instances.

And the far-right has also been instrumentalized, such as the second and third KKK might argue the first KKK because it was attached to the southern power structure, which eventually, the federal government ceded back to the white power structure in the South after the Reconstruction failed. But the second and third Clans had FBI involvement and also infiltration and were allowed, in certain instances, to do the things that were wanted to be done. More recently, just on a police level, police in Kenosha dealing friendly with the militia that had come there to counter Black Lives Matter protests, or the Greensboro Massacre, there were cops that knew what was happening and allowed for that motorcade to go and kill all those communist organizers. Or more recently, the Proud Boys leadership, Enrique Tarrio being known to be an FBI informant and somehow getting himself arrested right before J6. On the right, there’s been this claim that Patriot Friont, for instance, is a government op, which I think-

Tom: I really want to encourage people on the right-wing to think that. Please do.

TFSR: I think it is important to note that they are often the dupes of power. Also, for some people, that’s interesting who do— Not seeing that necessarily, they’ll say “Okay, well, how are these people with Blue Lives Matter flags stabbing their flag poles at cops on January 6, or how does Siege or James Mason talk about the system and attacking police and government agents when there’s this shamanistic up-swell for law enforcement, for military, for this masculinist position of force of white supremacy that is the US?” Can you talk just briefly about how those two things can exist simultaneously? And are they existing simultaneously in the same person? Or is it more nuanced?

Tom: Yeah, I think there’s really a number of factors and a number of different factions end up resulting from this that makes sense to break down.

First, there is a distinction to be drawn between a group like the Proud Boys and a group like the Atomwaffen Division. They come from the same roots, if we draw it back to the history of American colonialism, but in a more contemporary sense, they derived from slightly different roots. A group like the Atomwaffen Division does view itself as a revolutionary organization. They’re not necessarily pro-America, they view the American state as degenerate. The precursors to groups that are people James Mason, but also groups the Order, the Aryan Nation falls into this category, the National Alliance. People like Tom Metzker, White Aryan Resistance, those kinds of groups, a lot of the skinhead movement in the 80s and 90s was in this realm, and they didn’t view themselves as good Americans, they viewed themselves as fighters for the White Race. These are the people that showed up at Ruby Ridge, these are white separatists. White separatism is a distinct tendency within the broader White Power movement, where their goal is to start a separate nation, it is not necessarily to exalt or affirm America, it is to leave America. And in the case of William Pearce, to destroy America. The Oklahoma City bombing is a wonderful example of that mentality, where Timothy McVeigh goes and blows up a federal building in the service of the White Race or whatever he was considered himself doing.

Then you have groups the Proud Boys. The Proud Boys come from slightly different roots. And those roots are very similar to the Minutemen who were an anti-communist pro-America militia in the 1960s, their roots come from things like the mass resistance campaigns organized by Southern governors against desegregation, their roots come from groups like the KKK, as opposed to where a lot of their actual cultural norms come from — from the skinhead movement. But their political norms come from this hyperpatriotic tendency within American politics, which views the American states and America as different things. You see some manifestation of that in really extreme versions of Sovereign Citizen Movements, where they have this whole narrative about how in the 1870s, America became a corporation, and no longer was a republic, and there’s only been 12 presidents or something. And they have to return back to the Republic because the Republic was the real America.

There are all of these narratives that exist about a real America. They derive from a common root, which actually is American Founding Documents, and the philosophical foundation for American political thought, which was Aristotelian, largely it’s Greek and Roman, classicalist, neo-classicalist thought. They were proclaiming in the Declaration of Independence, that they have identified these inherent parts of human existence, they call them inalienable rights, and that these are the things which literally typify the totality of what it means to be human and exist in the world, and that America is this utopian manifestation of those ideas. I think that sounds ridiculous to think about today. Especially probably most of the people listening to this show, most of the people that probably have read anything I’ve ever written, probably don’t see America as a shining and glowing utopia city on the hill, and see it as a collapsing wasteland. But that’s not how the people who wrote the Founding Documents thought about things. They thought about this as a very utopian project and there was a certain thread of utopianism that ran through the American Revolution.

It constructs this political ideal, which is not considered— In the Soviet Union, there was this political ideal, but it was something in the future, that in Leninism, they were going to reconstruct humanity, they called it the new man, and use state repression to do that as a way to prepare people for this coming End of History. Or with the Jacobins. There was this idea that they understood virtue. And what they have to do is slowly but surely destroy the unvirtuous in order to enter a virtuous world. Those are projects that had progression. Those are projects that were unfulfilled.The American political project is a project that is thought of as a fulfilled political project. There is no more development to happen. We saw this narrative arise after the Cold War. This is the end of history. We see this narrative pop up in presidential States of the Union, where they talk about America as a “shining city on the hill.” All of those are callbacks to these utopian ideas.

When we see a group of people beating cops with Blue Lives Matter flags in front of the Capitol while chanting “USA” and wearing Trump stuff, what’s happening there is actually a very uniquely American thing. And this is really the power of Trumpism. For Trump supporters, that distinction between the American States and the real America closed completely when Donald Trump was president. I know that that sounds ridiculous. It sounds completely absurd. But that is how Trump supporters talk about it — that for the first time in their eyes, the real America was able to manifest it. Once we start to see that, a lot of other things about what happened in 2020 and early 2021 can fall into place. For example, the Justice Department was calling militias out into the streets. Literally. They were giving this tacit approval for vigilantes to intervene in the uprising. And we’re willing to provide rhetorical cover for that, to the point where Trump was openly advocating for it from the White House. We would think that that would be ridiculous. And on a strategic level, on a level of military strategy, it is ridiculous, it created a lot of problems when these people started showing up. It created a lot more problems than it contained. And in a lot of places in the US, there were cops shaking hands with these guys, a lot of them were also being “Yo, get out of the way.” Because they were creating disruption. But that wasn’t what was at issue. What was at issue was that all of these vigilantes had built up this idea that they were going to go out and defend the real America in the streets from the communists, and then the state called them forward to do so. That moment in which that’s happening becomes really fascinating on the level of statecraft.

To get back to the Carl Schmitt definition of the state, the state is nothing but an entity that can impose sovereignty, or the way he puts it, can make decisions. When he says make decisions, that doesn’t mean a bunch of people sitting in a room going, “Oh, I decided on something”, that means a bunch of people sitting in a room saying they decided on something, but then having the force of arms to force that decision as a condition of possibility of everyday life for others. It inherently constructs this political unity through militaristic police occupation. And that is fundamentally the state. You would say, “Well, if that’s the case, then telling vigilantes to go out into the streets is ridiculous.” Liberals would say, calling the police to go out into the streets is authoritarian. But once we start to understand the state is nothing but logistics to impose sovereignty, those things stop mattering. On the one hand, we have this liberal argument that this is anti-democratic. Well, yeah, it is. And that’s always inherently true. Then when we see these vigilantes coming out into the streets, they see themselves as defending the Real America, and that Real America is this structure of sovereignty.

We have this weird idea in the US, in which political autonomy and law are the same thing. It’s a really strange concept. It’s entirely unique to American political thought, really weird. But people really do attach this notion of the American state, in some form or another, to their idea of freedom. And so they don’t see themselves as vigilantes necessarily, they see themselves as auxiliary police more or less. Their job is to defend the real America from the communists. And sometimes that means attacking the government because the government is acting against the Real America. You saw this narrative under Bill Clinton, you saw it under Obama, you definitely saw it around Joe Biden. Joe Biden’s not an aging, crusty old man, Joe Biden is a secret representative of Chinese communism, in their minds. They’re going out to defend this Real America.

From the perspective of the states, generally, normally, in most circumstances, the state would say, “Hey, you probably shouldn’t do that.” And in most circumstances, has really on some level or another at least created buffer zones between Oath Keeper groups and people trying to show up to oppose Nazis or something that. This happened in Pikeville and a number of other places where they were cops were keeping the Oath Keepers contained. But when the ability of the state to contain crisis breaks down, as we saw in 2020, all of a sudden, all of the political norms that typify that state fall away. And this is a really important part. This is why liberals misunderstand what the state is. Liberals assume that all of these political norms we have in the United States, in which the state limits its own power, somehow function. They never function. But there’s this idea that they somehow do. The Trump administration was a wonderful exercise in watching people come to terms with the fact that just because people had always done something some way doesn’t mean that people have to continue doing things that way. And whenever Trump didn’t have some political norm, he just wouldn’t do it. And it made a lot of them fall apart. But during the uprising, the rest of them also fell apart. And it revealed the State really, for what it was — that they were willing to call vigilantes out to the degree that those vigilantes saw themselves, as in that moment defending the state. Because, again, they saw the State and the Real America as a singular entity at that point. They were defending the State. This was a mentality that really built up after September 11, when people were called forward to “if you see something, say something,” and literally, the government deputized everybody as an intelligence agent, which really constructed this military culture of the civilian defender, the civilian soldier. That’s the idea that we really saw entering into the streets.

If you notice, on January 6, there were not a lot of say, Atomwaffen Division people arrested, you didn’t see a lot of people from The Base get arrested. But you did see a lot of Proud Boys, you did see a lot of Oath Keepers get arrested. And that’s where we can really see where some of those distinctions exist. I don’t say that there weren’t any Atomwaffen people or any people from the Base there, any people from any of the accelerationist groups. They absolutely were, but they definitely were not as numerous as other organizations compared to their size. And you definitely did not see a lot of old, Aryan Nation, Hammerskin types, National Alliance types of January 6, either. Because what was happening on January 6, for a whole faction of the people that were there, was that they were going in to defend America from its enemies that are internal, and that they were getting called forward from a State which had suspended political norms in order to preserve its sovereignty, as all states will do. When the state provides a limitation to itself, it is merely just a facade, it’s a veneer, it can go away at a point in which the further existence of the state is at risk. Those norms can go away. And they did in the United States.

We lived in a post-democratic moment for the entire fall of 2020 into the beginning of 2021. That was not a normal situation in America. And so when vigilantes are getting called out, they’re getting called out as civilian soldiers. When they were attacking the police on January 6, we can hear it in the audio. If you actually watch the bodycam footage that’s been released, you can hear in the audio, people telling cops, “Obey your oath, let us in, drop your batons, join us.” They were very convinced that what the police were doing was against their constitutional duties, and that what they were doing by storming into the Capitol was in support of this Real America, which was embodied in Donald Trump. That really seeds the ground for conspiracy theories to become really damaging. And we’re seeing this now, on the right-wing, they’re starting to talk about secessionism. There’s definitely more of a push into this discussion of military dictatorship, which was something that really started in QAnon, but has generalized outside of that. There are many conservatives in the United States that are perfectly comfortable with authoritarianism at this point. And all of that is the result of this grand conspiracy. And the grand conspiracy is something that was not constructed by Trump, but it was actually constructed by Newt Gingrich, of all people, during the Clinton administration.

We watched a number of things. First, a very clear definition of the real America according to conservatives. We saw this in the form of Ronald Reagan first, but also the religious right, and there was this idea that they were ordained by God to have America function as a Christian nation, we’ve all heard this language, and that everybody else was agents of Satan trying to destroy them. Now we move up through September 11th, when it was all about the secret internal enemy, which at the time was defined through an Islamophobic lens, but it was a secret internal enemy that could be anywhere. Not only was there this enemy that was trying to existentially destroy you, but now they were hidden and secret and everywhere, and it was people’s job to identify who that enemy was, and to tell the government who that enemy was. As time went on, we enter into the anti-war movement, that idea of the internal enemy expanded. Now it wasn’t just Muslims, but there are also anti-war activists who are trying to stop America from fighting terrorism. You move forward into the Obama administration, and that takes on this very specifically racialized component. You start to move up through the Tea Party, you start to move into the beginning of the Trump administration. And you can start to see how this idea of who the enemy is to these vigilante forces changes. It now encompasses every single person that is outside of their very specific social sphere, which is something that is fertile ground for conspiracy theories.

And so now we’re in a situation in which these people who now view themselves as defending the Real America, view everybody else as a deep existential threat. And the only solution to that is to use the power of the state or to use the power of the militia to eliminate those people. During the National Conservatism Conference past year, there was open talk. Josh Hawley specifically gave a speech. Josh Hawley is a senator from Missouri, for people that aren’t aware of who he is. He gave a speech at the National Conservatism Conference where he was saying, “All of these people outside of conservativism are trying to destroy America. And so we need to take power.” And then as he put it, “not be hesitant to use the power of the state to destroy our opponents.” That is open fascism. All of that is built off of this idea of this conspiracy against the real America. And it was that same notion that led many of the people into the Capitol on January 6, including people from QAnon, because QAnon is also entirely grounded in this idea that there’s a real America, and then a satanic cabal of pedophiles that run the world that’s destroying the real America. And that Michael Flynn taking power in a military dictatorship is supposed to fix that or something. That’s really the whole mythology here. We can start to see how a lot of these ideas of existential threat, these notions of social and political reductionism, and these logical leaps can really create these situations, which, like January 6, feel like they’re the result of political distortions, but in reality, are the product of a completely parallel political reality that is built up within this world, in this stew of conspiracy theory that’s been slowly building on the right-wing ever since the end of the Second World War.

TFSR: Well, on that very depressing note… *laughs*

Tom: Always end on a high note! *laughs*

TFSR: I think this is very succinctly put in and then if you throw in the narrative, I didn’t hear the Minutemen and the anti-immigrant push nationwide, thoroughly in 2005-2006. But that brings us to where we are today and the Great Replacement that’s going on.

Tom, thank you so much for breaking down these ideas and having this discussion. Were there any last things you want to touch on?

Tom: Yeah, I think the other thing that conspiracy mindsets breed is internal mistrust and paranoia. As you brought up, and I’ve lived through this plenty of times, but it’s not there haven’t been infiltrators, there absolutely have been, there’s been many of them. Most of them aren’t very good, but they’re there. And so it really leads to this problem that we face internally a lot. Which is, I would say twofold.

The first is, obviously there’s this tendency to be really suspicious of people and convinced that people are Feds often for reasons of social or political disagreement. That very obviously, if they don’t take your position, they must definitely be a Fed. I’ve seen this happen a bunch of times, that’s one side of it.

But the second side of it, it prevents us from actually identifying the behavior we have to care about. It reduces this whole idea of our accountability to each other down to whether or not someone is actually an agent of the state. We have seen a number of times in the last five years — I’m not going to call specific crews out for this — crews of newer people acting in ways which are really reckless: posting pictures of guns on Facebook, talking about other trips down to the recent anti-fascist protests, live-streaming themselves, just really silly, basic OPSEC failures. And stuff that really creates this sense of risk and danger that isn’t really necessary and exposes things that don’t need to be exposed. In situations that, I have often been in conversations with people who are like, “Yeah, but I don’t think they’re Feds” and I always answer that the same way, which is “It doesn’t matter.” The reality is that when people do things that compromise our safety and our ability to trust each other, and our ability to act and put us in danger, those are behaviors that have to be dealt with. It doesn’t matter whether that person’s a fed or not. And so what happens in this discourse where we become obsessed with federal infiltration, is we stop focusing on the stuff we should care about.

Every fed that I’ve ever been in proximity to that’s been infiltrating something acts recklessly, all of them do. It’s the way that they wrap people up in the things that can attract them for. They act recklessly, they often go, “Oh, I’m willing to do this, and everyone that’s not willing to do this is just not as militant as me, and blah, blah, blah.” But guess what? People that aren’t feds do that, too. And it’s just as much of a problem when people that aren’t feds do that, too. And so really, the thing that we have to care about is the behavior. Whether or not that person’s a fed is a secondary question. But we need to be focused on behavior, on acting with people that we trust, and actually being able to know what trust means, which is not “I’ve met this person on Facebook.” Trust means “I know this person, I know things about this person, I would do things with this person, I have done things with this person.” That’s what trust is. We need to really get back down to basics, when it comes to things like this. We need to focus on trust, on behavior, we need to get away from the paranoia.

When we’re researching things that are going on around the world, we need to be focused on information, gathering information, being comfortable in saying that we just don’t know, we’re not always going to know. But what we can’t do is engage in this incredibly anxious type of discourse, where we’re rushing to answers or suspicion all the time. And we’re trying to have these really serious definitive answers to everything constantly. It’s not the way that information works. It’s not the way that our perspective on thinking can work. And it’s not productive for us either in intervening in what’s going on in the world, or being able to build the communities that allow us to do that.

Conspiracy theories are incredibly damaging, even if conspiracies do happen. And this is where the distinction that I always put between fear and paranoia exists. Fear is a good thing. We should be afraid. I do information security, trust me, people should be afraid, there are a lot of things to be worried about. Now, all of those things can be located, they can be identified, there can be discussions about how to mitigate those risks, those things can be undertaken in relatively simple, usually, really straightforward, pretty logical ways. And that is a really productive thing to do. We should be afraid of infiltration, we should be aware that that’s possible, we should be really looking for people acting recklessly. But what we can’t do is we can’t assume that every single thing is either good or bad, right or wrong, trustworthy or not just based on its source. We can’t sit there and say “I read this blog, and I like this blog, therefore the thing they say is right.” We can’t sit there and allow confirmation bias to overcome our analysis. And we can’t sit there and allow paranoia to overcome our sense of care. I’ve been doing this for a long time. I’ve watched suspicion and conspiracies destroy whole communities. And we can’t let that happen. So patience and care and detail and focus are really critical, especially right now when the world is complicated and confusing and full of misinformation.

TFSR: Yeah, I think it’s really well put. And just to tack on to— If there is someone that you have a relationship with that is acting recklessly, it’s good to recognize that activity and to say, “Hey, I don’t think that’s a good idea. Hey, y’all, maybe don’t do with that person saying.” Also, chances are this person is not fed. And that’s a good opportunity to have a conversation, especially if you’re older and you’ve been doing things for a while and you’ve seen people, some of the mistakes that people have made or the mistakes that you’ve made, take this as an opportunity to take someone aside, doesn’t have to be a call out, but, “Here’s why I think that what you’re saying is a bad idea. Here’s why I think that the approach of bullying people and saying ‘if you are not willing to do it this way, then you are there for a sellout or something that or not revolutionary enough or whatever.’” I think that it’s a good opportunity for those conversations to happen. And it also models good behavior in our communities where if we trust someone and if we’re invested in someone enough, they can be talked to and challenged on their ideas. That’s a road towards building trust. And it challenges us to step up and be able to communicate our ideas and back them up, too.

Tom: Yeah, this is hard stuff. If this was easy stuff, you would solve all these problems already. And nobody knows the answers right now. And so we have to treat what we’re doing not as a religion with an answer, which, unfortunately, I think, too many anarchists approach what we’re doing in that way. But instead, we need to approach what we’re doing as a journey, as something that we’re trying to discover, as a world that exists, but that we’re trying to really understand and manifest the possibilities of. If we knew the answers to all these things, if there were answers to all these things, those possibilities, that world of autonomy wouldn’t exist, everything would just be dictated by those simplistic truths.

And so not only is that not a narrative that’s productive, but it’s not a narrative we should even hope for. We should really be focused on this idea that what we are doing is fighting and creating space for new things to emerge and really explore what those new things are, while we’re exploring the world that we find ourselves in. Because to be perfectly honest— This is a Neil deGrasse Tyson thing of all people, I forget the way he puts it, but I think he says it along the lines that “the only thing that we know is that we don’t know anything.” And we don’t know anything, we have no actual knowledge of anything. Everything that we’re thinking is just our best speculation. And so the speculations have to be collaborative, we have to learn from each other. We have to get past this idea that we can know everything. And so that level of care and patience is really critical. And I really just want to encourage people out there to read, to not jump to conclusions, to really have good reasons as to why they think about things, and to not obsess about having to have a position on everything.

For example, it doesn’t particularly matter what a number of people here feel about US military intervention in Myanmar. We can be completely against it, but that doesn’t mean they won’t do it anyways. And so if we don’t really understand what’s happening in a place, it is okay to not have a well-formed opinion about it, because we couldn’t possibly at this point.

We need to really reduce the scale of what we assume we’re capable of as people. We can do really amazing things, but only within what we can touch and see. We’re not transcendent beings who can see everything and so we should stop trying to pretend we are.

TFSR: I think that Neil deGrasse Tyson maybe got that from Operation Ivy. “All I know is that I don’t know nothing…”

Tom: Absolutely.

TFSR: Tom, is there a place that people can find any work that you’re working on right now any writings, anything that, or just the links that I am going to provide in the show notes based on what I said earlier, your prior books and such?

Tom: Just links in the show notes? I mean, I’m on kolektiva.social on Mastodon, if people want to find me, I maintain a blog every once in a great while called Into the Abyss, which you can find a link to on my Mastodon page. I just write and post places. So, if you come across stuff and you think it’s interesting, then, by all means, have at it.

TFSR: Cool. Well, thanks a lot for the conversation and all the work that you do. I appreciate you.

Tom: Yeah, appreciate you, too. Thanks for having me!

Exile, World Systems Analysis and Anarchism with Andrej Grubačić

Exile, World Systems Analysis and Anarchism with Andrej Grubačić

Professor Andrej Grubačić
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Andrej Grubačić is a former teacher at the University of Rojava, founding Chair of Anthropology and Social Change at the California Institute of Integral Studies, author of books such as Don’t Mourn, Balkanize!, co-authored Wobblies and Zapatistas with Staughton Lynd and most recently the co-author of Living At The Edges of Capitalism: Adventures In Exile and Mutual Aid with Dennis O’Hearn. Andrej is also the editor of the Journal of World-Systems Research as well as the Kairos imprint at PM Press. For the hour we speak about anarchism, the Yugoslav experiment, exile, World-Systems Analysis, Rojava, his friend David Graeber and other topics.

A couple of Grubačić pieces referenced, found online:

Some further reading suggestions include (more references in upcoming transcript):

Announcement

Anti-Repression in Asheville

As a follow up to the episode we did about protests against the homeless sweeps by the city of Asheville, the Asheville Police appears to be serving arrest warrants to people for charges like felony dumping and aiding & abetting felony dumping in relation to the Aston Park protests on Christmas, when the Asheville police arrested multiple journalists from the Asheville Blade as well as others present in the park prior to cufew. If you think this is bullshit and want to help, consider a donation to the Blue Ridge ABC bail & legal defense fund via their venmo, @BlueRidgeABC. You can also send funds to any of The Final Straw’s accounts, found at TFSR.WTF/Support, and mention ABC Bail in the comments.

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Featured Track:

  • Clock Strikes (Instrumental Remix) by Timbaland and Magoo

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Transcription

TFSR: I’m very pleased to welcome Andrej Grubačić onto the show. Andrej is a former teacher at the University of Rojava, a Founding Chair of anthropology and social change at the California Institute of integral studies. Author of books such as don’t mourn balkanize, and most recently co author of living at the edges of capitalism adventures in exile in mutual aid with Dennis O’Hearn. Andrej is also the editor of the Journal of world systems research. Thank you so much for coming on to The Final Straw.

Andrej Grubačić: Ah, my pleasure, good to be here.

TFSR: Do you want to introduce yourself any further? I don’t know. Say a few words about yourself your preferred gender pronouns any anything else?

AG: Oh, nothing really? No, I usually just say that I’m from Yugoslavia. That’s fine.

TFSR: Well, first up, I wondered if you could say some words about your identity as a Yugoslav a nation that one cannot any longer find on a modern map? And if you could you talk a little bit about the Yugoslav experiment and how you became an anarchist.

AG: This is why I don’t like modern maps. And you are quite right. Unfortunately, the countries no longer in terms of the states, but Yugoslavia, I was always a little bit more than just a country a little bit more than just a state. And I think you’re quite right to say that it is an identity and identity that is in a certain sense, also, a way of rejection, or opposition to identities that were imposed onto us after the breakup of Yugoslavia. And the breakup of Yugoslavia, as many of your listeners probably know, was extremely violent and it happened in the 90s. All of us who were who grew up in Yugoslavia, and who were actually Yugoslavs, who were identified as Yugoslavs and who identify as Yugoslavia, we have found ourselves in what I call my first exile, which was the loss of a country that I loved. I still remember the moment, when I was in Belgrade at the time, my entire family’s from Serajevo from what today is Bosnia and Herzegovina and Belgrade is now capital of Serbia. It was the capital back then of Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia established in the end of the forest… But the problem, of course, was I remember watching that, that footage of shadow ever being besieged and the civil war breaking in Serajevo, and it was absolutely heartbreaking. And that’s the moment when I realized in tears through tears, that I have lost something that was precious to me, and something that was extremely important.

It was something that informed again… I said, I am thinking about this as my first exile, second example would be coming to United States also not my choice, not my first choice, certainly, and not something that I did quite willingly. But let me answer your question, I think in a way that is probably more informative for the listeners who are not familiar with Yugoslavia, or maybe even not familiar with anarchism. So, I blame anarchism on my grandmothers, two grandmothers and both of them were communists.

When I say communists, that for us meant people who believed either in Tito, who was the leader of Yugoslavia, and who was the founder of what we might call Tito-ism or Titoist communism, which was a dominant form of communism in Yugoslavia. It was considered to be socialist self-management plus, Non-Aligned movement as a political orientation, external political orientation. And there was of course Stalinism, which was the opposition to Titoism in my family was split sharp half of my family were teachers communists, the other half were closer to standing back in the days before 1948 which was a very important moment in Yugoslavia history because that’s the moment when the Yugoslav Communist Party split. The majority of Yugoslav communist and basically saying no to Stalin, the famous historical “No”. Yugoslavia was choosing its own way, its own path to socialism, which involved again, socialist self-management. It was proclaimed in 1950 by a man named Edvard Kardelj, who wrote the first draft of what was to become “Socialist Self Management”, in which included many anarchist, guild socialist and even Trotskyist components.

And then, of course, Non-Aligned movement, which part of my family was very involved with, and they were building together which anti-colonial movements and states like Nasser’s Egypt, a new internationalist perspective and new anti-colonial perspective that Yugoslavia was actually the founding state of the Non-Aligned movement. And the first conference was in Belgrade, 1961. So all of this is to say, it was a fascinating country in which, to which one family had two different shades of communism. And the grandmother who was, shall we say, closer to the Stalinists side, but of course, lost the faith in that form of bureaucratic socialism, suffered a lot because of her choices. I asked her at some point, what does she think and how did she feel about communism right now? And that was a long time ago, I think I was 13 years old. And she told me “Listen, I believe in communism, I will always believe in communism, I think the problem is that my generation has chosen the wrong path to communism. And the responsibility of your generation is to find the new one not to give up on communism, but to find a new path to communism.” And that, you know, left me scratching my head and thinking what this different path can be.

Again, I was 13. So I was still pretty innocent in the ways of the world and political ideology. So this is where my other grandmother came to help. And she gave me her favorite book, which was soon to become my favorite book, which was Alexander Ivanovich Herzen’s My Past And Thoughts, it’s called in English. And My Past And Thoughts is Herzen’s memoir, in which he delineate and describes the fascinating history of the romantic exiles of 19th century, which included Bakunin. There was my favorite anecdote of Bakunin in being chained to a wall somewhere in the Russia, having to repent in front of the Tzar, but somehow escaping. He swam across the frozen Volga, jumped on a ship, ended up in United States and Caribbean and finally in London, where Hertzen was waiting for him. And Herzen said, “Well, welcome, what are we going to do first?” and Bakunin responded “Do they have oysters in this place, or do I need to go back to Siberia?”

I loved that response. There was, you know, everything I was looking for was there. You know, you’re 13 years old and you read something like this, and it’s absolutely amazing. And I said, “Well, okay, this man was an anarchist. So let me explore anarchism and let me see if this could be that other path to communism that my grandmother was actually referring to.” And ever since then, I started reading things about anarchism and reading Noam Chomsky was very important. Noam Chomsky was extremely popular in Yugoslavia for different reasons, he was somebody who gave a qualified support to Yugoslav self-management as somebody who was translated. I also started translating Noam Chomsky’s books into Serbo-Croatian, because then the name of the language. And through Chomsky, through Daniel Guérin, and through my first anarchist mentor, who’s name was Trivo Inđić (who recently passed at the beginning of COVID) I learned most important things about anarchism. Trivo used to say that anarchism is this noble attempt of trying to approximate or achieve freedom using the means of freedom itself. That was one of the ways that he was describing anarchism. And perhaps the most important thing that I learned from all three of them, my early introduction into anarchism, my early mentors Chomsky, Trivo and Danielle Guérin, was an actual distaste for any kind of political sectarianism. I have no patience for anarchist sectarians and I have no patience for sectarianism to begin with of any kind.

And I have even less patience for nationalism. After the breakup of Yugoslavia, we were sort of forced to choose and people have their own identities, nation state identities that they have chosen. Identified with Serbs, Croatians, Montenegrans, Bosnians, Slovenes, Macedonians… believe it or not, these are all now independent states out of one. Seven, we now have Kosovo as well. Basically, I refuse to identify with any of those and I became an anarchist (so, a man without a state) but also Yugoslav (which means man without a nation). And Yugoslavia for me became a sort of identity that I claimed with great pride for two reasons. One, because I was raised a Yugoslav. So the fact that Yugoslavia as a state doesn’t exist anymore, it doesn’t really concern me. But also Yugoslav in a sense of a political project.

Yugoslavia was always a sort of a truncated version of something that in the region was known as Balkan Federalism, and Balkan Federalism, which was inspired by the ideas of Serbian socialist, Svetozar Marković, a number of Greek and Romanian and Bulgarian friends of his in 1871 and after that, was this idea of not a federation of states, but a regional federation that was horizontal, that was state-less and it was built on agricultural and working units of working people, most notably on something that was called Zadruga, which was the village commune and of Obscina, which will be short of village administrative unit. Similar to Chernyshevsky in Russia, similar to Russian populists, and also later anarchists, we were there, we were talking about things and we were thinking about things that were not related to capitalist forms of organization of life. But we were actually referring to something that predates, negates and to certain extent, escapes relationships of capital and the state. Which led me to my preoccupation with what, in time, I started up to call it “exilic spaces” spaces of escape from capitalist modernity, spaces that escape a concentrated spatial forms of mutual aid. That was a nod to Pietr Kropotkin, famous anarcho communist. Spaces that escape at least to an extent, relationship of capital, capitalist law of value, and also of regulations and regulatory pressures of the state, especially of the modern capitalist nation states.

This led me eventually to embrace World-Systems Analysis, and different other ways of looking to avoid methodological nationalism, and state-fixation in social sciences and conventional social science. So at the point when I actually had to leave, what at that time was, I believe, Serbian-Montenegro (the name of the country kept trained during is the counter revolution was progressing after the war, neoliberal right wing counter revolution), I think was the country that I had to leave and I was forced to leave because I couldn’t find any employment. I was a young historian who was perhaps a little bit too outspoken, politically. So, Chomsky brought me to United States, he became my PhD supervisor, and he introduced me to a man whose name is Immanuel Wallerstein. And I’m forever grateful to two of them because they brought me to a place called the Fernand Braudel Center, which was in upstate New York and was a place where I was allowed to participate in research working groups. And in something that was an extraordinary experience of collective work, and thinking politically about limits and limitations of social science, and the ideas of social science that would be completely different than whatever it is that we have right now. I don’t know how much you want me to go into that or if you would like me to talk about something else.

But that is, again back to 13 years ago, when I was 13 years old, that was the beginning of my love affair with anarchism, which is still ongoing. And with my absolute dedication to the anarchist cause, which identified with democracy, very early on and this idea of prefigurative attempts and notion of prefiguration or anticipation, anticipatory politics, which for me was very important and to try was able to find already in Chernyshevsky, in which you have to enact in the present the kind of the future you would like to see. And you have to I think this is a quote from Rudolph rocker and other important and anarcho-syndicalist “You have to build the facts of the future in the present.” That is what I think the most important thing about anarchism is your theory and practice of self-management, which was another way that I would refer or maybe even define anarchism. As a theory of organization, more than just an attitude, an anti -authoritarian perspective on things.

TFSR: Thank you. That was a great answer.

I do want to talk more about what values you found and give an explanation to the audience, and me, of what world systems analysis is as a framework, but I had a couple of questions about your experience at the time in the Balkans, in Yugoslavia and former Yugoslavia. I’d love to hear if you had difficulty as you were coming up finding material about anarchism, there was a place in the sort of genealogy of the development of the socialism that the government imposed, or that was provided around you to say “Oh, yeah, people like Kropotkin were deeply influential, but they were idealists, but you know, here, we follow the materialist trend…”

And also a guest that we had on the show a few weeks back, who lives in Belgrade, spoke very briefly about sort of difficulties of organizing now, in the Balkans, in former Yugoslavia, because of the rise of ethnic nationalisms, that the imposition of those sorts of thing. But also, that any sort of like leftist philosophy can be looked at by many people as polluted. And today, currently, being a leftist and trying to organize around labor or around Mutual Aid, or these sorts of things, has sort of sharpness to it, that a lot of people, you know, refuse upon sight. I wonder if the NATO contribution to the war that was in the Balkans at the time, the neoliberal approach has been to claim that forces like the United States government are bringing democracy when they’re dropping bombs. And what they bring is is a neoliberal model of capitalist management as opposed to democracy. So I wonder also, if the term democracy you found is a bit like tainted or polluted, or they have to fight for a meaning of it?

AG: Oh, it’s an interesting question. A man asked who was the guest from Belgrade

TFSR: The name that he used on the show was Marco. And he’s currently involved in the anarcho syndicalist initiative of the IWA-AIT in Belgrade. But he didn’t give a last name.

AG: Yes, sure. I think your questions are really interesting. And they do make me think.

Back in Yugoslavia, this is a very important thing to mention, it was a very different world than the one of the Soviet communism. Soviet communism was in say, Romania, Bulgaria… It was different in Romania, and it was different in Bulgaria and different than in Russia and other parts of the Soviet communist universe. But basically, these countries were called the Second World countries. I don’t know if you remember that. First World countries were countries your freedom and as you say, democracy of a particular kind. The Second World was the name given to those countries that were part of the immediate Soviet sphere of influence. And then the Third World (which funnily that for European country, or at least geographically European country, like Yugoslavia was a part of), the Third World was the world of Non-Aligned countries, countries that were neither West in terms of liberal democracy, nor East in terms, or the Second World I guess, in terms of what was known to be communism, mistakenly, of course, but countries of “real socialism.” Now, Yugoslavia was different, and Yugoslavia had much more space for liberal, for dissidence, for all sorts of activities that were not completely or not at all in accord with the State, were dictats of the states, but more tolerated for many different reasons.

In Yugoslavia, there was always a coexistence of bureaucracy, we used to call it Red Bureaucracy, and the New Bureaucratic class a term popularized by Milovan Djilas, one of the Yugoslav early dissidents, not my favorite figure by any means. But it’s a useful way of thinking about a new, Red Bureaucracy and an emerging clash that assumed power in Yugoslavia, including, of course, members in higher ups of the Communist Party of Yugoslavia or the League of Communists of Yugoslavia. That was the name that was used after the reconstruction of the party after 1948. But there was a significant space outside and counterbalance of dissidents.

One of the most important parts, and I don’t know if Marko spoke about this, of that dissidency was a group called Praxis Network. And Praxis was a Humanist-Marxist, or one might say Marxist-Humanist, or I would say Libertarian Marxist group, that organized cultural a school Korčula, after the island in Croatia, and Praxis journal published all the important names of what is what became known as the Western Marxism. The term Western Marxism was popularized in Germany in the 70’s, it builds upon the idea of the school known as the New Reading of Marx. These are Adorno students, but also Eastern Europeans like one, especially one who was very important for me, Karel Kosík. Some people who are in the United States like Karl Korsch that you probably know is Libertarian Marxist, or Council Communists. And many of the people who became known important names of the New Left, like Herbert Marcuse, who was coming fairly often and many others.

So, all of them participate in Praxis, and Praxis was a fantastic critique of Yugoslav bureaucracy, providing space for all sorts of possible reinventions and reinterpretation of Marxism of that we that was practiced and that was cherished and imposed, implemented in many ways in socialist Yugoslavia. They were all insisting on the partial success and partial failure of the Yugoslav self-management system. They were all in favor of self-management, but they provided very important and very nuanced, intelligent critique. People like who are today famous like Slavoj Žižek, for example, who was never a part of Praxis, but he gravitated around it. He was in Slovenia, and he was latching on to the Lacanian interpretation of socialism, show he was looking more into French. Many people in Croatia were looking to Germany and German interpretations for the Marxism and other things are plenty of space for ideological and very creative ideological engagement. It ended in 1968, when eight of these professors including my friend, Trivo Inđić, my first mentor, were fired from the University of Belgrade and punished, rather severely for disagreeing with the Titoist, the official bureaucratic party line. And that in many ways, was the beginning of the decline of Yugoslavia.

Now, many of the people who participated in Praxis were also favorable to anarchism because they were looking for different ways to reinvent, reinvigorate Yugoslav self-management, which was an alliance of selfmanagee economy and state. It was something that anarchists, who were the pioneers of thinking about self-management… Proudhon was probably the first person who wrote cogently and coherently about self-management known also as “the father of selfmanagement”… He never imagined it it coexisting with the political states, let alone been run by people who were Bolshevik, or Titoists. So, this was an uncomfortable marriage, shall we say, or alliance. And in that particular political space interventions were made to introduce anarchism, left libertarian thought, libertarian socialist thought. As you probably know, in most of the world, we use the term “libertarian” to talk about anarchism. There is no idea of right wing libertarianism, it doesn’t exist. So when we say libertarian, we actually mean anarchists. And one of the groups that I was a member of was called Belgrade Libertarian Group. And these were mostly people who are the left wing of Praxis. And these were the people who were interested in this libertarian reinterpretation, not only of Marxism, but promoting anarchism as a possible way of solving some of those deficiencies. So, out of this group, out of this milieu, out to this political space came many translations of Pietr Kropotkin such as Mutual Aid, Memoirs Of A Revolutionary and other books were translated. And this now sounds a little bit ridiculous, but by a man who is the former neoliberal minister or prime minister of Yugoslavia, Zoran Đinđić. There was a time in the life of Zoran Đinđić, himself assassinated by mafia by different other elements of the, we used to call them dual power… The dual power in Serbia after 2002, 2001 was really mafia and organized crime. They assassinated a prime minister who was in his youthful days and anarchists who translated parts of Kropotkin, and even entire books by Kropotkin. So, we have a number of younger people who identified with the libertarian tendency within socialism. And some of them, again, will later come to power and both become very important much of the establishment. Even my mentor, Trivo Inđić, became the ambassador. He was an anarchist Ambassador, an anarchist who was an ambassador in Spain.

TFSR: That must have been a very difficult thing to deal with the Francoist regime, or was this post-Franco?

AG: Oh, this was post Franco. The reason he was given Spain was not only because he spoke Spanish but because he was somebody who was developing within Praxis network and within this libertarian space political space relationships with Spanish anarchists and relationship also with Latin American libertarian movements. So, Trivo was the first one who actually told me about Edvard Kardelj, while composing this new program that became known as “Yugoslav Self Management”, was consulting anarcho-syndicalist texts and reading Diego Abad de Santillán and many other people who were anarcho-syndicalists. And who were thinking about shelf management, including Proudhon. So, it was an uncomfortable task for the father of Yugoslav Self Management to have to relate to the father of anarchist self management and tried to call him a Leninist, or a Marxist, or just trying to somehow reinterpret this in a Leninist key.

In any case, these were the strange spaces and strange times of Yugoslavia, which was very different had very different political culture and much less suffocating, more open then the culture of other socialist states. We were watching American movies and Soviet movies. We were delighting in Czechoslovakian cinematography and beautiful movies that they had. And film culture, there was a whole thing called Prague school and many Yugoslav directors in those days went there and learn their craft in Prague. This includes Emir Kusturica, Goran Marković and many others. And Living Theater, I remember, used to come quite often to Yugoslavia. An anarchist theater from New York who had actually much more popularity in Yugoslavia than United States. Yugoslavia was a very interesting, open political space, of course contradictory because of the presence of the Communist Party, because of the elements of state violence, which we cannot ignore.

But they were many interesting elements there that allowed for the development of that political space that Marko was referring to these we bought your original question was about anarchist literature, which we could find without problems. I remember absolutely being delighted reading can be Albert Camus and his book, The Rebel, which was also very important in those formative days. And of course, other anarchist literature, which existed. Some of this most Marxist takes like biographies of Bakunin, but you know, you could read against the grain and you could read in a certain sense and discover many different things about the anarchist tradition by reading the Marxist critique. And again, there were books by actual anarchists published and translated. So, Yugoslavia in that sense was unusual difference and for me the space where you could actually learn a lot about Marxism. Marxism was something that I had in my elementary school matches and was a class that I had to take in elementary school and I had Marxism in high school. And then I had Marxism at the university. And now of course, that particular kind of Marxism that we had to learn was what I came to call in time “right wing Marxism,” that was the Marxism that begins with the Second International in Germany, developed further by the another right wing deviation in the history of Marxism, which is Lenin and Bolshevism. And then goes to Tito, Mao and other people who in the third world, mostly, who developed it further, and that was an interesting experience.

Of course, it made me this stage, you know, it made me dislike Marxism a great deal. But I was able to find books and especially because I was, you know, trained as a historian I was able to discover the wonderful world of British Marxism a British Marxist historians. So I was able to read EP Thompson, who was translated of course and Eric Hobbeswan, and but more than Eric Hobbeswan, whom I will not call the historian from below, he was a British Marxist historian but not exactly a historian from below. EP Thompson and Christopher Hill were really important. And when I was reading the two of them I, this is all that I wanted to do back in those days, I was thinking about writing a history from below.

My first published academic work was actually related to the history from below of the Anabaptists, the first communist right people who said “Omnia Sunt Comunia” or “Everything Belongs to Everyone” and created this beautiful communist experiment in Münster for which they were punished severly, tortued and caged. The city of Münster still has cages of macabre monuments to the killed, assassinated, tortured Anabaptist. So I was trying to trace the movement of Anabaptists from Germany, to the Balkans, and to see whether they left because they were fleeing the oppression. And it was a fascinating thing. And in those days, I was very skeptical of the Fernand Braudel, who was the historian famous for historical structuralist approach or maybe…

TFSR: The Annales School?

AG: The actual Yes, he was the third grade and Annaliste. The first was Lucien Favre and Marc Bloch and then the third one that the editor of the Annales was Fernand Braudel. They created something called “Total History”, which was a perspective that was relatively popular in Yugoslavia in those days, but I just wanted to study pirates, Anabaptists and runaway slaves. And, you know, I was interested in innate agency and resistance and all of that. And only later, I discovered Fernand Braudel, after moving to the Fernand Braudel Center in upstate New York in Binghamton University. State University of New York at Binghamton, I think is the full name and this is where Immanuel Wallerstein was a director. And through Immanuel Wallerstein, but especially through the very first recruit of the Fernand Braudel Center. Immanuel used to recruit people, both historians, sociologists, social scientists, and students. So, both professors and students were recruited by him in a certain sense. I was probably his last recruit. I don’t think that anybody came after me. I think the Center is now closed. But I met Dale Tomich, who was the first person that Immanuel recruited. And through my relationship with Dale even more than with Immanuel, I learned how to appreciate Braudel, and I moved away from EP Thompson and Christopher Hill and Peter Linebaugh and Marcus Rediker, and all of those historians of resistance, historians from below. I started to develop my own Braudalian history and my own broad area and approach to history.

Now, your question had another part, which was about the difficulties of organizing the former Yugoslavia, or what now I still insist on calling the Yugoslav political space, because of the NATO bombing. NATO bombing concerns two countries, one was Bosnia, where Bosnian Serbs were bombed, the other place was Serbia where I myself was bombed by the American NATO forces in 1999. It wasn’t pleasant. And it definitely left an extremely difficult wound, not only in terms of psychology and trauma and all of that, that definitely was the case for those of us who had to suffer through that. But in terms of how do you organize in the midst of all of this. The nationalism in Serbia is not something, ethnic nationalism, is not something that begins with NATO bombing. I think the “great counter revolution”, as I call it started really in the 80’s, and especially the end of the 80’s. And then with the Yugoslav civil war in the 90’s. Serbian nationalism, which was important because in those days, I was in Serbia and I assume so was Marco, created important limitations in being able to actually speak about any kind of leftist politics. So speaking about leftist politics, in face of either neoliberal capitalism or neoliberal modernization, or Serbian ethnic nationalism which was it’s alternative, oppositional and I would say symbiotic political option. They will complementary in many ways, although challenge counterintuitive, these were the, you know, huge conceptual blocks blocking the horizon of possibility of creating a new politics of emancipation.

And anarchism, which again, it has each moment and there was a possibility for actually articulating the new perspective that would be libertarian, and that would be anarchist. It was really hard. And I think that many of us made the mistake of not doing more to push for the anti-authoritarian socialist option in those days. However, it was really hard. I mean, you have to think about should be a nationalist paramilitaries, the war is over. There are people coming back from the war is a lot of street fighting, there’s our of violence everywhere. Mafia / organized crime is basically running the country. In relationship, a very intimate relationship, not only with political structures, but also with the ever powerful secret police in Serbia. And the countries, other countries or former Yugoslavia suffered a very similar fate. So it was really hard to fight for anarchism or any other kind of genuine leftist idea back in those days, and then referring to the end of the 90’s, beginning of 2000’s.

TFSR: So switching gears a little bit, you’re currently the editor of the Journal of World-Systems Research. We haven’t talked about World Systems Analysis on the show before so I wonder if you could give us an introduction to the framework of what it is how its approached relates to internationalists or inter-communalist, anti-capitalist struggle in and beyond academia?

AG: Well, that’s an interesting question in terms of relationship, and I think under explored why the relationship between anarchism and World-Systems Analysis. You know, there is the new issue of the journal for systems research will feature a special issue dedicated to non-state, anti-statist and anarchist movements in the capitalist world economy in the modern world system, but let me, let me try to explain what was so useful, for me at least in terms of thinking about political ideology and ideas within that framework. Immanuel was, and you can see this in the four volumes of his book Modern World-Systems, but also in many other books where he was popularizing or making more accessible all the historical arguments, that are very dense that he made in those main books, four volumes… Now, the important thing for me was that Immanuel was talking about 500 years of capitalism, 500 years of what he called “Capitalist World Economy”, “Capitalist World System, a historical social system that had its own, and this is an important term,Geoculture”. And that the geoculture, meaning a dominant, hegemonic idea of constellation of ideas. He called it “Centrist Liberalism”.

And it basically all of it begins with the end of the French Revolution, which introduced something completely new in the world and that novelty was called “social change”. Namely, before the French Revolution, the idea that change is possible, change is normal, change is even something that is good, has been universally rejected by traditional monarchistic ways of thinking about the way that the world works and the way that history moves. So, with the “dangerous classes” as Immanuel called them, or the French Revolution, this is the first moment when really the ruling classes people in power had to deal with the dangerous classes. And they had to somehow respond to this great pressure coming from below that was felt all the way to Haiti. And the Haitian Revolution was very much part of the French Revolutionary experience. Usually you don’t learn about the Haitian Revolution in American universities or high schools which I had to learn when I moved here. But the thing about this is that geoculture means that people in power had to figure out a way of how to respond to this pressure, also intellectually and this is where intellectuals come in handy and this is the birth of modern intellectuals, but also of modern ideologists. And of course of social sciences.

So the greatest novelty according to manual of French Revolution was that it created the idea that social change is normal, social change is desirable, but social change needs to be somehow managed and controlled. And the forum through which social change can be enacted and experimented with is the State. So, what capitalist modernity means, basically, is the organization of the world in which centrist liberalism occupies a central and most dominant place. However, the part of the whole world of capitalist modernity is not only occupied by the dominant real culture of centrist liberalism, but also by other modernist ideologies that are also part of capitalism. And these are, of course, modern conservativism, but also the dominant, mainstream forms of Marxism. They all deployed and accepted the liberal notion of Time, which was the linear notion of time, a progressivist notion of time. Unquestion belief in the idea of progress, linear temporality and organization of space through Nation States and through a political system of representative democracy, identified again with the space geographic space of the states, with a dominant nationality and ethnic group and dominant language. Now, many of us began to call this a Jacobin solution and Daniel Guérin has this famous and beautiful essay, De-Jacobinized Revolution, perhaps would be translation from French. I’m not entirely sure if this has been published in English (It is, it’s linked in the show-notes, -TFSR).

And the idea, basically, is that the Jacobin Revolution and temporality and Jacobin idea of the state and Jacobin idea of modernity has only one enemy: and that enemy was anarchism. And it gives the most anti-foundation of which, in a sense that it refused to accept all the foundational elements of capitalist modernity: Authority of the state; authority of the modern nation; authority of liberalism; and authority of the intellectual. So, what people in power did in order to manage social change, they invented the university. The university was a moribund institution, medieval University, of course, before the 18th century, when it was reinvented very carefully. And eventually in the 19th century, the disciplines were created. And all of this was a political enterprise. This was an attempt to again manage and explain social change. So your head all of a sudden social sciences, created with a particular political task. The first one that was transformed into science was actually history. And the reason why history was created was basically respond to the challenges of the Paris Commune of 1871. And then history, especially with Leopold von Ranke who said famously that “we have to study the history, the past, as it really happened,” became really a form of change that legitimizes the state and legitimizes the nation. And when I say legitimizes it also mean to a certain extent, creates the state and creates the nation. Historians, the new historians, professional historians, Ranke and others, were actually given a task to create states and nationas. States were already brought into life, now we had to invent… As the famous saying goes, “we have France, now we have to invent French people.” And for this, we needed history. So history was given that particular task.

Liberal ideology is organized around a trinity of concepts. It’s organized around very violent abstractions: one is called the state; another is called economy or the markets; and the last one is society. Society was left to the sociologists. Sociologists were there to study the society. Economists were invented in order to study the market. And finally political science and political scientists were created in order to study the state. Those people who were left behind the liberal political universe were known as Primitives, you know people who don’t really have the state. So, the stateless population of savages, barbarians, primitives were a domain of a new social science discipline known as anthropology. And finally, we have people who, once upon a time, used to have great empires, great cultures and great civilizations. And like people in Persia, like people in China, and they became the domain the field of study of Orientalists. People who were mostly philologists, but who were using all ways of studying different cultures that are supposedly frozen in time, meaning that they do not belong to the goals of Eurocentric liberal modernity.

And again, most of the ideas, most of the ideologies against centrist liberalism, what Immanuel Wallerstein calls “antisystemic movements”, movements against the system,, were very much embedded in that system because they accepted the same premise of progress of certain unqualified celebration of the enlightenment, or certain ideas of the Enlightenment, codefied by the State. And there was only one that was misfitting and that was anarchism. So what World-Systems does for me in terms of understanding anarchism, it opens up a space to speak about two periods in the history of anarchism. The first one is what I call the “First Anarchist Century”. And that is, I would say, roughly between the 1870’s and either 1917 or 1936, the Spanish revolution. Depending on when you want to think about the ends of the first anarchist century, which was the period and this is the reason why I’m calling it the anarchist century, is the period when anarchism was the dominant perspective in the Global South, and in basically all the countries except Western Europe.

In Western Europe, you had the absolute triumph, absolute predominance of hegemonic Marxism, which was the Marxism of the Second International, the Marxism of the steam engine and Marxism of the guillotine. Which was developed by people in German Social Democracy and later on improved upon, in a certain sense, by Lenin and his comrades. You had a few dissonant voices like Rosa Luxemburg, and like people who became known as Council Communists, Libertarian Marxist, but they were a minority. In most of the world, the dominant anti-capitalist tradition, was the tradition of anarchism. And you can read Benedict Anderson’s wonderful book called Anarchism and the Anti-Colonial Imagination (later republished as The Age of Globalization, now out of print, but a pdf linked in the episode notes -TFSR), Sho Konishi’s masterful work, Anarchist Modernity, and of course Ilham Khuri-Makdisi, who is from Lebanon, and her work The Eastern Mediterranean and the Making of Global Radicalism, 1860-1914. And in all of these books, and many others, which are treating anarchism from this perspective, you could see that this period (1870’s to Russian Revolution, or perhaps the Spanish revolution), was a period where anarchism was really the only game in town in terms of an anti-capitalist politics. It served as a sort of gravitational force between revolutionary and anti-colonial struggles on different sides of the Atlantic. So, you had thes incredible situations in which Filipino nationalist (meaning anti-colonial fighters) would meet anarchists. and exchange ideas, would borrow from anarchist repertoire of anarchist ideas, which was very flexible because anarchism always gave more primacy to life than to the text. So this anti-authoritarian eclecticism of anarchists was something that the anticolonial revolutionaries in India, the Philippines, in Japan in China were all using for different purposes.

There were a series of communication network, which involved in many, many different journals from Belgrade to New Jersey, the most important one was you Paris, Les Temps Nouveaux. And all of these journals were sort of communications network of that anarchist century, but there were also other spaces. Anarchists were absolutely brilliant in using the new public spaces like taverns, cafes, but also theatres, to propagate anarchism. And of course schools. This is the beginning of Modern School Movement with Francisco Ferrer. But anarchism, actually, in terms of education begins with Paul Robin, who was an anarchist who created the first educational program for the Paris Commune, the only one, known as Integral Education. So, integral education and you will notice that the police were it to school California Institute of Integral Studies, integral education for a long time was the anarchist perspective on education. Tolstoy was very close to anarchism was very close to all of these, they were known as Model Schools. They were created all over not only Europe, but the entire world because anarchist organized through networks.

And networks were a preferred model of anarchist organizing, you know, in those days. So, Pietro Gori, Errico Malatesta, the fabled names of European anarchism, were all of a sudden in Paraguay and Argentina. And there’s a reason why… There was a very intimate connection between Caribbean, Pacific, Mediterranean networks, where anarchists were circulating their ideas. We know of translations of Malatesta in Cuba. We know of Malatesta, for example, trying to come to my part of the world, the Balkans to fight against the Ottomans. In in the late 19th century. We know that he was with Sergius Stepniak, who was a famous Russian populist. After that they went and they plundered the countryside of Italy, repurposing, or I guess the term would be expropriating many of the village properties there. Stepniak, then goes to Russia, assassinates the minister of the police, comes back to England. He is killed ,unfortunately, in Chiswick of all places in train accident. So, this is a time where anarchism is traveling everywhere. Francisco Ferrer was a famous anarchist educator was murdered by the states in 1908. His project which was known as Modern Schools, and the modern school movement becomes extremely popular. In the United States, you had modern school movement and many modern schools. But the Fransisco Ferrer Affair, as it was known, became a play, they used to be known as Martyr Plays. And this theater play, I think, premiered in Alexandria, or in Beirut, I can’t remember, and then later in Buenos Aires.

And then of course, you had the Mayday. Immigrants, anarchists who created the May Day and who, I guess to those two events are really kind of the connective tissue or the most celebrated events of the anarchist century. Marx was important. And I will say that anarchists in many ways were more faithful to Marx then majority of the so called hegemonic Marxism or the mainstream or right wing Marxism as they call it. Bakunin famously translated, in prison Marx’s capital. But anarchists were always skeptical of Marxism, because Marxism was a modernist ideology. The majority of Marx’s in those days were people who were tinkering with engineering, and the idea of creating the great locomotives of the future, fascinated with tractors and modernist progress. Anarchists were always skeptical, anarchists thinking about Russia Mir and the different, other forms of organization, self-organization of people in Russia. Not as pre-capitalist, in terms of a relic of the past, but as non-capitalist, in terms of traditional forms that, again to some extent, deform and avoid capitalist relations. And I believe very firmly that Marx at the end of his life, the most libertarian Marx, was the Marx who wrote to Vera Zasulich actually, the famous Russian populist, and who basically agreed that there is nothing inevitable about capitalism. However, Marx was not always read by the Marxists. And again, I think that anarchists and, later, feminists develop some of the most important and libertarian insights of Marx, and understood that Marx is far more complicated than it is presented by the Orthodox Marxist doctrine.

So, all of this is possible to understand if you think about World-Systems. You think about the first anarchist century which ends with a triumph of state socialism. And it basically ends with, and this is how Immanuel Wallerstein explains it he says… Well, during the anarchist century, he doesn’t use those terms, I do, but during the time of anarchist dominance in the capitalist world-system as an anti-systemic configuration of ideas there was a two step strategy that people accepted. Which is, first you change the society, you create new possibilities, you create new social relations, you create a new civilization basically, outside and against capitalist modernity. And then you destroy, or you replace, or you dissolve the states in those relationships. The two step strategy became reversed with the Russian Revolution, and it was: first, take the power of the state; then, create a new socialist humanity. And that two step strategy was felt all over the world. Dominance and overwhelming acceptance by the radicals of the two step strategy is part of what we can call the “Marxist century”, which in my analysis leads to 1968, the time that world-systems theorists called the “world revolution of 1968” that simultaneous exploded in many different places. And it basically questions, that fundamental premise of anti-systemic movements, which was that you have to first conquer the state, take the power, and then create a new society. And what was created instead was basically a validation of the anarchist insight, that you have to do it exactly the other way around. This was formulated in sort of clumsy way with a New Left movements and New Left political culture following the 1968 Revolutions during the 70’s. But finally, after the 1989, 1990’s, the end of Soviet Union, I think, the you can recognize the first symptoms of the triumph of all of those ideas that anarchists traditionally champion. And David Graeber and myself wrote an essay, I believe, sometime in the 90’s, Anarchism, Or The Revolutionary Movement of the Twenty-First Century, I think it was the name of that essay. That had an interesting career, and it’s still being read and widely disputed, and you know. But the basic idea that we had is that after this period after the Marxist century, the new anarchist century, the second anarchy century, is coming. In a sense of the anarchism, which was insurgent common sense, as we defined it in in the article, insisting on the ideas of self-organization, self-management, direct democracy, libertarian socialism, all of these ideas were becoming dominant. And again, a sense of a sort of a common sense in politics that we could see Mexico in other parts of Latin America, Europe, in the United States. The antiglobalization movement was profound, the I think, influenced by this libertarian impulse, as well as the Occupy movements.

So, right now I think we have this uncomfortable situation in which I can see the pernicious and short of frightening resurgence of statist, bureaucratic socialist ideas, and people who should be truly a shame for peddling this nonsense. Who are again, once again, trying to bring the state in and are trying to reinvent this cadaver of bureaucratic socialism, in this necrophiliac maneuver, to make us again, read all the people who we should really not read anymore. Is it Bernstein, or is it Kautsky? Is it Lenin or is it Trotsky? Or is it, God forbid, Stalin? All of these ghosts, demons from the past, are being summoned in order to make an argument that we need to be realistic, and we need to demand the possible. And the possible seems to be, again and this is such a colossal failure of imagination, but also any kind of historical nerve, is a resurrection of state bureaucratic socialism because we supposedly have no choice but to again commit a suicide in terms of radical politics. So, I think the great challenge for the new generation of radicals is to refuse any, and I mean any idea, political idea associated with the State. And to say farewell to the ideas and traditions of capitalist modernity, and to look at places like Rojava, and places like Chiapas, but also so many other places where libertarian ideas have been practiced and have been improved upon improvised and so forth. And there is a reason why ideas of World-Systems theorists like Immanuel Wallerstein, Giovanni Arrighi, and many others actually read in Rojava. If you read Rajala, the Kurdish part of Syria, which is the part of experiencing libertarian social revolution, well, the most important people are Murray Bookchin, an anarchist from United States. And the other most important reference is Immanuel Wallerstein and Fernand Braudel. Same with Chiapas. When you go to Chiapas, you will be escorted to the Immanuel Wallerstein library. So there is a reason why these theories actually being recognized as people who have something interesting to say, to the movements that are, perhaps, the most significant movements of our time.

So, all of this is a very long answer to your question that world-systems analysis, in my view, offers to people who identify with anarchism and libertarian Marxism, what we can call libertarian socialism or libertarian communism, a lot of space to rework politics in a way of understanding the world that is not the world of nation states. And the main premise of world-systems is that we live in a singular historical system, organized by an actual division of labor, there is a periphery there is a core there is perhaps something called semi-periphery. The way that this the world is organized through the division of labor, through the world markets, and through the interstate system. And in a certain sense, it is a direct assault against the usual nationalism, of conventional social science, that fetishizing the nation state is the main unit of analysis. In Worldsystems, it’s exactly the opposite. The main unit of analysis is capitalist modernity, capitalist worldeconomy, modern worldsystem, or now there is a new interpretation, Capitalist World-Ecology, associated with the work of Jason Moore and his school. Meaning, there is a historical system in which states are nothing but instances of political organization and we should study the way that different instances are being produced within historical space that we call capitalist world-system or capitalist world-ecology. And we should not fetishize the state as a unit of analysis, we should try to study them and understand them, but they should not be our unit of analysis.

TFSR: I think it’s really interesting that the two examples that you brought up of some of the revolutions that are currently going on, both sprung out of, to some degree, an initial Marxist impulse. Whether it be the, I think Stalinist at the time, PKK that went through the changes after the fall of the Soviet Union. And, and as he said, like, you know, brought in ideas from Brunel, and from book gin from Wallerstein for many other people, as well as studying what was happening in Chiapas. And then what was happening in Chiapas: Marxist guerrillas going into the jungle and intermeshing and building something new with Mayan people. And the synthesis that comes out, the unorthodox, largely indigenous answer to neoliberal capitalism that has been created in both those instances while distinctive of each other, there’s a lot of resonance between them. And I think that the fact that the impulse was directed by indigenous folks (not to say that indigenous folks aren’t a lot of different things, not to say it’s a monolithic thing)… But the fact that it’s such a break with this, modernist progressive worldview, that these other systems that, you know, academia has been pushing in that the states have been pushing. It provides an example that says, “it’s not like it moves from this state, and stage of development into this stage, and those people are back here. It’s, you know, it, it is what people make it.” Does that make sense? Sorry, that was going rambly…

AG: No, not at all, I think absolutely makes a lot of sense. And, you know, I’m right now writing an introduction to Öcalan’s book called Beyond Power, State and Violence, which is going to be published very soon. And it’s a huge book, which has 700 pages, I think, and the book was fascinating because he has all of these… It follows him changing from a person who might be called an old leftist, a Maoist, probably closest to Maoism. And you know, a person who believes in Statism and national liberation. And he does this thing that Maoists often call Critique/Self-Critique. And he does this in such a way that you see that he responding to the analysis made by Wallerstein and others, Bookchin, of course. But also responding to his own experience. He now imprisoned in the prison on the island of İmralı in Turkey, he is able to completely reinvent and creating a completely different system that is profoundly libertarian. You know, and I’m reading this book, and it’s an fascinating book. He speaks about his “curious marriages”, as she calls them, about his relationship with his brother, his love of the mountains. And at the same time he speaks, he criticizes analytical intelligence, and lack of dialectical method employed by many Marxists and gives this masterful overview of Kurdish and Ottoman and Turkish history. It’s just an incredible book. But you can see how incredibly difficult it must be for somebody to change. And then to enact a change, or to participate in the enactment of change in the entire movement, which is huge. I mean, the Kurdish Freedom Movement is probably the most numerous leftist in terms of numbers, at least leftist force that I can think of right now. And all of these people are now identified with a form of libertarian thinking, inspire may be formulated by Öcalan, in prison. So, it’s a mind boggling experience just observing this.

And David Graeber and myself had become acquainted with this experience in 2012, not without some initial skepticism. We were at the beginning, as two anarchists, very confused by the strange and somewhat skeptical. And it took us several trips to Rojava to actually be able to see that this is real, that this is not for show that this. And then of course, delving into all of this literature and reading, Öcalan‘s books, and even more importantly, meeting Kurdish activists, internationally, but also in Rojava and other places, in the Middle East was actually a profoundly enlightening experience. This was the first time, and I think I told you again, my grandparents have witnessed a revolution, they believed in revolution, that revolution was possible, that social change is possible. And I came of age at the time when people, mostly young intellectuals, were saying that no such thing is possible anymore. We have to have to stop having these great dreams, Imperial Napoleonic dreams of great change. And we need to think about whatever, lifestyles and different other kinds of impossibility of thinking and about revolution. It became codified in certain forms of post-structuralism and other intellectual interventions that were, you know, very popular that all discounted generosity, altruism, mutual aid, and revolution. And then coming to Rojava and seeing what’s happening there, I actually experienced firsthand what it means to be a part of a Social Revolution, of a revolutionary transformation of the entire society on the basis of a non-state democracy Democracy, that is, as any democracy, democracy cannot be compatible with the state, you either have the state representative government, or you have a democracy. You can’t have both at the same time. So we are seeing a non-state space and emerging there in the middle of a very complicated, confusing, contradictory social revolution, in which revolution once again becomes possible.

And I think this is very important. And I think that we should think about this and think about this incredible strength and courage that it took the Kurdish revolutionary movement to transform from a sclerotic, statist organization, to respond tp challenges and promises and perspectives of the new moment, of the new anarchist century and to reinvented themselves. And give us what is now probably the most impressive example of revolutionary uprising or revolutionary restructuring of a society that refuses to become a state anywhere.

So, I think that also confirms certain insights of worldsystems tradition, and I don’t know how interested you are in in my own way of dealing with it. You know, I told you that when I went to the Fernand Braudel Center, I was not exactly friendly disposed to Fernand Braudel, which was somewhat uncomfortable, as you can imagine. I was looking into histories from below and then, you know, through my exchanges with specially with the Dale Tomich, I understood that world-systems is by no means a coherent set of things. World-systems can be understood as a theory, which some people unfortunately do, which I think is a big mistake, or as a method, which is far more interesting way to think about world-systems. And it also led me to understand Marx in a different way. And it took me back to Marx, but not the Marx from my high school or my college, my university, different kinds of Max. A Marx, who actually, let’s say, a kind of unusual… And I mentioned at the beginning Karel Kosík and his book The Dialectics of the Concrete which influenced me deeply. A Marx, who actually opens up space for thinking, together with Braudel, about history in a much more layered and complex ways, opening up space for new temporalities that difference, antagonistic temporalities, to the dominant temporality, sense of time, of liberal modernity and capitalist modernity. It allowed me to grasp the Zapatistas and the courage, not as some kind of a precapitalist relic, again, not as people who belong in some kind of non-modern past, who need to be modernized, but to a group of people to two examples of this distinct, antagonistic temporality that Kurds had a term for. This inhabits democratic modernity, a different kind of modernity, a different kind of temporality that can only be understood if we employ a very non-conventional social science. And that led me to this interesting, I think, or weird perhaps, way of combining Hegelian Marxism, anarchist anthropology, and Braudelian history as a way of understanding what world-systems is and world-systems analysis could be.

And, to conclude with this, in response to this question of yours: I think this is also something that has very significant political consequences, including for the country or to the region that I come from, I introduced myself as somebody who is not only a Yugoslav but a Balkan Federalist. And when you think about the notions of federalism and regional organization, the principles of non-statist federalism… Well, that’s exactly what is coming out of Kurdistan right now is the idea of Democratic Confederalism. And I think that people in the Balkans should be in dialogue with these ideas. And I think this is definitely where my politics and political energy goes these days. To create these possibilities of political translation, in which the ideas of federalism that of course, will be different in Kurdistan and in the Balkans, and the possibilities of these Federalist ideas in other parts of the world, can be somehow placed in a dialogue. And we can actually learn from all of these experiences and struggle for what was, for a long time, a signature accomplishment of anarchism, which is the anti-authoritarian, federalist political idea, and self-management as a way of organizing society.

TFSR: I’ve had you on for a long time, and I would love to continue talking. I think I just have time for one more question if that if you don’t mind, but I’d love to talk again sometime in the future.

So, you’ve brought up David Graeber a couple times and anarchist anthropology. 2020 saw the passage of your friend and colleague anarchist anthropologist activist, author and professor David Graeber. I feel like a lot of the impacts that he had on liberatory movements haven’t yet been measured. And I wonder if you’d say some words about your relationship, and what of his works left their mark on you most. And if you have any suggested starting places for people that aren’t familiar with his writings and contributions…

AG: Yes, David was my best friend since the end of the 90’s until his passion in September last year and something ago, show it was probably the greatest loss of my life, and somebody who I profoundly mourn and miss every day. And David was not just a best friends… just… Not only a best friend, but also a political companion. And I don’t think I’ve ever had an idea that I did not run by him first. We used to talk on the phone every day, we used to meet to discuss these things, and it’s hard for me to talk about David. But it’s also important, I think, to talk about David, because David should be celebrated as, to my mind, the most original anarchist thinker of the contemporary period. And also a brilliant anthropologist.

What has he distinguished? Well, he’s distinguished by his… First of all, his contribution to anthropology has been immense. And I think people are going to spend a lot of time assessing he his contribution to anthropology and other historical social sciences. He was not troubled by trends in anthropology, he was actually quite traditional in his taste, in terms of anthropology. And he wanted anthropology to go back, not to its colonial roots of course, but what made anthropology so rich.

And that is the idea that anthropology could be understood as a catalog of political possibilities. Possibility was a key word for David and perhaps the first book that I would recommend to people to read collection called Possibilities published by aka presh, sometime around 2008. That book contains all the germs of the ideas that David would continue to explore. And that coalesced around the idea of a dialogue. David believed in dialogue, something that he called dialogical relativism or dialogical anthropology and also dialogical politics. He believed, for example, that anarchism is, more than anything else, premised are made possible by the idea of dialogue. Anarchism is profoundly dialogical. We come together, because we want to solve a particular problem and then we talk about it. We don’t first define social reality and then we have all to agree about what social reality and political reality and so forth is, devise a correct line, and then proceed from there. That is the political horizon of Orthodox Marxism. His idea was anarchism was a situation in which we have a particular problem that we have to solve and people who might have completely different views of what the world is like, come together to figure out how to solve that problem. Out of which he developed something that he calls “low theory”, which is different than “high theory.” Low theory is the way of grappling with all of these consequences of practical, political projects.

Anarchism, in that sense, is profoundly dialogical, and anarchist anthropology, which is the term that David has been associated with, which is elucidated in his pamphlet, Fragments of An Anarchist Anthroopology, published in 2001. A brilliant piece of work, that pamphlet. Something that I have tried, and I think this is my way of honoring David, was to build it intp my department. I was invited to California Institute of Integral Studies in 2012, to build the department, and they asked me what kind of department you would like to build. I said, “Well, I would like to create a department of Anarchist Anthropology,” and I really thought that I was going to throw me out of the room or maybe through the window. But they actually said “Yes, ok”. And one of the reasons was that David made anarchist anthropology something that people were able to refer to and understand that something that is actually valuable.

One of the ways that he spoke about anarchist anthropology was suspended dialogue or an active dialogue between ethnographic research and possible utopias or utopian possibilities. So, ethnographic research into utopian possibilities, places, experiences, cracks that are created in the here and now and that already exist. And then using all the gifts and possibilities of offered by the technique of ethnography to actually study those people those practices and those spaces, is what makes anthropology anarchists. This is what we do at the department of Anthropology and Social Change at the California Institute of Integral Studies, we try to use ethnography and by ethnography, I mean militant ethnography, militant research activist ethnography in order to study these utopian possibilities. And again, for David’s anthropology was study of human possibilities, showing people, showing the audience, showing his readers that humanity and the possibilities are always much larger than we are led to believe. And discovering them, and bringing them to light, emphasizing them, preventing them from rescuing them, as EP Thompson said, from the condescension of posterity. It’s something that anthropologists should be doing and anthropology should be doing. At its best, it’s all about enlarging the sense of political possibility.

David, as a political theorist, I hesitate to call him that… as a political… David as an anarchist intellectual, is somebody who has inspired anarchism by pushing us to think about anarchism as a not as a dead set of ideas, as something that sclerotic and belongs to the 19th or early 20th century, but something that continues to develop. And he recognized social sciences, anthropology in particular, but social sciences more generally, as an important vehicle in expressing anarchist ideas, and developing anarchist insights. David as an anthropologist and David as a political anarchist, usually people talk about them in separation. I think that’s a mistake. I think that David was one of the most serious and dedicated anarchists I have ever met. And he is definitely the most brilliant social scientists that I was likely to meet, a privilege to meet and call the a friend. And he is someone who was able to show us a way that social science need not to be neutral, or anarchist have nothing to be ashamed of. There is no intellectual deficient, inherent in the tradition of anarchism. Quite on the contrary, anarchism can be used in a way that is profoundly intellectual. And he defied those foundational principles of capitalst modernity, talked about in such a vigorous intelligence, and creative way that is hard for me to find words. The loss is immeasurable but the books that he left us, including The Dawn of Everything, which we co-authored with his friend, David Wengrow, are absolutely breathtaking in the ambition, scope, and consequences for thinking about world history. And David used to say that he thinks about the past and writes about the past because people who write history, write about the past in a way that hides, obscures the possibilities. In a way that it prevents it to be written in a way that prevents us to think about the future. So he was very interested in finding a way of writing about the past, so that a new kind of future and possibilities would be revealed. And I think that in doing this, he was remarkably successful.

So you’re quite right, his political legacy and intellectual legacy, the two of which cannot be separated, is something that’s going to be rediscovered and celebrated, I’m sure many, many decades from now. And perhaps to end with this, he was just one of the most joyful, one of the most generous and one of most dedicated people I’ve ever met in my wife.

TFSR: Thank you very much for sharing that, Andrej. Well, thank you so much for this conversation. I’ve learned a lot. I’m very excited to share this with the audience.

In closing, I guess we mentioned And the Journal of world systems research where people can find your editorial work. Where else can listeners find some of your books, or if you have a blog or anything like that, aside from the Journal?

AG: Well, one thing that I do is I am one of the people involved with PM Press publishing. And it’s a project that I care a lot about. And it is thanks to another brilliant and exceptional person whose name is Ramsey Kanaan and the group of people that he brought together, we have a publisher that exemplifies I think, all that it’s best in thinking about anarchism and radical politics today. And with PM Press, I am an editor of an imprint, or series editor I guess, called Kairos. The term mistaken from Immanuel Wallerstein and the way that he uses the term Kairos, which means the right moment, the idea that this being: now is the right moment to think about social change. Right? So Kairos is an imprint of PM Press. And people can go to PM Press website, and see Kairos. And see the books that we publish with Kairos. And of course there is a blog or there is a page that they have there. That is part of the PM Press website. And of course, California Institute of Integral Studies, Department of Anthropology and Social Change. We also publish things there

TFSR: Is Kairos where people can hope to see the translation of Öcalan’s work that you’re doing the introduction for?

AG: Yes, so kind of is where we have published so far, I think, four books by Öcalan. And at least two or three books about the Kurdish freedom movement and the Rojava revolution. I edited all of them and I think these are really important documents for understanding what is happening with the Kurdish freedom movements and struggles in Rojava in particularly,

TFSR: Again, thank you so much for taking the time and for all the work that you that you do. I really appreciate it.

AG: Thank you for having me.

Unity And Struggle Through The Bars with Mwalimu Shakur

Unity And Struggle Through The Bars with Mwalimu Shakur

Photo of Mwalimu Shakur from 2021 at Corcoran Prison (copied from Mwalimu's site)
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This week on the show, you’ll hear our conversation with Mwalimu Shakur, a politicized, New Afrikan revolutionary prison organizer incarcerated at Corcoran prison in California. Mwalimu has been involved in organizing, including the cessations of hostilities among gangs and participation in the California and then wider hunger strikes against unending solitary confinement when he was at Pelican Bay Prison in 2013, helping to found the Incarcerated Workers Organizing Committee, or IWOC, Liberation Schools of self-education and continues mentoring younger prisoners. He was in solitary confinement, including in the SHU, for 13 of the last 16 years of his incarceration.

For the hour, Mwalimu talks a bit about his politicization and organizing behind bars, his philosophy, Black August, the hunger strikes of 2013, the importance of organizing in our neighborhoods through the prison bars.

You can contact Mwalimu via JayPay by searching for his state name, Terrence White and the ID number AG8738, or write him letters, addressing the inside to Mwalimu Shakur and the envelope to:

Terrence White #AG8738
CSP Corcoran
PO Box 3461
Corcoran, CA 93212

Mwalimu’s sites:

To hear an interview from way back in 2013 that William did former political prisoner and editor of CA Prison Focus, Ed Mead (before & after the strikes), search our website or check the show notes.

Other Groups Mwalimu Suggests:

Announcements

Shut ‘Em Down 2021

This year marks the 50th anniversary of the assassination of Jonathan Jackson at the Marin County Courthouse, the assassination of his brother George at San Quentin in California and the subsequent uprising and State massacre at Attica State Prison in New York. Black August has been celebrated at least since 1979 to mark these dates with study, exercise, community building, sharing and reflection by revolutionaries on both sides of the bars. In the last decade across Turtle Island, you’ve seen strikes and protests and educational events take place around this time of the year as we flex our muscles.

This year, as you’ve heard us mention, Jailhouse Lawyers Speak is calling for weeks of action for Abolitionism under the name “Shut ‘Em Down 2021”. You can find out more at JailhouseLawyersSpeak.Wordpress.Com and follow them on twitter and instagram, linked in our show notes, alongside links relating to this weeks chat. You can hear our interview with a member of JLS from earlier this year about the “Shut ‘Em Down” initiative, or read the interview, at our site and in these show notes. Also, check out our interview with the remaining member of the Marin Courthouse Uprising, possibly the oldest living political prisoner in the US, Ruchell Cinque Magee.

Shaka Shakur Hunger Strike

New Afrikan prison rebel, co-founder of the New Afrikan Liberation Collective and IDOCWatch organizer, Shaka Shakur has been interstate transferred hundreds of miles away from his support network to Buckingham Correctional Center in Virginia (recognize that name?). There was a call-in campaign this week focused on VA Governor Northam, director of VADOC Harold Clark, VADOC central regional director Henry Ponton and Warden Woodson at BKCC. This was in support of Shakur’s hunger strike in protest of the transfer, his time in solitary prior in Indiana for having his prescription medication, being moved into solitary at BKCC with minimal hygiene and no personal materials. As noted in the transcript about his hunger strike at IDOCWatch’s website, the transfer interrupts civil and criminal litigation Shaka Shakur had pending in Indiana and has caused him to be halfway across the country after his own surgeries, the loss of his family matriarch and another aunt, the hospitalization of mother and other health hardships.

You can find ways to support via

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Featured Tracks:

  • Blues For Brother George Jackson by Archie Shepp from Attica Blues
  • George Jackson by Dicks from These People

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Transcription

TFSR: Hi, I’m wondering if you could introduce yourself for the audience, maybe like your name, your location, if that’s useful, any pertinent information that will help the audience understand you.

Mwalimu Shakur: My name is Mwalimu Shakur, and I’m in Corcoran State Prison, where I’ve been for the last 17 years, 13 of which were in solitary confinement. But, you know, due to our massive hunger strikes in challenging this legislature inside of prison, the bureaucrats decided to let us out to the general population.

TFSR: Can you talk a little bit about some of your background, where you came from, how you became politicized, and how you identify politically now?

MS: Yeah, well, I came from Los Angeles, California. You know… gang violence was a problem in every neighborhood around the whole LA County area. As well as most of Southern California, but I grew up in a gang neighborhood, and not having really no political education, and only knowing the street way of life. You kind of navigated through court cases, you know, cases that put you in prison. But once you come inside of here, you have older individuals from your same community and other communities around the country who became politicized. And they became politically mature, so they can re-educate others that come in.

And for me, landing in prison, or what the drug mentality, gang mentality, criminal mentality all together. It put me in a situation where I was always involved in physical combat with others. You know, people I knew from my area, and then we have race riots. So those types of things that put you in solitary confinement. And when you go to solitary confinement, or you catch an infraction, those in SHU term, they’ll place you around more politicized individuals, who’ve educated themselves, studied their own history, study, politics, economics, a vast array of things. And being around those guys, that was the program on the inside. So I was able to start educating myself. I educated myself, so much so that I developed it into my practice. And it gave me a discipline, that became second nature to me. And once my mind started opening up to this new reality, I started seeing things more clearly, and I realized and understood why my community was the way that it was.

It wasn’t because we wanted to do these things, it was by design by those who oppress us and control us so that they can put us in their prisons and enact a modern day slavery type practice. Being in prison, that’s exactly what it is. So that’s what happened to me. And now, the more I still learn, the more I’m able to teach, and hopefully stop others from making those same mistakes. And if my teaching is correct, the way it was with me, then we can stop this school-to-prison pipeline which is what we say when you have a lot of people from inner city coming to prison, not knowing what to do with their self, they usually end up here. And we’re trying to break, break that curse, break those habits.

TFSR: A lot of people in the listening audience may not understand what you mean, with talking about how the situation was set up, particularly at this time, like you went in during what could be called like the heyday of mass incarceration in the United States. And if you could maybe break down, since you’ve been in for a while and some things have changed greatly, somethings have stayed the same. There’s this guy named Biden, I’ve heard about that has a still pretty prominent politics, that was pretty prominent. And some of the political decisions that put a lot of people in particular, Black and brown folks behind bars at that time. Can you talk a little bit about that context?

MS: Yeah, well, in the inner city, they flooded it with cocaine. You know, as if to say that the little progress we’ve made in the 70s, from the 60s revolutionary era, would quiet us and stop us from progressing as a people and as a culture. So you flood all the inner cities with this cocaine, okay? A lot of us partook in selling it, not knowing or really having a vast understanding and just further destroying our community and our people. So we became hustlers in the drug game. Gangs were rapidly building and growing. And then they put guns on the streets.

So now with the gun wars, and drug wars… basically the administration, I think and believe, had it set up that way so that they can take taxpayers money to build more prisons and create more laws to put us in and clearly show you the problems that are happening in those inner cities. And they created it, you know, and when you study it, you see it unfold that way because the only ones being hauled off into these prisons is Black and brown people. And the sentences are outrageous. Without a murder just for like selling small amounts of cocaine, you can get a lot of times – double digits, Okay? And then they enacted other laws, like the three strike law and made it seem like we were the worst people on planet Earth.

And in all actuality, that’s not really true. If you wouldn’t flood the inner cities with that cocaine and had made it possible for us to have better quality education in our schools, made it affordable to go off to college and learn a higher field of study so we can be successful in this country, we would have had more success. But the ratio, you know, people Black and brown playing sports was very limiting and that was the only ticket that I see out if you weren’t being a drug dealer. So that’s why I say it was by design, when you studied you see that mass incarceration boom, is still in effect right now, right? And what we’re doing is trying to challenge some of those laws and get them out of here. Because we recognize what they did. And with some of the laws changing, it’s like they’re admitting it, that they did do this and now it’s time to make it right. So that’s what I see.

TFSR: Awesome, thank you so much for sharing that. Part of the context that I have for you and was excited to have you on the show is because you have a long history of struggle alongside of other prisoners against unethical situations, against cruelty, against mass incarceration. One of the points in the struggle of prisoners that I’ve heard you refer to was participation in the hunger strikes against basically unending use of the SHU or solitary confinement. Can you talk a bit about it? People may have heard of the term SHU or secure housing unit? How does that differ from solitary confinement more generally? Is there a difference?

MS: Well, no, there’s no difference. I mean, we refer to solitary confinement is to AD-SEG, administrative segregation, which is what they first put you before you get the SHU term. The situation is the same. 23 hours locked down. Except for once you once you go to the SHU, that’s when you can have appliances like a TV or radio, okay? In AD-SEG, you can’t have those two things, but you can have everything else. You still go to yard every other day for a few hours. And you’re in a dog-like kennel-type cage, where they put a urinal, so that you can use the restroom. But you have no contact with another human being. You can see from cage to cage, but you can’t contact them, you can’t touch them.

The only human contact you have is if you have a celly. So the practices are the same. The length of time, in AD-SEG is not as long as it is in SHU. Like I said AD-SEG is like a pit stop before you get to Security Housing Unit. And within a Security Housing Unit. You can’t have the type of things you can have on in the general population. You can’t take college courses, you can’t go to school. You can’t take a vacation. You can have a few books. You can have no tennis shoes. Just like, some type of shoe that’s not really designed to protect your feet, you can put on like a shower shoe, but with a little bit more support. You could have no athletic shorts, no T-shirts. We took like two pairs of T-shirts to make a long sleeve T-shirt in case it was cold. So you couldn’t have sweat suits, thermals, beanies, nothing like that, to keep yourself warm.

It’s a real inhumane practice to have. You pretty much break a person down to nothing. And you put them in a cell, like I said, confined for 23 hours a day. And it was just because of those conditions: the small portions on the trays, the lack of quality healthcare, always being handcuffed every time you do come out of the cell to go to a shower, which is like five minutes. If you’re in Pelican Bay, then you’re not in a dog cage, you are in a little cage right behind your cell so you see nobody.

So yeah, we all came together talking through the doors, talking through the toilets, to each other and decided to come up with a strategy to get out of here. To get released. It worked because, united we stood on a hunger strike. And then we started challenging the injustice that puts you in there, like the gang validation. And then we start challenging the practices that they use to keep you in there. Like, if you talk to another inmate who’s a gang member, then you get another point, and it keeps you in there longer. And mind you, you are going through a classification every six years to get considered to be released. So it was really inhumane, the practices were. We just came up with the hunger strike strategy as well as challenging the rules in order to get up out of here. And for the most part, it worked.

TFSR: You talked about participating in the hunger strikes against SHU containment. Can you talk a little bit about the relationship between the administration and gang status? There’s a term, you’ll be able to come up with it, but, basically where if you’re assigned a gang status, because somebody else pointed at you, the only way in a lot of cases to get out of the SHU at that point was to basically claim that someone else was a gang member, and give false testimony in a lot of cases, to be able to reduce SHU time. Is that Is that a fair description? Is that what happened?

MS: Yeah, well, what it is, is the administration, they look at who they feel is against them as far as political-ness. Like for us New Afrikans, I could speak on that. We’re not a gang, but being a politicized, conscious, New Afrikan means you can challenge the conditions and wake others up to that knowledge on how to do so. And what they do is they’ll put that gang label on you, because they put the gang label on the other ethnic groups, and it will stick with the other ethnic groups, if you’re a gang member that came from society, and you come up inside of these prisons and you group together, and you form your structure.

So what they do is they put that label on you. So they can get away with the type of law book that they write. They come up with these rules, just like the bureaucrats and society come up with rules and different laws to get legislation passed, okay? The bureaucrats in prison do the same, they get a book where it gives them the rights to whatever they consider gang practice: like reading certain types of books, certain type of cultural literature, a certain type of drawing depicting that literature. Anything you read, study, or practice, if they consider that gang participation, they’ll slap you with that label.

Okay? And if you rack up… they give you points for everything you do. Okay, if you speak this Swahili language, they say you are communicating in code. Okay, so that becomes a gang point. If you exercise a certain way, in military form, that shows unity. They look at that as gang participation with other gang members. So it’s whatever the rules they can try to come up with to make stick on you, which gives them their little right to hinder you. And once they have enough points, like three to four points, they then can put you in solitary confinement indefinitely. And what it does is, they give you an indeterminate SHU, which is only six months. But every six months, they just keep stamping it. So then you stay in there for years and years and years and you only go to committee every six years if you have an indeterminate SHU. So that gives me the right to keep you in there. And then when you go to that committee, they stamp you again. Saying, “well, we see them talking to another gang member, he hasn’t denounced his association”.

So, you know, those little things keep you in solitary for that length of time, and the only way to get out is parole. And if you debrief, go through the little process of dry snitching or telling on others, informing on others and work for them, or you die. You know? And we wanted to take that power back. So we all got together and decided, you know, let’s come up with these strategies to do so. But it’s a flawed system. We challenged it, it worked because we didn’t have the political maturity to understand that in order to beat their system, we should unite. But once we develop that, we found those strategies to be significant in winning our freedoms from behind that wall. So now, they can only use this SHU practices, if you catch a SHU-able offense. You know, whatever they deem a SHU-able offense by getting caught with a weapon or participating in some type of a riot or melee, assault on the staff, anything that will warrant SHU placement?

TFSR: Mwalimu, just to make a point, on the on the gang jacketing, and the files, and the debriefing and everything. Like, if you get paroled out… and like a lot of people are going to end up staying with their families because they don’t have money. So if they can go anywhere, they’ll try to stay with their family. Oftentimes the ways that the California government defines gang membership, there’s a relationship to… they say like, “Oh, it overlaps with family.” So it seems like it complicated it too, when you go and you stay in your cousin’s house or whatever, they are then associating with a known gang member and this kind of thing. I’m not sure if it still is the case, but I think in 2013 this was still the case, gang injunctions would then come into play where maybe if because you’ve been communicating with your cousin, who’s on the outside. When you get out maybe you can’t go to the neighborhood that your your cousin lives in, because they’re considered to be gang associated through family connections or whatever. Is that right?

MS: Well, it’s true still because yeah, they can gang jacket you. But once they do background checks on your family, and they see that they’re not involved with the street gang or anything like that, they will back up but they will still watch you. Most people, the family already knows about them, and what to expect in case they parole to a loved one’s house. Now, if you go to your neighborhood, and you are a member of a street gang, then the parole department is going to watch a lot more, because if the street gangs is under any type of surveillance for any type of activities that they have, they’re going to see if you’re participating in things like that. And that’s also avoidable. It’s all about you and what you want to do to integrate back into society.

For me, I was working, went back to school, and living a productive life, where they couldn’t pinpoint me for doing things with known gang members from my area, or anybody else I might have ran into that I knew, because while they’re watching me, they’re seeing that “Okay, he may be speaking to people, but he’s not doing anything that we consider illegal or gang activity.” So, they won’t push on you so hard, they’ll gives you a little leeway. But for those that do go back out there and do anything like that, you’re just setting yourself up for failure, you know? Surveillance capitalism, you see it all over now they got cameras on telephone poles, and certain community areas where they can watch the neighborhood and see what they’re doing, and things of that nature. So the community is under surveillance, you know, normal people under surveillance. I mean, so they’re watching everything you do. But it’s up to you, that individual, on how well they want to be productive out there and what they want to do while they’re out there.

TFSR: Yeah, what you’re describing, though, with, like the inside / outside affiliations, and the constant surveillance is counter-insurgency. Right?

MS: Right. Right, right. And they do that in here as well as out there. I learned that firsthand by being in the SHU and being investigated by ISU officers and IGI who are supposed to work with gang members in prison. But they’re going out there in society and work on parole agents, and other Sheriff departments and patrols certain gang neighborhoods. And that’s how I got arrested, actually, on three violations that I obtained. I was arrested by them, you know, and I didn’t commit a crime. But one of my violations, they put me back in prison for being out past curfew because I stopped at a gas station before I got home, and then they were the one’s harassing me! Okay? Then I’m at home, you know, it’s a decent hour, but they came to my house, saying “Well, you are living above your means.” You know, just little chickenshit things like that. It’s the thing that they do when you have their gang jacket on. And like I said, it gives them that right, because of their flawed law book that they put together, that they target us. You know?

TFSR: During the last portion of our conversation, you were talking about the the prison strikes, the hunger strikes across California prisons that actually spread way beyond that, around concerns of solitary confinement. And you talked about when people realize that when they were unified, they have a lot more strength. Can you talk about that sort of organizing. That inspirational moment and the hard work that you all put into create negotiations and some sort of like, de-escalation between different crews, whether they be specifically racialized crews, like the Aryan Brotherhood? That sort of stuff that inspires people still from the Lucasville uprising and from Attica before it?

MS: Yeah, yes. When you show a person your purpose, and you can sometimes take race even out of it, and just show the love for humanity. When you take a stand for others who are being oppressed. And you show them the conditions in which they’re being oppressed, they can understand and say “That makes sense.” So what we was able to do was, let them know that there’s a bigger picture than this little bickering that we had going on for generations and generations. And when you show them that bigger picture, and they see that “if we unite with you all, whether our interests are the same or not, and we can reach the objective by doing so, then let’s do it.” And then the whole time, while you’re doing that, you still show them your correct views, your correct ideology, what you proceed. You show them the incorrect ways in which they’re being treated by the government. You show them that it’s a class struggle, and not a race struggle, and you use these teaching moments, you know, to show them that it’s the race caste system was devised by the two party government system. To show you that “look, if you divide yourself from the Negros and the Indians, then we will give you special privileges,” but they’re not getting as those privileges. So now you show them that, “look, you’re serving their interests as much as we do, or we are. And if you believe in American values, you’re going to lose because they’re not going to treat you the way you think you deserve to be treated.” And you can clearly see that with people that go off to war. So when you show people where they’re wrong is that and who is responsible for the wrong they’ll lean more towards you.

And that’s what we were able to do with the other ethnic groups in California, as well as when we got the word out to society, and had a lot white people, a lot of Mexican people, a lot of other ethnicities join forces with us, in solidarity, to help us overcome the challenges that we were facing here. And we had a lot of people from other countries like maybe Europe, you know, where there was a lot of civil unrest, and a lot of organizations who established themselves, they were poor people organizations. They realized that it was a class struggle. And that’s how you win the masses over. You know a lot of times people just, they have a feeling, they have a thought, they just need to be pushed to exercise that thought and give into that feeling. And when you show him that you’ve got that love and support for them. And they feel that strength, they tend to latch on, too.

TFSR: What were some outcomes actually, of those strikes. I know it led to higher court responses and admonition of the state of California for its practices. How have things changed because of that mass movement of people, and how has that peace that was brokered, and reflection, that it was a class struggle, and not a race struggle… Where does that seem to fit in the California system to you now?

MS: Well, now that they let us all out of solitary confinement, you know, that was one win. And then they can only use solitary confinement or the SHU for if you catch a SHU term. You know, it would have to be a criminal infraction, just like if you’re on the streets, and you catch a case and you go to prison. They have to utilize it the way it was designed. So they can’t use those practices no more. Also the guard union took a hit, because a lot of them can’t work in the SHU no more and get that hazardous pay, which is like triple pay. So they lose out. The Board of Prison Terms has said “You know what? We’re going to have to start letting some of these people out of prison and back into society.” So the laws have been changing.

Since we’ve gotten into the general population, and utilize our practices, and shown them, you know, this revolutionary way of doing things. When they implemented their own self-help groups, which are like robotic programs to teach you how to have common sense the way they want you to, you see how they’re doing it, and you change that narrative and create your own self-help groups. Things that you know will really work. And you’re working together with other ethnicities, and you’re increasing the peace and showing this younger generation “You’ve been misled, you’ve been misguided. You know, we’re the ones who made mistakes, and had the faults, it’s time for us to change that.” And when you do that, you see legislature saying “Okay, well, they know the truth now. They know what really happened. They know how the Three Strikes were devised. They know who pushed the crack cocaine into the neighborhoods.” we’re taking the power back by realizing that there’s a peaceful way to get things done, there’s a peaceful way to bring these changes.

And if you keep telling the truth, you take the power out of their 1% class of hands, and you win more of the masses over. Because you make people who didn’t know, understand, you know, by teaching them those truths. And then they research those facts on their own and they’re more willing to want to help you. So a lot of changes are still needed, but we got the ball rolling. And that’s one thing that I can say is happening right now throughout the California prison system.

TFSR: So this year, Jailhouse Lawyer Speak, which is a coalition based around and in prisons around the US and a lot in the South, is calling for days of action, solidarity and education on the outside with folks struggling on the inside on August 21, and September 9. And I’d like to hear later about Black August and about education and the 50th anniversary of George Jackson’s assassination, and how people participated in the Attica Uprising also. But I’m wondering if you can say a little bit about the importance of having people on the outside acting in solidarity and understanding the unity between inside and outside as well as the differences. And just to sort of like point to that trajectory of activity… the inspiration of the hunger strikes in California that spread the movement in Georgia, in the early 2010s, the Free Alabama Movement and the strikes that were happening in Alabama and Mississippi around that time and the sort of like chronology of struggle. Could you talk about the importance of the inside / outside solidarity and the upcoming dates of the action and education?

MS: Yeah, well, the inside outside solidarity is of paramount importance because we don’t want separation. We don’t want the 1% class to think that people in society look at us as bad people, you know? They need to understand that it’s important to support us on the inside because we are the ones who will be fighting once we get out, we’re the ones who are going to fight with them, to help them challenge different conditions out there that are still oppressing them out there is as it is in here. You know, it should never be a divide. It should always be unity.

You know what we sparked in California by recognizing our conditions, we’re glad that it trickled over into the other states because they were up against the same type of oppressive slave conditions. I mean, they didn’t start in California with the three strikes, for example. They started in California, and that actually spread to other States, and they just call it something different, but the condition is still the same. So the importance of knowing that, will build that unity, and people outside will see the importance of this, to stand in unity with us on the inside to get things done because t takes us all in order to beat back Capitalism and Imperialism.

What we would love to see more of, is a lot more changes being done in the Constitution, like Ammendment 13. Keeping those clauses there allows them to still keep those practices, those slave practices. And people on outside needs to really understand a lot more of what they’re up against. And if they are working with anybody in here, we can always show them to look at Liberation Schools. It teaches you something that the American public school system didn’t teach you. We teach the truth based on all cultures, how they’ve been oppressed, economically, politically, militarily. And the need to eradicate those backwards ways of thinking and doing, because you know who established them. And if you know that, then you can fight them a whole lot easier. So we look forward to continuing our Liberation Schools and winning the masses over that way. We look forward to supporting you all out there. As well as I know, you guys will look forward to helping us on the inside. And yeah, we can talk about it a lot more than next time I get a chance to call.

Working inside and outside is the best thing possible so that we break away from that dividing line, that they try to put there because they want to keep you separate. Unity in the masses is of paramount importance, if you want to go forward in this class struggle, because we need to unite, helping each other with whatever we got going on, that reaches a positive objective of change. You know, and like what you’re doing now, this right here builds unity of the masses, builds solidarity, this reaches people so they can see their purpose. And if they need help with anything, and there’s others who might have a semblance of how to make it happen for them, then, you know, by all means you should always assist. You know, and that’s what will keep the unity strong. People always want to be able to lean on their comrades and loved ones and sometimes other people have better programs or something else is working, that they might not have working. And you always want to help people so that they can achieve their goals, just like how you want to achieve your goals.

TFSR: So we’re talking right now, in August, that’s the 50th anniversary of the Attica uprising as well as the assassination of George Jackson, which, as I understand in 1979 began being practiced mostly by Black radical prisoners, and then by others in solidarity, the practice of Black August. Can you talk a little bit about the practice, it’s important to you? And also a bit about the education and the Liberation Schools?

MS: Yeah. Well the purpose of keeping the practice going of Black August is what the month means to New Afrikan revolutionaries and fought and gave their life to win freedoms that we have in here. They put their life on the line to challenge these conditions. So, the Liberation Schools, from the onset is to teach that, about our history, our cultural practices, because this is something that we didn’t learn in school. And when you learn through the Liberation Schools, it allows you to go out there and not compete in the capitalist market, but understand what Capitalism is all about and utilize your finances for socialist practices. You know, helping grow Black-owned businesses or other oppressed ethnic groups in the communities, businesses, and building that unity and solidarity. Because what you learn is that we all have shared cultural practices. In Howard Zinn’s book The People’s History of the United States you learn how divided line was established and by whom. You learned the importance of solidarity and unity and how to help each other, you know “Each One Teach One” practices come to mind. And you see the importance of doing so. So yeah, this whole month, we pay reverence to those who paved the way for us, basically, and continue with this study. And practice the exercising, something we do in unity. Just to feel strength.

TFSR: So you mentioned, like the practices and the importance of sharing this, learning and mentoring, and study, and focus, during the period of Black August, and also like redirecting funds back into socialistic endeavors. Could you talk a bit about sort of the legacy for you of some of the big ideas, and some of the big thinkers. George Jackson obviously comes to mind. His struggle, his writings have been like greatly influential to folks that are doing study behind bars. I know that you’ve done work on projects that have collaborated with George Jackson University. And also, I would like for you, if you if you’re okay with it, to break down the term New Afrikan, which you’ve defined yourself as. I think some listeners may be unfamiliar with that term and some of its lineage.

MS: Well, the New Afrikan term is your ideology. You know, we consider this our New Afrikan being as we’re descendants of our ancestors who came over here as slaves. So we don’t use the term African American or Black or… We try to refrain from those terms, because those are the terms that the oppressor wants to call you and to see things in his way is just not the correct way. So that’s why we call ourselves New Afrikans, it’s an ideology. And all ethnicities who are revolutionary nationalists should always refer to their self in a way that they feel comfortable, not in a way like the oppressors feel like referring to them. And you know, most of my role models, so to speak: yeah, George is one; Mao; Marx; Engels; Amílcar Cabral; Patrice Lumumba; Kwame Nkrumah; Jomo Kenyatta. All those who took the liberation stands, Che Guevara, to challenge oppression, and unite the people, and challenge the conditions that were oppressing them, not just the people. Those who sacrificed their life, paved the way for us. The spirit lives on in the hearts and minds of all of those who continue to do the same, because, as you can see, the problem still exists.

I do like Huey’s concept as well, because, creating a party, which Lenin spoke about, a party or self-governing organization of the people. You know, that’s basically what Communism is. And Socialism is your economic practices. So it works in hindsight, as long as you’re always keeping the People in mind. When you create programs for the People, they are programs designed to help further the people along, and keep them thinking about self sufficiency. Because that’s what it’s all about. You don’t need to compete in the capitalist market, work your way up the capitalist chain, because you’ll never make it to the top. In understanding that, you want to wake up the minds of others who don’t yet know that. And that way they won’t be running around like dogs chasing their tail, so to speak. Lost and caught up just trying to make ends meet. They’ll make things better for themself. Okay?

TFSR: You were just telling me about the liberation Schools. Can you talk a bit about what y’all do and what the idea is?

MS: Okay, with us, it’s always about need. So, as far as like the Liberation Schools, we try to bring the material, the cultural material, historical material, where we read it and studied it, and we practice our way of life like our ancestors did. And every program we create, is a program of need. So when we grab the certain books, by for instance, Chancellor Williams has a book called The Destruction of Black Civilization, and it tells you how it was destroyed in Africa. Okay, Then he tells you, he does a sequel, part two: The Rebirth Of African Civilization. And that tells you how to build these self sufficiency programs that are designed to allow you to implement socialist practices that are programs of need that people have, so that they can continue to raise healthy families. You know?

Like for instance, we created one program, I have to use a pamphlet so you can get the in depth details of it. But like for instance, one of them was like building a community grocery store. And let’s say for instance, I have enough finances to rent a space and build a grocery store. I use a comrade or friend in the community that has their own construction company, and I spend money with them who is not going to charge me a lot to build the grocery store. Okay, the grocery store, all the stuff that I’m selling in a grocery store, let’s say or instance there are four or five people on my street who have organic fruits and vegetables. The soil is ripe for planting and growing foods and vegetables. So I take all their groceries, all their stuff, I pay them what they want for this, reasonable price, and I turn around and sell it to other people. And what you see is the practices of implementing that. And everybody has enough. Everybody is not in need. And the concept continues.

And you can use it with other things like a clothing store. I have a friend of mine who’s a good artist. So I might want to go to another friend of mine who has a linen shop, and buy some linen, and then take my other friend’s art and transform the art onto the clothes and start a clothing line. You know what I mean? And go to another friend of mine who owns like a store similar to Walmart, and put my stuff in his store and have him sell it for price. So that everybody has enough money. Everybody is working and contributing to each other’s businesses, and we’re growing and thriving those businesses and living off of that. Those socialist practices are what’s missing in the communities. And if there is a lot of, you know, what we call a mom and pop spots, the community businesses, thriving those businesses allows for a safe environment in a thriving community. And that’s one of the things we teach in the Liberation Schools. One of the ways that we’ll be able to implement socialist practices.

People get other things out of it. Because we don’t just study New Afrikan history, we study all oppressed people’s history. Mexican history, First Nation peoples history, which they call them Indians or Native Americans, because that was all of Central South America. We study American history. When you study other culture’s history, you fill in the gap that’s left out of American history, where all of us played a part in history, and we fill those in. We study theology, break down the different religions, show how cultures worship God in different ways. Some comrades are Muslim, so they can talk about that. Some comrades are Christian, Hebrew Israelites, Judaists, you know, I’ve heard all different types. We just study all the sciences that we can and some of the arts. And there’s people who are more well versed in languages and in other forms of study than a lot of others, so they study on an advanced level, and then some study on a beginning level. And as long as you can grasp the concepts, and implement them into your practice it will change your way of thinking and how you relate to each other. When you see that each other has a need, and you learn about core value systems, and you try to complement those needs based on their core value system.

TFSR: So, to go back to the example that you gave, of both starting markets and trading with each other and using each other’s resources and such, how does the socialist approach not allow for the re-creation of a bourgeoisie within that community? Certain people have access to certain resources? And if they continue to hold on to it, doesn’t that just reproduce the class dynamic?

MS: Yeah, if you can’t show people the importance of the socialist practice, then yeah, they’ll stay with a bougie mind. And that’s middle class mainly because they try to reach for that 1% class. A lot of them don’t make it. So if they want to continue to reach for it like that, then you have to just let them do what they do. You know, but for those who see the importance of the socialist practices, you continue to welcome them in and show them the importance of sharing those resources. Because you don’t want to be materialistic, if you if you become too materialistic, then the capitalist mind has as engulfed you. You continue and you start thinking like the 1%, which is what they they want. You see it on a TV screen all the time, the lavish lifestyle. They want to showcase that so that you can see that that is success. And it’s really not. You know?

I was in the streets, and I was a hustler and I used to think that that was the way to be successful. When I realized, after studying my history, when I came to prison, that all I’m doing is stepping on my own people, hurting my own people and creating genocidal practices as well as menti-cidal practices by destroying people’s mind. Making them think that this is the way to be, and it is not. So you have to use a practice that we call “eradicating backwards and unprogressive ways of thinking and behavior.” And when you read and study more, you see that that’s the most important thing to do. You know? And when you apply that mentally, you have to encourage others to do the same. But yeah, if you can’t reach everybody, so if you can’t, you just got to let them pretty much fall to the wayside.

TFSR: I’d love to hear more about your ideas on, for instance in Corcoran, in your study group where, like people have limited access to material resources, there’s… literally the institution is there to keep people separate from each other and monitor their relationships. Sharing knowledge is definitely an aspect of socialism. But is there are there other practices or or ways that people relate to each other that sort of reflect on this socialist practice you’re talking about?

MS: Us who come from the inner city, you know, we’ve swallowed a lot of our differences. And we see that there’s a common goal. And that common goal is keeping it peaceful on the prison yards, and not let anyone disturb that peace so that we can make it back to society where our families and our community needs us. So we can undo the damage that we did with the selling of drugs and the gang banging and the, you know, things like that. So we pretty much understand our conditions. And we know that we are our own liberators. So we fight to do just that. We’ve already, because of our agreement to end all hostilities, we’ve already got football tournaments going, basketball tournament, softball tournaments, handball tournaments, things like that. We share in the practices of implementing the self-help groups. We know how to build better men. We know how to interact with each other to help each other thrive and overcoming any injustices that come our way. So we help each other with law work and stuff like that, filling out 602’s, medical forms. Anything like that to show and build unity, which helps with the solidarity.

So coming across those lines, youngsters coming in here who have a different mindset, they see that, and then they realize “Wait a minute, we thought it was like negative and violent!” And we show them “No, this is why it was violent at first, it was CO’s behind it starting all that.” You know? Then of course when there is bloodshed, it’s hard to stop it. But we show them the importance of building that unity, and why we’re resorting to a different way of doing things. And they’re starting to relate to that more. So it is a lot of action. And we were trying to take the hands out of these CO’s, slowly but surely.

I mean, we’re up against the California Guard’s Union. It’s real big and powerful. But, you know, we’re not going to let that discourage us. We’re going to keep doing the best that we can, so that we can overcome this and get these laws to change, get these Parole Boards, hopefully, with people from the community on them, that would have more sympathy towards us. And let us out instead of believing in Capital Punishment. But yeah, it’s still a work in progress, but it’s working. It’s working in a good way. So much so that the governor is letting people off death row, and letting them transition into prison, so they can function in a normal environment. So hopefully they can get a Parole Board date or win their case in court. You know what I mean?

TFSR: So I guess the specific question, again, about the place that you’re being held, or at least the state. So in terms of the demonstrations that are being called for by JLS that we’ve talked about, or mentioned before, between August 21 and September 9, asking for folks on the outside to spread the Abolitionist message and work with comrades and connect with comrades behind bars. I was wondering if you could talk about some of the issues that are specific to the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation system, where you’re currently being held. And any sort of insights on what you would like folks on the outside to be working on, or programs that they could be coordinating with, based on the conversations that you’re hearing and the reality on the ground, where you’re at.

MS: Well, where we’re at, if comrades on the outside were building Liberation Schools, that will be of paramount importance, because now they’re educating themselves on the need and the importance of transforming the inner cities into positive places, getting rid of all the negative things. And that’s mainly what we’re doing in here, because our self-help groups, we’re finding needs, and trying to meet those needs. And what the state does is they want to create self-help groups that the prison board will accept. So they can transition back into society and be a robot basically, for them. And we don’t want that, that’s not therapeutic programming. Rehabilitating is people who want to change. And they know what they want to change. And if you create certain types of programs that help that change prosper and thrive, then that’s what’s needed.

And that’s what we’re trying to do. What outside comments can also do is work with organizations that are already doing things in prisons, whatever it may be. If it’s creating newsletters, newspapers, podcasts. Whatever it is, so that people in here can let you know what’s going on. And you can find ways to help that, to bring about those changes, that’s what’s needed. We really would like to see people from the community on these Parole Boards, instead of ex-police, DA’s and people in the legislature who only want to control us all. We don’t want to see them because they don’t really want to help you. You know? If they help you transition to society, then they don’t have a job. They have a job when all these prisons stay full. So that’s basically what’s needed.

TFSR: Are there any sort of organizations that you want to name that folks would get involved in? Like, you were one of the founders of the Incarcerated Workers Organizing Commitee? So I don’t know if that’s one that you’d want to name or Oakland Abolition or any other sort of groups?

MS: Yeah, IWOC is always… whatever state you’re in, whatever city you live in, there’s a chapter, and we’re trying to create more chapters. But yeah, IWOC is a good group to get involved with because their Abolitionists and activist, and a lot of them have other professional fields where they can utilize those tools to help transition us out into society and create safe space for us to be involved in community work. They challenged legislature. Initiate Justice is another organization that they really challenged legislature and try to get… They’re guiding Senators and State Council members to pass certain laws that will let us get out of prison earlier than what is expected. You’ve got Critical Resistance, they’re pretty big, and they work to abolish prisons altogether. But a lot of them are activists. You got California Prison Focus. There are some other organizations out there in society and different states. I can’t think of them all right now, but any organization that’s working with inside people to make conditions better on the inside, as well as transform those communities into positive places like the Malcolm X Grassroots Movement in the South. You know, those are organizations you want to be a part of. We have a lot of organizations that we’ve established like the Revolutionary Intercommunal Black Panthers Party. That’s an organization that deals with racial schools. Prison Lives Matter is a new organizations like Jailhouse Lawyers Speak, where we’re trying to continue to connect ourselves to these other prison plantations throughout this country, where we continue to develop consciousness through our education, and our revolutionary theory. We can apply that to practice so that we can continue to grow and thrive as a class, not just as a nation, but as a class of all ethnicities, and struggle to win our freedoms.

You have to liberate the mind first before you can liberate the body. That’s something that I always tell people. That’s something that people can get involved with, and if they’re not working with anybody on the inside, they can always go to my website and contact me, go to other comrades who might have websites and contact them directly. So that that way we can help them get that extra push they might need to get involved in something.

TFSR: Can you say what the what website publishes your writing?

MS: Yeah, I got two different websites. One’s a penpal website and it’s called Wire of Hope. You can go to wireofhope.com/prison-penpal-terrance-white and you’ll see some of my writings on there. My comrade she put that that website together in order to establish relations, not so much as romance. If that happens, that’s a good thing, but to get us a voice out there as well as have people in the community connect with some of us on the inside so that they can work with us with doing positive things out there. And then I got my own website is ajamuwatu.wixsite.com/ajamuwatu

Ajamu means “he who fights for what he wants” and Watu means “people”. So if you put that together, it’s saying “he who fights for the people”, a Swahili word. And you’ll see a lot of my writings. My writings are mainly about education. How to build and create self-sufficiency programs, how to develop political thought, how to apply revolutionary theory to practice.

And one thing I always tell people is never be embarrassed if you go through the political immaturity stage, because that’s a given. You have to develop your own way of doing things based on your understanding. There’s no big me’s there’s no little you’s. But as long as you are studying cultural history, politics, economics, African history, you will see the holes in American history. And you’ll be able to see the lies that they put out there. You know, a lot of the reading material that we read is like, Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States of America which shows you how the 1% class divided the rest of us in the 99%, and how they’re continuing to exploit us through their Capitalist system. The more you read, and learn, and study, the more your mind will open up. So you’ll see where there’s a problem, and you want to challenge that problem any way you can, as long as it warrants success. I would always encourage people to do that.

TFSR: And Mwal… Mwalimu… *laughs* Sorry, I’m still learning, you know? I guess we are all learning right?

MS: Yeah, well we’re all alive and learning. It took me a while to pronounce them all right too. You know, it’s funny because in Swahili dialect, the A’s are pronounced like “e” and the I’s are pronounced like “e”. So it’s backwards for the English vowel sound. The U was pronounced “oo” The M is pronounced “oom” you know, so it takes a while, but once you get the hang of it, it’ll flow like water. *laughs*

TFSR: Yeah, I guess it’s just about practice, and praxis. Comrades, thank you so much for having this conversation. I really appreciate it. And I really value you taking the time and making the effort to get in touch and be in touch about this. I wish you total solidarity and take care of yourself. Keep in touch.

MS: Well, thank you. Thank you. I appreciate you for having me, man. It’s always a pleasure to talk to you, comrade, people of like mind, in order to go forward is always a beautiful thing. You know, I enjoy meeting new people. I enjoy working with people and helping them out as best I can. “Each one, teach one” is something that we have to continue to do. And “can’t stop, won’t stop” is something we have to continue to be mindful of. So yeah, I’m always here for you all as well. Thank you. Appreciate you all so much. It’s always a pleasure.

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History of Black August: Concept and Program

Thi smonth of August gained special significance and importance in the Black Liberation Movement beginning with a courageous attempt by Jonathan Jackson to demand the freedom of Political / Prisoners Of War of which the Soledad Brothers case were the center of attention. On August 7, 1970 Jonathan Jackson, William Christmas, James McClain and Ruchell Magee were gunned down at the Marin County Courthouse in that attempt for freedom. Ruchelle Cinque Magee remains the sole survivor of that bid for liberation, he also remains a POW for freedom. Though this rebellion was put down by pigs and their agents, it was internalized within the hearts and minds of the people on the outside in the larger prison as well as those in the concentration camps (prison). Internalized in the same fashion as we honor other heroic Afrikan freedom fighters who sacrificed their lives for the people and their liberation.

On August 21, 1971 almost exactly a year following the slave rebellion at Marin County Courthouse, George L. Jackson, whose freedom was the primary demand of the Marin Rebellion, was assassinated at San Quentin prison in an alleged escape put forth by prison administration and the State to cover it’s conspiracy. Comrade George Jackson was a highly respected and purposely influential leader  in the Revolutionary Prison Movement. Jackson was also very popular beyond prison, not only because he was a Soledad Brother, but also because of the book he authored appropriately entitled “Soledad Brother.” This book not only revealed to the public the inhumane and degrading conditions in prison, he more correctly pointed to the real cause of those effects in prison as well as in society. A decadent capitalist system that breeds racism and oppression.

On August 1st, 1979, Jeffrey “Khatari” Gaulden, a Black Freedom Fighter and Prisoner Of War captured within the walls of San Quentin was a victim of a blatant assassination by capitalist-corporate medical politics. Khatari was another popular and influential leader in the Revolutionary Prison Movement.

An important note must be added here and that is, the Black August concept and movement that it is a part of and helping to build is not limited to our sisters and brothers that are currently captured in the various prison kamps throughout California. Yet, without a doubt it is inclusive of these sisters and brothers and moving toward a better understanding of the nature and relationship of prison to oppressed and colonized people. So it should be clearly understood that Black August is a reflection and commemoration of history; of those heroic partisans and leaders that realistically made it possible for us to survive and advance to our present level of liberation struggle. People such as: Nat Turner; Harriet Tubman; Gabriel Prosser; Frederick Douglass, W. E. B. Du Bois; Marcus Garvey; Paul Robeson; Rosa Parks; M. L. King, Jr; Malcolm X; and numerous others in our contemporary period. It must be furtehr clarified that when we speak of “culture development,” we are not advocating cultural nationalism and/or merely talking about adopting Afrikan names, jewelry, dashikis, etc. Our primary interest lies not only in where we came from, but the nature of “why” we were forcefully brought here, understanding the character of “continuous” struggle with the recognition that it is a protracted struggle and developing the necessary lifestyles to guarantee it’s success.

In solidarity struggleUntil all oppressed are free…Mwalimu ShakurA servant of the people.

Mwalimu S. Shakurs/n Terrence E. WhiteCSP Cor 3A-92-144PO Box 3461Corcoran, CA 93212

Dixie Be Damned: a regional history of the South East through an Insurrectional Anarchist lens (rebroadcast)

Dixie Be Damned (rebroadcast)

Book cover of "Dixie Be Damned", featuring African-American folks in the 1960's holding the streets at a march
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This week, we’re excited to (re-)present a 2015 conversation with Saralee Stafford and Neal Shirley, editors and authors of their book out from AK Press entitled “Dixie Be Damned: 300 years of Insurrection in the American South”. The book is a study of Maroon, Indigenous, White, Black, worker, farmer, slave, indentured, women and men wrestling against institutions of power for autonomy and self-determination. All of this in a region stereotyped to be backwards, slow, lazy, victimized and brutal. The editors do a smash-bang job of re-framing narratives of revolt by drawing on complex and erased examples of cross-subjectivity struggles and what they can teach us today about current uprisings in which we participate.

Throughout the hour we explore some of the examples that became chapters in the book, critiques of narrative histories and academia and what new ways forward might be towards an anarchist historiography.

Announcements

Benefit for Pepe from DIY-Bandits

Asheville-based punk collective called Bandits Never Die, in conjunction with the DIY-Bandits label, is doing an online fundraiser for Pepe, the founder of DIY-Bandits who is doing time in Federal prison. We interviewed Pepe before he went in in 2019, you can find a link in the show notes about his reflections of preparing for prison and what he’d learned about the realities of families of people serving time in the BOP. The benefit is a limited time print of a t-shirt and or poster and 100% of proceeds will go to support Pepe while he’s in prison (https://banditsneverdie.bandcamp.com/merch/i-want-to-believe-t-shirt-poster-combo). You can also see Q&A’s and some videos of Pepe before he went inside at his blog, https://preparingforfreedom.org

Giannis Dimitrakis

Anarchist bank robber and prison rebel in Greece is still healing from the attack he suffered at Domokos prison at the hands of guards under the New Democracy administration. G. Dimitrakis was held for a period in solitary confinement after the attack rather than be transported to a hospital to help treat his serious wounds, likely as an attempt to inflict permanent damage or kill the rebel. There is a new letter from Mr Dimitrakis that was kindly translated into English by comrades in Thessaloniki available on June11.org that we invite listeners to check out and will link in our show notes, alongside the original Greek. You can also find his firefund to raise court costs to argue for a quick release for Giannis Dimitrakis at firefund.net/giannis. Our Passion for Freedom is Stronger Than Their Prisons!

TFSR Housekeeping

As a quick reminder, you can find transcripts of each weekly episode of our show at our website by clicking the Zines tab, as well as on each episode’s page. We also have choice past episodes transcribed and available for easier reading, translation, printing and mailing.

If you want to support TFSR’s transcription work, you can visit TFSR.WTF/support and find a few ways to donate to us, one time or recurring, or by buying stickers or shirts as merch. If you sign up to support us via patreon.com/tfsr you can find thank you gifts as well. Thanks to our transcribers, zinesters and those who support us by sharing us with their communities and on social media. We also air on a dozen or so radio stations around the country, more on how to tune in or how to help us get on more airwaves at TFSR.WTF/radio.

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Transcription

TFSR: We’re speaking to the editors of a new history book out from AK Press “Dixie Be Damned: 300 Years of Insurrection in the American South” – Saralee Stafford and Neal Shirley come on down. Thank you so much for your time.

Saralee: Thanks for having us.

Neal: No problem.

TFSR: So considering the relative popularity of regional histories and what this book is actually about, what brought you to write this book? And how does it diverge from what one might expect from a Southern history?

Neal: Yeah, there’s a lot of regional histories out there, and Southern history is sort of its own genre that draws up, perhaps a niche, but highly, highly fanatical crowds. So, that is something we encountered when we first started talking about writing the book. You know, our take on it, first and foremost was that we’ve read a lot of those histories, but always found them really unsatisfactory in either even remotely dealing with these kinds of rebellious moments and social movements and whatnot that we deal with in our book. But when they do deal with them, there’s these sort of very highly-scripted narratives, choreographed almost, if you will, that seek to explain the kinds of tension, social tension and social war that you see in the South. You know, just the short answer to your question, I think, is just that we found those explanations, highly unsatisfactory, in actually explaining, the roots of those tensions, and the kinds of conflict that happened in those rebellious moments and how those moments speak to today. Right? How they speak to the present. You know, we’re anarchists, we sought to write a book about Southern conflict and social conflict and social war in the South that speaks to those politics, but also just that actually speaks to the present in general.

Saralee: And I think that while there is volumes and volumes of regional history, specifically about the South written. There’s not much to speak of regional history written by anarchists right now. And we hope that in doing this, also, it inspires others to kind of take on regions that they live in and look at inspiring histories of revolt from around different regions in the South, and not just the South, but the country. And I think, furthermore, this problem that we have a lot as anarchists, especially Southern anarchist, is that we are constantly looking at history that’s in one sense, not our own, for inspiration. Whether it’s to the big cities in the US or Europe. And I think for us, it was about trying to find things that resonated. Because in order to have the history be relevant in your present, it is important to know about what revolt has looked like in your own region.

TFSR: To be a little more direct, Neal, when you were talking about tensions that get danced around? Can you talk more explicitly about what kind of tensions you’re talking about, in terms of histories written of the South?

Neal: Yeah, absolutely. It’s something we deal head-on with in the book, and that have this hypothesis as we’re doing the research and from our own politics and experiences. But that became more and more frustrating and explicit, as we learn more, and as we talked as collaborators and thought more was specifically like the way the progressive narrative has shaped the South. And I mean that in the broadest sense possible. I don’t mean, like left Democrat. I mean any narrative that seeks a sort of progressive version of history. And so with that the specific examples like you’re asking, could be the the way that people who do history with that narrative, gloss over social conflicts that are inconvenient to this idea that progress with a capital P is something that happens gradually over time and inevitably that it happens through modernity, industrialization, citizenship, the granting of rights from the State, etc.

And so there’s these pockets of conflict that we probably disproportionately focus on in the book. For example, after the Civil War during Reconstruction, pockets of conflict during the Civil Rights Movement, that breakout of both rights and Black Power, organizing models, labor conflict that breaks out of the workplace, only model. So these are kinds of examples that we focus a lot on in the book. To give a very specific example for Reconstruction, a lot of the major social conflicts that emerged post-Civil War involve various populations of dispossessed either, you know, for example, all Black communities or former slaves or mixed race communities of Indians and former slaves and poor whites in other areas of the South, challenging not just the former Southern regime, the former Confederate regime, but also simultaneously challenging Northern models of redevelopment that bring in waged work that bring in contracted labor that bring in certain industry. And so they’re fighting sort of a war on two fronts: one against this “capital S South” and one against “capital N North”.

That war, the fact that dispossessed people would actually burn down plantation property in rejection of the idea of labor contracts. And the rejection of paid labor doesn’t match with the traditional historical notion that slaves were trying to transition from slave labor to wage labor. So that breaks with both the traditional kind of lefty progressive vision, also the Marxist vision that people like W.E.B. Du Bois would would espouse.

Saralee: Also, in a lot of these registries, even Leftist academic ones, you have the problem that was that Reconstruction failed, right? That it was the Southern backwardsness, and there was this failure to instill this Northern project. So what we’re looking at is not that it was a failure, but that it was also rejected, actively rejected from the beginning.

Neal: That’s maybe a more specific example of what we’re trying to dig into real deep and get at this idea that the alternative to the traditional notions of like the conservative South that’s posed by most folks as like rights, citizenship, democracy… it’s not a real alternative in that actually those things existed and came about as ways to contain social conflict. And that’s a larger truth that’s sort of taken for granted and anarchist discourse, but we wanted to dig really deep into Southern history and figure out how that’s played out here. And we wrote this book for an audience at large, not just for Southerners. Because a lot of the major conflicts in the United States that have determined where political economy has gone, where social movements have gone, have all honed in on the South. So the major wars fought on this country’s soil: Revolutionary War, the Civil War, really primarily deal with the question of what to do with labor and political economy in the South, what to do with potentially rebellious people in the South, specifically what to do with people of color, specifically, African folks. And so this history becomes meant to anyone interested in questions of social movements or recuperation, or how social conflict is happening today.

TFSR: When y’all talk about the American South, what are you pointing to? What does that signify geographically, historically, and culturally?

Saralee: Yeah, this is a… this is one that we wrestled with a lot at the start of the of this project, one, because, of course, we wanted to include so much, you know, we wanted to think as broadly as we could about the South and include as much interesting conflict as possible. But obviously, that wasn’t… it’s not possible. And we are already kind of recovering in working with a lot in the 200 some pages that exist now. But I think one of the ways is to look at where, in kind of a pre-Civil War idea and definition of the South in terms of how specifically slavery played out in the Southeast, was an important marker.

What were the slave states? What were the states that did withdraw from the Union and engage that conflict. Because we knew we were going to be dealing with a lot of Civil War and post-Civil War land struggle. And so that was really relevant. I think, also, a lot of it had to do with what we found and what we had access to, and narratives that kind of found us in the process of writing the book. Neal and I have spent most of our lives in North Carolina. I spent a lot of my life in Georgia. You see a lot of Appalachian struggle show up because those are histories that are really palpable when you’re trying to look at these things like autonomy and less politically motivated struggle. Appalachia always comes up. So, I don’t know… How else would you characterize?

TFSR: First off, what do you mean by less politically motivated forms of struggle?

Saralee: Well, what I mean by that is in the way that people defined how they were in conflict and what they were rebelling against and what they were working towards. And so we definitely were trying to find periods, you know, in areas of rebellion that were not kind of self organized as Marxist as socialists, even as anarchists, but were more organized through kinship, through through ideas in connection to land, through ideas and connection to various forms of dispossession. Does that make sense? Rather than for a specific Political agenda, party, organization, platform.

Neal: Yeah. So, I think that sort of anti-political bent, if you will, and I realized that’s not a conventional use of the word. But I think Saralee summed it up pretty well. But that anti-political bent becomes important for two reasons. One, is that it speaks to our current political moment in the 21st century, where, you know, increasingly, you’re seeing riots erupt all over the country all over the world that don’t betray in immediate politicality in the sense that you can’t point to it and label it very easily. You can’t identify clear demands, clear representatives, clear negotiators, until those people try and emerge from outside kind of like the the ambulance chasers of whatever riot you’re talking about. And so, because so much defines our current political moment and the moment that anarchists seek to intervene in and engage in, that makes the history in which social struggles will also look like that back in the day, really important because it speaks to the present.

The other reason I think that anti-political bent is very important is because without it, you can’t actually digest social conflict in the South, because the South hasn’t had a lot of the same degree of politicization of social movements that have happened in the northeast, for example, or the Midwest areas like Chicago or the west coast, where you have, for example, large immigrant communities bringing very established philosophical ‘isms’ like anarchism, socialism, communism into social movements, and really giving a very clear political trajectory to those movements. That happened a lot less in the South for a huge array of reasons. And that’s not to say, when we say that a social struggle isn’t political, we’re not saying that it doesn’t involve visions of new ways of living, new forms of life, that it doesn’t involve questions of decision making, or egalitarianism, or questions of power dynamics, or ethics of care, strategy. What we’re saying is that it doesn’t involve an institutionalization of narrative of structure, if that makes sense. And I realized that’s a little vague, but I think that becomes particularly important in the South because of how the South developed differently.

TFSR: What stories do you focus on in your seven chapters? Why did you choose those? And what are you hoping that the reader will derive from them?

Saralee: I guess, just to give an overview… the book starts in early 1700s, and runs along the colonial territories of Virginia, North Carolina, and the Great Dismal Swamp. Looking at a kind of evolution from the Indian Wars against colonial settlements into maroonage as a form of both escape from plantations and slavery into a form of attack. So the Great Dismal Swamp was an area that was deeply feared and hated by colonial Europeans. They didn’t understand that kind of geography, they didn’t like the animals in it, and then quickly became associated with territories that were controlled by escaped slaves. And so that area is… it’s important. Not only because of how long of a period of revolt that went for well into the 1800s. But also, just from the beginning of the book, setting up the importance of the figure of the maroon, and the social position of the maroon as not something that was just an identity formed out of escape or running away from these systems, but directly engaged in attacking and trying to end slavery.

So I think that creates like a strong basis for some of the kind of subjects that we look at throughout the rest of the book. And then we move on into the Civil War period, specifically in the Ogeechee area between the Ogeechee rivers and Coastal Georgia. Where we are looking at the kind of struggle for land and autonomy and for life without labor contracts that Ogeechee people were engaged in, in that area. So from like, 1868, to 1869, but definitely starting from the onset of the Civil War to well into like the early 1900s. Along all those tracts of land that Sherman initially had kind of gifted back over to former slaves, and then that was immediately rescinded by Johnson.

So looking at that, and then into another period of really interesting Reconstruction Era revolt called the Lowry Wars. Which was in coastal, eastern North Carolina. It’s an interesting juxtaposition to the Ogeechee struggle because while the Ogeechee insurrection was pretty much entirely Black former rice workers, were rice slaves, the Lowry Wars focuses on a multiracial banditry of Lumbee Indians, poor Scots-Irish whites, who had kind of integrated into the Lumbee ethnic and cultural world, and also former slaves who had escaped and joined the Lumbee tribe. And their attacks on Reconstruction plantation society similar to Ogeechee in that planters were returning to lands trying to trying to kind of reassert their power that well at the same time Northern labor institutions like the Freedmen’s Bureau were trying to get people to go back to work through introducing of the wage contract to the labor contract. And so we see a lot of different forms of resistance in the Lowry’s there. And then there’s a little bit of a leap into the coalfields and Tennessee and I’ll let Neal talk about a couple of chapters there.

Neal: Yeah, so from there the book sort of takes a bent towards focusing on what at first glance might be a more sort of traditional radical or lefty history in the sense of focusing on labor and labor battles. But the labor battles we choose to focus on are pretty specifically chosen to highlight a struggle that challenges that model. So, the next chapter that comes to pass is called the Stockade Wars, which refers to a heightened period of conflict in the early 90s in eastern and central Tennessee, between Black and white free coal miners, as well as almost entirely Black prisoners in conflict with various mostly Northern owned coal companies and railroad companies as well as the actual state of Tennessee and the National Guard. And they’re they’re basically fighting against the convict lease, which is what a lot of listeners will be pretty familiar with, probably, but was a system of re-enslavement by which almost entirely poor Black folks were imprisoned for small offenses, and then they’re physically leased out to private companies to do their labor, especially in mining and in railroad, also often timber as well in the deep South.

They’re fighting that system, which was a way to undermine the power of waged workers as well as exploit the dispossessed generally. So that resulted in a pretty unusual alliance of people fighting out of their own interests and social networks against those companies in the state of Tennessee. You know, what comes to pass is that laborers and prisoners end up burning down company property, looting company property, and then setting prisoners free, giving them clothes and food and helping them get out of the State. So you have a situation where Southern white folks are actually freeing Black prisoners and helping them get out of the state. And so some pretty unusual alliances develop in that context that we don’t often read about or think about. It’s not a typical workplace struggle, if you will.

And then, with some interludes, we skip on to a Wildcat struggle led by women also in eastern Tennessee, in the mills, in 1929 in Elizabethton, Tennessee. It’s a bit of a leap, but it involves similar issues that are at the fore. But we focus also to a large degree on some of the gendered constructs that break down in the heat of a wildcat struggle at primarily to mills and Elizabethton, Tennessee in 1929. And the dynamics of conflict internal to that movement. The ways that the union sort of helicopters in at the last moment to try and sort of negotiate the struggle and how that dynamic plays out and how that prophecies what’s going to happen in central North Carolina with the much larger mill strike activity starting in 1930.

From there, the book goes on to focus on a period of Civil Rights as well as Black Power and urban riots that happens in the late 60s, sort of dealing with like, digesting how the New Deal and how other government programs managed to kind of subsume and contain that period of radical labor conflict. And so what you see decades later is a lot of really heightened social conflict that deals directly with the identities around which some of those new deal concessions, avoid or sell out, right? So Black folks, women, queer folks, things like that, movements like that.

And so we deal next with urban riots that erupt beyond the boundaries of both Civil Rights and Black Power as narratives. And we try and deal with some of the urban riots that are have often been ignored in the South as emblematic of a kind of social struggle that can’t be contained by the Political narrative with a capital P. And so it exposes some of the limitations of Black Power and identity, as well as the rights framework that the Civil Rights movement is basing itself around.

And then to sort of close out the book. The last chapter deals with a large women’s prison rebellion in 1975, in Raleigh, North Carolina. We chose that because we wanted to focus on a prison struggle that hadn’t been talked about much we also chose it because we wanted to focus on something dealing with prisons, just because of how that’s emblematic of where political economy and institutions of control and exploitation are headed. But in that time period in the early and mid-70’s, it prophecizes against sort of the world we live in today. And so we focus on a five day uprising at a women’s prison in Raleigh, North Carolina, and sort of internal dynamics of that revolt and how activists sort of negotiated for it and within it, how the administration’s dealt with containing it, etc, etc. And then we close out the book with a concluding sort of a more meta chapter that basically is our own notes for historiography that might break beyond some of these leftist narratives of Southern history that we’ve been attempting to challenge throughout the book as a whole.

TFSR: So the 40th anniversary of that struggle in the Raleigh women’s prison is coming up in June. Is there anything going on? Do you know?

Neal: There should be! It would be a great June 11 thing for people who celebrate June 11. I guess, for listeners who don’t know that is, but it’s the remembering and celebrating long term anarchist and eco prisoners struggles. But yeah, no, I mean, there absolutely should be.

Saralee: Every Mother’s Day there’s a big demo, which was just last Sunday, at the… what’s kind of closest to what was the North Carolina Correctional Center for Women. So it’s basically the same facility in the same neighborhood. And I think maybe because of that, it’s hard to turn around and do a June event, but there definitely should be.

TFSR: I’m not trying to interrupt the flow of questions. But since you’re gonna be doing a book opening right around that time… the event will be spoken about in a public setting again, which is pretty damn cool.

Saralee: Definitely. That’s a really good point. We should we should bring that up.

Neal: You should just show up. And, you know, yeah, go ham with that.

TFSR: Throw bananas from the crowd.

Neal: Why aren’t we doing anything for the 40th anniversary? But I don’t know sir!. Who’s that crazy man with a banana?!

TFSR: And I warned you!!! Can you talk a little bit about the process of collaborating and writing this book, like do the chapters come out in each of your voices? Or do you find a different, not third position, but like fourth or fifth?

Saralee: Whoah, that’s deep.

Collaborating has been for both of us one of the most frustrating and surprising and just kind of alchemical experiences of the last few years of my life, I think. Neal and I came into this project with a lot of affinity and I think a lot of seeing a lot of each other in each other. That makes sense? And being like, “Oh, we can work together!” And then, you know, obviously, through any kind of deep collaborating like writing a book together, I think we just were able to strike this balance where my writing background is deeply abstract and theoretical, and I had never written anything this kind of concrete and material before. And I think it was really helpful to have Neal’s writing background which is really different than mine. To be able to force deadlines, and also to just kind of know. He’s had five more years on me of writing. So I think we kind of ended up playing this dance between deadlines and having to just like force stuff out and just get it done. And then also, having a really good editing process between the two of us. We both catch different things and see different things. I don’t know, it’s been really interesting.

Neal: Yeah, I feel like if two or three years ago, somebody’s been like “you’re gonna collaborate with one person on a writing project for two and a half years.” Or two years, or however long it’s been? Maybe three at this point? I would call them crazy, and never want to do that. But I think, because it emerged gradually, we learned how to do it sort of over time in a way that was… you know, it wasn’t like we were writing for a university that gave us a deadline. This is our own project that we’re passionate about. And that we have written in… basically in the cracks of the things we actually do with our lives, which are a lot of wage work, and then a lot of actual political activity in the streets and projects that are our primary priority, I think.

And so, you know, and all the friendships and ethics of care that have to come along with those things. Those always take priority. And so this is a project that emerged in the cracks of those, and I feel like at least for me, I got a lot better at collaborating without an appropriate amount of space for it to take up and ways to communicate about it. But it’s an intense thing. I think for anybody who’s listening… everybody knows if you ever tried to just write text for a flyer with another person, it can be really hard. You know, you can kind of be like two bulls with horns slamming into each other about it. But try doing that for three years! You know?

It’s been a joy. I’ve actually really enjoyed it. I’ve become a much better writer and a better thinker, and I think a better person through it. Hopefully a better communicator too. In terms of your question of voice. I think that’s up to the readers to tell us what they think, that we did a good job with the voice. But I think at least what we were going for was the same voice in all of the chapters. Our vision for the project at the beginning was not to have the book be read and experienced like an anthology by different authors but by one voice and one political vision and set of ideas and interpretations. Which is not to say me and Saralee probably agree in terms of interpretation about everything, but for the most part the book is a singular shared set of narratives around what we’re researching. And I think we did a pretty good job with it. I feel pretty good about it, having read it more times than I care to ever again, through the editing process.

TFSR: So would you say it’s the kind of book that someone could just pick up and delve in anywhere? Or does it serve the reader more to start from, you know, introduction and go through the whole thing?

Saralee: Well, I think if you start from the introduction you get more of a… I mean, definitely, we wrote in the introduction to be read, not as some kind of like aside. We spent a lot of time collaborating on the introduction and conclusion and was most fun, I think, for both of us to write those. But no, the thing I love about this book is that you can just pick it up, start in a section that you already have interest in, or maybe something’s inspiring you to read that. And then if you like it you can read the rest. So I do think that’s helpful. Especially in dealing with such a big book. I don’t want the size and like the scope of the narratives to be intimidating, or to feel like, “Ugh, I have to read all of this?!” So yeah, people should read it however they want, really.

Neal: I’m gonna add one thing on there. I do think, you could pick it up. You could be in a bathroom and pick up one chapter and just read the chapter by itself and get something out of it. But the chapters are inter-referential both directly in the sense that you’ll see a sentence that’s like “just like in Ogeechee blah, blah, blah, blah, blah.” That’s the next chapter, whatever. But they’re also inter-referential in terms of the ideas. Just to give an example, the kinds of interpretation we have over conflicts around citizenship and assimilation that occurred during Reconstruction period speak directly and immediately to the kinds of internal conflict and recuperation and containment strategies that the state uses during the Civil Rights period.

Specifically those two moments Reconstruction and Civil Rights 60’s / 70’s era. They speak to each other in history, so they speak to each other in the book. You’re going to get a lot more out of reading about those urban riots in the way that the state contains them if you read about the way the State sought to contain conflicts post-Civil War. Because the strategies are very much related and the way they manipulate and exploit and contain Black rage, specifically Black rage are highly connected. And so actually, the book is very much a unified whole, in that sense. And I do hope that people read all of it.

TFSR: Through a few sections of the book you talk about the creation of whiteness, can you talk about race and how y’all tried to handle it in this book?

Saralee: I think that any book or text that is grappling with the history of the American South, but also the history of this continent has to directly deal with the forced enslavement of millions of Africans, of the genocide of the people that were here before colonizers showed up. And also, through that the creation of whiteness as something separate in a privileged kind of non identity, then the marked identities of people of color that were created through these violent colonial regimes. So it’s not a separate topic, you know what I mean? It’s just how we have to look at this history. Otherwise, it’s irrelevant, right?

So I guess, I don’t want to treat race as like a separate topic. It’s part of the narrative and kind of spirit of every single chapter throughout. In terms of specifically the creation of whiteness, one of the reasons that the Great Dismal Swamp was really important for us, just looking at the struggle on the dividing line of North Carolina & Virginia, is that some of those very first distinctions between the indentured Anglo servant and the enslaved African happened in these territories and in these struggles. So what happened when an indentured white and an enslaved Black… Well, those terms weren’t even used yet but an indentured Anglo and enslaved African ran away together. What happens when they’re both caught, right? And so, the history of how those two subjects are created differently is the creation of Whiteness in that early period. And then you see it evolve throughout the book. You want to talk about the evolution of it?

Neal: Yeah. I mean, so I really like what Saralee said. We are not interested in talking about race as like this separate thing, or even as a separate product of identity. But part of this larger whole of development and resistance that are always happening, you know, in tandem with each other and against each other. We talk a lot especially in the earlier chapters about primitive accumulation as this sort of… it’s a classically Marxian concept but we take a pretty different take on it. And we’ve been influenced by people’s like Sylvia Federici’s understanding of that, whereby primitive accumulation is not a one time event, but something that continues to happen over and over and over again. It’s sort of capitalism, or what the State or various structures sort of constantly weeding the field, if you will, to renew their own projects.

In much the way that Sylvia Federici highlights a focus on the witch hunts and women’s reproductive power and women’s bodies in Europe as an often overlooked aspect of primitive accumulation for capital in Europe, the creation of Whiteness as a concept as something which previously sort of disparate groups could could gather around. And likewise, the creation of different ethnic groups and identities and Blackness becomes a part of that process, it’s part of primitive accumulation in the United States. It’s something that hasn’t been talked about, perhaps as much as it should be as a way that Capital made its own development possible on this continent. It couldn’t have happened without it.

And so on the one hand that’s where you find the origins of Whiteness. It’s also where you find the origins of Black identity, not just as a victim of these forces, like democracy or divisions of labor, but also in the process of resisting those forces. So, Blackness emerges in places like the Great Dismal Swamp where people, on the one hand, are victimized by Capital and plantation life and the State, but they’re also coming together and forming a sort of pan-African identity vis-à-vis their resistance, so they have direct agency. And that’s also something the Marxian narrative of primitive accumulation never takes into account is the actual agency of the dispossessed. They tends to view them as sort of passive pawns. And we see this process of primitive accumulation also as one in which resistance takes place. And that’s the source of a lot of these identities. And so when we talk about race, we’re trying to take that larger picture into account and you know, whether or not we succeed in that is up to the reader, but that’s what we’re going for.

TFSR: And I like the way that you see on page 268, where you address this. Like where you suggested, for example, that race and its inherent violence could be re-framed from question of identity and belonging to a method of government. And where you go on from there, I thought was also another interesting way of posing it, not only in direct relation to that ongoing process of primitive accumulation.

So you get a bit heady and introspective with your views on history, historiography and storytelling. So, what were some of the things you were wrestling with in writing and editing this book concerning… I guess, in particular, what I was getting at with that question is…

Saralee: Well, I think an interesting thing that happened in writing this book is that… There’s a theorist, Walter Benjamin. He was an antifascist, and I don’t want to call him a communist because he would have hated that. But he lived in in the early 20th century in Europe, and he killed himself at the at the border between France and Spain when he thought he wasn’t able to escape the Nazis. He wrote these really beautiful, right before he died, these really beautiful theses on the philosophy of history. It’s a text that I discovered when I was really young and probably really misunderstood it. It didn’t really actually come to make any sense until I was engaged in this writing project. And Neal had also been reading Benjamin and been playing with that as well. And, honestly, I think to give a shout out to the work done by folks in the West Coast who wrote that and I think they they brought Benjamin into the anarchist context in a really fierce and relevant and beautiful way that made me realize it was okay to read non-anarchist theorists and use them when trying to write a book like this.

But yeah, I think basically, the work by Benjamin by Federici by Foucault, you know, all those kind of European all-stars. We don’t use them to to try to sound important or to try to like obscure our own ideas, but I think we tried to pull out threads of their concepts of history that just felt really relevant in our context and more specifically for Benjamin. So, our goal in working with such a large amount of material and definitely having to… we had to order the book in somewhat progressive fashion just in the sense of dates. But we wanted the actual work to speak beyond that. And so, for us getting away from the linear progressive narrative that Neal was talking about earlier is looking towards a version of writing and doing history where capitalist time, colonial time, all these different structures of time, that are that linear progressive narrative break down in these in these moments of rebellion.

And that’s the word rupture that we use a lot, right? Is to kind of mark where the time of work, or the time of imprisonment, or the time of enslavement is destroyed, even if just momentarily by those actors, by those subjects. The difference between something like a rupture, or what we would say, and what we’re referencing a lot in the insurrectionary time and historical materialism an introduction, And then something like a progressive version of revolt is that at the end of a progressive revolt, the idea is that the subjects are reinstated and are just in a better position than they were before. Right? Those are things like rights and things like getting your demands met, right? And then what we’re looking at that breaks with that concept of time, is the time of the rupture, where you don’t return to the same subject position afterwards with just better conditions, right? Life kind of halts for a while, and new life forms and new forms of activity are created. And obviously, we know these are temporal. These are temporal junctures, they don’t last. But they’re important for us to to seize on and to hold up. And it’s those memories that get washed under, and get erased, and get ignored in progressive histories. Is that helpful?

TFSR: Yeah, definitely. It seems like, and I hope I’m not just reiterating, but in those moments, if you ever experience those moments of rupture, when the world stops, it’s like you can see the potential for a line of flight out of it at that point. It’s like you can see that utopia or not…you know, whatever, whatever Uopia. You know?

Neal: Yeah, I think for us, that’s where for, well I should say for me, but I think for us? Where, for example, a lot of these writers, these theorists, but especially Benjamin, becomes really exciting because he had a lot of courage to basically break with the Marxism of his day which was saying that communism is a product of these inevitable but gradual historical forces. And, you know what that does is it takes agency away from us as actual people acting on the world. And it also means that to a large extent it’s this inevitable, despairing version of history. There’s not really… for example, I remember Marxists, orthodox Marxists responding to the Zapatista rebellion when that broke out and was big in the late 90’s. They would be like, “well, it’s really inspiring, but doesn’t really matter because they haven’t become proletarians yet, so they can actually progress”

Saralee: Or Du Bois says says the same thing about the Maroons In the South.

Neal: Right, Du Bois sort of writes off the Maroon rebellions as this thing where like, well, they haven’t become wage workers yet. So it’s like, they wouldn’t know how to make communism yet. It’s kind of arrogant. And it’s also just writing off this period of really important history. And so in our historiography, and you in the conclusion we sort of… it is a bit heady, I suppose. But also we try and get into a lot of concrete examples as to how that progressive version of history causes historians to ignore really important stuff. Because they don’t find it interesting, because it doesn’t present any possibility to them of the gradualism they’re looking for.

And to your point, the important things in those insurrectionary moments… One thing that’s important is that sometimes a riot leads to an insurrection, which leads to a social revolution. So, it’s not just a visionary, imaginary exercise, they do actually lead to real ruptures that can be permanent. Right? But also, even when they don’t do that, like what you just said, Bursts, that I really like is that they are these lines of flight. You’re in this moment, behind a barricade and you suddenly realize life doesn’t have to go back to normal. The line of flight can go towards any of these things that we have words for like the commune or anarchy or the wild or whatever.

And so doing history differently allows us to see, I think with more clarity hopefully, those moments that provide a line of flight. Whereas, for example, doing history of vis-à-vis, the traditional labor history model, just to give an example tends to not give you a line of flight so much as a way to see how to press for individual workplace demands. And that doesn’t actually provide you with the same kind of line of flight, as might a Wildcat strike in eastern Tennessee whereby they burned down all the city infrastructure and steal from the rich. And so it’s not just a matter of they’re more militant, it actually is that the content and substance is different.

Saralee: And how people are transformed in those moments are different.

Neal: Yeah, that is another aspect of this messianic quality that Benjamin talks about is that it changes the actors themselves. And that becomes really important when you talk about all the ways that race and Capital and gender and the State have made us who we are. We need those moments of transformation. We need Fanon’s psychoeffective violence to change ourselves. We have to go through that violent process or otherwise we can’t change ourselves either. So, there’s an individualist component just as much as a collective one. Yeah.

Saralee: Yeah, like that.

TFSR: Yeah.

Saralee: Yeeeeeah. Psychoeffective Violence.

Neal: That’s, by the way, my DJ name.

TFSR: I was about to say that! I was about to say that needs to get looped, and just like… a good beat underneath it. Anyway, this brings me to the question about what is an anarchist historiography? And are you attempting to frame one out at the end of the book in the conclusion? Or is it more of a challenge and a call?

Saralee: I think we attempt to frame it out, but it’s definitely through the context of the narratives in our book. And so, we don’t kind of transpose an idea of our historiography onto just a blanket future concept, if that makes sense. I think it is a call for sure. For me, this whole book is a call. I want to see more anarchist in this work and doing history. And I hope that it’s a provocative call in the sense of it creates dialogue and creates more discourse around what an anarchist historiography could be, because I think we’re definitely also looking for that in comrades and looking to push these ideas and make them better, make them more present to our times constantly as well. But what would you say Neal?

Neal: Um, yeah, I mean, in its best moments I think it could be interpreted as a call to new kinds of historiography. Speaking personally, I mean, I am an anarchist. But I’m not really highly invested in that word as an identity. And I’m not particularly interested in things like historiographies, or critiques or things like that being connected to that word. I question how useful it is. I think, for me, I want historiographies that are negative and critical of the things that exists now. I’m sort of less interested in them affirming a singular narrative and then calling that anarchist. I think it would be a step backwards. Anything that presents itself as singular or universal. I mean, I don’t think we could substitute an anarchist narrative for a progressive one, or for a Leftist one. I think that would be futile and bad. You know, a step backwards.

So I’m interested in people writing history and interpreting and taking on that task, seriously, as it informs the conflicts we’re living in now. Because it does. And I’m interested in people doing so in ways that are just as critical and combative as like all the sort of fiery polemical communique type things that we read now on the internet in utter abundance. You know, I think people should fight over and delve into these ideas that are historical with that same degree of passion. I guess I would be interested in seeing that. I would never expect a singular anarchist historiography to emerge from that. I would expect a diverse and contradictory array of historiographies to emerge that have certain sort of principles in common, like a rejection of Leftism, like a rejection of the progressive narratives that we were confronted with now.

And also a rejection of the way that the Academy owns history. That’s something we don’t have in the interview, but it’s something we’ve talked about in public discussions and talks that we’re hosting with this book. Pretty much I think anytime when we go and talk at university, we’re probably going to be basically presenting front and center a critique of how the academy owns this material. Because we’ve had to confront that in our own research as non-academics doing a somewhat academic kind of project in all the degrees of the real things like money and time and professionalism and salary and tenure that invoke privilege around who gets to own and do history are something that anarchist should also deal head on with. Anarchists already have been dealing head on with as well as a lot of non-anarchists. But in terms of the historiography, I’m probably a little skeptical. I am less interested in it being anarchist, but I’m definitely interested in more critical historiography is emerging. And, and having a deeply sort of negative and critical take on how things have developed with history. Is that vague? I don’t know.

TFSR: No.

Neal: Okay, good.

TFSR: Where can people expect to run into y’all on this series of speaking engagements? Do you have a schedule slated?

Saralee: Yeah, we have the beginnings of a schedule. We’re having an actual release party like a bacchanal celebration, no formal speaking, you have to dress up.

TFSR: Like what? Like Bacchus.

Saralee: Yeah

TFSR: Toga party.

Saralee: We’re hoping that people actually bring their formal attire. We don’t get to see each other in formal attire enough because we’re poor. But I think that’s May 31, in Durham at the Pinhook. So that’s kicking off a couple of weeks of local events. So then we’ll be Greensboro, June 1 at Scuppernong Books. We will be in Durham, June 3 at the Regulator. We will be at the International, which is an anarchist run space in Carrboro, on June 8. June 14th will be in Atlanta at the Hammonds Museum with some people who have been involved in struggles in Atlanta that were actually written about in the book and mentioned in the book. So it’ll be really exciting. June 14. That’s a daytime event. And then June 20, in Raleigh, at So and So Books. We’re hoping to be in Asheville in July whenever Firestorm opens and invites us. And then in the fall, we’ll be doing some stuff on the west coast. And then we’ll also be doing a big Southeast Midwest tour. Then eventually in the Fall also in Northeast tour.

Neal: We took joy in making the Northeast have to be last. Sorry!

Saralee: Yeah, if you want to see us soon, you’ve got to come to us in North Carolina or Georgia, but we’ll come to you at later.

Neal: Yeah, and you can get the book off of probably AK Press’s website. You can also get it from us. I hope you can get their website. You can get it from us as well if you come to our events. I want to, if it’s okay to do a totally disgusting plug, we also have a poster series that we’ve put together that deals with like four or five of the themes of different chapters. And they’re really big, beautiful, like three foot tall, full color original watercolor art themed around like protagonists in different chapters with text that was written by us and Phil. And they’re really big and beautiful and wonderful. And they’re going to be sold with the book at different events and stuff pretty cheap. So thanks to P&L Printing for helping us with those because it gave us a really, really good deal.

TFSR: Thank you, Denver.

Saralee: Yeah, what’s up?

TFSR: Oh, cool. Thanks so much for chatting. And is there any other disgusting plugs you want to make before we stop recording?

Neal: Yeah, go crazy on June 11th. Get real. Get hard. Go hard.

TFSR: Stay hard.

Neal: I want to send some shout outs anybody listening to this who helped us with this project. Or was a patient ear or who gave critique, because there’s a lot of those people out there and we owe so much of this work to them. So, thank you to all those people.

Saralee: Thank you to all the rebels in the last two years that have given us inspiration as well.

TFSR: Yeah. And go hard, stay hard.

Neal: Yeah, that’s good. Why don’t you make that a T shirt.

TFSR: Hey, I’d actually be stealing it from Ida.

Saralee: And Atlanta…

TFSR: Yeah, they won’t mind. We’ve been speaking with Neal Shirley and Saralee Stafford about their new book “Dixie Be Damned. 300 years of Insurrection in the American South” published by AK Press. More about the book can be found at AKPress.org

Joshua Clover on Riots and Strikes

Joshua Clover on Riots and Strikes

Joshua Clover with a beard and shirt reading "Riot" next to a statue of Karl Marx
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Joshua Clover is the author of seven books including Riot.Strike.Riot (Verso, 2016), which has been translated into six languages. Scott and Joshua talk about proletarian resistance to the capitalist economy through struggles against circulation of commodities and to fix their prices (riots) and struggles against exploitation and to set the price of wages in the workplace (strikes), how these methods are not as indistinguishable as we are told and the future of struggle against capitalism and extraction, for a new communist world.

Joshua also has the forthcoming book  Roadrunner coming from Duke University Press. It’s about exactly what you think it’s about (but, if you’re not familiar with or from Boston, or haven’t ever seen a Stop&Shop at midnight from the beltway, it’s about placing one particular song from one particular band within a wide and fascinating context. This’ll be out in September!)

Here are some relevant links from Clover:

“I think the best writing on the George Floyd Uprising has been by Idris Robinson, How It Might Should Be Done, and Shemon and Arturo, Theses on the George Floyd Rebellion.

I am always trying to get people to read the poetry of Wendy Trevino and Juliana Spahr, both of whom take riots and insurrections as a main topic. Both of the books linked too are free.

Speaking of riots, people should always read Gwendolyn Brooks, RIOT.

I am always trying to get people to read Red Skin, White Masks by Glen Coulthard, which is a theoretical consideration on Indigenous struggle that eventually arrives at the fact and the logic of land blockades; it was written before Standing Rock.

I mentioned the work of Charmaine Chua on logistics, circulation, and decolonial struggle; here’s one useful essay.

Here is a link to the book I have coming out soon. Here is a link to the Introduction if anyone wants a sample.”

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Featured Track:

  • Roadrunner by The Modern Lovers

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Transcription

TFSR: So you published Riot Strike Riot in 2016. And if anything, it seems like the last five years have really born out your analysis in many ways and that made me really excited to get to talk to you to hear about your perspective over the last five years of global uprisings. And so jumping into that, I wanted to set up the terms of analysis that you put forth in the book so we can get an understanding of the historical trajectory you trace, and then the theory of riot that you propose, which I think is super important for us right now.

So the historical context you focus on is broadly the time of industrial capitalism to now — the onset of industrial capitalism — with a dialectic you propose of transformation and popular resistance from riot to strike to a new or change form of riot, which you call “riot prime. You define strike and riot as different forms that I’m gonna quote you strike and riot are practical struggles of a reproduction within production, and circulation, respectively. So I was wondering if you could go a bit into the distinction and the texture of the two forms of riot and strike, the different terrain they use the different relation to time and space, or what it means the struggle for reproduction the terrain of circulation as opposed to production?

Joshua Clover: So this is the big ticket theoretical question, and I’ll try to answer it without dodging theory, but in a way that tries to make it sort of useful and accessible in relation to particular, which is one of the goals of the book, to have a sort of theoretical apparatus that can be meaningfully descriptive of concrete events that we’ve lived through and our friends have lived through, and people we know have lived through. Speaking of that, the publication history that you mentioned, even more strikingly, the original talk that this came out of where I started working through these concepts, which from 2012, so before, for example, the Ferguson uprising. And that was something that happened while I was puzzling through the book and I could see immediately that it was super important and I got myself to Ferguson as quickly as I could, and tried to be involved in what happened there and talk to people and so on. And that was sort of the first, I don’t know if confirmation is the right word it’s hard to think of that dramatic a political episode is like, Oh, well, good, it confirmed my theories” — but it was certainly a moment where I felt like the things I was trying to think about, and what was happening in the world and the United States were converging pretty dramatically.

So to get back to this theoretical sort of frameworkso the circuit of Capital in its entirety has these two interlocking spheres. And one of them is the sphere of production: that’s the place where capitalists bring together means of production, right? So if you make clothes, you’re bringing together textiles and sewing machines and needles in a factory and electricity, and bring that together with workers with labor power, and you make a commodity. And that’s the sphere of production. And then the commodity is launched out onto the market, it sort of makes its way to the marketplace, is exchanged, it’s exchanged some more, it’s consumed. That’s all the sphere of circulation.

So those two spheres are, as I said, interlinked, and neither can exist without the other. But interestingly, almost everyone in the world is in the sphere of circulation, that is to say, we’re what we call market dependent”: we have to go to the store to get food, or clothes, or whatever, that we need to survive. Whereas only some fraction of the world is dependent directly, at least on wages in production for survival. So those are the two different sort of moments in which we reproduce ourselves, our families, our communities — and here, I don’t mean biological reproduction, right? I mean whatever you do to be alive the next day as a person, as a community.

And so, if you have a wage, if you have a formal employment, as we say, often you struggle in production, so you struggle over the value of your labor, that is what a strike is, right? That’s not the only production struggle, that’s not the only way people struggle there, they do all kinds of stuff. They do sabotage and factory takeovers, and who knows, but those are production struggles.

But let’s imagine you don’t have formal employment, you don’t have access to the wage. But still, you’re pretty miserable, your life is pretty immiserated enough that you decide you want to fight back against that misery. Well, you’re not going to struggle in production, because you can’t, but you are out there in the space of circulation. You are still market dependent. And so that’s the other sort of large category of struggle that I look at in the book and that I focused on, which is circulation struggles more broadly.

So often, historically, these are over the price of market goods, right? So if you go back to even before industrial capitalism, the 16th, 17th, 18th century, you get these what get called riots that are persistently over the price and availability of market goods. So famously the bread riot — which a lot of people think of is like going down to the baker and liberating the bread — but even more commonly took the form of blocking the road and stopping grain merchants from shipping grain out of your county to somewhere else where they could make a higher profit because people in your county are hungry, and they’re like, “fuck that, the grain stays here, we need food. So that’s sort of the origin of the circulation struggle of which the riot is the most famous comic. But again, not the only kind, we can think about the blockade and the occupation, various other kinds of things. And that is the form that comes before the strike, which rises to prominence as the main form of production struggle, as you say, with industrial capitalism in the early middle of 19th century.

By the late 20th century — and here, I’m really talking about the early industrializing nations, sometimes called the capitalist core” — by the late 20th century, the strike, and the historical labor movement has started to recede pretty dramatically, in fact. While the riot begins to return to prominence, so much so that we talk about major political struggles in the West over the last several decades. Most regularly, we’re talking about versions of riots from the small local event to the George Floyd uprising.

So those are the two categories of struggle, production struggle and circulation struggle, and their relationship to those two sort of spheres of capital. I hope that wasn’t too extended a framework. But once we have that, we can maybe get more down into practical events that we’ve all lived through.

TFSR: That’s really helpful and breaks it down in a way that makes sense. One of the things that you do in the book that I find really interesting is you sort of look at the way that riot and strike have been put into opposition as opposed political actions. And this happens on all kinds of spectrums of political ideology, like left and right, or even just in popular representation, where riot is seen as a non-political act, it’s delegitimized. And strike is seen as maybe more worthyat least certain versions of the strike — and gets put in the toolkit of peaceful protest, etc, as a legitimate way to get what you want politically, but there’s also distinctions that we can see in how they bring down repression from the state. But what you do in the book is to show how these two forms of struggle have continuities, and therefore are more tied to historical moments, rather than an essential difference. So I was wondering if you could talk about that seeming opposition of riot and strike and where you think that they connect and differ from your perspective?

JC: Yeah that’s a really helpful question and I think it has, for me, two important pivots in it. And one is to think about the continuity between riot and a strike that’s often obscured. And the other is to think about their historicity or historicality, I’m never quite sure if the technical term.

So the first thing I’ll say is that the strike originally arises very much out of circulation, a circulation of goods, the earliest use of the term strike has to do with sailors on boats that are delivering goods, refusing to deliver and striking their sails, as it’s called, right, taking down the sails and waiting and refusing to deliver goods. So that’s clearly in the space of transport of goods to market, which sort of arising from the category of circulation struggles and that sort of era of merchants, but it’s the beginning of the strike.

Tthe strike really arises out of these moments of circulation, and then becomes a production struggle. And then as noted, the tide shifts the other way back toward the riot. And I think it’s hard to pin down dates, and I may have been overly specific in the book, but I don’t know, the 60’s, 70’s somewhere in there. So two things, right? One is that continuity: it’s not like anyone invented the strike, because they’re like, Nah, man, the riots no good. Don’t do a riot, do a [strike]. It didn’t work that way, historically, that opposition that arrives fairly late in the game. One emerges from the other in this real historical continuity, and/but as you suggested, really helpfully, they rise and fall and ebb and flow in relation to historical conditions. Again, some sort of, as we say, transhistorical idea that “X form of struggle is good, Y form a struggle is bad. Anytime you hear someone saying that, you should just say, well, that’s not that’s nonsense”.

The kind of struggle that’s going to emerge, whatever our sort of theoretical or moral judgments of it, the kind of struggle that’s going to emerged is going to emerge from concrete situations. So when you have a massive increase of industrialization, the rise of the factory, the expansion of the formal wage, of course you’re going to get increases in people struggling that way. And when that mode of organizing society starts to recede with deindustrialization, sort of disemployment, production of surplus populations at a global leveland I’m sure we’ll get to that technical term surplus populations” — then, of course, struggles in the sphere of circulation, where people who’ve been sort of kicked out of employment by automation, or offshoring, or whatever, but still are stuck in the spirit of speculation, well, they’re gonna keep struggling.

And my one great lesson that I’ve learned in thinking about these things is, it’s simple. I apologize for my simplicity, right. But it’s just: people struggle where they are. Period. People run up against misery, and they decide they don’t want to take it, they don’t want to take being bullied by their boss, they don’t want to being unable to afford to survive, they don’t want to take being killed by the cops, and they struggle where they are. And if you get a lot of people in production, you’re going to see production struggles. And if you get a lot of people in circulation, you’re going to see circulation struggles, it’s pretty straightforward, actually.

TFSR: Drawing off the way that themaybe the history is told to us in the way that it plays out in our imaginations — and perhaps this has to do with the fact that the strike came about also the times that these different kinds of liberationist ideologies of anarchism and communism are coming out — but the strike plays a out-scaled role in our imaginations of what revolutionary struggle means. And the the sense I got reading your book is like this, because you go “riot strike riot prime, the strike almost seems like an aberration in terms of its concentration of movement power. And that, at least today, I see that the romanticization of the strike seems to out exceed its effectiveness, like people still think that’s where we need to be doing our work, but it doesn’t really quite make sense.

So I was wondering if you have thoughts about why the strike, commands so much power over revolutionary imaginations? And then there’s also kind of poetry to the riot, of course. So, yeah, I just wonder if you want to talk about that, and the imaginative power of these forms of struggle?

JC: Yeah. Well, that’s, again, this is a great and complex, rich question. I think, I hope you’re right that the strike was an aberration. By which I mean, not that I bear the strike any ill will, but I hope that human history endures long enough, that we look back on the 150 year period where the strike oriented a lot of struggles in a lot of the world, as an aberration. I’m worried that human history is not going to last that long, and that we won’t have a chance to look back on that as an aberration.

But I think you raised an important point, right, which is that it is a fairly clearly bracketed period and so why did it take on the intense charisma that it did? And I think there’s good reasons for it, to be honest. Certainly, when the strike was on the rise, there was a belief — and a not unreasonable one — that was sort of moved toward an industrial society, a manufacturing society was just going to continue, that it was going to cover more and more of the globe, that it was going to organize more and more people’s lives, organize more and more of social production. And so the belief was that the labor movement, when it came into being, which we have our first strikes in the late 18th century, we have the first Workers Party officially in the 1870s in Germany. And at that point, it’s on, right? The labor movement is sort of where the action is, in the West at least. And the sense was to just continue to expand. And people thought that for that reason. It didn’t really turn out to be the case, it lasted for a while and not forever.

But during the period of the labor movement’s expansion and consolidation it won a lot of really tremendous victories. The strike, especially when there is high labor demand, is an incredibly powerful weapon. And you know sometimes people read the book as an advocacy book, saying Oh, you should riot not strike, which it absolutely is not, it never once suggests that. And the strike, in certain but not at all uncommon situations, is incredibly powerful. It won a lot of victories. It seemed like it was a route not just to better compensation and conditions for workers, but maybe to overcome capitalism. And for those reasons, it acquired a lot of charisma, so much so that I’m sure as you’ve noticed, people love to call things strikes now but just aren’t strike. They don’t involve withdrawing labor, don’t involve interfering with capitals production, but people will call them strikes because that term has a lot of charisma. Two things: one, it deserves that charisma for the victories that it won.

TFSR: Mhm.

JC: Two: I think people who are going to struggle get to call what they’re doing whatever they want. If someone wakes up in the morning, and is ready to go out and really try and fight against power as it exists, I salute them and they should get to call with their doing whatever the fuck they want.

TFSR: *laughs* Right?

JC: That said, I do think or hope that we’ll live long enough to see the charisma of the strike wane a little. It hasn’t been nearly so powerful, it hasn’t won nearly the gains it used to win since the 70s, or 80s. And meanwhile, other forms of struggle are coming to the fore. I think there was probably even a time a few years ago, just six years ago, eight years ago, when people were still sort of saying, well, the riots illegitimate, it’s not a real form of struggle, the strike is the only real form of struggle. At this point I think it’s only hard-line workerists, as we say, who hold to that position after the George Floyd uprising last summer. I think people are more ready to recognize that these other forms of social contest can really become a challenge to the present social order.

S: Right. Yeah, that’s an interesting point, just to see how that tide has shifted from just last year, where I think you hear less people talking about how what we need to do is organize workplaces.

JC: Yeah, I think if I can just intercede for a second, I think you use the word organize. And that’s really a crucial pivot here. So one of the reasons that the strike feels so politically powerful to people, is because of a fairly narrow definition of what counts as organization. Right? And so yeah, well, you have to be organized. And often that just means organized like a union, organized like a political party. And so the strike satisfies that, and a riot or uprising, insurrection does not. It will never work, it’s not organized. Now, that’s rubbish. There’s lots of other kinds of organization that go into an uprising, a riot, you know. Robin D. G. Kelley the great historian has written eloquently about the kinds of organizing that small social groups in Los Angeles did in advance of the Watts riots in 1965 that made it possible. Now, these small social groups often get called street gangs, but they’re community groups, right? That get together and figure out how to proceed from day to day. And they did a lot of organizing, but it’s not the kind that gets recognized by like, we need to organize. So that’s exactly the hinge I think, is understanding what counts as organization, as we think about political possibilities.

TFSR: Yeah, that’s a really good point. And we could probably draw a comparison to the George Floyd uprisings, the massiveness of them came, in the heat of the pandemic, when there have been mutual aid groups working in all these cities to try and take care of people while they’re losing work and losing access to the things they need to live. So in some way, that kind of organization which doesn’t get recognized in the same way a party or union does, was there at the same time that people started reacting to the continuous murder of Black people by the police. And that may have helped provide a leverage for the size of the movement. So that’s an interesting parallel that you draw from Kelley.

In terms of this, the way that you describe the predicament of the strike today, is really helpful for me to think about, like why it seems less successful. You call it the affirmation trap. And this seems to me actually to be super helpful, just in thinking about capitalism and what it produces in terms of how we can even imagine our lives and struggle. You say that all that workers can really struggle for is to reaffirm their position within the capitalist within capitalist exploitation, and that’s a game of diminishing returns. I wonder if you could talk about this affirmation trap and explain that larger arc of capitalist accumulation or financialization that leads to this narrowing of the purview of the strike.

JC: Yeah, absolutely. As a preface, I should note that the concept of the affirmation trap that I developed, one of the sources in thinking through which logic was the phrase and the idea of cruel optimism, which is drawn from Lauren Berlant. Lauren is a friend of mine, and she passed a couple of days ago, so I just wanted to mention that and remember her briefly while we’re together and I’m thinking through this problem, because a lot of my thinking is possible because of the brilliant people that I’ve known in my life and Lauren is absolutely one of them.

TFSR: Yeah that is a great loss.

JC: Lauren describes cruel optimism as this way of being stuck in having to feel optimistic about the very thing that keeps on reproducing your conditions that don’t change, right? In the optimism of believing you can get change from edifice, in fact, prevents change. I think in reading her book that maybe one of the main references would be something like voting, right? We’re told over and over again that voting is the only way you can change the world, and yet over and over again it turns out to be the case that we vote for people who keep the world the same. But for me the referent was really usefully labor, right? Which is to say, we’re compelled to be optimistic about labor, or at least to go to work every day, because otherwise we would starve. And yet it’s work that preserves us in a situation of subordination, of being at risk of starving, and so on. So when I started thinking about the affirmation trap, it’s as much as you described, right, it’s that thing of having to affirm — by showing up in the morning the very thing that keeps you subordinated, and doesn’t affirm but negates you as a human.

And that’s true for each individual, I think with work, but it’s also true for the workers movement in general. And that happened in very concrete historical ways. So as I said, the workers movement had a lot of substantial gains, often through the strike over the century, let’s say between 1875 and 1975. But in the late 60s, early 70s, industrial capitalism, global capitalism really enters into crisis. Profit margins essentially vanish. They’re still huge profits, but they’re matched by losses in other places, there’s no systemic growth. And so overall, capitalist profitability really plummets around 1972-1973. And many of the major industrial firms in the US it’s car companies most famously but there’s other examples as well face a sort of existential threat. They’re barely making any profit, or they’re generating a loss, and the government is propping them up because they can’t afford to have these major industries vanish.

And consequently, the unions find themselves in a very tenuous position, because if they bargain really aggressively and strongly, General Motors is just going to go out of business. And indeed, if the union wants its jobs to keep existing that it provides for union members it has to make sure General Motors continues to exist. So it has to bargain for contracts, not that, sort of, push General Motors around and win concessions, but that keep General Motors functional and profitable. And this is a huge transformation in the structure of organized laborespecially the United States, Western Europe, but other places in the world as well in which unions, in effect, cease being the antagonists, of industrial firms, and start being in effect collaborators, and both of them enter into the task of keeping each other operative and functional. And that sense that there’s a sort of historical struggle to overcome capitalism, that horizon starts to close, long before the collapse of the Soviet Union. We often date the end of the Communist dream to 89 or something. But that horizon where the labor movement was pointed toward overcoming capitalism, rather than preserving it, really, I think, starts to fade in the 70s.

TFSR: Yeah, It made me think about the problems that you come into when you’re organizing workers from the perspective of like, keeping them in work. So if you have a miners strike or something, or miners are trying to unionize to get better benefits, but the mining itself is under question now because of climate catastrophe, impending climate catastrophe. People aren’t going to necessarily get behind a miner wanting to keep mining, right? Because it’s doing damage to the earth. And so that’s one of those contradictions. And one of the things that keeps coming to my head it came into my head when I was reading the book, and I didn’t really have the language for it but I keep thinking about it while we’re talking — we were talking about the the realm of reproduction in a way it’s like, it’s just life, right? The ability to live and to exist. And this is what we’re struggling over and both riot and strike bring us there, they’re sort of an expression of the way that we are made dependent upon the market and state to survive, right? One is through work, and one is through having to rely on the goods that are produced through work to live consuming them.

And so we have all this language to talk about the things that we have to do to live but it’s just about…it’s this question of living right? That we don’t ever get to one thing is , I think about whatever work struggle we have to have within the horizon of getting rid of work, abolishing work as a relationship. But I don’t know if you have thoughts about that, like howmaybe this is like a later question, what’s this realm of living in relationship to struggle?

JC: Well, yeah, I think as it was formulated probably a number of times, but best known to me is in a bunch of writing from the 60s in France by the Situationist International, right with the goal to get beyond survival, right? So we needed to overcome survival as what our political horizon was. And in some sense, right, both the struggle that depends on negotiating for your wage, and the struggle that depends on the value of market goods the price at market goods — are both about survival, but neither of them is about overcoming the horizon of survival itself toward what you’re calling a living. Just reproducing ourselves without reference to some capitals choosing to pay us a pittance every hour, or some store that’s going to sell us low quality pasta. And the goal is to get to a place where we can reproduce ourselves.

Sorry, I keep falling into this technical language, I’m trained *laughs*. It’s unfortunate, though, to get to this sort of place where we can reproduce ourselves without reference to the wage or the market and that’s the goal. I think you raised an important moment, which is the sort of conflict now between ecological struggles and labor as a contradiction, we saw that really dramatically at Standing Rock, for example, right? Where the pipeline company never says, “Oh, you have to take down this blockade because we need profits”, they say “jobs”, right? They say, “if you shut down this pipeline with your blockade water protectors, you’re going to be putting a lot of good Americans out of work”. And it becomes a conflict between, on the one hand, people who want access to the wage, and on the one hand, people who want to avoid total despoliation of the climate and the lands on which they dwell and so on. And I don’t think there’s a way to overcome that contradiction. People try to sort of imagine, “well, we’ll have green jobs”. That’s the magic squaring of the circle, somehow, “we’ll have an increase in jobs, but it will be good for the climate not bad for the climate”. And I think that’s a bit of magical thinking, to be honest.

And so I think that really asks us to get back to your question about getting past survival to living. I think that asks us to really think seriously about the zero jobs demand. A lot of, for example, socialists, full employment as a demand. Obviously, full employment, I think, obviously, is A.) not possible and B.) a guaranteed route to faster and faster climate collapse.

TFSR: Right.

JC:
And moreover, work fucking sucks. I mean, I have a good job, I’m lucky, I’ve had a lot of jobs in my life, some better some worse, right now I have a good job. I’m very lucky. And I don’t like that job. I don’t like any jobs, work sucks. Having a boss sucks, having to show up sucks. And showing up doesn’t suck, having to show up sucks. And I don’t think there’s a route to planetary survival, that doesn’t pass through the No Employment position, rather than the Full Employment position.

TFSR: Right. And I mean, building off that, it makes me wonder, so all of these questions and struggles often don’t get at the meat of the things: we need to have the basic things to survive, which is: food and shelter and care of different kinds. And the struggles don’t tend to be actually over those things. And it’s hard to get out of the mindset that thinks about some entity, like the state, providing us that right? Which they certainly aren’t going to do and they never have.

So I was just wondering if you if you had thoughts on that, because part of the dream of like the labor movement in the 19th century, that we still have inherited today is that like full automation, the centralized state that controls everything and we can sort of live our lives freely within that, but that obviously never happened. It doesn’t look like it’s likely, and all that the state does is reproduce these forms of exclusion and surplus. So, I wonder, do you think that even shifting our gaze to those basic necessities as as the ground from which we can think of life could be approached as a aspect of the movement without replicating those structures?

JC: I think it could be. But I think that there are some real challenges and real warnings we need to heed. Certainly we’ve seen recognitions of this need, but they’ve often happened in fairly small scale ways. The United States, I’m old enough to live through hardly the first but a sort of substantial back to the land movement, and sort of the forming of what get called communes which is usually, 12 people, one of whom has a trust fund, moving to upstate New York and living together in a farmhouse. And, I say that slightly mockingly, I don’t think that’s a bad idea, but there’s a couple issues with it. One: it often doesn’t legitimately detach from the market and the wage, right? There’s someone who’s still got a job, or still has inherited a lot of capital, is sitting in a bank somewhere and is living off of that, or whatever. And so that’s not a true form of detachment. The other is, of course, it’s quite small scale.

But the real blockage to that is: imagine that started to happen with thousands and thousands and thousands and thousands of groups started to try and detach from the wage, detach from the market, and get into subsistence gardening and reproduction of their own communities. Without anyone working for a capitalist without anyone shopping in the marketplace. What would happen then? The state would come for you, the state would come for you immediately. The state would come for you first by probably jacking up taxes really intensely on that activity so you simply couldn’t afford it. And historically, as taxes were invented to drive people into the money economy, and force people to live that way. And so that would probably be the state’s first strategy to force people back into the money economy, to force people back into the labor market, insofar as they’re needed in the labor market. Which is to say, long story short: if people want to pursue this question of communal reproductionI’m just going to call it a commune, but I don’t mean again, the household, I mean, large scale things if people want to pursue the commune, they’re not going to do it just by withdrawing and it’s going to be cool. It’s going to be part of a sustained struggle with the state on behalf of capital. There’s no route there that’s peaceful, that’s groovy, that is just like, we’re just withdrawing, we’re gone. That’s not gonna happen.

TFSR: Yeah, that’s, that’s important. Yeah, thanks. That helps think about where, why that still…yeah we still have to struggle against the state that’s gonna interject itself in any relationship we try to establish outside of its purview. So I can’t now I guess we’ve sort of moved to the current situation, but one thought, and one question I had, sort of thinking about the current moment, and the phase of capitalism, that makes strike difficult, is how capital flight has worked, right? So we have technological advances that made internationalizing supply chains easier, but then increased the on demand nature of modern production, and that creates more opportunities for choke points in the circulation. Two recent examples of this have been the colonial pipeline that shut off its distribution because it couldn’t invoice the customers and bill them for the gas, but that ended up leading to gas shortages around the southeast. And then the Ever Given cargo ship blocking the Suez Canal created a sort of crisis, and that was like, also, that was accidental, apparently. It’s not, sure, yeah, these might not have been politically motivated in terms of limiting circulation, but they do point to issues of places like where we might think about struggle. So I was wondering if you had ideas about these kinds of circulation struggles from another perspective?

JC: Yeahhhh, you know what? I just want to hover over those two moments, that colonial pipeline and the Ever Given blocking Suez Canal, just because they were such extraordinary moments and glad you pointed them out. And it’s true: both events are political, but that’s different from saying both events were conceived of and executed with specific political goals. And, but there are extraordinary moments of sort of showing us vulnerabilities choke points is a very popular term, which I’ve sort of come to feel ambivalent about, but that’s fine. But so I think they do point to, sort of, possibilities for struggle, but I think what they point to is not just the fact like oh circulation, capitals more and more dependent on it which is true, right? Capital as industrial capitalism has become less profitable. Large firms have tried to really make their distribution of goods, their circulation of goods far more cost efficient. We’ve seen this massive build out of global shipping, especially since about 1985. Really dramatically trying to improve turnover time and cost per unit of shipping and cut down on those costs as a form of venture capital struggle, and those produce vulnerabilities. There’s no doubt about it.

I don’t want to exaggerate those because capital is pretty resilient, to use the technical term, right, which is pretty effective at having multiple routes to move things around, to be able to reroute, to evade a blockade or something like that. So I don’t want to exaggerate how vulnerable capital is. But it’s definitely a site of struggle, a site of contest. It’s important to note that when there was the struggle to try and bring down that Egyptian government in 2010-2011 — it actually starts with strikes in Mahalla in the textile region, then there’s massive riots and occupations around the capitol in Tahrir Square most famously — but the hinge event is the Suez workers threatened to go on strike. So that’s at once a strike and a circulation struggle, where they’re going to block circulation through the canal, and that’s the event that actually brings down the government, that proceeds by two days, the collapse of the government.

So this is sort of an interesting combination of phenomena. What’s most important to me here is who this indicates as the subject who’s involved in struggle. So if we say working class, I actually think that term misses some things: it assumes people who are working for a wage, who go to work in the morning, obviously, that’s inaccurate, because all of us do all kinds of work. And there’s reproductive labor in the home, we’re doing eldercare, we’re doing childcare, all kinds of things, right? But usually, working class sort of refers to wage wage workers. And the thing about a circulation struggle, the thing about blocking a pipeline is: you don’t have to be a worker, right? To shut down a factory with a strike, you have to be a worker and refute and withdraw your work. So it really limits who can take part of that option to workers in that site to the working class.

Whereas shutting down a pipeline, anyone in the entire proletariat which is not just the working class, but everyone who doesn’t own the means of production, isn’t a capitalist — can take part in that, anyone can show up in the pipeline. As we saw Standing Rock where any number of my studentsright, I’m a teacher any number of my students were like, I’m failing for a couple weeks, I’m going out to Standing Rock” and I was like, “Godspeed. And you can just show up and be part of it and take part and that’s I think what distinguishes circulations struggles, is they’re open as tactics of struggle to anyone, you don’t have to be a worker to take apart.

TFSR: That’s interesting, too, because of one of the brushes they use to tar the riot is the discourse around the outside agitator, right? So the strike has a kind of belonging to it the workers belong there, and because of thatbelonging, they have some sort of voice that demands to be heard. Whereas the riot can always be seen as be painted that way, like that its outside, that is not coming from here, that it’s someone’s neighborhood, but not theirs, whatever, that is being demolished, or even if it is, there’s the people who are doing it wrong. But what you’re saying, with circulations it’s actually this, more open form precisely because you don’t have to belong to be to participate in it. Yeah, I don’t know, that creates a different kind of space, I guess, for struggle.

JC: That’s really well said. I mean, I think you just did a better version of it than I did, right? But you’re right, right? The, for a variety of reasons, the strike can make these sort of moral claims, you know: I go to my workplace, I use the tools every day to make whatever I make at my workplace, and I have some sort of moral right of disposition over those tools, I can decide they’re not going to be used today, that the strike is on. Whereas that moral right doesn’t seem to transfer to the scene of the riot, the scene of the blockade, the scene of the occupation. At the same time, that space of let’s say, the blockade, truly belongs to everyone, right? To go back to Standing Rock as an example, which I find very useful — it was led by Indigenous people, water protectors, and rightly so, given their historical habitation on the land — but it was also open to anyone. That land, if we want to believe any of the promises that were made, even by governments, that land belongs to everyone. And it’s everyone’s right to protect it, possibly everyone’s obligation. So, in that sense, circulation struggle, I think, has a broader sort of ethical compass to invite people in, in that regard.

TFSR: Yeah. That is, yeah, that sort of, I think, puts it in a really interesting and important way. Because it maybe creates more possibilities of solidarity, too, to think that yeah, that your voice belongs there. But since you’ve brought up Standing Rock, I want to think a little bit about how you describe, the modern, or current form of riot, “riot prime in the book. Because you trace this back to a slightly different history than the earlier riots, to anticolonial uprisings and slave rebellions, or that’s like an additional part of it, a thread that comes into play in today’s riot. And you say that today’s riot is always racialized, a question of surplus, surplus population. So I wanted to hear you talk a little bit more about the effect of racialization in understanding the riot, the way it’s talked about, and then maybe if you want to bring that into play with the uprising after George Floyd’s murder, or the experience of Ferguson that you had, because that seems like a good examples for the racialization of riot.

JC: Yeah. So this gives me a chance to track back to our very opening discussion about sort of the technical and theoretical categories. And I’m going to try and lean on them again, but toward this very concrete experience of racial violence, community defense, and things like that. So there’s, I think, various ways of being excluded from the “formal economy as we say, the wage economy. One of the ways is sort of classic land dispossession, so we can think about Indigenous people in North America being dispossessed of their land. And not always just to be bargained for labor force as workers, but sometimes it’s just like, Get the fuck off the land, we’ll kill you if we have to, to get you to leave, you’re not wanted, we’re not even going to include you in the labor force. So that’s one way of being made rendered surplus to the economy.

Another way of being rendered surplus to the economy is you work in a car factory that goes fully robotic to compete with lower overhead firms in Japan or South Korea, and you’re kicked out of your job as you’re replaced by automation, by improved processes. And so that’s another way you can be sort of excluded from the wage and rendered surplus.

So these are different kinds of surplus, but they’re both super racialized, right? So for example, I talked about Indigenous populations, that’s racialized obviously enough. In the United States, to choose a single example, if you’re going to get excluded from a workplace by industrialization, Black workers get fired first. This is a long standing tradition, even has to do with union policies of last hired, first fired”. Unions were very slow to allow Black people into unions, and into productive labor, they tend to get hired later and then I’m fired earlier. So people who’ve been rendered surplus in that way are also racialized.

But this is not just true of the United States, if you go to look to both France and the United Kingdom, which is, you know this book also came in the wake of really massive rioting in France in 2005-2006, and then, quite famously, the the Tottenham riots in England in 2010, and these are profoundly racialized as well. You get large immigrant populations, often from the Mashreq, the Maghreb in England, often from the West Indies, as well. And these are again, far, like the unemployment rates in those populations are inevitably twice as high as they are among white Europeans. And so those are people who, by virtue of being unemployed, are not in production, but they are in circulation and that’s where the riot is.

So these riots of surplus populations are inevitably racialized in the West because of the ways that dispossession and exclusion are racialized, and dispossession and exclusion produced the population of riot. So they’re always going to function that way. And then, here’s the kicker: once you exclude people from labor, you exclude them from labor discipline. As you probably have experienced in your life, if you have a job that’s a discipline, you have to be a certain citizen, you have to show up in a timely fashion, you have to comport yourself in certain ways. The job forces you to be a certain kind of citizen. But if you don’t have that wage discipline, what happens? Well, what happens is you get policed much more dramatically to make sure that discipline is imposed, because there’s no wage discipline, there’s police discipline, the state discipline. So these populations are far more subject to state discipline and to state violence. And that’s what we see over and over again, that kicks off the riot. Almost inevitably. We look at the George Floyd uprising, and it’s a struggle with the state right? With the cops, against the police, because the police are the instrument of this discipline, the state of the instrument of the discipline and has to be, because there’s no wage discipline when you have very high unemployment, exclusion, dispossession…you know, where jobs were, the police are. And this is always the case.

TFSR: And also just listening to you describe that history, it makes me think about why the riot currently takes on such a bigger role than even seems more hopeful in a way, as a point of struggle. Is that the previous iterations didn’t, sort of, attack the whole, all the interconnecting parts of capitalism in the state, which relied on dispossession of Indigenous populations and enforced labor by enslaved populations that became racialized. And if that part of it isn’t addressed, we’re just doing a labor struggle, it’s never gonna fully lead to a liberation, because we’re still living off of that, those profits, right? We’re, whatever the fumes that still exist from those profits. And so, once the racialization of the struggle becomes apparent, it seems like then it’s actually being truthful, in a way, about where the enemy lies, or I guess, to put it in a simplified language.

JC: I think that’s right. I mean, I do want to avoid a anti-solidaristic account where strikes are for white people, and riots are for, are for BIPOC or however you want to phrase it. I don’t think that’s quite right. And moreover, I think that opens up the riot the uprising insurrection — to all those outside agitator claims. Well, here’s the right, the correct person to be part of this struggle, and here’s the incorrect person who shouldn’t be party to it and who’s just clearly an agitator. And I’m more interested in a possible sort of solidaristic politics. My experience of the George Floyd uprising was that it was led by Black proletarians but it wasn’t racially exclusive in any sense and I think that efforts to paint it as such are counter revolutionary

TFSR: Right.

JC:
-and that it was an important moment of a partial always partial — solidarity, which I think opens possibilities for the future.

TFSR: The narrative that I think was pretty generalized in my area,– when there was Black youthled uprisings in the street, in the wake of George Floyd the discourse of outside agitators white anarchists — came in and then the Black elder leadership also took on that role. But the fact of the matter in the streets was that it was a multiracial coalition led by Black youth who are innovating the point of struggle and talking about it differently than the people that have been shepherded through the movements over the last few decades.

But coming off that idea of solidarity — and this is perhaps what you saw, maybe in Ferguson, too you talk about it in a really important way. Because there’s the racialized surplus population that you just described previously, but I think the population that’s rendered surplus today, as production gets further and further withdrawn so, you’re a teacher, I’m a teacher too, teaching the students in university who were expecting jobs after a BA, leave with no jobs and horrible amounts of debt. And so in a way there’s no pathway for integration, even for white people who were promised a place in this system, that just doesn’t really exist anymore. So I was just wondering about how you might think about that, how that plays out on the ground, or how we can articulate that more explicitly to form bonds of solidarity.

JC: It’s certainly an interesting moment. We finally — after almost 50 years now of national decline have reached a moment where the possibility of national decline can be admitted. And the reason it can be admitted is because the consequences of it have finally arrived on the doorsteps of the white middle class, if we have to use the term middle class”, I think we all know that’s a deeply ineffective term. But we’re getting to the moment where we’re seeing declining life chances for white populations who never in the history of the nation have had anything but Improving life chances, increasing life expectancy, increasing income expectations. And now we’re seeing that moment where all life chances are starting to decline and diminish for that population of reasonably well off, not utterly impoverished white people. And so we can now talk about decline.

So the question is: is that population newly confronting political economic exigency able to enter into solidarity with the truly immiserated proletariat, especially the Black proletariat, Brown proletariat, and so on? Is that possible? There’s moments in which I do not have much optimism. You look at the data from the January 6th insurrectionists, right, and it’s all not impoverished, but middle class white people with a particular feature being they live in counties that either are or are adjacent to sites in which there’s diminishing white populations.

TFSR: Right?

JC:
That’s a really interesting study by Robert Pape at University of Chicago, who does really useful demographic studies of things like this. So in that sense, if we want to talk about a downwardly mobile, white middle class as a sort of significant demographic slice, the moment of January 6th is a moment of extreme reaction against extreme hostility toward — proletarians of color. At other times, we’ve seen lately more optimistic moments. I describe the Occupy movement and again, maybe optimistically, I don’t know, I think I should be allowed the occasional moment of optimism I described the Occupy movement as an effort, a failed effort, but an effort to find a solidarity or a collaboration between the downwardly mobile, white middle class, who just encountered the collapse of 2008, suddenly experienced vast amounts of indebtedness, as you say, really limited potential for future employment or advanced or anything like that. Trying to find a way forward with already immiserated populations, especially Black populations, others as well, it didn’t quite come off, but it was try. One hope for the future is if that can come off better next time. And if that short of alliance, I don’t know if that’s the right word, but if that sort of solidarity, starts to manifest, I don’t know, I think it’s on.

TFSR: Yeah, you put it really clearly. What we’re up against really is like the recruitment of those newly surplus white populations from fascists and the like and clearly that’s happening across the globe — but the anti fascist movements seem to be pulling out more people, at least right now. Like the George Floyd uprising was way bigger than the Open Up movements during COVID, and then the January 6th, whatever that was.

JC: Yeah, that’s important to remember, it’s important to remember the scale of the George Floyd uprising, which you put together all of these, alt-right, far right nativistwherever you want to call them — movements, and the George Floyd uprising dwarfs them. And that’s really important to remember.

TFSR: Well, thinking again, about the global context, when you talk about the racialization of the riot — and in the book, you are focusing, as you said, on Europe and the US — but in the current state of the riot, you describe how what was like a peripheral colonial conflict comes to the colonial center, to the metropole, but I’m wondering how you see the decolonial struggles continuing right now. And then how that might be tied in with climate stuff and Indigenous uprisings around the world?

JC: Well, I do want to be slow to comment on this, only because I’m not sure I’m an expert on anything, but I did a lot of studying and trying to learn things for the purposes of the book, and limited my field so that I could get some sort of handle on what was happening in the capitalist core. And I don’t consider myself much of an expert on the rest of the world, so I don’t want to sort of wax knowledgeable about things in which I’m still learning. There are people who are doing really interesting thinking about this, my friend Charmaine Chua works on logistics, but she’s doing really interesting work in relation to logistics, decolonial struggle, surplus populations, and try and learn from her and other people who are doing similar work.

I do think, when I talk about colonial strategies coming back to the core, I’m not the first to mention that, Aimé Césaire — who wrote Discourse on Colonialismtalks about that exact phenomenon, of fascism as techniques of colonial management being sort of adapted for Europe. And various other people have tried to sort of study this since then. And I think that’s right. And I think it goes back to Frantz Fanon is a really important moment in thinking about this. And I think it goes back to what I was saying before about the difference between wage discipline and police discipline or state discipline, right? So colonial management has — not in every case, but consistently — been a form of police management. Fanon described the colonized world as the world of the police station and the barracks — so the population gets managed that way, exactly because you colonize people as an imperial power, you don’t magically give them all nice paying jobs, and they want to be good citizens, it doesn’t happen that way. In fact, you’re just kicking them off their land and managing them via sheer violence. And those methods in which you have to manage a population with the police and the army, rather than with the paycheck, are increasingly the case in the core.

So that’s sort of what I mean about colonial methods coming to the core is that increasingly it’s good state violence as a mode of management and I think that remains true all over the globe. It’s just that we notice it in these so-called high wage countries more dramatically as a change over the last few decades. Whereas in lots of places in the world, it’s not a change at all. I was just reading George Manuel, who’s an important Indigenous theorist and historian who wrote a great book called The Fourth World. So he’s, he’s from Turtle Island what gets called Canada — but he makes a trip in 1971 to investigate Indigenous life in New Zealand among the Māori, and then Indigenous people in Australia. And he takes a very clear note of, particularly the brutality and state violence meted out to Indigenous people in Australia endlessly. So this is a global phenomenon, but I don’t want to say much more than that, because I don’t want to claim any expertise where I don’t have any.

TFSR: Yeah, no, and I appreciate that. But the way that you put it in the book that really stood out to me was helpful, was that you talked about the difference in the early time of the riot, was the state was far and the economy was near. And that now we’re in a situation where the state is near and the economy far, even though we’re like, the riot is still in circulation and the market and consumption of goods. But what we are facing, we can’t attack the producers of those things, we’re faced up against the police, which brings us basically back to that description that Fanon has of what what the colonial experience is, and that, in a way seems to me to be a just a kind of, I don’t know, in all my reading, it’s like, this is where the state goes, right? It goes to, instead of further subtilization of discipline of the population, it goes to literal brute force to keep people in order. And that has to do also with the diminishing returns of capitalism as a global structure of the economy. But yeah, that, again, I guess it’s good to not draw too many neat comparisons or analogies among things, because it is different in different places, and the climate catastrophes that we’re facing will make that difference much clearer.

JC: Yeah, that was well put that was. That was, I think, a clear description. And it’s a real challenge, right? I don’t want to be fatalistic, but this switch where once the state was far police are a relatively recent invention, right — once the state was far up, the economy was near, you could go right after the merchant. You could go down to the baker, you could go to the grain merchant and just fuck with them. And now much harder to do. And if you do do that, great, so you go down to the local department store if you live in a place where there’s a department store, a big grocery store and you loot it — and that’s great, I salute that — but even that, that’s only temporary. You get some supplies that’ll last you for a couple of weeks, that’s not a revolution.

And this is an actual problem, right, which is to say: I think you have to fight the state, I think you have to fight the cops, I think there’s no way out that doesn’t pass through that. And I don’t want to delude myself that we can somehow route around that moment. But you can’t get locked into a ritualistic struggle with the state. I think we saw that, like in Greece, for example, which, after the 2008 collapse, Greece popped off first. And for the classic reason: the cops shot a kid who was on his vespa and riots popped off, and they just kept going. And it turned into… I appreciate, again, I appreciate people who leave the house ready to struggle. There was a certain calcification where it just became sort of a march on the parliament and attempt to storm the parliament. Massive defence forces around the parliament building in Syntagma Square squaring off, this happened sort of repeatedly. And, it’s important not to get trapped in that moment, you have to figure out a way to get past the militaristic confrontation with the state, but you can’t route around it. So you have to figure out a way to get through it.

TFSR: It seems, in a way, that they were, in Greece, were able to, or in Athens, able to create at least a temporary zone of somewhat autonomy in Exarcheia, or something like that. And this is actually, leaving that specific example behind, going to my next question, just about where you’re headed in your analysis, because the dead end of facing of with the state is that we aren’t demanding concessions, right? Because they’re not going to redistribute — you say in the book redistribution is off the table” — and in fact, we’re the crisis for state and capital, but the population is actually their problem, and we’re not asking for anything.

So what you say in the book is, the next step is riot needs to absolutetize itself toward the commune. And you talked a little bit about the commune, but I was wondering if you had some more thoughts about are your current thoughts given the changes in what’s happened — on how the riot can produce the commune. Which you say, I think this is really important, is a tactic and a form of life’s, not the end goal of what we’re trying to achieve.

JC: Yeah, so that I mean, that gives me a chance to try and set forth a little bit of what I’m trying to figure out for book I’m working on right now, which I hope to finish over the next nine months or so, which is sort of specifically about this problem, or several of the problems you’ve mentioned about the limit which is the end of capitalist growth, it’s diminishing returns, but also the limit of climate collapse and sort of those as two limits that we confront as we try and figure out what revolutionary struggle might look like. And I am trying to think more carefully about the commune. Not so much as what the riot becomes I think I put it that way in the book and I’m not sure I love that formulation — but I think about what arises, in some sense, alongside the riot.

So I’m going to go back one more time to Standing Rock as a really useful example. So Standing Rock is not a riot, really, although there might have been a couple little riots in there. But it is what I call a circulation struggle, right? That larger category in which the riot is the exemplary form. So it’s a circulation struggle, it’s trying to stop capital from circulating, it’s trying to stop that oil from moving through the pipeline. But there’s also the camp right, actually, there’s a series of camps at Standing Rock I think in the end, probably around 10 distinct camps, each has its own name, they’re almost all founded by Indigenous women, they have various sort of makeup — but those camps are what I would call communes, right? Not in the sense that they’re sort of an achieved form, here’s our own self government now, now this is how we live, but in the sense that they took up the question of reproducing the community, “social reproduction to use the technical category.

Because if you’re going to have that blockade for months and months and months, you have to have food, you have to have shelter, you have to have care, you have to have medicine. And the camp arises alongside of that as a commune, and what’s vital here is that they’re the same thing, right? There’s no blockade without the commune. And there’s no commune without the blockade. It’s not like they’re two different solutions that you throw at a problem. It’s that they’re indistinguishable: the care work of the commune, and the antagonism, the direct antagonism of the blockade, are not two separate phenomena, and you sort of choose your adventure. It’s the same people doing both things. It’s a single activity that has as one side of it the commune and the other side of it blockade.

And I think that is my real source of optimism, right? Is that we see those circulation struggles, which are inevitable again, I’m not saying they’re good, I’m not saying they’re bad, I’m saying they’re inevitable the structure that capital takes is going to be in circulation now, and it has to be blocaded. And seeing that that inevitable blockade there’s going to be more and more of those — arises in the form that’s also the commune, this, I think, points toward a way forward. Because we have to eventually get to that moment that the commune promises without necessarily delivering, of breaking free from the things on offer from capital, the wage and the market. And that breaking free has to happen and the commune is the promise of that happening, and the effort to figure out how it can happen.

TFSR: Yeah, I love how you say that. And that makes me think, again, what I mentioned in the very beginning about maybe some of the strength of the George Floyd uprisings came from the fact that people were doing the care work of mutual aid at the same time that they were getting in the streets, fighting the police. And thinking back to the way that people talked about the Paris Commune or even May 68 in Paris, those are moments of lived experience that can then be drawn upon, right, of something, of another form of life even if it didn’t last — and replace whatever. But if you experienced being in the streets with people that forms a kind of community. But I really like that you put the care work and the struggle together. That’s something that I’ve been, I’ve been trying to wrap my head around too because it dissolves those divisions of labor that were sort of imposed upon us by the state, the market and the divisions of the spheres of life too, to say that there’s work and home or something.

JC: Yeah. So the thing I would add, right, is that that mutual aid that was practiced during George Floyd uprising, for example — so there’s a bit of a challenge here and the term mutual aid is a very common one. Anarchists I don’t identify as an anarchist but most of my friends are anarchists, and they probably all think I’m an anarchist too, so, and I would take it as a term of honor. And certainly in anarchist communities, the idea of mutual aid is an essential one and it has been for a very long time. But it’s super important to me to think about all the activities that already happened in communities that don’t identify as anarchists, that don’t identify as activist, but that are mutual aid, right? There was all kinds of mutual aid in Minneapolis. St. Paul already, in advance of people who understood that as a practice and had a theorization of it and had a commitment to it, roll up, and I’m glad they rolled up because I want as many people rolling up as possible there. But it’s important to recognize that mutual aid as a practical matter already exists in those communities and has to, it has to for amiserated communities, communities of color, to survive. In the current situation, there has to be a lot of mutual aid being practiced all the time.

TFSR: Yeah, I appreciate that. That’s so important. It goes back to what you’re saying, you could call it a strike if you want, whatever the terminology. And I think the same thing about anarchists, I identify as anarchist strategically, but it doesn’t matter to me. But the thing that even Kropotkin, talking about mutual aid is that it’s a spontaneous organization that happens, it doesn’t need to be imposed by outside or whatever. It’s what people do all the time. And that I guess, like care might even be a better word for the, going back to what you were talking about in the commune at Standing Rock.

JC: I think that one of the things that’s hopeful for me, I don’t know how it is where you live, but in the Bay Area, which is my home, there have been moments when there’s been a really aggressively contentious discourse that sets sort of care and militancy in opposition, often in gendered ways, but not always. In which like, we have a joke like look at that manarchist” that joke about manarchism, militancy. But if you think about that example I tried to suggest of the blockade and the commune being a unity not just two things next to each other, but a unity — you can see it sort of dissolves that opposition, the idea that like, Well, some people are committed to care as a practice and has these virtues, and some people are committed to militancy and has these virtues”. Eh. I think that like you look at scenes like Standing Rock — and it’s not the only example, it‘s just an easily available one from the last decade you see that that opposition is overcoming practice all the time.

TFSR: Right. I guess what I think that your book really helps do is to break through the sort of the false inheritances that we have from a romanticize narratives of struggle and revolution that create those kinds of divisions that that don’t exist or didn’t exist. And in that light, I guess, just to ask you a final sort of broad question: do you have any other insights that you might offer to the current modes of struggle or anything that you’ve seen lately as a kind of innovation that excites you?

JC: Well, I think there’s a highly specific and a highly general answer. The highly specific one is the great US innovation of the last year was burning police stations. It’s widely known as a global phenomenon, as I never hesitate to point out, on the first night of the Egyptian uprising that I referred to earlier — a decade ago, 99, police stations got burned. So that phenomenon is known globally. But it’s essentially unknown in the United States where the sanctity of the police and the sense of the risks of militancy, outweighing the virtues of militancy, are so powerful that that sort of breaking of that barrier, so that that was suddenly on the table. I think that’s probably good news. And two, three, a thousand Minneapolis’, that’s a specific one.

The general one is a way of dodging your question, right? Which is to say: I think what’s most important, to sort of wrap around to the beginning, is to understand why certain modes of struggle emerge. Not to say we should do this, or that’s good, and that’s bad. But to understand why people…like, prescriptive accounts, like this is the right thing to do I actually don’t think are very helpful. In part because I deeply believe in the proletarian struggle. I deeply believe in people fighting for their lives and fighting for freedom and fighting for emancipation, not as an enactment of theory, but as where theory comes from. You don’t say like, oh, here’s the right way to do it, I have a theory and then you deliver that to people. Anyone who does that can fuck off. The point is you’re attentive to what actually happens and actual concrete circumstances, and you try to understand why it’s happening. And that’s where I would want to end up, is on the team of trying to understand sort of the shape of history as it emerges, to understand what might be possible rather than sort of delivering some prescription about the best thing to do.

TFSR: Yeah, well, I’m really grateful for the work you’ve done to, sort of, to illuminate those things and I’m excited, I don’t know if you want share a little bit about what you’re working on now, because I’m excited to hear where you’re moving next.

JC: Oh, I probably gave as good as summary as I can give. So it starts with the fact that we still have the same two problems that Aimé Césaire says in the Discourse on Colonialism I mentioned earlier. He says that question civilization, by which I mean, European civilization has bequeathed us two problems that we have not been able to overcome, which is the problem of colonization and the problem of the proletariat. That is still true. We still have the same two problems, the struggle with those two problems now happens within two incredibly powerful limits: one is the end of capitalist growth, there’s no more growing your way out of problems. There’s no more increasing employment, there’s no more capital accumulation to redistribute, to sort of buy the social peace. So that’s one real limit. And then climate collapse is the other limit.

So two problems, two limits. And those are the conditions in which we are compelled to sort of struggle for freedom, struggle to leave the realm of necessity and enter into the realm of freedom. And I think that looking at the kinds of struggles we see emerging, the things that I’m calling pipeline blockades the things that I’m calling communes, and things like the George Floyd uprising, trying to think about these as ways that people are trying to figure out a path forward, against those two problems and within those two limits.

TFSR: I’m really excited to read that when it is published. And I’m, yeah, thank you for engaging these questions and bringing it to bear on, like, what’s happening now.

JC: I really appreciate your thoughtfulness and your giving me a chance to ramble on a little bit.

TFSR: *laughs* It’s wonderful. Thank you.

Palestine and Challenging Settler Colonial Imaginaries

Palestine and Challenging Settler Colonial Imaginaries

Photo by Yousef Natsha
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This week on the show, we’re airing a portion of our 2018 interview with filmmaker and activist Yousef Natsha about his film about his hometown, Hebron, and the Israeli occupation of Palestine. We invite you to check out our full interview with him from March 25, 2018, linked in our show notes and we’re choosing to air this right now because of the flare up in violent evictions, home destruction and the assassination of around 100 Palestinian residents of Gaza by the “Israeli Defense Forces”. [00:10:24]

Then, we’ll be sharing a panel from the 2021 UNC Queer Studies Conference called “No Blank Slates: A Discussion of Utopia, Queer Identity, and Settler Colonialism” featuring occasional Final Straw host, Scott Bransen alongside E. Ornelas and Kai Rajala. This audio first aired on Queercorps, on CKUT radio in Montreal. If you’d like to engage in this project, reach out to noblankslates@riseup.net [00:24:05]

Also, Sean Swain on aparthied [00:01:48]

No Blank Slates: A Discussion of Utopia, Queer Identity, and Settler Colonialism

Presenter(s)

Scott Branson, E Ornelas, Kai Rajala

Abstract

Under the neoliberal regime of multiculturalism, the settler colonial project has relied on the assimilation of certain subaltern communities into its project for the effective dispossession and control of indigenous lands. This discussion will present ideas from a book project we are collaborating on in order to invite conversation around the intersection and tension around ideas of liberation and forms of appropriation and oppression. Our main challenge for radical queers is to rethink the kinds of futures we try to include ourselves in, and how our liberatory work can subtly replay exclusion and erasure. How do neoliberal utopian gay politics perpetuate settler colonial erasure and genocide? How do politics that seek inclusion and representation–in other words assimilation–disavow the work by indigenous self-determination movements, which are also poised on the frontlines of planetary self-defense? The workshop will be divided up into short presentations by each writer, followed by a structured discussion facilitated by the presenters.

Description:

The utopian project that underwrote the Canadian/American settler colonial states that still exist today was eventually transmuted into a neoliberal utopian sense of identity. The entire concept of space and self that we inherit is imbued with utopian longing for a time and place that we can fully be ourselves. This kind of rhetoric is largely at play in mainstream identity-based movements, like gay rights. But this longing often works in favor of the regime of violence and dominance perpetrated by the modern nation state. We can see how the attempt at inclusive representation of queer cultures leads to assimilation and appropriation. What gets included in regimes of representation ends up mimicking the norms of straight/cisgender heteronormativity, in terms of class aspirations, behaviors, and family structures. This therefore contributes to systematic erasure of Black and Brown queer folks, who are still the most targeted “identities” for state violence and its civilian deputies. With images of diversity that appeal to bourgeois urban gays, businesses and governments can pinkwash their violence.

A radical queer politics that relies on unquestioned utopian and dystopian visions risks aligning itself with a settler colonial imaginary of terra nullius or “blank slate” space. On the one hand, dystopian and apocalyptic visions perpetuate the unquestioned assumption that a societal collapse is impending, as if the continual degradation of human and more-than-human communities has not already arrived. Particularly dangerous in this assumption is the kind of crisis rhetoric that fosters opportunities for settler colonial sentiments of insecurity and, in the face of this insecurity, assertions of belonging and sovereignty in land and lifeways. Furthermore, visions of radical utopias as-yet-to-be-realized (or, as-yet-to-be-colonized) discount the ongoing presence of Indigenous alternatives to the current settler colonial dystopian reality, and instead preserves a view of geographic and social space as blank and ready to be “improved” with a “new” model.

Here we have a problem of erasure of the oppressions and resistances that have been ongoing in different iterations, in favor of the blank space of the utopian frontier. We argue against these linear progression narratives of societal and environmental collapse which promise to bring about a future idealized world of rainbow-diverse identities. Instead, we propose ways for radical politics, particularly those espoused by non-Indigenous people, to disavow such settler colonial mindsets. There are a few ways to offer a glimpse into the lived realities—what we might still call utopian moments—that make up the non-alienated, revolutionary life: queer and indigenous histories of resistance, rituals and moment of community care and mutual aid, and science fiction revisions of the world. We argue that this other world does in fact exist—has existed and has not stopped existing—if only in the interstices or true moments of communing and inhabiting the land alongside friends and family.

This is not an argument in favor of utopia, but one that seeks to bypass the utopian/dystopian divide. The world we inhabit is clearly dystopian for most, and utopian for some, and in many estimations, constantly on the verge of ending. The disaster scenarios, repeating the puritanical eschatology that helped settle the colonies in America, perpetuates the history of erasure of ways of life that aren’t in fact gunning for that disaster. We still argue that the purpose of dreaming, of envisioning alternatives, is to make action possible today, through recognition of the power we do already hold. Our discussion will interrogate the settler-utopian impulses that get hidden within apparently liberatory movements, such as radical queers and strands of environmentalism, as well as the way these identities and politics are represented in narratives of liberation that rely on the same logic they claim to oppose.

Bios

E Ornelas (no pronouns or they/them) is a Feminist Studies PhD candidate in the Department of Gender, Women, & Sexuality Studies. As the descendant of a survivor of the Sherman Institute, a Native boarding school in Riverside, California—and therefore robbed of cultural, linguistic, and tribal identity—E’s research interests focus on the continued survivance and futurity of BIPOC communities, particularly through the use of literature. E’s dissertation illuminates community-based, abolitionist-informed, alternative models of redress for gendered, racialized, and colonial violence by analyzing Black and Indigenous speculative fiction. When not on campus, E can be found reading feminist sci-fi, making music, baking vegan sweets, and walking their dog. [00:45:06]

Kai Rajala (pronounced RYE-ah-la) is a queer, nonbinary, white-settler of Finnish and mixed European descent. They are a writer, and an anarchist anti-academic working and living on the unceded territories of the Kanien’kehá:ka peoples on the island colonially referred to as Montréal, and known otherwise as Tiohtià:ke. They are currently pursuing studies as an independent researcher and are interested in sites outside of the university where knowledge production occurs. You can find Kai on twitter at @anarcho_thembo or on instagram at @they4pay. [00:57:28]

Scott Branson is queer trans Jewish anarchist who teaches, writes, translates, and does other things in Western so-called North Carolina. Their translation of Jacques Lesage De la Haye’s The Abolition of Prison is coming out with AK Press this summer. Their translation of Guy Hocquenghem’s second book, Gay Liberation After May 68, is due out next year with Duke University Press. They edited a volume of abolitionist queer writings based on two iterations of the UNC Asheville queer studies conference, due out with PM Press next year. They are currently working on a book on daily anarchism for Pluto Press and researching a book on the institutionalization of queerness in the academy. They also make books of poems and artwork. You can find Scott on Instagram @scottbransonblurredwords or check out sjbranson.com for more of their work or on twitter at @sjbranson1. [00:30:41]

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Transcription

Yousef Natsha: My name is Yousef Natsha, I am from Palestine from a city called Hebron. And Hebron is part of West Bank that’s under that Israeli military occupation. I did start my professional work mainly with human rights organizations on the field and start documenting what my community is facing from the Israeli government. Since that till now I’m doing this awareness for the other communities to know what’s going on in my community. I have been working on it for no less than two years, it is a long process of footaging these terrifying moments.

The documentary mainly focused on human rights violation that’s the Palestinian community is facing from the Israeli military, they are occupying West Bank and Gaza Strip for sure. And when I started the process of making the documentary, I start saying, “should I go to the, you know, the the history part of what has happened and how this is ended up being existed till this moment”, the issue that I ended up going back to the time to like 1917, when like things actually did start, and how the colonization system did begin on Palestine and ended up bleeding into what we’re having right now. So I ended up actually, after a lot of thinking, I ended up just doing it about human rights abuses. And I saw that my community, my family, my friends are not treated as humans. And from there, I ended up just taking my community voice into this documentary to explain the suffering. It took me a while to understand what is actually going on, “Is this normal to face? Should I just live my normal life in terms of just going to the college and finish that and then find, you know, a job to be occupied with all the time, having a family building a house”, and so on.

So it has been a long process for me after the age of 18, specifically, of what I actually have to do, which path I should take. And after a year or so spending it on studying accounting in one of the colleges and Hebron, I just said, “This is not my place, I can’t see myself eight hours sitting behind the desk.” That’s the moment that I ended up pushing that college door with my foot and saying, “I am going down on the ground.” I started filming with my phone. And I didn’t know that these footages would not go anywhere, but at least I felt that I’m doing something for my community. Afterwards, I ended up having a media scholarship. And after that I became more familiar with filming and photography and so on, and I worked with different local radio stations, and international filmmakers, and at the same time journalists. And on the age of 20, I ended up knowing this human rights organization based in Chicago called the Christians Peacemaker team that I did start working with them on the field. And I can say that gives me in some extent, the ability of moving around under the protection of an international organization in some extent, a lot of people had the question of how I was able to take these footages, how I was able to move around soldiers. Some people do have an idea how much it is difficult to be around Israeli military, specifically on the field and documenting these abuses.

I can say that one of the things that did help me first is English. I used English to talk with the soldiers when they come to try to turn me back to not allow me to film I use English because if the Israeli military somehow if I spoke to them in Arabic, which I can say that they can tell from my face, obviously, but at the same time using English that in some extent, let them think of, you know, it seems like he is not Palestinian at least. Does not mean that I have not been facing harassment from the Israeli military. I have been pushed away, being arrested, being interrogated within the work that I have been doing on the ground.

So I can say that the process has been super difficult but at the same time, I did succeed in making my community comfortable and me being around in terms of, you know, if they are facing harassment from the Israeli military, they will say “okay, well let’s call Yousef”. So with the years I ended up having my phone number with my community members and they will give me a call when the Israeli military is making a, you know, house search or a body search for one of the community members in the old city of Hebron, specifically.

So I can say that the footages has been taking during the process of two years or two yearsish but it does not mean that the footage is that I have to it is not repeating itself and happening now. That’s one of the things that people have to take in consideration that “Oh, with this kind of an old footage, why we need to see it?” Well, actually, it is not, it is happening daily. It shows that struggle that the Palestinians are facing in other places. As a Palestinian and a person that grew up in an environment that does not believe in government — for sure, I don’t — seeing the impact of power on my community, for sure, I don’t believe in that. And I am seeing it first as a way of using the suffering for collecting money. And that’s why I feel like I for sure will not believe in any kind of government power that’s mainly using the struggle of my community for funding, for resources and saying that “we’re going to use it for building houses”, and that’s for sure it’s not happening. And a lot of money that has been directed for the Palestinian authority that Palestinians don’t see it. The only thing that we do see is armed Palestinian police, that they don’t have authority on anything, the Israeli government controlling even the Palestinian authority.

In terms of the history about Palestine and what has been sent abroad for the international media about my community struggle. It became super tricky about how we’re going to name this struggle, how we can finish it, how we can focus on a something, you know, a anything, to try to solve this issue. And my community did resist this occupation, we have used different way of resistance to try to take this occupation down. And unfortunately, the international media did play a big role of sending the wrong image, to the extent that the Palestinians being called “terrorists” for whatever we are doing. Us naturally as human beings, we have to resist against a racist armed power to control us. That natural resistance became titled as violent, it became titled as a terrorist act. That’s one of the reasons why I actually focused about human rights and the documentary because unfortunately, that’s the only language that’s being accepted in the international community to talk about the Palestinian suffering and the Palestinian struggle.

And I can say, through the screenings that I had, so far, I have been seeing a lot of people being engaged with the conversation and saying that “yeah, it is completely terrible that Palestinians are not treated as humans”, which to be honest with you I didn’t see that reaction when I just spoke to the people about the struggle itself without showing them a documentary or the language that’s internationally being used. The history is repeating itself, some people will say they are from Saudi Arabia, or from Jordan or from Syria or whatever, I can say that they are Indigenous community.

Other thing that people don’t recognize, sometime when we say Palestinian, they will think that we are just only Muslims, and that’s wrong. The Indigenous Palestinian community are Palestinian Muslims, Palestinians Jews, Palestinian Christians. There is different ways to make a direct action to go marching down the streets, you know, for people to recognize that there is a community, an Indigenous community, that they are suffering from an armed military occupation, and their struggle needs to be ended before the time being too late, as the history have told us about other Indigenous community around the world. About how they have been suffered from their voices not being heared, their resources being taken, their history being being colonized, it is completely a colonization system, an apartheid system, and it needs to be stopped and my dream, really my dream is to see people marching all over the world about this struggle. One of the things that I do keep repeat all the time: first, our fight is not with a religion. Our fight is simply connected with an armed power coming to our houses, to our lands and saying that it is not yours anymore. Palestinians refugees, most of them still have keys for their houses. They are still having it. They are still hoping one day they will go back and having the right of being returned.

Scott Branson: I’m Scott Branson, they/them. I live in western North Carolina, and I’ve been part of organizing this conference for this session, this one and the last one, which is where I met my copresenters, collaborators, E and Kai, and we started working on this project together. I’m a teacher, writer, translator, etc. Just as my background.

E Ornellas: My name is E Ornellas, I prefer E, so no pronouns is great, but they it’s also fine. Yeah, I also met Scott and Kai at the last Queer Studies conference that was in person, and so I’m happy to be back with y’all, but in a digital space. And yeah, I don’t really know what to say about myself. I’m a PhD candidate at the University of Minnesota and I currently reside on Ojibwe and Dakota land, although that’s kind ofthere’s a really long, complicated history of that, those claims to land. And, you know, it’s now called Duluth, Minnesota. And I have a lot of feelings about land acknowledgments, but I feel like it’s important to at least name — as someone who is not Indigenous to this land, my ancestors were Indigenous to what is now central Mexico, as well as Canada, settlers from Southern Europe I feel like it’s important, at least to say, you know, as a visitor to this space, whose land I’m on. Yeah, and I think I’ll pause for now and pass to Kai, just in the interest of time, and we can get into more stuff about land acknowledgments and who we are and all that hopefully soon. Pass.

Kai Rajala: All right, thank you E. I’m Kai, they pronouns. I am joining you from Kanienʼkehá꞉ka land, colloquially known as Montreal, also referred to by many as the island of Osheaga. I am originally from unceded Coast Salish territory, in what is commonly known as Vancouver, British Columbia. I met E and Scott at a conference in Asheville a few years ago and I’m happy to still be collaborating with them on this project. I’m a bit of the antiacademic, though I did do a BA in French language and studied with Glen Coulthard at the University of British Columbia in the Indigenous Studies Department. So a lot of my work is very referential to Glen’s work. Yeah, and we’ll talk more about the project.

E: I like that name drop, very jealous of that connection.

K:
*laughs* I mean, it’s there, right? So name it.

SB: So we started working together, cuz we had overlapping interests in terms of working on like utopian vision within radicalparticularly anarchist, social movement organizingand the way that utopian ideas are entangled with colonial and settler colonial visions. So we had all done our own sort of work and were trying to figure out how we could collaborate on a larger potential book project, and this, so today is going to be one sort of installation of that ongoing project that we’re building. And we’ve each prepared like a little bit of where we’re coming from, to read. We also talked a little bit, before we open the session, we’re talking about land acknowledgments and I just wanted to also add that like, we’re in a university setting, and part of the stuff that we’re talking about is how the implications of settler colonialism get invisiblized and many of the institutions that we are working within are, you know, have profited off the theft of land grant institutions. We were talking about that a little bit, right before, and land acknowledgments have been used even by these institutions as a way to kind of show some kind of like, performative solidarity that has nothing to do with, like, any material follow up, right? So like, it’s a thing that gets used but it’s also we thought worth acknowledging, you know, that we are not Indigenous to the land that we’re speaking from.

K: So I think what’s interesting to note is our project and actually start out as anything really queer related, we’re all queer, and for the purpose of this conference we decided to shape what we’re working on to fit kind of the lens of Queer Studies and, you know, queer experience. It actually started with a few things. I ran into E and Scott in Atlanta at an anarchist conference two years ago and then that’s kind of where this conversation really began, the ball started rolling. But one of the things that started with was a critique of sustainability politics and the kind of sustainability movement, which I think is like this liberal, kind of like nonviolent politic, which refuses to surrender settler agency or control over territories, and instead it’s kind of focusing on preserving settlement and attempting to reduce the ecological imprint that the settler State has on the planet. And so you know, it’s kind of naively asking like, how can we delicately tap the earth of its resources? How can we like politely remove indigenous people from their land? And you know, if the current practice of capitalist accumulation by colonial dispossession are destroying the waters? Like, how can we make the colony sustainable? It started with that. And we’re also looking at ways in which as Scott was mentioning, in the beginning, more radical parts of our settler movements are actually reinforcing the settler state and the colony, and queerness.

EO: My starting point is usually from fiction. You know, I sort of blend maybe some of the more science and climate change stuff that Kai was just talking about, but with like, you know, a science fiction lens, and how like apocalypse, and climate change, and dystopia and utopia show up in speculative. And so that’s sort of my general subject area or interest. But yeah, I will explain shortly, I definitely made it queer for this. But I think generally, kind of radical politics, the whole, and how it takes up a lot of these narratives is what I’m concerned with.

So I’m definitely excited to work on this project. And I am excited to hear also people’s responses or questions as we’re sort of shaping this larger project we’re working on, we would like to make it some sort of tangible thing, a book or whatever out in the world. So feedback is very much encouraged throughout this, so that we can sort of be in conversation and not just like talking or writing at people. I really, very much want to welcome like, yeah, conversation.

SB: Yeah, even maybe inviting, like, collaborators too. Because like, another thing that we’re trying to do is envision projects that aren’t like single author ownership based. So but I guess let’s go into the reading of our prepared statements, and then go into the discussion so we have more time to unpack those things. So I’m going to start out with grounding in in the kind of like, questions about queer movements. I’m going to start reading.

Today’s radical queers are stuck in terms of figuring out how to inherit the legacy of gay liberation over against the more recent legacy of gay rights or assimilation. And I think that this dialectic between liberation and assimilation is a little bit misleading. And from like, retrospect, we can see the cooptation is like the goal. I mean, that’s a kind of pessimistic narrative, but it’s the thing that keeps happening. Often, this stuckness produces a nostaligia for the time of general militancy and rebellion across different groups experiencing domination, a time that ultimately splintered through hierarchy, liberal identitarianism, counterinsurgency, murder, incarceration and incorporation into the dying liberal bourgeois state.

And yet, today we see a proliferation what at least previously were deviant genders and sexualities, especially among younger people, while acknowledging an easier terrain for older people to come out and a culture that replays images of queer criminality, liberationist slogans, and apparent subscription to the radical claims of those movements. And when I said like a “dying bourgeois state, I don’t mean that in like a good way, because something worse might be coming, right? Um, some kind of neofeudalism or whatever.

Theoretically, a major issue in inheriting this legacy of queer liberation or gay liberation has been how to deal with a liberationist ideology that sees queerness, or more precisely, homosexuality, or even more precisely sex between men, as somehow inherently revolutionary, spelling the eventual doom of cis-hetero patriarchy and racial capitalism. Like if men fuck each other than the world will fall apart. If only for the reason that that efflorescence of public queerness via the movements didn’t actually produce this liberation right that didn’t happen — but instead various backlashes on public sex and cross class contact over against recognitions of certain rites, we might discard the idea that queerness is radical. Of course, we still would have to contend with the way that HIV AIDS forced gay movements to combat the state and scientific communities for the very lives of those who are dying. But I think we can also get to the understanding of the limits of gay liberation theoretically, simply in the idea of the homosexual.

One version of this is the transgressive or even criminal, that category tends to rely upon the normative for its power. So it can always be absorbed. And this has been talked about by like, lots of people like Bataille or Judith Butler. For us, this absorption has already taken place, because gay now means a specific consumer niche.

Another version of this like paradox inherent in gayness is articulated in the early days of so called queer theory by Eve Sedgwick in her reading of Billy Budd, as what she called the crucial question of a potentially utopian politics. And this is what she asks, Is men’s desire for other men the great preservative of the masculinist hierarchies of Western culture, or is it among the most potent threats against them?” I’ve been, like, sitting with this question for a really long time. For Sedgwick, this ambivalence is tied up with a definitional incoherence” — that’s what she calls it — that plagues modern attempts to classify homosexuality. Is it a minority group, an identifiable class of person, or is it a universalizing tendency that represents a possibility across classes and types and also, like, nations?

The modern gay rights movement has strategically employed the minoritarian response in a bid for recognition and incorporation, and thereby has left behind some of the more destructive and dangerous impulses of gay liberationlike the movementwhich often call for general homosexual realization of culture, or transgendering everyone, so that society, like a capitalist society, and all its norms of oppression would be destroyed.

Sedgwick certainly looked fondly on the liberationist tendencies, but overall she operated within the typically academic Foucaultian framework that came to displace ideas of liberation, especially in Anglo queer theory. This framework sees the invention of homosexuality as a modern phenomenon occurring through the biopolitical intersection of criminal, medical and even literary discourse. The theoretical approach that is dominant, then, sticks to incoherence in homosexuality and this paradox without deciding to resolve it towards liberation, right, like it doesn’t take an ethical stance often.

Now I’ve been really, like, this new recently released book by Christopher Chitty, Sexual Hegemony — it was a posthumously edited volume by a friend Max Fox — has really been reframing some of the ways I think I’m thinking about this. Chitty supplies Foucault’s discursive production of homosexuality with a class analysis of various nodal points of capitalist development. Ultimately, Chitty shows another picture of the ambivalence of same sex practices and communities with the practice could signal both the potential of proletarian unrest, and also the punishment that enforce social norms across classes on top of the oppressive economic and material conditions, creating the condition for the possibility for these sexual cultures to blossom in the first place.

The biggest threat overall tended to be seen in public sex, which reinterpreted urban space outside of bourgeois hegemony, and created cross class connections which threaten the state. In this way, the policing of sodomy, according to Chitty, gets looped in with criminalizing vagrancy and sex work. So these categories all kind of go together. Chitty’s work reinscribes the political ambivalence of queerness for it’s no longer that homosexuality is simply a threat to hegemony but actually plays a role in statecraft and state consolidation, and historicall. Chitty offers a different definition of queer, and I’m quoting now, as a social category queer would then describe the morbid cultural forms by which the normative logics of gender and sexuality become irreparably damaged, desperately reasserted and perversely renaturalized within a generalized social crisis, rather than marketing some utopian release from these logics in the pursuit of self transformative play. So this kind of, again, is a way of getting rid of the utopian possibilities inherent and queerness. What remains of the liberationist drive was ultimately tied into a liberal bourgeois idea of identity subject to it in progress. The modern queer identity that we have today is just as much a product of bourgeois ideology, despite its intermittent threat to social order, or its intermittent use as a targeted police force, which then creates a community under siege and looking for reprieve.

Not only is it a product of capitalism, but also colonialism, as colonial outposts historically did and still do provide areas of sexual license for bourgeois European American men. And similarly, the experience of settlers in the US on the frontier were propitious for same sex encounters and love between men, but that was inextricably bound with a project of removal, replacement, genocide, and settler colonialism.

One of the things that Chitty brings up that I think is worth further developing, that doesn’t get developed in the book, is that we could boil down all the contradictions of homosexuality as well as heterosexuality to questions of consent and the deployment of power. Along with the extraction, displacement and erasure of different life ways and colonized lands, the European proletarian cultures of sex and even sexual identity were eventually displaced by a bourgeois homosexual identity that’s still overdetermines our understanding of sexuality today. And the theory and science that this gay identity produced also created an industry of history and knowledge that tried to trace the universal aspects of same sex love and gender deviation across times and cultures. These gay myths and origin stories could mine colonized and genocided cultures for proof of the biological minoritarian naturalness of gayness or transness, while not analyzing the power dynamics that produce this Eurocentric gaze on other ways of doing sex and gender outside of bourgeois sexual hegemony.

And so, like, you know, in the 19th century anthropological discourse there is this like fascination with the berdache as, like, a third gender and that idea that some people claim for a kind of naturalness of trans identity that we see in our modern, like, settler colonial state is, like, coopting, appropriating and also misunderstanding something, and it is all part of the process of the kind of binary gendering of colonization.

If we follow the association of homosexuality with nodes of capital development and crisis, then we can’t collapse these other cultural life forms into something that we know in the same way, except as appropriation, extraction, colonization, erasure. In the end, it turns out that the good part I’m arguing — that the good parts of gay liberation, I mean, besides the pleasure of cruising, of public sex and creating possibilities of contact, were in fact versions of militant anticapitalism, antiracism, and decolonialism. The gay identity that ultimately won recognition and military inclusion and marriage rights reworks the utopian lines of liberatory thought into a utopia of identity, which is ultimately a white utopia purchasable by certain norms. And this function also largely minimizes and forgets the ongoing HIV AIDS crisis worldwide.

For example, we have queer conferences at universities and support for queer students and perhaps visibly queer professors, but that hasn’t changed the institution itself, which trades in an empty promise of upward mobility for life of debt peonage, not to mention its entanglement in the legacy of chattel slavery and the ongoing project of settler colonialism. The joke is that this respectability politics came at the same time with a deeper crisis in capitalism and so arguably queerness itself is an artifact that we might want to discard. For it’s perhaps nothing but a scrap of meat thrown to another marginalized group to get them to consent to being ruled. So one thing that, again, going back to Chitty, he deflates the utopian impulses and gay liberation and rights using Benedict Anderson’s concept of an imagined community to describe this universalizing attempt at, like, global solidarity. Not to resist state violence but to gain recognition. But this queer imagined communities only imaginable through coordinates of a bourgeois him to hegemony of interiority, subjectivity and identity. If gayness is an identity is already colonized, and colonizing, whitewashed and recoupable.

Early gay liberation thinkers like Guy Hocquenghem, someone I work on, were committed to a decolonial, feminist, anti racist, anti capitalist division of liberation. And they said this even at the beginning of the gay liberation movement Hocquenghem pronounce the end of gay liberation within a year or two of the opening of the of the movement and his involvement in the Frente Homosexual de Acción Revolucionaire, not just because the gay liberation movement was splintering along lines of misogyny and moralism. Hocquenghem demanded that as soon as homosexuality was one it has to be given up or else you just serve the purpose of being a token fag or professional revolutionary. In this spirit, I want to point to a different way of thinking of the possibilities of radical queerness liberation and utopia that don’t work through erasure of settlement, terra nullius, or liberal forms of identity and sameness.

I’m influenced by theories developed from study of anarchism, abolition, Indigenous knowledge and Black radical tradition, and ideas like fugitivity flight, the undercommons and marronage. But as a settler, as a white person, my position has to be taken up critically, dispossessed settlers, as well as arrivants on the American continents have long sought ways to escape the dominant forms of colonial identity, the demands and allegiances that became codified as race, gender and sexuality. In fact, these notifications often happen from on high in order to root out cross class, cross race, same sex affiliations that could never fully be controlled by criminalization. And yet the legacies of these laws have become written on our bodies, and the discipline runs the gamut from parental pressure to police murder, or perpetual incarceration.

I’m gonna skip over this, but I was talking about like the ways that sort of racial codes came through controlling sex and reproduction. And also through these complex alliances between people who were keen to be defined as Black and white settlers against Indigenous populations. All these things are densely complex, and they have different relationships with eventual strategies of state formation, through parceling up of identities and accumulation, extraction and dispossession. But another side that we could think of through queer history of like escape, and maroons is thinking about how these histories are modeled counter hegemonic, counter institutional, counter powers and the fissures of capitalism’s ever constant crises. These histories that don’t often get told or those of communities who lived in uninhabitable places which, by which I mean like undeveloped, or undevelopable, often across racial lines. And these histories aren’t utopian, they can’t serve as a salvific function of escape for white queers. Instead, they point to the alternative and living organizations that still happen today outside of the nation state across identity markers that could be continued in explicitly decolonial struggle. To join that struggle white queers would have to put their own status on the line, no longer to help to clear the land but to give possession up, along with queerness too and identity as we understand it. The whole reason queer liberation has ceased to be a problem is that is no longer generally a threat to the bourgeois status to be gay.

Or on the flip side, the relative sexual freedom that has become hegemonic is coincident with a crisis in capitalism and the dissolution of the bourgeoisie as a moral enforcer, may be on the way to this new neofeudalism. And yet here we all are, every one of us imperiled in our attempts to survive in the system that exists. And that identity is packaged as race, gender, sexuality and class marks certain populations out for easy disposability.

So just to kind of sum up, settlers have to give up queerness along with whiteness to reenvision the relation to the land, we have to give up utopia both in our identities and in our methods, since it is a concept steeped in the processes of racialization, settler colonialism, the production of the human through genocide and enslavement. Our relation to the land can’t romanticize past life ways and must promote self determination and some sort of coexistence outside of the hegemony of European knowledge production. So my question to like, go into the discussion, and I’ll reiterate it when we do that is whether there’s a need for queer liberation movement right now? And if so, why would it be called that and not something else?

EO: Thanks so much, Scott. I’m going to pick up some of what Scott brings up at the end there and expand on it in my remarks. And yeah, I also have some questions and things I’d love to discuss. But again, I’d love to hear other folks thoughts. So I’m going to give some, like, definitions just to start us off in a place, so we’re all kind of on the same page, starting with settler colonialism. So Cherokee scholar Daniel Heath Justice defines settler colonialism as quote distinguished from the more traditional ideas of colonialism, wherein invaders claim resources but then return home. By emphasizing the settler population to creation of a new social order, that depends in part on the ongoing oppression and displacement of Indigenous peoples” end quote. So this is what Patrick Wolfe also calls the elimination of the native.

This oppression, displacement, and elimination is always ongoing. It’s not just a one time thing, it’s continually happening even now, and it’s always gendered and sexualized. So that is to say, settlers, demonize, punish and violate Indigenous peoples along the lines of gender and sexuality, and simultaneously, settlers seek to replace diverse native views, practices, identities, lifeways, with a homogenous, Western, cis-hetero patriarchal system that ensures the future of a white settler population. So my main challenge, our main challenge here, and this is for radical queers to rethink the kinds of futures we try to include ourselves in, and how our liberatory work can suddenly replay exclusion and erasure. So specifically, I’m going to grapple with the questions: how does utopianism show up in radical queer and feminist discourse? How does this perpetuate the settler colonial imperative of terra nullius, erasure, genocide, etc, through utopian ideals? And how do radical queer politics romanticize Indigenous knowledge and modes of living to motivate utopia? And then I’m going to end with a question sort of everybody, what other forms of futurity and speculation resist the settler colonial imperatives of a terra nullius utopia?

So one of the obvious examples of utopian thinking is the sort of assimilative drive within mainstream liberal LGBT movements and cultural productions, sort of this desire for acceptance, the promise of protection and homo normative procreative future that is the ability to keep living, but within the dictate of the US nation state. So borrowing from Jasbir Puar’s term “homonationalism, which indicates that certain queer bodies — often read as white and white passing — are reconstituted as worthy of recognition and protection. Scott Lauria Morgenson says that settler homonationalism is the product of the sexual colonization of Indigenous peoples insofar as queer subject hood and queer pride becomes tied to a sense of modernity, rather than a primitive quote unquote “Indigeneity and indebtedness to a supposedly progressive nation. With this normative gay pride perhaps best visualized by love is love yard signs rainbow striped us flags, and Rue Pall singing I am an American just like you too, is easily dismissed by more radical queer activists. Or is it?

With the recent rise of media such as the Brown sisters podcast “How to Survive the End of the World as well as Alexandra Brodsky and Rachel Kauder Nalebuff’s edited collection The Feminist Utopid Project: 57 Visions a Wildly Better Future, there’s been a noticeable uptake and interest on the left in the construction of a wildly better future, in spite of a supposedly impending end of the world. I’d like to challenge the radical queer feminist urges to create these utopian visions of a society based on the apocalyptic crumbling of the present. A radical queer politics that relies on unquestioned utopian and dystopian visions, risks aligning itself with a settler colonial imaginary of terra nullius, or blank slate space.

So on the one hand, dystopian and apocalyptic visions perpetuate the unquestioned assumption that a societal collapse is impending, right? As if the continual degradation of human and more than human communities has not already arrived. So in an article on science, and science fiction narratives of Indigeneity and climate change, Pottawatomie scholar Kyle White reminds us that quote, the hardships many non-Indigenous people dread most of the climate crisis are ones that Indigenous peoples have already endured, due to different forms of colonialism. Such as ecosystem collapse, species loss, economic crash, drastic relocation and cultural disintegration” end quote. This critique could certainly be extended beyond the climate crisis to other hardships that Indigenous peoples of Turtle Island, also known as North America, have endured, such as the continued murder or disappearance, dispossession, removal, forced assimilation under resourcing, and what elsewhere I have called phenomenological ignorance.

So when I hear fellow radical queer activists and scholars lamenting the current social, political and meteorological conditions were weathering, who balk that this is anything new, let alone impending. To accept that it is, I think, would be to erase the experiences of my and many others Indigenous ancestors. Particularly dangerous in this assumption is the kind of crisis rhetoric that fosters opportunities for settler colonial sentiments of insecurity, and in the face of this insecurity, assertions of belonging and sovereignty in land and lifeways. So I think Emily Potter succinctly summarizes this, quote, the non-Indigenous fear of dispossession or exile manifests in the need to defend their jurisdiction over land” end quote. So this implicitly creeps into radical queer discourse when settler queers faced with very real contemporary issues, such as anti-Black legal and extra legal violence, neofascism, militarized policing, etc, attempt to construct autonomous or occupied zones, buy up land, houses and property, some kind of, you know, maybe manifestation of radical prepping, or in other ways individualize and privatized their survival. So Additionally, painting disruptive phenomenon as apocalypses belies the human made, in fact, settler made, emergence of these crises.

April Ansan, shows how quote settler apocalypticism” end quote, obscures colonialism, and its attendant, disaster capitalism, as the true culprit of quote racial and environmental contraction.” end quote. Therefore, if settler queers insist on using the language of dystopia and apocalypse, they also work to veil their own complicity in these processes. So one apparent amelioration to this could be found in the call for radical queers to quote, learn from Indigenous peoples. But this could also easily fall into a trap of what Jean O’Brian calls lasting, or the idea that Indigenous peoples are the last of a nearly decimated group, whose wisdom belongs to bygone eras, yet can still help settlers avoid their own potential extinction. This assumes that to return to Kyle White, quote, “Indigenous peoples are communities who primarily reside in the Holocene, and over time have been gradually deteriorating to the point that the plight of the modern era threatened to kill them off permanently” end quote.

So instead, right, so I would ask radical queer, non-Indigenous accomplices to see Indigenous peoples as of this time, and not monolithic, right? And not to covet these knowledges. And then in thinking about our utopias, rather than dystopias, I do worry that that sort of notion of the future as this mysterious open space and having this sort of as yet to be realized, or as yet to be colonized quality, creates then another terra nullius space.

To be forever looking towards this horizon, as the space of resistance as a space of resistance like finally realized, and safety finally secured for queer and trans people, I think, one: makes it seem like we can’t create this in the present and that many Indigenous and other queer, trans, two-spirit folks aren’t already creating this in the present. And two: I think this reinscribes yet another, other, quote unquote, space that is not yet ours, and also ours is in quotes. But it will be one day, right? We can colonize it, we can be there one day, we can claim that one day. Hence mirroring the settler colonial imperative of elimination replacement and what E. Tuck and K. Wayne Yang tell us is the intention of making a new home on the land, homemaking, insists on settler sovereignty over all things in their new domain. This would be the domain of the future utopia. So this discounts the ongoing presence of Indigenous alternatives to the current settler colonial dystopian reality, and instead preserves a view of geographic and social space as blank and ready to be improved with a new model. Again, here we have a problem of erasure, of the oppressions and resistances that have been ongoing in different durations in favor of the blank space of the utopian frontier.

In other words, radical queer politics romanticizes Indigenous epistemologies and ontologies to create a future utopia for themselves, and potentially altruistically” quote, unquote, for others. I therefore argue against any linear progression of societal environmental collapse, which then promises to bring about this future idealized world of rainbow diverse identities. Instead, I proposeI think we propose together — ways for radical politics, particularly those espoused by non-Indigenous people, to disavow such settler colonial mindsets. And then again, to end, I’ll reiterate this later, I opened with the question to everyone what other forms of futurity and speculation might be imagined that resists the settler colonial imperatives of terra nullius”?

KR: Thanks E, I guess it’s me. Okay, so I’m going to begin by positioning today’s discussion within the larger body of my work, thinking and research. I’m currently interested as a mixed European white settler predominantly of Finnish descent in the ways in which Finnish immigrants have contributed to the expansion of the Canadian project of settler colonial occupation. Finns traditionally settled in Thunder Bay, Ontario in Canada, elsewhere around the Great Lakes in the United States and the Midwest, including Minnesota and Michigan, and are revered amongst leftist historians as being important to the labor movement in Canada. This contribution was not only through the overt methods of settling and primitive accumulation, which included work as loggers clearing land for settlement, and as pioneer homesteaders, but also his workers involved in union organizing.

Written above the Finnish labor temple in Thunder Bay, Ontario is the Latin phrase “Labor Omnia Vincit”, which translates to hard work conquers all. This can be read many ways, namely, that if one works hard upon arriving in these lands, one will be promised the bounty of the Canadian dream, property ownership and middle class prosperity. But the word conquer is perhaps the most important part, and interpreted through a lens that challenges settler colonialism, really hones in on the role of the Finnish worker in the nation building, as being the soldier of conquest able to tame the wild Canadian frontier. Finns and also Russians would attempt to establish utopian colonies on the west coast of Canada, which included Finnish Slough in Richmond BC and Sointula Village on Malcolm Island.

So, right, there’s this anti-Indigenous idea of terra nullius, which the three of us are bringing up, that this land is somehow empty and it is not already utopic or to European standards, it is empty and needs to be transformed. This research — namely how ethno cultural utopian and socialist settler movements were important in the construction of the settler political imaginary and essential to the structure of the Canadian settler state — will represent the bulk of my contribution to our ongoing collaboration, which we hope to turn into a book project titled No Blank Slates.

In the realm of queerness, and settler colonialism much of my research and writing for the past few years has been on the history of the so called gay liberation movement in Canada. The ways in which it has differed from that of the United States and how gay and lesbian settlers and their pursuit of rights throughout the later half of the 20th century helped to strengthen both the image and the political power of Canada as a supposedly inclusive, multicultural and progressive nation state. In the 1960s, there was a pivot in both the direction of settler governance and the modes of control over Indigenous nations. Canada’s natural governing parties, the Libera